Truck Stop Angels | Craig O’Hara | The Piltdown Review

Truck Stop Angels

Truck Stop Angels

She’s standing alone outside the glass doors where you go in. One arm crossed against her chest, opposite elbow perched over her forearm, smoking a cigarette and holding herself close against that chill always hangs in the air right before the sun comes up no matter what time of year. You’ve seen her around truck stops like this all over the country a hundred or a thousand times in the thirty years you’ve been driving for a living—cute but kind of skinny, bad teeth, and hair that looks like she’s just woke up from some kind of nightmare. Or is still in the middle of one. Sometimes she turns out to be a whore. Other times she’s the gal behind the cash register or the cook. Or the girl just quit high school to work full-time who brings your eggs and coffee. Every now and again she’s only some gal from town, on her way to a third-shift job. Or headed home, stopped for a gallon of milk and some smokes.

You haul yourself across the dark parking lot toward the door, and in some ways she’s the same as always, at least from a distance. Closer up she’s completely different.

Up close she looks strange. She burns your eyes as you get near and makes your heart swell and ache in your chest like a big worn-through muscle, which is what it is you heard once. Just a muscle. You have to look at her kind of sideways to get a clear view, but even then she isn’t a hundred percent solid in the world—all rippled around the borders and, lit up from behind by the security lights’ shine, she’s got some kind of bright smoky halo sizzling around her.

But maybe it isn’t her at all. Maybe it’s the speed you’ve been smoking and the fact you haven’t really slept in what seems like years, decades maybe. Not since you were a kid. Back home.

You hold up for a minute in front of the doors with this girl burning in front of you, feeling everything out of whack inside. Like the last seventeen hours hauling a load of scrap TVs across New Mexico, the Texas panhandle, and Oklahoma has somehow pried you loose from any normal version of the world and left you teetering around in front of some supernatural vision of a truck stop in the middle of the night not sure if anything you’re seeing is real anymore.

But deep inside you know it doesn’t get any more real than this. This particular truck stop outside this particular town in southern Missouri. And you stuck here because the compressor on your rig’s gone out at the bottom of a long slow grade. A three hundred mile downhill run so subtle that you’d never notice it without a few thousand pounds hitched behind you. The kind of grade goes on forever down a stretch of road you’ve been traveling for years, thousands of midnight interstate miles running past tiny unconscious towns all dark and sealed up.

They all melt into the same road, the same town, the same forever downhill grade burning past and you smoking up the last smear of speed from a pipe fashioned out of a burnt-up light bulb. The flame cupping the globe as the meth sizzles and smokes and liquefies.

And then the air brake compressor goes. The pedal sinks nearly all the way to the floor.

So you downshift her into the parking lot and the emergency brake gets you stopped in a line of sleeping rigs with their running lights on.

You know this place. Same as all the others—a stop with showers, phones, fuel, a scrapyard and a mechanic can fix your rig, a café with breakfast and coffee. They all make good eggs, the coffee’s fresh, but never trust the tuna salad. Suddenly a cup of coffee becomes something you sorely need. Eggs and toast—something solid in your belly to help get your mind straight. And to get back on the road.

But instead you find yourself hung in a strange kind of limbo like you’ve never seen before with some wild hallucinatory girl burning and hovering by the doors.

You don’t need this. You need breakfast and your mind right and the sun up and that mechanic to get to work so you can haul this load of TVs in on time. Because that’s your job—on time. And that’s all you have these days. When you drive your own rig still working independent that’s all you’ll ever have. The rest—girls, speed limits, air brakes, coffee and eggs, DOT, truck stops, burning hallucinations, dirty bookstores, meth—is all bullshit. The only thing that truly matters is backing up to that loading dock in St. Louis on time. Or Bismarck or Wichita. That and getting paid. And getting home. If you got one.

“Hey there.”

Unsure if it’s the smoking girl by the door who’s said this because you still can’t look at her proper and the words seem to be coming from everywhere all at once, you give that sideways look a try but still the light around her scorches your brain in a profoundly unnatural way and makes your mouth go sandy and dry. The best you can do is nod. You want to get inside, but her simple presence has somehow stopped you. She isn’t blocking the door. In fact, it seems she’s moved aside to give you room to pass, but the feeling of her is smeared out across the front of the truck stop and there’s no way to get through without brushing up against it. This strikes you as more than you can take.

Again you try to look but the light’s everywhere now and you somehow see red sparks flying off of her like big chunks of lava bouncing across the parking lot.

You move around her quickly in a wide arc and sit yourself down on a metal bench by the newspaper boxes. You lean your head up against one of the boxes, a blue one with the paint bubbling up and bursting with rust underneath, and try to get a handle on things by concentrating your mind on an old Chevy sedan out at the gas pumps. It’s a four-door at least twenty years old with a dirty U-Haul trailer pulling the ass end down. You see a little boy’s face pressed against the passenger window. A little dark-haired boy with huge eyes like a cartoon character. He stares at you from behind the safety glass.

Everything begins to twist and spin in front of you and the sky’s dark still, but with that purple glow of light just starting to vein its way through the clouds. Out in the distance beyond the truck stop there’s nothing but the hills and the porch lights of a few lonesome houses twinkling like little stars and the quiet emptiness makes you feel a thousand miles from anything.

You think about the place you grew up back in the hills of southern Indiana. Needmore. A town that no longer exists. A town mostly moved out by the interstate. A place you left forty years ago and even when you pass through for a visit doesn’t look anything like home anymore. For some reason you think of a girl you knew in junior high. Her name was Beth. She was a little overweight with too many teeth fighting it out in her crowded mouth. But you were nothing to look at either. A skinny greasy kid. You took her out on a date once to a burger joint downtown that isn’t there anymore. None of it is, but it doesn’t matter now. All just flashes of light from another world long gone and passed away.

Staring down now into the pavement in front of you, all you can see is the girl’s feet shuffle past. She wears neon flower-design flip-flops and her toenails are painted and dirty. She sits down on the far end of the bench over by the cage full of LP gas canisters.

“You okay there?” she asks.

You try once again to look at her. You can almost see her straight on without feeling your eyes being set on fire in their sockets like charcoal briquettes. The light around her has faded, but she’s still a little wavy and that sizzling glow lingers like a visual residue around her. You try to tell her you’re fine. But you can’t be sure what comes out of your mouth is anything a person could understand. Security lights still blast away above you, but the Chevy with the U-Haul has left. You feel her staring at you.

“Got a cigarette?” she asks.

You hand her the pack and the lighter from your shirt pocket. As she takes them, you catch a glimpse of a homemade tattoo on the web of skin between her thumb and hand. A butterfly, but all blue and blurry. The wings look fine—large and tucked in close and all lobed like teardrops—but the body is damaged and deformed. You know she did this to herself. Jailhouse style—sewing needle wrapped in thread and a broken ink pen in a hot upstairs bedroom late at night all alone.

She’s wearing a T-shirt that’s a size too small. Light blue with Little Angel above in crimson cursive writing and Little Devil below in big black letters with orange flames coming off them. You get a quick look at her face and she’s young—maybe sixteen or seventeen. The shirt makes her look even younger. She exhales and the smoke rolls out of her like her insides are on fire.

“Did you see the fireworks tonight?” she asks.

“The what?” You feel like she’s talking to you from another planet.

“The fireworks.” She’s holding her cigarette down between her knees in a certain way with two thin fingers that seems some attempt at elegance.

“No, I just need coffee and a part for my truck.”

“They were for Princeton Days.”

She returns your pack and you fumble one out for yourself, light it, inhale deeply. The sharp warm smoke clears your head a little.

“They have them every year,” she says.

“I just now got here.”

“Oh yeah. I guess so.” She flips her elegant cigarette over and over with her thumb, worrying the filter into a frayed mess. “Lucky you.”

“Lucky me?

“Luckiest guy I met in a while.”

“Yeah, okay. Look, I just need my truck fixed.”

“The parade’s tomorrow,” she says still flipping at the filter of her cigarette. “About the biggest thing that ever happens around here. All the fat cats from around town riding out on the fire truck and the police cars and Bill Samuel’s stupid old cars from the Ford dealership.”

“Any idea what time the scrapyard over there opens?” You sit up and rub your eyes with your thumb and index finger, feeling like she’s somehow made coffee impossible.

“I guess really it’s today, isn’t it? The parade. Not that I care. All them people smiling and waving and driving down Van Buren Street like Princeton’s a big deal, like it’s New York City or whatever. Just makes me want to hurl.”

You flip your cigarette out in the parking lot and watch the bright spray of orange sparks as it bounces across the asphalt, the sun still buried somewhere down below the horizon.

“But how about you? Where you headed?” She drops her cigarette, steps on it.

You wonder what exactly this girl is trying to get at. Maybe she’s whoring, but she doesn’t seem like that and she’s far too young for you if it turns out that way. She doesn’t seem to be working inside at the truck stop either. She seems like something else entirely. Like a person just lost out in the dark world, holding something inside her. Something no one really cares to know.

“I’m not headed anywhere until I get a compressor from that scrapyard over there.”

“A compressor?” she asks.

You try to explain, but nothing comes out right. Like everything you try to say gets all twisted up and incomprehensible.

“Well anyways, I don’t think old Jimmy’s opening today,” she says nodding toward the scrapyard.

“Not opening?”

“Princeton Days. Everybody shuts down. Probably can’t get nothing anywhere until Monday.”

“Monday’s no good to me.”

“Just like I told you. Princeton Days,” she says.

“I got a load of TVs due tomorrow evening.”

“You mean this evening. It’s almost daylight again.”

“Oh. Yeah. Okay.”

“I could get you what you need.”

“What’s that?”

“Your part.” She leans back and you get the sense she’s smiling. Satisfied like she just handed you something’s been lost for years. “But one thing. You have to take me with you when you get your truck running.”

The last thing you want is to take on a rider, especially not a young girl, maybe even a runaway, but it’s starting to look like the only deal you have.

So you tell her you’ll take her.

“You know what ‘Los Angeles’ means?” she screams up to you.

All you can manage is a grunt as you try to hoist yourself over a chain-link fence meant to keep people like you out of this scrapyard. The fence is only about ten feet high here, away in a stand of spindly woods, far from the truck stop. She’s shown you this. This spot at the back of the scrapyard where the fence is half as tall as the part facing the interstate where there isn’t any rusty barbed wire tangled around the top. This place hidden from security lights and state troopers and everything else in the world.

The girl is down below already in the yard, having practically flown over the fence. Behind her the sun is just starting to creep above the horizon. Still low in the sky behind the trees far from fully illuminating the rusted hulking outlines of old Mack and Peterbilt trucks—some still with cabs and sleepers, others just naked frames, grass growing between the rails and nothing but big Cummins engines perched on them. Like skeletons of long extinct creatures.

She screams something else up, but you can’t make it out. Sounds like “the pretty cost of angels,” but it can’t be that. And at this moment you don’t care what she’s hollering up to you. Your focus is simply hanging on. Near upside down, the heel of one engineer boot flung over the fence top, your hands wrapped around the cold dewy-slick metal bar, dangling up in space alone.

Here, high above the ground, you find yourself for some reason wondering why life has to be like this—some kind of badly conceived scheme in the middle of a long mixed-up night. You wonder how everything you do ends up this way.

In the midst of, or maybe to escape from, this strange reverie, you pull up one burst of effort that hoists you onto the fence. If you had anything in your stomach, you’d be retching it up. You look down and see the girl a little more clearly below. She’s tiny with her arm crossed against her chest and her opposite elbow perched on her forearm, chewing on her fingernail. From your perspective she could be looking up from a deep pit.

“They call it that because everybody there is beautiful but lost and all alone,” she screams up. You have no idea what she means.

Your head still hurts like inside your skull your brain’s trying to pound its way out and you consider just giving up and letting yourself slip loose and thunder toward the ground. For some reason you wonder would the girl stretch out her arms and try to catch you? Or would she step back and let you slam into the earth?

But you don’t let yourself fall. Instead you haul yourself over the fence and try to get down the other side. You remember how easily you scrambled up and down chain-link fences back when you were a kid. But now your blocky steel-toed engineer boots are too large to wedge into the diamond-shaped toeholds of the fence, your arms no longer limber enough to reach down and lower yourself smoothly to earth.

So you end up dropping the last two or three feet to the ground, losing your balance when you hit. She stands above you now staring down and chewing her fingernail as you lay in the dirt and scrubby crabgrass. She’s enormous above you now as if she’s doubled in size all of a sudden.

“So that’s why they call it that,” she mumbles through her hand.

“Call what, what?” Lying prostrate beneath her, it’s as if she’s somehow dragging you into her world. Into some crazy story that doesn’t make sense at all.

“Los Angeles,” she says. “Haven’t you even been listening to me?”

“I was a little busy,” you reply. “With the fence?”

She chews her nail a little more intently and looks down at you as if she doesn’t quite understand. “Los Angeles. It means city of lost angels. That’s what they call it.”

“I never heard it called that.” You haul yourself carefully to your feet, pick up your tool bag, and, leaving the girl to trail along behind, wander into the junkyard in search of what you need.

The girl catches up. “That’s where we should go. You know, once you get your truck running.”

“Where?”

“Los Angeles. Haven’t you been listening?”

You haven’t been listening. Not really. Only one thing you need in this junkyard at dawn illegal as hell and suddenly it appears right in front of you—an old Freightliner stripped down to the bare frame, weeds grown up between the rails with a good-looking compressor clean and clear as day. So easy to get at it’s like a trick someone’s playing on you.

“I’m on my way to St. Louis,” you tell her as you stomp down the weeds to get a clearer shot at the compressor.

“But, you know, after that,” she says, but her voice is nothing more than background static as you open your tool bag and get to work.

The bolts come easy, not dry and rusty like you’d expect on a junk rig’s been sitting outside. Like it’s somehow preserved out here in the weeds. Reminds you of those crazy stories about preserved saints you hear from truckers who’ve gotten religion. They’ll tell you all about some saint from centuries ago and how, when someone dug him up years after he’d gotten himself killed, his body was clean and perfect. Like he’d only died that day, or never died at all.

“But I have a story to tell you before we head out to L.A. together. It’s real important you listen,” the girl says.

You nod, but you’re pretty sure you never promised to take her to Los Angeles or any other place. Other than away from here.

“My mother brought me to Princeton when I was just a little kid. She came here with her husband at the time. My stepdad. His name was Dominic D’Amico. People called him Nick the Wop.”

“Not very nice,” you say, thinking of that unfortunate nickname.

“No, he was an okay guy,” she replies, completely missing your meaning. “But his niece who came to live with us was a real B-I-T-C-H, excuse my French, as they say.”

“Oh, excused,” you reply, still working on the bolts and only halfway listening.

“I’m not even going to tell you if you aren’t going to take this serious. It’s important. Without the story you can’t understand anything.”

You tell her you’ll take it seriously, but mostly your mind is all alone in itself as you work on the big Cummins engine. You hand her all the bolts and fittings as you get them off. She’s holding them for you and going right on with her story as if you’re listening on any kind of level at all.

“So this niece, she was a kid, not even ten years older than me. She only lived with us maybe a year, but she used to babysit me while Mom was at work and Nick was at the bar he opened. Sometimes she’d tear the heads off my Barbies and throw them up on the roof just out of meanness I think, but mostly she just ignored me.”

You find yourself wanting to ask if it was the Barbie heads or the decapitated bodies that ended up on the roof, but you figure it would only further twist up the story and drag it out longer, so you just keep working.

“So most every day Nick’s niece, Shelley. Her name was Shelley. I remember because I called her Smelly Shelley.”

“Because she smelled?” you stop work to ask, unable to resist. As if this bizarre story that doesn’t even seem to be going anywhere is pulling at you, dragging you into itself against your own will.

“No, because she didn’t smell. That’s a smell too.”

“Well, of course it is.”

“You’re making fun of me again, aren’t you?”

You don’t even get to answer.

“Go ahead. Make fun, but think about it. Haven’t you ever met somebody who didn’t smell like nothing and then you think isn’t that weird, a no-smell smell?"

“Yeah, I suppose so.” You go back to your task and give her another bolt. She holds them in her left hand she has wrapped around her, still gnawing on the fingernails of her other while you work in the growing light.

“Are you sure you’re listening?”

“Smelly Shelly. Niece. Babysitting. Got it.”

“Seriously. I told not to make fun. This story’s important.”

“I know. Tell away. I’m listening.”

“So one day Smelly Shelley’s babysitting me like usual, ignoring me and reading one of her celebrity magazines like she always did.”

You get the last bolt out, hand it to the girl, the compressor breaks loose, and even the gasket holds together like you might even be able to reuse it on your rig. Still some preserved saint of a compressor. Like God, if you ever believed in him, has suddenly decided to deal you something right, making you feel you’re getting something you never deserved.

You creak your spine up straight and everything is softened and the sun is nearly up. Your mind is starting to work itself together, and you look at this girl straight on for a good long time. She’s become something solid in the world.

“So you know what she did?” the girl asks.

“Who?”

She drops her arm to her side like she’s finally had enough. “You haven’t listened to a word have you?”

“Look . . .”

“You think I’m stupid, don’t you?”

“Honestly?” And like always with things you know you shouldn’t say the words seem to come in slow motion, run together like a line spinning out leaving you to feel guilty even before you finish. “Yeah, a little bit.”

The words hit, and you can see them physically knock her back a few steps. She steadies herself, stomps her foot on the earth, and tears off into the woods on the other side of the junkyard.

You tell yourself you don’t care. That you’re nothing but relieved. She obviously has her problems and so do you. The only one for you right now is a load that has to be in St. Louis on time. So you stand and watch her sprint away between old trucks, trees, and piles of junk body parts.

But then you realize all at once she still has the bolts and fittings and gaskets in her hand. Parts you need. And it’s a feeling like everything inside you has dropped right out.

There’s no way this works without her.

So you’re off after her, the compressor under your arm like a football, breaking into as much of a jog as you can manage and you wonder what to say. You start to feel bad for the meanness you’ve just hit her with, calling out for her to wait. Calling out that you’re sorry. That you truly want to hear the rest of her story.

Deeper into the woods you slow to a walk and feel that cool, humid, mossy sense of nearby water. A creek or river. Your brief jog feels like it’s half ripped your lungs out. You stop for a minute to breathe with the dawn finally breaking through the sky and the woods all green everywhere like some kind of garden. Like color has come suddenly into the world for the first time anywhere, ever.

You have to watch your step for all the truck parts scattered around and half buried—radiator hoses, water pumps, old batteries. All dragged down from the scrapyard proper by mud and erosion and time. You hear the water as you get closer and sure enough at the bottom is the creek and the girl sitting on a mossy log staring into the dirty brown water. She’s chewing her fingernails again and looks blank all over.

So you sit down next to her with your lungs still in shreds.

“Look, I’m sorry, okay?” you say between deep painful breaths.

“You don’t have to be.” She’s staring into the water like she’s seeing something profound in that creek bottom makes her sad or regretful. But it’s nothing more than rusted truck parts buried in mud beneath the surface. “All I ever done is try to help people.”

“I know.”

“No you don’t.” She turns on you now, and looking straight at you she’s still somehow too much to take. “Know how I can tell?”

You make a big deal out of placing the compressor on the ground so she won’t see you trying to avoid her eyes.

“Because you don’t think of nobody but yourself.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“No maybe. It’s for sure.”

She’s still holding the parts you need in her hand, but they don’t feel as important. You tell her you want to hear the rest of her story. You’ll listen this time. You promise. You promise her that one thing.

“Okay,” she replies. “But only because, like I said, it’s real important.”

You nod like you do when you’re listening real good.

“You can’t get nothing else until you understand this story.”

“Sure.”

“Okay. So, like I said before, Shelley’s watching me and I’m like nine.”

“Okay.”

“Or maybe I was ten. But anyways, we’re sitting at the kitchen table and out of nowhere Shelley shoves this magazine she’s reading into my face. It’s one of those celebrity magazines, but it has this old picture in it like from back in black-and-white days. And it’s the Hollywood sign. You know, the famous one.”

“Sure, the Hollywood sign.”

“But in this picture the sign looks all tore up and dirty. Weeds growing around it. And this girl is standing in front of it. Well, in front of the H. That’s all you can see in the picture. And this girl, she’s all old-timey, you know. With that eye makeup makes people look sad.”

“Yeah, I know the makeup,” you say.

“So she’s got one of those old-time gowns on. Long and white and puffy around the front.”

You nod and feel like something inside you has given up, like this girl’s story has hauled you into her world. Some universe where the compressor parts and the junk TVs and St. Louis might melt away into a deep smooth pool inside you where before everything was nothing but dry and dead and jagged.

“And she has these wings.” The girl stares at you like this should mean something, but you’re not sure what. “Huge tall white wings standing up behind her. And they’re beautiful. Even if she is old-timey and she’s standing there with her arms stretched out like she’s calling to you or about to hug you. And that makeup—it’s like she’s ready to cry or just done crying.”

“And?”

“And Smelly Shelly shows me and says, ‘That’s the city of lost angels.’ Just like that and then she yanks the magazine back and it’s gone and I never seen that picture since then. She takes it and looks at it and says, ‘Los Angeles. That’s want it means—the city of lost angels.’ ”

“Then?”

“Then what?”

“Then what happened?” you ask and somewhere inside yourself, on that log, surrounded by useless junk, you really do need to know what happened next. It seems everything else is gone and this story all you have.

The girl just shrugs and looks back at the creek. “That’s it. That’s the story. I suppose after that she made me go get her a soda pop out of the icebox or something. Like I said, she was real mean that way.”

She still has all the parts in one hand and she’s back to chewing her nails on the other.

“It’s just that this girl in the picture looked so lonesome standing there in front of that big old worn-out sign with nobody else in the world for her. Like she really was some kind of lost angel.”

You knock the last two cigarettes from your pack, light them both, and give one to her. You think about the story, but it still doesn’t make any sense—L.A. being the city of lost angels. As if that flat brown city were some kind of heaven for people who can’t find their way to any place better. You’ve never noticed anything heavenlike about Los Angeles. Or San Diego or Dallas or Duluth or Cape Girardeau or anyplace else you’ve ended up or gone through or pulled out of. But it’s hard to say what passes for heaven these days. Maybe just finding a place where everyone else is just as alone as you. Maybe that has to do.

The sun’s all the way up now, coming strong through the branches and leaves in the trees above, making the creek surface ripple and shine and reflect all that light back so you can’t even see the mud and old truck parts down below. You hear the birds come alive in the trees, or maybe they been there all along and you never noticed until now. Never noticed they could sound like some kind of choir. Like they did when you were a kid. Before you left home. And you decide you’ll really try to make sense of the story she’s told you. It’s like this might be the last time you’ll have a chance. It’s just one story from out back of a junkyard, but maybe one story’s all we ever really get.  

            
2018 Fall/Winter Fiction Contest—First Prize $500

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