by Joseph Dyer
It is an Ancient Mariner, and he stopped one of three
“By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?”
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge
I drove my pitiable white Grand Am into the parking lot of St. Peter’s Truck Plaza and the place was a dump as expected. Why did the bachelor party have to be in the middle of the country? There were a butt-load of strip clubs in Indianapolis, but Kyle wanted to have a “private party.” He didn’t tell his fiancé where it was; he didn’t want her showing up to assess the scene.
This was a sorry scene.
“Look at that sorry closed-down fireworks store,” Bill said. What did Bill expect? We were near Mt. Nixon, Indiana, where there was nothing, and we were on the outskirts of nothing. The fireworks place would be closed until winter was over and May came.
“I wish we could buy some bottle rockets,” Bruce said from the backseat. “We could light them off in Kyle’s car and piss off his girl.” Those comments are what keep Bruce in the backseat. He’s a year older than me, 23, but acts like he’s 13. Bruce and Bill are alright to hang with. Kyle is okay, he’s my cousin. The people I really want to hang with are too much trouble. Most of them have warrants, or are on probation, or both. I’m free and clear now; no probation, no court deferment hanging over my head, and as long as I don’t get a DUI tonight I can finally get my life going. Just have to make it through tonight. Probably shouldn’t have come, but it’s hard to turn down free beer and naked women. I’m not carrying any drugs in my car either. A quick run for a friend of a friend can lead to lots of trouble.
“Man that McDonald’s looks good,” Bruce said. Across the two-lane highway a McDonald’s lit the night. Someone who was smart and cultured would think it offended the country landscape, but to me, it was a bit of familiarity in this backwoods area. I knew we would end our night drunk-ordering food in the drive-thru. Kyle had gotten a DUI a year ago in a Taco Bell drive-thru when I had been with him. We hadn’t been acting crazy, but when we left cop cars boxed us in. I don’t know why they hadn’t busted me for being drunk, I was on probation, but they let me go when Kyle’s mom came to bail him out. Aunt Jonnie looked like she wanted to hang me while she drove us home.
“You should have driven, Carter!” she yelled at me after she dropped me off. “You’ve already got a DUI and have nothing to lose in your life either!”
“Let’s get inside and see some tail,” Bill said. We were in the back of the truck stop and it was dark, pitch black in the shadow of the McDonald’s. I could see the interstate and the sound of cars made me feel like I was far away from home, not forty-five miles.
The door to the place was yellow wood, a padlock for security. The sidewalk was red and yellow in places, like the place had once been quite the swinging scene. My phone went off in my pocket. Bruce looked at his phone (although the only people who would ever call Bruce were standing with him).
“Go on in,” I said.
“You get the ugly ones, Carter,” Bill said. Bill went through the door and I could hear country music inside. By country I do not mean Taylor Swift. I do not mean Rascal Flats. I mean country western; a note from a steel guitar bit me in the spine. The only lyrics I could hear spoke of a pickup truck. Every song in my car is rap or hip hop.
“Man…” I said and checked my phone. I had switched my phone light color from blue to green, and my eyes took a moment to understand what I was seeing. The caller ID read: Kyle. Damn he was inpatient. I pushed answer–
“There was a truck!” said a man of absolute raggedness. He was six inches from my face and I jumped back with no thought at all; my body had to get away from his creepiness. Flipping redneck, I thought. He had on a black T-shirt and black jeans grey from dirt. His hair was heavy metal long and his beard looked like something a deadhead would sport.
“Go catch your truck,” I said. He’d be asking for a ride or money for McDonald’s. I had cash for the party, but this fool wasn’t getting any of mine. The crap I go through for my money is too much to give it away. Here was my wonderful week: I worked two days at a temp service and when I showed for the third day they didn’t need me. I had to eat the gas money. I pawned my first DVD player for eight bucks. I bought beer for some seniors (earned ten bucks) and got into three unlocked cars in my apartment complex’s parking lot and got a few handfuls of dirty change.
So screw this guy.
“I had twenty-five mojados in the back of a U-haul truck,” he said. He spoke better than expected and didn’t act drunk. “It was the medium-sized truck and was stolen. There was a pathway cut from the cab to the bed so I could yell at them to be quiet when we got near the border. I’d done the run before and sometimes they would get excited back there and the Spanish would be flying.”
“Yo, that’s great,” I said and gave the crazy guy a salute. “I needs to go inside right now and look at something prettier than you.” He held up his hand, like he was going to beg me to stay, and he had my phone. “Hey, give me that!”
“Listen. We were running parallel to the border on the Mexican side. Each time I made the run I swore it would be my last, but the money was good. I’ve been a driver my whole life but nothing paid well. Nothing. So there I was again, driving a load that could get me a whole lot of prison time. But what did I care? I had no life. Ex-wife had my kids who hated me according to her. All I ever did was provide for them, but the road is no place for a family man.”
“Give me my phone,” I said to the old fool. I could bust him once in the mouth and take it back, but I didn’t want to. He was sad and pathetic. I hoped he would get his story on and then get out of my face.
“It wasn’t a bad run. The mojados were a nice group and some of the women were cute. No one was too dirty. They passed tequila and it was the smooth sort so I had a couple of nips. A drunk driving charge was the least of my worries. I kept the makeshift doorway open and talked to the ones who knew English. They had so many plans for America. A few wanted to get into college, another guy wanted to start a business. This one wanted to be a respiratory therapist. She said she’d done research online and thought it looked fun.
“I got lost. Sounds stupid, because I only had three turns but I missed the first one because of the talking, and maybe the drinking. They got unfriendly really quick when they realized I was lost. One of the pretty ones gave me the finger. It was night time and I had to drive with just the hazards on and it was real hard to see. I turned the truck around and damn near rolled the thing in a ditch. I’m in the desert! The mojados flopped around in the back and a baby started crying. Got real bad. According to the map, I was to turn at a clump of trees… I forget what kind. Whatever kind grows in the desert.
“I saw this bald eagle. He flew next to the truck and looked in. Then I saw the clump of trees and he landed on it. I turned. It was amazing, like the bird helped me. I honked at it as we drove by and the bird flew again. He flew in an arch to pass on my left.
“And then for fun I swerved and he broke his neck on my windshield.
“I don’t know why I hit the eagle. I got annoyed for one moment about America I guess. Those mojados behind me were so happy to come to my country, but it hadn’t done anything for me. No job ever worked out, whenever I got money saved, some American-made appliance or car would break down and I would be back to zero. I wanted to slap back, I guess, and let the country know I didn’t like it the way the mojados did.
“They were quiet while the dead bird bounced on my hood. At the time I didn’t know why it didn’t fall off, but it makes perfect sense now. It was all predestined.
“Some of them started to hiss at me in Spanish. I turned on the wipers to knock the bird off, but they couldn’t move him. I grabbed the thing with every intention of chucking it out into the desert night. More of them yelled so instead I threw it in the passenger’s seat. I thought about buckling it in, but the men I was delivering the mojados to don’t have any sense of humor. They loved the American way to make a buck.
“I rechecked the map and yelled we were only forty minutes from America. A few cheered, and others translated, and more cheered. Someone gave me tequila again. I didn’t want any but I took a small nip.”
“That’s a great story man,” I said to the old bum. Was I going to have to knock him down to get my phone back? I didn’t want to; if Bill or Bruce came out I was going to have to smack him. “Give me my phone and I’ll keep listening.”
The dude kept talking.
“I told them forty minutes but I was sure it would be less. It seemed like I was going over the same piece of ground again and again. I saw a cactus that looked like a man waving, then I saw it again, and it came again. The clock on the dash was an old busted dial, and I didn’t have a cellular phone.”
Cellular phone, I thought. When did he make this trip? Is he playing me to feel sorry for him and give him my phone? It’s not gonna happen. “Look man–”
“But a good driver has a great internal clock, and it had been over an hour since I made my forty minute prediction. Some of them had lighted digital watches, and I was hearing some complaining in the back. One man poked his head into the cab. I yelled at him to get back, but he ignored me.
“He told me I was a bad person, that I had killed the beautiful American bald eagle for no reason other than to be mean. He motioned over to the bird several times and then told me to throw it out. I don’t know if he was their leader, or was just the best English speaker. But he was pretty aggressive and made like he was going to grab the bird. I grabbed his shoulder and told him to get back in the rear or I would have him shot when we arrived. It was not something that I am proud of, but I said it. He got a scared look on his face.
“He skirted back into the dark hole like a rat. When I looked out the window two things came to me at once: he had said ‘Diablo’ and there was something black and thorny on the hood of the U-haul. At first I thought it was a Gila monster because it was the same shape, but the thing was huge. It was the size of a bull mastiff but with spikes all over it. Then I saw a second creep over my hood, and then a third slid down my windshield and it licked the others. Outside I saw another dozen of them running like deer, and all were headed toward the truck. I felt things hitting the truck and shaking it around. We were being loaded down and covered with these black things.
“I slammed the brakes of course. In that kind of situation, I should have kept going, but I got scared. The brakes went to the floor but the truck didn’t slow. I tried to veer off the road, which was another dumb idea, but the wheel turned loose like an arcade game and the truck didn’t veer at all.”
“All this happened to you?” I asked the old man. “You were going down the road at full speed and the truck gets possessed and covered by monsters. What did you do?”
“What else could I do?” the old crazy said. “I went through the hole to the back of the truck to die with the mojados.
“We traveled on for many hours. The mojados cursed me at first and kicked at me, but they stopped after their leader poked his head up front. I don’t know what he said, but he threw his arms around and scared the hell out of them. They all got real quiet and started praying in whispers. I sat with my back to the hole; I didn’t want to get knifed in the back even if I was going to die and go to the hell I deserved. After a full day and night of traveling I–”
“Whoa whoa,” I said. “A full day of this… the truck just driving itself but never getting anywhere. How can that happen?” I wanted to hear his entire story.
“I decided to go up front. Everything inside the cab was the same. The eagle was still dead, the wheel did not move, and the speedometer stated sixty. The black shapes were still on the hood, curled up like kittens. I eased into the driver’s seat and they didn’t move. I looked in the side mirror and saw there was a bus pulling up on my left. It was a dark blue prison bus. I never thought I would be so happy to see another vehicle! I grabbed for the door handle (I didn’t care if the things tried to eat me) but it wouldn’t open. The window wouldn’t go down either; I’m sure I would have splattered all over the dirt road, and got my head squashed by the bus, but I didn’t care. I wanted off the evil truck! I wanted on that bus.
“Then I saw what was on the other bus. Two figures. They were not human men, one of them was Death and the other was Uncle Sam. The bus was driverless and the windows were halfway down. In the back seats the two figures were crouched with hand-held video games, and there was some kind of wire running between the two little devices. Blue light, bad blue light, lit their faces. The Uncle Sam shape was winning because his face was all teeth with his smile and he kept looking at me like I was edible. But Death didn’t give up and his skeletal fingers pounded on his little game thing and Uncle Sam had to work hard again.
“The two started to hiss and strike at each other. They swung harder and they were a blaze of red, white, and blue with a black cape. Their bus rocked and buckled and swayed and when I thought it was going to tip over it disappeared.
“The sun was then high in the sky. I swear it had been dark a moment earlier, then the sun was desert high. I tried to open my door again, to jump out and let whatever got me have me, but it didn’t open. Then a thought occurred to me… the back door. The big old door in the rear of the U-haul! I had it padlocked from the inside (can’t have the mojados getting away) and I took the keys out of the ignition. It didn’t occur to me that the truck might turn off, but it didn’t. The laws of sanity were gone. I went back through the door. I didn’t think they would give me much trouble. You better believe I was going to be the first person to jump out of the back.
“They were all standing in the thin darkness. All of them, even the two little kids who I think were babies, and they were staring at me. It’s a creepy feeling to have twenty-five people staring at you in the dark. I held up the keys. Maybe it would be a peace offering. Then together, as one single unit, they whispered:
Then, one by one, with the babies going first, they all dropped dead in the back of the dark U-haul.”
“It obvious you’re a crackhead,” I told him. The dude was weirding me out big time. I had an uncle who got bad into crack and used to come over and try to pretend like he wasn’t flying high. The truck driver reminded me of him. Actually, he reminded me of something else too. It was a lot easier to think of him as a crackhead than the other thing. My last real serious girlfriend had been into white magic and mysticism and tarot cards. Anything odd and gothic, she was all over it. We drank some absinthe one night (she bought it online from the Czech Republic) and she passed out right away but I was wigged out half the night. A zombie movie was on TV and there was one particular zombie who freaked me out. He was an extra, one of those in the background wearing the traditional torn funeral suit. He looked right at me. I know they don’t look at the cameras in movies, but when the hero would be fighting his way through a horde of them, I would see that same zombie staring at me. The next morning I told her about it.
She dumped me two days later.
“I have not touched alcohol or any substance since my time in the U-haul,” he said. “When I got free, I decided to live my life to the absolute fullest. There is no time for numbness.
“For three days and three nights this went on without a break. The dead bodies stayed put in back of the truck. I could not find a place to lie down, but I could not get myself to go back to the cab and face the eagle. Its dead eyes were the worst. I managed to sit down right near the entrance to the cab and I curled up to sleep.
“I could not sleep. I know three days passed because… because I knew from my internal clock. As I said before, drivers have a great sense of time and placement. My sense of time was still on perfectly, but my sense of movement was wrong. I could feel the vibrations of the truck, could hear the wheels spinning and the exhaust firing, but the ground was wrong. We were going over earth, yet it was not real dirt. The speed of the truck never changed. I hoped the gas would run out, but it never did. A deathly fire-ball crash would have been a relief. I knew I was beyond all regular world rules. Something else was going on… I do not know what it was but it was evil; it was vengeful; it was unforgiving.”
“Maybe you should have prayed,” I said. The driver’s face changed into such an exuberate expression that I decided to keep my mouth shut.
“I did try to pray,” he said. “But each time I tried to focus I realized what a hypocrite I was being. I had never went to church, never believed in anything, never thought about any kind of god, ways of money were always on my mind and that was it. It seems to me a devious way to live your own way, and then when things get rough, you drop down and pray like a sniveling choir boy. I paced the truck. It was sometime during the second day and there was a little bit of light from the front coming in the bed from the cab. I had twelve feet to walk in, but it seemed long. The dead bodies closed around on me and the path got narrower and tighter with each lap.
“And they looked at me. Yes they did. No matter what, no matter where I was at or how I swiveled, the eyes of all twenty-five mojados were on me. I would swing my head quick to try and catch one not looking at me, but they always were. It seemed impossible, but I was living the impossible. I began to wonder if I was dead. All the bad things I done in my life: the affairs, the shady deals, the scams and people hurt. Those mojados were my last victims, the last people I screwed over and hurt because I wanted to take out the bird. A bald eagle! I was a Cub Scout; I know the value of the American bald eagle. Maybe if I had stuck with scouts and became a Boy Scout I would have become a better person. But I discovered my stepdad’s Southern Comfort in 7th grade and the rest was history.
“‘What do you want me to do!’ I screamed at the dead Mexicans. They said nothing but kept their gazes on me. It was becoming dark again and I could only see their eyeballs. They taunted me by not moving. They stayed still as the truck moved on an unmoving path. I went to the cab; I would deal with the dead bird. The bird was sitting in the passenger seat. Very much alive and very much looking at me. The passenger window was open.
“The eagle looked at me with the utmost expression of disappointment. He kept me in a gaze of thought and disappointment. Then, just as I was about to cry, he leapt and flew out the window. He was gone in an instant, vanished like he was never there. Outside the stars were beautiful and the clear night sky smelled like… like my childhood.
“Then I finally slept. I thought at first, it was the softness of the driver’s seat that made me slumber, but I know now it was something more. I was allowed to sleep, at last. The sleep overtook me like a dark and heavy blanket. It did not free me from agony.
“I dreamt of food; great mounds of steaming food and the whole world smelled like my grandmother’s kitchen. In my dream (or nightmare if you think about it) I could touch all the food, but it would not go into my mouth. I held homemade biscuits that were the same temperature as a woman’s breast. I poked medium-cooked steaks which had crispy edges of cooked fat. There were baked potatoes, slit down the middle, dripping with butter, sour cream, and salt I could see. I even saw a glass of snow-white milk resting like a lover next to an oval shaped plate of blonde brownies.
“I think one of mojados bodies fell and banged its head on the floor. I woke with a start and my stomach screamed. I’ve been hungry in my life before… during my divorce I barely ate. I would get hungry, buy McDonald’s or some other such thing, and then not be able to eat. Then I would be hungry again. I slept in my car once during my divorce and thought that was starvation. But what I felt when I awoke this night was true hunger. It reached my stomach and squeezed with a hand full of fresh-clipped nails. The truck kept itself and that didn’t seem strange any longer; I cared about nothing but food! I went to the bed of the truck and the bodies were still where they were and all their eyes watched me.
“Then I saw the food. The mojados had brought food with them. One of the women had a backpack, and candy bars and tamales were spilled out. I lunged for it all. I inhaled two Paydays like the peanuts were air. I ate through the outer layer of the tamales like I was a gorilla showing off for people at a zoo. I ate and ate. I alternated between Paydays and tamales. The contrast of taste was wonderful… spicy then calm… spicy and calm.
“You know what I did next?”
“No,” I said. I did not want to go inside the strip club. I needed to hear this story.
“I keeled over, curled up, and went fast asleep next to that dead Mexican woman. My head bumped against the metal floor like it was a feather pillow. The food and the motion of the cursed truck rocked me to sleep. Time passed… I think two hours. I began to hear voices when I was half asleep. I knew where I was, how scary of a situation I was in, but I kept resting like I was still in the womb.
“Two voices spoke in Spanish. They talked in whispers and I heard them talk of the dead aves, I heard my name, and I heard them talk of dolor. I finally peeked my eyes open, and the dead woman’s gaze was straight into my eyes. She did not scare me and I looked to find the source of the voices. I saw no one, but the voices continued their dammed whispering.”
“They were deciding your fate,” I stated.
“Yes,” he said. A slight smile crept on his face. “And you are about to find out my fate.”
“The dead were still dead, as they should be. The stare of the woman whose food I’d stolen seemed to pierce me more than the others. All of their eyes stayed fixed upon me. The morning light was coming in through the doorway and some of their eyes glowed like a cat’s. The truck shook and rumbled. An arm would shift or a head would nod and I was sure they were all going to rise and tear me apart.
“But being torn apart wouldn’t have been the worst… the touch itself would have sent me to the madhouse. They could have piled on me and touched and drooled on me and kept me alive forever. That would have been unbearable. Getting my face and privates torn off and gobbled up would have hurt, but then at least it would have been all over.
“I felt a shift in the truck. The truck lurched and slowed. I looked toward the front and the morning was in full bloom. The windshield was so dirty from days of traveling through that nightmare that I couldn’t see. I felt a cold whoosh throughout the back of the truck and the bodies disappeared. I swear to you, dear listener, that is what scared me the most. The utter coldness of being alone and not knowing where all the bodies were. I didn’t miss their death stare, but I knew they were with me; they were lost after they disappeared.
“The fates did not give me time to mourn. The truck was under no control. I jumped back through the opening to the driver’s seat. I didn’t realize I banged my head; I thought sweat was in my eyes but it was blood. I fell into the driver’s seat headfirst and found myself staring at the dirty black floor mat. It smelled like rubber and death. To this day I can’t smell rubber without feeling like I am dying. I tried to get into the seat, tried to put on my belt for some reason, and through the grimy window I was just able to see a drop-off coming at me. I didn’t hesitate, I didn’t think. If I had thought, I probably would have hit the brakes and been a dead man like my mojados. Instead I jumped out.
“I rolled and rolled forever. The world was blue sky, then tan dirt, then sky. I gripped at the ground and tried to end my spinning. I felt a nail rip off my right hand. My nose broke. I bit my tongue so hard I yelped like a puppy. Every rotation before I ate dirt I could see the raven get closer and I knew it was all about to end. I didn’t hear the truck anymore and it had gone over. Then I saw something green and metal and I slammed my right side into it. I collapsed still on the ground and the sky filled my sights. I smelled rubber again and three men looked down at me from a parked Jeep Wrangler.
“‘The truck is cursed’ I yelled at the three men. One was about twenty-one and the other two were around fifty-five. The young one helped me stand as the other two argued about what to do. I looked around frantically for the dammed truck.
“‘Your U-haul went over the side pal,’ the young one said. His sight was not on me but past me and I saw the giant chasm I had almost plummeted down. It was wide and deep, but did not seem imposing. It seemed like relief. The Arabian-looking fellow still in the jeep must have sensed my idea because he jumped from the truck and grabbed my arm. He told me not to do it, that Allah punished suicides by hell.
“The older man told him to be quiet, and it was obvious I was not a Muslim or ever would be. He got from the truck and asked me if I was a good Jewish man, and did I thank God for saving me.
“‘I suppose I do,’ I said. Then the younger one cut in; I realized they were father and son and were very much sunburned. The younger collected himself, and then spoke to me:
“‘You should thank Jesus, too,’ he said. His father cringed and shook his head. He mumbled convert and walked away from his son. The Muslim held on to me and told me not to go to the cliff. I promised him I would not jump over. He agreed to let me go but he and the younger man stayed on either side of me. The desert was hot as it could be. I could feel my neck cooking under the sun and my arms felt like they were being roasted. I had to see the truck; I had to see it at the bottom of the ravine burning and done with. We arrived at the edge and the crevice was a hundred feet deep. Not an eternal hell distance, but deep enough to have killed me and sent me to my death in a ball of fire. I felt the heat of the truck’s fire for a moment, but then we looked, and the truck was gone.
“I know I screamed as I ran. The three came after me and I hopped into their jeep and they barely got in before I took off. For a minute they tried to coax me into stopping. Then I told my story. I told them every detail, every smell, every drop of terror that I felt. The young convert laughed as I told it, but it was a defense mechanism. He was really scared and used the laughter to protect himself. The Muslim got on his knees, right there in the back of the truck, and started praying in his own language. The older Jewish man cried, muttered, and cried some more. I had the gas pedal to the floor for most of the trip, and when we got to civilization the old Jew told me he was a Rabbi. I confessed everything I had every done wrong to him. I don’t know if they do confession, but it felt good to tell someone religious my story. My entire life story.
“We got out of the truck and he gave me a blessing in his religion’s language. We cried together and I saw the Muslim and young convert crying too. I walked away from them, taking none of the money they offered me, and I knew what my life’s work was. I walked toward the city without looking back. I’ve always wondered if they were hugging behind me. I stopped the first person in the Texas town I could find and told him my story, as I am telling you.”
Without another word, the old truck driver turned and walked away. There was a sparse field of ugly tall grass between the truck stop and the highway. He walked through it like he was taking a stroll through a nice neighborhood. I wondered which one of the semi-trucks, cars, or even U-hauls on that dark road would pick him up. The next driver would get his tale too, and be changed as I was.
I have heard the expression “shaken to the very core” before, but it was not until that night with the truck driver did I understand the phrase. I understood a lot more after that night: life was a precious thing and not a commodity to be put on a shelf and displayed for someone’s entertainment; life was a series of good-or-bad choices, right-or-wrong decisions made every day, every second of breathing. The things I had been doing, the path I was taking through life, was selfish and pointless. Those poor immigrants were trying to come to America in an age-old attempt to be full and happy, were better people than I ever would be if I did not change. I had to stop poisoning my body, poisoning my brain, and polluting my soul with my choices. I had to do good, think good, and be great.
I hopped in my Grand Am and did one last bad thing. I left Bill and Bruce at the strip club.