SHORT STORY | DUST DEVIL
Won First Place in Ascent Aspirations Annual Short Story Contest..
Published by Ascent Aspirations.
It's pitch black except for a mean streak of moonlight that's peeking out from behind the nastiest cloud I've ever seen. I'm driving a Mack CX613 eighteen-wheeler that's bigger than a house, but the pretty young girl standing by the side of the road doesn't seem to notice that I've even stopped. She's curling a strand of mysteriously colored hair around her finger like she's twirling a baton on a homecoming float, concentrating hard, not a care in the world, staring off into the snow-choked, indifferent distance. I have to ask her twice before even she realizes I'm even there. "Hey, squirt," I shout down to her, goosing the breaks to get her attention, "you need a ride?"
"Uh, noooo. I'm here standing by myself in the Godforsaken middle of nowhere on top of a snow covered sand dune picking up trash. You ain't trash are you?"
"Huh?" is about all I can come up with to say. How are you supposed to answer a question like that? She looks up at me like she can't decide if I may, or may not be Satan, and says, "You headed to Kansas City by any chance?"
"I might be, but with that attitude you won't be going with me."
"OK, I'm coming," she groans, staring up at me like she's deciding whether or not she'll need oxygen before she gets to the top. "And lighten up would ya? I was only kidding about picking up trash."
"10/4, junior, but it's gonna be a long ride, so if you're coming with me, you best hold your water and hang on tight; I don't stop for nothing or nobody."
The Montana sky is disintegrating like pink chunks of hard rock candy and there's a purple sheet of fire, burning a hole in my rear view mirror. If I want to make my schedule I need to dance on the peddles, but Lolita out there is still out there on the ladder, trying to decide whether or not to put on a pair of rubber gloves before getting in and shaking my hand. "Hey, Gramps," she squeals, "if I go with you to Kansas City, will you take me dancin'?"
"Dancing? Those aren't buffalo bawling in the back of this truck, ya know. Cows don't take care of their owned damned selves."
"Oh, don't be such a poop head. You KNOW you wanta go dancin'. Look at me. I'm friggin' God's gift, for cryin' out loud. I know men who would PAY to go dancin' with me."
"I'm sure they would, but I'm no John Travolta. I'm a truck driver, and truck drivers with a lick of sense don't dance."
"They do when it's me that's askin'. Have you taken even one good look at this body of mine yet? I can hardly resist myself I'm so gorgeous."
"Yeah, I'm sure you are but I got a daughter out there somewhere that's older than you, although where she and her mother are exactly is a bit of a mystery right now."
"Geeze, Louise, I didn’t ask you to pork me. I just wanta dance with somebody. You're somebody aren't you?"
"I used to be but now I'm just a long haul gear grinder with ten tons of snot nosed steak-on-wheels back there in the bed, slobbering all over each other, crying for something to eat as we speak. Now you going with me or you going dancing? It means squat to me either way."
"Ok, I'll go to Kansas City with you if you promise me you'll take me dancin' when we get there. I love to dance. Deal?"
"Deal. Only I get ta choose the place. Now hop in."
She gets half way through the door, then furls up her brow and stops dead in her tracks. "Uh, wait a second. I don't do that Arthur Murray ballroom crap if that's what you've got in mind. And I don't do none of that Lawrence Welk twirly stuff with the fuzzy skirts and go-go boots either."
"We must have seen different episodes of Lawrence Welk cuz I don't remember any fuzzy skirts or go-go boots."
"Well, they all wore the same fifties junk with those purple pooch skirts and that bleached high hair, just like they did on that American Bandstand show you middle-aged geezers seem to like so much. I've been to roller rinks with more class. How 'bout we compromise and go to a hip hop club."
"Just how exactly would you define the word 'compromise'? Going to a hip hop club is not a compromise. That's going where you wanted to go in the first place, and I am not in this life time about to get caught dead in any hip hopper joint."
"OK, geez. We'll go to a titty bar and you can just stand there on the floor with that broomstick up your butt and I'll do a pole dance for you. That suit your taste, Gramps?"
"That would be fine if you weren't twelve and I didn't have a daughter older than you. And stop calling me Gramps. I'll give you ten to one that I'm younger than your old man."
"I'm eighteen, you crotchety old fart. And how come you don't dance anyway? You a Southern Baptist or something?"
"No, I just have a problem with you being younger than my daughter and getting myself tossed in the slammer with a two-hundred-pound sodomite for contributing to the delinquency of a minor; that's what I've got a problem with."
"OK. We'll go to the stupid 'Twist and Shout Club' and bump and grind to Chubby Checker if that'll make your saggy old self happy. You happy?"
"I'm overcome with emotion."
"That's 'sarcasm', right?"
"Bingo. Now buckle up and button your lip, and I'll take you dancing, deal?"
So what if I don't dance? It's either that or listen to her sing the blues till we get to Kansas City.
"Alright already," she says, slamming the door behind her, "I get it. You drive and I'll shut up. My Lord, the things I gotta do to get a ride to Kansas City."
OK. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson by now and should know better than to pick up another wise ass teen queen in need of a serious attitude adjustment. But it's thirty-three degrees out there and it's spitting snow, and she's wearing nothing but a pink and blue polka dot dress cut half way down to the Gulf of Mexico and a pair of purple, high heeled spikes covered in gold glitter that must be two sizes too big for her. No coat, no hat, no nothing. Jesus, where do I find these people? She could be a runaway grifter, or maybe a carnie running a con on love starved truckers for all I know. But I figure she's too cute for a criminal. You'd think we were engaged, judging by the way she's paying no attention to me. I'm sure she's got a fascinating tale to tell but I just don't wanta hear about it right now. And wouldn't you just know, the perfect time to start telling me the Cliff Notes version of her frigging life story is now.
"My name's Altoona," she says." My mom was a waitress at the Slap and Tickle boob bar in Comanche, Iowa and my dad was a traveling salesman who knocked her up, and Altoona's where they had me. But you can call me Jacks on account of that was my favorite game when I was little. You got a name, Gramps?"
"Listen, kid, the traffic's bad and the weather's worse, so when we get to Kansas City I'll give you a copy of my autobiography and you can read all about me. Now count Burma Shave signs or play Tiddly Winks or something, would ya? I've got to concentrate."
The silence coming from the shotgun seat is so cold I check to see if she's got her window open, which gives me the chance to sneak a quick peek at her. She's a little fox alright but she looks awfully familiar. I wouldn't be surprised if I saw her face on a milk carton somewhere and can't resist asking, "Somebody looking for you?"
"Lot's of people. By the way, I haven't eaten in days, you got any food in this rolling germ factory?"
I don't know where all these jail bait hitchhiker types get the idea that I'm driving a grocery truck. "There's a candy bar in the glove box," I tell her, "help yourself."
After rumbling around in there for awhile, she hauls out a two-year old Baby Ruth and inhales it in one snort. "That's it?" she whines. "That's all you got?"
"I could shoot one of those heifers I got chewing their cud in the back and cook you up a T-Bone steak if you'd like."
"I'm a vegetarian," she says, me sarcasm completely lost on her. "What about
stopping somewhere for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You like peanut butter and jelly?"
I notice she's got no purse, so guess who's paying for the sandwiches? Like that's a surprise. "Listen, little missy, I'll buy you lunch if you promise to take a nap until we get to Kansas City. A long one, deal?"
"You and your deals. I see the way you've been looking at me," giving me that trapped coyote with its tits in a ringer look. "And don't think I'm taking a tumble for a sandwich. You ain't got enough money."
"Where does somebody your age get those kind of twisted ideas anyway? How old are you anyway? Really."
"I told you. I'm eighteen, and for your information, and that's old enough to know a perverted old horny toad when I see one. I know that look."
"What look? For Christ sakes, I'm just talking about lunch, not a lap dance. You wanta eat, or not?"
"OK, but no more deals. We eat, then we go to Kansas City and dance, ok?"
"Fine with me. But in the mean time, why don't you go paint your nails pink or do your homework or something. Anything but talk till we get there, deal?"
"Deal," she fumes, the affect not lost on me: biding her time, pouting like a pro, planning her strategy. She's up to something, but then, isn't everybody? I know there's somebody out there looking for her, but why would I turn her in? She hasn't done anything to me. Yet. She's just a kid looking for a free ride to Kansas City. And once we get there, I'm dumping her off at the nearest child welfare office and not looking back. Eighteen years-old my ass.
It's an hour later and we're sitting at a truck stop that looks more like the men's can at the Indianapolis 500. I've never seen so many beer bellied speed freaks in wrap-around sunglasses and Dale Earhardt baseball caps. When the waitress finally shows up with my fried grease burger and junior's P&J sandwich and carton of milk, I nearly have a stroke. Holy crap. I KNEW I'd seen Lolita's mug somewhere before. She's sitting over there cool as you please, sipping out of her milk carton without a care in the world, and damned if her picture isn't plastered all over the back of the stupid thing, clear as day. It's her alright. I'm not kidding. I just knew she was one of those runaway whack jobs. What are the odds? I have GOT to stop picking up all these pubescent gum-smacking neophytes. I make a note to myself; next time I pick up any damned body, check for references, a birth certificate, medical records, a psychological profile, and a driver's license.
After I pay the check I point to the back of the kid's milk carton and tell her, "This is the end of the line, junior. I travel solo and it's time for you to go home."
Playing the innocent, she acts like she's got no idea what I'm talking about, but what do I care? She knows I saw her photograph on the milk carton. I figure her parents are most likely worried sick to death about her, but I let her decide whether to call them or not and give her a couple quarters just in case. It's the least I can do. Not to mention the twenty years in the state pen I'd get for transporting a dolled up, half-dressed minor across state lines.
When I get to my rig, I turn around and see her standing outside by the pay phone with tears rolling down her face, looking my way. I swear to God if I didn't know better, I'd think she actually misses me. Who knew?
When she thinks I'm not looking, she pockets the quarters I gave her and stalks off across the parking lot toward the interstate like a tiny little dust devil, carrying the pink plastic purse I bought her at the gift shop. Leaning into a blizzard of hamburger wrappers and swirling sand, she trudges off into the Orange Crush-colored sunset.
At first, she doesn't notice the state trooper that I called earlier, rolling up to a stop behind her, but when he crawls out of his cruiser and starts huffing and puffing after her, she takes off like a shot. After a heart thumping run for his money, the Pillsbury Doughnut Boy finally catches up to her and jams her, kicking and screaming, into his squad car. When she looks out the window and notices me still there in the parking lot revving up my rig, she cracks a Gulf wide smile and gives me the finger. I'm no lip reader, but I know what she's saying. "I'll see you later, Gramps. You owe me a danc, deal?"
"Deal," I yell back at her. But even if she did hear me, I've got my fingers crossed so it doesn't count.