Days of Strength

It hurt climbing down the rungs from the sleepover cab one-handed, carrying his gun.

“Hey, my man,” the woman said to him. “You feeling a little rested?”

He shook his head. It didn’t do any good to lie to a woman like Keisha. “Stupid dream. Okay now.”

“Yeah,” Keisha said, quiet. She drove for awhile, frowning into the oncoming lights, leaning into it and everything working at it, her arms and legs all moving at once whenever she had to steady the motion of the truck against gusts of wind. The muscles stood out in her neck and shoulders as if she had to strain to get it done now, after hours of sitting in the same position. The trailer rattled and shook and boomed behind them.

He looked at her doubtfully, hanging onto the back of the passenger chair. He didn’t know any other truck drivers, so he didn’t know if this truck was just old and stiff and hard to drive, or if it was always a job like this, but he didn’t remember them driving for hours on end the way she was. She was all tendons and muscle under that pool of dark, shining, skin. And she didn’t like being stared at.

“Wind advisories up,” she said, down-shifting so hard it threw him forward into the back of the passenger chair. He grunted. Peach gave a little squeak and curled up tighter, eyes big.

“Sorry, man. Worse than a goddamn boat trailer, tell you that, blow sideways if I give it an inch.”

“You want help? Get things?”

“No, Peach got me stuff, but thanks.” She stared into the distance with a pained squint, her face all bone-hard angles and shadows. Just a taste of what she would look like when she was very old and thin. She was the kind of woman who would become nothing but cords and bones. The look of it started tugging on some memory he didn’t want, some vague place he could never make sense of when he dreamed, and he wasn’t sliding down into that stuff. No. The sudden fear made him want to tell her jokes, hear her laugh, even if it broke her awful concentration on out-guessing the wind.

“We stop?” he asked.

“Well, lucky you, you can go pee in a bottle,” Keisha said, thinning her lips.

Peach uncurled a little in the passenger seat and laughed, folding her hands over her mouth and grinning up at him. “Peepee go pee!” she said.

“Yeah,” Keisha said. “Tell you what, Peach, why don’t you climb into bed and get a nap while you can, huh? We don’t know if we’re gonna go short on sleep, when I might need you to sit up for me.”

Keisha knew perfectly well that her soft fuzzy kitty-girl couldn’t sit watch for half an hour without nodding right off. But Peach nodded solemnly, and darted up out of the seat.

He looked at her, surprised at how fast she moved.

Peach smiled back at him, showing her canines, and made a little throbbing, purring noise in her throat, blinking at him. Whether she was inviting a touch, a nip, or a fight, he couldn’t tell. Whatever it meant, it wasn’t childish at all. It made him think about brushing up against the rest of her, accidentally, and he made an effort to move aside and stop thinking things like that.

“Where?” he asked, peering out the windshield, holding his gun. He moved behind the passenger chair as much as he could, letting Peach slip past him and skitter up the ladder.

But Peach didn’t go quietly. She reached out and goosed him on the way past, running those sharp gray claws up the curve of his ass, hooking in his pants and tearing threads loose. If she wanted, she could have ripped the meat right off. He whipped his head around so fast it hurt, and she just gave that little girl giggle and scampered upward, laughing.

He watched her furry little butt flex and jiggle and wiggle under her sweats, until she flipped herself upward out of sight. He thought Peach must have been disobedient, sneaking out of her underwear again when Keisha was busy, because the pants dragged down, hung up a the lip of the cab, and he saw a flash of bright girly pink amongst all the soft grey fur. His prick knew perfectly well what that was. He didn’t blink, either.

“Peach,” Keisha said.

There were rustlings in the cab overhead. “Sorry,” Peach whispered, face hanging over the edge, and then she darted back out of sight.

He sat down and looked out into the dark, not thinking about the dotted line of little Peach-scratches he was sitting on. He had a lot of practice at that, the not-thinking. It didn’t made his prick behave, but at least he could keep his face in order. Finally, he asked, “Where going?”

Keisha grinned without turning her eyes from the road. “Does it matter?”

“No. You boss lady,” he said.

“And don’t forget it.”

“If me know where places, help better in a hurry. Map?”

“Yeah, over there,” Keisha said. She told him the interstate number. “We want Kansas City. Just about anything will do to get there, we can sort the rest once we’re closer.”

He pulled open the cracked plastic packet. Dan’s old paper maps were shredding away in pieces. He propped the gun off against the door panel, laid the pieces of map on his lap, and began flipping them back and forth. “City big,” he said.

“Yeah, big enough to make the best damn barbecue you’ve ever had, and a’ course there’s all that jazz music. Can’t forget that.”

“Dizzy, Bird, Bobby Keyes, Miles Davis, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich.”

“Shit, man, where’d you learn all that?”

“I listen lots. American radio loud, back home. Army bases play old things.”

“No shit,” Keisha said. “So what do you like?”

“Barbecue,” he said, grinning. “Slow smoke red sauce ribs, oh my,” and he imitated an American soldier’s voice so clearly that she laughed.

She chuckled. “Gotta get us some of that. Gotta stop and call my buddy first anyway.”

“Buddy?”

“Whole point of driving this way, meet up and get me some technical assistance.”

“I not good enough technical?” he said, exaggerating his hurt tone.

She laughed again. “My man, you are a specialist. You are a different kind of specialist, okay?”

“Way different, yeah,” he muttered, but of course she heard it.

“Oh, stop feelin’ sorry for y’self and find me a radio station,” Keisha said, grimacing as she fought with the wheel and the wind and the gearing. Her muscles were trembling.

“Not radio, find truck stop,” he said, a little sharply. “You tired, wind gets stronger.”

Keisha shook her head. “We are pushing through this, man.”

“Boss lady,” he said. “Please.”

“What, I’m scarin’ ya?” She grinned.

“Scare me is easy,” he said.

“You’re a fucking clown, that’s what you are, kidding alla time,” Keisha said.

“Not kidding.”

Keisha said, “Okay, we’ll break at the next rest stop, if it looks okay. Pull over for a few minutes. I can give my buddy an early call.”

He was grateful, after another ten miles, that she did pull off into the darkest corner of the rest stop. She turned off the lights, and had them all take turns in the bushes on the darkest side of the truck rather than risk the lights around the restrooms.

“Damn, I sure could use some coffee,” she said. But she didn’t go over to the drink machine. Instead she rummaged around until she found Dan’s cell phone and turned away with it so he couldn’t see the numbers she was punching in. It didn’t matter; he could hear the ring tones anyway, it was perfectly easy to decode and remember the number. Silly quackings of a distant voice came out of the phone.

Keisha spoke rapidly in a garble of slang that made no sense to him, arguing something, and not winning. Then she swore, and bashed her fist on the steering wheel, and put the phone down with a bang. “Sonuvafuckin’ bitch.”

He sat quiet, and Peach up above made no sound at all.

“He don’t want no trouble like me no more,” Keisha said bitterly.

“Yes, we are not in that business no more,” he said, imitating somebody else, somebody she’d never met.

She blinked and looked at him in the dim light from the parkling lot lights. “Yeah,” she said.

“This buddy maybe rat us out?” he asked.

“God, you do play rough,” Keisha said.

He scrubbed wearily at his face, down his neck. He wanted to get out of that rattling old machine and run fast, run away into the windy dark. He wanted out of that truck so bad he could taste the panic like a bar gag tied across his tongue. But he swallowed, and he said, “Boss Lady, we better not rest. We gotta go. Not stop for barbecue. Turn around and run. Tailwind.”

“Shit,” Keisha said.

“Stop different place, ten minutes, I rub your back, we go again,” he said.

“I don’t need a backrub,” Keisha snapped.

“You will,” he said quietly.

“No,” Keisha said. “No!”

He held up his hands. “Okay. Not be afraid. Okay.”

Keisha’s hand shot out and she grabbed his ear and yanked on him and he let her do it, puzzled. He ended up sprawled sideways along the seats, with his head in her lap. “I ain’t afraid of you,” she growled.

He blinked up at her. “Oh. You scared of you. Oh. Okay.”

Keisha blew out a big, deep breath. “Sonuvabitch,” she said again, glaring down at him.

“Okay,” he said, feeling her belly push in and out as she breathed. She smelled of leather and truck grease and road dirt and sweat and woman. Hours of woman, working and moving and leaking woman-juices into those jeans. It made him dizzy. The panic flashed away and was gone, just like that. He could lay there smelling that tickle of musk and sea and drying sweat all night long. He wanted to suck on it and rub himself in it and roll in it and get that taste into his mouth. He stared up the curves of her, rumpled and tired and crumpled with days of strength, doing this. That amazing face leaned over him at an awkward angle, with the eyes invisible in the shadows. He knew they were glaring at him. “I can sit up close, help push things,” he said.

“Huh! I heard excuses before, but that one–”

“Good, huh?” he grinned. “But I can. I help.”

“How badly am I scarin’ you, baby, driving like–”

“Grateful Dead skeleton,” he said clearly, and smiled. “Scare me!”

“Sonuvabitch!” she said again, and slapped his cheek with her hand, the same firm way she’d slap a dog. “You try sitting up here between my knees, pushing this damn wheel around, and your back’s gonna go so far out you’re flying some goddamn fucking orbit.”

He blinked again. She must be really angry, her language got so bad.

“And stop batting your goddamn eyelashes like that!” she said crossly, and hauled him up by the ear. “You go sit back over there. Be a good boy. I’ll think about it.”

“But I not good boy,” he said, puzzled. Not from when he was a baby. Stubborn, they always yelled at him.

“No shit,” Keisha growled, and got the engine revved up again. “We’ll grab something to eat when we stop to fuel up.”

“But no money,” he said, puzzled. “You feed all with Peach, yes?”

“Yeah, I fucking know that,” Keisha growled.

“I got card,” he said.

“What?”

“Boss forget job card, not turn off. I careful, not use. Risky, find me. Show where card pay–”

“Yeah, I understand. I’ll think about that too.” Keisha took a deep breath, stretched, turned the lights on, put her hands on the wheel as if it hurt to assume the position again, and put it in gear.

“Boss lady?”

“Yeah?” feet moving on the pedals.

“I want do what I can. You strong.”

Keisha snapped, “Strong? Fuck, you got no idea. You see my gramma, she was strong. My crazy aunts, hell, they so nuts you can’t tell what they got going. But me? I– am just–doing–what I gotta–be doing. Now find me a goddamn radio station, I need some tunes put me out of this misery.”

“I hear you,” he said, and smiled when a long arm reached out and rested on his knee.

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