This is a piece I wrote back in 2002 regarding my curious origins.
I’ve wondered about my roots forever since I’m adopted.
I have learned a few things in the past several years but it’s nothing I will share on the blog.
I’m not ashamed but I feel my family’s privacy should be honored here.
This story came about when I was thinking about actually meeting the woman that had me, face to face.
It’s a Twilight Zone tale at best but I thought, what the hell.
I’m definitely not a fiction writer but thought you might like this.
It’s called “the spaces in between”
The horoscope in the paper had said it all that morning.
I never put much stock in that banal section of the paper, but there was something about it that day that caught my eye. It was my birthday, a day when life should take on special significant meaning, well, that’s what I told myself, anyway.
I had begun the day early, not wanting to miss a single moment. I was forty, for Christ’s sake, and today I wanted things to be different in my life-even though I couldn’t lay a finger on what would change, I just had that feeling.
I sat sipping my coffee, thumbing through the Boston Globe when I stopped at the comics.
The funnies page was no longer a ritual for me.
Nothing struck me funny since Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” had taken its final sabbatical years ago.
But I thought, what the hell it’s your birthday, go on you silly bastard-make yourself laugh! I did manage to chuckle a bit as my eyes drifted around the crossword puzzle and past Word Jumble before stopping at the horoscopes. I had always considered horoscopes to be the highest form of pedestrian bullshit available to the everyday reader. They struck me as idle gossip scraped up by some extreme alchemist in the stars with a white beard longer than Billy Gibbons from ZZTop. It was bottom-feeding entertainment at best, right up there with the National Enquirer but I read my horoscope anyway:
Carpe Diem, Capricorns!
You have what it takes to make a difference today.
You have your own vision and aren’t about to follow the path of another.
Then at the bottom:
For the birthday baby-
Embark on your leap of faith. This day has been waiting to be found!
Don’t wait! It’s written in the stars!
Good Lord, I thought, who writes this garbage anyway?
So much for the hieroglyphics from the heavens.
I waltzed my way to the bathroom, running the shower for a few minutes while I shaved.
Staring in the mirror, it occurred to me that the face looking back was different; it was nothing drastic, but enough for me to take notice.
There I was, Peter Russell, in all my buck-naked glory, 40 years old and still single.
As far as close friends were concerned, I hadn’t a care in the world; my life was exactly how I’d planned it. What I hadn’t planned on were the slew of secrets surrounding my birth.
It seemed that whenever the calendar blew by 365 days, the same questions reared their ugly little heads. It had been that way since the day I was born; which was when I’d been put up for adoption. It was the little secret that nobody knew about me, my own personal skeleton in the closet.
I was a mongrel, albeit a lucky one, but a mongrel just the same. I had no traceable roots, which enabled me to drive my doctor insane.
He joked with me one day that my medical history records were deep inside a folder he’d aptly titled, ‘Medical Enigmas’. I used to tell him I felt I was living inside of a lie.
But what exactly was the truth?
Forty years on this little blue ball spinning through space and I hadn’t found any answers I could believe in because I was still busy with the unending questions.
But before my brain could get any more philosophical on me, the steam from the running shower settled on the glass, rendering the stranger in the mirror invisible.
I arrived in downtown Boston forty-five minutes late that morning after taking a wrong turn.
Five days a week for the past five years I’d been coming to work the same way.
Today I got lost.
Automatic pilot malfunction crossed my mind as I turned and went down into the underground parking garage on Kneeland Street.
There had been a distinct shift in the cosmic cogs that had just yesterday guided my life as well as my sense as to how the hell to get to work.
I chalked it up to some bizarre celestial alteration in a matrix I had no control over.
Riding the elevator to the 35th floor, I laughed at the thought of getting lost in the first place.
They closed the office early that Friday afternoon to honor all around good guy Peter Russell.
But it seemed more like a wake than a birthday celebration when they said, “We’re all here to pay our final respects, Pete.”
I was given many gifts ranging from golf balls and cologne to a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon and a few jazz cds for the Lexus.
I decided to decline on the après-party cocktails at a cigar bar on Newbury Street, explaining I’d made plans for the weekend and had to make it out of Boston before rush hour.
Truth be told, I was just in the mood for a drive.
I had no destination in mind; it was something I felt I needed to do-no, had to do.
I wanted to be alone.
I felt like Albert Brooks in “Defending your Life”, a movie about a successful executive that decides to spend his birthday the way he came into the world: alone.
I could definitely relate.
My concocted story convinced everyone and allowed me a smooth exit but not without a token ration of shit. I felt guilty but justified enough, left the party and headed towards the turnpike.
It was still only four in the afternoon, and luckily for me, the red-eyed snake out of Boston was still in its dormant stage.
Driving west, with the sun dripping into the distant orange and plum colored horizon, I unconsciously scanned the inner recesses of my mind as the piano playing of Bill Evans spilled from the speakers of the Lexus. My lineage was sketchy at best. I was unsure of any details surrounding my birth, knowing that records from forty years ago were sealed away in some distant vault, inaccessible without a legal request for such personal information.
There were some things I did know, little things, insignificant things, things that most average people took for granted.
My adoptive mother would casually drop little informational hand grenades on me from time to time.
She never told me what she knew to hurt me-she just wanted me to know. But it did allow me to piece together one or two more pieces of the puzzle.
My original name had been Paul but had been changed when I was adopted.
The woman that had given me life was thirty-two years old when I was born, making her roughly seventy-two years old today.
Her name was Tess.
I remember the day I was first told her name.
I was shocked and overjoyed all at once.
These were confusing emotions for a twelve-year-old boy.
This was my own flesh and blood.
But the questions!
Was she still alive?
Who was she?
What did her voice sound like?
But more importantly, I wanted to see her face.
I found it ironic that these thoughts should come to me now as they had done once a year, every year since first being given the information. It was always my birthday when the thoughts and questions would flow through my brain like a Roman candle in July.
These thoughts were a strange and haunting present, ironically enough, from my past; they were the lost and forgotten pieces of a child’s broken toy and I was that child.
The family tree to hang my proverbial hat on was, and remains, non-existent. My life appeared so complete on the outside but impalpably fragmented within.
A deer, racing for its life across the wide expanse of the turnpike, roused me from my jazz induced reverie as I hit the brakes. I sighed, feeling the sudden burst of adrenalin course through my veins.
The sky was a beautiful deep crimson as I left the turnpike.
Synchronicity was at work and I could feel it.
As I glided down the off ramp, I rummaged around my cranial attic for an image; a reflection of her face; the woman that had had me, but as always my mind mockingly drew a complete blank.
I drove north on Route 32, a secondary road that headed towards a town called Princeton. It was one of those ubiquitous roads you see on car commercials-long and winding, heavy on the trees. I drove for about an hour when I spotted lights off in the distance, reaching through the forest like illuminated fingers, as my stomach went into stand-by mode.
The parking lot outside the Forest Diner was empty but the flashing pink neon sign said “Open” so without hesitation I pulled in. Another greasy spoon, I thought, probably a waitress behind the counter named Shirley with jet-black hair done up in a beehive as big as a basketball-bet she snapped her gum, too.
The diner was located in the country town of Winchendon, a hop, skip and a jump from the Vermont or New Hampshire border depending on which direction you were facing. It was the kind of town where I imagined a church choir possibly called the ‘O.K. Chorale’. This was what city slickers like me called Hicksville. I felt severely overdressed in my Brooks Brothers shirt even though it was unbuttoned at the top. A homey, checkered flannel probably would have been a better choice if only for the down-home camouflage effect. I got out of my car and looked around-stunned by the vast, silent sky. I gazed up at stars glistening with such clarity, I thought, if only my life was this clear. It was a town that one suspected was filled with Bobby Sues and Mary Kate’s-you had to have at least two first names to join the club. I tried to think of what name might fit with Peter when a voice from nowhere startled me back to reality.
“You always stand outside playing pocket pool, cowboy?” She asked.
She stood about 5’4″ with the curliest red hair I’d ever seen; you might think it was on fire. The cinnamon-colored freckles on her face were more numerous than the stars that graced the Winchendon sky that night. She looked vaguely familiar, though I couldn’t place where I might have seen her before. I never made it up to these parts so a chance run in was simply out of the question. She looked to be in her early thirties and was what I’d call a handsome woman. She was pretty in a way that you’d think your own mother to be.
“What’s the matter? You no speeka englayse?” She mocked.
She seemed to have a sense of humor too.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Just admiring the stars up here. I… uh…” The cat stole my tongue and wasn’t letting go for anything. It was an uncomfortable moment until she spoke again.
“Oookay…You lookin’ for somethin’ to eat, buddy? Cause if not I’d have to say you are one lost soul!”
I managed to break away from my frozen stare, “Yeah, I’m hungry. You work here?” I asked.
“Yeah. Name’s Mitch. Come on in, you’ll freeze your ass off out here,” she joked.
We went into the archaic diner where the warmth greeted us and the aroma of ‘breakfast all day’ gently pushed me into a swiveling stool at the counter. Mitch disappeared into the kitchen and came back wearing a brown apron with a pin on the pocket that said ‘I served Elvis’.
“Coffee, Mr. What’s your name?’ Mitch smiled.
“Please,” I said, “Oh…I’m sorry…the name is Peter. Peter Russell,” I answered back.
The strains of the Everly Brothers “All I have to do is dream” floated through the diner transporting me back to the days of ‘letter’ sweaters and poodle skirts.
“God, I haven’t heard this song in ages,” slipped through my lips.
Mitch was astounded, “What cave have you been livin’ in? This song is brand new-Just came out last week! That empty stomach must be affecting your brain…” She laughed as she sidestepped down the length of the counter wiping off the salt and peppershakers.
The diner was an old gal with booths made of dark mahogany, the seats covered with genuine red naugahide. The tables between were the basic Formica topped versions straight out of the early 1960s. Vintage Coca-Cola signs and pictures of Bill Haley dotted the walls while another placard proudly proclaimed, ‘Come on in, your Mom’s cookin’!’
Above me, spanning the length of the counter was a light cream-colored menu board that described the food and prices in precise little red letters. This place was the real deal, I thought, glancing up at the extraordinarily low prices for food. It appeared that time had stood still at the Forest Diner-and tonight, I considered that to be a very good thing.
Mitch served me my coffee as business at the diner slowly picked up. I ordered the special of the night; Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and gravy, figuring if I was going to feel like a big fat dog after the meal, I might as well eat like one. I waited patiently for my dinner and watched Mitch as she flew around the diner like she’d been there her entire life. Every time she passed me, she’d smile and say something quick, something funny and move on to the next chore that needed doing. As the time slowly passed, I got the oddest feeling whenever she would walk by. I knew her. I just couldn’t figure how. It was like a scratch I couldn’t itch; a foggy dream just beyond my reach.
She served me my meal and went to the opposite end of the counter to take another order. She talked casually with a man that had just come in, leading me to believe he was one of the diner’s regulars. I had just shoveled a forkful of mashed potato in my mouth when I caught him staring at me out of the corner of my eye.
“Hey, Mitch! You never told me you had a brother!” He said, still staring at me but smiling.
Mitch sized me up and laughed.
“He’s not my brother, Jake,” she smirked, “he’s my son! Right, Peter? Peter?”
My face went white as the revelation exploded inside my head. She looked familiar all right-she looked like me. In my mind, an orchestra had just hit some thunderous dissonant chord as my sense of reality twisted and bent like a shiny piece of black licorice. Some internal gear turned and judging from the way I felt at that moment, the gear must have been located somewhere near my large intestine. Mitch noticed it right away and made her way to the end of the counter where I was sitting. She looked worried, wondering if I was okay.
“Must be the heat in here,” she said, “you ok? You look like you saw a ghost or somethin’.” She gently placed her hand on my shoulder.
Shaking my head I said, “I think I just did.”
She yelled into the kitchen galley, “Hey, Mickey! Cover me for a few minutes will ya? I gotta take a customer outside for some fresh air! Looks like your special of the night ain’t too special after all!” she quipped.
She motioned for me to follow her as she led the way out the same door we’d come in earlier. We walked silently around the empty parking lot for a few minutes before Mitch began talking.
“You feelin’ better?” She asked me honestly, avoiding any serious eye contact.
“Yeah, I’m ok. Guess the Salisbury steak didn’t sit too well,” I lied and she knew it.
“Something just happened in there. Couldn’t you feel it? Out of nowhere it was like I’d known you all of my life. What’s going on here? How come I feel like we’re connected somehow?” She asked, close to tears.
“Mitch, if I told you what I thought, you wouldn’t believe me and you’d call the cops-and then they’d throw me in the Looney bin because nothing makes sense to me these days. Have you ever heard the phrase-be careful what you wish for… because you may just get it?” I sputtered, almost out of control.
I stared at her face and was transformed into this shivering little boy trying to make sense out of the most bizarre birthday I had ever had.
“When I was walking into the diner, there was a brand new white calendar on the wall. It read, January 1958… please tell me that’s just the Forest Diner’s little way of bringing people back into the ‘good old days’. It is, isn’t it?” I was getting desperate.
“What the hell are you talking about? It’s January 10th nineteen-fif- ” she was cut off by Mickey.
Mickey had been watching from inside the diner and was getting concerned. Sticking his head out the door he yelled, “Everything alright, Tess?”
Crystals of ice tickled the back of my neck at the sound of her name.
She gave me a ‘see what you got me into now’ stare and turned back toward Mickey, “I’m fine, Mick. We’re just talkin’. Give me a few more minutes, will ya?”
Mickey waved and went back inside the diner as she wheeled around and looked me in the eye.
“It’s January 10th nineteen-fifty eight, or as you say, the good old days and what the hell does that have to do with anything?” She demanded.
She needed proof. I reached for my wallet and the one piece of identification that was undeniably official: my license. I took it out, handed it to her and simply said, “Look! Look at my birth date!”
I watched, as a whisper of understanding crossed some invisible border and rose slowly on her face. After she had whispered, oh my God and all its variations over and over, she gazed up from my license, her eyes asking questions she wasn’t even sure how to ask. I was living a moment I’d waited for my entire life.
I explained about the missing pieces of my life, as I knew them. I told her about my strange roots and the spaces in between. I told her I didn’t know the reasons for what was going on but that somehow I’d traveled back in time to one year before my birth. My soul had longed for answers and the universe found a way for me to get them. I’d never sounded so illogically sentimental in my entire life. Mitch just looked at me, smiled and I believe I felt subtle acceptance concerning my honesty.
We never came to an actual agreement as to what each of us thought had actually happened, but I think we came close enough to remove at least a few shadows.
For me, the puzzle was complete. Thanks to a cosmic coincidence, I’d seen the face I’d longed to see and in my heart, I knew it.
“Let me make sure I’m crystal clear on this. If what you’re saying is true-I’m the woman that will have you one year from tonight? You’re saying I’m your mother? Right?” She asked.
There I was looking into the soft brown eyes of the woman that would bring me into the world. It was a delicate moment that left me breathless and void of any memorable words. Thousands of unanswered questions fell around me like fragile snowflakes, melting before I could pick them up.
“I don’t know how or why this happened but I know it’s you… your face… your eyes. I’ve thought about you for so long-about what I’d say, what I’d do if-well, look at me-all I can do is stand here like a silly little boy.” I whispered, as a warm tear streaked down my cheek.
“A little boy?” She opened her arms as wide as the winter sky and I embraced forty empty years without her in my life. But a piece of me still wondered why she even gave me up in the first place. She read my mind before I could ask the question.
“If I could say anything to you right now-and I can’t believe I’m saying this-do you have any idea how hard it must have been for me to give you up? Never to see your first steps? Never, even, to hear you say my name?” She paused, “Just tell me one thing Peter, has your life been good?”
I could only nod my head and quietly say yes.
“Then I made the right decision, didn’t I? I loved you enough to let go of you. I can’t apologize and I can’t change what’s been done. Whatever I did-I did it for you… even though I haven’t done it yet. God, I sound like I’ve been drinking.” She muttered and shook her head.
We both laughed at her last comment but I think it was more at the total absurdity of the evening.
We stood in the parking lot, shivering, staring up at the passing night sky, each of us trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. I felt a subtle pang of regret knowing that the diner was a place only accessible from this one-way road located somewhere in the cob-webbed corners of my mind. After my final goodbye, there would be no return trip.
Route 32 led me back through the dark woods; the bright lights of the turnpike peeking through the trees like white angels guiding me back to the familiar world I’d just left hours earlier. Sixty miles later, as the skyline of Boston came into sight, I realized how often I’d taken this magnificent view for granted. The full moon floated high above the Charles River, illuminating everything for thousands of miles around and I thought of Tess-her smile and her eyes, and the final committing of her face to memory.
Not sure where this one came from except for the fact that it was
loosely based on a few real life experiences. Though I may never tell exactly what they were.
I will say that I really like the character “Charlie”. I think I may actually know him.
I was soaking wet by the time I got to the car and after fumbling with my keys for what seemed like forever (while getting even wetter) I opened the door and fell into the seat, pissed off.
I slammed the door closed thinking it would make me feel better only to realize that a sizeable piece of my new London Fog trench coat was still outside the car.
Son-of-a-bitch, I thought, feeling my blood pressure rise to near stroke level while opening the door to retrieve the rest of my coat; which now had a very greasy and well defined seven inch crease as if to prove my soggy stupidity.
That’s what you get for being in such a damn hurry, said a voice inside my head.
A part of me was prepared to verbally assault the inner voice, but regaining my composure, I placed the key in the ignition.
There’s no sound in the world like the sound of silence from an automobile, especially when you need to be anywhere other than where you are.
Click, again… sonof…A…bitch.
I managed to flag down a passerby-who was not at all jazzed with the idea of helping me-and directed him into the empty parking lot where my all too silent olive green Chevy Impala sat deader than a Mesozoic era fossil. After a quick jump-start, I was off to locate the nearest gas station / men’s room hoping to fill my tank and empty my soon to be bursting bladder.
I had come to Falmouth on Cape Cod to attend a surprise party for an old high school friend who was turning forty-five. The party went off without so much as a hitch and while it was great to see my friend, I realized he was the only person at the party that I knew.
I was never privy as to how they actually got my name but thought that maybe the old high school yearbook had something to do with it.
The party finally broke up around nine and was moved to a local bar where I was sure two things would happen: (1) someone was going to lose several articles of clothing and (2) Billy, the birthday boy, would, at some point during the remainder of the evening, cough up a splash monkey disgusting enough to beat the band. I had no intention of sticking around to mop up after that one.
I found a local gas station destined to fulfill my simple wants and desires.
The name on the sign told me all I needed to know: Gas and Go…my kind of place.
I gassed up and went, before asking the easiest way to get to Route 28, which would eventually take me to the Bourne Bridge.
After talking with the gas station attendant I walked back towards the rest rooms where I’d first spotted the pay phones during my mad dash to relief central.
I wanted to make sure my wife, Julia was doing all right. She was pregnant, four days overdue and not entirely thrilled with the idea of me coming to the Cape in the first place.
This was our first baby and we wanted everything to be right. Julia had read so many books on the subject that I began calling her Spock.
I dialed the apartment expecting to hear Julia’s sleepy voice but the voice on the other end of the line turned out to be her best friend Mary.
This was not a good sign, I thought, as the image of me high diving into a huge bucket of shit came to mind.
“Mary… It’s Henry. What’s going on up there? Where’s Julia?” I said, trying to sound as composed as possible.
“Her water broke at seven thirty, Henry. Where the hell are you? She’s really pissed, you know. She said your timing sucks. She’s already at the hospital.”
Mary was serious as the evening news, which made me all the more nervous.
“Listen, I’m on my way… honest. I should be there in…. about ninety minutes…give or take.” I said, confident.
“Ninety minutes, huh? Have you been listening to the radio, smartass?” She asked.
I could hear her drumming her fingers on the table near the phone.
“That’s Mr. Smartass to you and no, the radio hasn’t worked since last summer… Why?” I asked, getting irritated with her Gestapo-like tone of voice.
“Snow, Henry… and we’re not talking inches here, we’re talking feet. You should hit it somewhere around Holliston,” She paused, “It’s like another planet around here, Henry. Julia’s okay but she’s really upset you’re not here. She asked me to stay at the apartment because she knew you’d be calling. Where are you right now?” She asked.
“Obviously not where I want to be. Shit. The roads are that bad, huh? How long has it been snowing? It’s just raining down here.” I said, trying not to sound too upset.
“Since three this afternoon. Right about the time you left. Enough talking, get the hell going or you’re going to miss everything. I’ll call Jules and tell her I talked to you… that you’re all right. Watch yourself, okay? It’s nasty out there.”
“I’ll be fine. Promise. Tell her I’ll be there even if I have to steal some damn snowshoes.”
I hung up the phone and looked out at the falling rain wondering just how much snow it would take to stop me from getting home.
Forty-five minutes later, I entered a surrealistic, alien landscape-the likes of which I’d never seen in all my years in New England.
I muttered, oh shit, and made the sign of the cross; something I hadn’t done in years, and began my journey into a winter hurricane that would take no prisoners and hold every single driver accountable for their actions as well as their mistakes.
Mary was right. This was a different planet.
The snow was falling at such a fast rate of speed that visibility couldn’t have been more than thirty feet.
No Indy 500 driving tonight, I thought, silently praying the Impala would stay within the steadily shrinking boundaries of Interstate 495.
I cursed myself for taking the chance with Julia being overdue thinking that she wouldn’t go into labor without me there-so much for chance.
As I drove, my mind restless, I caught sight of the ass end of a car half buried into a huge snowdrift off to my right. Taking my eyes off the road for a split second, I tried to see if anyone was in or around the car.
It was then that my carnival ride from hell came to an abrupt halt.
The tires on the Impala were as bare as newborn baby seals and gave up trying to hold a road that no longer existed anyway.
I spun out of control and flew off the road into a shallow gully that divided the highway waiting to gobble up anyone silly enough to do what I’d just done.
The idiot lights on the dash were all glowing red as I foolishly tried to restart the car.
It made a soft ‘click’ sound and the dashboard faded to black.
This is not good, asshole, I thought to myself.
I sat inside the car listening to Old Man Winter tingle his icy blue fingers on the roof and knew I’d come to one of the many crossroads in my life.
I needed to make a decision to stay or to go and to stay, as crazy as it sounds, would have driven me insane.
The snow came up to my knees as I stepped out of the car to look around at the swirling flakes now stinging my face like arctic bees from the North Pole.
The silence outside the car was louder than anything I could have imagined and I wondered just what the hell was happening here. There were no lights or cars anywhere-just an empty highway that looked more like a deserted ski slope than a well traveled interstate.
I began trudging through the knee-deep snow like some well-trained mountaineer thinking I was capable of winning this fight against the elements when the thought of exposure tiptoed across my mind.
I didn’t want to be found frozen solid with my skin the shade of a robin’s egg.
That I actually entertained such a thought was something else altogether.
I was fortunate enough to have gloves and a decent winter jacket in my car: if twenty-five years in New England had taught me anything it was the meaning of the phrase-be prepared.
Unfortunately, my feet were freezing into size 10 ½ skating rinks, my Doc Martens stuffed to the gills with snow. The basic plan here was to just keep going one frozen foot at a time as long as both feet would cooperate. And I was doing just that when a wide fan of light spread out in front of me.
Doing an about face, I saw fuzzy headlights far off in the distance.
Too high up to be a car, I thought, as the massive 18-wheeler thundered down the straight stretch of highway leaving billowing ghosts of the storm in its wake.
As it drew closer, it had the appearance of some magical floating city, Oz, perhaps, strewn with amber lights, winter candles glowing behind gossamer white draperies.
A part of me wanted rescue; the part inside that we rarely let total strangers see, until we reach that level of desperation requiring need.
My cynical side said, be careful, you have no idea as to whom the driver might be.
We all make choices in our lives, some are good and some turn around and step on your foot, gluing you to the floor if only to make you suddenly aware of your actions.
Tonight there was too much proof that I’d made at least one terrible decision.
I thought again of Oz, wishing for just a moment that I possessed a shimmering pair of red Doc Martens, but in my mind the red shoes began to melt, turning into shoes befitting a circus clown.
If I didn’t get out of this frigid weather soon I would undoubtedly have the frozen red nose to complete the costume.
I saw the high beams flicker on as the truck approached.
He sees me, I thought, as I began waving my arms in a help-me-I’m-drowning-here fashion, as if to ensure my ride back into the real world of people, places and things.
I wasn’t welcome here in this inimical crystal graveyard and wanted out.
At that moment, any out would do. I heard the shushing of the brakes and prayed that the truck wouldn’t jackknife.
“Howdy!” Yelled the voice from inside the darkened cab, “Whatcha doin’ walkin’ around outside on a night like this?”
Texas, I thought, maybe Alabama. Either way, with a drawl thicker than cold maple syrup, I knew I was talking to an original good ‘ole boy.
“Car broke down,” I yelled back, “and my feet are frozen! I need some help.”
The roar of the Peterbilt’s engine was easily competing with howling voice of the storm making me wonder if he could even hear me.
He leaned out the window with his hands cupped around his mouth, “Come on up, ‘ya damn fool ‘fore ‘ya get your ass whooped. She’s a nasty one, she is. Come on around and climb up!”
I walked around the front of the truck noticing the enormous engine grille caked with ice, the warm breath of the engine melting any snowflake within range.
The smoke from a lit cigar drifted out the open window of the cab reminding me of my grandfather.
With no idea who this guy was, I was taking a leap of faith hoping it wouldn’t end leaving me worse off than when I started.
As I climbed up and reached for the door handle, I thought of Julia and felt the fears of doubt stop by for a little visit. It was the first time I’d thought of her since this whole ordeal had started.
I looked up at the dark grey sky and mumbled, “I’m comin’, Jules,” before sliding into the warmth of the dimly lit cab.
His name was Charlie Hartmann, a cigar-smoking castaway from the early sixties, replete with ponytail and all. He was originally from Lubbock, Texas and damn proud of the fact that he was quite possibly the only driver crazy enough to be on the road tonight.
I’d had my own ideas of the way truckers looked but Charlie looked like none of them.
He had high cheekbones that accentuated a smile as big as the state he once called home and I couldn’t help but immediately feel comfortable sitting next to him-ponytail and all.
He was a familiar stranger, one that everyone meets at some point during his or her journey through life.
He was a talker and it wasn’t long before I realized that fate wasn’t always the death sentence I’d made it out to be.
No one will ever believe this, I thought, staring out the windows of the cab at a winter storm that seemed to be a few snowflakes shy of a total whiteout.
Charlie seemed unfazed by the magnitude of the storm, his confidence totally intact.
I asked him where he was coming from and more importantly where he was going when he launched into several stories I felt he’d been waiting to tell anyone patient enough to listen.
Hell, I was a captive audience and if listening to him could ultimately bring me closer to Julia, then bring ‘em on.
Charlie had been a truck driver for most of his forty-eight years on the planet.
He felt fortunate to have been able to see a good portion of the country and still get paid damn well for doing it. He was still single, although he claimed to have at least one girl waiting for him at every stop-he winked and added, sometimes two.
He had a set route that took him from coast to coast every six to eight weeks, leaving him little time to call any place home sweet home for too long; a modest condo in southern Vermont was about all he could handle. He said it had that homey ‘feel’ and that was about as good as it got.
He would have been on his way there had it not been for the phone call from his sister-in-law in Buffalo.
He was asked to call the office once or twice a day, if only to pick up an updated list of roads currently under construction but Charlie sometimes had personal messages as well.
“Let’s just say I’m a goin’ west young man. Gotta make it to Buffalo by the mornin’.
Got a call from Louise, my brother’s ball ‘n chain… seems he’s dyin’ and might not see tomorrow.
Damn cancer’s got ‘em loaded up good with tumors,” Charlie shifted the truck into gear and glanced at me,
“Company policy says I can’t never pick nobody up. But tonight I’m makin’ the rules, so if you’re goin’ west, this train’s leavin’-you’re welcome to ride along but I gotta warn ya, it’s gonna be one helluva bumpy ride.”
“Mass Pike…. Exit 11…if you can get me there, you got some company. By the way, the name’s Henry.” I said with all the bravado I could muster.
Charlie looked at me and nodded once, “Pleased to meet cha. Now let’s see if I can’t find the damn turnpike,” he laughed, as he began inching the truck forward onto an unknown black diamond trail that looked nothing like the Interstate 495 that I remembered.
He offered me a cigar, which I reluctantly accepted, and asked, “You ever ride a mechanical bull, Hank? Well, this is about as close as you’re gonna get.”
I pulled the seat belt securely across my chest and mentally prepared myself for the ride of my life.
Charlie asked me about my life and what I was doing driving, conditions being what they were. I explained that I had come from the Cape after attending a birthday party for a good friend and had been caught off guard by the winter storm.
I told him about Julia and the baby, how this was our first child and how badly I’d screwed up by going to the Cape.
“Hank, my boy, you can’t go and beat yourself up for things you ain’t got no control over. Take tonight for instance. I drive in this stuff all the time. You don’t see me fussin’ and fightin’ now do ya?” He watched me trying to suck air, unsuccessfully through the uncut end of the cigar. I must have sprouted the ears of a jackass because he let out a guttural har, har, har, realizing he was riding with a neophyte cigar smoker.
“Don’t smoke many cigars, eh, Hank?” He laughed again handing me a cigar cutter, “Just snip off the end and fire it up. Smoke it slow now or you’ll get the heaves something fierce.”
The view from the cab was spectacular, albeit scary. I decided not to ask Charlie how safe the truck was in weather like this knowing it was possible that the answer might be one I didn’t want to hear. I wondered what would make a person take on a job that required driving thousands upon thousands of miles a year. It seemed so temporary in some ways while it seemed almost too perfect in others; whether it was midnight or noon there were two constants: you and the never ending road. Charlie summed it up perfectly with his overabundance of ‘country philosophy’.
“I’m just runnin’ on faith and diesel fuel here, Hank…” he paused, “though sometimes I think it’s heavier on the faith part, you understand. Sometimes you don’t feel like driving another inch, but you do just because that’s part of the job; you deliver whatever it is that you’re carrying and move on. That make any sense?”
The truck swayed and shimmied from left to right, zigged and zagged back and forth as Charlie talked away, fearless, while I continued digging my blue fingernails deep into the spongy armrest that was attached to the door. It seemed that at any moment a gust of wind might slam into the thirty-foot trailer and topple the truck as easily as a feather floating into a house of cards. I asked Charlie if he’d driven through storms like this one, he told me had.
His answer didn’t surprise me at all.
“Aw…shoot…come on now. Ain’t no storm I ain’t made it through, tonight being no exception. See, acceptance is everything. It’s when you start fightin’ it that you get into trouble. Let me tell you a little story. Hang on there, son.”
The ticking sound of the truck’s directional brought my attention back to the road as the shamrock green Mass Pike sign came into view, a recognizable and welcome sight during a storm that had clandestinely stolen any and all familiarities. With the help of this midnight cowboy, I was closing in on Exit 11 mile by snowy mile. A part of me seemed to be thriving off the carelessness of the situation and I started to ‘accept’ the situation, as Charlie put it.
“You the religious type, Hank?” Charlie said, his face turning serious.
“Not especially, why?” I asked, glancing down at my watch. It was 10:30pm and getting later real fast.
I was waiting for Charlie to tell me he was a twice-removed distant cousin of Pat Robertson and would I consider buying an ounce or two of his very own homemade snake oil when he launched into an honest to goodness story of a night in the life of a trucker.
“Well, ya see… strange things happen all the time on the road. Nights, ‘specially. But some nights can be worse than others. You with me?” He glanced at me quickly and continued, “It’s three in the mornin’ and I’m driving on Route 70 outside of Colby, Kansas,” He paused and laughed, “Can’t even remember where I was headed. Someplace in Colorado… Don’t matter anyhow. I’m minding my own business ya see… followin’ another semi, listenin’ to a country station that’s playin non-stop Charlie Pride tunes when all of a sudden-BAM!”
Charlie’s hand struck the dashboard. It was there that I noticed a miniature statue of the Virgin Mary destined to live a life of eternal vigilance watching over him. He continued.
“I swear on the bible, the semi in front of me jackknifes and rolls off the road into some godforsaken gully! Now, this all happens in a span of maybe several seconds- but it seems longer…‘ya know how time slows down sometimes. And then I look back at the highway and say, holy shit! There, in the middle of the highway is some guy. He’s barefoot, walking real methodical-like, toe to toe, with his hands stretched out like he’s nailed to some invisible crucifix or somethin’ just beggin’ for salvation. But the strangest of all were his eyes-starin’ at me like a scarecrow from Oklahoma, alone in a field of corn.
I still see that face some nights, I do…”
I looked at Charlie, who was suddenly quiet and laughed, “Well… what happened? You can’t just tell a story like that and leave me hanging. Did you hit him or what?”
The tip of Charlie’s cigar glowed like a firefly before he exhaled a plume of smoke into the cabin and said, “No… well, not exactly. Actually, I don’t know just what happened. All I know is that he should have gone splat all over the grille of the truck but he didn’t. He showed up in my rear views for about ten seconds before the night swallowed him up. It was like he vanished or somethin’. There are some nights I wonder if he was there at all, seein’ it was three in the mornin’ and all. I notified the authorities that a truck had jackknifed ten miles west of Colby on Route 70 then drove until I saw the first truck stop in Colorado. I heard a few days later that they scraped a body off the road. Details were sketchy but I assumed it was him.”
“Maybe he finally found eternal salvation, huh?” I asked, surprised at my own riposte.
“Funny how life works out sometimes, ain’t it?” Charlie said, knowing the phrase was just one of the unwritten worldly truths right up there with life sucks then you die, or was it-life sucks then you get cancer and then maybe you die, unless you live in Buffalo, the last part being a personal addendum to Charlie’s most recent dilemma.
Charlie slowed the truck down and eased over to the breakdown lane of the Pike as the off ramp to Exit 11 came into view. We saw few signs of life just a lone car going east towards Boston doing about twenty miles an hour. The snow was unceasing; coming down faster than mankind could clean it up.
Mother Nature was running low on mercy as well leaving me several miles from the hospital. My long, strange ride had come to an end. Charlie stopped the truck and stuck out his hand.
“You got a son or daughter waitin’ there pardner. Now, go on, get outta here.” He smiled, as he reached into a black box sitting on the floor of the cab. He took out a handful of cigars and handed them to me saying, “Here. Take ‘em. I got more.”
I said thank you for the ride (and saving my sorry ass) and tried to give him some money, which he vehemently declined, saying it was all in a day’s work. I slid out of the warm, dark cab of the truck and plunged back into the gelid world below when I heard Charlie’s last words to me, “Thanks for the company, buddy…and as my Mama used to say; May the good Lord be gracious and take a likin’ to ‘ya!”
I watched him pull away when I noticed G.O.D. written on the side of the truck in large boldface letters: Guaranteed Overnight Delivery, I thought, laughing to myself, I never even asked him what he was carrying. Nothing about the moment struck me as religious; no beams of heavenly light, no choir of angelic voices and no reason for me to believe anything miraculous had just happened.
The world was still spinning and Charlie had just completed another successful delivery.
The lights lining the pike slashed shadows onto the unplowed off ramp, as I lumbered through the snowstorm towards the dimly lit tollbooths.
Closer, I thought, pulling the collar of my coat higher as the winds cried out like a newborn baby.
© michaelm 2005