Well, at least he wasn’t delivering cement. Not that Joey ever had delivered cement, but he could imagine that knowing the stuff slushing around in the big drum behind you could turn into solid concrete if this traffic jam proved too endless might arouse its own variety of anxiety. Which Joey did not feel even though he wasn’t moving. The audio tape he had on was of an exercise program: “Now repeat—bend and stretch and one two three four.” He had taped the soundtrack of one of Sandy’s early morning exercise shows. A woman’s voice with a slight alien accent. From her breathing you could hear her doing the exercise. He found it soothing. He used to listen to that every morning as he woke up and Sandy worked out in front of the TV set in the other room. He would roll over and go back to sleep to dreams dictated by his dawn erection.
What Joey had on the flatbed behind him was not going to turn to stone—a full load of rolled turf, stacked piles of it like giant green-and-brown jellyrolls. There had to be an accident on the bridge. That’s the only thing that could lock the highway up this bad. There was no traffic in the two on-coming lanes, so all four lanes across were closed ahead. They hadn’t moved in five minutes, so Joey turned off the Peterbilt and got out of the cab to stretch his legs, have a cigarette, and check his tie-downs—funny load, turf. A woman in a silver Camry in the other lane buzzed down her window to ask him why the hold-up, as if truck drivers were supposed to know everything. A good looking woman, his age but well maintained. “Haven’t the slightest, ma’am,” was all he said. She was dressed as if she had somewhere to go.
Joey had a theory that everything happened for a reason, even if the reason rarely if ever had anything to do with him. Everything that happened happened because it had been scripted, not by any god but by something much simpler, call it fate. It wasn’t predestination. That shit was way too personal and self-important. What was salvation anyways? Maybe preordained was closer. Shit happens because shit was meant to happen, and people were like meaningless markers being moved around—not like named chess pieces but like the individually unimportant little marbles in Chinese checkers. The first rule was that it has nothing to do with you. Here they were all stuck on this fine afternoon on this actually rather pleasant piece of country highway lined by woods because up ahead the cross hairs of fate had caught some stranger at the moment of their fatal mistake. Sooner or later everyone makes that fatal mistake. This afternoon it was someone else’s turn. There was no escaping it, nothing personal. Shit happens. It was like the wild fire. In the end everyone said he had started it, but the fire had been doomed to happen anyway. He just happened to have been there as its agent.
Joey strolled to the rear of his rig. The stopped traffic stretched as far as he could see up the grade to a curve behind him. All that painted metal shimmered like a florescent snake with the sun behind it. There was a nice breeze blowing down the cut that the road made toward the water. That woman in the silver Camry was wasting gas keeping her engine running so that she could sit in her car with the windows up and her air-con on when it was such a beautiful day outside. She had fine collar bones. Joey ground the filtered butt of his cigarette into the pavement with the toe of his boot. He’d go back and tell her. Then the peaceful breeze-swept silence of the scene was broken by the loud honking horn of the white Chrysler right in front of him. With a start Joey looked up at the man behind the Chrysler’s wheel, an older gent, white-haired and red in the face. He was yelling something as he leaned on his horn, but Joey couldn’t hear him because his windows were up too. Joey shrugged and raised his hands in a question. What? Sitting beside the white-haired man was a blue-coifed wife with a sour look on her face. Joey walked up to the driver side window. “What’s the problem?” he asked.
The white-haired man buzzed his window down about five inches. “What do you think you are doing, lollygagging about on the highway smoking when we could begin moving again at any minute? “
“People like you,” his wife added, leaning toward the half-opened window.
“Look, Mac,” Joey said, gesturing ahead. “I’m not the problem. The problem’s up there a mile or so.”
“And you are compounding it,” the man said.
“And littering and polluting the air,” the wife added.
“Oh, go fuck yourself,” Joey said, turning away.
“What did you say?” the white-haired dude yelled, sounding really enraged.
“Or go fuck each other. You’ll have plenty of time, and I won’t watch.” Joey walked back toward the cab of his rig, kicking tires along the way. Up ahead there was still no movement. He went into his sleeper behind the cab, and pulled out the fifth of Jack Daniels from its hiding place beside his gun and took a slug, holding it in his mouth so that his head filled with the fumes of it. He wondered what the old guy was really pissed about. About being stuck in his car with that bitch? He swallowed and took another mouthful. Well, dude, he thought, it was immutable that you’d be there. Even your anger, your misplaced road rage, was the only possible way you could feel. Only, this set of events could possibly pass. You were trapped inside time’s screenplay as surely as you were strapped inside your Chrysler, just like everyone else frozen in time in their cars around you. Joey popped two peppermint Altoids into his mouth—one for each drink. A helicopter passed above them in the direction of the bridge—not a good sign.
Her name was Susan. By the time Joey got back to her silver Camry she had already lowered her windows, turned off her engine and air-con and was reading a magazine. “Be a while, I guess,” he said. She looked at him, sort of surprised, over the tops of her reading glasses. He was seated on the step of his cab, just across the dashed white line from her. “Figure it’s an accident on the bridge. Nice day, though.” Joey lit another cigarette.
“Could I have one of those?” she asked.
Joey came over and handed her the pack, and she took one out and handed the pack back to him. Joey handed her his lighter, and she lit it.
“Thank you,” she said, handing back the lighter.
“Joey. Name’s Joey. You?”
“Susan,” she said.
That’s when he found out her name was Susan, but it seemed like he’d known it all along, like her name had to be Susan. Joey went back and sat down on his step. “So you smoke OPCs,” he said.
“Other peoples’ cigarettes.”
“Only and exclusively,” she said. “It’s sort of a personal campaign to make other people smoke less.”
It wasn’t déjà vu. It wasn’t that this scene was familiar because he had already experienced it. But it was like a scene he knew by heart somehow, as if he had rehearsed it, as if he had watched himself do these things and say these things and had memorized it all. Next, he thought, she will ask me about the old guy in the Chrysler.
. “What was that all about back there?” she asked, gesturing with her cigarette toward the rear of his rig.
“Harmless venting,” he said. “Take it out on a stranger, me.” Even her ear ring, the one he could see, was familiar to him—a small silver star on a tiny chain, nothing like Sandy would ever wear. The blue blouse looked like silk. He crossed his legs and watched her out of the corner of his eye. She was enjoying her cigarette. The breeze moved her hair around her face. Some events seemed just bound to happen. Now she will turn on her radio and ask him….
“You like country?”
“Not especially, on a fine day like this.”
“Lyin’, dyin’, cryin’, cheatin’music.,” they said in unison, and she turned to look at him, exhaling slowly. “Where you from, Joey?”
“Hereabouts, over Narragansett. You?”
“Long drive,” he said.
“How’s your brother Bobby?”
“You know Bobby?”
“No.” It was all written out. Joey wondered what language the text would be in. Something pre-Aramaic. What would that be? Something with symbols, hierogrammatic. She opened her door and swung her feet out onto the macadam. Golden sandals, just as he would have suspected. How could it not all be there already? Order did not create itself. Order was precedent, imposed. Without order everything would fly apart. With order the future was possible. Her ankles rhymed with the thinness of her neck and were similarly tan. “You like a drink?”
“What you got?”
“Jack, no ice.”
“I’ll take one. Wait, here.” Reaching behind her, Susan produced a fast-food plastic soda cup with some icy residue sloshing around in the bottom. “Put a splash in there,” she said, passing it over to Joey.
Sandy had been a believer, one of them personal believers who thought she was important enough to merit individual divine attention. It was like her birthright or something, a given like gravity, as unexamined as her native tongue. But her belief in salvation was on a par with her trust in horoscopes and diets, so Joey found it easy to ignore. Sandy had never gone to church or owned a bible, but her omniscient being was the standard-issue Christian one—the skinny gay guy with the beard, who shared a luxury penthouse condo in her consciousness with the other sacrificial heroes—JFK, Jimi Hendrix, Princess Di, and Kurt Cobain. Joey had tried several times to explain it to her, that none of that mattered at all, that all the god talk was just dogs at a dog show. Sandy loved watching dog shows. She also liked looking good for the guys, for guys in general. If he had asked her to name the Ten Commandments, she might have come up with Thou shalt not kill.
When Joey asked Susan who her heroes were, she said that off-hand she couldn’t think of any. “Why?”
“Because you can tell a lot about somebody by who their heroes are,” he said.
“And you want to learn something about me? Just because I smoked one of your cigarettes and accepted some of your whiskey?”
“Just to pass the time. Why not talk about heroes?”
“Well, then, who are yours?” Susan had gotten out of her car and was now leaning against its hood, looking out down the highway. Pleaded tan shorts, muscular legs. She had put the plastic lid back on her cup into which Joey had poured several fingers of Jack. She was drinking it through a straw as if it were still a soda.
Joey was sipping his from a coffee cup. “I’ll go with Nostradamus and Evel Knievel. Now you give me two.”
Susan laughed. “Talk about learning things about someone. Okay, Sacagawea and my sister Josie.”
“Audrey Hepburn. Isn’t it strange that no one else has gotten out of their car?”
It was true. There was not a single human being in sight among the hundred vehicles they could see on the highway curving down away from them. “Is it a law or something?”
“I guess nobody wants to admit that they’re stuck in a parking lot with no exit. It all has to do with their expectations of the immediate future.”
“Maybe they’re listening to music or for a traffic report.”
“That’s true. A traffic report would help them predict where they will be for the next fifteen minutes or an hour. Some people find it comforting to play at predicting their future, starting with little day-to-day stuff like this.”
“I don’t think much about the future,” Susan said.
“Next weekend’s weather report is not next weekend’s weather.”
“That’s right,” she said. “You got to wait and see for yourself.”
“You may not even be around to enjoy it.” Joey was thinking about the accident up ahead. What believers like Sandy gained from their believing was an afterlife, which obviously they thought was a good thing to have. It was like an invisible winning lottery ticket that someone else was holding for you, a futures guarantee based on nothing at all, a suckers’ market if ever there was one, angel jowl futures. Of course, not everyone would be saved. What about the non-believers? That introduced the problem of the predetermined damned, like himself, the ones that didn’t give a damn, who were just in the game for the length of the game and accepted the fact that the only thing certain about their personal future was that it would end. Amen and put a bullet through it. Of course, he wanted Susan now. Once they became human and he had them alone he always wanted them. Though they were hardly alone out there in the middle of the highway.
A trickle of vehicles was beginning to pass in the opposite lanes. “Another splash of Jack?” Joey asked.
“Sure, another short one before we start moving.”
When Joey came back from his bunk with their fresh drinks, the white-haired guy from the Chrysler was walking toward them from the back of the rig. Joey ignored him and went over to Susan to give her her drink. Susan didn’t see the Chrysler guy before he stopped to deliver his little, well-practiced speech. Sometimes fate gives folk these little set scenes to perform. Captains of their destiny and all that crap. Little teasers of scenes to trick them into thinking that they could contol the flow of events, instead of the actual opposite.
“I want you people to know, I want the pleasure of telling you, that my wife has called the state police and reported your little party, your smoking and drinking in the middle of the highway during an emergency.”
“Now that’s a strange thing to want to take pleasure in,” Joey said.
“She gave them your license plate numbers and descriptions and reported your threatening us earlier. They will probably be waiting for you both up ahead.” That was the end of his rehearsed speech, and now the Chrysler guy didn’t know what to say and just stood there, his hands twitching a bit at his sides the way a gunslinger’s do in the movies just before he draws.
“Your wife put you up to this, didn’t she?” Joey asked, and he stooped down to put his cup on the pavement. When he stood back up the Chrysler guy took a step back.
“I wouldn’t try anything if I were you,” the guy said, just like in the movies he’d seen. “I am armed.”
“Now, why in the world would you…,” Joey started, edging toward his truck and the thirty-eight special beside the now empty Jack Daniels bottle beneath his bunk—who knew what the immediate future now held for Mr. Chrysler?—but Susan interrupted him.
“Your wife reported what to the state police?”
“You heard me, your license plate numbers and descriptions.”
“My license plate number and description?” Susan took a few angry steps toward the guy, who stumbled backwards and reached into his pants pocket.
“I wouldn’t.” the guy said, and, yep, he was armed. He pulled out a small silver woman’s pistol that he just showed but didn’t point. By now Joey had his hand on the handle to the door of his bunk, but Chrysler looked over at him and made a little motion toward him with his gun hand and Joey stopped. “I’m going back to my car now. We’ll be moving soon. I don’t expect any trouble.” And he started walking backwards.
“Why you stupid piece of shit.” Susan was yelling now and stamping her gold-sandaled foot. “Who do you think you are, reporting me? Pull a gun on me, will you? I’ll show you!” And she turned and ran back to her car. Joey wondered if she was going to get her own gun and he ducked inside his bunk door to get his thirty-eight. The script had suddenly gotten more surprising. If she had a gun he was going to get to fuck her, he just knew it. Reprobate that he was, he was about to be tossed a small token reward on his certain path to meaninglessness.
But it was the sound of screeching tires, not the sound of gun shots, that greeted Joey as he re-emerged with the special in his hand. Susan’s silver Camry was jerking back and jerking forward trying to escape its place in line. Mr. Chrysler was just standing there watching her. She finally got enough room to lurch around the SUV in front of her and she goosed the Camry into a flight off the pavement onto the grassy meridian. It wasn’t that far to the opposite-headed lanes, but the slopes on both sides were steep into a drainage ditch. She cut the Camry at an angle over the ditch at full throttle and her rear wheels caught on the other side and spun her free, fish-tailing up the opposite incline. There were sparks from her undercarriage when she hit the pavement. She sped away up the incline, easily passing the few other cars.
“Cool,” Joey said. “I guess she didn’t feature the future you had planned for her.”
Mr. Chrysler turned toward him, raising his little purse gun. Joey raised the thirty-eight. “Why don’t we just call it another day we both survived?” he said, and Mr. Chrysler went back to his car. In front of them the traffic had started to move, creep forward. Joey started up the Peterbilt. A ways up the road, even before they got to the bridge, all the troopers sped past with full flashing lights in the other direction. No one stopped him. No one noticed that the turf was late when he got it to its destination.