Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Driving Peace

I've owed a friend of mine a story for a few years now. It's come from an odd place. I've always had this fascination with truck drivers. Not so much the actual drivers as the lifestyle itself. Whenever I'm driving on the highway late at night -- most recently, after a book club meeting in Chardon -- I'm always in awe of all the semi trucks gathered at the rest stop to get a few hours sleep before heading back onto the road. I think about what it's like, the ones who drive across the country or several states, what that life must be like. I always notice a look they share, even when passing each other on the road. There's a glance and a nod. There's a connection only they get.

Anyway, this one's been in me for awhile. I hope it's enjoyed.

The Driving Peace

Gin took a long drag on his cigarette, squinting against the flashing lights in front of him. The accident looked bad. It looked like a young girl, her car painted with college lettering, her zebra print seat covers reflecting off the lights from the ambulance as they loaded her shadowy form into the back. She seemed to be conscious, but lethargic in her responses. Her car was tipped sideways and lodged in the ditch next to the highway. The snow dusted roads betraying where she’d lost tread and went into a full spin. Gin shook his head slightly and dropped his cigarette butt on the ground, watching its red tip sizzle in the snow before being snuffed out by the soul of his boot.

He turned to head back to his truck, which he’d pulled into the rest stop to catch a few hours of shut eye. The tractor trailer loomed like a giant in contrast to the girl’s mini coup. The tow truck was already at work as Gin yanked open the driver side door and stepped up into the worn leather seat. He saw a fellow tanker a few feet over and gave the driver a slight nod. It was the familiar fleeting moment of recognition shared between truck drivers Gin couldn’t quite explain. They all floated, connected through their CB’s and temporary rest stop reprieves, yet bound by an understanding rarely noticed by millions of oblivious passersby.

Gin immediately pulled out his tobacco and rolling papers and went to work while he blasted the heat and waited for the police cars and tow truck to get moving. That’s when he spotted the woman, standing on the side of the road near a lamppost, arms crossed, leaning back, right foot propped up against the base of the post. She looked like a shadow, her skin dark against the stark white backdrop of skeleton trees cloaked in snow and icicles.

Gin lit his cigarette and rolled down his window slightly as he revved up the diesel engine, feeling it turn over once before rumbling to life beneath his body. Gin watched her for a few moments longer as he rubbed his chin, feeling his two-day old stubble gruff against his fingertips. He’d given a few people lifts in the past, but oftentimes, they were people he’d met along the way, at restaurants or rest stops, who he’d carried on a conversation with prior … got a feel for. He didn’t know this woman from Adam, yet something inside him didn’t feel right leaving her out in the biting cold without at least asking if she was OK. He edged the truck forward a few feet and stopped in front of her. She looked up at him, her eyes as dark as coal, her hair short and spiked against her chocolate skin. She had a hood pulled partially over her head, framing her face in shadows.

“You OK? You need a lift anywhere?” He asked, his voice rough like sandpaper. She looked at him for a few minutes as though deciding his character just as much as he was deciding hers, before slowly nodding.

“Is that a yes, you’re OK? Or yes, you need a lift?” Gin asked, taking a long drag on his cigarette and turning down the heat to hear her better.

“Yes, I could use a lift,” she said, her voice full and smooth.

“Well, if you don’t mind big dogs, I can take you to the next town over,” he said, looking back at Charlie, his Bloodhound mix, who looked just as confused as he did at his own actions. Maybe it was seeing that helpless college girl being taken away, slightly softening his heart. Maybe he was just tired of sadness and could use the distraction.

The woman only nodded again and stepped forward, pulling open the passenger door and stepping up into the seat.

Charlie sniffed her immediately, but then quickly settled down in the back. Gin stared at him, taken aback. Charlie wasn’t known to be comfortable with complete strangers that quickly, but then again, Gin had never picked up a female passenger before, so perhaps it was gender related. Gin turned the heat back up and snubbed out his cigarette in a tray full of butts by his cup holder. The woman pulled back her hood revealing a scar near her temple and another faint one near the left corner of her lower lip. Gin turned his eyes back to the road and hit the gas, pulling them slowly out onto the highway. He felt his stomach tie into knots. He realized he hadn’t been this near a female presence in general for a long time. Anxiety infiltrated his veins like a poison as he felt his hands grow clammy.

But then she spoke.

“Do you think I could ride with you a bit longer than just the next stop?”

Her low, rich voice instantly eased his nerves, like a cooling salve to a burning wound. He glanced over at her and felt his breathing slow.

“Sure … you headed anywhere in particular?” He asked, unsure how much to pry.

She slowly shook her head.

“I’m not sure yet,” she said before turning to look out the passenger window. Gin’s CB radio crackled a bit, reminding him he’d left it on. He went to turn it off, but she reached out and stopped him with a gentle touch to his wrist.

“No, please leave it. It’s nice to feel connected to others. It’s lonely out here,” she said, though Gin was unsure if she meant out on the road or in the world in general. He didn’t ask; he merely nodded and left the CB on, the faint chatter periodically pouring into the cab.

“My name is Gin, by the way,” he said, taking a swig of his hot coffee, though now it had cooled significantly.

“I’m Senya,” she said, “Gin? Is that short for somethin’?” She asked.

“Nah … ‘Spose my parents were big fans of the Gin n’ tonics,” he said with a gruff laugh.

“They both died in a car accident when I was just a tyke,” he said, then shook his head, chastising himself for rambling to a complete stranger.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she simply said, her voice dropping a notch. It rolled off her tongue like syrup, he thought. In fact, he wasn’t sure he’d ever heard a voice so balmy in all his years. She shifted around a bit, pulling her feet up underneath her in a cross-legged pose, adjusting the seat belt a bit before glancing back at Charlie.

“He never settles down around strangers as quickly as he did just now,” Gin said, hearing his idle babble again.

Senya put her hand back and Charlie nuzzled it immediately. Gin’s mouth parted slightly in momentary surprised before he looked back to the road and cleared his throat.

“He’s very perceptive,” she said, as though that explained everything.

Gin merely shook his head and huffed before turning the CB radio up a notch. He motioned to the glove box and said he had some cereal bars and crackers in it if she was hungry. She opened the box and began to rip open a package of crackers. That’s when Gin noticed more scars on her rough worn hands. Yet nothing about her demeanor suggested fear, hurt or strain. It was as though she blended into her scars, as though she embraced them. He wasn’t sure how he knew this, but he did. They were a part of her, a part she has become quite comfortable with. A part she wears peaceably.

Gin suddenly felt his chest begin to tighten again, thinking about his own internal scars. As though sensing the shift inside him, Senya turned her eyes, now the color of warm hazelnut, toward him.

“What is it?” She asked. It was as though her cadence reached inside him, pulling at his deepest corners, the places he’d kept in shadow for many years.

“Oh … hrrumpph, nothing,” he grumbled, clearing his throat again and reaching for another rolled cigarette. She watched him light it, his hand slightly shaking, his nerves wearing thin in the recent years, as he turned his attention back to the road. Charlie groaned in the backseat, something he often did when Gin lit up, as though scolding him in exasperation.

“Something,” she said.

Silence filled the cabbie for several minutes while both of them seemed to get lost in their own respective thoughts. Senya leaned back after awhile and turned her gaze to the passenger window while Gin tried to think of nothing but the road ahead. The snow began to fall harder as he turned his wipers up. The road was empty as Gin looked at the dashboard clock.

2:45 a.m.

He rubbed his eyelids. Despite having caught a few hours sleep, he felt them getting heavy again. He rolled down his window a bit, hoping Senya wouldn’t mind. It was then he noticed she’d fallen asleep, curled up in the seat as though a child again. Gin could catch hints of a lean, yet muscular frame beneath her thin coat. She could handle herself, he instantly thought. That’s when he looked at her hands again, realizing some of her knuckles bared scars as well. If he didn’t know any better, he’d have pinned her for a fighter of some kind. Her sharp cheekbones, scarred temple and strong jaw line only added to his musings.

Finally, Gin couldn’t take the heaviness any longer. He pulled over at the next rest stop and, not wanting to disturb her, covered Senya with a blanket before reclining the backseat and lying down next to Charlie.
Sunlight poured through the backseat windows as Gin stirred awake. He quickly realized Charlie wasn’t in the back seat. Nor was Senya in the front. Panic made him jerk up and cast his eye to the window. He breathed a long sigh of relief when he spotted both of them near a picnic table and tree. Senya was throwing Charlie a large stick. Something about the simple moment filled Gin with a warmth and solace he hadn’t felt since …

Well, in quite some time, he thought, shaking cobwebs from his mind.

He crawled up to the front seat, grabbed his plastic coffee mug, cigarettes and wallet and headed over to the rest stop building. Senya and Charlie spotted him, but the dog’s tail only wagged as he stayed next to Senya. Gin let out an incredulous laugh under his breath as he gave a slight wave back and went to get more coffee and some breakfast sandwiches for them. For them. It felt strange to think those words, Gin realized.

Soon after, they were back in the truck, silently eating and drinking coffee.

“So, if you don’t mind my asking … how'd you score those fine scars ya got there on your knuckles?” Gin asked cautiously.

Senya brought her eyes to her hands and frowned for a moment, but then looked back up at Gin with serene eyes that instantly drew him into a similar state.

“I used to box,” she said, shrugging.

Gin merely nodded, sensing that’s all she was willing to unveil. He studied her slightly wiry yet strong profile as the sun rays streamed through the passenger window before igniting the rig to roaring life beneath them.

“Well … they suit you,” he said, lighting up a cigarette. He gave a sideways look at her, catching a slight smirk on her lips. Satisfied, he pulled onto the road. Charlie licked the side of his face once before circling the seat behind him and laying down with a slight groan. They both seemed to feel their ages lately, Gin thought, creasing his brow and rubbing his sandpapery cheeks before ruffling his hair a bit. He could use a shower and a shave, he realized, for the first time aware of his scruffy appearance. Though Senya didn’t seem to notice, she merely watched him for a few moments in silence as if deciding whether or not to say something.

“You lost someone,” she stated.

Gin grew uncomfortable, yet at the same time, the silkiness of her chords settled his nerves. He put his cigarette to his lips and felt the smoke fill his lungs before he slowly let it blow out the left side of his mouth toward the cracked window, squinting his eyes.

“Yes, I did … long time ago,” he said. He realized he could leave it at that, just as she did, but every inch of her, every subtle nuance, seemed to draw on his insides, softly tugging free everything harsh, lonely, despondent or dark inside him.

“I -- I didn’t treat her right. I was young … not so much in years, but in many other ways. I should have known better. Yet … she loved me in spite of myself,” he said, his voice raspy against dormant emotion. “But I self destructed and pulled her along with me, hurting all the parts of her I’d found holy and pure, the parts I’d wanted to cradle.”

Senya’s eyes bore into Gin as he paused to take a long drag and clear his throat, feeling his hand quiver a bit, his nerves acting up. Yet, despite her penetrating gaze, Gin felt a wave of respite and relief wash over him.

“I hurt her. Yet she’d love … she’d love me so deep anyway. But … I saw what I was doing to her. I couldn’t forgive myself. So I left,” he said, taking a swig from his coffee mug before pressing the butt of his cigarette into the tray, hearing it fizzle out.

Senya nodded then, as if understanding entirely. She handed Gin a piece of cloth he realized was a handkerchief. He smirked despite himself. Who carries these around anymore? He thought. It was then he realized he’d lost a few tears. Charlie licked his cheek again as Gin waved him away and brought the cloth to the corners of his eyes.

“Her name was Hazel, Hazel Belford. You’re eyes remind me of hers,” he said, sniffling. “I found out a few years back, she passed away. An aneurism. I never was able to ask her forgiveness. I found out where she was buried and visited her grave once. I sprinkled rose petals over it and told her I was sorry I’d hurt her, that I’d been so selfish.”

Gin paused again, taking a deep breath and turning up the heat.

“After I left her, I got into the trucking business. I never felt at home anywhere … never felt I belonged. She had been my compass.”

Senya sat in silence, but somehow it spoke to him, cradling him. They continued to drive on in the deep quiet, with only the rumble of the rig’s engine and the static of the CB radio in the backdrop. Finally they approached the next town and Gin pulled off the exit ramp and into the parking lot of a small mom and pop restaurant.

“I can get off here,” Senya said, giving Gin’s wrist a slight, gentle squeeze. He felt overcome with both peace and ache. It felt like a healing wound.

“I ummm, I thank you, for, well … for listening,” he stammered.

Senya smiled at him, her eyes slightly glossed with an emotion he could not place, only it carried hints of wisdom, tranquility and strength behind it. She seemed to be courage itself, courage and peace, Gin thought, realizing how silly it sounded and quickly shaking his head again.

“Thank you Gin … for the ride. And for your story,” she said softly, giving his wrist another quick squeeze before releasing it.

She began to exit the cab when Gin realized he still held her handkerchief. He narrowed his eyes at it, realizing it was embroidered at the corner with two letters framed by petals.

“H B.”

Gin’s breath caught as he looked back up, but Senya had already shut the door and began to walk toward a nearby phone booth. Charlie begin to whimper in the backseat as he watched her out the window. Gin dismissed the impulse to roll down his window and call out to her and revved up his engine instead, clearing his throat and pulling forward. Charlie whimpered again.

“C’mon boy. Leave the poor woman alone,” Gin said, casting one last long glance back at her form in the phone booth. He rubbed the corners of the handkerchief together with his fingertips and realized his hand was no longer shaking. In fact, it was as steady and calm as ever.

He suddenly slammed his boot on the brake pedal, bringing the rig to a sharp hault as he pulled it in park. He jumped out, Charlie quickly scrambling after him. They rounded the semi just as Senya was picking up the phone and depositing a quarter. She turned to see them coming and stopped mid-motion.

Gin opened the phone booth door as Senya set the earpiece back on the hook.

“Senya. Charlie and I … we’d like you to ride with us a bit longer.”

Senya looked down at Charlie, his long ears draped over his temples, slightly perked as he looked to her expectantly. Senya’s mouth spread into a deep, full smile that transformed her entire face as she turned her hazelnut eyes back to Gin.

“I would love to.”


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