True Road Warriors

THE MAN GRINNED AS he looked down at the speedometer . . . watching as the interstate peeled by at seventy-five miles an hour . . . taken the best part of eighteen years to get to this point, he thought, and I’ve been to every corner of the United States with this old truck, hundreds of times, and tens of thousands of miles; I wonder what all those nay-sayers who told me I’d never make it would think . . . wonder what they’d say . . . if they could see me now, outside of McAlester, Oklahoma, home of one of the toughest penitentiaries in the country. . . he flipped on his turn signal then . . . jittery from two straight weeks on the road, with the endless mile markers that disappeared into the endless highways, the endless headlights of on-coming cars and the endless cups of bitter black coffee from the endless truck stops, all with the same dull menus, the same greasy, high-carb food . . . and he coasted, aiming to stop as far off of the shoulder as he could get, coming to rest at a spot barren and devoid of life except for some stunted, desiccated and noxious-looking weeds, a couple of broken bottles, and a few bits of loose trash mixed with pebbles and sand that whipped around and stung the skin in the blasts of compressed air and hot wind generated by the eighteen-wheelers booming past at eighty-plus miles per; finally, at a dead stop he put the transmission in park, rubbed his face with his hands and sat for a time . . . in the three-quarter ton Ford panel van he called The Mighty Whitey on account of its arctic-colored paint job . . . listening to its diesel engine at idle speed, making a throaty sound that always made him think of a great purring cat; he looked around for his cell phone; it was somewhere inside the truck he’d bought new seventeen and a-half years ago . . . funny, all those years and it still seems like yesterday, but two weeks on the road seems like forever . . . finally found the phone where it had slipped off the console, down between a couple of chicken boxes full of merchandise from the antique show he’d just done in Chicago and the auction he’d gone to in Pennsylvania the week before that; both successful as it turned out, he’d sold well; and he’d bought well, making several great purchases, especially the western memorabilia he planned on selling to a customer down in Austin; he smiled, thinking about the man, who was a millionaire several times over . . . not from ranching or oil and gas, but from selling tee-shirts at concerts . . . had handshake agreements with some of the biggest stars in the country-western music business, guys he’d grown up with in Austin, where they’d all gotten started in the industry; talent so big, they only had to say their first names to be recognized anywhere in the world; guys who’d grown up hard and poor, good ole boys who never forgot where they came from, a Texas network of entertainers and entrepreneurs; he retrieved the phone and checked its charge, then took photos, first the outside, then the inside, lastly the dash, with close-ups of the odometer he planned on sending to his dealer buddies, the same ones mocking him, making fun of the old truck . . . always asking snarky questions, and making snarky remarks . . . when you gonna get a new truck . . . dude, you look like a refugee in that old beater . . . boy, you must be takin’all the back roads home, that wreck you’re driving can’t do the speed limit . . . he hit the speed dial, listened to the ring, waited for Mary to answer, said, “hi, it’s me . . . McAlester . . . two, three hours, depends on traffic when I hit North Dallas . . . how’s Alex . . . poor old doggie . . . best one we ever had . . . me too . . . tear me up when he does . . . yeah, almost as long as the truck . . . hey, it’s why I called . . . finally did it . . . yeah . . . just rolled over to five hundred-thousand miles . . . great, just like when we bought it in ninety-two . . . oh, no honey . . . no, no I’m not . . . I think it’ll do another hundred-thousand . . . okay . . . yes, I will . . . love you too” . . . he shut the phone and checked his mirrors, dropped into gear and flipped on his left blinker, accelerating and moving ahead, merging into traffic as smoothly as a silver fish rejoining its school . . . saw himself in the rearview mirror then, saw the ear-to-ear grin still on his face . . . a grin so big and broad, a fire-axe couldn’t have knocked it off; they headed south . . . he and the old truck, a matched pair of true road warriors . . . homeward bound and easy in their element.