Okay, so the last segment of our serial ended with Our Smelly Hero barrelling down a mountainside, enjoying an all-too-brief respite before the horrorshow his life has become continues and hideously amplifies.
Like I said, I like fall, and I like the mountains. The only dim spot in the scenario was that the heavy, sweet smell of honeysuckle kept impinging on my faux-fall reverie. Hard to embrace the chill in the air as a harbinger of an imminent change to cooler weather when the olfactory nerves are reporting that it’s late spring. But that was the limit of my discontent just then. And of course, that was about to change too.
Coming down the mountain into North Carolina, I was chatting with a fella just ahead of me in a company Freightshaker. Nice guy, from up North someplace in Taxachusetts. He was asking for directions to someplace in Atlanta, and I told him I was headed that way but was thinking of stopping off at home on the way for a quick nap and a shower. But since he was headed that way too, we mutually decided to convoy it for a while, or as long as I could hold off complete exhaustion before I had to pull over and do battle with my former friend Morpheus, who had shed his guise as blessed Savior and was now definitely sporting serious fangs. Claws too, and they were ripping at my eyelids as time went on.
We bashed right through Charlotte and I felt a definite pang as we did. God, right over there is my bed! Just a couple of miles away from downtown! I have central air too! Oh, how happy would I be if only…but no, it wouldn’t be worth it in the end. By the time I got to the yard, dropped the trailer, and headed to the house it’d be time to turn right back around and get on the highway again. Like all pipe dreams, this one was best not seriously considered, and the pained desire to make it real definitely gave it some nasty sharp teeth too.
So I had to give up the ghost along about Greer, SC. Pulled into a truck stop (the same one I mentioned before, actually) and grabbed a spot between a brand new Kenworth T-2000 and another Freightshaker. Both of ’em running. Both of ’em with the windows up. Damn. By this time I was getting seriously drained – I’d been awake for around 27 hours and hadn’t eaten a thing since the day before. I stripped down to skivvies and piled into the sleeper berth. Put my head on the pillow and it was still wet from the afternoon’s torment. I mean, like really wet. Damn near squishy. Ick. I turned the nasty thing over and rolled onto my back. Then I rolled to my stomach. Then I rolled to my side. Then I rolled onto my back again. Lather, rinse, repeat. It was hot as hell, no breeze, and to top it off there must have been a really big swamp nearby, because every mosquito in upstate South Cackalacky was coming in through the open windows and ravaging every inch of bare flesh I had available, and that was pretty much all of it but the bare minimum required by decency and a concern for the well-being of others.
After about an hour or so of this rot, I got up, dressed, and got out of the truck. I went around and sat on the pavement with my back against the front bumper. A piss-poor sight I must have been, sitting there with my head hanging between my knees, sweat dripping off my tortured brow onto the pavement, a cigarette burning past the filter between my fingers. I don’t know how long I sat there letting the heat drain the last bit of energy from my body; a couple of hours, anyway. God, do I hate summer.
Eventually I got up and went into the truck stop to get a Coke. Coffee was most definitely out of the question at this point. It was obvious by now that getting any sleep was out of the question too, so I jumped back in, fired it up, and got back on the highway to Atlanta. Made it down to Six Flags around ten or so after calling the freight broker for directions to their “warehouse.” I used scoff-quotes there because the “warehouse” in question was a couple of corrugated tin shacks and a scattering of office-trailers, surrounded by a parking lot you couldn’t turn a standard pickup truck around in. I jumped down and asked exactly how in the hell I was supposed to back to a dock with a rig that was only about twelve feet shorter than the space available. They didn’t have any idea how – they’d never gotten a delivery by a truck the size of mine before. Great. Just great.
But it got the old folly-magnet in me fired up, and I managed to get the thing in position after about thirty minutes of jockeying around. Man, was it hot. By the time I got the thing shut down (no need leaving it running when the climate control is on the blink, right?), my arms were shaking and my knees were like water. The clutch in big trucks is way stiffer than in a car, and a half-hour of pumping it up and down will leave you feeling like you might feel right after your first five-mile run in boot camp. Well, okay, that might be a little exaggeration there, but not completely ridiculous either.
So I get unloaded (takes FOREVER – one poor little guy dragging all those Scooby-Doos in their plastic bags out one by one) and call in. Of course, there’s a pickup to be made – about 20 miles south of Atlanta. Since it’s after 1 PM now, what this adds up to is the fact that I’ll be sitting in rush hour traffic leaving Atlanta.
Let me paint you a little mental picture here: when you think of rush hour in Atlanta, you need to picture the Long Island Expressway in NY or the Santa Monica freeway in LA. Think the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago. Your mind might rebel at thinking there’s any comparison, but believe me, there is absolutely no difference between them. No petty podunk little snarl-up, this. This is serious 5-mile-an-hour Big City Traffic Jam, and make no mistake. And right now it’s far worse than usual too – there’s a major construction project going on through October that routinely backs traffic on 85 North and I-285 for over ten unexaggerated and godawful miles. It’s absolute torture to sit in under the best conditions; with no A/C, I would truly get to experience a real-life preview of what the fire-and-brimstone types are always warning us is going to happen if we don’t get right with Jesus. Heat and sulfurus fumes included at no extra charge. And I knew how bad it would be because the north side of town had already become a sun-scorched parking lot by the time I came through that morning. I was quite sure the situation had not improved with time, as cubicle-rats all over the city bolted their confines early to get a jump on the weekend. Shit, shit, shit.
So I buzz down and make the pickup, after being delayed just long enough to ensure that I would be hitting the snarl at the most perfect time of day, around 4:30 or so. That is, it would be perfect if your idea of perfect is working a heavy clutch pedal and wrestling a gear shift in order to move ten feet, then doing it all again a minute later. For about 3 hours or so. In a heat index of upwards of a hundred degrees or so. Fuck me running.
I thought about it and decided to go back to Charlotte by taking I-20 out of Atlanta and running it through Augusta to Columbia, and thence up I-77 to my humble little air-conditioned abode, which was beginning to look like the vision of the Emerald City in The Wizard Of Oz, only surrounded by some kind of nightmarish setting resembling the real-world sequence in The Matrix. This route would tack on some time and not a few miles, but at least I’d be moving, which is important when you’re running the old 2-60 air conditioning system (2 windows down, 60 miles an hour).
I-20 is usually pretty congested at rush hour too, about as bad as 85 really, but there was no construction to make it worse like there was on 85, so I took it. After a relatively brief struggle to breach the city limits (about an hour or so), I surged toward Augusta like the proverbial wrath of God. Boot to the floor, pedal to the metal, foot through the firewall, I ran that truck as hard as it’s ever been run in its pitifully over-extended life. I did this until I got to within ten miles of Augusta, where traffic came to a complete Atlanta/NY/LA/Chicago style standstill once again.
See, I’d had the CB turned down because it was proving to be a distraction to the alternating mountain-air daydreams and suicide fantasies that were keeping me at least somewhat sane to that point. So I missed all the warnings about the upcoming construction-traffic nightmare that I was now firmly ensconced in. At this point, all the reasons why I hate my fucking job were slapped back into my consciousness like a wet slimy bar-rag to the face. I have simply got to bone up on web design some more and get the hell out of the freight business. Have Powerbook, will travel, say I. Either that or perhaps try for Wal-Mart greeter. Anything but this.
So after yet another delay of about two hours, I’m finally past Augusta, rolling towards Columbia, and about just over an hour and a half from home. Just to the other side of Columbia, the rains came. I didn’t even roll the windows up, and if I’d been on foot I probably would’ve just stripped off what filthy clothing I was wearing and danced naked on the highway for sheer joy. For this wasn’t that awful hot humid rain that you get in the South so often, the kind that cools things off not one whit and leaves the atmosphere so muggy and humid you’re not really breathing anymore, you’re drinking. This was a big-ass thunderstorm, with some spectacular lightning and that blessed chilly-cold rain that leaves the air all crisp and clean and fresh-smelling. It was great. The temperature almost instantly dropped at least fifteen degrees and the storm lasted for miles. I struck up a CB conversation with a long-time (19 years) long-haul guy who was headed for Florence and thence to Wilson, NC and home after a month on the road. He said he’d be following 20 on through Columbia, stopping at the truck stop at exit 71 to rest up a bit and “get his logbook straight,” which means exactly the opposite, before tackling that last stretch leading towards two weeks’ vacation. We roll on and chat a little more, and life is definitely seeping back into my tired sad old body. We were flying down the highway, slicing through the now-cool air like scalpels, him on the front-door and me in back, yakking at all the other trucks, giving out bear reports, poking fun at the four-wheelers, and generally having the kind of unexpected and unlooked-for fun that can override the blackest despair and turn it into something almost like joy. Joy born of delirium, maybe, but you takes it where you finds it.
We reached exit 71, his stop, and I notice he’s not signaling the turn. Just when I think he’s not paying attention and I should maybe get on the radio and remind him where he is, he sings out “Fuck it – I’m rolling to Florence.” I gave him a “right on!” back, and then he said something I’m going to try to remember forever. He said, “Y’know, when they’re rolling good, sometimes you just gotta let ’em keep right on rolling.” Yep, you damn sure do, and that doesn’t just apply to driving either. Easy to forget sometimes, but vital to remember if you can.
Sorry ’bout the length of this, but for those of you still with me, regular political pissing and moaning resumes tomorrow. Thanks for reading.