by N.C. Miller
David Clubb watched the training instructor shave three days of growth off his face while steering the tractor-trailer down Interstate 44 at seventy-five miles an hour. He didn’t use shaving cream or a mirror. And it was night. The cabin light was on, making it easy to see inside and difficult to see the road. But somehow David never felt in danger. He believed the man could drive in his sleep, and probably had.
“Don’t that hurt?” David asked. He braced himself for the pain as if the hair was being plucked from his own face.
Art Glass stopped mid-stroke and looked at David. The right side of his face was smooth and perfectly matched his bald scalp. The left side was still dark with stubble.
“You get used to it. I do the same thing with my legs.”
David glanced at the man’s thighs below where the gym shorts ended, and he saw they were smooth, too.
“I despise hair,” Art said. “I try to keep it off me.”
Art steered with his knee and dipped the razor in a cup of stale water and moved it around like he was stirring cream into coffee. Then he pulled the razor out and tapped it against the rim of the cup and started shaving the left side of his face.
“I got a date tonight.”
“A date?” David asked. “Don’t we got a drop to make?”
“Yeah, but that ain’t ‘til 4 in the mornin’. Plenty of time for a pit stop.”
David didn’t protest. “Who is she?”
“Tammy Child. We meet in different rest stops whenever we happen to cross paths. There’s a real nice diner at Exit 43.”
“Alright,” David said.
Art finished shaving. He dumped the water out the window and set the cup back in the cup holder. He tucked the razor beneath an elastic band on his sun visor. Then he unbuckled his seat belt and unbuttoned the frayed short-sleeve shirt he was wearing. He reached and grabbed a disposable wipe from the dashboard and opened it. A lemon scent filled the cabin.
“That there’s the smell of a man,” Art said.
He unfolded the wipe and thoroughly exhausted it, wiping his neck, chest, stomach, and arms pits with it. David tried not to look because it felt like watching someone bathe, but he couldn’t help but notice the man’s upper body was as hairless as everything else he’d seen. A man of conviction, David thought.
“Baño el polaco hasta el sobaco,” Art said. He laughed at his own joke.
“What’s that?” David asked. He wasn’t sure what language it was but knew the accent on the words couldn’t be right.
“It’s Spanish for poor man’s shower,” Art said. “Say, squeeze a little toothpaste on that brush and hand it my way.”
David did what Art asked and then watched him brush his teeth without the aid of water. He scrubbed for a minute and then swallowed the toothpaste.
“Good on it.” Art tucked the toothbrush next to his razor. He steered with his knee again and removed the shirt he was wearing. He grabbed a folded t-shirt from the floorboard and stretched the collar of it and pulled it over his head and slid his hands through the armholes.
“You got your own truck?” Art asked.
“Yes,” David said. “I’m supposed to have my first route in a month. Just need some supervised practice.”
Art turned off the overhead light and took the wheel back. “What makes you want to drive?”
David peered out the windshield at a spread of light pollution that looked like a distant patch of fog. It probably hovered fifty miles away, over Joplin, he thought.
“I know I don’t look the part, but I’ve got a gypsy heart,” David said. “I think a life on the move might suit me well.”
“Yeah, those khakis you’re wearing don’t exactly scream gypsy, but I’m sure you’ll be dry shaving before you know it.” Art grinned and winked.
David hoped the man was wrong. He reached and felt the soft fabric of his pants. “I’m 32 years old. I’ve worked eight jobs in the last three years. My wife, she tells me, ‘find something you’re gonna stick with or move on from me.’ She’s tired of it. So I’m putting all my chips on the table for this. It’s the one thing I’ve always thought I might be good at.”
“And she’s okay with it?”
“Let’s just say it’s a source of tension. She isn’t thrilled about the time apart. Says we’ll be living separate lives. But for me, this is something I have to do. I can’t settle until I give it a try.”
“You think drivin’ is goin’ to cure you,” Art said, matter-of-factly.
“You tell me. You’ve been doing it a long time, right?”
“Twenty-two years. I’m institutionalized. Couldn’t leave it now if I wanted to.”
“I guess you like it then?”
“Well, let’s see,” Art paused for a moment. “I missed most of the important moments of my daughter’s life, and I get plenty of time alone to regret it. I spend every Christmas on the road. The job is boring, and I mostly see the ugly parts of America: the industrial zones, the ports, and whatnot. And then there’s the time I got gassed.”
“It’s a way of robbin’ truckers. Thieves spray pepper gas through a gap in the window then pick the lock and steal all your valuables while you’re messed up. They took my TV, my wallet, my cash. I couldn’t do a thing to stop them.”
“Long time ago,” Art said. “But for me, drivin’ is addictive, like a drug. When I’m out here alone at night, which I prefer, I’m in outer space or some alternate universe. This is my ship. All the lights are stars and other unknown things. And it’s like the whole world is passin’ me by, but somehow, it’s not gettin’ away from me. I’ll catch up to it at one point or another. Sounds stupid, I know, but if that’s what you’re lookin’ for, maybe it’s right for you.”
David turned his attention to the headlights on the other side of the road; little UFOs full of extraterrestrial life, there and then gone, heading the opposite direction. Their bright white lights briefly illuminated his face, exposing his imperfections and requiring him to look away. He shifted his gaze to the softer, red taillights fifty feet ahead. There traveled a gentle and silent companion, someone to follow. Someone to share some untold moment or memory with. Someone he didn’t have to explain himself to or impress. An easy relationship. Or so he thought. The bond was suddenly broken when another car passed and swooped in between them. Before long, both of those cars moved out of sight together.
“No! No! No! No! No!” Art suddenly yelled.
The volume of the words startled David and brought him out of his reverie. He wondered for a moment if he’d been thinking aloud, but then saw the red and blue strobe lights reflecting off the driver’s side mirror. The police. He glanced at the speedometer and noticed the needle pointing at eighty-five miles an hour.
“This ain’t no good,” Art said. “My license is suspended.”
“What?” David sat up straight in his seat and adjusted his seat belt.
“Just a misunderstanding, really,” Art studied the mirror as if trying to decide on the best course of action.
“Listen, you gotta switch me seats,” he said.
“Worst thing they’ll do is give you a ticket.”
“That ain’t the worst they could do,” David said. “I could go to jail.”
Art toggled his hazard lights on and let up on the gas.
“That won’t happen. Listen, it’s a company truck. You’re all covered. You’re legal. You’re supposed to get some practice on this trip anyhow. The cops ain’t gonna know.”
David paused and thought of the night he and his wife spent in the back of his semitruck just 48 hours before, and how she’d agreed to support him, but warned that her patience was thin. “I can’t afford to lose this this job before it even gets started. This is my last chance.”
Beads of perspiration formed on Art’s forehead, and he nodded as if he understood. But it didn’t stop him for long.
“Come on, bud. You ain’t gonna get in trouble.” His leg was shaking so hard the cab was rocking. “I’ll make sure you get a raise.”
David’s forehead and eyes relaxed a bit.
“I bet that would smooth things over with the wife,” Art said.
David didn’t disagree. “How do I know you can make that happen?”
“Your startin’ salary is based on my feedback. You do this for me, I’m indebted to you.”
Art turned on the cabin light and reached for a sock that was hidden beneath his chair. He pulled a folded stack of cash out of it. He flipped through the stack with one hand until he found two fifty-dollar bills. Then he held them in the air. “Consider this a down payment.”
David glanced at the cash. “That won’t even cover the cost of the ticket!”
Art pulled out another hundred. “You want to be a driver? This is part of the code. You help each other out. You ain’t gonna do that, you might as well find something else.”
David shook his head and reached out and snatched the money out of Art’s hand.
“Atta boy,” Art took his foot off the accelerator and merged onto the rough shoulder of the interstate, crossing the rumble strips. He brought the truck to a complete stop, put it in neutral and engaged the emergency brake. Then he unbuckled.
“Gotta move quick,” he said.
David unbuckled and they swapped seats. Art opened the glove compartment, grabbed the registration and driving log, and set them in a cup holder. “I owe you one, bud.”
“Just get me that raise.”
David looked in the mirror and saw the officer get out of the squad car. His heart rate increased with each step the lawman took. But then it almost stopped completely when the cabin lights came aglow, and he noticed Art had opened the passenger door.
“What are you doing?” David asked.
“I’m sorry, bud.” Art went out on the step rail. “Wait for me at the next rest stop. It’s about a mile down the road.”
“No,” David said. “Get back in here.”
“There’s more to it than I have time to tell. I’ll catch up with you soon.”
Before David could reply Art shut the door and was gone. David stretched his body toward the window and tried to follow the man with his eyes but couldn’t see him in the darkness. He cursed quietly and wondered how he’d gotten himself into this. Every possible outcome flashed through his mind like sketches in a flipbook. Jail. Loss of job. Wrath of wife. Self-loathing. Embarrassment. The usual. He considered getting out of the truck and running, too. Saving himself. But a powerful knock on the door came and jolted him back to the moment he was stuck in.
He dried his sweaty hands on his pants, turned the engine off and opened the truck door, resigned to accept whatever consequences came his way. But then he heard something unexpected. He directed his eyes toward the sound and stared in disbelief. There stood his instructor, Art Glass, laughing hysterically, a friendly arm slung around the cop’s shoulders.
“What the hell?” David said.
Art grinned widely, beside himself with delight. “Welcome to the company, bud. You been initiated.”
David sighed loudly, released the weight of his body, and leaned back into the chair. He lifted his hand up toward Art, extended his middle finger, and let it hang there a few seconds. Then he took a moment to let everything sink in, and he smiled. He’d finally made it. He was finally a trucker.
N.C. Miller is an English & Literature teacher in Madrid, Spain, and a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Converse College in South Carolina. His short stories have appeared in The Chaffey Review and Bull: Men’s Fiction.