Tonight of all nights Dottie had to go and develop a mind of her own. Gears ground when he shifted. Brakes squealed — air hissed from a hydraulic system that needed an overhaul. Shocks worn so thin he felt every bump on the four lane highway. Too bad, because it was a beautiful night to drive, roads clear — only a few cars here and there and the occasional rig passing on his left. The kind of night he wished he could flip to autopilot and let her drive the rest of the way. But he was a long way from that, technology-wise. And the way she was acting, he'd need to stay awake to watch her. Watch both of them, actually, because Dale was standing in the seat now, pressing her face to the window and streaking the glass he'd wiped down that morning.
"I told you to sit down," he said.
"I saw a sign for McDonald's," she said scooting back on the cracked vinyl.
"Couple miles yet," he said. "You've got to stay in your seat until we stop."
She crossed her ankles, legs sticking straight out because she was too small for her knees to even bend over the edge. "I love my new boots," she said. They were silver. They had been the bait to get her into the truck.
Walt shifted down, winced as gears hacked like rusty saws through steel. Dottie lurched up the exit ramp belching smoke and grumbling. He made a wide turn at the golden arches, frowning. Air hissed from leaking hydrolics.
"Mommy said I couldn't have them."
"That's what your daddy's for," he said. "To give you what your mother won't."
"Mommy doesn't eat McDonald's anymore, either. She says it's bad for me. I think she doesn't like it because it's fattening and she's worried about her thighs."
Walt laughed. "She's been worried about those for a long time."
He took a twenty from the envelope beneath the seat and counted the cash left. "Don't move," he said. Knees stiff and back sore he climbed out of the driver's seat and pushed the door closed. Faded black letters on the once vibrant green fender, Cora's cursive handwriting: Dottie. The paint was dull now, pocked with the dirt of two hundred thousand miles that had worn at the metal like a river carves out a canyon. Living heat rose off the pavement and out of the radiator, undulating the air. He tugged at the passenger door which had a recent habit of sticking. When he got it open Dale leapt into his arms.
"Oof," he said, catching her.
"Last time I was at McDonald's was for Sarah's birthday," she said. "Ronald was there, and I got to eat anything I wanted. Ice cream and apple pie." She giggled. "Two desserts. Can I have ice cream?"
"Sure you can, Pumpkin." He set her down and took her hand. She looked both ways for traffic then led him into the bright restaurant. Dale's boots clicked against the red tiled floor. She ordered a Happy Meal for the prize and a Quarter Pounder with cheese, a large Coke and an ice cream sundae. He wasn't sure how she'd get through all that before the ice cream melted. "Just coffee," Walt said, handing over a twenty.
They sat at a booth across from each other. Dale dug into the ice cream with a spoon, offered some to Walt but he shook his head, smiled while she managed to spread the syrupy white cream all over her mouth. When she started on the hamburger he excused himself, went to the bathroom and washed the grime from his weathered face, brushed out his mustache and beard with long, thick fingernails, and wiped his arms and neck with a damp, rough paper towel. His brown eyes were sallow, sunken. He had rough cheeks, a fading hairline, spotted brown scalp and ears grown long like his father's. Fifty-four years stared back at him, more than half that spent behind the wheel. Arms locked against the porcelain he listened to the water's cascading echo and counted four calls of "Daddy," before going back to the dining room.
A little boy about his daughter's age stood with his mother next to the playground. The woman watched Walt approach with eyes ex-wife beady. Dale, shrieking, lumbered through a bin of colored plastic balls which she tossed into the air. Her hamburger lay half eaten on the table, the Happy Meal untouched.
"Is that your daughter?" the woman asked. She had a long, thin face and a mouth that formed neither a frown nor a smile. She was decidedly unattractive. "She kicked my son off the playground. She needs to learn how to share."
"Sorry," Walt said. He hadn't wanted to bring any attention to them. How would it look, truck driver out here in the middle of the night with his kid? "Dale," he barked. "Come here." Dale crawled out of the bin. "She's just a kid," he said to the woman. "Gets carried away sometimes." He winked: she was a mother, she must know about rambunctious children. Dale, arms boneless, shuffled to her father's side, her head down, a whimpering child dreading punishment. "Apologize to the boy," Walt said.
Dale studied her boots, voice barely above a whisper. "I'm sorry."
"That's my girl." He patted her on the shoulder, demonstrating pride. The woman nodded curtly, put her arm on her boy's shoulder and walked away. Walt gathered the uneaten food and took his daughter's hand. They said nothing to each other on the way to the truck. He opened her door for her. "Hop on up," he said. She obeyed, sat quietly while he came around to the driver's side and struggled up the step and fell in behind the wheel. "What was that about?" He put the bags of food in the small refrigerator behind the passenger seat, placed where he could get to it while he was driving.
She shook her head.
He turned the ignition key. Dottie rumbled, engine whirred but wouldn't start. He pulled back and counted ten then turned it again. She kicked once and he pressed lightly on the gas and she cut out. He counted ten and tried again. She turned over. He put on a little gas, pulled out the choke. Dottie rumbled but kept firing, cab shivering over the rumbling engine. He patted the dashboard. "That's my girl," he said. He settled himself in, shifted. Dale stared quietly out the window as he maneuvered the truck back on to the highway. After five minutes of silence he said, "You have to learn to share. It's an important part of life, sharing. We give and we get. We don't get to keep. Or at least, not all for ourselves." He gunned the engine as he shifted to emphasize his point, hoped she wouldn't notice his hypocrisy.
"I was there first," she said.
"I don't want to hear it. You were wrong to kick that boy out."
Trees and dark fields flowed past. Mile marking reflectors blinked like the eyes of animals lurking on the edge of night waiting to pounce, devour the truck if it stopped again, too soon or too late. Dottie fought his efforts to shift gears, her aging engine demanding rest, restoration. He didn't have time to stop, not now. McDonald's had cost him another forty minutes and he was already two hours behind schedule. As though tormenting him, the GPS he had installed last week beeped to tell him he was off course. He'd have to drive all night, that was all there was to it. He had hoped to stop at a motel, let Dale sleep in a real bed, but there was no time for it now. He reached for his CB microphone but changed his mind. He had turned it off hours ago to cut the chatter, spend some time with his kid. That was the whole point here, to spend time with Dale. Father and daughter on the open road together. Eventually Cora would find his channel and start calling, but he'd worry about that then.
"How about a song?" he said.
She continued to stare out the window. She was only six but already she had developed her mother's stiff resolve.
"Come on," he said. "You pick it."
She turned, her mother's eyes wide. She pulled loose strands of blonde hair out of her face. She seemed about to jump out of her seat. "You mean it?"
"Sure, sure, of course. Keep me awake."
"That's my girl. You shouldn't hide that pretty smile of yours."
She started singing, something he didn't know, which wasn't any big surprise. He tried to hum along once he got the tune in his head, tapped fingers against the steering wheel. Her voice cracked but she sang with all her heart, closing her eyes and clutching her hands to her chest, being theatrical about the whole thing, extending her arms as though the road before them and the blinking reflective roadside makers were the eyes of an audience cheering her on.
Dottie coughed and sputtered and choked. Walt pulled her out of gear and flipped on the dashboard lights. The engine temperature was rising. He let the truck coast while he turned on the heater, reached under the dash to open the vents. Hot air blew over his feet and quickly filled the cabin. He cranked open his window to let out some of the air. "Roll yours down, too," he said, but the passenger window, like the door, hadn't been opened in years. She couldn't get it open. The smart thing would be to stop, but he had too much distance to make up before morning. He kept his speed at just under 55 and for five long miles watched the thermostat while Dale sang quietly to herself. Sweat dribbled under his arms, tickled his back. The temperature remained steady just below the red line and then slowly eased backwards. Not all the way, but back to a more manageable temperature.
Dale pulled off her boots. "I'm tired," she said. It was almost two. "I wish I was in bed."
He threw a thumb at the sleeper behind them. "You can climb in back. Ain't the Hyatt, but it's comfortable. I'll wake you when we get there."
"No, my bed," she said, looking back through the curtain at a bare mattress with nothing but a rough red blanket wadded up on it and a pillow he'd taken from the house before he left. It had been Cora's and it still smelled like her. He never thought his daughter would eventually rest her head on it. "I miss Princess," Dale said. "She sleeps with me. She'll be lonely."
"Your mother will take good care of her."
She shook her head. "Mommy sneezes," she said. "She's acerbic."
"It's not funny. Princess has to sleep alone when I'm not there."
"She'll be fine for a few nights."
Dale looked back through the curtain then climbed through. Walt watched her through the mirror explore the living quarters–if it could be called that. There wasn't much back there, just a bed and a little refrigerator and a drawer for clothes, though he didn't keep clothes in it. "Don't open that," he said, afraid she'd find both the gun and his collection of Playboys. He kept his tools in a box behind the cab, on the trailer hitch. She laid down on her side facing him, curled into a ball and pulled the blanket up to her shoulder. They looked at each other through the mirror. She smiled. "Good night, Pumpkin," he said.
"Good night, Daddy." She yawned and closed her eyes.
Walt flipped off the interior lights and stretched his back to settle into the seat that had long ago learned the pattern of his body. Stars stretched across the bruised night. Almost twenty years ago he'd stopped at a rest area off I‑90 in South Dakota and had looked up at the stars dotting the sky. He'd christened the rig then, for the stars that would guide him for the rest of his journeys. That was before Cora, before Dale, before his world had come together and then fallen apart. Back when Dottie was young and he was young and staying awake through these long night drives didn't seem too hard. He yawned. In back, Dale slept. The audience had turned back into animals. He checked Dottie's gauges and drove. Two hundred miles to go.
Cora answered on the first ring. "Walt?"
"Thank god. Is Dale all right?"
"We're fine. She's fine. Just out on the road."
"Can I talk to her?"
"She's asleep in back."
"You know that gets to me, baby."
"Don't do this, Walt."
"I'm just spending a little time with my little girl."
"Please just bring her home."
"I miss you," he said.
"Don't hurt her."
"That's not fair." He wiped sweat off his face. "We're on a little road trip, is all. Dale's never been out with me, not once. Never seen how I live, where I live. She doesn't know who I am."
"You're not allowed unsupervised –"
"Who says I'm not allowed?" he said, pounding his fist into the steering wheel. "That damned judge? What right does she have? Can't see my own daughter without somebody watching us. Like I'm a bad parent. I'm not a bad parent."
Cora controlled her sobs. "I know you're not."
"It's wrong to keep a father from his child," he whispered, not wanting to wake Dale. "I work three-hundred-sixty days to keep that roof over your head, clothes on that girl's back, food on your table and in my stomach, gas in my tank, oil in my engine, all so I can keep moving, keep driving, stay one step ahead of everybody that wants to take it all away. I pass through town to spend a few hours with my girl and you won't even take her out of school because you've got to work. And that punk in the blue tie tells me I don't have the authority –"
"Three years, Walt. What did you expect?"
"Three years of talk, Cora. Nothing but talk. I've talked and paid people to talk and listened to other people talk and even paid people to listen to other people talk and it's done me not one bit of good. Useless words, Cora. I'm done with it." His own hot breath surprised him.
"Let me just talk to her for a minute," she said.
"She's sleeping, I told you that. Not gonna wake her up now."
"Please, Walt," Cora said. "Please don't do this."
"I'll call again soon." He pressed the button to end the call. He wished he'd told her he still loved her.
Dottie coughed as Walt pulled up to the loading dock. He logged his driving time and mileage, subtracting the side trip to get Dale. He recorded the McDonald's stop as being two hours to include a mandatory sleep break that he hadn't actually taken. Dale was still asleep in back, blanket pulled over her head despite the heat. He left the engine running and climbed down from the cab, approached a young man in blue denim overalls who was attaching a loaded trailer to another rig.
"Morning," he said.
The young man looked up, mouth unhinged. He had black, crooked teeth and a long neck punctuated by a plum sized Adam's apple. He glanced over Walt's shoulder at Dottie, wheezing like an ox who'd been run too hard. "Inside," he said. "Lou's the dock supervisor." A stream of tobacco juice shot from his pursed lips and landed, splat, on the ground next to Walt's shoe. He leaned over and cranked the hitch.
Inside Walt found Lou standing behind a lectern. He was in his fifties, balding, white hair, glasses perched on the end of a nose that had been broken at least three times, pencil tucked behind his ear. Walt handed him his manifest and log book. Lou glanced at his watch.
"You're late." He studied the paperwork, not meeting Walt's eye.
"Rest stop," Walt said.
Lou tossed the logbook at Walt, unopened, unexamined. Walt just managed to grab it before it dropped to the floor. "Rest on your own time." He tore a slip of paper from a pad and held it out. "Number three." He jerked his head to the left.
The third bay was empty. Walt backed the trailer in until he felt the bump against the dock. He jumped down and fetched chucks from the tool box behind the cab, blocked off his wheels. A sign next to the open door read, "No Engine Idling." Walt shook his head. She might need a bit to get started again, but he needed to impress these people. He needed the work. He climbed back into the cab and shut off the engine. The trailer door opened. He checked the back to make sure the bundle of his daughter was still snug beneath the blanket.
From inside the warehouse he watched as the crew unloaded his trailer. Forklifts rumbled across a metal ramp, carried out pallets of goods. He had no idea what he was carrying. These days he didn't care. A job was a job. If somebody wanted something hauled, he'd do it, no questions asked. The inside of the trailer was a mess, walls dirty and dinged, a door that got stuck most of the time. The tires were balding. Mud flaps had long since given up flapping anything but their shredded selves. Eighteen years, six months. That's how long he'd had that truck and he took good care of her. Did. Past year or more had been especially hard, all his friends selling out to the big conglomerates who paid for the upkeep on their trucks, provided health insurance and retirement plans. Walt had always been a loner, though, liked the job because he was his own boss, picked his routes, picked his loads. More and more, though, the big companies were undercutting him. They had modern equipment and tracking capabilities. It was becoming increasingly hard for him to find work. It had been ten months since Dottie'd had a good overhaul and she was long overdue. This job and the return would just about cover oil and filters and new plugs and gaskets and, maybe, a new set of tires.
He again handed his log book to the dock supervisor. Lou glanced through it and shook his head, breathed in and out. "'Pears in order," he said. "Inspectors 'll believe it anyway." He signed it and handed it back to Walt.
"What's the return?" Walt said.
"I was supposed to drop in Raleigh."
"You were supposed to leave with it last night," Lou said. "I gave the run to another driver."
Walt grabbed the lectern. "But that was my job."
"Outta my hands."
"Son of a bitch. What am I supposed to do?"
The dock supervisor shrugged.
"Got anything I can take? I'll go anywhere. Haul anything."
"Nothing that ain't been assigned." He wasn't looking at Walt, flipped through the papers on his makeshift desk, scribbled notes. He stared at Walt's hands gripping the podium. "Wait around, you want. Somebody might bail."
Walt looked out over the parking lot. Rigs were lined up to the street waiting for an open bay. His chances of getting anything were slim. He could wait around, but what would he do with Dale? The two of them couldn't just sit in the cab for the next, what, day, maybe more. They could get a room at a motel for a night. He could make some calls, find another run. Working on his own meant he had no office to find work. It was all up to him, job to job, site to site.
"Shit." He took his hands off the podium. "Where do I get my check?"
"Checks are mailed out next week."
"Next week? I'm supposed to get it when I drop." Lou continued looking through papers. "Maybe they left –"
"Look, office opens at ten. Wait around or come back later and talk to someone upstairs." He thumbed the warehouse as though the whole building were upstairs. A phone on the wall next to him rang; he grabbed it before it finished it's first. "Yeah. God dammit, I said four. Yes that's what I said. Think I don't know my own damned voice. Yeah, yeah. On my way." He slammed the phone down. "Christ, I gotta do everything around here." He shoved past Walt and hustled around stacks of boxes on pallets.
Walt climbed back into Dottie and counted the cash left in the envelope. Dale needed a real bed and a bath. He couldn't afford a hotel, not now. He folded the envelope and slid it back in the pouch hidden beneath his seat. He closed his eyes, leaned back, breathed deep and counted to ten.
"Dale?" He flipped on the interior lights. "Time to wake up, Pumpkin." He crawled behind the red curtain, pulled back the blanket. She was gone. He laid the blanket back on the bed and pulled it away again thinking that, like magic, she would reappear. But the bed was still empty. He pressed the mattress. She was gone. He yelled her name but his voice traveled nowhere in the confines of the cab. He pulled out the drawer, thought she may have crawled in there, but all he found were his Playboys and his gun. There was no where else to hide. He kicked open the door and jumped out, landing stiff-legged, hard. His right knee popped; he crumbled. Pain shocked him like ice water. It was an old injury, a bad tackle in high school. He lay on the pavement, suppressing a scream, clutching his knee. His face hot, tears welled. He began to hyperventilate. He concentrated on his breath, teeth gritted against the pain that shot up from his leg, stretched over him like plastic wrap, suffocating, mouth dry, sweat dripping into his eyes. He gasped quick gulps of air that did nothing to stifle the pain, the unbearable pain. He forced himself to breathe.
Dale. He swallowed the dryness, opened his burning eyes and breathed, once, deep. All it took was once and then he could do it again and again and then he pushed himself off the asphalt. Shaking, muscles as tense as soft wood under a heavy load, he grabbed the open door and pulled, managed to get his left leg under him and steadied himself on it, leaned against Dottie for support. He took a few more deep breaths then bent over to look under the chassis. She wasn't there.
His right knee was already swelling, flesh pressing against his jeans. Veins pulsed with his thumping heart. He didn't care. He couldn't. If he stopped any longer, if he let himself continue to think about, to even look at his knee, he would not be able to go on. Find Dale, he told himself. Think on your feet, you're good at that.
"Dale," he called and waited, blood banging a steel drum in his ears. He hopped along the trailer and leaned against the dock. "Hey," he called into the warehouse. "Anybody there?" The young man with the apple in his throat appeared, eating a sandwich. "Yeah?"
Sweat stung his eyes. "Have you seen…a little girl?" He swallowed, the pain like a bristlecone. "My daughter. She was sleeping…inside. Gone."
He took a thoughtful bite of his sandwich. His Adam's apple bobbed. "Nope," he said. "Don't think so."
"Can you ask?" With a tensed claw Walt pinched the muscle above his quickly swelling knee.
"You all right?" the kid said.
Lou emerged from behind a plastic curtain, fat belly lobbing ahead of him, cigarette curling smoke from between two arthritic knuckles. "What's the problem?"
"Little girl," Walt said. He struggled with shallow breaths. "My daughter."
"She's gone," he said.
"Kids aren't allowed on the dock or in the warehouse. Company policy."
"Have you seen her?"
"You could be fined."
"She was asleep in the truck. I don't know where she went. She was there when I went in, and she's gone when I come back."
"You left her alone?" His tone was judgmental, contemptuous.
"She was asleep."
"What'd you leave her alone for?"
"I thought she'd be all right."
"Mm-hmm." He blew smoke into morning air. Walt shivered, though it wasn't cold. "We'll keep our eyes open."
Using the trailer for support he limped to the front of the rig. The parking lot was huge, more than a mile, probably, in each direction, half again as wide. Trucks were lined up, rumbling, spewing diesel exhaust, waiting for dock openings. Drivers stood in groups, talking, but they were too far to hear him calling. "Dale," he screamed and waited. He fell against the bumper. She could be anywhere out there, wandering amid the trucks. Maybe she thinks one of them is mine and she's already crawled inside, fallen asleep on somebody else's bunk, he thought. He tried putting weight on his leg but it was too painful to try to walk. He stood while the dull throbbing pounded from his knee. Blood rushed in his ears. An aperture of blackness closed around his vision. He clenched his jaw and breathed deep once, twice, three times, leaning back against the grill. Heat rose from the radiator, from his swelling knee, from the cracked black asphalt, from his empty stomach, from his heart like a stone, sinking. He would have to climb into the cab and turn on the CB, call some of the other drivers out there, get a search party together. He knew when he turned on the radio he'd hear Cora begging him to come back. What choice did he have?
"Hey, buddy." Adam's Apple was on the dock. He leaned over, hands on his knees. "Security found her." He spit a wad of tobacco juice onto the ground.
Holding his breath against the surging pain he pulled himself up onto the dock, lurched past the young man, lumbered through the plastic curtain, past the still smoking dock supervisor quietly judging him, down a hallway to a security guard soothing a wailing voice through a locked door–Dale: scared, sobbing and unwilling to emerge from the bathroom until her mother came for her.
The sun gave in to a bluebonnet sky. Darkness settled across the field behind the house. Not his house anymore, but he still considered it his. He used to pull up and honk the horn, surprise Cora. She'd run out across the front lawn in blue jeans and a faded grey sweatshirt, long blonde hair whipping in the wind behind her. She pulled open the door and climbed up into the cab, wrapped herself around him before he could even get the engine shut off. That was years ago, when they were still happy. Or thought they were.
His knee, still swollen, throbbed less; he had hardly moved it in four hours. Driving all day and into the night, trying not to shift, not to have to press the brake, the pain sheathing his head, blinding, unbearable, and yet it had to be borne. They had stopped once for gas and coffee, dipped into his cash reserves, no use saving anything now. Dale had groggily gone into the truck stop with him, opened the door and held the Thermos while he filled it with coffee. When they got back to the truck she had fallen right back to sleep.
How hard it had been to get her out of the bathroom. She cried from behind the locked door for thirty minutes, wailing for her mother, her cat, her blanket. How hard it had been to convince her that he wouldn't leave her again. How hard it had been to lie.
"Dale," he said, nudging her. "We're home, Pumpkin."
She opened her eyes. "Home?"
The door creaked. "I'll help you down." His knee was stiff but movable. He climbed down, careful not to jump, teeth clenched against the throbbing. Dale rubbed her eyes when he reached up for her. "Be careful," he said.
"How's your leg, Daddy?"
"Fine," he said. He took her hand. They walked across the cool, dew stained grass. Walt listed to the left to compensate for the knee he couldn't bend. Dale yawned; it was contagious. She laughed at him, his gaping mouth a black hole. Could it absorb all the bad things he had ever said, ever done, would do?
The key lay hidden beneath the flower pot. "Shh," he cautioned as he turned the lock. He tried to squat but his knee wouldn't bend so he sat on the cool concrete, leg stretched out. "You be a good girl now, you hear?"
He kissed her on the forehead.
"Are you gonna stay?"
That depends on your mother, he started to say, thought better of it. I've done enough damage, he thought. "I don't think so," he said. "I've got to get this run finished."
She yawned. "You'll be back soon, though?"
"Of course." How long before she stopped believing him?
She hugged him.
"Don't wake your mother," he said.
She smiled and winked. "I won't."
He closed the door behind her and strained to hear her feet patter across the linoleum floor. All he heard were the crickets. He locked the door and replaced the key under the flowerpot. He pulled himself to his feet and stared out across the lawn, at Dottie waiting for him. She was still empty, a dead head about to chug through another long, lonely day. Dale was better off without him, better off believing that his rig was full than discovering the truth: that he was hauling nothing more than air. He was just another trucker hauling a trailer full of empty promises. He hobbled down from the porch and walked across the cool morning grass. With each step, as he moved closer and closer to the only home he had, the pain in his knee became worse. By the time he got to the cab all he could do was stand there and breathe heavily until he mustered the strength to climb up and behind the wheel.
The short fiction of J.L. Smith has appeared in The Cynic Online, Halfway Down the Stairs, Every Day Fiction and eFiction magazine. He lives with his wife and daughter in the remote northwest corner of New Mexico. When not writing his novel he can be found pushing his daughter through the desert in a running stroller.