It was getting to me.
Once a month, I drove halfway across the Midwest in a big Freightliner delivery truck to pick up furniture. The fact that I acted like an asshole whenever I made this journey was not mysterious; it was admittedly pointless but fairly amusing. It wasn’t that I was hostile or anything. I didn’t even speed, usually. My worst habit was listening to Eminem and shouting the more profane lyrics (through my closed window) at the things that bugged me: truckers, slowpokes, and pretty much the whole goddamn state of Illinois. Driving through Chicago twelve times a year was at least ten times too many for any sane person to be expected to handle. It was only amusing in retrospect, actually. And not much.
The trip was only four and a half hours one way but easily felt twice as long. Although I usually stopped at a hotel for the night, I didn’t sleep enough. I would eat either obscene amounts of junk or nothing at all. I always ended up with a headache. The seat hurt my ass. Adding to the misery was the typical male way I refused to make pit stops, even if I had to pee like a racehorse.
So by the time I returned, parked the truck, and slogged through the unloading process, I was ready to tell my boss that he could make these fucking runs from now on. He could fire me if he didn’t like it. Which he wouldn’t; I was too valuable to the company, and he knew it. He was kind of a pushover. And he knew to keep his distance when I emerged from the truck – grouchy, stiff-legged and half-asleep. He was a good guy. We got along.
I wore many hats for this small furniture retailer. I was in charge of deliveries as well as quality control and “customer care.” Most of our customers were decent enough people, even if they were rich and spending twelve thousand dollars on a bedroom set. We sold high-end stuff, the best of the best. The craftsmen we bought from were shrewd businessmen but kind and calm. It was hard not to mellow out when I got to the textbook-quaint Amish country of north central Indiana, but by the time I hit Interstate 80/90 again I was filled with dread, and my mood soured exponentially the closer I got to the Chicago Skyway.
So it was no surprise, just my luck, when I got pulled over. I was all the more pissed at myself for having jumped the gun, fooling myself into thinking I was home free; I had made it past the stinking shit heap of Gary, broken through the last of the pain-in-the-ass construction zones littering the Chicago area like cow pies, and I was looking forward to flinging my money at the last toll collector of the day. Then an Illinois State Police cruiser appeared in my side view and I ground my teeth hard enough to fear I would dislodge a filling.
I pulled over, put the truck in park and killed the engine. I rolled down the window and left my seatbelt on. Then I took the keys out of the ignition and put them on the dashboard. As I watched the officer approach I rested my hands, limp-wristed, on top of the steering wheel so he could see that they were empty. I heard this was supposed to get you big points with the cops.
But right away I could tell he was the type who didn’t much care. With no more than a cursory glance at my keys and my empty hands, he regarded me with narrowed eyes and sucked in a deep breath through his nose. “License, please,” he said in the kind of forced, clipped voice normally reserved for people who hated their jobs. “Registration too.”
“They’re in my hip pocket and glove compartment, respectively,” I said. I waited, grinning at him like a doofus. It took him a second before he realized I was asking for permission to move my hands. I could kiss ass with the best of them. Up to a point, anyway.
“Go for it, chief.”
Did he really just say that? I thought. No hint of irony, either. And no appreciation whatsoever for my careful, overly respectful gesture. I didn’t like this guy.
I reached over and plucked out the registration papers, then unbuckled my seat belt to dig for my wallet. I handed the documents to him. “There you go, boss,” I said.
He waited a moment before taking them from me. His eyes narrowed another half-centimeter. I let my grin fade and looked down at his uniform. His name plate said C. EXARHOS and his silver TROOPER badge on the other side shone like a mirror, even in the cloudy late afternoon. Then my ID was in his hand and his eyes flicked over it like a lizard’s tongue: blip, and he was done. He didn’t even look at the registration, just pushed it back at me with a grunt.
“Do you know why I pulled you over today, sir?”
I dropped the registration on the passenger side of the bench seat and braced myself. “No, officer.”
“Your vehicle’s lacking a DOT number, which is required for interstate travel in a truck this size.”
Christ. Not this bullshit again. My boss and I researched this until we were blue in the face; the regulations were difficult to trudge through, full of apparent loopholes and mysterious contradictions, but as far as we were ever able to determine, our truck was exempt. In the event that we were wrong, we agreed that we should at least get credit for trying to figure it out. Was there any point arguing with a cop, though? Especially this self-hating Greek golem?
Fuck it. I’m going to put this baby to bed.
“Oh,” I said, “we’re not required to have a DOT number, officer.” My other mistake, I immediately realized with a sinking feeling, was the cocky tone I used. It was a little thicker than I had intended. The cop stiffened.
“Are you trying to tell me I’m wrong, chief?” His voice went up an octave. “That I don’t know these regulations and requirements?”
“No, I just… I think you’re mistaken.” Shit. I hate myself so much right now. “What I mean is, you don’t understand about our company. We’re very small. This truck is not for hire. I’m the only one who drives it.”
“Where are you coming from?”
“And you’re going where?”
“Back to our store in Wisconsin.”
“Okay, you’re driving through three states, hauling freight across state lines. That means interstate commerce. You need a DOT number visible on the outside of your vehicle.”
“That’s all there is to it.”
“But that’s not us. This truck is not for hire.”
“Doesn’t matter, chief.”
That feeling in my chest continued to sink like the Titanic, but I plowed ahead. “Bullshit! We researched this—”
“Watch your language, please.”
I sighed. “Goddammit, we don’t need a fucking DOT number.”
“I’m telling you that you do. Now shut your smart mouth.”
I stared straight ahead with my jaw clenched. Is there a bigger idiot than me?
He glared at me in silence for at least ten full seconds. It was like he wanted to throw down. High noon at five o’clock. “Now, do you have triangles and a fire extinguisher in your cab, here?”
“Yeah, I think they’re under the seat,” I said. They came with the truck.
“Okay, the fire extinguisher should be mounted in an easily accessible area. Do you have a log book?”
I risked shooting a quick glare back at him. It was far too late to play nice, after all. “We don’t need any damn log book, either.”
“You need accountability for your rest periods if you’re driving for a total of eight hours or more.”
“None of that shit applies to this vehicle!”
“You’re wrong about that. Now wait here, please.” He waited a second then turned on his heel and walked briskly back to his cruiser, shaking my driver’s license in his hand like a Polaroid. I was so screwed.
I gazed at the traffic and tried to control my breathing, counting to ten as slowly as I could. This rarely worked, but most of the time it was better than nothing. I let go of the steering wheel and watched the blood flow back into my knuckles. I looked back up at the stream of cars in time to see a blue GMC Jimmy rattle past, pulling a ridiculously overloaded, ramshackle trailer. “Fucking dumb-ass,” I muttered.
Officer Asshole took his time, finally marching back with a spring in his step. He handed me my license, a citation, and some goddamn kind of brochure, then told me to go to the DOT website which would tell me all I needed to know about interstate trucking. I should also visit the website for the Blah Blah Motor Carrier Blah Blah Safety Administration or some such shit. I glanced at the ticket. It was about a fourth of my average paycheck. I clenched my fingers and part of it crumpled in my fist.
“Thank you for using the Illinois toll way,” the cop said.
Really?!? I laughed. At least he hadn’t called me “chief” again, but that was no small comfort. I went for the coup de grâce.
“Fuck this toll way and fuck Illinois!” I said. “This whole place fucking sucks.”
“You’ve got a real attitude, don’t you?” he said.
I rolled my eyes and said, “I guess I do.” Witty rejoinders usually failed me in my time of need.
The cop’s upper body made a tiny, jolting movement which, accompanied by a barely perceptible smirk, I took to be some kind of laugh. He raised two fingers to the brim of his hat in a half-assed salute. “Have a good afternoon, sir.”
“Blow yourself,” I muttered. But he’d already been walking away and probably hadn’t heard that last bit. Which was just fine; I wasn’t too far gone to know that I had probably gotten off cheap. Especially considering my sunny personality.
I was about ten miles over the Wisconsin border when I caught up to the Jimmy with the trailer, and I was able to fully realize the extent to which it was a disaster waiting to happen. The trailer was big and ancient looking, a flatbed with a two-foot mesh cage around it, and it was half again as long as the SUV towing it. There were no directionals or brake lights hooked up to it. It was overstuffed with appliances and boxes and mattresses, none of which seemed to be tied down, and the whole contraption was weaving from one edge of the lane to the other and back again. Its tires were bald and the tow arm was jiggling on the hitch like it didn’t want to be there.
Son of a bitch. There’s a death trap like this clattering down the road, and I’m the one who gets pulled over?
It was two cars ahead of me. There was a Dodge Aries between us, and I wondered if its driver appreciated what a terrifying situation he was in. I looked into the trailer again and saw a jittering washing machine, its lid bouncing open and closed; I turned down the radio and could faintly hear the lid going bong, bong, bong. For some reason, that clinched it: I had to get away from this lunatic.
That stupid asshole is going to die any minute now. I seriously remember thinking that.
I turned my head to check the left lane, flicked my turn signal, and when I looked back at the cars ahead I saw a doe flouncing down the steep embankment to my right. My mouth fell open. An incredulous, semi-coherent thought flashed through my mind, something to the effect of: Well, that’s the last goddamn thing this situation needs. I barely had time to wince and snap my mouth closed, and then the next thirty seconds were a horrifying, slow-motion blur.
The doe crossed the ditch in one bound, the breakdown lane in another, and then the Jimmy’s right headlight assembly exploded in a shower of colored plastic as she was launched into the air. She flew fast and straight, like she’d been shot out of a cannon, legs splayed and spinning, before she crashed into the middle of the embankment in a cloud of dust.
I think I cursed, and my foot instinctively stamped the brake. There was a screaming crunch and bang as a few thousand pounds of oak and maple slammed into the front of the box behind me. My spine absorbed a good deal of the shock; my chest was suddenly devoid of air. There was a cacophony of screeching tires as everyone else jumped on their brake pedals, and I remember looking intently at the Jimmy, hoping it wouldn’t follow suit. But it did.
The effect was instantaneous; the tow arm jumped the hitch and punched through the Jimmy’s trunk like a fork through a soggy piece of cardboard. After a beat, it withdrew and the trailer tipped forward, the arm scraping the pavement and sending up sparks. The Jimmy’s brake lights went off; it weaved wildly and for a moment I thought it would straighten out. In the meantime, the Aries had practically stopped on a fucking dime and I rear-ended the shit out of it, sending it careening into the left lane, where out of the corner of my eye I saw it get plowed into by something red. I barreled past, my truck hissing noxious smoke from its wheel wells.
I wasn’t slowing fast enough; I was closing on the rogue trailer. I cursed again, then suddenly—at fifty miles per hour—the absurd contraption flipped into the air like a pancake. Shit was catapulted everywhere, blotting out the remaining daylight. The Jimmy wobbled again, then veered towards the median and began to roll. The trailer hurtled end over end into the ditch, like a gymnast knocking out handsprings, as its former contents rained down from the sky. The boxes of clothing and books hit the interstate and burst open like sacks of wet sand. I mowed over a few of them and one of the mattresses, I think.
My attention was drawn back to the tumbling Jimmy, and I groaned as I saw a small human form come out of one of the rear windows. It arced almost gracefully, silhouetted against the dusk in a mixture of kicked-up dirt and sod, then came down hard. I shut my eyes. For a moment, I didn’t care if I died too.
Then my truck was finally still. I was faintly aware of someone rear-ending me; the Freightliner hardly moved. I opened my eyes and stared stupidly at a refrigerator surfing down the interstate on a wave of sparks, chasing the cars that had been lucky enough to be in front of this mess. I watched the Jimmy roll over once more and come to rest on the driver’s side in the center of the median. It seemed like it was miles away.
I felt around on the seat next to me for my cell phone but couldn’t locate it. My hand found the traffic ticket instead, and I thought moronically: How am I going to afford this? I was suddenly aware of my throat being sore; I must have screamed at some point. My vision went cloudy as I watched the dust settle and listened to people shouting. I don’t know how long I sat there, but it wasn’t very long because I remember getting out of the truck and running with two or three other people towards the kid lying in the grass.
“That was a two hundred dollar chair,” my boss moaned after we had unloaded the truck and inspected the damage. Amazingly, there was only item that had been pulverized. Sturdy craftsmanship, indeed.
“I’ll take it back to Eli next month and he can replace it,” I said. “What the fuck do you want me to do about it now?”
Either he wasn’t listening, or I was speaking too quietly. “I guess we’ll come up with something to tell the customer,” he said.
“Tell them their fat, cheese-eating asses can make do for a while with the other nine chairs in their order.”
He looked at me and smiled. “Is it any wonder I made you my customer service chief?”
“Don’t call me chief.” I told him about the cop and he laughed.
“What a prick. He’s wrong about that DOT shit, you know.”
I could have punched him. “Search me. You can take on the Illinois State Police if you want. Leave me out of it.”
“It’s not a commercial truck.”
“I know that! Leave me out of it, I said! I don’t give a shit!”
I actually liked my boss, which was more than a lot of people could say. He was a smart businessman, and the amount of stuff he taught me far outweighed the stuff he was clueless about. And once in a while, we had a conversation that involved actual feelings.
“Are you okay?” he asked after a pause. I swore at him all the time. He didn’t mind. “You’ve had a hell of a day.”
I had already told him about the accident, in the most oblique terms possible. But I didn’t leave out the part about seeing a kid get killed. I thought he was dead, anyway. He must have been.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’m sorry you had to see that. You know, I saw a guy on a bike get run over by a truck once. It crushed him like a bug. I couldn’t close my eyes for months without seeing it.”
“Thanks a lot.” I realized we were both still staring at the broken ladder-back chair, its legs sheared off and its backrest rendered to splinters, as if it held all of life’s mysteries. I looked at my boss and managed a grin. “You’re an asshole, you know that?”
“I’m the asshole who’s going to buy you a beer.”
“No. I’m tired. I just want to go home.”
“Thanks, though.” I left him standing on the loading dock and went to drop the truck keys and furniture invoices on my desk. I clocked out and stopped by the bathroom to take a leak. When I came back he was still there, poking at the chair.
“You sure burgered that son of a bitch,” he said.
The house was dark when I got home. I locked the door behind me, took off my shoes, then went around to make sure the windows were all shut in case it rained. I drank a glass of water at the kitchen sink and headed upstairs to bed.
I glanced into my five-year-old son’s room as I passed and was surprised to see him looking straight at me, sitting cross-legged on the carpet near his night light and smiling. I stopped short and did an exaggerated double-take, to make him giggle.
“Hi, Daddy,” he said. “You’re home.”
“What are you doing up, stinker?” I walked into the room and sat down facing him before he answered.
“I heard you come in and I wanted to show you my story.”
“Okay,” I said.
Between us was a little stage he’d arranged out of wooden alphabet blocks. It was divided in half; one side was comprised of blue blocks, the other green. He arranged his Pocket Pal tiger family on the stage and scooted them around as dictated by the plot.
“Once upon a time, there was a mommy tiger and three cubs. Four tigers. One day they went swimming in the sea and they swam way out far. Usually they don’t swim so far away but this time they did and they drowned. Then a hunter came and he wanted to hunt the tigers but all he found was a monster that scratched his eye. The hunter ran away because he didn’t want to fight an eye-scratching monster. So then the tigers came back out of the water. And… The End.”
“Oh, that’s a relief,” I said. “I thought the tigers drowned.”
“No, they’re okay.”
“Okay, good. I like tigers.”
He was obsessed with them, in fact. He was especially fascinated by pictures of them swimming. I didn’t know where the eye-scratching monster part came from.
“Time for sleep,” I said. I picked him up, slid him back under his covers and gave him a kiss. We said goodnight.
“Leave my door open,” he said.
As I brushed my teeth, I thought of a National Geographic article I’d skimmed recently about the dwindling tiger population. In Southeast Asia, they call tigers “Toyotas” because that’s what you can buy with one. You could almost understand the lure of poaching them; some of those people didn’t have jack shit. There was a national park in India with miles and miles of fence around it; the fence wasn’t to keep the tigers in, it was to keep the poachers out. Of course, this wasn’t anything a pair of wire cutters couldn’t overcome. It kind of sucked being a tiger. Or any Asia-dwelling mammal with a gall bladder, for that matter.
I went into the bedroom and undressed then lay down next to my wife, but I couldn’t sleep. I got up and went back downstairs. For some reason, thoughts of the cop at the accident site flitted through my mind.
He was young, younger than Officer Exarhos anyway, and he seemed just as traumatized as everyone else who was milling around. After he took my statement, we stood together in the middle of the interstate, saying nothing and trying to ignore the horns and sirens. The paramedics had arrived and some of them had taken over tending to the boy in the grass, while the others were extracting someone else from the wrecked Jimmy. I hoped that whoever was in there was in a lot of pain. Served them right for not having that kid in a fucking car seat.
“Sucker really flew, didn’t she?” the cop said.
I followed his gaze. He was talking about the deer the Jimmy had plastered. It lay wadded up on the embankment, a surprisingly non-bloody heap of twisted limbs and indiscernible clumps of fur, as if a taxidermist had snapped and gone ape-shit all over his creation with a maul. One leg was sticking straight up out of the mess like a flagpole.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” I said. “She would have flown a good fifty yards if that hill hadn’t been in her way.”
“No shit?” The cop looked at me.
I shrugged and sighed. Didn’t this jerk-off have anything more important to do? “Nope,” I said.
He nodded, then scratched the back of his neck and said, “Do you think that kid will be okay? I didn’t get a good look at him.”
I thought about it, trying not to picture his face. One of the kid’s shoes had come off. His left hand was clutching a little train. It was a Thomas the Tank Engine toy. The little green engine. Percy.
“I don’t know. They said he still had a pulse,” I mumbled. I had stood around uselessly, while other people called 911 and helped the Aries driver out of his car and so forth. It seemed like everyone except me had been doing something productive. “I don’t know,” I said again lamely.
I walked away and climbed back into my Freightliner, waiting for the cops to open the interstate again and let us leave. The smell of burned rubber in the cab was wicked enough to make me gag. I got an instant headache.
The young cop was standing in the left breakdown lane, taking another witness statement. He saw me watching him and waved. Silly asshole, I thought. I wanted to give him the finger. Just do your job.
It was a good thing I hadn’t been able to sleep, because halfway up the stairs I realized I had forgotten to take my evening pill. They didn’t really do anything for me, but I took them anyway. I went back into the kitchen, shook one out of the bottle, and dry swallowed it. I looked at the label and gave it my usual sneer; this was the fifth medication they’d tried me on, and so far it seemed to be just as ineffective as the others. I still felt like I was angry all the time; my therapist said it was a common byproduct of what she called major depression recurrent. But she had been fairly ineffective too; I stopped seeing her over a month ago.
I put the bottle back in the cabinet, left the kitchen, and found myself sitting at my laptop in the dining room. The screen came to life, and after studying it for a moment I looked up the phone number for the Illinois State Police. I fetched the cordless and dialed.
A woman dispatcher answered. I think she said “Hello?” twice before I managed to blurt something out.
“Can I… Yes, hello. I’m sorry. I was wanting to speak to—”
She cut me off. “Yes, what can I help you with, sir?”
“I’m trying to explain. Is, um… I’m looking for a certain police officer. He was patrolling the interstate near Rockford this afternoon. He’s the one with the Greek name.” I had no idea why I was pretending I didn’t remember it. “Officer Exarhos.”
“Is this pertaining to an active case, or are you calling to report—”
“No, I just…” I could feel my cheeks flushing. “I just want to talk to him. Does he have voice mail?”
“I’m afraid I can’t transfer you from here, sir. If you’d like to dial—”
“He doesn’t have voice mail? Why not?”
“Sir, this is a dispatch center. Those mail boxes can’t be reached from this line. Now, would—”
“Shit, I just wanted to—”
“All right. I’m going to hang up now, sir.”
“No, please… I’m sorry, I just want to… Hello?”
“Yes?” She was pissed.
“Look, he pulled me over today and I wanted to… See, I was rude to him and I kind of wanted to…”
“You wanted to do what, sir?”
I sighed, loud enough for her to hear. It drove my wife crazy when I sighed like that. She was far from being inured to my fits of pissiness. I hoped it annoyed this woman too.
“Sir, if you’re not reporting a crime or—”
I pressed the END button and set the receiver down on the table gingerly, like it might explode. I sat back in my chair and looked blankly across the room. “I’m sorry,” I said.
I went back upstairs and got into bed.
I rested my hand on my wife’s hip, and for a while I tried counting the hairs on her head, the ones sticking up and backlit by the green glow of the alarm clock. When I got bored with that, I resorted to simply staring at the back of her neck. I listened to her breathe and tried to match her rhythm.
I finally decided to just close my eyes and hope for the best. The first image to drip into my brain was that of the mangled doe with her leg sticking out, pointing towards the setting sun as if she thought she was still inexplicably flying, or maybe running from a skinny predator that was just desperate enough to summon the chutzpah for one final go-for-broke lunge but already knowing she was screwed.