Celia's the Driver
The big dude, Carter Mays, introduced himself then looked straight at me. “So, this is how it is. Technically, you don’t need a CDL for these trucks, but the company prefers that you have one. Shows a willingness to learn and devotion to the profession. And occasionally we may go over the non-CDL weight limit. You got just a regular license, right?” I shrugged. He continued: “Celia here’s got a CDL, and a spotless driving record. You don’t, do you?” I shrugged. He continued: “Coming from Chicago, she’s used to metro traffic, whereas you come from that little crossroads that ain’t even got a red light. You catching my drift?”
“Not really. Maybe you should spell it out.”
“I am. Celia’s the driver, you the helper. You both got a lot to learn, but I feel she’s the best choice to put behind the wheel. You got a problem with that?”
“Nah. I’m good. Just happy to have a job.”
“Then we’re cool. So here’s how it works.”
He proceeded to go over, clipboard in his meaty hands, the details and what was expected of us. The orders were staged on the dock to facilitate unloading according to the sequence of our various stops. He explained the safety rules, the pallet jack, the truck’s liftgate, and the GPS system. Who to call in case of emergency, and so forth. It seemed like common sense to me, so my mind wandered and I soon realized I was staring at Celia’s ass. I looked up to see if Carter had noticed. He met my glance with a scowl. After he’d gotten back into his practiced drone about the company’s absenteeism and tardiness policy, I noticed he was looking too.
Damn, I thought. That big son-of-a-bitch must be fucking her already, or planning to. That’s why he placed her over me, along with the fact that I’m a white kid and they’re both black. But it was a job, and I couldn’t afford to mess it up.
I was staying with a friend and his fiancé in their apartment near Birmingham’s trendy Five Points area. I told them I would help out with the rent as soon as I started collecting pay checks. That was a month ago. I sensed I was getting close to overstaying my welcome. Money was the only thing that could fix it. Otherwise, I’d end up back home with my parents in Okatchee, back to Mom’s constant nagging and Dad’s threatening to kick my ass if I didn’t get my shit together.
The last scene was still fresh in my mind. The yelling started after Mom discovered my stash while looking for items to donate to the annual church yard sale. Dad and I were sipping coffee at the kitchen counter when she brought the Ziploc in from my closet and placed it between us. I felt violated. No one spoke. Finally, Dad picked up the bag by a corner. “I thought you’d quit this shit,” he said. “I told you I wouldn’t allow it in my house.” He brought it close to his face and examined the contents: my grinder, a small glass pipe, and a thumb-sized skunk bud.
He’d seen it all before. But this felt different. I was different. “That’s my stuff,” I said.
Mom stood there shaking her head, looking like she was about to cry.
Dad narrowed his eyes, jutted his chin. “Your stuff, huh? Bought from some thug with money from your part-time grocery store job while I provided room and board, insurance, and everything else. Yeah, I see how it’s your stuff. But get this straight: this ‘stuff’ ain’t gonna be in my house. Period! Either straighten up or get your ass out!”
Mom said, “Robert, calm down. We need to discuss this like adults.”
Yeah, like that was gonna happen. Dad stood up, spewing words, and started shaking the bag. I felt like I was being shaken. My back stiffened as I stood. “Okay, fine.” I snatched the bag from his hand. “I’ll be back for my clothes.” The screen door slammed behind me. I jumped into my twelve-year-old F150 that Dad had paid for and drove away. My phone was in my pocket; I had my weed, a quarter tank of gas, and twenty dollars.
* * *
The situation with Dustin and Roxanne, my new roomies, started out cool. She was cute, a petite brunette taking RN classes at UAB while working part time at some kind of boutique. Dustin and I had been friends since high school. He could be an ass sometimes, but we usually got along. He’d just started a new job installing cable. I grabbed the first gig I could: delivering pizzas for Gianni’s, a popular place with the college kids.
That job sucked. I had to drive all over, burning gas and putting wear and tear on my aging pickup. Unfamiliar with the city, I stayed lost most of the time. Dad cancelled my phone service so I had no GPS. I delivered mostly cold pizzas and got meager tips. I quit after a week. What little money I earned went for gas, weed, and a prepaid phone. Now I’d disappointed not only my parents but also my friends. And myself. I was always doing that. With my new phone I called Mom to let her know I was okay even though I wasn’t.
I applied for lots of jobs: warehouses, building supply chains, big-box retail, manufacturing. I got called in for a few interviews, which I tried to approach with a positive attitude. Spent lots of time watching Netflix, surfing the internet, and getting high. Sometimes during the week I was there alone with Roxanne. I knew better than to try anything, but being there with her was an uncomfortable temptation. I felt she could sense desire oozing from my pores.
I liked talking to her. She was always making suggestions of where I could apply for work. She also encouraged me about getting back in school. She didn’t know my history at the community college, how I’d been placed on academic probation a couple of semesters ago.
I told people I was just taking a break but, honestly, I hated sitting in class. I’ve always had trouble focusing. Most days, I got high before going, just to make it bearable. Dad, who’d been paying tuition, got furious over my grades. We fell into a holding pattern, with him continuing his threats while I made promises, worked part time, and kept up my habits.
Whenever Roxanne mentioned school, I’d nod in agreement. “Yep,” I’d say, “I’m gonna look into that. Maybe when I start back, I’ll get off the liberal arts track, pick up a technical certificate. I’m thinking air conditioning and refrigeration.”
“That’s a good plan. You could make so much money!” It was a good plan, but returning to school with my issues would be a major ordeal. I tried to sound upbeat, though. I didn’t want her to think of me as a loser.
So this new job was important. I needed to prove I could make it in the world, pay my own way, that I wasn’t a loser. I was looking forward to handing over my share of the rent and maybe, before long, getting a place of my own. I showed up at AutoWorld Distributors with first-night jitters, but determined to make it work.
AWD had recently bought out another parts supplier and was doing a major re-staffing. Most of the acquired company’s drivers had quit when they found out they’d be taking a pay cut and losing seniority. Carter pointed out to Celia and me that management normally wouldn’t put two new hires on the same route, but there weren’t enough veterans to go around. After his speech he nodded and looked at us each in turn. “Y’all got this. You both smart, strong, and there ain’t nothing to it, really. I’m expecting great things.”
She flashed him a big smile. “Damn right, we got this!” I nodded, trying to look agreeable. Then it was time to get started, nearly midnight and we were supposed to be back by 8:00 a.m. Carter smiled and winked at Celia. He motioned for one of the warehouse guys to come over and help us load up. Then we were off into the night, just the two of us in a heavily loaded box truck, negotiating Birmingham’s thoroughfares, ramps, and expressways.
Conversation was dictated by the details of our route—where to turn, which exit, which way. When we arrived at each stop, we were consumed with the delivery responsibilities, detailed in the notes supplied by Carter. Our customers were independent retailers. We kept them stocked, and they frequently placed special orders, expecting overnight deliveries. Elaborate arrangements were made regarding spare keys, where to park the pallets, where to stack the heavy plastic totes, and how to secure the space when we were finished. This job entailed more responsibility than I’d ever shouldered. I thought about explaining it all to Roxanne and Dustin, imagining they might be impressed.
Our first five stops were within greater Birmingham, and we knocked them out with no problems, using the truck’s onboard navigation system. I thought we were ahead of schedule since we only had five more deliveries to make, but finishing our route required getting on the interstate and travelling to several small towns. The farthest was Wadley, 100 miles away. Then we were supposed to loop north on Highway 431 to make one more stop before ramping back onto I-20 toward Birmingham, home, and rest.
Carter and the front-office guys had the routes figured and knew how long they should take under ideal conditions. Our “incentive” pay was based on completing the trip on time. If not, a different scale applied, hourly pay at minimum wage. After Celia got us headed east on the interstate, I studied the schedule. Beginning inside Birmingham, we would cover over 200 miles and complete ten deliveries that entailed complicated protocol, lifting, toting, and stacking. Damn. I looked at the brown girl behind the wheel beside me. Her coal-black eyes darted continually from the mirrors to a range-varying scan of the highway ahead.
We rolled along in silence except for the hum of engine and tires. The radio was shit. I gave up on finding a station. I studied the schedule, looking up each time we passed or were passed by one of the big rigs we shared the road with. Just us and them at this hour. I glanced over and noticed her concentration in the dim glow from the dashboard.
I finally said, “I don’t think we can make it.”
“All these fucking deliveries, then back by eight. We got a long way to go.”
She glanced at me with a confident smile. “We’ll make it.”
“I wish I could share your optimism, but they’ve got these routes figured so damn close. I feel like a terrier chasing a fox tail.”
“You know, dog races where a bunch of little Jack Russells run their hearts out chasing something they can’t catch.”
“We’re not like that. Besides, this is our first night. I’m sure Carter will cut us some slack if we’re a little late.”
“You may have something there. I can tell he likes you.”
She raised an eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. I mean it’s obvious, the way he looks at you.”
“His big self can like whatever he wants. Ain’t shit to me. I’m just doing a job.”
I was surprised at how quickly she got defensive. She was feisty underneath that smile. “I know,” I said, “but still, it never hurts for the boss to like you. I didn’t mean it as a bad thing.”
“I guess you’re a little pissed.”
“Not pissed. Why would I be?”
“About Carter putting me in the driver’s seat. Don’t mean nothing to me. You can drive this damn thing if you want to.”
“Nope. You got the CDL. You deserve the higher pay rate. But I’d be happy to relieve you if you need a break. I’m sure we’re well under the weight limit.”
“I’m fine for now, but thanks.” She looked tired in spite of her smile.
* * *
We were only a few minutes late getting back, and Celia was right about Carter cutting us some slack. “Yeah, y’all are fine,” he said, holding that clipboard. “First night, and it was after midnight when you got started. I’ll make sure you get the bonus rate.” He winked at her again.
“You been here all night, man?” I asked, puzzled.
“Hell no. I don’t love this place that much. Came back in last night to see that all the newbies got loaded up and headed out in the right direction. You two exceeded my expectations. Keep it up and you’ll be my top team.”
Celia said, “Damn right!” Then she looked at me and winked.
I nodded, finding no other way to contribute to this little love fest.
Carter said, “Awright then. Y’all hit the clock and get out of here, get some rest. You’ve earned it.”
We walked inside the warehouse together. Lots of activity in there: laughter, banter, and ass-grabbing between dock hands as they unloaded delivery trucks. Folks buzzing around on motorized pallet jacks, alarms beeping. Workers on rolling metal ladders pulling orders. The time clock was adjacent to the restrooms and break area. We punched our cards and stood there.
Celia spoke first. “Well, guess I’ll see you tonight. Thanks, by the way.”
“I don’t know . . . for not being a dick. For working hard and being a good partner. We made a lot of stuff happen last night.”
I lost control of my face for a second. I’m sure my smile was too big. “Yeah, we did.”
“Okay then. I gotta go in here.” She nodded toward the restroom door.
“Sure. Goodnight. I mean good . . . day, or whatever. Seeya later.”
Walking out I was oblivious to the warehouse hum. My surroundings seemed blurred, but stepping outside brought the world back into sharp relief. The day was bright and heating up. I realized how tired I was as I crossed the gravel lot toward my pickup. I stopped and looked back. I didn’t see Celia. I thought she might have parked in the front lot. That would make sense. Carter probably told her it was okay, even though those spaces were reserved for the office people. Fuck it. I tried to convince myself I didn’t care what they did. He could have her behind closed doors, bent over his desk for all I cared. I needed sleep.
At the apartment I stripped down and tried to get comfortable atop the air mattress in my small bedroom. I pulled a sheet over me, closed my eyes. The AC clicked on. Cool air on my face felt good, but my eyes darted behind closed lids. Persistent images danced before me: big rigs and glaring truck stops, cramped storage spaces with too many boxes and pallets, Celia’s smile and flashing black eyes. The AC sound mimicked the hum of tires. There were other thoughts of Mom and Dad’s disappointment and anger. I lay that way for I don’t know how long, drifting. . . .
It must have been around lunchtime when I heard someone inside the apartment. Roxanne was puttering around, probably fixing a sandwich. I couldn’t help but listen, imagining her movements. She would be wearing tailored shorts and a knit pullover with flat strap sandals. She liked pink and black. Her hair was dark and her eyes were iridescent gray. Pretty girl and sweet. I tried not to think improper thoughts but it was hard. I’d barely been asleep. Now I was coming into full consciousness.
I heard the whoosh of the front door. Was she leaving already? Then she said, “Hey! What are you doing home?”
Dustin’s voice answered, sounding pissed. I didn’t want to listen, but I couldn’t help picking out snippets of conversation as they moved around the kitchen. Apparently he’d walked off his job because his boss was “a piece of shit.”
Roxanne said, “But baby. We need the money. What are you gonna do now?”
“I can always get a job. Meantime we need to collect your boyfriend’s share of the rent.”
A cabinet door slammed. Then she said, “Fuck you.”
His voice rose: “I ain’t stupid! I’ve seen how y’all look at each other.”
They were arguing about me. My presence was messing up their relationship in spite of my good behavior. Dustin was obsessively jealous. I’d seen it in him before but thought he’d grown up, that he trusted me. I listened as their argument escalated. I could hear most of what they were saying, enough to imagine the rest.
“Be quiet,” she said. “You’ll wake him up. He’s in his bedroom.”
“Bedroom? I thought he was working.”
“He’s on night shift. Don’t you remember?”
“That’s fucking convenient! Y’all here everyday together while I’m out making a living.”
“You’re not making a living. You quit, or did you forget that too?”
“This is bullshit!”
I sat up on the mattress to catch every word. Finding myself at the center of a full-blown argument was gut wrenching. It was time to pull on my pants and confront this shit, but I didn’t. I lay back down, turned on my side and covered my head with a pillow. I needed sleep. I needed lots of things.
After a while I stopped hearing them. They’d left apparently, soon after the argument peaked. Roxanne would have to get back to her boutique, or maybe she had a class. Dustin probably just stormed out to relieve pressure. I finally drifted off.
I woke up hungry late in the afternoon. I found the kitchen in a mess. Mayonnaise jar, unlidded on the counter. Dishes everywhere. I decided to leave before either of them returned. I pocketed a bunch of change and headed out.
I pondered my circumstances over a cheeseburger meal. The roommate situation had deteriorated with nearly two weeks to go before payday. I decided to avoid them both as much as possible until I could pay rent. In the meantime I needed to eat and get back and forth to work, and I was nearly out of weed. I thought about Gianni’s; maybe I could pick up a few delivery shifts and some cash.
I’d never officially quit, just stopped showing up. When I walked in they were in the middle of the evening rush. Corey, the assistant manager, was harried as usual. He slid a pie into the oven, wiped his hands on his apron. “It’s about time. Where you been?”
“Just working through stuff, man. You need me to run some deliveries?”
“Hell yes! We’re swamped.” He nodded toward the stack of boxes on top of the oven. “Enough to keep you busy for a while.”
I was desperate and more comfortable now about getting around in the city. I grabbed the orders and headed out.
* * *
A routine developed. After getting off each morning at eight, I’d goof around for an hour or two, get high, then go by Waffle House for a bite to eat. I usually arrived at the apartment late enough in the morning for Dustin and Roxanne to be gone. Then I’d crash. I’d sleep hard for six or seven hours, then try to get out before they got home. Dustin wasn’t working, so I couldn’t avoid running into him occasionally. We’d grunt, “What’s up,” as we shuffled past each other. My schedule allowed several hours in the evening for pizza deliveries before clocking in at AWD. I managed to keep enough cash for food, gas, and a little weed. One morning I slipped Dustin a twenty. “Here, man. I’ll have my rent in a few more days.” He took the bill and nodded.
Things were going smoothly with Celia and the route. I found her easy to talk to on the long stretches of road, but she didn’t reveal much, especially regarding personal matters. She danced around those topics.
After several nights, I broached the relationship issue. “So, you seeing someone? Surely you have a boyfriend.”
“Why you put it that way—‘Surely’? You think a woman’s gotta have a man? What makes you think I even like guys?”
“Nothing. I mean, it’d sure be a shame if you didn’t. You’d be disappointing guys all over the place. It’s just that—”
“Listen, my experience with guys has been pretty shitty up to now. Why you think I left Chicago and ended up way down here?”
“I thought you wanted to go to nursing school.”
“I do, but I didn’t have to move 700 miles away to do that.”
“Oh, so y’all have schools up there in Chicago?”
“Very funny. Yeah, we got schools, good ones. And I’d been accepted to the nursing program at UIC.”
I waited for her to continue.
She looked at me then back at the road. “I was being pulled in too many directions. Bad shit all around. Figured a fresh start would be best. And I got relatives down here.”
“So what about you? What you wanna be when you grow up?”
She’d shifted topics again, managing an insult in the process, and I still knew nothing about her relationship status. In spite of her friendly smiles, she was anything but an open book.
“I haven’t figured it out yet,” I answered. “Right now I’m just trying to support myself.”
She raised an eyebrow and shook her head. “How much weed you smoke?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“You wanna get somewhere in life, you gotta lay off that shit.”
“Weed helps me cope. Gives me insight. I show up every night, plus work another job. I’m making it. I got my problems but weed ain’t one.”
“Okay then, Weed-Ain’t-One. Keep on smoking and maybe, with all that insight, you’ll arrive at a plan before you’re thirty.” She did that little head shake again, lips pursed, and turned her gaze back to the highway.
I looked out my window, watching the random tire chunks and other detritus on the emergency lane as we sped past. I tried to think of all the ways she was wrong. Then she slammed on brakes and veered into the left lane.
“Holy shit!” she said. “Did you see that?”
“What? See what?” My view out her side was limited and my mirror didn’t help.
“He swerved when we passed him. Fool must’ve fell asleep.”
She maneuvered the truck onto the left shoulder, stopped as fast as she could, slammed it in reverse. The transmission whined.
“What the fuck!” I said. Her eyes on the mirror, she backed up a long way as big rigs sped past. Our wide truck on that narrow shoulder was barely out of the lane. “I don’t know what you saw, but you’re gonna get us killed.”
“I got this,” she said. “Dude went off the road. He could be hurt or dying. Nobody gonna see him down there.”
We were on a stretch of interstate that ran through the Talladega National Forest in the Appalachian foothills. The east and westbound lanes were widely divided by wooded expanses of steep terrain. Celia was backing along a section where the roadbed was higher than the median, which sloped away into a valley covered in hardwoods. A beautiful area for a hike if there weren’t an interstate running through it. “Right there!” she said, stopping the truck. Look, you can see where he ran off.”
She opened her door and hit the ground running. Shit! I thought, almost opening my door before checking the mirror. Good thing I didn’t. A succession of big rigs blew past, then finally a break. I hopped down and hurried around the front of the truck, looking for Celia and the aftermath of what she’d seen. I caught a glimpse of her in the distance, just before she slipped out of sight behind trees. I stumbled down the slope to catch up.
I could see tire tracks at first and smell the earth where the vehicle had plowed through, but shadows grew thick as I moved away from the interstate. I shouted, “Celia!” but the roar of trucks drowned out my voice. I used my phone for a light, picking my way over uneven ground into a patch of trees, toward a white glow flickering through the leaves. As I got closer she called out, “Hurry ass up! I’m gonna need some help.”
I stumbled toward her voice and the light. Pushing through broken brush, I saw that the glow was coming from a pair of headlights shining toward the ground. I stopped to catch my breath, my mind struggling to process the image before me.
An old Ford Taurus was hanging by its rear axle from the bottom limbs of a big tree. The front end was a couple of feet off the ground, and the driver’s door, which had sprung open, was about even with the top of Celia’s head. My view of the driver was blocked until I moved to where she was standing, reaching up and talking to the guy who was suspended by his shoulder harness and bleeding from the head. “It’s okay, sir. You gonna be fine. Help is on the way.”
He mumbled, “What the fuck.” He was barely conscious, and blood was dripping onto the ground.
Celia looked at me. “We gotta stop that bleeding.”
“I don’t see how. We can’t reach him.”
“I called 9-1-1, but it could take a while. Meantime, we need to do something.”
“EMTs be here soon,” I said. “They’ll have equipment to handle this.”
She ignored my comment. “Maybe I could climb in on the other side. Window’s down.”
“Hell no. Whole damn thing could break loose.”
“It ain’t got far to fall.”
We were both shining our lights, trying to figure something out. I didn’t want to get much closer. “Come here,” she said. “Look. Back axle’s hooked solid. It ain’t going nowhere.”
“Too dangerous. Besides, how you gonna get up there?”
“You’ll lift me on your shoulders. Then I can climb in.”
“Ain’t gonna happen. All your weight pulling on the car’s too risky. If the limb breaks, we got nowhere to go.”
“You might change your mind when I tell you the alternative.”
“I don’t see an alternative, other than wait for the EMTs.”
Blood kept splattering. The guy moaned and made a choking sound. “Come here,” she said.
I ventured a step closer. “What?”
“Take your shirt off. I need it for a compress.”
“It’s all I got, and—”
“Just do it.”
It was my favorite tee, from the My Morning Jacket concert at the BJCC last year, but I knew better than to argue. Even though I had no idea of how she would use it, I pulled the shirt over my head and handed it to her.
“Now, bend down here beside me.”
“Yes! Won’t be dangerous, I promise. We’re not gonna pull on the car. He’s losing a lot of blood.”
I weighed my nonexistent options. She was determined, and I couldn’t go off and leave her. Fuck it. I squatted down so she could straddle my head.
“Didn’t you tell me you played football before you became a stoner?” she asked as I stood, gripping her ankles.
“Yeah. I played in high school.”
“Good. Maybe you got some strength left in those legs. You’re gonna need it.”
* * *
After the EMTs finally got the guy out and stabilized, and we were able to resume our long ride back to Birmingham, I began to feel different in a way that’s hard to describe. My legs ached but my head felt clear, as if—through the act of lifting and holding Celia—I’d moved onto another plane of existence where boundaries were distinct, where reality was shaped by purpose and action. I felt nobler yet more vulnerable, especially sitting there without a shirt beside Celia as she drove.
We were both a mess, blood splattered and sweaty. It’s a good thing she’s not a big girl. I held her up for about twenty minutes while she pressed my folded tee against the gaping wound in the guy’s head. The position of the vehicle made unstrapping him a dangerous proposition, so she worked to staunch the blood flow and to relieve some of the pressure caused by his weight against the shoulder harness. She talked to him the entire time, trying to keep him conscious. He occasionally muttered a few syllables in return. Best I could tell he was on his way from Atlanta to Shreveport for his daughter’s wedding. He wasn’t gonna make that, but—thanks to Celia’s determined efforts—he would live and could join the party later.
If she hadn’t stopped the truck he surely would have died. If we’d called in the accident without stopping, he’d have been comatose before the ambulance arrived, assuming they could have found him. We saved the dude’s life. I’m including myself here, even though the initiative was all Celia’s. I did do something, and my legs and back are still sore from the effort—and from some other stuff that went down later.
We were over an hour late getting back to the warehouse after we pulled into a mega truck stop to freshen up. Celia bought me a Crimson Tide tee shirt for sixteen bucks. When I tried to give her ten, which was all I had, she said. “Don’t worry about it. You can buy me supper after we get paid.” When we got back in the truck, looking and smelling a little better, my mood was elevated.
We were mostly quiet—no need for small talk—as we hummed along I-20. Celia called the warehouse to explain why we were gonna be late. She got Carter, who had just come in. She smiled as they talked. “Okay, yeah. That’s cool. Thanks.” She ended the call and turned to me. “Carter says don’t worry about our pay rate. Seems to think we’ve provided a great service to the company and the human race.”
Passing through Anniston, excitement dwindled. Celia seemed fatigued. “I can drive us the rest of the way,” I said.
“I’m fine,” she answered.
“You’re more than fine. You’re awesome.”
She smiled. “Thanks. You’re not so bad yourself.”
Carter met us on the dock when we finally arrived. “Damn. Y’all look rough, but I’m proud of what you did. You make us look good. Hell, y’all deserve a bonus!”
Celia said, “Thanks. Maybe you can swing us one.”
He winked. “I’ll walk up with you. Buy you a drink, coffee, whatever you want.”
“I’m good,” I replied. “Just ready for a shower and some sleep.”
Celia said, “This guy’s worn out. You won’t believe what he did back there.”
“I hear you. Won’t keep you long, but I need a picture of you two for the newsletter. I’m even thinking about sending the story to The Birmingham News.”
Celia glanced at me, did the eyebrow thing. I gave her one back and reached for my time card. Carter said, “Wait a minute. Gotta get that picture.” He posed us in front of the vending machines as a few curious workers looked on. Carter said, “Got it!” Then he showed us his cell phone. The picture looked stupid with “Snacks and Beverages” behind us in big letters.
I said, “Well, I guess I’ll head out now.”
Carter said, “Yeah, yeah. I hear you. Good work.” He patted my shoulder. Then he turned to Celia. “Come back to my office for a few minutes. I want to get all the details. Gonna call the newspaper afterwhile.”
Walking through the warehouse, I felt my phone vibrate. I stopped, fished it out of my pocket. A message from Mom: “I’m sorry. I tried to talk him out of it but you know how he is.”
I thought, Oh shit. What now? When I started to text her back, my phone died. No big deal. I had a charger in my pickup. It became a big deal, though, when I reached the parking lot and realized my truck was gone. I looked around, scratching my head. Exhausted as I was, it took a minute for reality to hit. When it did, I fell to my knees. Dear old dad, in an effort to instill a tough-love lesson, had repossessed his old Ford.
I straightened my legs and sat there, groping for a plan. Ten bucks, a dead phone, and no vehicle. Celia could give me a ride, but she was in the office with Carter. I wasn’t about to knock on that door. My legs were trembling with fatigue, and I was facing an eight-mile walk down I-65 in order to reach the apartment and rest. Hitchhiking was scary. I wasn’t sure if people even did that anymore.
Sitting in the gravel wouldn’t solve anything. I stood, painfully, and walked through a grassy area beside the warehouse, past a forlorn picnic table splattered with bird droppings. I was headed around to the main avenue that led to the interstate, thinking I could stop at a convenience store and ask for help.
When I reached the front lot with its neat landscaping, I looked at the entrance to the offices. Celia was in there, dammit, with Carter. I tried to look away and not think about what they were doing. Then the front door opened and she stepped out. I was off to the side, so she didn’t see me, but I saw her face clearly. She was scowling. I approached. “Hey, you okay?”
Startled, she stopped in her tracks and stood there blinking. “What are you doing?”
“Truck’s gone,” I said. “Dad had it towed. Title’s in his name.” I let the info sink in, then added, “I’m really glad to see you.”
“Okay, sure. I can give you a ride.”
“Did you give Carter the details of the story.”
“He wasn’t that interested in the story, but that’s all the son-of-a-bitch got.”
I didn’t say anything. Tried to control my smile.
“Come on,” she said. “I’m ready to get away from this place.”
I walked beside her to the rusty Civic in the front corner of the lot.
“Don’t look like much,” she said, “but she runs great. Starts right up since I got that new battery.”
“New battery, huh? Had to put one in my truck a while back. Kinda pricey.”
She took a breath. “Pricey awright. Cost me a lot more than I bargained for.” Then she opened her door and reached in to unlock mine.
I got in, puzzled. “How’s that? Did you have more car trouble?”
“Nope. Battery got the car going, but that ain’t all.” She stopped right there.
My imagination spun. “You sure are tight-lipped about certain things. But I believe in sharing with friends, especially when something’s bothering you. I’m guessing this something’s name is Carter. You should tell me. Otherwise I’m gonna assume all sorts of shit.”
Her face puckered as she steered us out of the parking lot. Then she nodded. “You’re right. You should know. Could end up affecting you too. I’m afraid I just stepped off the fine line I been walking with that fucker. My dead battery that morning is what got things going in the wrong direction. He insisted on helping me.”
“When did that happen? You never told me about it.”
“It was after our second night on the job. I barely knew you then. Car wouldn’t start. Carter jumped me off. Then he wanted to follow me to make sure I made it okay. Got to my apartment and he wanted to come in. ‘Just a cup of coffee,’ he said. How could I refuse?”
I looked out the window.
“I told him, ‘Sure, I’ll fix you a cup, but then I gotta get some sleep.’ He didn’t try anything. Just said I was gonna need a new battery. I was short on funds, waiting for payday. When I told him so, he just sipped his coffee and looked at me.”
“He was sizing you up, looking for a way to take advantage,” I said as she maneuvered the little car through traffic.
“I puttered around the apartment feeling awkward, moving stuff around. ‘I need you to be able to get to work,’ he said. ‘Gimme your keys. I’ll get you a new battery. Pay me back later.’ I shoulda known better, but my options were limited. He told me to go on and get some rest, that he’d bring the car back and drop the keys in my mailbox.”
“He’s all heart,” I said. “Dudes do nice things for girls, hoping for something in return. You knew he was attracted to you.”
“I told you I couldn’t help that! I needed a damn battery. He’s the boss, and I still need this job.”
The scope of the problem began to sink in. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“Besides, he was acting respectful. I thought he just wanted to help. But this morning . . . damn. I had to push him off. Now he’s gonna be pissed.”
“Son-of-a-bitch can be pissed. You’re not his property.”
Her eyes flashed. “I know that’s right!”
Soon we were at the apartment. She wheeled into a space, put it in park, hesitated, killed the engine.
I hesitated too, for half a second. “Come up and have a beer. I’m too wired now to sleep.”
“Yeah. Me too. Beer sounds good.”
It felt right, that we both needed to talk things out. Nothing else was gonna happen. The mood was light as I opened the door. Then, for the second time that morning, everything turned to shit. Three tightly packed trash bags sat in the foyer. There was a note attached:
We are sorry but Roxanne’s parents kicked her little sister out of the house. She’s got to have a place to stay. You can leave the key on the counter. Don’t worry about the rent you owe.
Good luck, Dustin
I showed the note to Celia. We looked at each other.
“If I wasn’t so tired, I’d be pissed,” I said.
She sighed and shook her head. “Come on. I’ll help you carry this stuff. Looks like you staying at my place, at least till we figure something out.”
Her apartment was on the other side of University Boulevard, not very far. We were able to carry the bags up in one trip. “I’m gonna put you in here,” she said, “my guestroom. Excuse all the clutter.”
A couple of end tables stacked with kitchen junk were pushed into one corner. An old rocking chair, books, and boxes took up the middle of the tiny room. There was a futon against one wall. We placed my bags on top of the boxes, pushing a shadeless brass lamp out of the way. “This is fine,” I said. “I really appreciate it.”
“You still feel like a beer? I got some in the fridge.”
“Sure,” I answered, and we settled on her sofa, each with a Mich Ultra. It was a little awkward. I waited for her to lead the conversation, but when she didn’t I said, “Don’t worry about Carter. He knows he’s overstepped his bounds. We’ll just keep doing our job and everything’ll be fine.” Her face registered insecurity, a look I’d not seen before. She nodded, forced a smile.
We each took a big gulp. Then came a sharp rap against the door. One knock then two in rapid succession. She sat upright. A voice we both recognized called from the other side, “Celia, it’s me. Open up. We need to talk.”
She silently mouthed, “Oh fuck.”
I looked at her then the door. She held a finger to her lips. “Shhh.”
“Celia, open up. I know you ain’t ’sleep.”
She pressed her palm against my thigh to keep me still and quiet. I didn’t know what to do. A minute or two passed. Then Carter said through the door, “Well, hell. You gon’ play that way, you leave me no choice. I’m coming in.” Then I heard the lock turning. Then he was looming in the doorway. He pushed the door shut as he looked down on us. We sat there like culprits.
Carter nodded his big head. “So this is how it is. All cozied up in here drinking my beer with this little punk-ass white boy. Damn! After all I done for you.”
“This ain’t nothing, baby. He’s just had some problems. Got kicked out of his apartment.”
“I see. So you bring his scrawny ass here. That’s why you wouldn’t answer the door, ’cause you two doing nothing. Me looking out for you, buying you shit, and you in here like this. You a bigger damn ho than I thought.”
Celia stood. “Carter, you need to go right back out that door. You got no business coming in here on me, calling me names in my own house.”
“I do have business and you know it.” Then he pointed a sausage finger at me. “You the one that needs to go.” He moved a step closer, balling his big fists. “I’m gonna straighten things out with my bitch here, unless you want to be my bitch too.”
She moved toward him. “You wrong, Carter. Now get the fuck out!” She pushed him hard with two hands. He didn’t budge but pushed back. She fell over a footstool. A vibrating red screen dropped over everything and I launched myself off the sofa, going for a form tackle. It didn’t work. I remember a kaleidoscope of movement, enormous weight, shouts, trying to breath, a lightning bolt . . . then the red screen went black.
She was beside my bed when I woke up in the hospital. I blinked her into focus. “What the fuck?” Opening my mouth hurt like hell. An elastic bandage was stretched under my chin.
“Hey, tough guy,” she said, patting my hand. “You gonna be fine. Nothing too serious. They’re just keeping an eye on things.”
I wiggled my toes and fingers. Talked as best I could against the pain and elastic. “How bad is it?”
“Concussion. Bruised spleen. Dislocated jaw. Ribs. No permanent damage, just sore for a while.”
I felt groggy, confused. “Carter?”
“Gone. I got his ass charged with assault, plus breaking and entering.”
I looked at her and tried to process. Her eyelids fluttered and blinked. “You know I never gave him no key, right? Son-of-a-bitch made a copy when he had my battery put in.”
“So he’s in jail?”
“Will be when he gets outta the hospital. I gave him a pretty bad concussion with that brass lamp while you were keeping him busy. Zip tied his wrists while he was out.”
Brass lamp? Concussion? He’d copied her key? It hurt too much to talk, so I didn’t.
“And you ain’t gotta worry about our job. I made an appointment with HR for this afternoon. Sexual harassment.”
I didn’t know what day it was, but I was sure she hadn’t slept. I managed to ask, “Aren’t you tired?”
“Nah. I’ll sleep later. Me and you both gonna need a couple nights off.”
The door opened. Mom, lips pursed and head wagging, entered the room. She looked at me with pity, as if she’d found a mangy lost pup.
Celia, moving aside to make room, said in a low voice, “I called her after I got your phone charged.”
Mom rubbed my forearm just below where the IV was inserted. “I’ve been so worried,” she said. “It’s time for you to come home now, as soon as they release you. We can smooth things over with your dad. He’s been worried too. He really does love you.”
“I love you, Mom,” I said, moving my mouth as little as possible, “but I like my job. Don’t worry, I got this.” She blinked with a perplexed look of lingering pity.
I turned to Celia. “When can I get outta here?”
“Soon.” She smiled and winked. Mom with furrowed brow shifted her glance between us.
My spine tingled, a good sign. I didn’t care how Carter got that damn key; my stuff was inside now. Looking into Celia’s glistening eyes, I found a shiny new key. As I turned it in my mind, I saw everything I no longer needed falling away, a swirling procession of baggage.