The Mexican girl at the west Texas rest stop faced New Mexico as if New Mexico was all of tomorrow’s problems stretching before her in rust and fire. She was en route to nowhere, standing by the vending machines, her beat-to-hell Tercel parked where the state troopers would not see her expired plates. My Peterbuilt rig idled in the painted light. We were on the westbound side of I–40, close to the ghost town of Glenrio. Texas was where the night’s long-haulers would roll in from. She was short and round-cheeked, hair tied up in a bouquet of auburn corkscrews, eye shadow lavender. In her line of work, it was early. In mine, the middle of a long day. Her youth was bent from a scarcity of comfort. Or maybe that’s what I projected. I had this bad habit of seeing the girls working the truck stops as victims, especially the young ones. But I knew that if you let your guard down, you’d be left pondering how it all went wrong so fast. She tracked me the whole time without meeting my eyes. She had watched me step down from my cab and walk up with the missing flyer in my hand. “Mira, por favor.” I held up Sarah’s picture. “Conoces? Mira aqui.” “No,” she said with a scant glance. I stapled the paper four cornered to the inside of the lean-to sheltering the vending machines. “Maybe you rest?” She lifted her eyes the direction of my rig.
“No rest,” I said. I walked back to the rig and looked up the grade to where the girl was little more than another signpost along the road. I refrained from lecturing them, but I thought a few good thoughts for her, for at least enough mercy to keep her leg from turning up in a coyote’s mouth one morning. I couldn’t remember if her toenails were painted, or if she had any visible tattoos. Those things were important, as they would connect her to this world again if my well-wishing didn’t hold. I was out of flyers. Five hundred down, another five hundred to be printed. In my cab I emailed a new master copy to an Office Depot in Albuquerque, where a stranger would prepare Sarah again for me. She was always ahead of me and behind me and yet nowhere. From this rest stop and a hundred others, two pairs of Sarah’s eyes, fourteen and eighteen, gazed unblinking onto the rivers of interstate traffic and the insides of doorless bathrooms. She rode along with the sympathetic long-haulers and territorial state cops, lay taped down to convenience store counters between the herbal methamphetamines and headache powders. She crumpled under the backseats of family SUVs, tucked politely away on others’ vacations, then promptly forgotten, mashed with the clay, candy, and dog-shit shoe soles of other people’s children. The ink and toner of Sarah as she was and Sarah as she might be ran in the sleet, baked in the sun, and withered in the rain. When the staples holding her fast gave up, she stared into the empty sky from littered ditches, among the cellophane discards and chucked lug nuts. I replicated and distributed, shared and asked, scanned her and posted her, and as always, in the end, it was the same. I left her behind. One of the lucky breaks amid the compound fractures of my divorce from Miranda was the fact that we sold the house at the height of the real estate boom. We were gifted in our quitting.
We sold, divided, and quickly relinquished the painful sight of one another. In less than a year, everything else collapsed. I went through trucking school just as the safest real estate you could own was portable. My rig was the only six-figure loan I carried. I went from a priest in the church of home and hearth to a full-time nomad on eighteen wheels in under a year. If Sarah swam out willingly, or against her will on the back of one of these big alligators, I would swim with them, too. I made the Office Depot in Albuquerque a half hour before close. I locked the rig with its engine idling and trotted across the soft blacktop to work the stiffness out of my legs. I was forty-two and beginning to feel it. It was easier to freeze up as I got older. I tried to keep off the weight I’d lost. I ate a lot of canned tuna and did pushups in parking lots and playgrounds. A few kids slouched on ruined Hondas. I counted three guys and two girls. I never stopped looking at boys of that age without imagining what I’d have thought if Sarah had brought them home. Maybe I stuck on it because I last saw her on the cusp of full-blown high school adolescence and never had to get acclimated to the boys coming to the house, never had to divine their true natures beneath junior varsity jackets and drugstore, body spray deodorants. It was much the same way when I went to truck-driving school. Scrawny redneck kids without the granddaddy that owned a fernery, poorer than the migrant workers because they didn’t even have family, buying a case of Budweiser and shoplifting a jar of peanut butter every week to stay alive. I knew those kids personally after so many weeks in the driving classes, and I still couldn’t keep from looking at their axle grease nails and thinking If Sarah had brought one home, I would have choked him at the door. I smelled sage and lavender on the desert wind before disappearing into the shrink-wrapped air of the Office Depot. The clerk behind the print counter wouldn’t even have been a contender. He was a smeary white stoner with dyed blond hair and tribal tattoos, the sort who went vegan in the desert and filled up on drum circle, his vacant head drifting with tumbleweed stories of an older cousin who went to Burning Man. “Picking up. Name’s Robbie.” He scanned the shelves below the counter. “Flyers?” he asked. His eyes flicked over my face. Having done this in a dozen copy centers across as many states, I developed a story to cover for the fact that the girl on the flyer was my stepdaughter.
“Part of the program,” I said. “Truckers for the Lost? Ever heard of it?” “Nah,” he said. He scanned a bar code taped down to the counter and entered in the number of flyers. “It’s a good organization. They send the flyer, I post it along the way. Back and forth,” I waved my hand in the air. His eyes tried to track it. He was anxious to close, high already. “Mind if I post one near the door? That okay with your manager?” “I am the night manager. Go wild.” I peeled a fresh color copy of my Sarahs from the cardboard box and rubber-banded the box closed again. The kid looked at her and made a show of scratching the black soul patch under his lip, a kind of burner’s bad acting for careful consideration. “You ever find one like her?” he asked. “What do you mean, ‘one like her’?” “A runaway.” “I never said she was a runaway.” Maybe he put it together, maybe not. I didn’t think Sarah looked at all like me. “Well, yeah, I guess she coulda been kidnapped. But she looks like a runner.” “What makes you say that?” I looked at the young version of her for something I’d missed over years, but it was the same photo, a yearbook shot with the false blue sky-and-cloud background. “Takes one to know one, maybe? I was a runner. She’s almost jumping out of that picture. Like she was thinking about it when they took it.” Outside, the night was not any cooler, but had come alive with a wind. I held the box of flyers under my arm. One of the boys I’d counted on my way in was looking at my rig. He had his back turned to me. They looked like high school dropouts. I scanned their hands for spray paint cans, in case they planned on tagging my trailer. The two girls and two remaining boys idled near their cars, a few bottles poorly hidden in white McDonald’s bags by the tires. “Evening,” I said outside of the kid’s striking distance. It was a well-lit lot. Not empty, but you could never tell.
I expected him to return to his friends, but he stood unperturbed by my presence, hanging around as though he’d been waiting for the guided tour to start. I unlocked the cab and stepped up. The kid craned his neck to see inside. He was wearing a no-known-color hoodie, hands stuffed in the kangaroo pocket. His jeans slouched far below his waist. His mouth was open enough for me to see the drunken clutch of teeth forming his overbite. “You can sleep in there, right?” he asked. “Yep.” “I knew it,” he said, like he’d nailed a game show question. “Hella tight.” “Mind taking a look at something for me?” I asked him. I wanted to see his hands. “You one of those Jesus freaks? Highway holy roller?” I unbanded the box, pulled out a flyer at arm’s length, and put the box on the stairs of the cab. He looked back to the car where his friends watched with the girls. He leaned forward to look at Sarah. “Here, take it.” He took it and bit the quick of one thumbnail. “Hey, Tanya!” he shouted over to the cars. “What?” “Come here!” “A.J., leave that guy alone.” “Get your skank ass over here.” “Best watch how you talk to me,” she shot back. “I’m not your bitch.” She sulked over with her bagged bottle. She was the youngest in the group, on fire to burn the brightest, the one with the most fear of being left out. She was short, a little splay-footed and skinny-hipped, built like a Little League t-ball player with tits. Out-flourished orangeblond hair in a midlength Japanese helmet, two different drugstore hues. She’d taken on the boys’ mouth to cover up the fact she was about fifteen and wearing tough around like it was the one nice pair of jeans she owned. “You seen this girl?” he asked her. She drank from the bottle openly. “No.”
One of the boys, his black hair parted in the center and smoothed
to his knobby head, loped over to where we stood. They were all by
the rig now, including the third boy, a stumpy, muscled, pimply kid
who looked like he had a religious devotion to steroids and Big Macs.
The girl with him looked Navajo. She had an unlit cigarette between
her fingers. She stood behind him and picked at the filter with her
nail. The muscle kid stepped up, and by the way he parted them, I
could tell he was their alpha dog. He had a moon face, a shiny black
ponytail, and a dust-brush mustache as fine as baby’s hair. His biceps
must have seventeen inches around.
“All you truckers like crystal, yeah?”
The kids seemed to draw together then, an unspoken change in
the flock, a less significant me standing before a unified them. The
first one, A.J., turned his back to me and put his hand on the musclehead’s
shoulder. “This dude ain’t no tweaker, Ali.”
“They all tweakers. Wheels ain’t turning, he ain’t earning.” He
folded his hands in front of his waist. “What do you say, Dad?”
No one ever called me Dad. Not even Sarah.
“You ought to be more careful,” I said.
“Why’s that? You a cop?”
“I’m not a cop.”
“Don’t matter. I didn’t make you no offer. Just asking if you got a
substance abuse problem.”
“You’re a drug counselor, then.”
“That’s right. You gonna hate on that, I show you how I handle my
business.” He lifted the edge of his shirt, revealing an inch of pistol
stock and gothic lettering above his elastic waistband. The Navajo
girl moved in closer to the Ali kid and draped her arms around his
shoulders. She was a little taller than he was, no longer a young girl
but not the ground-out woman she would become. Her beauty was
cutting her to pieces and she couldn’t feel a thing.
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