I’m a trucker. My own boss is how it feels. Fending for myself. Have done it all my life. Sitting high up in my silver leather, long-haul cockpit of a seat, on top of the world. Surrounded by eighteen speakers, as many as I got wheels. Because I like things organized in a cosmic symmetry. Three thousand of my most-favored alt tracks in a bottomless, random shuffle, just loud enough for backdrop entertainment, occasionally demanding blast mode, always a surprise what queues up next, always something to relate.
It’s all hardened comfort and technology these days, and I’m semi-sure of one thing: a semi is not gonna drive itself. At least not for another couple of decades. By then I won’t give a crap.
Meanwhile on I roll, alert and of sound mind in the sound booth of my cab, one eye on my GPS dashboard-screen to guard against bad traffic and bored/vindictive cops lurking behind roadside bushes. I got steered wrong back when CB’s were a thing, also long ago outgrew the need for incessant jabber or baffling lingo. Technology made GPS superior in spite of some Big Brother unease. Sometimes a road snag surprises my GPS and I have to yell. Yell at a damn device. After all, it’s supposed to tell the future, what lies ahead around the bend, down the stretch.
It’s supposed to have a grasp of the big picture while I can only make out half a mile or a mile upfront, often less. There’ve been times when the screen wants me to take an exit suddenly, inexplicably, but you can’t just turn a massive machine on a dime. So, when I can’t pull it off, it can add forty-five minutes of travel time. Something I’d forever regret. In my line I’m always under deadline. Time literally is money.
My smart little GPS brain knows I drive a truck. It’s part of my profile, so it won’t direct me onto shortcut-byways that sport an anti-eighteen-wheeler bias.
I got enough to worry about, like drivers in itty-bitty cars figuring they are nimble enough to squeeze in any gap opening up between me and the bumper crop of vehicles ahead. Or a horny deer in mating season. Or an oblivious old lady crossing at the worst asinine moment, maybe after crossing herself for a divine bailout, just in case. I’m accident-free since forever. I’ve got a handgun and plenty refills in easy reach behind my seat in a pseudo-breadbox, for you want to be discrete since it’s not a utensil embraced across some state lines. I set my trusty navigation device to clang incessantly over the music, so I won’t go beyond eight percent above the truck speed limit at any given time.
Suddenly, as the three-lane highway finishes an incline, the system emits this piercing screech, like an obnoxious amber alert on a smart phone, with a sign flashing across the screen, YOU MUST EXIT NOW. Now, that’s worthless.
We’re on a busy, rock-lined thoroughfare in the middle of nowhere.
The sign I passed a while back read Next Exit 12 Miles.
I slow the engine with a jolt, right as it makes it over the crest. The road surface is moist from a five-minute drizzle that I faintly remember.
What unfolds is a scene of utter turmoil, a world at a standstill, yet screaming at me — that’s how it feels.
There’s wall-to-wall cars, out of nowhere, jammed solidly over three lanes, occupying some shoulders, too. Bright taillights, horns blaring, awkward angles signifying the helter-skelter nature of orchestrating sudden stops. Mere hundreds of feet is all the breathing room left.
I need a Hail Mary halt.
Slamming the brakes. Compressed air brakes technology to keep an aggressive slowdown controlled. The machine quivers. I have full confidence. Until... Trailer brake alerts flashing red on the instrument panel. That’s not good. Stay calm. The engine shuttering, I’m scanning the sides of the highway for options. The center left is a steep, treacherous gully that’s to pass for a median — a healthy, hellish obstacle against oncoming traffic. On the right, boulders and a rocky upslope. Better than the gulch, but not by much, better than slamming toward the mess upfront. I angle right. I feel the pressure of the heavy cargo disagreeing in the back.
Just shy of unleashing forces that can flip us over. Still sliding onward, the taillights of cars drawing grievously close.
Don’t let me kill anybody, the thought hits in a flash.
The trailer is pulling sideways which slows us nicely, beginning to skid on the moist asphalt in a foreboding, shaky, squeaky rubble sensation. I see one guy fleeing his hatchback, as I come mowing in, from ominous to perilous. We’re perpendicular to the road now, me and my sliding tractor-trailer, crawling, but not a controlled crawl, yet I know it’s not going to tip over.
Wheels crabbing sideways, parallel to the highway. The squeaking unbearable, in the final inches the trailer gently slapping the butt of a new Beetle, then just popping a small pickup truck making its deck cover fly off, crash-landing on a roadster thing one car ahead, a convertible, I think. What lousy luck. In a final thrust my left front wheel grazes the tail end of one of those mega SUV’s they advertise as rugged as a rock. It isn’t.
We’re done. No flipping over — there’s the good news. No smashed trailer with produce everywhere.
I hear brakes squealing on my right which used to be the rear. Impact imminent, I fear, looking out. Like a windshield in waiting for the smattering of errant summer bugs. But nothing. Inches to spare.
Not really a jackknife since the cab is still kind of lined up with the cargo. Taking up all lanes and shoulders. Ensuring that traffic is going to be at least as clogged-up behind as it is ahead. Asked to intentionally park rig and trailer like this, nobody could do it. My lungs pump, collapse and repeat for seconds to rein in my breath.
My unblemished record just got soiled like a diaper-less baby with explosive milk allergies.
The GPS-screen switches its alert level to all-red. Then freezes.
“No longer helpful!” I yell.
I jump out.
My legs are trembling. I survey my cab, as if it matters. Its left wheel sits in the rear end of the SUV. Other than that, nothing earth-shattering. The left fender banged up, some deep, nasty scratches on the front chrome bumper.
I make out yells of “We’re screwed” and expletives, and lots of jabbering and “Geez” from ahead and behind. No outright agony or wailing from nearby vehicles I brushed against, shoved or whose rear I kind of crushed. That’s good. Still shaking, I turn to survey the immediate damage around me, starting out with the least severe.
The Beetle has a crack in its rear window, a back panel dented and shifted, but hanging on, and looks perfectly drivable. I take some quick pics with my phone to document.
The all-terrain vehicle into which I’ve encroached as if like an ancient predator’s clumsy misstep isn’t totaled, I judge. The rear wheel is still on but sits somewhat slanted. The metal above is crushed, the glass has a thousand spider cracks but proved shatterproof. The whole thing is at a bit of an angle on the shoulder. The front half seems generally intact. Nobody sat in the back, thank God. Just now the driver staggers out, maybe delayed shock.
Forties, jeans, stocky, in a loud, checkered shirt, face ashen, body language frightened, not hurt or hostile. “We’re so fucked,” he gasps. If I were him, the least I’d do is scream angry insults at me. I’d be livid.
“Is everyone...” I ask while it’s sinking in it was indeed just him in the vehicle. “Are you OK?”
He nods, open-mouthed. From upfront as a camera angle, the SUV would look quite alright, except half on the shoulder.
Next, I turn my attention toward the roadster which is indeed a top-down convertible. The driver must have climbed out; I see him slouched by the door, either injured or just dumbfounded. An aging hippie, longish hair that you can’t tell is gray or blond, leathery, sunburned face, Hawaiian shirt, chinos, about to just sit himself down, on the pavement, on his butt. “Hey, you OK?” Is all I can think of. “Help me pull this off.” I point at the wayward deck cover, which still sits crooked on much of his vehicle. He just plunks down, so I grab the grooved, rubber-coated, lightweight thing myself with both hands and slide it down over his hood, gently, with little to no scraping. Shocking how flimsy. Quite beat-up now, some aftermarket piece of crap, turned nasty projectile, nonetheless.
He sits and gasps with a grin that reads PTSD. “If I’d not ducked, I’d be fucked.”
I nod with a healthy dose of grateful.
The pickup driver goes nuts on me because I rub her the wrong way when I break it to her that the damn el cheapo cover could not have possibly been properly secured to her loading deck. Or was probably some ill-fitting knockoff from a used car yard.
Before I get to call in to my dispatcher about the mishap, something gives me pause. It’s eerie out here. More people now have gotten out of their cars as if they got word this was going to be a long-haul stall.
“What... What’s going on?” I ask of no one.
The checkered guy says, “We’re doomed.”
I hit a nutcase, I conclude.
A woman driver unfolds from the new Beetle. She’s in a gray and purplish headscarf covering her whole head of hair. Somebody religious, I figure. My luck. Means extra guilt. Her top is purple as well, loose-fitting, her skirt is black, frumpy, knee-length, and she’s in hiking shoes. A delicate face, pale from the shock, I gather. “You OK, miss, ma’am? Hardly a scratch to your car.” Quite tall, possibly shapely, impossible to tell by her outfit. The delicate face of a movie nun, I think stupidly, or maybe a Muslim or ultra-orthodox in an unlikely car.
“Oh boy,” she coughs, covering her mouth, shrugging. “The satellite radio is dead.”
“Huh,” I say, “at least nobody human is.” Dead, I mean to add, but it feels inappropriate.
“All-News-97 got knocked off the air too,” reports the checkered guy, “last I heard was a bunch of traffic disasters in various states.” His tone is matter of fact, as in rain is in the forecast. “Haven’t you heard?”
His voice elevates to whiny, “Before reception ran out a minute ago. Something’s happening! The biggest traffic messes they’ve ever seen and rapidly growing.”
“All over the country.”
“That’s nuts.” I give it a bewildered shrug.
“Like GPS’s are steering everybody wrong.” He’s become a yeller, as if I’m dense and loudness is the only way to get through to me. “It’s hackers blackmailing the country! Or a terror attack! Or extraterrestrials taking over! Or AI going berserk.”
I shake my head, overwhelmed. Wow, quite an array of evil scenarios that didn’t take long to percolate.
The pickup woman looks irate pointing at my phone. “Are you able to get through?” As if I owe her the courtesy to let her place a call.
I stare at my cell shaking my head again. “No bars,” I stammer.
“Somebody’s messing with our satellites,” mutters the convertible hippie, still on his ass.
“Antifa? ISIS?” suggests Checkered, calmer now, contemplating new, sinister avenues.
“Jesus coming back,” announces the pickup woman after some thought. “I need to call my family, if they’re all right.” If that’s the case, what difference does it make, I want to say but don’t.
Checkered doesn’t buy her premise. “My bet is Russia or China getting us trapped as a head start for WW III.”
“Pick your poison,” says the hippie as he lifts himself up.
“What are you all saying?” How does everybody know something I don’t?
The hippie sports an otherworldly sneer. “First stop Traffic Hell — next up Armageddon?”
Carmageddon... I think of the stupid video game.
He’s staring at the rugged hillside, pointing. “Look.” Like we’re witnessing the filming of one of those lame off-road commercials, except less glamorous, more desperate; there’s a Jeep traversing on uneven gravelly terrain, higher up, parallel to the highway, headed in the direction we’re coming from. Slowly, wobbly, tilted, pressing on, scaling rocks small and medium, getting stuck, backing up, grinding on forward, sliding down sideways, engine revving like mad. I lose interest and can’t focus further.
“Might as well hang tight for a while,” says the hippie, constructive, for all I know.
There’s been some astonishing mushrooming of conspiracy theories, I can’t help thinking. The messes done by me and my truck seem to leave the folks hit, by me, and stalled in my immediate path quite unfazed. In spite of harm to their prized possessions. Things are messed up big time, and I’m no worse off than anyone. Something I can live with.
“We’re Americans,” some frustrated soul shouts from within the sea of stranded cars, and I think I hear an accent, “we’re born to break free!”
I cringe. “You can always walk,” I yell back. It doesn’t get me a laugh.
The purple Beetle lady looks at me from under her scarf as if, perhaps, she finds it mean-spirited. Not a time for cracks, I concede.
There’s been no other SUV trying to backtrack across the rocky ravine, so that’s a no-go escape plan. The gulch on the other side is not just futile, but treacherous. The lone Jeep escapee has got itself caught in a tough spot, stranded, no longer fighting loose rocks that roll at the slightest provocation. “For the moment we’re stuck,” I conclude, and the hippie, Checkered and Pickup just stare. “Until they send in helicopters or the cavalry.” The dumbest joke.
They stare at me probably thinking that I’m the nutcase now.
Checkered is scrutinizing the sky and the horizons, not looking for choppers, I suspect. “We’re, like, captive,” he says, “they’ve got us where they want us.”
They who, I’m thinking. He’s given us a litany to choose from. And I can’t deny there’s considerable unease I, too, feel creeping up.
“Let’s just be patient, how’s that?” chimes the lady in the purple headgear. She starts out soothing. Maybe it’s her voice, something about her makes people listen. “Imagine being on a long flight, terribly bumpy and uncomfortable for the longest while, no announcements, no phone, no outside contact.” Her voice gains urgency, “You look out the window, see the unnerving up and down of a wing, up, down, up, down, grasp the likely immediacy of it just snapping off any second! But then, hours later, we land, and all will be fine.”
“If we were fucking moving, yeah, I’d be fine, too,” Checkered belts back. “Whatever Kool-Aid they got you on, I’m not gonna take a sip.” She has this hint of a smile, not taking any bait, letting him insinuate she’s in a cult, as if she’s relying on a more solid foundation than most of us.
“I’m amazed,” she says, “how patience and time can blow away concerns of mine.”
“That sure fucking blows,” scoffs Checkered, flaring his nostrils, rolling his eyes.
“Hey, she’s got a point,” nods the hippie.
“Might as well wait,” I add timidly, and I think I catch the tail end of the pickup woman’s hand motion as she’s crossing herself.
The sound of faint sirens way in the back makes me wonder how far the backup has grown. There’s more crashes than mine, no doubt, and they’re being tended to.
“Whatcha got on them-there truck,” some mountain of a burly fellow shouts over from the other side of the highway divide, addressing me from under a ten-gallon cowboy hat, in a caricature accent. “Y’all know we’re not gonna just stick around and starve to death.”
Typical. An elevator getting stuck between floors has people wondering instantly what they can eat to survive. It’s good I have my gun.
“Microchips,” I blurt for it’s the first thing that comes to my mind and nobody puts two and two together.
Except the purple Beetle lady. “Chips?” she whispers, squinty-eyed, just for my ears. That one word from her has a come-on, get-real undertone that I find sexy.
I shake my head, as a no to chips.
“Thanks for not flattening us,” she says without a facetious strain while ogling the massive trailer. There is a sweetness in her voice that I imagine can drive someone wild over the phone. Her visuals, however, go for bland except the purple exclamation points. Seems too unorthodox for orthodox, but I’m not an expert. Late thirties, is as good a guess as I got, dressing old, yet kind of hot and mysterious.
“Very sorry about your car,” I say. “And you are?”
“Mona.” Not necessarily an ethnic, cultural giveaway, I figure.
“Gerald.” I dare a smile and a nod. No trucker’s called Gerald. Jerry maybe, or Geraldo these days, but not a Gerald. But I’m man enough to live with that.
“We’ll be here for a while,” she says, “you understand at some point people need sustenance?” She pauses, waiting for me to say something. “It’s your time to shine, Gerald.” What does she want? “I seem to hear some faint humming,” she says. “Microchips I don’t think need climate control.”
There is that.
I can’t help myself. As if she’s figured things out. Think, Gerald, think. She’s evidently not from a culture that has women play strictly supporting roles, for she’s wielding power, it seems, if not overall, at least over me. “OK then,” I sigh in my hush-voice, and my crash mates stare at me and draw closer. “This is what’s all on my manifest: Berries, grapes, lime, figs, mangoes, peaches, watermelons.”
“Wow,” says Checkered, enthusiasm restrained.
“Chard, cantaloupes, figs, I hate figs, tomatoes, okra, I think that’s about it.”
“Open up then,” says Mona.
I check my phone. Still dead. “It’s not my cargo to give away,“ I say. “Besides, we’ll get overrun.”
“Hey, my guess is, it’s the end of the world,” says Checkered, amazingly calm. “No steak? No shrimp cocktail?”
“Apples,” I remember, “plums. Keep it quiet. Give it a couple of hours and let’s see what happens.” I should have stashed my gun in my cargo pants in case I need to amplify my point.
It’s getting dark. No movement, just occasional, frustrated blaring of horns. Folks are surprisingly patient. Word is a mile away they picked up some AM reception which helps against dire dystopia chatter. Here we have a surprising, albeit disgruntled grin-and-bear mode. Siren sounds drift over faintly from way up front once in a while and also far behind us where supposedly a couple of trucks actually collided and block truly everything. They are working to unentangle, we hear. It’ll take a good while. Pass the word. Now there’s a message of comfort. The end of the world on hold.
Then there’s some helicopters shining lights on the multitudes before whirring off.
“Where’s the cavalry?” says the hippie. We’re all drained.
The choppers will drop off water every mile marker, somebody claims to have heard.
The shoulders are blocked with cars. Many of us sit on rocks by the side of the highway. It’s comfortably cool. Few bugs. Some people hang out in their cars on and off, windows down, and then back in huddles, exchanging modified theories how long this is going to take. There seems a camaraderie building up, an unseen decorum.
Whenever there’s a flareup of somebody freaking out, someone else cracks a joke or tells one of those anecdotes of travel travails which are boring and a pain to listen to or endure, but generally end well. There’s some impromptu singing not far away. High-pitched high school girls, with too many examples of offensive top-forty drivel. I should open the doors and crank up my eighteen speakers on random for a lesson in music, the alt kind, but I hear the discreet pulsating of the cooler. No need for extra attention or draining of batteries.
I climb the truck at some point to take a leak. I have a container for such purpose when a pit stop doesn’t fit in. This time I remember the breadbox and make sure the utensil is loaded before stuffing it in my thigh pocket. Just to shoot in the air, just to ensure me a say, just in case.
FM, AM, still no reception at all, nobody around with a CB.
Batteries are running low everywhere, just from forever trying to connect.
People are getting antsier. There’s scant light from open car doors and handhelds.
Mona says, “Gerald, it’s time.” I know she’s right.
Systematic as is my nature, I get commitments first from my accidental pals to help extract pallets. “Some are heavy and high up,” I say, “coordinate as best you can.” On second thought, “Oh, I know who can help.” Through the gap between cab and trailer which mark the highway dividing line I make out a ten-gallon-hat nearby. “Hey cowboy, brother, come on over. We need you now. Lend us a hand.” The big man in the big hat staggers over. He has to take it off to squeeze on through. I shake the muscular, burly fellow’s hand which, perhaps, he reads as an apology for my earlier lie, and I pull him toward the trailer door motioning him to wait with the others.
Oddly nervous again, I hop over onto a fat, square-looking boulder as Mona shines a light on me. Nothing like it has ever happened.
“People with children first,” I raise my voice, not terribly loud, but it gets attention, “line up for the great fruit giveaway.” Close-by cheers, hollers, clapping. “And no, nothing is pre-washed. Get used to it.”
Then, joining the cowboy and my other crew at the trailer door, I undo its locks and break the seal.
Mona stays by my side. Her angel voice suddenly reverberates with an astonishing authority, somehow calming any rashness of movement in the vicinity. “We’re forming one line, from this side,” she says, her phone flashlight points back toward the rock, “no running, no fighting, there’s thousands, maybe ten thousand items of sustenance.” She sounds so resourceful and forceful like a nun who’ll have no qualms slapping you raw with a ruler to bring about order. “One fruit or veggie or one handful of berries. No pickiness please, you can trade in later what you got for what you wish.”
The cowboy is hands-on, steering the unloading in the semi-dark, all inept at first, but they are developing a routine of extracting pallet after pallet after pallet stacked high inside. The pickup woman orchestrates the piling of empty skids by a bank of rocks, and there is a hushed bustle of people swarming by to grab one item each and move on, no time, tolerance or overhead light to be choosy. It’s like feeding fishes to five thousand, I marvel to myself, noticing that my eyes are inexplicably moist. It takes hours until all is gone. Not even the dates or the okra get a no-thanks.
It’s a restless night. Helicopters are busy. Supposedly some giant satellite mess up, we hear, that they are working to fix. Some younger fellas haul jugs of water close from a mile away. There’s blankets too, but it’s mild out.
Mona politely declines to bunk in the back of my cab. Just as well. I have never been more beat in my whole life.
By the first glimpses of light, helicopters start dropping off boxes of army rations and baby food near the mile markers.
“What about some coffee?” somebody shouts up. That gets a laugh. People are jubilant to live and talk about the near calamity.
Midmorning AM radio kicks in, later FM. Judging by voices roaring out far ahead, there’s a first movement of cars. The reports say there’s been a massive outage affecting key power grits across the nation. By fluke or ill will, they don’t yet know.
Right when a meteor shower of hundreds of kilometers wide tripped up the pre-eminent network of navigation satellites triggering a chain reaction.
The right shoulder frees up first, suddenly. It’s not elation that I feel, as I should, but a dash of regret. Real life has me back.
I’m in a bind all of a sudden to exchange insurance info with the pickup, the convertible, the banged-up SUV, and by the time I turn around, the Beetle is gone.
I didn’t say I’m my own boss. It’s how it feels, I said: me driving a truck. Meant in a king-of-the-road kind of vein. Until my actual boss acts out and lets me go. A full load of produce and fruit doesn’t come cheap, he says.
Of course, I know that.
There’s a risk of spoilage, that’s why we ship it half-ripe at best. But nobody that night in the vast traffic wasteland complained it wasn’t ready to eat. That I know of. A risk the company didn’t consider is that I would feed it, without duress, as a handout for free until the last apple and final plum finds a ravenous mouth. I don’t mention there was a person who’s prompted me. Who left me weak, I was following directives. Besides, she has vanished. My Beetle pics missed the license plate altogether.
I don’t mention that it simply was my time to shine.
The boss says it like he sees it: jackknife plus total loss of cargo plus scrap-yarding another vehicle means three mother-trucking strikes and I’m out. He doesn’t care that it technically wasn’t a jackknife and that the utility vehicle wasn’t exactly totaled.
I call my ex with whom I’m cooler now than when we were together that I’m out a job but going to find a way to get her check. She says I should fight the company. Because I did the right thing. They should commend me. She’s one who reads. She’s read about me, she says, all proud, and she’s had no idea. The Sunday Magazine had a spread about the highway mess, titled Sixteen-Hour Standstill, and that there was a whole paragraph about this trucker giving away fruit to the stranded, and it was the very best they ever tasted.
On my way to a job interview I get a call. Mona barraged the company by phone until they caved and gave her my cell number. “Maybe I can make them hire you back,” she starts out, “if you want, but it’s probably not what you want.”
“Mona,” I say, “I missed you,” and I pull over to the curb, as I imagine her delicate face under the purplish and gray headscarf. My eyes are moist. There’s some way mysterious how she gets to me. This woman, whom I don’t know from Adam. “Where’d you go? You drove off.”
“I had to be somewhere urgently,” she says.
“Can I see you again? I need to see you again. For the insurance report.” There’s a good reason.
“I’d like to see you again,” I reiterate. “Or are you... I’m sorry, I don’t even know if you’re married or Amish or something...”
She laughs out.
“Are you? It’s OK of course if you are.”
“Gerald,” she hesitates, “I’m not.”
“Nothing wrong with the Amish.”
“That’s good. I just wanted to check in on you, Gerald, that’s all.” Her angel voice has slipped in a way that deflates.
My mood does an auto-downshift.
She adds, “I’m sorry I’m not in the market.”
“I understand,” I say and for the life of me don’t. She probably hears me gulp.
“Gerald, I’m in my third round of chemo. That’s my focus. OK?”
“Oh.” What can one say? I can’t help myself. “Something bad?”
“No, it’s the good chemo,” she giggles. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to make light. Yes, it’s bad, but there are worse things in the world. Trust me. Leukemia, OK? There you have it. You made me spill all.”
“Can I fight it with you?”
“Gerald... We don’t know each other, and it’s not why I called.”
“I’ll wear my bandana,” I promise.
She laughs again. “I was touched by what you did, that’s why this call.”
She’s the one who made me. “Thank you.” I must see her.
“Many things we dream we would do in life. We’re always grander in our imagination.” She speaks slowly, succinctly like a thinking man’s angel. “When push comes to shove, how many things have we actually done that we can be truly proud of? Gerald, you should be proud.”
What chance did I have, I think, coerced by a powerhouse nun. “It’s all your fault,” I say. “Let me buy you dinner tonight. I don’t even know where you live.” It could be a hundred miles away. But turning distance to closeness is something I’ve mastered thousands of times.
“I’m in the hospital for a few weeks, Gerald, up in Cross Valley, that’s a small town near...”
I type on the dash. “Of course, I know Cross Valley,” I say as the GPS calculates. Forty minutes. “Can I bring you food up?”
“What is it with you and sustenance?”
And I know I’ll be seeing her.