It wasn’t him.
When the man took off his muffler Joe knew he’d never seen him before. It took a while for his heart to stop pounding and hear what the man was saying.
“ - appreciate it, just down the road if you don’t mind. I might be able to get a tow but in this mess I’ll be lucky to get out by tomorrow night. Good thing you came along, friend. I sure do appreciate it.”
“Least I can do,” Joe said. “What are you hauling?”
“Oh, it’s all kinds of stuff.” The man blew on his hands. “Probably eggs, vases, dishes, with my luck. Even if it’s furniture there’s going to be some smash-ups back there. I’m going to catch hell but there was nothing I could do. Fella in front of me, he was trying to pass a car. He’d already come alongside me a few miles back, and on these two-lanes I just hang back and let them over on the driest of your summer days. Today? Passing in this? Christ. Sorry, my French. Anyway he goes flying past me, gets in front barely before someone’s coming in the opposite direction. Doesn’t learn a thing from that, so he goes around the next car. Sees a car coming towards him. Gets back, and he must’ve stood on the brake because he fishtails all around, hardly misses the car coming at him. By now I’m working the brakes too, and I can start to feel her go around back there. I would’ve had her straight but I hit a patch, and it was all I could do to drive her into the ditch and stay upright.”
“They train you guys well,” Joe said.
“They don’t train us at all,” the man said. “You got to have five years to drive for the company, and they figure if you haven’t killed yourself by then you know your business. Say, I’m Dave. Dave Clinton. I’d shake your hand but you’re busy.”
“Nice to meet you,” Joe said. He meant it.
They drove a few miles in silence. When the snow let up a bit Joe gave him another look: seemed like a decent guy. Young, really - late twenties.
“You guys ever lose a truck?” he asked.
“You mean like in a wreck? Hell yeah; we had one shear off under a bridge last week. Last year a guy I know head-on’d a cow on a road and went right through the glass.”
“No, I mean, like, stolen.”
“Oh, sure. Did you read about that? I didn’t know it made the papers.”
“I think I did. There was a driver . . . remind me.”
“Well, there was a driver all right, and he was held up and shot and they took the truck. That was down about Charleston. They found the truck in Indiana a couple of weeks ago, but that probably get in the news. Whoever took it painted it over. They found it left in some warehouse lot, got the number off the block, and that’s how they got it back to us.” He shook his head. “Horrible thing with the driver.”
“You know him?”
“Nah, but one of the dispatchers did. Wife and kids, real shame. Company’s going to sell the truck because no one wants to drive it.”
“You guys must see things when you’re out here, I’ll bet. Not like murders, I mean, but . . . well, the parade of life.”
“More’n you’d think. You get the housewife who comes to the door in a robe, gives you a li’l peek. You get the occasional guy who can’t sign for the shipment because he’s dead. No, I’m serious. I know a guy who went to pick up, and the man had passed away while waiting. He got ribbed for that. Hey, maybe you should have blown a few yellows on the way, Cal.”
“Calvert. One of the older drivers. He was sore after that, because it was supposed to be a long haul, but on the other hand it was a piano, or something like that. Anyway the man was old, died right there in own house, would’ve happened no matter when Cal got there.”
Joe debated telling the driver, but decided against it. He still couldn’t make sense of it, and didn’t want to explain why he thought it was strange. Still. A murdered driver. The stolen truck. Indianapolis.
“Mind if I smoke?”
“No, go right ahead. Matches in the glove compartment if you need any.”
“I believe I do.” He opened the box. “Whoa, you weren’t kidding.”
“It’s my business,” Joe said. “Some are samples. Some are ones I pick up for ideas.”
The driver fished out a book and said “Mothersill’s Seasick Remedy. Huh. Doesn’t work, I’ll tell you that.”
“You’ve been to sea?”
“Nah. I tried it for nausea you get when you’re on the road too long.”
“You get motion sickness? And you’re a driver?” He nodded.
“Got to hold it down with one hand sometimes.”
“Why don’t you get another job?”
“Nothing else I can do quite as good,” he said.
The man stared out the window. The snow had tapered off. The road was still white all the way, but the phone poles marched off to the horizon. You could see where the road might be if you looked at where you knew it wasn’t.