Michelle Tuplin – I-94 – 3

 I-94
by Michelle Tuplin

Sid scratches his balls. He wonders if his wife switched from the Walmart special detergent in the giant tub to something fancier, and itchier, while he wasn’t looking. He wonders what else he’s missing back home while he criss-crosses the Midwest in his truck. Does Cynthia really fill her life with housekeeping errands, a few daytime hours selling Lotto tickets and packs of gum at the gas station, along with searching out matchy, matchy knick-knacks for their double-wide at Sunday yard sales? Maybe she has a whole secret existence he’s not aware of. One day he’ll earn enough money to stay home and discover that his Cynthia, with her intermittently shaven legs and sagging tits, is a debauched housewife, into lunchtime blowjobs followed by doggy style with her middle-aged, pot-bellied husband on the kitchen table. Or maybe not. He doubts it. 

His balls really are itchy. He wonders how long the trucks will be sitting here. But if itchy balls and a limited sex life are the worst of it, he doesn’t have so much to complain about. He lifts his haunches from the lamb skin covering his seat and reaches his hand under and around for a meaty scratch. Good thing that next door female trucker pulled her cab forward beyond his line of vision.

Louisa too, in her rig tucked in tight to the right of Sid’s, is happy to be out of his vision. It’s bad enough that she has to deal with leering stares—lower jaws flapping all slack—at every truck stop and delivery site. She moves with a boyish side-to-side lilt, minimizing her curves between her forward slumped shoulders. Still she becomes eye candy and wet dream fodder way more than she’d like. She’s giving this whole trucker thing two years, tops. Enough time to pay off the divorce lawyer fees still racking up interest on her Capital One credit card and maybe cover some tuition at the community college. Nursing she thinks. That would be a solid choice with a stable future.

Louisa always travels with the Trucker Path app, open on her cracked screen iPad. News and chit chat and emergency notifications come through her truck speakers loud and clear.  An hour ago it was this: 

“I-94 closed between exits 169 and 172 in both directions. Personal safety incident. Police calling for twelve semi-trailer truck volunteers to pass through the roadblock and pack in both sides of the three-lane highway beneath the overpass.” 

Cripes. That might be close. Louisa looked down and toggled through her apps to Google Maps. She was further east than she thought. Somehow she’d driven all the way around Chicago and this far east with only one toilet stop. And as she looked up, sure enough there were the flashing neon lights that made her squint, one cop in a yellow vest with outstretched arm waving her forward and to the left.

To the right of Louisa’s now stationary truck, in his fancy rig with Amazon Prime splashed across the side, Roberto feels a self-satisfied tingle. For both doing the right thing for once, and for the family-sized pack of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos he’d treated himself to back at the Dexter stop just before the road closure. He shouldn’t but he will, and he’ll delight in every quiet moment of his mouth fizzing Cheetos feast. He likes to let the powder build on his fingers, turning them plastic Halloween orange, before sucking the thick speckled powder from each one. How much crap there must be in these things. Is there any real food in them at all? But he couldn’t give a shit. They are delicious. He has nowhere to be and is in no rush. He can sit here all night if necessary, moving back to his sleeper berth if the police take the time to give him the okay. He could even leave his truck here and meander off into the night on an emergency second Flamin’ Hot Cheetos run if need be.

Above Roberto and Louisa and Sid and nine more squeezed-in-tight trucks, four police cruisers and further back a fire engine and ambulance; the bridge over the highway should be covered with anti-suicide steel wire, but it’s not. If the Ann Arbor City Council had found the time to add a safety barrier discussion to their agenda, rather than focusing on the absolute need for a certain type of landscaping, and the subsequent absolute need to shoot deer, the fencing would have been approved and fifteen year old Samuel, wasted from his father’s stolen small batch local gin, nauseous from too much cherry flavored vaping, and cold in shorts and his brother’s misplaced U of M hoodie—BIOPHYSICS emblazoned—would not be standing way too close to the edge, wondering.

It’s June. The neighborhood high school peeping through the nearby trees gets out next Wednesday at noon. Most seniors and half the juniors have already stopped attending. The 2 a.m. air is chilly. The birds are all tucked up in their freshly leafed out roosts. In just a few weeks fireflies will pinprick the sky.  But not yet. The scent of nighttime frosts is still close by, an ignored deterrent to the mosquitos with no memory, busy zipping around. The odd bat, filling its belly, swoops. From the overpass Samuel looks down and licks around the inside of his lips, trying to rub his gums clear of the cherry and gin coating. It’s foul. And anyway, what the fuck have they done down there? 

Down there is the highway. Concrete or asphalt or whatever, winter potholes mostly filled by now. It would mean no more swirling, sickening shit. No more being a loser and not enough. His thoughts building and circling around and back in tighter thick spirals, squeezing his insides like that crazy enormous Florida swamp snake they’d seen one time at a nature place, and making it so he can barely breathe and certainly not move and his knees bend and he squats and grasps his bare calves and gulps for oxygen. 

Samuel’s grandparents took him and his brother to Ireland one time. From the plane Samuel looked down, nose pushed hard against the plastic-coated window, and spied the sea and then coast and then just land and green and brown and more green. People’s spaces. Everything neatly laid out with no empty gaps between. And here, beneath him and the overpass, what should be blackness is gone. Instead, variations of yellow and a smogged dirty white and one black-topped semi lay out wide and patient before him. No engines are running. No horns are screaming. It’s just some trucks and inside, some people sitting.

Sid is in the third truck from the right. He thinks it can’t be the detergent or his undershirt would be itchy too. It must be Walmart outsourcing all their clothing manufacturing to China. Keep it all in America and he wouldn’t be in this mess with itchy balls. Buying tighty-whities that have traveled half the world is crazy. He needs to tell Cynthia. What he’d really like to say is how much he misses the young them, when they were both crazy for each other, not this new existence of parallel but separate, united only by crap minutiae. Even when he is home, he spends most of his time in his recliner watching the news on circular repeat. Still, if all he has left to say is some inane shit about his underpants, then maybe he should keep his mouth shut. Or maybe that’s Cynthia talking. He leans to his passenger seat, flips off his radio and grabs his phone. Seems like the police will come give him any updates in person. Maybe now would be a good time to explore that app he keeps hearing ads for. Babbel. Perhaps it really is never too late. He has choices: English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish. No language of the land of tighty-whities, he notes. 

Louisa is pleased she pulled her cab far enough forward so the creep in the next along truck, MAGA hat and all, can’t stare at her. She wonders about her load in the back. Strawberry Pop-Tarts with enough of a liquid filling that she needs to take it easy on the curves. Maybe they’ll give her a box when she gets to her drop-off point in Pennsylvania. Over the last year, she’s collected armfuls of fantastic crap she would never have paid for. Individually portioned Frosties kept her kiddo, Bennie, home with her mom, going for weeks. He’ll flip if she brings him Pop-Tarts, probably presenting a bunch to his first grade class, proud for once of his Pop-Tart delivering trucker momma. She doesn’t suppose Pop-Tarts or Frosties would be approved by a nursing nutrition course, or even Bennie’s homeroom teacher, Mrs. Barnes. But what can you do? It’s impossible to follow every rule and recommendation. You just do the best you can. Like tonight. Creating this outstretched safe space for someone else’s Bennie.

The semis are packed in tight. I-94 has three lanes each side. Six trucks are squeezed in each direction with just a few inches between, covering all the lanes and the median and the emergency lanes. It’s dark and still on the usually busy highway. The trucks have switched off their engines, using their back up power for interior radios, mini refrigerators, and even, in the truck to the far left, a crock-pot filled with a vegan bean stew. The emergency vehicles too have minimized their lights. Up above, a female police officer is a few feet from Samuel. She is crouching, her thighs screaming as she wishes she’d taken those leg lift exercises in Pilates class more seriously.  

Roberto is in the furthest truck to the right. His trailer wheel rims are tucked up tight against the bridge support. As he pulled up he wondered if the bridge hangover really does extend this far out, but still, he did as directed, which doesn’t happen often. He rarely does as he’s told. It’s a trait that hasn’t always worked out so well for him, leading to a bunch of legal run-ins and a few periods of locked up with no key. But tonight he’s making an exception to make a difference. Since someone asked, and for once he can, and up there is someone’s kid, and he’d just bought a family-sized pack of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

It’s dark. Maybe, Roberto thinks, he could keep his mouth shut but still climb out to see what’s going on. Thankfully his cab is thinner than the trailer behind, giving him space to squeeze down, even with his Cheetos-distended belly. But he probably shouldn’t get in the way. His Cheetos are all gone now and he doesn’t want any more, even if there is a gas station nearby. Actually, he feels a bit sick. He could boil some water and make tea. Maybe he should do that. Or check to see if there’s anything new on Netflix. He’ll find out what’s going on up on the bridge soon enough. But he worries for the kid. Maybe he’ll check Twitter to see if the situation is on there. Whatever. He needs to leave it all to the experts. He can’t change anything. Beyond this and sitting tight and doing what’s asked.

Samuel looks down and sees that quilt of dirty trailer tops and thinks of his messy unmade bed, his childhood snuggly now packed away in his closet but still close by. Beneath him is a pulled taut blanket all stretched out, and in that place he can relax his own muscles. A woman’s voice breaks inside. He feels the spiral head fuck start to straighten out and turn linear. He’s so tired. A hand is on his arm and it’s not the smooth skin of an encircling snake with a reticulated skeleton inside, but just fingers with knuckles and cuticles and painted fingernails. The nighttime air is so cold. His brother will be pissed if he finds out Samuel stole his hoodie. When the arm with the hand reaches around his shoulder, Samuel doesn’t cower or flinch but his shoulder blades descend down his back. He thinks of that blanket he’d loved as a little boy. Lilac and yellow with a flappy fringe. It drapes and covers him, above and below, and the bones and muscles within his legs can take his weight and he straightens and steps, one foot first, heel and then toe lift and then the other, backward from the edge and to the center of the bridge.

“Crisis averted,” the Trucker Path app announces in Louisa’s second to the right cab, “I-94 re-opening.” The sudden voice makes her jump. She must have drifted off. Beside her the other trucks are starting engines. She pulls herself together, flipping on the truck lights, firing up the engine, and pulls away.

Michelle Tuplin is an English expat indie bookstore owner and Creative Writing MA graduate living in Chelsea, Michigan. Her current writing love–ignoring all customers as she taps away–is a collection of short stories exploring all aspects of luck. Her story, “Goodbye Tigger,” was published in The Avalon Literary Review. “Bird Seed,” from an anthology of stories exploring the idea of luck, was published in the MacGuffin in the fall of 2019.