By Elena E. Smith
From his seat high up in the tractor trailer, Ray watched his tires gobble
the asphalt. The cars he whizzed by looked like Matchbox toys. They were bright
flashes of red, yellow, silver. He knew that from where they sat all they had
was a narrow vision of endless grey pavement, but Ray could see beyond this to
include the periphery as well.
His driving partner Roky dozed behind him as a warm wind blew through the
cab. Both wore denim jeans, work boots and chambray shirts but Ray’s stuck to
his back with greasy sweat. Both had brown hair though Ray’s always looked
unwashed. Soon they would stop for a meal. Ray had to check his watch to remind
himself when to eat because once he started popping those little white crosses
one day dovetailed with the next in a montage of diners and diesel stops.
Ray had been retired from the road for a while due to an accident. Now he was back in full play again, the throttle
thrumming under his bulky right hand. He loved the slight lurch of his
eighteen-wheeler when he up-shifted the gears. He was driving easy today,
keeping his distance from the puny compacts and sedans on the road below him.
Occasionally his nerves jangled when he drove, especially at dusk. He
laughed it off to his driving partner; called it a jones. He assumed all the
truckers used uppers or downers and that his partner would understand. Roky
would volunteer to spell him for a few hours of sleep but Ray rarely slept. He’d
lay on the thin mattress atop the hard molded slab in the sleeper. Pull the
shabby curtains open on the side window to see constellations. Of course, he
dozed sometimes but like all insomniacs he wasn’t aware that he did. In the
mornings, he felt unrested but with an edge that made him push on through the
next leg of the haul. Because there was always a next leg. Their route
assignments were back-to-back so even on a short run like this one extra sleep
hours were welcome. They’d just returned from a two-and-a-half day all-nighter
to Denver before packing this load.
Roky was different from the other drivers. He was a quiet, dark fellow,
small and wiry, but all muscle. He drank his whiskey neat, yet Ray still
wondered if he was light in the loafers. Roky claimed to like chicks. Said he
was the strong, silent type. He laughed at the raw jokes truckers made during
their meal breaks but he never told any. It was plain he would have preferred a
rig to himself, but as with all new drivers—or returning ones, like Ray—a
partner was assigned for the first few runs.
Truckers played games to keep their boredom down. As kids, they may have
played the alphabet game on family road trips but that wasn’t edgy enough to
keep their attention. Instead, they played Who Can Hold It the Longest? Very
few guys lost, but quitting was considered losing. When Ray had a partner he
didn’t like and he knew the guy’s bladder was full, he’d jam on the brakes so
the seat belt would add pressure. But drivers were tough men. No one ever
Another game was the Pissing Match. Fill up your empty soda bottles with
pee and hurl them into the desert. Points for how far they went. Negative
points if the bottle hit something and broke or landed on the roadway. Points off
for using a Gatorade bottle. Score: Roky 699, Ray 800.
There was also the game no one ever talked about. Chicken. Buzzing a small
car, usually with a lone female driver. When questioned by management, the men
said they’d never heard of it. But everyone had. It was for the solo runs. If
there was a wreck, it wasn’t called murder; it was called an accident.
And, the Secrets game. Tradition said that all men drove as an escape
either from an unhappy marriage or something in their past. In the Secrets game
there were no points, only a winner and a loser. With Roky and Ray, the score
was tied at an even zero-zero; neither had been able to wrest anything
significant from the other in their short time of driving together. Soon, the
probation period would be over and they would get their own rigs, and maybe
even routes that would never cross. With past driving partners, like when Ray
was team leader/ trainer, he’d never lost a match. This time was different.
Roky acted sociable, but in terms of his personal life and his past he was
sealed up as tight as a truck load of stereo equipment with double-bolted
doors. There was only one more trip scheduled after this. Ray would have to up
his game. If word got around that he’d failed, he’d be on the hook for a shit
load of free rounds at the trucker’s bar next to their headquarters in Inland
Their route this time was a short one. They’d eat an early dinner at
everyone’s favorite restaurant in Desert Center. It had been built in the
1930s, a poor man’s version of Art Deco architecture featured in old
black-&-white movies. When they reached Quartzsite, they’d head north to
catch CA-95 to Vidal where they’d unload liquor and other merchandise at the
gas station mini mart. Then, they’d stay the night in Parker and return to home
base in the morning.
Roky used his jake brake before the exit for Desert Center. It was a small
town. Got its name because it was the halfway point between L.A. and Phoenix.
Few people lived there, but it rated a post office. Maybe because the good food
attracted so many travelers. Other than the café and post office, the town had
a gas station and an auto junkyard. Its main street was super wide, creating
easy parking for big rigs. Roky pulled up in front of the Post Office and they
walked across the street.
The diner was humming with customers and ‘50s oldies music blared from
jukebox. The smell of frying onions and hot coffee assaulted their nostrils as
they swung the plate glass door open. Ray led him to the counter, where he
always sat. Faster service and more attention from a popular middle-aged
waitress named Wilma. She wasn’t very tall and had a curly short brown perm.
Wore the usual waitress outfit of pastel green with white apron and starched
cap, not much different than a nurse’s uniform. Wilma was a flirt and what she
lacked in good looks her boisterous confidence more than made up for. She
wanted all eyes on her and didn’t hire anyone under fifty-five to help her wait
Their meal was quick and uneventful. The other men at the counter traded
tales of their service in Viet Nam while they waited for Wilma to come on to
Roky. She always hit on the new guy.
“Hi, handsome,” she said, holding the glass coffee pot off to the
a way that would look provocative if coffee service could be considered sexy. “You
need a warm-up?”
Chatter stopped as the nearby men watched for Roky’s response. They’d
heard gossip about him, that he was quick to flirt but even quicker to withdraw
when he got a response. It didn’t seem normal. His squinty dark eyes cruised
past her diminutive bust and up to her neckline then back to the remaining
crust of his cheeseburger.
One of the truckers smirked. “It’ll take more than coffee to get
Everyone laughed, including Wilma.
Roky said nothing.
She poured his coffee deftly, one hand on the pot’s brown plastic handle
and the other resting on the counter. She turned sideways to Ray as if his
partner were deaf.
“What’s wrong with him? Don’t he like ladies?”
Ray shrugged. His shaking hand tightened its grip on the unbreakable
ceramic restaurant mug. Hot coffee sloshed over the sides.
“Or maybe he got a wife?” she continued.
Her eyes scanned Roky’s profile. His eyes looked past her, focused on
“Ask him,” Ray said a little more forcefully than he meant to.
Wilma lost interest and walked away. Her voice carried from the other side
of the café where she joked with the new batch of drivers that had just come in
for the early bird special.
Ray turned in his seat. “You got a wife?” he grunted.
“Naw. She passed on. Congested heart failure. She was kinda young for
but it was a condition ran in her family.”
“Mine’s gone, too. Car accident.”
The unexpected words sent a chill down Ray’s spine. He wiggled his ass
the swively counter stool to control his jittery legs. “Funny, us both being
widowers. Usually the man goes first.”
“Usually does,” Roky agreed.
“Think you’ll marry again?”
“Never can tell. You?”
“Doubt it. You seen how even Wilma don’t take to me and she likes
“How long you been driving?” Roky asked.
“Eighteen years. About. This your first gig?”
Ray lit a cigarette. “What’d you do before?”
“Labor. Cowhand. Working feed lots.” It was easy to imagine the
sitting his saddle tight as he cut cows from the herd.
“How does it compare?”
“About the same.”
“What made you give it up?” Ray stubbed his cigarette in the nearby
ashtray. Time to get going.
Roky shrugged. “Knees.”
It was the longest conversation they’d ever had.
They hit the road again. CA-95 wasn’t well lit, and their plan was to
it to Vidal before sundown, which was doable. Roky sat behind the wheel of the
semi while Ray perched on the vibrating passenger seat. His spine throbbed
every time they drove over a seam in the asphalt which was about every thirty
feet. Gritting his teeth didn’t help.
Roky’s eyes stared straight ahead as they plowed along a winding two-lane
road through a scrub brush landscape. Few people used this highway, but it was
the fastest direct route to and from Vidal.
Near dusk, a compact car appeared ahead of them. It crested over a small
hill and hugged the horizon. Roky’s jaw was set, grim.
“You ever buzz a car like that?” he asked.
A nerve twitched in Ray’s right leg. “Course not! You can’t
do that; it’s
Roky ignored him and closed the gap between them. They could clearly see
it was a green Toyota. Soon, they would be able to read the license plate. A
lone woman was behind the wheel.
“I wonder what we look like in her rearview mirror?” Roky mused.
He flashed the high beams and honked. They were close enough to see her
jerk up taller in her seat. She swerved to the right as they barreled past,
then straightened in her lane in time to avoid spinning out on the dirt
Roky laughed a low rumble.
Ray’s forehead gushed sweat.
“Them little cars.” His voice stuck at the top of his throat where
extra dry. “Like to get in your way sometimes. They dart in and out, think you
can stop on a dime just like them!”
He couldn’t control the quake that grabbed his frame.
Roky stayed cool.
“On a downgrade, you can’t maneuver like them little cars,”
Then, he stopped. Roky’s head faced the highway, but his eyes strained
toward the passenger seat.
“I know.” His voice was flat and calm. Killer calm. “My wife
Sweat ran down Ray’s cheeks and neck, wetting the rim of his shirt collar.
He made no move to swipe it away.
“She was driving alone one night, going up highway five to Stockton to
meet me. She was on her way down the grapevine when it happened.” His voice
contorted with rage. “He was drunk or asleep or something. He must of come down
on her outta nowhere. There was four lanes open but he was sittin’ on her rear.
What witnesses said. I always wondered if he was buzzin’ her when it happened.
There was nothin’ left of her car. Or her.”
Ray visualized it, wondering if she was gonna lift her top and flash him.
The cab was stifling quiet and then Ray realized it was his turn to speak.
Had he been uninvolved, he might have started talking about his own wife and
the heart failure that suddenly ended her life. But the stage was already set
and Ray walked into the limelight. He had that same feeling like he got in a
dream when he was naked and no one else was.
He choked out a response. “What happened to him? The driver, I mean?”
As soon as he said it, he knew it was wrong.
“They let him off.” Roky’s tone was matter-of-fact. “Oh,
I could of made a
lawsuit out of it. He drove for a big chain, just like we do, and I would of
cleaned up. But that wouldn’t satisfy me. Money wasn’t gonna bring my sweet
Now, Ray said nothing, realizing his mistake.
It was quiet for ten minutes. Ten minutes that burned a hole in Ray’s
Finally, Roky spoke again. “At first, I wanted to kill that summabitch.
did everything I could think of to find out more of what happened that night.
No one wanted to tell me nothing, because—" he turned to look straight at
Ray, then forced his vision back to the road—“because-a my felony record. You
know? They wanted to protect his ass.” His chuckle was mirthless. “See, he got
away without a scratch, when there was nothin’ left a my wife, not even enough
to ID her. And that damned corporation covered up for him good. It was called
an accident. No charges filed, no jail time, no penalty, nothing!”
Ray’s breathing labored. The oxygen had drained from the cab. He fumbled
to roll down his window.
“Well,” Ray said in a weak whisper, “that’s a damn
shame, you losing your
wife that way.” His mind was awake to the danger of the situation as he fished
for the best words he could come up with. “I know there’s some bad-ass truckers
out there but I never heard of anything like that happening—not something
intentional. He more’n likely dozed at the wheel and woke up when he hit her.
Though I don’t see how he could just walk away from it, like you’re sayin.” He
didn’t add: ‘unless he was the boss’ only son.’ “I’m sure he feels awful bad
“Prob’ly does. Guess I’ll find that out when I catch up to
Ray shifted his weight. The dry air from outside the cab had whisked the
perspiration from his forehead. The neckline of his shirt was stiff and dry. “You
gonna kill him?”
“Don’t know yet,” said Roky, his face once again a mask as
tight as a
plastic surgeon’s best work. “Why don’t you climb in the back, relax, before we
unload at Vidal? Then, you drive us to the motel.”
Not another word passed between them.
It was dark when they arrived in Parker. Dark, but no cooler. Arizona land
had a way of holding the heat in long after the sun vanished. They parked on a
side street near the modest motel Ray had been to before. In his opinion, the
whole town was an armpit. He preferred the long hauls through major cities
where he could find a nice motel, one with central air instead of a wall unit
and black-out curtains made of real fabric instead of that stiff plastic stuff.
A few grunts, groans and hand gestures confirmed their rental and morning
wake up call.
They entered the shabby room on the second floor and threw their duffle
bags on the side chairs. Roky had a second duffle bag which he always left in
the truck. Ray’d seen inside it once. It was filled with water bottles, canned
tuna and a can opener. What a weird-o. They didn’t need emergency supplies. It
wasn’t like they were going to get stranded somewhere. The CB radio worked fine
and there was always a buddy nearby.
They flopped down on the twin beds. An overworked wall unit spewed tepid
air until it ran long enough to go cold. They turned out the light but the
florescent yellow of a nearby street lamp leaked in at the side of the curtain
because it wasn’t as wide as the window.
Ray rested on his back and studied the ceiling, tracing the continent of
Africa in the smeared stucco above him. He wanted to know when his partner went
to sleep. Roky didn’t snore, so it was hard to tell. After a while, Ray heard
the sound of rhythmic breathing. He leaned over and fished beside the bed for
his shoes. Sat up and put them on. Patted the wallet and the screwdriver that
were already in his pants pockets.
“Just gettin’ some cigs,” Ray said, standing.
There was no acknowledgment.
He casually walked out the door. After all, a smoke break was not an
On the cement landing outside, he turned toward the stairs and his pace
picked up as he descended to the street. When he hit the sidewalk he began to
sprint, as much as an out-of-shape forty-year-old could sprint.
He paused at the corner and looked back up at his room. Still dark. Did
the curtain jiggle? That stiff thing wouldn’t move if there was an earthquake.
He crossed the street to the used car lot on the corner.
He’d noticed it earlier, when they searched for a parking spot. He’d
noticed a Toyota Corolla at the back of the lot. Perfect. Toyotas were
reliable. They didn’t break down. He’d make it back to headquarters in no time
and his dad would bail him out of this mess just like he got him out of the
He checked the driver side door—unlocked. Scooched inside, ratcheted
seat back, and shoved the screwdriver into the ignition. After several
screeching protests, the engine turned over and Ray pulled out of the lot,
headlights off. He cruised away from the motel, away from the company-owned big
rig, away from his crazed partner.
The drive into the dark desert taxed his concentration. The road had a lot
of hills and turns, so he’d have to pay close attention. He knew he wouldn’t
fall asleep at the wheel. He’d never done that. But he sure wished he’d taken
the rest of those white crosses out of the cab before they checked in at the
motel. He could use a good buzz right now to manage his nerves.
He passed Vidal at nine p.m. with no worries. Fiddled with the radio dial
but all he got was Mexican music or static. Kept his hands at ten and two, the
speedometer at forty-five. He’d arrive in Ontario around two-thirty in the
morning. He was good for it. Lord knows after the Denver run he’d spent more
time snoozing than driving.
Something flashed in his rearview mirror. He squinted hard, saw nothing
behind him. Made him think of those stupid stories about spaceships landing in
meadows and draining the blood out of cows. He shivered. Ridiculous.
Then he saw it again. Only it was more like a shadow, more like the
absence of light than its presence. He stared. Nothing. Just blackness in all
directions except for the dim headlights on his temporary vehicle. He was in a
gully and as he started up the other side, he saw something at the crest of the
hill behind him that made his heart stop. It was a big truck. Shit, it looked
like his truck. No, it couldn’t be. Could it? When he’d left, the guy was
sleeping. He didn’t know Ray had boosted a car and headed for home. Did he?
The truck had only its running lights on, low beams panning out in front
of it. Ray recognized those lights. Hell, he’d washed the front of that rig so
many times. It was coming after him. He pressed his construction boot down hard
on the accelerator. Damn, if he spun out here—! But what would be worse?
Crashing in the middle of nowhere or being run over by his own truck?
The semi increased its speed and soon the growling hum was on him. He
stomped hard on the floor pedal but it didn’t help. As he scooted up the small
hill the truck ate the highway behind him and closed the gap as they got back
to level ground.
Now, his rearview mirror showed him what Roky’s wife had seen. A metal
grill filled his back window. Wet chills ran down his neck as he relived that
night when an innocent game of chicken had ended unpredictably. The panicked
driver’s hand must have knocked against the gear shift, throwing her car into
neutral. It came to a dead stop in his path.
This time, there were no witnesses to what happened next. Highway Patrol
received a phone call from an agitated trucker who’d stopped at a gas station
after hearing a garbled SOS message on his CB. When the first responders
reached the scene, there was no trace of the truck driver. The economy car was
mashed beyond recognition, as was its occupant. The only evidence it was a
Toyota was the logo on a hubcap that had popped off and landed nearby. The big
rig rested partly on the car and partly on the shoulder in a way that suggested
the small car had attempted evasive action.
The truck driver must have vamoosed into the shaggy brush. They weren’t
sure how he’d left or where he’d gone. They did know who he was. The truck was
assigned to Ray Barton, a man who’d been involved in a similar accident. An
All-Points Bulletin was issued for him.
More personnel showed up to help. They used the jaws of life and began
digging through the wreckage to see if they could find anything that would
identify the victim. They learned that Barton had been driving with a partner
named Roky Marino but that was a dead end. Marino had used a phony name and a
fake driver’s license to get his job. A corporate credit card inquiry turned up
the motel the men had checked into the night before but the room was now vacant
and the beds hadn’t been slept in. The whole thing made no sense.
matter. In the morning, the sun would start baking the desert and the heat
would pass a hundred degrees. A man without water would gladly turn himself in
just to get re-hydrated. They’d conduct a thorough search of the area and
expected they’d soon find Ray Barton. But they never did. All they found,
several days later, was a duffle bag with some empty tuna cans in it. But they
didn’t think that had anything to do with the accident.
Smith is a quirky noir writer who grew up in Arizona, then spent many years in
Los Angeles. She has had 3 short stories published in Coffee House Writers
Group anthologies, with upcoming publication of: Everything (Sept. 2021,
Sisters in Crime Love Kills anthology); Bench, and Service Providers (BOULD
2021 Awards anthology) and "My Affair" in the October issue of Yellow
Mama. Follow her on Facebook and join her Facebook group, MAHUENGA.
has spent over 40 years working mainly
in comics, along with contributions to TV, Radio, animation, gonzo-style journalism for
a “top-of-the-shelf” magazine and odd spells as a digital artist. Not to mention
three gruesome years writing gags for comedians (even though they begged him not to. But
what did THEY know about humor?
I wrote for the comic papers.