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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

87_ym_raysmistake_mknowles.jpg
Art by Mike Knowles © 2021

Ray’s Mistake

By Elena E. Smith

(1984)

 

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 leaked.

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 Empire.         

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 a 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 tables.

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 side in 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 him hot.”

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 nothing.

“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.

“No. You?”

“Naw. She passed on. Congested heart failure. She was kinda young for that 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 on 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 anything in pants.”

“How long you been driving?” Roky asked.

“Eighteen years. About. This your first gig?”

“Yeah.”

Ray lit a cigarette. “What’d you do before?”

“Labor. Cowhand. Working feed lots.” It was easy to imagine the wiry man sitting his saddle tight as he cut cows from the herd.

“Pay good?”

“Not bad.”

“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 make 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 illegal.”

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 shoulder.

Roky laughed a low rumble.

Ray’s forehead gushed sweat.

“Them little cars.” His voice stuck at the top of his throat where it was 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,” Ray babbled.

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 died like that.”

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 wife back.”

Now, Ray said nothing, realizing his mistake.

It was quiet for ten minutes. Ten minutes that burned a hole in Ray’s speed-driven brain.

Finally, Roky spoke again. “At first, I wanted to kill that summabitch. I 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 about it.”

“Prob’ly does. Guess I’ll find that out when I catch up to him.”

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.

Roky grumbled.

“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 emergency.

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 also 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 last one.

He checked the driver side door—unlocked. Scooched inside, ratcheted the 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.

No 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.


Elena E. 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.


Mike Knowles 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? 

https://www.facebook.com/mikeknowlescomicauthor

I wrote for the comic papers.





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