Yves LeRoche captained a big truck.
His truck was a cell in the circulatory system of the nation, his cargo a dollop of the economy's lifeblood. Throughout his decades of service Yves prided himself on being as reliable a cell as he could be -- punctual, accountable, steady -- a bastion of competence and care that slipped along the highways without resistance like a pat of warm butter on a skillet.
"We're all in it together," he used to say when chatting up folks at diners or gas stations or when helping out with a breakdown at the side of the road. "Traffic is a social affair."
As a driver he was cautious and constant, and he thought of himself as a kind of father to the lesser vehicles of the road who rode in his long shadow, content to follow and be guided by his stalwart and considered progress. His truck was a buffer against the frenetic danger of snarled metropolitan traffic, an island of certainty and safety to whom others could magnetize to find their way through the flow.
Most of his fellow truckers called Yves "Papa Rock" although some of the old timers called him "Frenchy" because he had been born in Baton Rouge. His grandmother used to speak French to him as a boy but Yves could never make heads or tails of it. "It's all Greek to me," he liked to joke.
He could smell an accident from miles downroad, something in the air that troubled him several minutes before the first compression waves signalled by bursts of red braking lights began to ripple toward him from the horizon. His sensitivity to the patterns of locomotion seemed at times to border on precognition.
But the big accident -- his final accident -- Yves did not see coming.
Papa Rock LeRoche picked up the hitchhiker on the west side of the Oregon line.
A late afternoon thunderstorm was blowing out to the east leaving in its wake shiny roads and wet fields, and standing at the border of an example of each was a round-shouldered youth soaked to the bone, huddled against the spring breeze. By his feet was a sign that must have once advertised his destintion but had now been reduced to an asymmetrical Rorschach.
"Where you headed?" called Yves.
"New York City," said the damp hitchhiker.
"Come on up," nodded Yves, leaning over to release the passenger door.
The boy climbed up onto the cab and slipped inside after shaking a flurry of spume from his jacket and knapsack. He looked startled when he saw Yves fixing him with a hard look. "You don't want to be leaving that sign there," said Yves. "It's a shame to litter America. We all have to live here together, right?"
Once that was taken care of Yves moved the rig into gear and nosed back out onto the freeway. As they jostled along he asked the boy's name.
"Joe," he said, his accent thick and sharp edged.
"Bullsquat," said Yves not unkindly. "You don't look like a Joe."
"It is my American name."
"What's your real name, son?"
"It is Alishaer, sir."
"Good to meet ya, Al. They call me Papa Rock but my name's Yves."
"Thank you very much for stopping, Mr. Yves."
They drove in silence a while until Yves noticed the youth shivering and pulled a rough woolen blanket out of the back of the cab with a grunt. Alishaer was grateful. He used it to dry his short black hair before wrapping it around his shoulders like a cocoon. He looked so skinny and small.
Yves sighed to himself. It wasn't the first time he'd picked up a hard luck case. In fact he was unlikely to stop for a hitchhiker who looked like they were on solid footing -- Yves specialized in the downtrodden and lost. He was of the opinion that if he could supply them with an earful of common sense they just might find the gumption to pull themselves out of whatever pickle they were in, like the black fellow on the lam from North Carolina he'd convinced to turn himself in for his crimes, the street tough from New Jersey he'd turned on to Jesus, or the teenage girl from Alberta he'd found pitifully used and discarded by a motorcycle gang.
He remembered each of their names: Sammy Brown, Knife Gill, Daria Something. Sometimes he even looked them up years after the fact, to see whether or not they had straightened out. That was another reason they called him Papa Rock: because he cared.
This kid was maybe twenty-five. He had one bushy black eyebrow that ran across the bridge of his nose, like Burt on Sesame Street. Around his right wrist was a simple silver chain bearing a token inscribed with wiggly worm-writing.
"So, where're you coming from?" asked Yves.
"Portland, sir," said Alishaer.
"No, I mean originally. You got that funny writing on your bracelet there, like from Iraq or something."
"This is a medical notice," explained Alishaer. "It says I am an epileptic. I have the seizures once in a sometime."
"That's too bad."
"It does not trouble me much."
"So you're from Iraq, huh?"
"No sir, I am coming from Turkmenistan."
"No sir, Turkmenistan. In Asia."
"You don't look Chinese to me."
"No sir," agreed Alishaer with a little smile.
Yves grunted, checked his mirrors, changed lanes. "I can tell from your way of talking you haven't been here long, is that right?"
"I have been in this country for one week, sir."
"Fresh off the boat, huh? Heading to New York to find fame and fortune, are ya?"
Alishaer smiled self-effacingly. "I am hoping to find my cousin there. He is running a restaurant, where perhaps I can find an opportunity for working."
Yves nodded. "Good for you. Hard work is what makes America great."
"Yes sir," agreed Alishaer.
"I'm only going as far as Michigan, but that's a fair way along for you. Should shorten your trip a bit, huh?"
"I am grateful, Mr. Yves. I will be no trouble to you, I swear it."
Yves nodded. Perhaps the young man wasn't as wayward as he'd first appeared, rainsoaked and forlorn at the side of the road. He seemed to have a pretty good head on his shoulders, and had manners like his mother had raised him right. And helping a man on his way to an honest wage was something Yves could feel proud of -- in his little way again contributing to the health of the economy, the free-flowing currents of people and money, sharing in making somebody's American dream come true.
"It's no trouble to me," said Yves amicably. But he was wrong.
Yves drove the night away, his companion twisting and sighing in the passenger seat under the thinnest veil of sleep. Yves turned up the Johnny Cash to drown out the troubled muttering, then carefully counted the hours ahead and methodically took the correct combination of pills to get him there.
In moments he felt sharp as a knife.
The road was empty. The truck felt still, the country moving around it. The album repeated. Yves had been letting it repeat for decades. His mind sank away into a driving place until the first blush of dawn coloured the way ahead.
"Where are we?" asked Alishaer groggily.
"Wyoming," said Yves. "Sleep okay?"
Alishaer shrugged. "I have some nightmare."
"Yeah, I figured," agreed Yves. "We're gonna stop for some chow in Cheyenne, then I'm going to catch a few zees and after that we'll get back on the road. Sound good?"
Alishaer nodded, rubbing his eyes. "This chow is food, yes?"
"Food yes," confirmed Yves.
Yves pulled off at a signless joint he knew well on South Parsley, drawing the truck to shuddering but majestic halt in a row of similar rigs. The sudden cessation of motion caused Alishaer to feel as if he were drifting backward. With rubbery legs he descended from the cab and met Yves at the nose. He blinked at the wide expanse of sky, cloudless and deep blue even at the horizon.
The diner was quaint, with a chrome and flecked formica style that looked half a century old. There were just a few other customers, lone truckers reading the paper as they put away their food. A tinny radio discussed the weather. A bald man with a series of light scars criss-crossing his features stood in the open kitchen, hands on his hips, staring into space. He smiled distantly when he saw Yves, the sad lines around his eyes unmoving.
"Ed Hulver!" called Yves. "How the hell are ya?"
Ed wiped his fingers on his white undershirt and then shook Yves's beefy hand. "Hey, Frenchy. How's the road?"
"It's flowing," reported Yves. "This is Al."
"Goodmorning, sir," said Alishaer.
They ate runny eggs floating in a pool of grease that tasted suspiciously like corned beef hash, washed down with bitter coffee whose cream was slightly curdled. Alishaer left his bacon, so Yves ate it, mopping up the flaky debris with an edge of yolk-soggy toast.
Yves lit up a Camel and brought out his billfold. Alishaer took his cue, bending down to his ankle and coming back up with a handful of crumpled, badly distressed low bills. "That's all you got, isn't it, partner?" said Yves.
Alishaer looked embarrassed. "It will not be enough?"
Yves tucked the cigarette into the far corner of his mouth and grunted. "It's enough, but forget it. You go on and keep your pocket money, Al. Breakfast is on me."
"You do not have to do this..." replied Alishaer awkwardly, smoothing out a couple of dollars carefully as if they were fine art.
Yves pushed the kid's hand back. "Don't make me offer twice, boy."
They held each other's eyes for a moment. Then Alishaer nodded and started putting away his cash. "Thank you very much, Mr. Yves."
While he smoked Yves pulled a plastic pill organizer out of his jacket pocket and flipped open one of the little compartments. He checked his watch and then swallowed two small pills chased by a swig of coffee. He noticed Alishaer watching him. "You have a medical condition?" asked Alishaer.
"No Al, these here are my sleepers. Gotta crash for a bit before we hit the road again. You understand?"
On the way out Yves asked Ed who was awake in the Chicken Ranch and Ed told him Cheyenne was probably around. Yves and Alishaer walked around the back of the diner and Yves rapped on the door of a cream-coloured trailer sitting on cinderblocks. The hatch cracked and a girl with purple bags under her eyes stuck her head out. "Papa Rock!" she smiled.
"How the hell are ya, Chey?"
"Just gimmie a sec to get my shit on. Be right out."
Yves crushed the end of his smoke under his boot and jammed his hands into his pockets, rocking on his heels nonchalantly as he scanned the cloudless sky. A moment later the girl called Chey stepped out of the trailer, her tired face painted and her unruly hair pulled into a loose ponytail. Her dress was short and either intricately patterned or dirty. "Who's your friend?" she asked.
"This is Al. He's riding with me today."
"Goodmorning, Miss," said Alishaer with a small bow.
"Al, this is Cheyenne."
"She is named Cheyenne and living in Cheyenne?" asked Alishaer, furrowing his brow.
"Are you making fun of me?" Chey wanted to know.
Alishaer looked stricken. "No, no no!" he stammered.
Chey frowned. "He's like foreign or something, huh?"
"Yeah. But he's okay."
"Does he want?"
Yves shrugged. "You want a date after I'm done, buddy?"
Alishaer looked puzzled, then blushed and shook his head. He loitered around the parking lot while Yves and Chey spent some time in the cab of the truck, whose suspension creaked rhythmically to broadcast their sin. Afterward they smoked a couple of Camels together and then Chey went back to her trailer. Yves sat in the open door and smoked, barefoot. "What do you say, Al?"
"I am wondering a thing," said Alishaer.
Alishaer gestured along the row of parked rigs -- Wonderbread, Old South, McDonald's, Oscar Meyer. "Why is it each of these trucks have the big letters on their sides, but your truck is only white?"
"Not everything needs advertising, Al."
"So what is it that is carried inside, Mr. Yves?"
Yves scanned the sky again. "Doesn't matter what's inside. Doesn't have anything to do with my job. Whether it's Corn Flakes or mattresses or house paint, I just get it there." He tossed his cigarette butt away carelessly and stretched. "Forget about it. I'm gonna lay down a while. You good by yourself?"
"Do not worry about me, sir."