Dead Head, fiction by J.L. Smith

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."

"Yes, dad­dy."

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."

She smiled.

"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."

He laughed.

"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?"

"Hi, hon­ey."

"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."

Cora sobbed.

"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.

"Dead head."

"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 –"


"Cash then?"

"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.

"Just ask."

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?"

"Yes, Dad­dy."

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.
jeffsmithThe 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.


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