He ordered a stack of pancakes, two eggs over easy, and a couple strips of bacon. Beth’s Café was his favorite stop on his haul from Marysville down to Eugene, Oregon. He liked to eat breakfast food for dinner when he had to make his drives at night. It helped the coffee go down easier and in a way tricked the body to thinking it was the start of the day instead of close to the end. Figure if it took about six hours each way and he had to unload in the middle, he wouldn’t crawl into bed until after the sun had risen on a new day. He hated the drives at night, but he was used to them, and for the last thirty years or so he’d done them at least twice a week. The thing is, he couldn’t tell if they had gotten harder or easier.
He remembered Beth’s when it was a little less clean and there were fewer kids around, dragging themselves out of one bar or else getting kicked out, and coming to Beth’s for an omelet greasy enough to hold off a hangover. It wasn’t really a place for truck drivers like him anymore, once it became hip, but he stopped in just the same. The coffee wasn’t great, but neither was change.
Back on the road, he pointed his truck south, moved from Hwy 99 to I-5, the freeway that would take him through downtown Seattle, with its few skyscrapers and view of the Sound, past South Seattle, an industrial eyesore, and on through all the towns and cities that stretch grey and uninteresting, casinos and outlet stores, across Southwest Washington.
The coffee went through him faster than he expected. He exited in Tukwila and pulled into the nearest gas station. When he stepped back outside, he shivered in the January air and shook the last bit of water off his hands. He stepped to the door of his truck.
“Excuse me, but could you spare a cigarette?” A voice called from behind.
He turned around and saw a young girl sitting on the curb. She looked like she could have been homeless, but newly so, like those runaways he saw sometimes in downtown Seattle, hiding from someone and twitching from whatever drug they were on. She stood and moved towards him.
“You waiting for someone, Miss?” He asked as he pulled out a pack of Marlboros.
“I was waiting for someone to give me a cigarette,” she said and pulled one out of the pack. “After this, I’m waiting for someone to give me a ride.”
He leaned down and lit the cigarette, pressed lightly between her lips. “Waiting for someone in particular?” He couldn’t help but stare at her right eye, covered in makeup that wasn’t doing its job very well, splotches of purple breaking through to the surface.
“Anyone headed south. I’m going to California.”
“By myself. I have friends waiting for me down there. I just need to get to them. Are you headed south?” She moved her body a step closer to him like she thought that would help her chances.
He looked at her closely, barely coming up to his chest, probably no more than twenty-one, if that. She could easily have been his daughter. Now he felt bad.
“I’m headed as far down as Eugene, Oregon. I can take you with me there. But I want you to understand that I don’t usually give rides. If you’re running from something or try to pull anything, I’ll pull over and kick you right back out of my truck. I don’t care where we are.”
“I’m just trying to get to California,” she said and threw her cigarette in the nearby trash.
“Well, get in. We’re wasting time standing out here.”
She ran back to the curb and picked up her backpack and then ran around to the passenger’s side of the cab. When she slammed the door, he immediately regretted his decision.
She turned to him with a friendly smile. “What’s your name?”
He started the engine. “Name’s Rick.”
“Pleased to meet you Rick. My name is Sally.” She reached out her hand and shook his.
He didn’t say anything. They got back on the freeway.
“How long you been driving trucks, Rick?”
“‘Bout thirty-five years.”
“How old were you when you started?” She squirmed a lot in her seat, pulled out her phone and typed on it, and kept looking right at him.
“What brought you to this line of work?”
“Family business. Dad drove trucks, uncle drove trucks.”
“Do you like it?’
“You’re not much of a talker, are you Rick? I thought a man like you’d just love to talk. It must get lonely out here.”
She pulled out a container of Carmex, unscrewed the cap as she talked, and rubbed the gooey substance around her lips. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye or watched her in the rearview mirror. She was too skinny. It could be drugs or just that trend these young girls follow now, starving yourself until you look like a walking corpse. Why they thought that was attractive was beyond him. He remembered growing up and seeing women in the movies that had a little meat on their bones, a waist you could grab hold of. Maybe not all of them. That little Audrey Hepburn had the figure of a teenage boy. Faye Dunaway, she was good looking, though—slim, but with that blonde hair in Bonnie and Clyde, and she knew how to hold a gun.
“Do you read much, Rick?”
“Don’t have time for it.”
“Ever think of investing in books on tape?”
“It would put me to sleep. It’s hard enough staying awake on these fourteen-hour drives.” He looked out the window as they passed Wild Waves Theme Park. It was closed this time of year. Covered in snow and empty, it always made him shudder when he drove past it. He hated seeing things meant for summer in the wintertime.
“What do you listen to?”
“Baseball mostly. Sometimes country music.”
“Like that real southern-fried, God bless America, twangy stuff?”
“Whatever’s on the radio, mostly. I have a couple Merle Haggard cassettes and maybe a Johnny Cash in the glove compartment.”
“You still have a tape player? What a relic.” She opened the glove compartment. Inside were an owner’s manual, a few tapes, and a small, half empty bottle of Jack Daniels. She held up the bottle. “I can’t imagine this helps you stay awake on these long drives.”
“It helps me get through them. Now put that away and shut that. Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to rifle through somebody’s personal belongings?”
“My mother encouraged curiosity. Said it was the by-product of a healthy, active mind.”
“She sounds like an intelligent type.”
“Mother’s a lot of things, cold mostly.”
“Is that why you’re running away?”
“I’m not running away. My boyfriend Dean and I are traveling cross-country. See, we started out in New York and meant to go to California. Unfortunately, the last people we hitched a ride with brought us here. By the time we landed in Washington, Dean was so mad he told me to find my own way to California. So here I am.”
He switched lanes.
“It’s not like we won’t meet up again in California. Dean just has this temper. He’s a poet and he’s real passionate, well mostly he’s just crazy, but like I said, he has this temper on him, and well, it’s rough sometimes.”
“I can tell,” he said and looked at her eye.
She waited a moment before she spoke, waited until he had stopped looking at her. “You look the kind of man who had a daughter that didn’t turn out so great. ‘Fraid I’ll end up like her, Rick?”
“I never had a daughter.”
“Oh.” She slouched in her seat.
After a long silence, somewhere outside of Tacoma, he spoke. “I have a son.”
“What happened to him?”
“He went to jail.”
She straightened up. “What for?”
“He had a wife and he did what it looks like that boyfriend of yours did to you. He hit her one too many times. She took the kid and left him, then he went and broke his probation and got hauled off again.”
“He didn’t mean to do it, my boyfriend I mean. It was an accident.”
“The only time I use my fist is on purpose.”
She looked at his cracked knuckles, a loose grip on the steering wheel. Too many long hours.
“What about guns, Rick? Are you a gun-toting citizen of this fine country?” She turned her body towards him as she awaited his answer. He could tell she wanted to change the subject. She didn’t want to talk about that poet boyfriend anymore.
“Yeah, I keep one.”
“Where is it?”
“You ask a lot of questions.” He paused, but she didn’t respond. “It’s in the sleeper. And no, you can’t see it.”
“Fine by me. I don’t believe in guns anyway. Disgusting things. There are too many accidents, and it’s far too easy for people to get them.”
“Gun control is two hands, sweetheart.”
Sally moved her attention back to her phone. Rick moved his back to the road. This girl was distracting. He was almost to Olympia and he didn’t want to miss seeing the Capitol building. He had developed superstitions throughout his many years on the road. He considered it good to luck to look at the state Capitol building on his drives. Then again, he also considered it bad luck to pick up hitchhikers. He had never told anyone about his superstitions. They were silly, he knew, but he still winked at the Capitol building as they passed it.
It had been a while since he had done this much talking, especially with a woman, even if she was just a girl. If Donna could see him now. She always used to say he never let anybody near him, now he was stuck in a tight space with a kid who wouldn’t shut up.
“After California, we’re thinking about crossing back to New York, or who knows, maybe even down south to Mexico. We may as well try it all while we’re young. Although, we’ll probably have to stay in California for a while to work and make some money. It would be easier if Dean had a car. At least it’s more interesting this way. Can we pull over soon? I need to use the little girl’s room.”
“We’ve barely passed Olympia. Didn’t you go where I picked you up?”
“I was sitting out there for at least an hour. You’re the first person who looked at me. When you said you’d take me I didn’t have time to stop and think about using the bathroom.”
“Can you wait a little longer? I need to make up some time if I’m going to deliver this shipment on time.” He adjusted his rearview mirror. A car had been driving close behind him for the last half-mile and the glare of its headlights made his eyes ache. “Wait until we get closer to Vancouver.”
“I’ll try. What do you need to deliver anyway?”
“I’m delivering a shipment of lumber to a hardware store.”
“Do you always make the same deliveries?”
“No. I deliver different shipments to different stores throughout Washington and Oregon.”
“Do you own this truck?” He couldn’t tell if she were interested or not. She kept on putting Carmex on and rubbing her lips at him.
“No. I work for a company that owns semi-trucks. They bring in the business and lease the trucks and I do the driving.” He remembered laughing with Donna when they were first married about being called an “independent contractor.” It sounded so sophisticated then. They used to laugh about little things like that.
“When you’re not on the road, Rick, where are you?” Could she tell that his mind wasn’t in the truck anymore?
“I live up in Everett.”
“Up north, huh? The couple that dropped me off at the gas station in Tukwila was from Lynnwood. That’s up north too, right?”
“I thought the last people dropped you and your boyfriend off together.”
She pulled down the visor and looked at herself in the mirror. She ran her fingers through her hair as she talked. “No. Once we woke up and realized we were in Washington, he got out in Spokane. I tried to tell him that it would be easier for us to take I-5, but he wouldn’t listen. I suppose I should have gone with him.” She frowned at her reflection and put the visor back up.
“Where are you from, Sally?”
“That doesn’t matter, Rick. I don’t have a home other than the road now. When you’re all done with your delivery and you head back up to Everett, will anybody be waiting for you?””
“No, not anymore.”
‘But somebody did once?”
“Got an ex wife.”
“What happened? Did she leave you?”
“Yeah. I wasn’t around enough. She raised our boy practically on her own.”
“Do you wish you had her back?”
“I wish for a lot of things. When you get to by my age, you rack up a pretty long list of things you wish were different.”
“That’s why you’ve got to figure out how to live your life without any regrets. See, me and Dean, we’re so free out here.”
He laughed a little to himself. This kid thought she knew what freedom felt like. All she knew was the thrill of an unstable relationship.
She must have heard him laugh because she got real quiet and looked out the window.
He didn’t want to hurt her feelings. She was sweet and he figured she meant well. He could be so bad at understanding women sometimes. “Look, we’re near Centralia. We can pull off here. I’ll find you a gas station.”
Sally wasn’t talking anymore, just punching away on her phone. They drove for about a quarter mile off the freeway. On the way to the gas station, they passed a sign for an elementary school.
She turned to him with wide eyes and a grin. “Let’s stop at that school on our way back through. Ooh, I love schools. They’re always the same, in a way, even if they look different. And you can always count on them to have a playground, and you know every playground will have a swing set. It must be a regulation.”
“I don’t have time for that, Sally. I’ll barely make it on time as it is.”
“Please Rick? It’s tradition.”
“Mine and Dean’s. No matter where we are, in whatever small town, we always stop at the public schools and go to their playgrounds. Have you ever looked up at the stars from a merry-go-round? Most schools don’t even have them anymore. They’re hazards, I guess.”
They parked at a Chevron. “Go use the bathroom, Sally. And no more stops until Eugene.”
“Come on Rick. Haven’t you ever had a tradition, something really silly that you do because it makes you feel good?” He looked at her with those eyes, those eyes that all women possessed—he couldn’t explain it, but they had power behind them.
Donna always used to cook him pancakes before his overnight hauls. No matter what, she always did it. “Alright, but no more than ten minutes,” he told Sally. “And then no talking for a while.” He waited until he was sure she was inside and opened the glove compartment. He just needed one sip if he was going to make it to Eugene.
Sally came back to the truck with a stick of beef jerky. “Here Rick,” she said and handed it to him. She mimed like she was locking her mouth shut and threw the key. He drove in silence to the elementary school on the way back to the freeway.
“Where’s the playground?” Rick asked as he pulled into the darkened parking lot.
“It looks like this road goes around the back of the school. Follow it.”
Around the back, the parking lot showed in scattered lamplight. Beyond the pavement he could see fields of mostly brown grass and a playground stretched over dusty gravel. He could see the worn slide and the dangling swings, but couldn’t find the merry-go-round. Sally’d be disappointed.
“See that car?” Rick said and pointed. “It looks familiar. What’s it doing empty out here?”
“You think I’m the only person who ever thinks to come to a playground when it’s dark? There’s probably some couple screwing on the baseball field. Don’t worry about it. Just park.”
He checked his rearview mirror once more and parked about five spaces away from the small sedan. He turned off the ignition. She jumped out without a word. He stepped slowly down, watched his breath appear and dissipate in the cold air. He had his back turned and his hand on the door handle when he heard the click of the safety of a gun being turned off.
“Stay right where you are.” A man’s voice said from behind.
“Can I turn around?”
“What? Uh, yeah, sure. But put your hands up and don’t move anywhere.”
Rick expected more when he turned around, but instead he got a skinny kid wearing a sweatshirt with peach fuzz on his chin. He took one hand off the gun to wipe his forehead. The other hand was sweating.
“Now, you need to give me your wallet and anything else valuable you have in your truck.”
“It’s a truck full of lumber, kid. What do you think I’ve got in there?”
The boy switched hands. The gun wobbled. What was the likelihood that this kid had ever fired a gun before? Rick looked at the little beads of sweat forming on his hairline and bet it was pretty slim.
He slapped the gun out of the boy’s hand with one hand and with the other punched him hard enough to knock him on the ground. The kid tried to get back up, got in one swipe to Rick’s mouth, but Rick knocked him down before he could stand straight.
Rick kicked him in the stomach. “You dumb shit. What do you think this is, a stick up?” He said from above him. He looked at his bloodied knuckle and kicked him again. It had been a long time since he felt the fleshy, weak part of the stomach give way to his boot. In fact, the last time he’d been in a fight, he was on the receiving end, that time outside the bar, the time when Donna left. His stomach had hugged the hard tip of a leather boot, then the heel. It felt good to be on the other side again.
“It was her idea,” the boy said from the ground. He lay on his side, cupping his stomach.
Rick knelt down and picked up the handgun.
Sally came around the front of the truck. “Please don’t shoot,” she begged.
He tucked the gun into the back of his pants. “Let me guess. You’re the boyfriend. Dean, right?”
“No, it’s Craig.” He coughed from the ground. “She made up the names, said it would be better that way.”
“And you’re the one who has been following us since I picked Sally up. You little piece of shit. You tried to rob me? I’m a truck driver, dammit. You couldn’t have picked someone a little better?”
“You were the first person who offered. We just needed some money.”
“All this bullshit about being free. You’re just a couple of bored kids.”
Sally didn’t speak. The kid didn’t speak.
He thought for a moment about slapping her, then remembered that black eye. Maybe that was the reason she had gotten in this mess to begin with. “Get in the truck, Sally.” He said without looking at her.
She looked at her boyfriend on the ground and then looked back at Rick. “I’d really rather not.”
“Don’t make me repeat myself, Sally.” This time he did look at her. Her hands had tightened to little fists. He grabbed her by the forearm and pushed her towards the truck.
Inside the cab, she reached for the radio controls and turned it to a country station. He turned it back off. He shifted gears and watched the kid in his side mirror as he drove off.
“Pull out your wallet.” He kept his right hand on the steering wheel and his left on the gun.
“Are you going to rob me now? Don’t you think if I had the money, I wouldn’t need to take it from you?” She pulled it out of her purse.
“Open it and hand me your driver’s license.” She looked like she was about to protest, took another look at the gun, and didn’t speak. She handed it over in silence.
He shoved the gun under his seat and took the driver’s license. “Ashley Baumgartner,” he read out loud. “Born in 1990. You’re just a kid, Ashley, what are you doing with a guy like that?”
She looked out the window and back at him. “Just having a little fun. You should take care of your lip. It’s bleeding on your shirt.” She didn’t look worried anymore, not now that the gun was out of sight. But she didn’t take him seriously anymore either.
He licked some of the blood away and read her address out loud. “Bellevue, Washington. Bellevue? And you had to rob me?”
“Maybe I needed to get away from there. Maybe he was the only way out. Maybe we needed a few bucks to get by. That’s all.”
“I picked you up not more than twenty minutes away from Bellevue. You could have gone home.”
“Don’t you think if I wanted to be there I wouldn’t have asked you for a ride?”
“I don’t reckon you know what you want, Sally.”
He exited in Kelso and pulled into a gas station.
“What are you doing?” She looked worried again.
“Dropping you off.” He pulled out his wallet and gave her a twenty-dollar bill. “Call your parents, Ashley. Go home.”
“I’ll get out here, but that doesn’t mean I’m going home. Nobody can make me do it if I don’t want to.”
“It’s your life, kid. It’s just, I think that…” he stopped, took his hands off the steering wheel, and then rubbed them across the seat. “Was the playground part even true? Do you really like to stop at those or was that just part of the setup?”
Those eyes, those big lying eyes. She smiled. “We had to get you somewhere out of the way.” She put her hand on the door handle, started to open it, and then turned back to him. She scooted closer to him. “Thanks for not calling the police or anything.”
He started to speak, but didn’t.
She put her hands on his face; that skin, dry and cracked from the sun. That face that hadn’t had hands on it in longer than he could remember. She kissed him once, very quickly on the lips, scooted back to the door, and climbed down.
Rick knew he wouldn’t ever see her again. He hoped she would go back home. But he figured she’d probably go back to that kid and that he’d take out all his anger on her, maybe make her try that stupid plan all over again until someone got hurt, or worse. Rick pulled back onto I-5, headed towards Oregon. He didn’t want to think of those things, the things that creep into your head on these drives, think of how long until he made it to Eugene or how much longer until he made it home. He just wanted to see if he could taste her on his mouth. He licked his lips, but only tasted blood, salty, like a first kiss.