Nothing was ever handed to me. My old man taught me the value of never expecting kindness. My step-mother taught me that the only way you get to be first in life is to stand alone. Iíve managed. Iíve never gone hungry, or worn anything I was ashamed of because it was threadbare, at least not since I left home at seventeen and a half. Iíve never sold myself in order to eat; Iíve met women like that. Itís true Iíve had living arrangements that might be looked at as nearly that bad, but thatís only if youíre looking in. I have done some things Iím not proud of, but each one was the result of wanting something I was willing to make a hard choice to get. And, yes, Iíve made those Ďbadí choices along the way. Even if you donít grow up with religion, you still know right from wrong, and the difference between good and not so good.
My name is Justine Meade and in my forty-three years there have only been a handful of people that I have loved. No, thatís an exaggeration. Two. Two that I lost because of stupidity and selfishness. One was my son. The other was my dog.
You gonna finish that?Ē Artie stubs a blunt fi nger in the direction of my English muffin. Weíre sitting in a Travel America rest stop, one of the several that weíve visited on this west- to- east run. He likes to keep on schedule; I like to pause for an hour and get the blood fl owing in my legs again after hours in the cab of the eighteen- wheeler, inhaling Artieís cigarette smoke and drinking warm, flat Coke. TAs are little shopping centers, catering to folks who live on the road, modern Gypsies, with anything you can think of for your vehicle from oil to mud flaps to little bobblehead dashboard figures of football players and Jesus. The restaurants offer big manís meals, allyou-
can- eatsóchicken- fried steak, biscuits, apple pie. How hungry can a man be who has sat in a rig all day, keeping busy with radio and Red Bull?
ďNo. Take it.Ē Unlike the majority of the people jammed into the booths and bellied up to the counter, I have no appetite, no desire to heap my plate with eggs and sausages. The good hot coffee is enough for me. Iím hoping that Artie will stay put long enough for me to visit the ladiesí shower room.
Iím riding shotgun with Artie Schmidt because I need to get back to the East Coast. He comes into my bar pretty regularly when heís not on the road. It was Candyís idea, hitching the ride instead of flying. She knew that round- trip airfare would make me have to choose between rent and food; and a one- way ticket might mean that she would have to find another girl. Besides, this way I could take Mack with me. The idea of being in my stepmotherís presence without an ally was unthinkable. Going with Artie meant that I could take my dog with me, and there is no way Iíd subject my Sheltie to being cargo.
Frankly, it was Candy who convinced me that I had to go east in the first place. My stepmother didnít reach out often, or at all, so when she called to say my father was failing, it was almost impossible to get past the fact that it was Adele on the phone, rather than take in the fact of my fatherís dying. Wicked stepmothers are only in fairy stories, right? Iím here to tell you that Cinderella had it good compared to what that woman put me through. But Candy said I should go, that it was important. Family is important. Right. Despite my better instincts, I set my course eastward and signed on with Artie Schmidt. Mack, my blue merle Sheltie, right alongside me. The boyfriend who gave Mack to me is long gone, but my little man stays, keeping his long, pointy nose at my heels wherever I go.
Candy Kaneó and thatís her real nameó runs a decent tavern just outside the city limits of Seattle. Iíve lived pretty much everywhere. Starting when I walked out of the house the day after high school graduation, getting as far as Somerville, where I bunked in with a pair of roommates I found on a message board in a coffee shop. Then down Interstate 95 to Brooklyn, where I might have stayed; then Florida, then Louisiana and Texas. I have made my way as far west as California, and as far north as Washington State, where Iíve stayed put longer than anywhere else. When I look at a map of the United States, touch all those big cities and little towns that Iíve spent time in, I see that Iíve been moving in a slow clockwise circle around the country. When weíre getting the place ready to open, before the first happy- hour customers come in and want to watch ESPN or CNN, Candy calls me over when Jeopardy is on; I can nail the geography questions.
My point was never to return to my starting place, New Bedford, Massachusetts. Iím like the old- time whalers, seeking my fortune far from home. Instead of the ocean, I travel along major highways. Instead of ships, I own clunkers good for only a few thousand miles. Instead of whales, Iím not sure what Iím seeking. Ahab had revenge in mind. I just havenít found the one place that will hold me still. When I was young, I thought that there would be a man to tie me down, but it never worked out that way. And no job was ever lifelong interesting; not one has ever gotten me to sign on for the retirement plan.
You might think that having a kid would have kept me in one place, or at least slowed me down, but even that failed to root me. Every time I pulled up stakes, I told my son that no matter where we were, we were at home as long as we were together. For a long time, that was true, but then, well, it wasnít.
So, here I am, circling back to my starting point in a direct run down Interstate 90, New BedfordĖ bound.
ďIíd like a shower.Ē
ďAnd Iíd like to keep on schedule. Youíve already slowed me down with twice as many pee breaks as I take.Ē
ďYou pee in a bottle.Ē
Artie pulls off his greasy Tractor Supply cap and runs his fingers through his stringy hair, resettles the cap, and drags a long breath.
ďFive minutes, or I swear to God Iíll leave without you.Ē
Artie has said this before. I smile and grab my duffel bag, which nestles at my feet. It contains everything I need and nothing that I donít. That bag and I have a longer relationship than most married couples. I pull a couple of dollars out of my back pocket and drop them on the check.
ďGive me seven and Iíll meet you at the truck. Go buy yourself a pack of gum.Ē
ďJustine. I mean it. I come in late with this load and Iím fucked.Ē
ďThen donít hold me up talking to me.Ē I shoulder my duffel and stride off to the showers.
Once Artie figured out that I meant it, that I was paying him three hundred bucks to let me ride east with him, and that didnít include any physical stuff , heíd turned sullen. Itís funny how the barroom personality can be so diff erent from that of the real person. Mr. Howís My Girl quickly became Mr. Cranky. Tough. Iím not taking this ride for the company. I keep Mack between us, and get out of the cab while Artie catches a few hoursí sleepó walking Mack around quiet parking lots, sitting at empty picnic tables and sipping cold coffeeó then unroll my sleeping bag and crawl into Artieís man- smelly bunk to catch my own zís. Artie doesnít want Mack in his bed, but thatís okay. The dog curls up on my seat, his little ears twisted in my direction, so I know heís not really sleeping. On guard. Shelties, miniature collies, are guard dogs by breeding. His instincts are to watch the hills for wolves. Artie is on notice every time Mack stares at him with his eagle eyes.
There are three shower stalls. One is broken, and the other two are in use. I should forget about it. I wash my face and brush my teeth. Whoever those two women are, they are flipping taking a long time. I floss. I wait. I know that Artie is getting pissed. Finally, the shower turns off . Now I have to wait for Miss America to dry off and get dressed. ďPeople waiting out here!Ē I shove my washcloth and toothbrush back into my bag.
No answer. The second shower shuts off . The room is suddenly quiet except for the sound of towel against skin. I look at my watch. My time is done. I pick up my duff el, and, miraculously, Shower Queen exits the booth. I can do this in one minute. I canít stand the feeling of dirty hair. I hate that I smell like dayold sweat and Artieís cigarettes. I can get in and under and out in two minutes, tops. I wonít dry my hair.
Artie will be pissed, but Iím confident that heíll just bitch, not leave. I strip.
Five minutes lateró it canít have been more than five minutesó I emerge from the shower room, wet towel rolled up under my arm, duffel over my shoulder, and my hair, wet and unstyled, hanging to my shoulders. Iím in the second of three T-shirts Iíve brought and the same jeans I started out with. But I feel better. Iíll finish the job in the truck, put on the mascara and finger- wave my hair.
As I promised, and only a couple of minutes late, I head out the automatic doors, making straight for the truck lot. Maybe thirty semis are lined up in rows, Roadway, Bemis, UPS, Mayflower Movers, and in de pen dents with family names on the cabs and unmarked trailers behind. Rigs with full berths above, rigs with shiny red and chrome, fancy lettering, rigs with more lights than a carnival midway. And campers. Campers snuggled up between the big guys, tagalongs and fi fth wheels; double- axle motor homes. Four- wheel- drive trucks with engines that rival those powering the big rigs.
I donít see Artieís truck. I look to the diesel pumps and then the line for the truck wash, but heís not there. I start to trot down the lane between trucks. His rig isnít distinctive, a plain dull green. Heís hand- lettered his name, Arthur B. Schmidt, on the driverís door in an uneven attempt at block lettersó the Schmidt is narrower than the Arthur. Heís hauling a trailer that he was hired to haul. Nothing to distinguish it from the others. But I canít have missed it. Itís been my home for the past two days.
ďArtie, for Godís sake, stop teasing.Ē I say this under my breath, but the panic is rising, a sour taste in my freshly brushed mouth, the taste of trouble. I stop looking for Artie. I know that heís gone. The mean SOB has called my bluff . Heís taken my three hundred bucks and abandoned me in Ohio.
Then it hits me, like someone has punched me in the stomach. Mack was in the cab. My dog was in the truck, where Iíd left him after giving him a quick walk in the doggy rest area. Heís been waiting for us to come out and give him a little treat of Artieís leftovers, a bowl of fresh water. I canít believe that Artie would have driven off with him. Thereís no chance Artie would keep him. Heís dumped him into the middle of this parking lot of bulls.
I call and whistle. Mack wonít know where I am, and heíll be frantic. I am frantic as I begin to run, my wet towel lost on the pavement, my duffel banging against my back. ďMack! Mack! Come, boy. Mack!Ē My mouth dries out and I canít whistle anymore.
Mack is obedient; if he hears me, heíll come like a shot. Heís not the type of dog that would wander around; heíll be looking for me, his nose to the ground, maybe heedless of the danger of being in this active parking lot. All of a sudden, it seems like every truck in this parking lot starts its motor in a cacophony of diesel. Mack canít hear me over the noise; I bend to peer beneath the behemoths, looking and looking for the flash of white and gray that will be Mack. I canít find him. I stop dead in the path of a moving truck. The driver slides a hand out his window, waving me across the lane.
Okay. If Mack isnít here, then Artie still has him. I circle the TA building. Artieís yanking my chain. If heís still got Mack, then Artie hasnít gone anywhere. Heís not going to do that. Heís got to be here. If heís back on the road, thereís no way heís going to turn around and come back; the time heíd lose in playing me would be too precious.
But there are no trucks on the other side of the building, just family cars, a horse trailer, and a Harley with a one- legged rider parked in a handicapped spot.
ďHave you seen a dog? A Sheltie? Gray with black streaks. White ruff ? One blue eye and one brown eye?Ē I keep talking, as if adding to the description will make the answer become yes.
The one- legged rider shakes his head, which is swathed in a filthy red bandanna. ďNope. Sorry. This is a tough place to lose a dog.Ē Like a lot of the rugged men I meet, he has a sympathetic voice, which does not match his tough appearance.
I collapse onto a bench in front of the building, all the strength in my legs gone, my heart thumping with a disconcerting loudness. I fight back the tears. In my experience, tears have never been useful, neither relieving pain nor offering comfort once shed. What I need is a plan. I need to stop Artie.
Artie has driven off with Mack.
Mack sleeps with his brushy tail curled up over his pointy nose. Tucked up like this, heís a small package of dog, burrowed into the sleeping bag Justine has left unrolled on the bunk behind the driverís seat. Heís quite pleased to wait, dozing, waking, dozing, for the people to return to the truck. Th ere might be a taste of something good as a reward for being quiet and patient.
This mobile living is a bit boring, but he is satisfied with the almost constant presence of his Justine. Usually he has to doze, wake, doze for a long time every day until Justine comes back from her day away from him, smelling of beer and fried food.
He loves that smell; once, when she took him with her to work, just to pick up her check, he immediately recognized the place as where she went during the day. The lovely odors defining her away time and making it comprehensible to him. Who wouldnít want to be in a place that smelled like burgers?
When only Artie got back into the cab, Mack merely opened one eye. He isnít a big fan of the guy, but thatís mostly because of the stink of his cigarettes and the fact that the man ignores him. Mack is more accustomed to having Justineís males be friendly, sometimes even presenting offerings. Good stuff , like rawhide chews and squeaky toys. This guy just talks and smokes and, once in a while, gets too close to Justine. Thatís when Mack will find a reason to squeeze himself onto Justineís lap. No need to show teeth, just be there, a reminder that he is in charge, that she is his person.
Artie lights up another cigarette, not even rolling the window down to release the smoke. Mack tucks his nose deeper under his tail, his jack- in- the- pulpit ears turning like miniature radar detectors to catch the sound of Justineís feet on the pavement. Artie drums on the steering wheel, fidgets with the arrangement of knickknacks on the dashboard, cranks down his window, and ejects the butt of his cigarette. ďGoddamn. Sheís pushiní me.Ē
Mack keeps still. He wishes Artie would be quiet so that he can listen better for Justine. Th e dog lifts his head to sniff the air as the window goes down, but the cigarette stink is an impenetrable barrier, obscuring even the fresh air outside, and Artieís head blocks his view. Sheíll come. Justine will be back. She always comes back.
The first day that he lived with Justine, he learned that lesson.
A mere baby, a pup of few weeks, heíd been taken away from his mother, his littermates, and the only human hands heíd ever known. He was boxed and carried to Justine. When she took him up and rubbed her inadequate human nose against his pointy one, he fell in love. And then she left him, putting him back in the box that would be his cave, his home, until he outgrew it. Then she came back and let him out. Fed him, cuddled him on the couch, named him. He never worried about her absence again.
Mack is startled back into full awareness as Artie hollers a stream of tongue language that Mack doesnít recognize word for word, but he gets the meaning. The man is angry. There is no one here for him to be angry at, unless heís angry at him, so Mack shrinks even more into the dim closet of a bunk. Suddenly, Artie starts the truck, and the rumbling vibration of the big engine fills the air. The gears grind and the truck moves forward. Justine isnít here. Maybe Artie is going to find her. Mackís soft whine is shadowed by the sound of the diesel engine. They pull away from the other trucks and shoot down the TA access road. In a minute, they are back on the highway. Justine is not there.