“Professional Driver, Closed Course” by Carrie Laben
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Every day, eight hours (give or take; the boss is easy-going) in a five-mile circle, 55 or 60 or 65 miles per hour, fully loaded or just the tractor unit depending on the protocol. At the end only the tires change. They take the tires away to measure the wear and tear and he gets new ones, some new type or formulation, and does it again.
He took the job because he likes to drive. It’d be a pretty sad joke if he didn’t, and he’s seen jokes like that get played on other guys, so he’s grateful. The songs on his cassette tapes say that driving is freedom but that’s not this. Even before the job, he’d drive in a circle and come back home. It just got him out of the house for awhile.
He can play whatever music he likes, doesn’t have to talk to anyone most of the day. There’s two lanes to the loop, but there will never be two trucks again; the business has mostly gone over to indoor tracks and computer models. He’s the only driver, and if the boss makes a Dunkin’ Donuts run or gets called away then he’s alone. The truck is a little cranky; sometimes the A.C. will go out, and every so often when he puts it in reverse the engine dies, but he knows where to kick it or finesse it to make it run again.
The scenery is just interesting enough that he never has to think much unless he wants to. Where it was cleared to build the loop, he’s watched a generation of tall grass and thistle and chokecherry give way to a generation of mountain ash and staghorn sumac. Where it wasn’t, he’s watched the beeches and sugar maples thicken, watched a few fall to beetles or lightning. He’s seen, and once in awhile run over, rabbits and squirrels, raccoons, deer, the occasional fox. Glimpsed skulking coyotes. Last year, a couple of beavers dammed the stream that cuts under the loop through two culverts, flooding a section of road along the eastern side, and they had to be trapped and taken out. At the time they were a novelty, got their picture in the paper, but he knows that next year or the year after a new pair will show up and do the same thing and be taken out in turn. He likes animals, and he likes knowing the patterns of things.
One of the patterns: under the trees, his summer days end in shadows, and in deep winter half his shift is in the dark. It’s dark today, although winter is starting to thaw into spring, a few skunk cabbage leaves poking through the patches of grayish snow on the shoulder. He enters the stretch furthest from the office, where the trees close in like a tunnel, and sees a pair of glints up ahead.
He takes his foot off the gas, waiting to see which way the deer will run in the hope he can miss it. But it doesn’t run, and now he realizes that the eyes are too high for even the most massive buck. He flicks on his headlights. That just tells him that what he’s seeing doesn’t make any sense. Whatever it is doesn’t look like it’s going to start running in time. Instinct locks in and he swerves to the right as much as he dares.
It’s enough — he misses the eyes and the body they’re in, catching a sidelong downward glimpse of it out the window as he passes. It looks like a human form, but gigantic, too tall and broad to be right even though it’s stooped like an old drunk. The flesh is hairless and peach-colored, sort of patchy, raw in places, like it’s suffered a bad burn or itched itself to an oozing pulp. A bear? A bear with mange? A black bear shouldn’t get that big either, jesus christ.
It lets out a moan, standing in the swirl of dirty air in the truck’s wake. He shouldn’t be able to hear it with the windows closed and the engine running, but he does hear it. It sounds like pain. And the moan turns into an electric whine that makes his truck whine in sympathy. The headlights flicker, and he’s sick with sudden heartburn.
He grabs the steering wheel too hard as he forces the truck out of the swerve. If he goes in the ditch now he thinks he’ll have a heart attack right there in the cab. The headlights flicker again, then die, taking the cabin lights, all the lights in the world maybe, with them. The whine gets louder.
When he glances in the mirror, the thing is still standing in the middle of the left lane, not nearly as far away as it should be by now. He can’t see the speedometer needle. He presses the gas anyway, but the truck ignores him. He starts repeating to himself “oh shit oh shit oh shit”, the most relevant prayer he has.
And then he passes out of the tunnel of trees. As soon as sunlight hits the cab the whining cuts off. His headlights flick back on and burn steadily. Only the full-body fear remains.
Fear keeps his foot on the gas, 75, 85 miles an hour, a ridiculous speed for the curve of the road and the heft of the truck. He’s going to tip, wind up mangled in the creek, die in flames among the maples. He can think that, but it isn’t real enough to make his foot come back up. He’s about half a mile out past the office when the obvious crawls into his brain, that given the nature of the road he’s on, he’s now running towards what he was running away from.
He slows then. But what next? The road isn’t wide enough for a u-turn. Reverse is too risky. If he stops, he can either stay in the cab til the end of the world or get out and walk. It’s not a long walk back to the office, but by the measure of having that thing at his back it’s no good. The best way out is another pass through that tunnel of trees.
It didn’t get him once — was it trying to get him? Most times, animals are more scared of you than you are of them. If it is an animal.
If it’s still in the road, he decides, he’ll hit it. Risking the swerve was stupid to begin with. Hell, maybe he’ll be putting it out of its misery.
He puts his foot back on the gas. It takes a moment to convince himself to push down. As much as he dreads the trees, as much as he wants to never reach them, he needs to get inertia on his side. His hands slip on the wheel. He tightens his grip.
He waits for those shining eyes to appear, but they never do. The lights don’t flicker, and as the shadows close over him there’s nothing there.
He scans one side of the road, then the other. Nothing. There’s nothing when he comes back out into the open, no evidence that anything crashed through the brush, nothing running across the fields to the north. He even looks up into the sky; nothing but a few thin clouds. He rolls down the window, catches no distant whine. The blast of cold air smells faintly of bad eggs.
When he reaches the office again, he pulls over.
“What’s up?” the boss asks, barely glancing up from the TV; he doesn’t bother concealing his Sally Jesse Raphael addiction any more. “Damn thing break down again?”
“I’m gonna have to call it a day. I feel like crap.” It occurs to him to lie, blame it on bad mayo in last night’s sub or something, but that would mean admitting to himself that he doesn’t want to tell the truth.
The boss grabs the remote and turns the volume down. “You want me to call Becky to give you a ride home? You look like you got kicked in the nuts.”
“Nah, I’ll be ok.”
As he drives home, he thinks about quitting, never going back. Never having to drive under those trees again. There are other jobs.
He microwaves dinner and wonders if he should move. He could go stay with his sister in New Jersey. See the ocean. People drive trucks in New Jersey.
The hum of the microwave, with the slight whine of the dying motor underneath, prickles him until he has to leave the kitchen. In the bathroom he opens the window to let in air on the edge of cool and cold.
In the pond across the road a few spring peepers have begun to call, the same calls as every year, as high and as eerie as the electric sounds but part of the world, part of the pattern. Too soon, he thinks, but every year a few come out too soon and yet the chorus as a whole always survives. There might not be peepers in New Jersey. That’s when he decides he’ll go back to work in the morning. Let a thousand more miles cover it over.