Word of the Day

Scott Gould

 

Back when I was first on the road, we used to play this game we called Independent Trucker. I did not name it. Brandy did. She is one of those people who likes words. I would drive the rig down to the interstate to Ollie’s and run it through the giant washer. Then I’d top off both tanks and buy one of those pine sap smelling things hanging from the display near the cash register and tie it up in the back of the sleeper cab. Sometimes, I’d pop for a new cassette if they had a sale bin, maybe Billy Joe Royal. By the time I eased out of Ollie’s, Brandy would be standing in the emergency lane of I-85, her Honda Accord pulled over in the grass with the hood up and a handkerchief tied to the outside mirror. She’d hear me a half mile away, downshifting and double-clutching for the incline. I liked coming over the rise and catching another gear, accelerating right by her like she was tied to the dock. Then, I’d stand on the air brakes and lose six months of tread. Brandy was good at playing the game. She never rushed things. She’d wait for the funk of burned rubber to blow away. She always looked like she was thinking, standing there in her dress and her hair up in that high pony tail. I’d swing the passenger door of the truck open like an invitation, and up she’d climb. We’d drive a half dozen miles to the rest stop near Exit 34, park the truck in one of the long, diagonal spots reserved for long-haulers and that’s where we’d go at each other like scared prom dates a half hour from curfew.

That was back before Brandy brought home that bald cat, back when I was gone five of every seven nights, on I-95 from Jacksonville to Baltimore or dodging weigh stations all the way to the end of I-10. Fact of the matter, I really was an independent trucker, so I didn’t have a company writing me checks every couple of weeks. I never drove the same routes twice in a row. I drove wherever somebody paid me for mileage, most of the time in envelopes of cash. The years I was running that hard, I was skinny as Barney Fife and could go without sleep for days at a time. I was built for driving through the night.

And Brandy told me early on she was built for being married to a man who drove through the night, and I think she held tight to that thought until the nights started linking together like freight cars, one right after the other and no end in sight. I still remember those arguments we had when the whole thing started turning sour. Brandy wasn’t much of a debater. NASA wasn’t putting out a missing person’s report for her. She wanted to be smart, but she just wasn’t up to the task, especially when we started fighting. One time, she got so flustered arguing with me, she went out and bought a little word-per-day desk calendar. Brandy convinced herself an expanding vocabulary would strike a match somewhere up in her brain.

Soon, every time I came back from a long haul we’d fight. She’d block me in the hallway and want to know which highways I’d been up and down. She’d lean in close to try and catch a whiff of my bad intentions. Brandy was about as thin as me and almost as tall. We stalked each other there in the hall, like a couple of shadows dancing around each other.

“How can you be gone that long and not let me know where you were? You’re so freaking ubiquitous!” she said one night.

“Freaking what?” I said and she just waved her hand at me.

“If I’ve got to explain ubiquitous, then that’s basically symbiotic of my living hell,” she said. She stomped off to her room, and I lay down on front couch and closed my eyes for the first good time in half a week. After an argument, I could sleep for twelve hours straight.

If Brandy had ever taken the time to see what knickknacks I brought her from the road, she’d have known where I’d been. Half an oyster shell from the Chesapeake Bay. Red dirt from the Four Corners stuffed into a little plastic baggie. An eagle feather that got sucked into the truck’s grill somewhere near Boulder. A piece of bleached out driftwood from the marsh outside Savannah. And on and on. Souvenirs of my personal geography. I got no idea what she did with all those mementos.

Maybe she gave them to Miss Dana. She lived down the road a half mile in a vinyl-sided house with a wide porch. Brandy liked to go over there, and the two of them would sit on the porch in the sun and drink Pina Coladas and pretend they were somewhere else. Brandy told me once, when we were arguing and playing chicken in the hallway. “At least I got a place to matriculate and drink something that tastes like coconuts and imagine not co-habituating with you.”

***

I’ll never understand why Brandy bought the bald cat. She named it Princess Di because she picked out the cat the very same Saturday she heard that the Princess had come to her end during that car chase. “She was so damn somnambulant. I actually cried,” Brandy told me when she walked in with a little plastic pet carrier.

Brandy didn’t say right off her new cat was one of those strange breeds that don’t possess a shred of fur. When that animal sashayed out of his little carrier, I thought the thing had been parboiled or just come from chemotherapy. All Brandy said was, “Eddie, this is Princess Di,” and I could tell from a distance this thing wasn’t any princess, what with that pair of little hairless, aspirin-size balls waggling between his back legs. He was more rodent than cat. But Brandy loved Princess Di and took him everywhere, to the store, to visit Dana, to get her hair done. Princess Di was comfortable on a leash, and he would lead Brandy down the sidewalk in front of the house. When he wasn’t strutting down the sidewalk, Princess Di weaved through the house, rubbing up against furniture in the dark, with a look on his face like he was making plans he would carry out when we weren’t looking.

***

Some folks might say the bald cat was the thing that pushed us over the edge, but I think the two of us—me and Brandy—just reached a point of mutual surrender. In trucker terms, I guess you could say we both got out of range and couldn’t seem to pick each other up on the CB anymore. Brandy didn’t agree, at least I don’t think she did. She pulled out one of her words, and said we had become severely dilated. “Dilated to the point I need to get the hell out of town,” she said. I couldn’t imagine Brandy out in the world on her own, but she sat down at the kitchen table and called a travel agent she found in the yellow pages. She wasn’t going alone either. “Dana really wants to supplicate Pina Coladas beneath an honest-to-god palm tree so she’s going with me.” And as if I didn’t have enough to filter through my brain at that particular moment, Brandy said, “Please plan to be home that weekend. I can’t leave Princess Di alone. She’d shred the curtains out of sheer loneliness.”

From all my long hauls, I knew a little about lonely and for a split second, I felt sorry for Princess Di. Then he walked in the room and I took in all of his hairless rodentness. I wasn’t sure I could stomach taking care of something so embarrassing. But the last thing I wanted was more trouble, so I promised to leave the truck in the yard for a few days. I thought to myself, a little space might do us all some good. “I might do some yard work,” I said.

“That would be insouciant,” Brandy answered me right back, and like usual, I had no idea what she meant or for that matter, where I stood.

***

I know how it is with the little things. I’ve run eighty-thousand pounds of semi eighty miles an hour down a highway in west Texas and hit a fence nail the size of a thimble, and the next thing I know, I have a shredded inside rear and I’m stuck on the shoulder until dawn. The big things, you see them coming. The little things are always the surprise. The fact the pantry was empty was a little thing. I opened it up the morning after Brandy and Miss Dana left in Brandy’s Honda for the airport in Charlotte. I didn’t figure I could live on a can of tuna fish and baking potatoes that were sprouting from the eyes. Princess Di had more food than I did. I needed a grocery trip. A little thing.

I was all set to run to the Stop-N-Go when I noticed the stack of Food Lion coupons behind a refrigerator magnet. It was hard to bypass double savings. I grabbed my keys and the coupons and was almost through the door when I remembered what Brandy had said about Princess Di’s behavior when left on his own. I decided locking him in the hall closet for a half hour would not cause him any stress. I thought, he won’t lose any hair over it, and laughed out loud.

I idled the rig at the far end of the Food Lion lot, grabbed a cart and almost knocked Dana over at the automatic door. Maybe I thought this was still a little thing. Dana looked over my shoulder, like I was blocking her view of a sunset she didn’t want to miss. I couldn’t think of a thing to say and the only noise was the automatic door buzzing because it couldn’t decide exactly what to do. The door wasn’t the only thing confused, but I came back to my senses and said, “This don’t look much like Jamaica to me, Miss Dana.”

Dana dropped the bag she was holding. A bottle of Pina Colada mix banged under a gumball machine. “I’m visiting my mother,” she said when she bent to pick up her things. “She’s sick. I had to get groceries. Plans changed.” I just stood there. I drive a truck. I’m used to backing up the traffic. People with carts full of grocery bags lined up behind Dana. I saw her start to wilt some. I could tell she wanted to walk over to the gumball machine and grab her Pina Colada mix. “I had to cancel at the last minute. My mother. She’s not well, like I said.”

I was trying to put it all together, trying to think of some good and decent reason that Dana was in the Food Lion and my wife was alone in Jamaica. “Is Brandy back at your house?” I asked her because I thought, Well maybe they made their own little getaway on Dana’s porch.

Dana hugged her groceries to her chest. “No, Eddie. She’s not with me.” When I didn’t say anything, she kept on. “She’s gone to Jamaica.”

“Well, okay then,” I said. “The question left here between the two of us is why she went to Jamaica by herself. Did she need a vacation that bad? To go all on her own?”

Dana cocked her head like curious dog. “Or,” I said, “The question could be who she’s down there with.” Dana didn’t say a word.

“The way questions work, Dana, is I ask one and you get to answer it,” I said. A fellow back in the line of grocery carts said something about taking our conversation somewhere else and I shot him a look that could singe hair.

“I can’t,” she said. “I don’t like being caught in the middle.”  She started to walk by me, and skinny as I am, I still filled up too much of the door.

“Well, you’re definitely caught. Who is it?” I said.

Dana shifted gears. “Why is it you men always ask that? You think it’s going to make you feel any better?”

I reached under the gumball machine for the Pina Colada mix and handed it to Dana. “Well, the more you know, the more you know,” I said, and I don’t know why. Maybe I wanted to sound clever.

“You won’t feel better,” she said. Beyond Miss Dana and the folks leaning on their shopping carts, I saw a manager-looking fellow walking fast our way.

“Who?” I asked again.

“God, just think about,” Dana said and I let her brush by me into the parking lot.

Dana was right. I needed to think about this. And I always thought best on the road, so I drove out to Ollie’s, poured two hundred dollars’ worth of diesel in the rig and went north on 85. Sixty miles down the road, I still had no real answers, but I did happen to recall I’d left a bald cat cooped up in the hall closet.

I’ve always hated backtracking early in a trip. Retracing the miles I’d just rolled onto the odometer made me feel like a failure. But if I kept on going north on 85, just kept going and going, the cat would eventually stink up the hall closet, probably the whole house and die after a week or so, which would leave me with cleaning up and explaining to do. (I had to laugh for a second at the fact that I would have to do any explaining after Brandy’s all-meals-included Jamaican trip.)

After a couple of miles of head scratching, I decided to head back for Princess Di. The possible ends weren’t worth all the means. Starving to death was no way for any creature to come to an end, even an ugly ass cat. I don’t consider myself a cruel man, and at this point, the thought of what to do with the cat hadn’t crossed my mind yet.

On the way back for Princess Di, I couldn’t help but wonder about every trip I ever took and what Brandy was up to while I watched the front of my truck eat up hundreds of thousands of white dashes in the asphalt. I replayed all the times I called home, turning up the volume on my cell phone to be able to hear Brandy over the rumble of the engine, but ending up leaving voice messages because she was always out. Or the time I pulled in a couple of days early and she was gone—on a last-minute overnight trip with Dana to Atlanta. I knew it wasn’t healthy sifting through the past, looking for lies. Like I said, I hated backtracking.

Princess Di was one pissed off cat when I got home. He made a beeline to the litter box and camped out there for a few minutes. He watched me load up a zip-lock bag of her food, his little bowl and his little pillow. Like most animals I have ever come across, Princess Di was attached to people and food, which was why he didn’t seem to complain when I tossed him in the back corner of the sleeper cab.

By the time the truck hit seventy, I was talking to Princess Di, which I have to say was a comfort—the fact that I had something listening to me that couldn’t talk back. I’d turn my chin a little over my shoulder and holler back toward the sleeper cab, telling the cat about how his momma had run off to this island and told a few lies around town about where she’d been and roped her best friend into covering for her and how right now, she was probably floating in a pool near a beach, drinking something frozen with two straws in it and on one end of one of those straws was a man who didn’t drive a truck.

I squinted through the windshield, trying to see who was sucking on that straw. I asked Princess Di if he had any ideas. “You probably know exactly who the hell it is,” I said out loud.

I don’t know why, but I started aiming whatever I was feeling in the wrong direction and found myself getting pissed at the bald cat. I thought about tossing him from the truck on the lonely section of I-85 between Raleigh and South Hill. It was straight and uninteresting, and with long stretches where you could see almost a mile down the road in either direction. I could grab Princess Di and backhand him through the open window.

“You can save yourself if you tell me who your momma’s with. Turn into a talking cat and I’ll pull you off of death row,” I said. I angled the mirror on the door to the sleeper cab. Princess Di purred at me, and for a second, I thought he might actually make a noise about the whole situation.

I am pretty familiar with myself. I knew the not-knowing was going to eat me up. Ever since I was a kid, I’d go nuts if somebody kept a secret from me. And I was sure Miss Dana wouldn’t tell. She had her chance at the Food Lion. The bald cat wasn’t yakking up any information. When I left the house, I forgot to grab the piece of paper that had an 800 number for Brandy’s hotel in Jamaica. “Only for emergencies,” she’d said on her way out the door. “You can leave me and Dana a message at the front desk. Cell phones don’t work in Jamaica. That’s what the brochure says.”

So I just drove. Just pointed the truck and ran through the gears. I didn’t have a plan in mind until I got a sign. An omen. It might as well have been the hand of God hitting the air brakes and downshifting and rolling up the exit ramp when I saw the sign for the Charlotte airport. I don’t think at that point I was in charge of anything—destiny, the clutch, whatever. It just happened.

In the split second it took me to read the exit sign, I decided exactly what I had to do with Princess Di, what to do about Brandy, what to do about the answers I didn’t have for questions I’d been asking myself the last ninety miles.

I parked the truck in the emergency lane of the access road, the road that led to all of the long-term parking lots at the Charlotte airport. I didn’t know how many of those lots they have, but I guessed about a half dozen or so. I had plenty of time. I put the leash around Princess Di’s hairless little neck and set off on foot with the cat. Skinny fellow in Tony Lama boots, walking a bald cat on a leash. Folks stared from their cars, and I can’t blame them.

I’d duck under the gate for the lot and walk up and down every row of cars. On my big ring, I had an extra key to Brandy’s Accord, so I pointed it in all directions and pushed the little button on the top of the key. I was hoping to hear that chirp when I got within range of the Honda. I didn’t have any luck in the first lot, or the second, or even the third. By the time I hit number four, I was carrying Princess Di under my arm like a loaf of bread. He’d had enough asphalt for the day. I pushed the button on the Honda key and there, in the distance, I heard the heard the car answer back. Pushed again and there was the sound.

I followed my ears until I saw that little Accord, its horn squeaking and its headlights flashing every time I pushed the button. I think even Princess Di recognized the car, because he started squirming under my elbow. I let him walk the rest of the way. When he reached the car, he rubbed against its tires and sniffed the rocker panel.

I didn’t come to the long-term lot unprepared. I had that baggie of food and that bowl I could fill up from a water bottle. Had that little pillow too. I laid the food and water on the floorboard on the passenger’s side. I cracked all the windows a couple of inches. This was the beginning of November. That bald cat wasn’t going to roast. Princess Di drank about half a bowl of water while I spread food on the floor mat. I refilled the bowl and shut the doors. Princess Di looked up at me and meowed. “She’ll be back in two days. You’ll survive, so shut up,” I said through the glass. “In fact, you damn well better survive, you bald bastard. I want you nice and active for a couple of days.” Then, I backtracked to my rig and headed south on the interstate, headed for home. I missed having Princess Di in the sleeper cab, but I didn’t even think about going back for her. I was not hauling regrets with me.

***

Counting the afternoon I left that bald cat in the parking lot, there were exactly fifty-four days left in the year. Which means there were fifty-four vocabulary words left on Brandy’s Word-A-Day desk calendar. I made fifty-four phone calls to some front desk clerk in Jamaica who kept forwarding me to a voice mail line for a Ms. Brandy Hollingsworth. And every time I got on that voice mail, I left a message containing the word of the day. Fifty-four messages, each one with a strange word. I admit, I tried to understand the definitions and use the words correctly, but I felt like Brandy, stumbling around with the language. At least I knew I was messing up. I told her she had wrecked my sang-froid. I said that there would be an antepenultimate waiting for her in the parking lot. I called her a gribble. I didn’t care about making sense.

Turns out, Brandy never set foot in our house again. I wished she had, so she could tell me what her Honda Accord smelled like when she and her traveling companion returned from Jamaica, all tanned and worn out and ready to get home. I can’t tell you to this day who the man was. I can tell you that Princess Di survived his vacation in the Accord. I heard from Miss Dana that the bald cat was alive, but very wary of floorboards of any kind.

If Brandy ever does come back, I’ve got a little something for her from the road, a little souvenir from my trip to the Charlotte Airport. Still have it stuck to the refrigerator, right where the Food Lion coupons used to be. It’s a parking receipt, the one I took off Brandy’s dash when I left that bald cat in the long-term parking. Has the time and date when she left for Jamaica stamped right on it. I don’t know why I took it. I’ll bet there’s a word for that.

#

Scott Gould is the author of the story collection, Strangers to Temptation (Hub City Books, 2017), and the novel, Whereabouts (Koehler Books, 2020). A memoir, Things That Crash, Things That Fly, will be published by Vine Leaves Press in March, 2021 and a second novel, The Hammerhead Chronicles, is forthcoming from the University of North Georgia Press in June, 2021. His poetry, fiction and nonfiction have been published in magazines and anthologies including Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, New Ohio Review, New Madrid Journal, Carolina Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, Black Warrior Review, BULL: Men’s Fiction, Garden & Gun, New Stories from the South, New Southern Harmonies, The Bitter Southerner, and Fall Lines, among others.