by Laura Tahir
It was August 1976. Sam stopped and looked down from the cab of his Big-OJ Tanker. Under the streetlight near the truck stop exit he saw the ragamuffin shuffling his feet on a patch of grass coming out between concrete slabs beaten down and cracked by years of careless, reckless traffic. A young white boy, probably in his teens, Sam thought. The boy wore a baseball cap and baggy jeans, and he held a stuffed pillowcase close to his chest. Sam had seen him in the truck stop restroom washing his face about a half hour earlier and wondered why so late at night this boy was there alone.
“You think you’re going to get somewhere just standing there? What’s your name, boy?” Sam asked.
“Jamie. Can you please give me a ride? I’m going to see my grandmother,” Jamie lied. He thought the man would refuse if he said he was running away from home to nowhere.
“Where you going?” Sam asked, not waiting for an answer. “You think you can keep talking? Keep me awake? I’m taking orange juice to northeast Ohio. We’ll be in New Jersey a bit more, then Pennsylvania Rte 80 West, the most godawful stretch of gray and black nothingness you’ll ever see. Think you can do it?”
Jamie nodded, “Yes, Sir. Perfect. My grandmother, she lives in Ohio.”
Sam noticed the boy’s voice was unusually deep. He watched the kid walk around the front of the truck to the passenger side, eyes wide in wonder at the long cylindrical tank. Sam pushed the door open. He was relieved he would have some company for the long ride ahead.
Jamie jumped on the step and held on to the grab handle, sliding onto the seat without letting go of the pillowcase. It was a big tanker, an eighteen-wheeler, very fine inside and out. Jamie tried to hide his awe at the gauges and dials. The cab darkened when he pulled shut the heavy door, but Jamie kept in his head the image of the sparkly red and blue dash nobs. Who would think that orange juice would warrant such an attractive transport?
“My name’s Sam. Where in Ohio?”
“It’s in the northern part. I have the phone number and she’s expecting my call.” Jamie stared ahead into the night and his body stiffened. He would have to come up with a city in Ohio for his fictitious grandmother to live in. He had been at the truck stop for hours and no one had even bothered to look at him. And now, what good fortune! This truck was clean and smelled like fresh apples and cinnamon. He was afraid one wrong move could ruin it and he would be dumped on the side of the road.
By the light of the exit sign Sam noticed the boy’s delicate fingers gripping the pillowcase on his lap. Strands of hair, the color of pink champagne, poked out of the boy’s stuffed cap on to his pale white face and neck. Seconds later when they were on the highway the cab was a murky blur inside. “After a while you can see again. Your eyes get used to it,” he told Jamie. “I just keep focused on that white line in front of me.”
“Uh huh,” Jamie said.
“You’re going to have to talk, like I said. I can’t keep this up for ten hours if you fall asleep. It’s black out there, darker than my face, and we’re only going to hear this engine hum. If you don’t talk, I fall asleep and we crash. Both of us. It doesn’t have to be real what you say. Just keep it interesting.”
“Well, she lives in Cleveland?” Jamie knew little about geography, but he had heard his father talk about the Cleveland Indians, some sports team, and he saw Cleveland on the big map posted at the truck stop. He looked over at Sam for some reassurance that his story made sense but could not see the man’s face. By the glow of the dash assembly he watched Sam’s big brown hands and his casual hold on the steering wheel.
Sam heard the boy’s diffidence and hoped he would be able to ignore it. “I can get you to Cleveland. If that’s really where she lives. Why you going to your grandmother?”
“She’s Irish. I mean, my parents are sick. I mean I think my dad he’s going to die and my mom she can’t take care of all of us. There’s my brother and another brother. I don’t have any sisters. A cousin of mines is in prison.” His voice squeaked out sentences and Jamie felt foolish.
“That’s good.” Sam glanced over at the boy. “You going to hold that bag for the next ten hours? You can put it in the back, you know.”
Jamie didn’t want to let go of his property, but Sam’s voice was comforting. He tossed the pillowcase into the darkness behind his seat, and just then the green neon billboard of Dad’s Big Boy 2 MILES ON THE RIGHT shined on Jamie’s bulging torso. Sam saw the bra under Jamie’s tee shirt.
“Remember you need to talk to me, keep me awake,” Sam said. He was annoyed and disappointed, but he couldn’t swat her out the window as he would a bee on his dashboard. Besides, they were already on the road. His team driver had stolen from him and deserted the truck at the last stop, and the cops didn’t believe Sam’s story. He was tired. As long as the kid keeps me awake, he thought. Sam saw that Jamie was a girl, trying to pass as a boy to protect herself, so he would play along with it. He knew what it was like to pass. He had been forced to pass all his life.
Jamie slumped forward and held his elbows. “My dad’s really a rotten man, and my mom she’s not much better. Once when I was a kid my dad he locked me up in the attic for a whole night with a mad bat. I think the bat was diseased. He kept squealing all night and banging into the wall. I kept pounding my fists on the door and my dad told me to act like a man. And my mother she was gone somewhere. See if I care about any of them now.”
“I don’t care much for mine either,” Sam said. The tenderness he felt toward this girl Jamie who was trying to sound and act like a boy was uncomfortable.
“What did yours do?” Jamie caught himself speaking in his higher voice. He cleared his throat and forced a burp sound.
Sam’s laugh was unrestrained and mellow. He told Jamie about how his black father, a colonel in the US Air Force, and his German mother met during the War. He told Jamie about how he went to schools for rich kids, run by proper people who taught him the tenets of white tradition. He played the cello and learned the classics of music. His mother wouldn’t let him play jazz. “She was mentally ill. They called it ‘mental’ back then,” Sam said.
“Oh, I heard of that,” Jamie said. He wanted to break the momentary silence, to keep Sam awake and talking. “They don’t let me play loud music back home. They never told me to read books.”
Book titles of the great white men ran through Sam’s head. He had read the canons of literature, but never read Richard Wright, never read Zora Neale Hurston. In college Sam read Giovanni’s Room, but he couldn’t stay interested in Baldwin’s sexual struggles. Long rides made Sam reminiscence, but he knew he shouldn’t drift into private thought this late at night.
“What matters now is that I’m free. And I can drive this truck,” he said. “This is freedom, Jamie. Pure joy.”
Sam’s talk was easy. He didn’t dismiss the boy and there was no harsh confrontation. Such graciousness was foreign to Jamie. His stomach rumbled as the big truck sped through the dark. Jumping onto the highway was not an option, so Jamie jiggled his cap and chewed on the skin of his right thumb, soothing himself. He leaned into Sam’s poise and acceptance and away from his own miasmic insecurities. Fifty or so miles into their ride Jamie imagined there was nothing he would not tell Sam. He became jaunty and emboldened and wanted to impress the man.
“I went to Catholic High School. Old religious fogies run the place. So one day I got kicked out because I dyed my hair black. It was long then, longer than it is now, and I had curled it into an Afro and I had went to school like that. But that was nothing compared to the marijuana we grew in the garden behind the church. And then there was the Quaaludes and diet pills we stole from the Ministry’s Medication to Haiti Charity. I swear that was just a cover for the priests. They got theirselves more high off of that donated stuff than what they sent to Haiti.” Jamie watched for Sam’s reaction, but he couldn’t detect the man’s features in the dark. “My parents tried to get me to enlist in the Army early.” So far his stories had been more or less true, but Jamie was rapt by his narrative and told Sam that his grandmother agreed to let him live with her so he wouldn’t have to go to jail.
There were no vehicles in sight. Sam braked and pulled the truck to the side of the road. “We may have a problem here,” he said.
Jamie slapped his right hand hard against the right side of his face and cupped his hands over his ears. “It ain’t my fault,” he yelled, and pushed his head onto his knees.
Jamie’s sudden response surprised Sam. “You have drugs in that sack?” he asked the boy.
“No, no, believe me! Please, Sam. I’ll show you the bag.” Jamie reached back to find the pillowcase and felt the subtle reassuring pressure of Sam’s hand on his arm. “I made that up about the jail, Sam. Honest.”
“OK, I believe you.” Sam heard the fear in Jamie’s voice. She’s too vulnerable, he thought. He turned on the overhead cabin light. “Let me see your face.”
Jamie turned his face quickly showing both sides. “It’s nothing. I do it all the time.”
They rode on for several miles. Sam thought he heard Jamie crying and he cursed to himself for bringing her along. “You’re supposed to talk. You can’t sleep on me now. You have to talk.”
Jamie wriggled around on the seat. He wanted to hear more about Sam. “So what’s the story with that white trash hick back there who was arguing with you?” Jamie asked. He had heard them at the truck stop, saw the young red-head tell Sam he was finished with trucks. There was something wrong with that red-head with fitful movements and paranoia: You think I don’t know you’re trying to infiltrate my head? You better find one of your kind, a mulatto that wants to sit with you all day and night because I’m done. “Was he on speed? I think he took your CB radio, didn’t he.” Jamie said rather than asked. “I seen the cops laughing.”
“Oh, yes, the partner. You’re observant. So by the way am I.” Sam looked over at Jamie’s dim form, confused by his need to protect her and at the same time drop her off at the next stop and get away fast. Girls are smart but they are trouble. Sam felt tricked and exposed. She thinks and talks too much. She’s trying to pry. I have to treat her like a boy so she doesn’t get too personal.
More silence, and the dark, and Sam said, “Yeah, you’re right, Jamie. The cops did nothing. They won’t find him because they won’t look for him.” Then he sang a commercial ditty, his voice deep and rich as golden honey: One man sleeps while the other man drives,/on the nonstop Lawson run./ And the cold, cold juice in the tank truck caboose/ stays as fresh as the Florida sun./ Roll on, Big-O! Get that juice up to Lawson’s in 40 hours.
Jamie heard the absurdity and became giddy. He giggled and Sam laughed.
The hours went by and the colorless blank space around them was for the most part untouched by anything but the occasional glaring signs on Rte 80, mostly ads for food and gas, and the constant hum of the truck engine. Jamie’s voice settled in and he told Sam the story of his life, and Sam was relieved that the focus was no longer on him.
She didn’t know when it happened, but it seemed natural for Jamie to hear Sam refer to her as female. They came to a truck stop halfway across Pennsylvania and Sam told her to wait for him to help her get out of the cab. Sam’s effortless interaction with the attendant who refueled the truck made Jamie feel safe. In the restaurant Sam ordered coffee and fried eggs, but there Jamie felt small and insignificant when the tired waitress perked up and bantered with Sam, made him laugh while they waited for their breakfast. Jamie’s anticipatory dread was familiar. Sam could flee, abandon her and run off with the waitress. There were only two other truckers at the restaurant at that early hour. Why did it take forever to get their food? Once they were served, they ate quickly.
“You go on ahead. I’ll wait outside the Ladies’ Room for you,” Sam said as he tapped Jamie’s shoulder and motioned with his eyes toward where she would find the restroom.
When Jamie saw Sam waiting for her outside the restroom, she rubbed her eyes to hide tears. She was thrilled that Sam didn’t see her as a full-blown mess of a baffled teenage boy. She didn’t have to tell Sam she was a girl. He knew it. Most definitely a girl. Maybe Jamie could really be the girl she knew she was. Why was it so difficult for everyone else to accept what she knew to be true, that she had been a girl for as long as she could remember? Her brothers had always wanted trucks and trains and guns for Christmas, but Jamie wanted a doll house, art supplies, a sewing machine. Her father had forced her to go fishing with them. Jamie hated worms. And she hated everyone for insisting she was a boy. She hated her parents, her brothers, the friends she tried to impress with her disorderly conduct, her teachers, her doctors, the whole world.
Jamie was gleeful, but also confused and sad. Would it be possible to ride the rest of her life as a girl, a woman? Would she, like her mother, have to conform to what others expected of her? Would she lose male autonomy? She wanted Sam to make sense of the inchoate mass of feelings that vexed her. Surely he could do this. If she were really female, he could make her feel better. He would illuminate her world, clarify the muddy obscurity around her. Jamie had no vision yet of female agency. She had a vague sense she must give herself to Sam, whatever that meant, but she knew she would only disappoint him.
“They got a lady’s shower on the other side, girl. Go ahead if you want to be clean for your grandma, but you have to be fast. We still have a ways to go.” Sam told Jamie.
“No, Sir. Sam. It’s OK. I’ll wash when I get there.” She followed him back to the restaurant and watched him carefully pack four large coffees and some donuts in a bag. His ease of action made Jamie think Sam must own the place.
For the next two hundred miles they drank coffee and ate donuts, and they talked. Sam, born the year World War II ended, spoke as if he had fought in it. Jamie was half Sam’s age, and her tales were often veiled, incomplete, and scattered, but they kept Sam awake. Jamie spoke of how her parents, especially her father, didn’t understand her.
“Maybe he just doesn’t understand girls,” Sam offered.
“Maybe. Maybe no one understands girls.” Jamie said, and Sam laughed.
“We only have about an hour to go. You got to keep talking to me.” Sam said. With one hand on the steering wheel, he reached behind his seat and fumbled for several seconds. “I almost forgot. I save these delicious Jersey sweet babies for the last miles,” he said, holding the two obscure orbs in front of Jamie. Tell me you don’t love this fresh smell. These were my mother’s favorites.” He put one of the apples in Jamie’s hands and took a bite from the other.
Jamie was calmed by Sam’s reminiscence. She felt as well the power of words to recall the stories of her own life. She came to think it would be her talk that would cause the morning sun to rise.
It was light out when they arrived at Lawson’s convenience store in Parma, Ohio. Sam bought Jamie a gallon of orange juice and a package of deli meats and gave her some dollar bills and coins. “There’s phones around the back of the store. I got to get my tank of juice to the bottle plant now. It was a good ride for me, Miss Jamie.” Sam laughed. “Do me a favor. Get some money for a bus next time. You were lucky I picked you up. Some white trash hick trucker could have taken advantage of you. And don’t hook up with the boys at the carnivals. Listen to your grandma.”
Jamie, besotted, looked at Sam’s face in the bright sun. She had no idea where she would go or what she would do, but a surreal whisper intimated she could be herself. It was the greatest ride of her young life. Jamie felt a zealous intent to add to her life story. This is freedom, pure joy, she thought. “Thanks, Sam.”
About the Author:
Laura Tahir, PhD, is a psychologist with practices in NYC and Allentown, NJ. She has published articles in popular and academic books and journals. “Story Time” is her first published short story.