Craig Tanner rolled over in the sleeper
of his truck. The first thing he noticed was he was still tired, bone tired. The second thing was the heat. It was hot behind the sleeper curtains. He rubbed his face, felt the stubble there, then rubbed the hollow at the base of his throat where dampness gathered. Too darned hot to sleep without the air conditioner
. He'd shut the truck down when he'd pulled in to the truckstop
, the outside temperature being quite bearable at 5:00 AM, still dark out with a trace of lightness on the eastern horizon.. He glanced at his wristwatch and saw it was now 8:30 and the sun was making the sleeper an oven. "What a deal, I got three and a half hours of sleep."
Craig lay back and thought of getting a few more minutes of sleep but he knew it was a lost cause. He knew he had to get rolling, make it home by afternoon as he'd promised his wife he'd take her out to dinner on Friday night. He muttered to himself out loud "Just what I need, someplace else to go." Craig talked out loud to himself a lot, knowing no one would hear him, alone in his truck.
He didn't really resent taking his wife out, that wasn't it. Craig was 69 years old and his body cried out to relax, to unwind, to not have to drive anywhere. He understood that Dory had been home alone all week and she needed to get out. He accepted it as he'd accepted it for better than 40 years. It was part of the way things worked between him and Dory. He felt his job was to take care of her and he was going to do that as long as he could. She'd put up with him for 4 decades, through job changes, raising their daughter Elise mainly by herself, putting up with him being gone for weeks at a time. Last year she'd put up with his black out spells that led to him being on blood pressure medication. He knew his blood pressure was too high, had been for years, but he was tough and he hated the idea of being married to a pill bottle. When he'd blacked out while sitting at the terminal and scared the crap out of his buddies Roy and Teddy, he'd finally gone to the doctor and gotten a prescription. He'd begged his buddies to keep what had happened under their hat, and they amazingly enough had kept the secret. If the company had known what had happened, he'd be red tagged, put out of service until things got under control. He knew that at 69 years old, the company would probably force him to quit. He instead went to the doctor, gotten a prescription and a good butt chewing from the MD, and went back to work. It'd worked pretty darned well too, far as he could tell. He hadn't had any recurrances of the 'faints', as he called them.
He'd noticed his pill bottle rolling around on the doghouse yesterday. The bottle was empty, had been for a week, but he'd get it refilled this weekend. He'd forgotten to get his refill last time he was by the house. That was 3 weeks ago. He'd been pounding the pavement hard, too hard for a man of his years. He was planning to take the extra money and get a present for Elise for her birthday. He joked with Dory when she got on his case about staying out and running, saying it was Fur Elise, an inside joke they shared. Over the years he'd done a lot Fur Elise. She was 30 and had a daughter of her own, one she was raising by herself. Her husband had taken off, not liking responsibility or restricting himself to one woman. Elise was a beautiful woman but looks can't always win over a wandering heart. That's what Craig told himself anyway, when he thought about it. Elise's husband Toby had been cursed with just being too damned good looking for his own good. Women flocked around him like flies around a horses hind end with mainly the same result. Old Toby was as full of horsecrap as they came but he never lacked for an audience, some empty headed little thing he was planning to play with for a while. That's as long as anyone could hold Toby's interest, for a while. He didn't seen to care about his daughter Tabitha, nicknamed Tabby. Before the split those two were a dynamic duo, Toby and Tabby, two peas in a pod. After he left they saw less and less of one another until now Toby hardly called or visited. He had forgotten Tabby's birthday this past summer.
Craig would never forgive him for that. Toby and Elise might have had their problems but that was alright. Craig knew Elise could be a hard pill to swallow at times. She was a lot like her mother that way. Sometimes she said too much when she was angry. She was a petite blond Vesuvius, venting fire and ash until the pressure was released. Then she'd apologize, eventually, but the surrounding area was flamed out, trashed, needing mending badly. Elise was a beautiful woman, intelligent, and capable, but she wasn't worth a tinker's damn at mending fences. Craig accepted all that, realized that Elise had contributed to her own downfall, and that Toby had put up with his share over the 8 years of his marriage to Elise. Tabby didn't ask for the divorce, though. She hadn't done anything wrong, hadn't been anything but a delight, and in the end hadn't been anything but collateral damage in the war between her parents.
That explained why Craig had been out for three weeks. He was going to give Elise and Tabby a vacation, a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. They could do Dollywood, eat and play, mall crawl and shop to their heart's content. Elise needed the break and Tabby needed the time alone with her Mom.
Craig had pulled into the truckstop on his last legs. He had been fighting sleep, and it was a losing battle. He'd veered onto the rumble strips several times over the last 20 miles to get to this oasis of the highway. When he'd pulled in he'd lucked out and found a parking spot, probably just vacated by an early riser in a hurry to get to his destination. The red, yellow, and white lights of the truckstop made for an almost carnival atmosphere, lighting up the predawn lot as he backed into the slot.
Craig had to pee, but he was too damned tired. It'd have to wait. He could either lie down or pass out, and there was no third choice. He shut down the diesel engine, moved from the seat to the sleeper, kicked off his shoes, pulled the curtains shut, and lay down. The last thing he remembered was thinking "My God, how good it feels to be prone."
Earlier in the evening while he'd still had some energy and was rolling along, he'd replayed the most recent argument he'd had with Dory. She wanted him to retire, but he'd resisted as he always did with the same old reasons. He told her that Elise needed the help he could offer. He told her that Social Security wouldn't cover their needs. He told her that if he stopped now, he couldn't reconsider and take back to the road again, that he was too long in the tooth to start over. "Best leave things be, Dory. It's worked out for 40 years. Maybe it'll work out a little while longer." That'd been their conversation on the phone last night, when he'd stopped to call and make their date for dinner. She'd gone right for the jugular, worrying him to retire, never missing a chance to resume the fray. Craig had listened, not said a lot and promised her "Dory, we'll talk later, I have to go for now. I'll be home for supper."
Craig saw the slice of sunlight snaking through the crack in the curtains, laser bright from a cloudless new day. He rolled upright, rubbed his hands over his face again, trying to get himself awake and functional. The stubble felt like a handfull of cockleburrs to his palms. He slid his shoes on and realized he was about to burst from his need to relieve himself. "Should have taken care of that earlier on.", he muttered to himself. He pulled the curtains apart and was brought up short. "What the hell....this ain't right." He looked out onto a deserted lot, not a truck anywhere. The building was still there but it was deserted too, had been for years from its appearance. Trash wandered around aimlessly, shuffled along by the warm morning breeze. A redbone hound wandered across the lot, a female from the appearance of her dangling teats. Every rib was visible, and the dog's spine showed every vertabrae. "Looks like your family has got it's own troubles, old girl. I bet the pups ain't been dining too good either. Well, I have to get out of here, take care of watering my tires. You're on your own, old girl." As he slid up into the seat he noticed a twinkle from the side of the building. It was a pay phone, one the telephone company had apparently not bothered taking way. Maybe they made enough off it to justify leaving it there, no way of telling. He'd be able to call Dory, tell her it looked like he'd make it for dinner alright like he'd promised. He swung down from the cab and walked behind his trailer to take care of business. It was not to conceal himself from anyone because there was no one to see. It was from a natural shyness he'd always had, a shyness that Dory thought was cute years ago.
Tracy Allen was busy inside the truckstop, had been for the last hour and a half since her shift had begun. She glanced out the window and saw an old guy ambling toward the back of his trailer. "Probably gonna go back there and tinkle", she thought. "Darn truckdrivers, anyway. What the hell's wrong with them that they can't use the bathroom inside like a human being, anyways?" She turned away, taking care of another customer. She was harried and hurried, knowing today was going to be a bad one. She got off at 3:00 pm and had to rush to a parent/teacher conference about her son. Her boy had been up to pranks again, and the administration of the school had been utterly unappreciative of Landon's creativity. She wondered if he'd get himself expelled for the third time this year. "My God, it's just April, he's got two more months to go. I don't know if he's gonna make it." She worked and thought about the problems that went along with raising a middle school son.
Craig finished up behind the trailer, put Shorty away, started toward the pay phone. The distance was about 75 yards away, and he made it half way when someone set off a hand grenade inside his brain. He grunted and took a step with his left leg. When the right leg was supposed to follow it stayed put, not moving at all. Craig swung about and fell, that kind of nobody home fall where the impact causes the body to actually rebound a little. His last thought on the way down, a thought that kind of swam up through a wave of static was "Dory, I think I'm gonna be late after all."
Tracy had forgotten about the old trucker. She finished up what she'd been doing, glanced out the window and saw the old guy ambling toward the truckstop. She saw Craig go down, saw him bounce. She didn't even look toward her manager but screamed, that rip-your-throat-raw scream, a horror movie scream followed by a full bore "Bob, get down here!" Bob Thomas, Tracy's shift manager, looked up and saw Tracy and the shock settled over him, ice water flowing down his spine. Something was wrong, bad wrong, and he was gonna have to deal with it, whatever it was. Hw ran down to where Tracy was staring out the window. He followed her gaze and saw the old man down in the parking lot, not moving. He didn't even think of going out but called 911, knowing the old guy was going to need more help than Bob Thomas could muster. He made the call and told the emergency operator what was happening, gave their location, was told help was on the way.
Bob hung up and started out the door, heading toward the old guy. He arrived and looked, saw the old man was ashen gray, mouth slightly opened, slack lipped, the breeze moving a whisp of white hair about where the man's hat had been knocked off by the fall. No motion, no breath, nothing. He put his hand to the man's neck, felt for a pulse, anything to make this particular day have a happy ending. It wasn't in the cards. He glanced up and saw Tracy still looking out the window. Bob thought for a second he wished he was the one inside, the one watching the proceedings out on the lot. What a total snafu, he thought. He heard the wail of the EMT vehicle coming in the distance, the sound risng and falling as it snaked through the hills on the road.
The emergency personnel checked Craig's vitals, all to no avail. The rush ended, and things proceeded at a more sedate pace, now just a matter of taking care of the details.
Craig Tanner had been wrong. He'd planned on being home in time for dinner. He had made it home today before breakfast.