For a pure moment trucker Gene Denport had felt above it all, above dawn at its tatters, above the voice coming at him from day’s edge. King of the throne he was, king of the hill, the road having slammed under him all night long. The 455 horses loose in the Volvo 670’s D-13 truck engine sounded their endless music, hummed under his seat bottom, talked lightly to his wrists; the way a woman might have it, he’d often thought, when the road took the edge off his mind. (Controlled rampage, the voice had said long before he used to think about owning a rig like this Volvo, Earth-mover, star-hauler, space traveler. Piling the superlatives on top of each other would be done at endless ease.)
House-big, highly modified for cruising, like a humdinger Lincoln Town Car in a sense, the Volvo 670 went over the crown of the hill.
He froze on the edge of the seat.
Had the voice had been talking about this? Night has justice. Day has none. What curve in the road?
Gray skies to the north were releasing massive shapes, taking on lesser ones. Night was crawling away on hands and knees. Gene, not yet bleary-eyed, knew the thievery of it, the moment, the uncertain reigns of clarity that can fall into one’s hands as night departs. In obstinate pieces the pre-dawn had been talking to him in the scary way it manifests intonations. Some days pass easily. This one will not. Hearken. Night is a beginning and an end. Even knowing it was his own voice did not make it any more reflective. He had heard it before, sometimes operatic, then in whispers, but not on the road.
Never before on the road. Not behind the wheel. The road, with a justice all its own, has a demand all its own.
Now, in that clarity at hand, sudden sunlight scattered ammunition out there on the road in front of him, sudden flares of chrome flashing in every direction. About another day he thought, odd and rampant shrapnel loose at dawn, detonation and combustion everywhere, decisions at hand, Top-kick Sgt. Ramsey at his feet and crying, metal from their own high angle devils still burning its way through his body. A scant 50 or 60 yards ahead of him a car was broadside in the road, the sun almost breaking down the catalogue of the vehicle’s parts. And though there was apparently room on either side for safe passage of the rig, he thought his tires would take an unnecessary beating.
He identified a ’98 BMW 428i xDrive, slammed the gears in downshift, feeling the weight pushing at his back, popping the rig towards a slow-down, the gears abruptly humming their mesh of music, just like the back row of the orchestra at a Copland night at Symphony Hall. Forces, as always, were all around him. It was like stopping the world to get off, some kind of carousel, centrifugal. Remembering a French horn destroying a note one night deep in his past made him think about the way the crew packed the load back at Swanton’s Ridge, not at perfection, thinking it might start shifting, daring to stand on its feet, threatening to jackknife. Then he saw the woman step from behind the car and dart to the side of the road. In his mind was the converse turmoil of a lady in distress and the cost of new truck tires. There was feeble juxtaposition to contend with.
The rig slid by the left side of the BMW. Gravel and shoulder waste and perimeter-loose asphalt and pebbles sang under his wheels, pinged away as if from a hundred slingshots and he could feel the rig momentarily hang in the air. The woman, young, trim, hair proud-red and like a ball of fire, was waving at him as he veered by. For scant seconds the trailer, potentially a deserter, AWOL in promise, tugged at his backside. From his lungs a pocket of air came loose with a bang. Gears shutting down into lowest low, the cargo still threatening movement, morning suddenly full of other energies, the huge Volvo and its attachment came to a stop.
In the side mirror the woman was waving at him. The voice, talking again, was unheard.
Dropping down from the cab, the demanding rigors of the road fully in his mind and having been in worse spots, he checked the tires on his side. He walked back to the young woman and the car. She was not in panicsville, though her cheeks were flared red. Instantly, with a quiet daring, her eyes measured his eyes, the depth in them, the span of his shoulders, his hip-line, the bleached impact of his worn but neat jeans. Gene, at 37, slim and rugged from a decent regimen and a usual tussle with weights, even out on the road, was aware he had certain attractions. Ease, supposedly, was one of them.
“Will the engine start?” he said, looking at the crown of the hill he had just come over. She was trimmer than he thought at first.
“No. Just died on me,” she said. One shoulder shrugged. “There’s been trouble with it the last few days. We think someone tried to steal it one night a week or so ago.” The shoulder shrug was the universal one, her head tipping to meet it, eyes shifting color. Her legs were marvelous. She looked clean as a new napkin, but her eyes darker for the moment.
“You watch for traffic,” Gene said. “I’ll try to get it out of the road.” Noting her slimness again, how her red hair glossed against her neck, he advised, “Wave something. A sweater, a pocketbook, anything. Wave something.”
He dropped into the seat, kept the door open, and keyed the starter. The engine coughed and jerked and he did it a second time. He tried it again and popped the gear quickly into neutral after catching a minor thrust from the starter, and with one foot pushing got the BMW rolling on a slight grade and coasted it off the road.
“I can give you a lift down to Crawford. It’s about twenty miles. There’s a garage there. Probably help you out.”
“That’s great. Let me get my bags. Only a couple.” Her eyes, chameleons at work, were as green as a lagoon ought to be. She spun away with a youthful twist, energy riding off her frame. Other forces, the voice said, are about.
Back on the road, the 670 engine touching him in the wrists again, in the seat of his pants, Gene caught her from the corner of his eye. He knew she was identifying the music on the radio, low and quiet. Her legs were remarkably elegant, even, he thought, for the cab seat of a Volvo. He’d saved for eight years for the rig, elegance itself, and here was more elegance sitting in his cab than he had ever dreamed of.
“That’s lovely,” she said. “That’s Nessum Dorma and I’m Lily Ardwell.” Musically she said it. “I was heading home to Ossipee, to see my family. From college. I teach, a half professor. Do you always play that kind of music when you’re driving?” Lily Ardwell had turned to face him. Her eyes he caught first, now of another hue, not lagoon green, not as dark as earlier, and then her mouth. He could taste her mouth, the serious red lips. It was in his eyes.
“You’re blushing. I like that kind of honesty in a man. If you screw up, you screw up. That’s really charming, courageous, and extremely sexy. Oh, my brother Tim says I’m too damned direct, but life’s too short to be otherwise. Things need doing. My father is god-awful overprotective, now, but he’s the one should watch out for himself. Thinks he owns half the world and wants the other half. It’s going to kill him. I tell him he’ll be sorely missed, but that’s only a mere caution.”
“What’s he do?”
“That much and that simple.” If you’re going on to Boston, we’ll be going right by his place. A long ride by. It’s like a border, like you need a passport.”
“The owning killed her. I got out. I still love him, in some way, but I got out. She worked forever for him, at anything, and when she wasn’t there any more, neither was I. She used to slip into my room at night, barefoot, smelling nice, and tell me stories. Sometimes she kept me up looking at the stars, the moon, telling me stories her mother had told her. About witches and sadness and losing the moon when you wanted it most. And he was downstairs doing the books. We knew the difference, and the parting. We all parted before we knew it. As a kid it was all done. Before she died it was all done. Can you reach something like that?”
“Yes. If you’re looking for something besides the trucker response, I’ll find it for you.” He could have harrumphed, but let it go. “I guess it’s like notes in music that come up in one place but you know they belong someplace else. Only if you really listen, nothing else in your mind, absolutely no taste in your mouth, no beauty in your eye, nothing to touch. Even the composer never knew it. All things aren’t what they always seem. My pal Eddie drives a Diamond-T and he knows every damn word of Gilbert and Sullivan. Every damn word.”
“That’s wild! I’m sorry for the unintended aspersion. Are you a composer? A Musician? A music buff? Love Country and Western? Blues besides the longhair? Where does Jazz fit itself, on an edge?” Each of them realized that she could go on much longer, but was being temperate, allowing her eyes to change again.
“You keep talking like that and I’ll remember you a long way down the road.”
“Oh, you’ll remember my good legs and thinking about the oral stuff, the way you guys do. What do they say, every five or six seconds? My God, how can you drive? I think it comes with the equipment, doesn’t it? Part of the spec sheet? Au naturel. My God, I’d be running all the red lights!” He realized there was not an edge to her voice. It was the way she talked, so utterly natural. And for kicks the air caught a small grasp of a new aroma, an essence of personal identification, more than newly cut grass or a vast salty marsh or a whole mountain cleansed just after rain. It said, for that moment and forever, Lily Ardwell. He didn’t know if he had said her name or the voice had said her name. He pretended ignorance.
“Head on and no red lights?” His thumb hit a switch on the wheel and Eddie Arnold, somewhere in a corner of the huge sleeper cab, was about as sad as one can get, the kind of song Sgt. Ramsey had played and leaned on all the time.
“I like Country. I like him. It’s what the traffic bears, but no adjusting of personality. I like myself sometimes. I love my father, I guess, but I don’t like him. I liked my mother and loved her, barefoot, smelling nice, the moon in the window like colored glass. I think already I like you. You come this way often? Where from? Where to?”
“I’ll go by three more times in the next week and a half.” He looked at a small calendar on the visor. “Then maybe not again for three or four months.”
“Will you blow that crazy horn, if you have one, the trucker kind I’ve heard before, when you go by?”
“Sure, my pleasure.” He wondered if she saw anything new in his eyes.
“I’d rather you stopped and knocked at the door, if you could manage it.”
“What would your father say with this rig at his door?”
“All he has to dictate is his will, and I think he’s done that by now. I’m on my own, up to my own. The critters in my puddle are the ones I float with.” She popped fully sideways in the seat, energy in the movement, a system of signals at work. “You’re coming back this way, right?”
Her knees shone at the back of his eyes, a field of white, expansive, compelling, fading into that desperate whereabouts. If he saw much more of her, he’d explode. “Tomorrow, back over the same route.” There was no catch in his voice, no whisper of acknowledgment, just one to one, conversation at the essence, traveling the one-way road.
“Let’s drop in, say hello, get the car squared away, and then I’ll go to Boston with you. I’ll treat you to dinner. I’m on vacation.”
He understood the aegis of her argument. “I won’t leave the truck for very long. And never in the city if I can help it. The investment is enormous.” If he ever needed the voice, now was the time.
“Then we’ll party here. After, you can bring me back home, and when you leave you can blow that crazy horn.” Standing up beside the seat, she slipped into the back of the cab. In half a yodel she said, “Hell–o.” There should have been an echo. “It’s like a damn gymnasium back here. I saw you looking,” she said. It was not coy. Did not come across that way. “There’s nothing but silk under there. Nothing but silk.”
……..They had stopped, met her father. She kissed her father after showering, steered Gene out the door, left her father on the huge porch in the exhaust of the Volvo, in its shade. His shoulders were slumped. Gene, remembering later, swore he could hear her mother telling a story in three rooms, in the huge hallway, in the dining room, in the den where they had a glass of wine. It was another voice, at least.
His cargo was delivered, a new load put on for a return trip. There was dinner for two outside the city. A few glasses of wine. Later, a bottle of Madeira she took from a small case she brought with her. They made love in the Volvo cab, parked in a rest area with a dozen other trucks holed up for the night. Gene Denport fell in love after they made love, after she showed him there was nothing but silk under there. “It’s the wave of the future,” she said. “It’s our call,” as she explained how she shaved herself. He shivered.
He was in Vergennes, outbound, when he found the suitcase on the lower bunk under a pillow and blanket. The neat blocks of currency were piled like Leggos in the case. He counted to a million and fifty thousand. There was no note, but he could smell her, like he could hear a high note left on the air.
When he drove back to the mansion, the police were there. There was noise, static, the sound of sirens.
One trooper told him a woman had killed her rich father, and then herself.
“No note,” he said. “Strange, you have to admit. Had everything going for them. Or so it seemed.” His voice was distant, like coming down a long tunnel, night behind it, pushing for all it was worth.
It all came back. Some days pass easily. This one will not. Night is a beginning and an end.
Banner Image: By Michael Rivera (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons