by

John Burnham

 

George didn’t like to see anybody in trouble—particularly other truckers. However, the emergency reflectors ahead were a welcome sight on this particular morning. He’d been having a great deal of trouble fighting off morose thoughts—the opportunity to help would be a welcome diversion.

The Freightliner’s cab was tilted. George could see somebody on the opposite side of the engine as he walked up.

” Mornin’. Nothin’ serious I hope,” he shouted.

A stream of profanity came over the Cummins engine. The oil line (which had a questionable relationship with its maternal parent) had come loose from the turbo (which had a canine mother). George was stunned. Not because of the language, but because the voice was female.

“Tough. How can I help?” he replied.

The air again became blue as she stepped over the transmission and sat down on the frame rail. George deduced that she thought she had shut the engine (which was in great disfavor with God) down in time. Now she needed a mechanic (who engaged in the procreative act) to assess the damage. George could think of any number of mechanics who deserved the adjective, but none who would be available on the Saturday morning of a long weekend.

“Uh, don’t think you’re gonna have much luck there,” he replied.

” That’s about what I figured,” she said while studying sneakers that had seen better days. She looked up. George was surprised that he couldn’t place her age. Though smudged, her face looked like it could be attractive. Could be, but wasn’t. It was set in the bitter hardness usually reserved for the aged even though the skin didn’t look much older than his daughter’s.

“Know anybody I can get to pull this load to the city?” she asked. “Warehouse plans to have a crew there in the morning to turn me around. I stand to lose the contract if I don’t show.”

“Uh, lemme think…uh, while I do, want a cuppa coffee? Got a fresh thermos.”

She smiled. It was nice. “Hey, yeah. That’d be right on.”

George thought about how to tell her while he walked back to his truck and returned with the tote Fernie had made him. It held two Stanlies, a couple of cups, creamers, sugar, and stir sticks.

“That’s pretty foxy,” she said as George put the tote on the fuel tank.

“Wife made it for me…said I needed somethin’ like this to haul the makings. I think coffee tastes better when y’ doctor it just before drinkin’…can’t stand that chemical cow either. Cream? Sugar?”

“Black,” she said, watching him closely.

“I…er…uh, don’t think you’re gonna have much luck gettin’ anybody to pull your load…either.” He began, uncomfortably shifting his weight. “Noticed the eastern U.S. plates on your trailer…things ‘r little different here in northern B.C. On weekends, nobody’s waitin’ by the phone.”

George took the ensuing string of profanity to be an expression of extreme frustration.

“I do have a suggestion though,” he interjected when she paused for breath. “That load of chips behind me ain’t in no hurry. I could pull your trailer to the city and back…” his voice trailed off. She was gripping the coffee cup so hard that her knuckles were growing white.

Cold eyes flashed out of a hard face as she said, “And I suppose that for this little favour you will feel entitled to get into my pants.”

George went on. “Far as your truck is concerned…there’s a guy workin’ on my old rig…gettin’ it ready to sell…could get him to look at yours on Tuesday…probably could have it back for Wednesday…that work for ya?”

Her hard expression melted into confusion. “That’d be perfect, but look here…I’ll pay all expenses…strictly business…no hanky-panky,” she sputtered.

“I’d expect you to,” George said as he wiped the coffee cups. “Far as the other goes, I got my own reasons for making the offer. One is a son who lives in the city and none of the others has anything to do with you. By the way, I’m George Hartman.” She took the hand he extended.

“Helen…Helen Meyers”

Although they were on a main highway, no traffic passed as they parked George’s trailer by the side of the road and hooked Helen’s trailer up to George’s truck. After they pulled out onto the road, the first hour or so was quiet. George waited for her to start any conversation.

“These aren’t all your kids?” she finally asked after studying the photographs mounted around the truck’s custom interior.

“No, only these three. Jody, here, is twenty—just finished her third year at UBC. Rod, he’s twenty-five and has two kids already. Susan is twenty-seven.”

“Only five years younger than I…” Helen gasped.

George continued as though he hadn’t heard. “Married to a dentist in town…great big house…no kids yet. The other pictures are of Second Look kids.”

“Second Look?” she queried.

“Yeah, it’s a provincial program for young people in trouble with the law. Instead of puttin’ ’em in detention homes, they get ’em jobs on farms ‘n such so’s they can look at life from a different perspective ‘n maybe evaluate where they’re goin’. I’m sort of a counselor—a kind of in-town contact for them.”

“Like a social worker?”

“Nah, more like just bein’ a friend. The provincial people gave us some training, but mostly it’s just bein’ there to listen.”

“What kind of training?”

George thought for a minute. “At first, ya gotta take a lota shit from ’em—like when you accused me of trying to put the make on you.”

“I…er…ah…didn’t,” she stammered.

“No, no…’s all right. People who are hurtin’ always lash out.”

Her voice took on an edge like flint. “Don’t try ‘t shrink me. Say, what’s your wife goin’ ‘t think of you doin’ something like this with a woman not much older than your daughter?”

George began to wonder what sort of a nut case he had in the truck with him. “It wouldn’t concern her,” he calmly replied. “I haven’t given her any reason to doubt me in twenty-seven years.”

“Now, thatsa crock if I ever heard one,” she snarled.

George’s voice took on a lecturing father tone. “Whether or not you choose to believe it, she was my first, and she has always been all I needed.”

Helen became silent. George didn’t push it. He turned the radio on.

“Country OK?”

“Fine,” she replied

The rolling hills of B.C. were giving way to the plains of Alberta when the phrase “I never expected to see you here, but I see you everywhere” came from the radio. George snapped it off.

Helen’s eyes opened. “Hey, I like Ronnie Milsap.”

“Sorry, that’s just a little too close to home right now,” said George through a lump in his throat.

“Have anything to do with why none of these pictures are of your wife?” Helen asked softly.

“Everything. She took sick coupla years ago. I started haulin’ chips so’s I could be close. She started gettin’ better ’bout four months ago. We’d been toyin’ for several years with the idea of seein’ the country by pullin’ furniture when the kids were out on their own. We decided to do it soon as she was out of the hospital. I ordered the truck—she designed this interior. She seemed real good the morning I stopped by to tell her that the truck was ready…said to bring it by…that she’d probably be able to go out long enough have a look at it. I parked the truck where she could see it from her window…good thing, too. When I got to her floor, there was red lights flashing and people rushing around. She opened her eyes as I took her hand…looked out the window, then back at me…tried to smile and squeeze my hand…that was it.”

“Watch it! Why are you stopping?” Helen shouted as the truck veered to the shoulder and George braked.

“Eyes ‘r clabberin’ up—you’d best wheel it for awhile,” George said as he pulled the Maxi parking brake knob.

George sat unashamedly mopping his eyes while Helen got the feel of the truck. “You’re a pretty decent skinner,” he said at length.

“You mean, for a woman?”

“I mean for anybody.”

“You still didn’t get to why there is no picture of your wife. If you don’t want to talk about it anymore, that’s ok, I just wanted you to know I was listening.”

“Thanks…it’s doing me good…friends and family—they all try to cheer me up. That don’t help…they don’t seem ‘t know what to do when the strong guy who always had his head on straight starts thinkin’ like a basket case.”

“Basket case?”

“Yeah, just can’t seem to shake the idea that it’s all over…that everythin’ worth while is in the past. It ain’t reasonable to just quit at fifty-two, but if I don’t watch it, that’s the way I end up thinkin’. I walk in the house and find I’m expecting her to be there. I go to the john in a restaurant and return to the table expecting her to be waiting there for me. When I realize that she isn’t there and won’t ever be again, I begin to wonder why I should go on. That’s why no picture; it would put me in mind that she won’t ever again be wherever it was taken.”

George leaned back and propped his Tony Llama cowboy boots against the windshield.

“Those boots don’t look like they’ve ever seen horseshit,” Helen observed.

“If it were fer me, all horses ‘d be on unemployment,” George said as he pulled his cap down over his eyes.

“Some cowboy,” she observed.

***

“Take the next exit,” George said as they entered the City. “I’ll call my son from that Travelodge…be a good place for you to stay…lady that runs it is real nice; has special rates for truckers.”

Helen stiffened when she saw George coming out of the motel office with keys in his hand. She didn’t look at him as he opened the cab door.

“Son’s wife has some of her relates in their extra room…” George began.

“So, here it is!” she interrupted.

“Yeah, here it is—you are in 102—right by the office,” he said tossing a key into her lap. I’m in 321. That’s ’round back ‘n upstairs. See you in the morning after you’ve turned your load around.” He started to turn away and paused. “Uh, I’m gonna get a magazine from that convenience shop over there. Want anything?”

“Uh…no…no thanks.”

George picked up a Louis L’Amour, a copy of Field & Stream, a bag of chips and a large bottle of Coke. As he placed the items at the till, he realized that this might be a long night and added a copy of Motor Trend to his purchases.

As he walked back to the motel, George was too preoccupied with his own thoughts to notice the curtains in 102 move as he passed. As he opened the door of 321, he thought, Fernie? The realization that she wasn’t there enshrouded him with the usual cold disappointment. Thoughts of What’s the use? and Why go on? intruded like unbidden guests. The telephone rang. Fernie is not—cannot be—on the other end of this line, so don’t set yourself up to be disappointed, he thought as he lifted the receiver.

“George, this is Helen. Look, Cowboy, I…uh…been thinking that…er…well…I’ve been sort of a bitch. It’s only ten-thirty…how’s about dinner on me?”

George was pleasantly lifted. He had come to think of Helen more as one of his screwed-up Second Look charges than another trucker. This sounded like she might be coming around. “Sounds good. There’s a place ’bout six blocks from here that has pretty fair grub and some music. Howzat sound?”

George wasn’t prepared for what stepped out of 102. Her hip-huggers looked like they were painted on one of the best-assembled chassis he had seen in quite some time. The halter-top strained to affect containment and failed to meet the jeans by at least four inches. With a little curl in her hair and some makeup on, she didn’t look much older than Susan. “Some transformation,” he said.

“Like it?” she smiled.

The truth was that George didn’t like it. He was resisting a strong urge to deliver the lecture fathers give daughters who don’t understand the difference between pretty and provocative. He reminded himself that she wasn’t his daughter or anyone who had shown the slightest interest in his advice. “Looks great,” he lied. “Warm night, shall we walk?”

“Lead the way, Cowboy.”

After a couple of beers and a nice steak, George was actually beginning to enjoy himself. Helen was proving to be an interesting companion. She seemed to be able to chat and quip about whatever came up. George didn’t know whether it was a mellow mood induced by the beer, or whether he was actually having fun, but he wasn’t asking questions.

At the sink in the men’s room, he began to realize that something was different. Usually it was about this point—just before going out the door—that he subconsciously began to expect Fernie to be on the other side. Now, he knew that she wouldn’t be there. The realization wasn’t pleasant, but he could cope with it. Feeling much better about himself and the rest of the world, he pushed open the door and froze.

Helen was on her feet gripping a beer bottle like a club. A grinning, slobbering drunk—who obviously thought himself the life of the party—was moving toward her. George could tell from Helen’s movements that she wasn’t trying to escape—only maneuvering for position. The expression on her face told him that he didn’t want to know what she intended to do with the beer bottle.

In three long strides, George had the drunk by the collar and threw him away from the table. The bouncer missed a grab for the man as he regained his footing and charged. George spun and caught him with a riding heel in the stomach that sent him back into the bouncer’s arms.

“Much obliged,” said the bouncer.

“Glad to help,” answered George as he sat down.

“So, B.C.’s greatest trucker is also a black belt?” teased Helen.

“Nothin’ like that. One of my Second Look kids was into martial arts. The only way I could get him to open up was to work out with him. That’s really the only move I know.”

“Anyway, that was really an incredible performance,” she said with shining eyes. Then, she cocked her head and looked at him earnestly. “But, why did you do it?”

“Reflex, I guess,” answered George as he studied her eyes. In an instant, he realized that it had been a long time since he had enjoyed how beautiful a woman’s eyes could be.

“Reflex?”

George looked down and regarded his empty glass for a minute. “Uh, it has to do with what my Daddy taught me, but it probably wouldn’t mean much the way he said it, so I guess I’ll have to put it the way I told Rod. Bein’ a man ain’t a matter of how much beer you can drink or puttin’ big tires on your pickup or hangin’ a playboy bunny from the mirror; it’s a matter of whether or not you do a good job of lookin’ after women.”

“That’s certainly a unique philosophy. It must have kept you busy with a wife and two daughters,” she said with a playful smile.

“Huh?”

“Well, your daughters are certainly pretty, so I’m assuming that your wife was also. Protecting them from unwanted advances must have kept you busy.”

“Oh, I see,” George chuckled, “but I can’t say that it did.”

Helen grew serious. “What are you trying to hand me? I’ve had to put up with this sort of thing since I started wearing a bra.”

George began to fidget like a cornered animal. He started to speak a few times but checked himself after the first syllable. Helen watched him for a while and finally said, “C’mon Cowboy, out with it.”

“D’ ya mind if I tell ya as we walk back to the motel?”

They had walked a full block when George finally spoke. “I don’t mean to say nothin’ unkind, and I can’t ‘member the words Fernie used when she talked to the girls about this, so you’ll have to gimme a little space if I don’t say it just right.”

He was walking with his hands stuffed into his pockets. She slipped her arm through his. “Press on Cowboy,” she said softly.

“Well, it’s like a woman can sort of create her own environment. If she’s a certain way, guys get ideas about makin’ advances. On the other hand, if they see her as a lady…oop…I didn’t mean…”

She squeezed his arm. “Carry on.”

“Well, it’s kinda like if guys see a woman as a lady, they just don’t even think of messin’ around unless they’re invited.”

“You mean, if I did something differently, men wouldn’t always be trying to put the make on me?”

“Yup.”

“Different? Like how?”

George sighed. ”That is definitely beyond my field of expertise. Fernie used to talk to the girls about how they dressed, how they moved, how they talked—she called it ‘appropriate use of their erotic capital’—I never quite understood. Say, Fernie’d be glad to . . .” His voice trailed off. She pulled him to a stop, stepped in front of him, and gripped his other arm. Looking up into his face, she shook her head in small, slow movements. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “What I mean,” he said as he opened his eyes, “is that I bet that you could get an explanation from Susan that would mean something to you.”

Helen grinned up at him. ”Cowboy, your little girl is going to get a call from me,” she said as they resumed walking.

As they approached the motel, Helen tightened her grip on George’s arm and said, “Maybe you’d like to come in for a little while?”

George slipped his arm out of hers and motioned toward the office window. “Light’s still on . . . means Mrs. Gundarsen ‘s still up . . . think I’ll stop in to pay my respects. See you in the mornin’.” George saw her shrug, but couldn’t see her smile as she walked toward 102.

When George awoke, sunlight was pouring into the room. The clock said ten A.M. He couldn’t remember when he had last slept this late. While he was in the shower, the phone rang. He stepped out and picked it up.

“Mornin’ Cowboy. Sleep well?”

Somehow, hearing Helen’s voice while he was dripping wet and naked embarrassed him. “Yeah, great.”

“How ’bout some breakfast?”

“Pancake house that you kin see down th’ street OK?”

“I’ll be waiting.”

***

Helen emerged from 102 in a black mini-skirt. George had to admit that the legs were well worth showing off, but he wished that her session of girl talk with Susan could have occurred the night before. By the time they were finished with breakfast, George was thoroughly embarrassed with the careless way she moved her legs. As he drained his coffee cup, he felt her hand rest on his. He put the cup down and looked at her. Truly, she was enough to make a monk forget his vows. Obviously, she had put in some work on her hair; it looked even better than the night before. The nails of the hand resting on his sported a fresh manicure.

“Did you check out of your room?” she asked.

“Yeah . . . sure . . . but what?”

“I didn’t. That load won’t get unloaded until Tuesday morning, so we don’t have to get underway . . . ”

George cut her off. “What I don’t have to do is to let you do anything stupid. My son runs a two-man from here to Alaska. He’s due out today, but his partner is sick. I’m gonna get on with him here. You take the truck on back up by yourself and leave it at Susan’s place when you’ve got things sorted out.”

***

George had a good time with Rod on the Alaska run, but he was glad with an anticipation that he couldn’t explain as they pulled up in front of Susan’s house. He was half way out of the truck when he realized that Rod hadn’t shut off the engine. “You’re comin’ in, ain’t you?” George asked.

“No,” Rod responded. “I called Suz yesterday evening to let her know we’d be in this morning. She told me she wanted you to herself. My own big sister, sending me off down the lonely road without so much as a cup of coffee.”

George closed the door on Rod’s lament and started up the walk. Susan met him on the porch. “You old dog, you! I hope you’re ready to tell me just what it is you’ve been up to,” she said throwing her arms around his neck.

” ‘Bout what?”

She took him by the hand and led him inside. “Helen. Helen Meyers, Mr. innocence.”

“Yeah, did she call you?”

“She called me and then some. We’ve spent the best part of the last few days together. She wanted to know everything Mom ever told us about relating to men and about being a lady. She picked stuff out of my head that I’d forgotten was there.”

”Hey, that’s good. Do you think she’ll remember any of it?”

“She seemed to soak it up like a sponge. After every break, she’d come back at me with questions about what we’d talked about before. Then, we went shopping. Mom would have been delighted with what she picked out. She’s some fast study.”

“I’m really pleased to hear that,” George said with a satisfied smile.

Susan looked him petulantly. “Now are you going to tell me what you’ve been up to?”

” ‘Up to?’ What’re you talking about?”

Susan fisted up her hands and put them on her hips. “Helen! We’re still talking about Helen. I’ve never seen a gal with such a case for a guy.”

“Case . . . Helen . . . for who?” George asked in bewilderment.

Susan’s attitude softened. “C’mon over here and sit down. I can see that this will take some explaining.

Susan looked at her father as she set coffee in front of him. “You really are that dense aren’t you? You really don’t realize that Helen is head-over-heels in love with you.”

“In love,” George scowled, “that’s ridiculous. What’d a woman like her want with me? When she’s my age, I’ll be an old man . . . or gone.”

Susan sat down and looked evenly at him. “Daddy, let’s analyze this,” she said firmly.

Oh god, thought George. He remembered saying those very words to her on several occasions. He’d always had a vague fear that this day would come, and here it was. She started without waiting for him to reply—she had learned well.

“Helen has two children, both girls. The father of the seventeen-year-old is an ex-boyfriend of her mother’s. The father of her six-year-old abused the girl who is now seventeen when he was living with them. Helen, herself, is a victim of abuse by her own father. She’s hard because the only memories she has of men are pretty lousy. Right now, the father of the six-year-old is trying to gain custody of the child; that’s why Helen left the states and came up here.”

“But the age difference,” George protested.

“Hush, listen.” Susan said putting her finger on his lips. “Now, all she’s got is thirty-two years of bad memories. Whatever years she has with you would build good memories. So what, Mr. Gloom, if you widow her when she’s in her fifties? She’ll have twenty years of good memories and those two girls will have had a fighting chance to develop a wholesome attitude toward men.”

***

That evening, George sat in the pub waiting for Helen. She had asked Susan to have him meet her there. He was a little apprehensive as he remembered the leers and coarse remarks that followed her the last time they had been out.

As he studied his glass trying to sort out conflicting emotions, he became aware of a hush in the room. She was standing just inside the door looking from table to table. Men weren’t leering, just looking appreciatively. Either Susan was an awfully good teacher or Helen was an especially apt student or, a little bit of both.

She saw him and began to move in his direction. He knew there wouldn’t be any scene because she moved like something you would spoil by touching. As he rose to move a chair out for her, the words of a song filled his mind. He felt like the eyes of every man in the place were envious.

As she took the chair, he bent over and whispered, “Lord, I ain’t never seen the likes of you.”

– end –

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