Ain’t No Easy Runs. Marlene had made the first few bars of that song his ring tone back when life was sweet. Back when she called him her road warrior. Jake rolled down the cab window, hoping the fresh air would keep him awake for a few more miles. He wanted to get to Moline before he stopped. He’d climbed behind the wheel at 4:30 that morning, with Marlene’s words ricocheting in his ears.
“If you’d rather drive that damn truck than be with me, fine! You just go right on and do it. But don’t expect me to be waiting for you when you get home.”
They’d been up all night arguing about it. He’d tried for the hundredth time to explain that it was his paycheck that paid the rent, bought the groceries, and held the Mastercard bill at bay – the card with the monthly payment that was more than the rent. Jake could barely keep up with the interest, let alone pay the balance. Marlene made a face and looked away, tuning him out. Letting him know she found him unbearably tiresome.
She said, “I guess I’d better look for a guy who can afford me.”
That struck terror into Jack’s gut. It was his biggest fear put into words.
He’d done everything he could think of to jolly her along. Shopping was the most certain cheerer-upper, but it was also the most unmanageable. The closet was stuffed with Marlene’s clothes, many still with dangling price tags. The UPS truck delivered boxes from Amazon just about every day. But he’d been afraid to complain, and gradually Marlene had backed him into a no-win corner. He had to work to pay her bills; she threatened to leave him because he worked too much.
The cab bucked like a rodeo bull, sending stabs of pain into Jake’s lower back. Maybe he was getting too old for long-distance trucking. He’d deliver the parts he was carrying to the big John Deere plant in Moline, then pick up a load of lawn mowers bound for California. Coming home, he’d haul something else; he didn’t know what yet. It was a run he made often, but it never got any shorter. Scuttlebutt said Deere was looking into rail shipping again. It was a pervasive rumor that took on new life every couple of years. If it happened, a big part of Jake’s income would disappear down the rails. Maybe then Marlene would get her wish and he’d have to find another job. One where he’d be home more.
Finally, despite the rocky ride, Jake’s eyelids refused to stay open. He knew he had to stop for a quick nap. If he came upon a weigh station in his present state of fatigue, he’d be pulled off the road, no matter how much he fudged his hours of service log. His pay was based on miles and time. The farther he went and the faster he got there, the better the paycheck. But I have to get there alive, he reminded himself.
A huge neon sign glowed in the gathering dusk: Waffles and Wi-Fi, it proclaimed. Okay, that would do. He crunched into the gravel lot, parked nose to tail with another rig, and cut the ignition. The sudden silence pulsed in his ears. Making a pillow of his arms on the steering wheel, he rested his head and instantly slept.
A blast from an air horn jerked him upright. He saw the back end of a semi-trailer just a few feet in front of him. Frantically, he stood on the brakes, bracing his arms to control the wheel. As his brain fully awoke, he remembered he was parked.
Breathing hard, he glanced around quickly to see if he’d been observed. The nightmare emergency stop was a joke among truckers; he’d laughed about it himself. Wasn’t so funny when it happened to him. Shaking with left-over adrenalin, he climbed down from the cab. Maybe he’d get one of those waffles, get some carbs into his bloodstream. Forget about sudden stops, both real and imagined.
He pulled out his phone. He’d text Marlene, pretend that all-night fight hadn’t happened. Maybe she’d be willing to pretend, too. He pictured her curled up like a kitten in their messy bed, even though it was more likely she was perched on a bar stool at Whiskey Joe’s. His thumbs tapped out, “Honey, luv u, miss u.”
It would be a good sign if she didn’t respond right away, took some time to cool off. He was gambling she wouldn’t answer while she was still mad. He had a feeling he wouldn’t want to carry that answer with him on the endless miles between here and California.
His phone rang.