the last day and a texas state highway 105
it’s hard to know how things get started, the beginnin’ of things ain’t never as sure as the end. i’ve been drivin’ trucks for what seems a whole lifetime, most everyday, but sundays when i could help it. they say god made sundays to rest in, someplace for workin’ men, maybe. his only son was a workin’ man, a carpenter and i respect that. the first thing any man needs to know is hard work.
i’ve always found work one way or another on roads. i was clearin’ out culverts and cuttin’ back mesquite when i was just sixteen, workin’ summers for the jones county service department and the texas farm bureau. the roads then were all straight roads, dirt roads with numbers, not even names, county roads 253 and 242, 210 and so on like that. the kind of roads that met up with one another without any stop signs, but then i reckon every meetin’ is up to some sort of chance.
there’s a certain luck about any empty crossroads, i suppose, or lonely stretch of highway, a man needs room for his thoughts and a place to drift over the line every now and again. i’ve always taken a kind of comfort in being nowhere, in the spaces between things, out where there weren’t even trees, just the telephone poles passing by and what seemed like a single wire. avoca was the only name place i knew, where i was raised up, what wasn’t really anywhere, somewhere west of the 6 on the 604 and farm to market road 1595. it grew out where the two roads crossed, what made four corners, what made it a town because it had a four way stop. there were buildings with signs and windows and street parkin’ and gravel lots in back and backdoors, back when stores had backdoors, the farm and fleet and the i.g.a. grocer, the hardware store and the barber shop. most everywhere else you went you knew by the people there, like the stepp’s place up over the rise before the water tower or the wright ranch, what you could see from the 602, but could only get to from the 600. i guess it ain’t no different here in iraq, people is people, puttin’ names onto nameless things is just what folks do.
everybody here has a name and are called by it, as if we weren’t we’d all disappear in the heat. the kind of names you’d never call yourself, names like buzzkill and cowboy, agent orange and skin boss, what only your friends would call you, but we ain’t friends, not really, comrades i guess is what they call it, nothing more or less. they’ve come to callin’ me christmas, what i call myself now callin’ on the radio. christopher scott is what my mother would say, what she always said. she never called any of us anything, but the whole of our god given names. our family name is mann, which i reckon is the reasoning behind “christmas”, chris mann, though it’s hard to know how things come about the way they do.
everybody here has a reason, what they’ll tell you, what they tell themselves, but why is as hard a question as how, even harder. it’s hard to know anything let alone yourself. we all choose our paths, i’m sure of that, but you can’t really say where you’re goin’. it’s the not knowing that’s the root of believing, i think, and believing is the only sure road i know. i do my best and pray i’m goin’ in the right direction, the roads these days seem to take more twists and turns than before. i never thought my road would wind up out here, out on this highway of sorts, what strings bagdad to coalition camp and past, what the military types call camp anaconda. i can’t say how long it’s been or how it all happened. things like this seem to start on account of a lot of things, things adding up without you even knowin’ the math’s being done.
i was drivin’ for the sam’s club up in midwest city when i got the itch and went out on my own. i was a real picture, a genuine texas shit kicker, muscle and bone, new boots and mirrored sun glasses. i was 25 like i’d never be anything else, which is what it takes, i think, to be young. i’ve been driving independent since, pullin’ petrol chemicals from east texas and oil out of pascagoula, alabama pine lumber and louisiana frozen shrimp. i’m haulin’ diesel fuel today, what will be my last day, drivin’ contract for kbr, kellogg, brown and root, a houston company, what’s on the side of the door so you don’t forget, all of us all the way out here in iraq.
i never knew anyone or anything that didn’t come out of texas, when i was kid-eyed and went barefoot, when everything west and east of garret’s filling station seemed bigger than the sky. it was like the blue just reached the county line and no further, i would of sworn the black of route 6 never stopped. i’d watch it unravel out behind us, out the back of the old man’s pick-up or from the big bench seat of our old chevy car, mama and me and sissy. the 6 was a kind of magic, its black the only gap in a world of red texas dirt and blousy summer cotton, like a missing baby tooth, like a kind of promise that there was something else, somewhere else.
i’ve always loved roads, it’s the only life i’ve ever known, drivin’ day in and day out, a man is what a man does, what the old man would say. the t.v. news said it was the largest hurricane in history, since they’d been recordin’ such things. i took sarah and the girls up to crockett the night before, up to sarah’s mother’s place to wait out the storm. the girls and me watched the t.v. while sarah went with her mother to her mother’s prayer group at the crockett first baptist church. they did their share of prayin’, but katrina tore the guts right out of the gulf anyway, right out of me and most everything. east texas did all right, but there was nothin’ much left to drive back to, most all the work in louisiana and mississippi was washed away or ruined with salt water. the insurance company said it was an act of god, as if there’s something that ain’t, that they were doin’ what they could, which didn’t seem to be much. rita hit just three weeks after like we hadn’t finished saying our prayers, like whatever katrina left standing still had a lesson to learn.
i lost the kenworth in cameron parish, in a warehouse waitin’ on a load of flash frozen shrimp. farmer’s totaled her, what with the truck’s payments and what it would take to fix her, it wasn’t worth it. we came out of it with next to nothin’, nineteen years i had my own rigs, what were the bank’s all along. it was the first time in my life i didn’t have work, i didn’t even know who i was without a wheel in my hand. we’d always lived pretty much week to week, paycheck to paycheck. all i had left was what i had in my pockets, sarah and the girls, two checks due from golden gulf seafood for august and the house with it’s roof the way it was. god gives and god takes, that’s what the bible says.
nothing last here, the sand gets in everywhere, it’s hard to know if the grease is doing more harm than good holdin’ onto the dirt the way it does. sometimes i think my blood’s gone to mud with all the crap in the air. i used to believe it was all a matter of momentum, that if you got yourself enough speed you could keep it, but life is a long grade and it’s the movin’ parts that wear and wear out. dying is easy, i guess, it seems it’s the living that’s the hard part, starting up and not stopping.
sarah came across something under her armpit, what the doctor in beaumont said needed to be tested, what i imagined to be a sort of shadow and him in a white button shirt. a laboratory somewhere by some number said it was a breast cancer, i was in the kitchen reading the examiner ‘bout a kansas farmer plowin’ up some kind of meteorite in his field when she got the call. it was december sixth, it was almost eleven by the electric clock on the wall above the oven. i don’t know why i remember all that the way i do, i just do. i couldn’t tell you what day the old man passed on and i forget the years now, but i remember the girls eatin’ ice cream in mama’s kitchen after the service, mint chocolate chip, and helen and annie in their little blue dresses crying that they wanted chocolate and mama smilin’ the way she did and telling ’em in her church way that it was chocolate and mint both and that they didn’t have to think about the mint if they didn’t want to. i can’t recall her saying a thing about the funeral or the old man dying. it’s funny what you remember, i guess sometimes it’s the little things that stay with you, the big things bein’ just plain more than god expects you to carry.
a doctor in houston did the operation, what he does everyday, what they say, i suppose, to make you feel like it’s just another day and nothin’ more than ordinary. he took them both on account of sarah being the age she was and the odds of the cancer coming back. it got so i couldn’t stop the damn numbers in my head, the stages and the medical statistics, the survival rates and the chemo schedules, the weeks and months when we had years between us. there was a time when i could tell you the miles between every town along the gulf, pensacola to lake charles and on into texas. it seems like i can’t remember a thing now, like it was all someone else’s life then, like all i remember is both ends of the road, like the middle was just the heat comin’ up off the tar top like it does.
i don’t know what they did with the parts of her they cut away. i suppose it’s an irregular thought and all, but i can’t help thinkin’ ‘bout it now, with these marines, kids really, comin’ in in pieces, contractors and third party nationals gettin’ wacked every week, what they call ‘em like they ain’t really men. she was comin’ home from her group meetin’, sarah had her cancer group on monday nights, what’s the first thing in the mornin’ here, the next day. she never said much about ‘em, but she seemed to like the women and all. she told me she felt lucky somehow, that she felt healed and whole and such, but i’m not sure she believed it, even if the tests said they got it all. the night before the morning kbr flew me out, me and this good old boy from hereford, sarah cooked up steaks and made my favorite potato salad and we all ate dinner together like it was a thanksgiving or a christmas. sarah went off to bed early, the girls and me watched american idol on the t.v.. i could see the light down the hall from our bedroom and her sittin’ there on her side of the bed in front of her dresser. she never looked up when i came in, she just said that she didn’t know where the time goes and closed the little yellow envelopes where she keeps locks of the girls’ hair from their first hair cut. where she’s kept them all these years, what seemed nothing and turned out to be something after all. she always knew where everything was, til this and part of the roof went missing.
everyone here has lost something, you wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t, even jesus had his hands in his pockets and his days in the desert. no one is looking much past the back of the truck in front of them, but i suppose we’ve all found something anyway, being out here, being this close to all this dying everyday. it ain’t nothin’ you can look for, i think, but something that’s always been there, something in your upbringing maybe that got set there. i came for the money, i didn’t see any other way, with the medical bills and the the house and all. but the truth is it’s in my blood, the drivin’ and the road and the long lines of nothin’. the old man told me once, he said, “boy, anything you’d do for money that you wouldn’t do for free is likely to be no good”. he took his boots off on the porch steps like he did and he said, “live a honest life, that’s all i expect of you” and he went on in the house, his overalls still in the truck, what he’d leave ‘til friday when mama would soak ‘em til saturday and put ‘em out to dry all day sunday ‘til evening, when she’d bring ‘em in and fold ‘em, even if they were his work clothes.
the sundays we had together weren’t enough, what i’ll keep in her top dresser drawer, pictures of her with her long hair and the girls growin’ up and me with that damn mustache, birthday cards and a niagara falls scene in a ball that looks like it’s snowing when you shake it. the state police said a semi-truck drifted into her lane right near the end of the 105, they said she died instantly, all that life just all at once. i’m thankful it was quick, sarah’d suffered enough, what with the cancer and the chemo and all, what she licked and never let any of it turn her smile, not once. the girls are at their grandmother’s in crockett, in their mother’s old room, what edna’s kept all these years like sarah’d be comin’ home from high school that afternoon.
she was just eighteen, she was waitressin’ at that big truck stop out on the 45 outside of huntsville when we met. i can’t never remember the name, but for the sign that said “food” in green neon, and “diesel” in red. i don’t know how we got to talkin’ like we did, past her pouring me more coffee and past her shift. i don’t remember a time when i didn’t love her, but it’s hard to know how things get started.
(published, The Alaska Quarterly, 2007)