The first thing you notice when the door to the semi swings open is the smell. Vanilla Spice and Cinnamon Sunrise, you'll identify later, and old cigarette and Febreeze. Heavy and artificial, it saunters down the tall cab stairs, squeezing around the woman staring down at you staring up at her.
It's one in the afternoon at the truck stop in Hudson, Wisconsin, and in the last five hours you've traveled eighteen miles in three vehicles. Your cardboard sign is beginning to wilt under the weight of the wet falling snow, under the winter gray sky and your unpracticed uncertainty. You wish that your friend, Tom, hovering ten feet behind you, was asking this time. You wish it wasn't you asking right now with your too-wide smile. You wish this, even though you know Tom was right—you're friendlier and less threatening, you have a better chance at getting the ride. You're a girl.
This woman could be middle aged. She's twisted up her long, blonde curls and clipped them into place, and her face tells you she's seen more in the time it takes to drink a beer than you've noticed in twenty-two years. But cats prance across her pink sweatshirt in tutus, and later, when you see the plastic tubs of games and art supplies, you will wonder, How old is she?
She is large, this woman-child, and right now you're afraid that she too will shake her head and close the door. But when she saw your sign, "Cookies for Ride East," you could see her laughing, and when she stepped down the semi stairs to open the door she was still smiling. This gives you hope. This, and because she's a woman, a woman wearing a sweatshirt with dancing cats.
And this time you're right. She smiles and says, I'm not supposed to take hitchhikers, but it's snowing. And anyway, it's Christmas.
Your shoulders relax from their hopeful posture and your smile melts from its fixed expression, the one that beams, I'm friendly. I won't hurt you. You can trust me.
Thanks! you say. Thank you so much!
And you congratulate yourself for undertaking such a risky endeavor as hitchhiking, for being so daring and trusting of strangers and cultures unknown to your own. And you're glad that Tom has seen you do this; you hope he's impressed by your lack of fear. You reach for the door handle and pull yourself up inside, squeezing past the woman as she makes a grab for a small white dog.
I'm Amber, the woman says, twisting around from the front passenger seat.
You introduce yourself from where you and Tom have landed, perching on the back bed, on some tossed blankets, a chew toy, there are some pillows in the shadows. Your wool pants are steaming like an animal and your wet boots puddle on the floor. You hope you aren't getting her bed wet. When you try to lean back against the wall, you end up almost lying down; your feet don't touch the ground, and you feel like a child. You sit up, very aware that you're sitting on a bed and that your thigh is touching Tom's.
My husband's inside getting a drink, Amber explains. He's driving today. We're both truckers.
She studies you. Legally, we're not supposed to take riders. Hell, I'm not even supposed to be riding with him.
She barks a laugh, and you smile a little. Unsure if you should apologize or thank her, you say nothing but, Oh, and try to make yourself agreeably smaller.
Where y'all headed?
Pennsylvania, Tom says.
You might add here that you're only going to Pennsylvania because that's where Tom grew up and where he's celebrating Christmas. But you are not from there, you are from Maine, even though you've been living in Minnesota with your grandmother. You were hoping to record her stories. At least this is what you tell everyone. What you never mention is that Tom also works in Minnesota, but four hours north, and you hoped that if you lived in Saint Paul it might work—that you'd be close enough for him to think of you and too distant to be cloying. But this you don't even really admit to yourself. So when Tom said he was thinking about hitching home for Christmas, you said you wanted to go too, because you live in the East and because everyone goes home for the holidays. And even though you could have flown, hitching seemed like an adventure, and you want to be the kind of person who wants to meet new people, the kind of person you think Tom admires.
You might also add that in order to make this work, you've booked three flights from Philly to Portland. Because you weren't sure when you would arrive in Pennsylvania, and you wanted to have options. But this will seem too complicated, so instead—
We're trying to get home for Christmas, you add.
Want a lollipop? Amber hands back a handful, cafe latte and butterscotch, the gourmet kind.
You remember the cookies. Do you want some? you ask, offering a Ziploc of frosted stars and trees. They really look more like Easter cookies you think, the red looks pale pink and the green like new grass. Tom had laughed when he'd seen them and then added purple.
Amber laughs. Oh, no thanks.
You smile. Just let me know, you say, wishing she would just take the cookies so you wouldn't have to keep carrying them, so Tom would see that they were a good idea after all.
Where did you come from, where did you go? "Cotton-Eyed Joe" twangs out from the speakers.
Amber looks back. This is kinda the hick CD, she says.
You shrug. You do not mind. You cannot mind. You listen while she tells you about line dancing, how she went once three years ago and learned one dance and was hooked. She says she'd like to go again sometime.
Your eyes adjust to the dim interior and you look around you. Two floppy stuffed animals sit plopped on the wide front dash—a gray cat and a white dog. A stack of Christmas cards rests next to them, and four pairs of sunglasses tucked into cup holders and folded on the dash. You count the air fresheners—twelve. At least these are the ones you can see. They swing alongside three dreamcatchers and a hot pink rabbit's foot that hangs from the passenger side visor.
People don't realize it, Amber says, but line dancing is one of the more seductive dances.
You smile. You won't tell her that you've never thought this, that where you come from, country music isn't cool. Tom hates country, and you wonder what he's thinking. When you feel him shift his leg against yours, you won't move because maybe, you think, maybe he moved closer on purpose.
Amber leans over the armrest to glare at the convenience store. He better be gettin' cigarettes, too. Then she lifts her nose and sniffs. Does my cab stink? Cuz I just have this thing about my truck smellin'.
You shake your head no.
I have ten dogs and six cats, she explains. When she tells you that she only feeds them bottled water and all natural pet food, you express your surprise. No one you know does this, and you wonder if she can afford it. But you keep this to yourself.
I give them the best care when they give birth, too, she says. Two cats, a shiatsu, and a long-legged beagle have all given birth in the back of this cab.
You look down at the bed you're sitting on, at the blankets twisting in the dim light. Ugh, you think, imagining their amniotic dankness.
Being a woman who's had a child herself, Amber continues, I don't want to lie on no paper towels. Give me plush, dammit.
The cab door opens and a thin man pulls himself into the driver's seat. He doesn't smile under his black baseball cap. He doesn't say anything either. Neither do you and neither does Tom. You look to Amber.
Alan, she says, reaching out for his arm. Honey, these people are lookin' for a ride east. I told them we could take them as far as Mauston.
You will try to appear your friendliest while you sit on his bed. You pull your lips into what you hope is an open smile and a nonthreatening lift of the eyebrows, a look that says, Nice to meet you. I'm easy, flexible, no trouble at all. You want me to move? But Alan just nods and opens a can of Cobra (later you will learn that this is an energy drink packed with caffeine, not a beer). Hiss, pop. He drinks it in three gulps, then starts up the truck.
The terrier, who got loose sometime between Amber's assessment of line dancing and her explanation of pet birthing protocol, is running, wriggling frantically as Alan checks the mirrors and then eases the truck forward onto the snowy highway.
Buttons! Amber makes a swipe, missing. She shakes her finger at him, laughing. I'll beat you black and white!
With a grunt Alan leans over and yanks Buttons up by the scruff of his neck. He shakes the dog in his face and growls, then tosses him down. Buttons yelps.
A cat meows.
Here. Amber leans over and reaches for a box behind Alan's legs. Here, Pumpkin, it's okay. You can come out for a little bit.
She pulls an orangeish cat out by its hind legs. Poor Pumpkin, Amber croons. She's pregnant and has the shits, she explains, looking up.
You nod sympathetically. Amber stands up and walks back to where you sit, cradling the cat in her arms. Then she dumps Pumpkin into your lap.
You look at Tom, horrified, your fingers curling with the effort not to shove this cat to the floor. Tom's looking at you, shaking with silent laughter. He finds this amusing, you realize. You are amusing. You smile.
Amber reaches into the shelf above your head. She pushes aside a blue elephant and a yellow duck, the Holy Bible and 30 Ways to Shine As A New Employee. Tugging down her sweatshirt, she shoves through bottles of hand sani and flea spray and Fantastik. She pulls out a can of OdoBan, shakes it—Is this the only air freshener in here?—and tosses it on the bed. She looks around her, then reaches for a red spritzer bottle. She leans over to spray the small window curtains, then straightens up to spray the air. Later you will discover the spritzer is hairspray.
There, Amber says, that's better than cat shit.
You glance again at Tom; his smile stretches like before. You aren't sure if it's a sign of affection, but you smile back.
Pumpkin snuggles into your lap. Pregnant with the shits. You almost want to pet her, to stroke her head and say, I'm sorry, and, It'll be alright. Then you lift her up and carefully move her to the floor.
The air in the cab now steams with wet wool and cat shit and the alcoholic bite of cheap hairspray. Outside you can see the snow is falling thicker, denser, with fatter flakes and fewer spaces between them. It piles like down, muffling the world outside. Silent vehicles crawl by.
It's been an hour, and now Creed plays on the CD. Amber is playing "Wheel of Fortune" on her cell phone. Alan drives without a word. Tom stares out at the snow. "Arms Wide Open" makes you think of a middle school dance, that awkward, silent partner-sagging that passes for couples dancing, three feet between you.
Then you hear the lyrics—"Legs Wide Open"—and you blush. Amber looks back—Just so you know, some of the songs on here get pretty raunchy—and she punches the track change button. She never listens to an entire song.
Alan shakes a cigarette from a pack on the dash and rolls down the window. When the cold air rushes in, you try not to gulp. He pulls a lighter out on a retractable cord and lights up without a word. Then he hands the pack to Amber.
Buttons is snoring, stretched out between you and Tom, finally still. You look at Tom and lift your eyebrows. It's snowing heavier, huh? you murmur.
Huh? he asks. He leans toward you, close to your mouth.
You look at Amber and Alan. You're afraid that if you speak too loudly you will remind them that you are not legal, that they are risking a fine to help you, you who could pay for a flight, you who do not really need their help, for whom this is fiction.
It's snowing heavier.
Tom nods, and a cell phone rings.
Hi Tim, Amber answers. Alan glances over, then shifts his eyes back to the road.
Amber stares out the windshield and nods. It's snowing real bad, she says. She takes a drag on her cigarette and blows it toward the ceiling, keeping one eye on the road.
You haven't? Why not?
You can just barely hear Tim's voice through the phone.
Alan reaches for the phone.
What's the deal? We need to get the truck in. His voice is angry, and it fills the cab's already-cluttered smallness.
Tom flicks his eyes toward you, then stares at the floor. You wish he would say something.
Well, get out there!
You shift uncomfortably. Tom tucks his chin into his coat.
Are there are many women truckers? you ask Amber.
She turns around. There are getting to be more, she says. But they get so much attention from male drivers, they think they're all that. Like they don't need to talk to other women.
She pauses. I don't have many female friends.
Really? you ask, and put on your surprised face, meaning that you think that she would have lots of friends, and to please explain.
I can be a real bitch, she continues, and I know I can be a real bitch.
Alan looks over, phone still to his ear. That's an understatement.
Amber makes a face at him, then turns to back to you and Tom. My husband's just pissed because my boyfriend didn't plow the drive.
When confusion covers your face, this time you won't be able to mask it. Amber will expect this. With the smooth practice of one who's explained her household before, she tells you about Alan, her husband; her boyfriend Tim; her best friend and her best friend's boyfriend. This is in addition to the ten dogs and six cats. You will understand the math and about nothing else. But you nod anyway. Oh, you say.
Amber leans forward. The reason I was askin' where you guys were goin' is cuz if you didn't have anywhere to go for the holidays, I was going to invite you to our house. She smiles like a child making a new friend.
Oh, you say, thank you. Secretly you will feel relieved that you do have some place to go. You can't imagine sitting around her house, trying to make small talk. Then you'll think, She is more generous than you, and you will wish you had more to offer than Easter cookies.
It'll be hard not having my mom and baby sister at Christmas, Amber adds, but my husband and my boyfriend will be there. She smiles, and reaches out to stroke Alan's arm.
Do you all believe in the afterlife? Amber is staring out the window. The snow has let up a little. At least you think it might have. You've been in the truck for two hours now, moving through the flakes at less than half speed.
Because, Amber explains, I have the ability to know when a deer is going to be hit and die, twenty minutes before it happens.
You will wonder if this is true.
I'm a quarter Blackfoot, she explains, and pulls up her sleeves. She sticks her forearms toward you. On her right, a wolf and a bobcat circle each other. On her left, flowers twine around "Jason James, Nov. 12, 1981-June 7, 2004."
Jason is my cousin, she says, staring at the spidery script. He committed suicide. The rose is for my baby sister. She pulls her sleeves down.
Now Paula Abdul is singing, and Amber joins her—Straight up, now tell me, are you really gonna love me forever—
She stops. Those were some of the best years when I was on the streets in the nineties. I was born in eighty-six, so the nineties was my time.
Eighty-six? you think. She's only twenty-one?
You will try to piece together the scraps that Amber drops. She tells you she's been trucking for sixteen years, that she started when a trucker picked her up at age four, standing on the side of the road in nothing but her underwear. She says it was winter. My mom screwed me over for crack-cocaine-marijuana, she says. Her mom beat her. And her aunt beat her cousins but not her so she got along with her aunt. She says she learned to drive when she was seven, riding on the laps of truckers. She was in and out of foster homes and the streets. She's been trucking with this company for two years. A thousand dollars a week, but after taxes, $200-300. Thirty-six cents a mile, and she drives about 140,000 miles a year. She says that now truckers are just in it for the money. It used to be that everyone looked out for each other; it was a real community, a family. She tells you she isn't speaking to her mom.
When Amber turns her head to watch the road, you will write down what she says so that you can look the truth up later. Trucker math you can verify. Ages, averages, the mileage unraveling. You want to see if it all adds up. Only later will you wonder why you search for truth in numbers, adding years and dividing distances, trying to take the temperature of a glance or figure the pressure of a leg.
Alan pulls the radio mic down from the ceiling. Westbound 94, you ah, might want to clean off your headlights. We can't see 'em. He lifts his hand and nods at the trucker passing in the opposite lane.
Ahead you can see a car sitting in the ditch, its tracks off the road already disappearing under the snow.
Honey, Amber coos in a sweet baby voice, you know we have to stop.
You stretch to get a better look at the car—there's no one inside. Amber looks back. We're EMTs, she explains. If we see injuries, we're legally required to stop.
I saw an accident once, she continues. With a grandmother, a granddaughter, and two dogs. The granddaughter had flown from the car, and she was just layin' there. She looked like she'd never been alive. Amber pauses. So I helped the dogs.
Amber hands back a tub of chocolate covered mints. Here, she says. Take some.
You sit on the back bench bed, bouncing in tandem with Tom, in unison with Alan and Amber in their shocks-padded seats. Everyone bounces in slow motion, even Buttons, and it's quiet, despite the CD, still playing. It feels kind of like a movie, you think.
Alan got out of being an EMT, Amber explains, after he revived a dead boy and then the boy died anyway.
Alan keeps his eyes on the road and doesn't even nod.
When the truck eases into the gas station, the sky is the same shade of dull gray as when you started. The snow is still falling. It's 5:30pm, and Subway's green lettering glows.
We're going to get some sandwiches, Amber says.
And you will think, I hope she doesn't pay. I hope this won't be awkward. You wish you could talk to Tom about this, but Buttons is awake and running around your heels, and you don't get the chance before you're standing in the order line.
The sandwich technician waits, plastic gloves on.
You stare at the menu, even though you know that Tom will ask if you want to split a tuna sub, like he always does, because it is the cheapest and he doesn't eat red meat. And you know that you will say yes because you like tuna okay and because it means one more thing you can share.
The usual? he asks.
Sure. You grab a tray. Honey oat, you say, and slide down the line. Provolone, lettuce, tomato, onions (only a few), cucumbers, oh, and maybe some carrots.
Amber stands next to Alan and caresses his upper arm. Do you want pizza? she asks. Pepperoni?
For the first time you notice that Amber is taller than Alan. Then Tom walks into you from behind, his down jacket hitting yours like padded bumper cars. We should buy their dinners, he says.
So when Amber asks the cashier for a diet Coke, you will reach for her arm. We'll pay for this, you say. And when Amber looks at you, you will wince a little (inside). You will wish you hadn't spoken so bluntly, with the assurance of one who doesn't price miles by pennies.
No, no, she says. You two are traveling home for Christmas. Pennsylvania's still a long way off. Save it, you'll need it for later.
And for a moment you will be unsure. Is she only being polite? How many times do you offer? Are you insulting her more by insisting upon paying for the sandwiches?
You look to Tom, but he is filling his drink, his back turned.
Are you sure? you ask.
Amber nods. She is already reaching for Alan's arm, pulling at his wallet.
Thank you, you say, and put your money back in your pocket. At least, you think, you and Tom decided to share.
Mauston, ten miles, and it's still snowing. Amber leans her elbow on the armrest and studies you as you fumble with your sandwich, trying to keep the carrots from spilling out onto the bed. You notice that Tom has already finished his half.
Are you two a couple?
You stop fumbling, and you don't look at Tom. In that moment, your history of uncertain hints and casual hugs, of feigned disinterest and conditioned restraint, bears down with the same steady weight as when Tom's knee moves against yours when you sit, touching but not talking, doing a crossword puzzle together. If you think longer, you might realize that those moments of warm pressure did not mean that you meant something to him, only that you were there. Not talking made you easy. And you might decide then that the stories about lovers who love without speaking lie. Silence only means you're strangers. But all this flashes in a moment.
No, you say, with a quick jerk of your head. We're just friends.
You can't tell what Tom is doing out of the corner of your eye, but you hope this was the right answer. You hope you have played it cool enough, but not too cold.
Okay, Amber says, and she brings her lips to the radio. Her voice slips into a soft drawl, her words sliding seductively over the airwaves.
Hey, y'all. Would anyone out there headed east be willing to give a nice young lady and her friend a ride? They're trying to get home to Pennsylvania for Christmas.
The radio is silent. Then a minor explosion.
Well, hell. I'm headed to Indianapolis. I could probably give them a ride. Where you at?
I'm headed to Tennessee. That's a bit east.
Nope, headed west.
I'll be leavin' in the morning. Can you wait?
You said there's two of them?
Well, that depends. Does she give a good blow job?
The radio explodes again, this time crackling in static laughter.
You don't know where to look, so you look at Amber. Because everyone now is a stranger avoiding your gaze, but she, at least, is a woman. She does not look at you, but she does not laugh. No one in the cab laughs, and you almost wish they would.
Come on, boys, Amber says when the radio laughter dies. She flicks her eyes toward you. She's a nice girl. They're just lookin' to get home for Christmas.
Eventually, a trucker who's sleeping the night at the Mauston truck stop will call in and say that he can take you in the morning. You and Tom will get out there, and Amber will walk you to his window. He will offer you money, reaching for his wallet to pull out bills to help pay for your motel room because, he says, he'd hate to see someone spend the night in the cold, especially right before Christmas.
The money is not for sex. But this time you protest, and you will not back down. You insist that you and Tom will be okay. You will think of your parents and the credit card in your pocket. You won't tell them that you have more than enough money to rent a motel room, more than enough to rent a car to drive home. And actually, when you finally reach South Bend, Indiana the following night, this is exactly what you will agree to do. Because hitching takes longer than Tom expected, and because, after all, you're trying to get home for Christmas, and Tom has family plans on the 23rd. But right now, you don't know this. You just know that deliberating too long makes you feel ashamed, and anyway, it's cold outside. You say thank you again as you turn away from the cab and let the trucker roll up his window.
Thank you, Amber. You and Tom chorus your goodbyes together. But you will feel there's something more you should say, something—
Merry Christmas, Amber says, and when she hugs you goodbye, she feels warm and soft and familiar. You all take care. She pulls away and walks back toward the semi and Alan. You turn and look at Tom.
I think she was a lot lizard, he says as you stand in the blowing snow under the reddish light of the day's gasoline prices, in the huddled shadows of the sleeping trucks.
You don't know what this means, but you don't want Tom to know this. So you nod and look around you. Do you think we should try that convenience store? you ask. You see cars parked there, idling to stay warm.
Later, when you look up "lot lizard," you will discover that it is a truck stop prostitute, a woman who sells herself as fast as a lizard hops from rock to rock seeking the sun. And you will wonder, was she? She was so nice. You will think it's like a story, maybe one you can write about. The story of someone else, a different woman, someone strange.
But you don't know this part of the story yet. Like you do not yet know that you will sleep with Tom before the trip is over, at his parents' house in his childhood bedroom, and that the next morning you will say goodbye with a quick-pressed hug and a casual wave. We're friends, he will say. Of course, you say, as you run for your flight.
Instead you shove your hands in your pockets and face the wind that's still blowing snow. You follow Tom's retreating form and head toward the convenience store lights.