Excerpted from Middle-Aged Crazy: Short Stories of Midlife and Beyond –
The Complete Collection
by Lynne M. Spreen
In the blue cold of late afternoon, Rita set out a row of traffic cones around the eighteen-wheeler to warn oncoming drivers, but of course there were none. Travelers had been advised not to attempt Donner Summit for at least another day. Record snow blanketed the Sierras from Grass Valley all the way to Reno, and the forecast called for more. Even CalTrans workers had locked up their snowplows and gone home. The next twenty-four hours along I-80 would be a trial for anyone foolish enough to be out here.
Bracing against the wind and sleet, she climbed up on the back of the rumbling semi. The wind shook the rig, and she remembered a recent overturn in which a coworker had died.
She removed the padlock from the twin sets of steel chains, and heaved each set to the blacktop. She wasn’t built for this kind of work. Her hands were too small, her body too light, and in her late fifties, she was too old. Still, it was better than going hungry.
Rita climbed down off the rig, slipping on the icy pavement. With the dark of afternoon, any moisture on the road was quickly turning to ice on the steep grade.
In the brief intervals between gusts, the forest echoed with chill quiet. Then the wind would come howling through the pines and up the slope, rocking the Peterbilt and forcing the mercury even lower. Rita picked up one set of chains and draped them over her shoulder, wincing at the twinge in her lower back.
Rounding the front of the tractor, she slowed to absorb the comforting warmth of the big Cat-15 engine. Together they’d racked up a hundred thousand miles crossing the U.S., through rain and snow and along the outer edge of some bad tornadoes. On just this trip, she’d barely escaped a white-out coming over the Continental Divide from Denver. The previous owner swore the rig was a reliable workhorse. Rita shrugged the chains to the ground. She had no choice but to trust it to carry her down the mountain and into Sacramento by tomorrow morning. Otherwise, the load would be late, and Rita’s well-meaning but strict supervisor would knock her back to hauling livestock.
Now, in the silence of the High Sierra, she shivered. Earlier in the day, the dispatcher told her the Pass would be open, at least until early afternoon. The forecast called for a second storm, a bad one, but not until later –midnight at the soonest. Rita had to take the run. The payment on the rig was due, and she didn’t make any money sitting in the yard. And no matter how unappealing the job, it still beat teaching remedial reading to juvenile delinquents.
She’d spent a career at the court schools, and not much surprised her in the way of bad behavior, but this time, it was different. The attack had finished her. His tattoo – a knife superimposed over a naked, bleeding woman – would forever be burned into her mind. Even now, she saw it when trying to sleep.
“Remember the rule?” she had said to her students, all teenaged boys. “The ‘e’ at the end changes the vowel sound.” She looked up. At the back of the room, this new inmate was smiling at her, his incisors peeking out from under thin lips. The kid was a man; he should have been in an adult facility.
Right after that, she had him moved from her class, and in the days and weeks that followed, she never went anywhere around the facility alone. One day, everybody was busy, and she had to pee. He followed her, locked the restroom door, and punched her in the mouth. Shoved her into the sink and took her from behind, yanking on her hair so she had to watch in the mirror. She remembered that tattoo on his forearm, the arm that wrapped around her neck and cut off her breathing. When she came to, her cheek was pressed against the filth of the restroom floor, and she was spitting out teeth and leaking his fluids.
That was three years ago. Her attacker was in prison now, locked up tight, for a few years anyway. Rita, slowly recovering, was driving a truck – hers; she had bought it last January – from coast to coast and back again, concerning herself only with the vagaries of weather, other drivers, and the logistics of getting her loads to their destination without mishap.
Now, kneeling on the pavement in the approaching storm, the cold steel chains felt like they were going to burn through her gloves. Rita crouched by the wheel on the passenger side where only a guardrail protected vehicles from a sheer drop of thousands of feet. The road on which she parked the rig angled upward toward the summit, and the incline called for her to chock the wheels, but she was freezing, so she skipped that step, working fast, trying not to remember.
After the attack, she couldn’t work. Couldn’t be in the same place where it had happened; couldn’t be anywhere else either, it seemed. She was afraid all the time, and took to carrying pepper spray and a knife, and a gun in her car. At home, a run-down rental in San Bernardino, she kept the doors locked and the shades drawn, and watched the Nature Channel all day.
She managed to hide until her disability pay ran out and she was forced to find a job. A temp agency sent her out on office work, but Rita couldn’t take the constant noise and light. She tried night janitorial and delivering newspapers, but her attendance was spotty and the paychecks miniscule. When she couldn’t pay her rent, she moved into her brother’s house. At first she tried to earn her keep, doing light housework and putting something into the crockpot in the morning, but most days, she took the anxiety pills the doctor prescribed and slept until nightfall. As the sun was going down, she’d eat toast and drink a glass of water, then watch TV until dawn. That went on for months. Finally, she couldn’t stand herself.
One afternoon, she handed Ernesto a beer and flopped on the sofa next to him. “Teach me to drive your truck.”
He almost spewed. “What the hell you talking about?”
“How hard can it be?”
“Stick to secretarial, mija.”
“No, listen, I’m serious.” Ernesto cocked his head toward the rig, out in their driveway. “You know how long the front of the house is? That’s how long the load is. And it’s heavy. You could be pulling forty tons, easy. You think you can just whip around in that thing? Telling you, the four-wheelers’ll get you killed; they’re like bees sometimes, swarming all in front of you and you have to brake fast without jackknifing. Whatchu gonna do if some little asshole cuts in front of you?”
“Whatever it is you do, I would do.”
“Then under the hood you have seven hundred horses, with ten forward gears and two reverse. And that’s just the rig. That’s not the road hazards or the weather. And it’s physically hard. There’s not that many women doing it. The other drivers are mostly men. You won’t have any friends out there. I say, forget it.”
Rita grabbed his beer and drained it, but his skepticism was justified. She was probably too old to learn anything this daunting and dangerous. And what about her mentals? Hell, she couldn’t handle running an industrial floor buffer, let alone a tractor-trailer rig. She’d probably crash and die in a freeway fireball.
“I need a shower.” Ernesto took the empty can and tossed it in recycling.
Rita watched it land. At this point, she was so pathetic, she was trading in aluminum cans. But the money wasn’t the only thing. Until the kid at Juvie, she’d been a proud, highly functioning member of society.
So: operating a rig? Driving from point A to B and collecting a paycheck still sounded better than cleaning toilets on the night shift at the Holiday Inn, afraid of every shadow, every approaching voice.
At least with the truck, she could lock the doors. Her mouth went dry and her stomach rolled over in a nauseating flip.
The shower stopped. Ernesto went into his room. Five minutes later, he came out, dressed in Levis and a tee shirt. “Let’s go.”
“Yes, now. I have to work tomorrow.”
She ran into her bedroom, threw on some clothes, found some sunglasses under a pile of crap on the dresser, and dashed outside where he was warming up the tractor. The passenger seat seemed airborne, it was so high off the ground. Ernesto put the truck in reverse, and with a great burst of exhaust, the truck began backing out, its twin smokestacks jerking from side to side as the big duelies rolled over the lip of the driveway and into the street.
Rita craned to look out the back window. With no trailer, at this high perch, she could see a good distance. At least she had that.
Ernesto drove to a deserted road near the old cement plant, talking all the way there about the importance of patience and respecting the rules. He stopped in the middle of the street and they changed places. When Rita slid behind the wheel, her arms shook and she couldn’t feel her fingers, but with Ernesto’s guidance, she got it in gear and puttered down the road into the sun. When he instructed her to make a U-turn, she felt the roll of nausea again, but completed the turn without mishap. Going the other direction, east now, working up through the gears to forty miles per hour, the sun behind her, she glanced in the mirror and grinned.
“Yeah, look at you,” Ernesto said.
After that first experience, she went along on short runs, driving whenever they were away from traffic. Twice, Ernesto allowed her to come along on longer runs, and she even parked the fully-loaded rig a few times. At first she was speechless with fear, but then something else sparked in her, a tiny flame that flickered and grew as she turned the wheel, as she felt the motor obey the commands from her foot on the pedals and her hand on the gearshift.
It wasn’t just the power and independence of driving. Rita loved the solitude. After a few more runs with Ernesto, Rita enrolled in trucking school, earned her license, and landed a job with an outfit in Los Angeles.
Once on the road solo, she used her CB and discovered a community of fellow truckers to answer questions and teach her about life on the road. From them, she learned to use her seatbelts at night to secure the doors, that fuel could freeze, and that drivers can be poisoned by carbon monoxide, so she bought a detector for the cab. The other drivers teased her once they found out the greenhorn was in her fifties, but out on the road they waved as they passed. One day at a truck stop, an old guy saw her struggling with her tandems. He came over with a hammer and delivered a well-placed whack to the locking pin, solving the problem and teaching her something about machinery. He never said who he was and took off before she could buy him a cup of coffee.
Aside from days like this, when her hands were numb and her bones ached from the cold, Rita loved long-haul trucking. There was so much beauty out on the road, from rain squalls across the Arizona desert, to sunrise in the Florida Keys. One hot day coming down off the Carrizo Plain in California, she thought she spotted a pair of condors circling overhead. Since it was almost noon, Rita pulled over and shut the rig down. She grabbed her binoculars and watched the birds ride thermals above the Central Valley. When they’d become tiny specks in the distant sky, she opened her doors and let the breezes rustle through the cab while she made a sandwich in the back. Placing a lawn chair in the shade cast by the cargo container, she enjoyed her lunch, the silence broken only by the ticking of the cooling motor and the dried grasses undulating in golden waves.
Now, the cold wind howled through the forest, and Rita braced herself against the blast. A few snowflakes landed, and she wondered if she had waited too long to chain up. Her instructor, a man with bleached hair, tattoos and pieces of metal in his earlobes, liked to say that some things could only be learned through experience, and he hoped she would live long enough to learn them.
Kneeling next to the outside drive wheel, Rita spread the links of chain. Nearby, a paw print in the snow spoke of recent visitors. The print bore no claw marks, and it was too big for a bobcat according to what she remembered from teaching science class.
So then it was probably lion.
Her gloves prevented frostbite in the relentless wind, but the chill penetrated through her heavy parka. Wind swirled wet brown leaves around the heavy tires. Downslope, tall pines bent and moaned in the face of the second front. The diesel rumbled, waiting, its power vibrating through the blacktop.
Finishing with the first set, Rita stood and rubbed her lower back. She longed for a hot shower and warm bed. There was a travel center outside Roseville where she could park for the night, get a shower and do a load of laundry. Then she would lock herself in the sleeper cab, fix dinner in the microwave and open a bottle of Riesling from the fridge. Secure in her little nest, she’d check her email and perhaps watch Dancing with the Stars on satellite TV. Night would be spent in the safety of numbers, trucks lined up shoulder to shoulder in the vast parking lot. Sometimes the lot lizards banged on the door of her cab, hoping to ply their trade within. When they saw the driver was a woman, they’d slink away. If the girl looked pitiful enough, Rita would slip her a few bucks through a barely-cracked window.
The gathering gloom told her it was well past three. She returned to the driver’s side and knelt next to the wheels. Between gusts, the forest fell silent. Not even a raven showed up to squawk insults at her from the high branches. All the other creatures were smart enough to be out of the weather.
Rita’s fingers stopped and she turned her head, the better to listen. Another truck? No, the sound wasn’t coming from the road. It was coming from below, the sound of wind roaring through the pines and up the slope toward her. Before she could react, the massive squall slammed broadside into the eighteen wheeler, rocking the rig and knocking Rita under the trailer. Cursing the storm, she reached for an overhead crossbar with which to pull herself back up. But the crossbar had slipped out of reach.
The rig moved six inches.
And then it moved again.
Rita squirreled out from underneath and scrambled to her feet. Eighty thousand pounds of brand-new medical equipment had begun inching away on the icy highway. One foot, two – the rig was sliding backwards on the slick grade, on its way to the edge of the road and the deep canyon beyond.
With a mighty heave and a shriek worthy of Serena Williams, Rita hurled a set of chains toward the truck. The chains arced through the air and landed in a heap behind the sliding drive wheels. The tractor thundered up onto the links, mashing steel into the blacktop as the giant duelies fought for purchase. With one last, great tremor, the rig shuddered to a stop, idling patiently now as snow began to fall in earnest.
Gaping, incredulous, Rita felt her gorge rise. She bent over and threw up.
Hands shaking, she climbed up into the cab and eased the rig forward and off the chains. Then she set the brake, chocked the tires and knelt back down to finish the work, humbled by the fact that negligence could have cost her the load, and probably her life, too, considering that nobody would have come to rescue her. She finished chaining up, retrieved the chocks, and climbed back in the cab.
Thirty minutes later, she took the eighteen-wheeler over the summit’s crest and down toward the city. Sacramento was only a couple hours away. The worst part of the storm was behind her, and the road ahead looked clear.
Rita turned on the CB, found a channel, and listened to the chatter, reassured by the easy banter and non-stop smart-mouthing. If she ever got up the nerve to tell about it, what a story this would make. Wouldn’t the other drivers love it? They would laugh and make fun of the old lady schoolteacher who almost lost her load, but then they would offer to buy her a beer because they had their stories, too.
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