Cassandra Powers is an MFA candidate in the New Writers Project at The University of Texas at Austin. She is from Arizona.
Merle Haggard’s boy-howdy twang crackles from the center console. Eileen white-knuckles the steering wheel, looks over at Wally sprawled out in the jump seat. His skin is sallow beneath the overhead light. Outside the rig the world is dark—they’re driving, again, through the night. Wally scratches at the collar of his shirt, mouthing along to the song.
Motherfucker wasn’t even from Muskogee, Eileen shouts over at him.
He plays deaf and opens the limp, spiral-bound notebook in his lap. Wide-ruled, as if he were in grade school. Sloppy rows of text loop beyond the faint blue lines. He lights a cigarette and she considers running the rig off the road, just to test his newfound notions of heaven and hell.
They pass through Yuma. A nothing-town, because Arizona’s like that: once, cowboys and miners; now, splintered wooden buildings, stuccoed convenience stores and discount motels. Joshua trees and patches of teddy bear cholla line the roadside. They linger briefly in the high-beams and then they’re gone, replaced by another, and another. Eileen’s eyes start to drift and she shakes her head, tries to rattle away the feeling.
Wally, we need to switch.
I’m busy, lady. He waves his grease-stained notebook at her. And anyway, the Bible says, a little sleep, a little slumber, and poverty will come on you like a robber. Deutermony, he says. Look it up.
Eileen’s tired of trying to teach Wally how to pronounce words from the Bible, and that one’s from Proverbs, anyway. Weariness bears down on her like a rockslide. She stabs at the power button on the cd player and the cab deflates without the sound. I’ve been driving since Sacramento, she says.
Eileen, you only have two hours till Buckeye—
Jesus fucking Christ, Wally. I’m pulling this goddamned rig into the next rest-up we come by.
Wally tenses up beside her. The Lord’s name in vain, he won’t stand it. Eileen likes to bait him any chance she gets—his irritation a small prize. She doesn’t look away from the road, doesn’t need to; she knows him so well. It’s like he’s super-imposed over the stretch of asphalt unfolding in the headlights. His fists clench, the left side of his mouth tightens.
She knows his anger’s still there, secret and humming, tucked away since he gave up the bottle and found Christ. She wants it, wants him to reach across the space between them and strike her. Anything, she wants anything.
Wally exhales. No hand meets her cheek. A sign to the right, illuminated, Rest Area 1 Mile. She lets off the hammer and begins the long process of downshifting. Neither she nor Wally speak and Eileen finds herself pressing against that sphere of silence, tracing its curves, looking for a crack.
Eileen dozes ten, maybe fifteen minutes before the sound of Wally’s shouting rumbles her awake. She holds her breath, slit-eye peeks at him from the jump seat. The window’s open and Wally is red-faced and frantic-limbed, yelling at a four-wheeler in the lane beside them.
—my mouth will speak in praise of the LORD, he hollers. The truck swerves to the left. Let every creature praise his holy name forever! An arm reaches out of the sun roof, middle finger extended. Wally lays on the horn and the car speeds off. Eileen rolls her head back against the seat, shuts her eyes to the desert night blurring past.
Psalm 145:21, Wally’s favorite verse. His fervor feels like a badly placed episode of déjà vu. Her stepfather was a preacher. He yelled scripture, too, and let himself into Eileen’s bedroom at night. Redemption this, sin that. He traced his lips with his right thumb when he finished, watching her wriggle her nightgown back down over her hips. Wally tosses around the same verses she’d had beaten into her head as a girl. The scripture rattles through her brain. Only difference now is there’s no hand at her throat, no bruises that bloom across her thighs. Wally hasn’t touched her in months.
Before, when Wally started willy-weaving around the road, booze and anger hot in his body, Eileen could exist without thought. There was only the shifting of gears and the hammer’s give beneath her foot. Wally’s words and fists never reached that quiet place. The wheel’s resistance in her hands, the safe monotony of lane lines—the way they seemed to steady her groundless life.
She met him at the diner when she was seventeen, working long hours to stash each crumpled, sweaty dollar bill in a Folger’s Instant can beneath her bed. Her runaway fund—a little silver cylinder that hinted at some kind of future—fuck off sharpied sloppily across its ribbed side. That day she watched him cut into his seven-dollar steak, crack open the yolk of an undercooked egg. He ate slowly but Eileen could sense an energy there, beneath his skin. Familiar and foreign, barely contained.
After he paid for his lunch, Eileen leaned across the counter and rested on her elbows. Sometimes she wheedled more cash out of lonely truckers; he seemed like the type. Tight-mouthed, hunched shoulders. He was better looking than most the others—younger, too.
Ten bucks, hands only, she said. Fifty for a blow.
He didn’t blink and Eileen couldn’t ignore how blue his eyes were. What do you need the money for, sweetheart?
Getting myself out of here.
He wiped the corners of his mouth and folded his napkin. When he smiled, Eileen noticed a gap where two teeth should be. She wanted to fill that space with her finger, rub the sharp edge of his canine.
Eileen took up his jump seat, that’s how it goes. Three days in, she learned that energy she’d felt was his anger, and that it took almost nothing to release it. Three years in, she’s a licensed truck driver. Her runaway fund is gone. They switch off, driving and sleeping, covering twice the ground a single driver could. Wally handles their money, and what he used to spend on bourbon he now hordes away, saving up for the church he hopes to open. He’s dubbed himself “The Driving Disciple,” using it as his handle on the CB. Even gone as far to spray paint it on the side of the rig, black on red, like some midnight pickle park tag work.
Eileen doesn’t know what to do in the absence of his anger.
That spill a handful of months ago, right over a guardrail at Sunset Point. Piss-drunk, he tumbled a good hundred feet or so over rock and cactus before coming to a bloody stop. Eileen hated the predictability of his conversion: the relentless desert, a near-death experience, a new found path.
In the morning, he’ll preach his first Sunday sermon over the CB. He’s timed this trip to the minute. He won’t admit it, but Eileen knows Wally’s being superstitious—tomorrow will be the first time they pass Sunset Point since then.
Driving mostly falls on Eileen. Wally plods through the Bible, his unintelligible chicken scratch crowding the margins, and Eileen’s relieved that he finally stopped relying on her evangelical upbringing. Earlier on in this born-again bullshit, Wally had her read passages aloud to him. She did as she was told, as she always had, until she realized Wally wasn’t demanding her help; he was asking for it.
The rig begins to slow and Eileen closes her eyes. Wally says her name twice, singsong and bright. She ignores him. Old Wally would plunge his hand through the curtain and shake her awake. New Wally says her name once more—a question—letting it hand in the air and go unanswered. Eileen, for the first time in her life, begins to understand what her own anger feels like. She’s no longer helpless and she hates him for that.
They sit at a table in a roadside diner, just outside Buckeye. The fluorescents flicker above them while Wally pores over his notebook. When their food arrives, Eileen dives in. Wally makes a noise and she glances up to see him, palms pressed together over his plate, expectant. She starts in on her hashbrowns. Wally thanks the Lord his God for the food before him and begs forgiveness for his woman. She don’t mean it, Father. His eyes are closed and Eileen has the urge to flick a lump of gray scrambled eggs at his forehead.
Another trucker watches her eat from the booth behind Wally. Eileen gives him a fuck you look and shovels more hash into her mouth. He keeps staring, a wet-lipped smirk, and Eileen registers the ice in his eyes.
Eileen, hey-oh, Eileen? Wally waves his hand in font of her face. Got your ears on?
Eileen jerks her head away from his greasy fingers. What?
I was just thinking we could take the boulevard a little farther—I’ll drive. We’re just a little behind. He smears gravy across his plate. He’s made a moat of mashed potatoes around his chicken-fried steak. It’s untouched, soggy and whole.
We’re right on schedule, Eileen says, fishing the log book from her knapsack. Look, she points, if we highball it tomorrow, we’ll hit the drop spot before dawn. She refuses to acknowledge Sunset Point. They’ll make it anyway, not that she cares.
Eileen, tomorrow morning—
Don’t worry, Wally. Eileen crumples her napkin and drops it on her plate. I’ll keep the rig moving while you’re jaw-jacking about Jesus.
Wally flinches, actually flinches, and Eileen’s hands clench. He closes his notebook and sets it in his lap, gently, like you would a wounded animal. Everything in the diner snaps into focus at once—stale coffee and bacon, a clattering in the kitchen, the waitress who wears her weariness like an apron punching keys on the register. Wally’s weakness is tangible across the formica table.
The other trucker stands and tosses a few dollars down next to his plate. When he walks by Wally and Eileen, he drags his knuckles across the edge of their table. Wally doesn’t notice. He isn’t supposed to. Eileen knows, deep down in that instinct part of her gut, that when they pull up to that rest stop, he’ll be waiting.
Eileen stays curled up in the jump seat until she’s sure Wally is asleep. She slides out of the truck and makes the long walk to the bathroom. It’s brisk, the air. There are only a few rigs parked up for the night but Eileen moves quickly, arms crossed over her thin t-shirt.
She’s at the sink washing her hands when she hears him come through the door. Eye contact in the mirror and then he’s on her; she finds herself pushed up against a wall, the trucker’s fingers digging into her throat. His breath is hot in her ear and Eileen doesn’t know how to stop what she’s put in motion. He tightens his grip. She struggles to inhale and then he’s tearing at the button of her jeans, ripping open the fly, spreading her legs with his knee. She closes her eyes against the filth of the yellow-gray wall and notices, just barely, that the faucet is still running.
The water is gritty and cold and she feels like she won’t be able to wash the dirt from the bathroom floor off her hands. Her own sight startles her in the mirror. The familiar aftermath begins to show—dark imprints below her jawline, little red crescent moons etched into her arms. She’s never believed in God and meeting her reflection head on, she knows she never will.
She closes her hand into a fist and watches herself in the mirror—fist up, drawn back, thrown forward into her reflection, her left cheek, right below the eye. The glass doesn’t shatter, like she intends. Instead, just her hand throbs. She wants to draw blood—Wally’s, the trucker’s, her own mostly. The ridges of her knuckles are bright red but there’s no blood, she can’t even get that right.
Something swells in her, pushing her forward and out the door. She passes the rig and keeps walking. Wally must still be asleep, dreaming of God and the tin can and all those ears listening on the CB. Or maybe he’s dreaming of the bottle, of blood on his hands and the sound two bodies make when forced together.
The sky is cloudless, not a single one, and she’s moving up the exit ramp, out onto the shoulder of the highway. She heads back toward Buckeye, toward the saguaro-lined horizon and away from Wally’s destination. The desert is endless. A valley of silence she breathes in. No one’s on the road this time of night, as far as she can see. But the stars hang above, blinking like distant headlights.