A West Texas Love Story
"Bu dy's" opened at five-thirty in the a.m., every morning, even Christmas. That didn’t bother Bud, owner and retired truck driver, mostly because he was Jewish. Every morning he would climb out of his 1967 Ford, new by West Texas standards, and flip the rusted light switch igniting the four story neon sign that read "Bu dy's." The first "d" had long ago broken out in a freak windstorm that swept out from the scrubland.
Bud would wait for the inert gases in the sign to warm up and blink into life, illuminating the parking lot and gas tanks in a warm unnatural glow. Bud loved that. Never got tired of it.
Some might think Interstate 40 East out of Lubbock was the most interminable stretch of concrete ever laid. Miles and miles of black ribbon stretching off into the reclaimed West Texas flat lands. The only things to see were jackrabbits and tumbleweeds, and after eighteen hours on the road the lucky truck driver might happen to spot a tumble-rabbit or the ever-elusive jack-o-weed. The first thought after seeing one of these mythical creatures was usually "Wow, a tumble-rabbit.” As the trucker was reaching for his CB to announce to the world his discovery, the second thought would usually kick in..."time to pull over." And that's how most people ended up at “Bu dy's.”
It was a late November Tuesday which didn'four hundredto the residents of Montaige county, all four hundred and seven of them. It didn't mean much to Alvin Fletcher either, except that he would soon have to take his mandatory week off for Christmas. Alvin hated the week between Christmas and New Year's and usually spent it in his small San Antonio apartment getting drunk and stoned and watching football. Not a bad way to spend the holidays. Maybe he would catch a Willie Nelson show. But that was weeks away and today was today. And today just happened to be one day ahead of schedule and that made Alvin happy. That meant he could lay over in Wichita Falls, or Oklahoma city, maybe visit old friends and get drunk and stoned and watch some football.
Alvin was trying to recall the phone number of his friend Sanfred Jacobs in Okie City when he saw the tumble-rabbit. It was an odd fellow about three-feet high with extremely long legs, hair like dry grass, and a strange feral smile. The creature gave Alvin a nod as the eighteen wheeler-sped by. In his rear-view mirror, he saw the unnatural figment roll off into the brush and disappear into the flats. Alvin’s second thought after “...I think that was a tumble-rabbit...” was “...time to pull over!” Alvin put down the receiver of his CB and pushed on the airbrakes of his self-owned Peterbilt. He saw a neon sign winking a lonely welcome in the distance and after nineteen straight hours on the road, Alvin finally came to full stop.
By six-fifteen “Bu dy’s” was a hotbed of commerce and political indecision. A chorus of old men sat at the yellow, cigarette burned counter and discussed the inner workings of everything from women to macroeconomics. From the kitchen, Bud occasionally threw a comment in lengthwise, which was more often than not met with abrupt condemnation from the counter chorus. Bud was only sixty-three and therefore his motives were suspect.
July McCallum, twin sister of June McCallum, answered “the call of the spoon to cup” which signaled the need of a refill. She sauntered over to the offending customer, as much as her two hundred pound frame would allow, and practically threw the hot brew into the chipped cup with as much contempt as she could muster. She would then return quickly to her end the counter and her Cosmo magazine. She tried her best to ignore the topic of today’s discussion: “them damn Jews!”
Donald Beckett, ex-army sergeant and youngest of the group offered the barb, “them damn Jews own everything! From Washington to Wall Street, they own it all. And if they don’t own it, they loaned the money to the poor bastards who own it!”
Joshua Talbott, life-long farmer and four-year member of the early morning coffee consortium, retorted in his mild, slow drawl, “now Don. Not all the Jews are rich. There’s poor Jews, just like there’s poor Negro's, and Spic's. Matter of a fact back in 57’ I met a rancher Jew at the Oklahoma State Fair.”
“Bullshit! Ain't no Jew ranchers!” exclaimed Farney Smith, alfalfa farmer and oldest member of the group at seventy-four. “Bullshit! Ain’t no Jew ranchers.” Farney said again for effect.
He ran his fingers through his full head of beautiful, silver-gray hair. The act was a silent affront to the others; all at different stages of terminal baldness.
"I didn't say they was all rich, I said they's ownin’ everything. Like Bud there," replied Donald as he pulled his green John Deer hat further down on his head.
"We don't own everything, you God Damn hayseed. If I owned everything, do think I'd be here cookin' eggs and ham everyday for ten years? Besides, it's the Japs that're buying up the whole God damn world." Bud slammed his metal spatula down on top of the well-worn silver bell. The piercing sound echoed throughout the diner/gas station. A steaming white plate appeared out of the tiny window that separated the kitchen from the restaurant and slid to a stop inches from the edge of the counter.
For the fifth time this morning, July considered taking the plate's steaming fat filled contents and throwing it at Donald. She resisted the temptation, but just barely.
Walking the three feet to the window, July gave Bud her best "go to hell, or wherever you Jews go when you die look" and set the plate down in front of its rightful owner. She took a bottle of ketchup and Tabasco from underneath the counter and placed them on either side of the plate from which Donald was already eating. She moved back to her station and checked her watch. Only four more hours and June would be here. Then she could go home and watch her stories.
Alvin walked through the push only door. He shook off his jean jacket and moved instinctively to a booth with a phone. As he sat down, he caught a glimpse of himself in the pie display window. He looked thin.
Alvin had learned to control his appetite while on the road by following two simple rules. Rule one: Eating meant drinking and drinking meant stopping. Rule two: On an empty stomach coffee had a little more punch and the occasional tab of speed kept him wired longer. As a bonus, he hadn’t gained a pound since highschool.
Alvin pulled his logbook out of the jacket pocket with one hand and grabbed the lamented menu with the other. He glanced at the menu, and then quickly closed it. They were all the same. He checked his watch and calculated that he was fifteen hours ahead of schedule and that made him happy. Alvin envisioned himself twenty hours from now kicking back with a cold Pearl Light beer and half a joint gone...
Mary Ellen Sayer wasn't a whore. At least she didn't think of herself as one. She was a free spirit, 'who met life's pleasures and disappointments with equanimity.' A lover had told her that once, just before he left her stranded in Jamaica. She didn't know what it meant, but she liked the way it sounded.
She glanced over at her current, bordering on past, boyfriend and smiled. David was a college kid from Berkeley, heading for home back east. They had met in a bar called the "Wide Sargasso" just outside of Nevada. He had struck up a conversation, bought her a few drinks, and just like that they were companions. David still believed that he had picked her up with his bookish charm. Fact was Mary Ellen needed a ride and a man. David was both...for now.
Alvin wiped up his plate with his toast and threw back the last of his fresh squeezed orange juice concentrate. As his food settled, his body began its digestion and a pleasant sleepiness swept over him. He figured he could grab a few hours of sleep in the back of his cab and still be ahead of schedule. Alvin paid his check and walked out into the cool West Texas day.
Glancing into the vanity mirror of David's 75 Mustang, Mary Ellen wrangled a stray whorl of hair back into the barrette that held her flaming red curls at bay. The freckles on her nose, which gave her face a girlish twist, were in direct contrast with the body of a woman that had been hers since the age of fourteen. The first and only time her father had called her whore.
He had caught her behind the 7-11 with Jerry Yance and Mark Pethel. They had bought her a giant cherry slushy in exchange for a make out. Mary Ellen didn't give a damn about the slushy, although cherry was her favorite flavor. She wanted Jerry and Mark and would have made out with both of them for nothing. But like most men they needed the contract to feel clean. Jerry and Mark's busy hands caused tiny explosions of pleasure as they explored her body from the inside of her best school dress. Until her father came around the corner.
She never knew why he came looking for her at the 7-11 and he never told her. Maybe it was some instinctive father's intuition that goes off when his daughter is being felt up by teenage boys. She would always remember the look on his face. A look of pure disgust, his mouth turned down in a damning frown. A look someone gives to a dog that has just rolled in shit knowing that if you clean it off, it will just do it again.
"You're a whore. Just like your mother," her father said, as he turned and walked slowly back around the corner.
Mary Ellen never went home that night. She slept in the basement of a friend’s house on an old green, army cot. The next morning she walked through her front door, past the living room where her mother and father sat drinking coffee and straight into her bedroom. She stayed there all day, safe in the warmth and innocence of her pink-lace, canopy bed.
They never spoke of the incident behind the 7-11 and the next three years past quickly. Proms and Homecomings, dates and cars, cheer leading and graduations, happiness and sadness, came and went. Through it all, Mary Ellen never forgot that look on her father's face. And she never again felt clean.
David had a problem. He had really enjoyed spending the week with Mary Ellen. The sex had been great, the best of his life. Most of the girls he had been with before were of the good-catholic, girl persuasion, which wine and time had subverted. He had never met a girl that seemed to truly enjoy sex as much as a man. But, as great as Mary Ellen was, he still had a problem. He was two days away from his home, his upper middle-class, Catholic, extremely conservative home. And when he got there, Mary Ellen could not be with him. His mother would die if he showed up with this “hippie trash.” She would just die.
David turned the wheel and the Mustang left the rough asphalt of highway 9 and glided onto the cold gray-concrete of “Bu dy’s.” The gas gauge showed empty, which really meant there were a couple of gallons of gas left. David liked to keep the tank full.
He jumped out of the car and unscrewed the gas cap. Mary Ellen came up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist. He gave her a kiss and they looked at each other, pleasant strangers who had spent almost a week of their lives together.
They hadn’t talked much. Although Mary-Ellen was curious, she wasn’t very bright. David had tried to explain some of his sociological theories, but Mary Ellen just listened and nodded her head. At least she was responsive.
He felt it was strange that he was more familiar with her body than her mind. He could tell you the color of the mole on her stomach, or the half-heart shaped freckle on her right breast, but he couldn’t tell you where she was born, or even how old she was. He sensed there was something unpleasant going on under the surface of Mary Ellen Sayer. Something that he probably didn’t want to know and wasn’t sympathetic enough to divine without asking. But then that's why he studied sociology and not psychology. David reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet.
“Why don’t you go pay?” David said as he handed her two fresh, clean, twenties.
Although his voice didn’t betray him, Mary Ellen knew. Unlike David, she was sympathetic; she would have studied psychology if she had been given the chance. The new clean bills felt warm in her hand.
“Sure. I’m going to grab my bag and clean up a little.”
“Okay. I’ll wait.” David said, as the gas flowed into the hungry tank.
Mary Ellen grimaced as she lifted her dark, red duffel bag out of the back seat. As she walked towards the gas station section of “Bu dy’s”, her anger grew. He didn't have to lie, she thought to herself. She knew he wouldn’t be there when she came out. They both knew. He didn’t have to tell the dirty lie.
As she walked into the pull only door of the small grimy gas station, she crumbled the fresh, new bills in her hand. It felt better that way.
David watched Mary Ellen enter the office. He watched the swing her hips and ass and almost had second thoughts. Maybe he could drop her off tomorrow and spend one more night together. He was close to walking in after her when his decision was made for him. The gas pump in his hand clicked off, exclaiming that the tank was full.
David hung the nozzle on the hook, climbed into his high-school graduation present and sped off down the road. It would be one hundred and fifty miles before he let himself think about her again. And when he finally did, he thought about the half-heart shaped freckle on her right breast.
Luther took the twenty dollars from Mary-Ellen, holding onto her hand a little too long. He gave Mary-Ellen a wide-toothed grin as he slipped the money into the cash register. The way his fingers touched the money was somehow vulgar. He stole a glance at her chest covered by a clean white T-shirt then handed her back four dollars and seventy-three cents.
Luther rubbed his grease stained hand through his dark hair and then rubbed it on his shirt, just below the sewed on name tag which read “Luther.” He wasn’t ugly, not by West Texas standards, but he was simple. He looked out the window and noticed a canary yellow Mustang pulling out.
“I think your boyfriend's leaving you!” said Luther jokingly.
“He’s not my boyfriend. Is there a bus that passes through here?”
Luther could tell that he had said something wrong, so he tried to make things better the only way he knew how. He came on to Mary-Ellen.
“No. We don’t never get buses out here. You can probably catch a bus down in Mayfair. They got a Greyhound shack there.”
“How far away is it?”
“About forty miles east of here.”
Mary-Ellen allowed a frown to spread across her face.
“You know. I get off at seven-thirty. I could run you up there.” Luther said trying to hide his half-hard cock behind the counter.
It was dusk, when Alvin crawled out of the back of his company-owned Peter-Bilt Diesel. He had over slept by about six hours and was pissed-off. To make up time and hold on to his day off he would have to drive all night. After pouring out the old coffee from his silver thermos, Alvin walked into “Bu dy's” cursing himself under his breath.
The diner section of “Bu dy's” looked different as the orange, evening sun cast shadows through the dusty metal blinds. Suddenly it looked much less clean as the fluorescent overhead lights accented every dirty spoon and stained tablecloth.
Mary Ellen sat at the end of the food bar, rereading her copy of Sun Signs. She had been there hours. Just sipping on coffee and waiting for something to show up.
July McCallum hated Mary Ellen from the moment she saw her. Mary Ellen was pretty and thin, a free spirit. All the things July was not. Although she was the prettier of the two McCallum sisters, July was still not what one thought of as traditionally beautiful. She practically threw the coffee into Mary Ellen's cup.
"Thank you," replied Mary Ellen oblivious to the slight.
“Thank you,” mimicked July as she scuttled over to where Alvin stood at the other end of counter. Cursing over the extra four feet she had to walk away from her stool.
"What you want?” July asked gruffly.
"Just fillup the thermo please. I'm in a hurry," said Alvin, pushing the shiny thermos towards July.
"Coffee's brewing it'll be about five minutes," July replied, pushing the thermos back to Alvin. She then scuttled back to her stool and hefted her one hundred and ninety pound frame onto her stool behind the counter. She flipped open the Sears catalog and began to daydream about pink-lace canopy beds.
Luther came into the diner through the employee entrance and as he rounded the counter bumped into Alvin. Luther grumbled an apology as he practically ran to the other end of the counter.
"All done for, today. You still want that ride," Luther said barely managing to say the word "ride" without its usual innuendo.
Mary looked up from her book and had to make the decision she had been putting off all day. She had waited for another opportunity to present itself, but was disappointed. She looked around the room for one last avenue. Her eye fell on Alvin.
Alvin stared at his own reflection coming off of the silver thermos and made a funny face. He then looked up and saw Mary Ellen staring at him. He quickly looked away out of embarrassment. And in that second Mary Ellen made up her mind.
"Let's go. Luther is it?" Mary Ellen said drinking down the last sip of her coffee.
"Yeah, Luther, or Luth, whatever don't matter," he said as he reached for her bag.
"This all you got?"
"That's it, and I'll carry it," Mary Ellen said grabbing the bag from him. Luther didn't let go.
"I got it little lady."
Mary relinquished her grip.
"How far away is Mayfair, again?"
"Only about forty minutes."
Luther led the way out and Mary Ellen followed closely behind. Alvin went back to staring at his thermos and thinking of what July must look like in a bathing suit. Not in a sexual way, but just curious. After a minute or two his thoughts turned sexual and that’s when he knew it was time to go.
The neon lights of “Bu dy's” had faded into the distance over twenty minutes ago and once again Alvin smiled as he took another sip from his thermos cup. The five-minute wait for coffee had turned into fifteen. By the time Alvin paid for his coffee and got to his rig, he was furious. He had high geared the truck up to speed as fast as he could and didn't even bother to pop in an eight track until he was ten miles out. As Credence Clearwater Rival played "Proud Mary" from the two mono speakers, Alvin took his first sip from his mug. Good coffee, Alvin thought to himself as he settled into the vinyl seat. Real good.
The CB was busy tonight. Truckers yacked back and forth about everything from road conditions in Kansas to the best rest stops for an anonymous hand job. So distracted by the chatter, Alvin almost didn't see Mary Ellen on the side of the road. She had her thumb up. Alvin wasn't supposed to pick up hitchhiker's, the company would fine him if they found out, she would probably slow him down and ruin his day off, there will be someone else coming later, all these thoughts drifted through Alvin's head the second before he hit the air brakes and pulled his Eighteen Wheeler over to the side.
He leaned over to the passenger’s side and unlocked the door. A second later Mary Ellen's head popped into the cab.
"Where you going?" Alvin asked.
"Straight," Mary Ellen replied as she climbed in. The yellow dome light of the truck went out as the door shut and Alvin took to the road. He glanced over at Mary Ellen and noticed her shirt and jeans were stained with grease and oil. Alvin was pretty sure that the smudge on her right breast was in the shape of a handprint.
"Don't you have any bags, or nothing?"
Alvin maneuvered the leviathan back into the light evening traffic and reached cruising speed.
"Mary Ellen," she said not bothering to look at him.
A cold silence fell over the cab of the truck. Only occasionally disrupted by the squawk of the Citizens Band radio as it intercepted the lonesome signals of the brotherhood of truckers. The silence became unbearable, so Alvin decided he might as well get it out of the way.
"Didn't I see you leave with that mechanic from the truck stop?" Alvin asked rubbing his hand across his three-day beard.
"He wasn't taking me where I wanted to go?" Mary Ellen didn't bother to hide her disgust.
"I see," then Alvin added, "you okay?"
Mary Ellen looked at Alvin for the first time since climbing into the cab.
"Yeah. Would it be okay if we were just quiet for a while?" Although her voice was steady, her eyes were pleading.
"Sure. Anything you want," Alvin said, unexpected passion and concern leaking into his voice.
And the headlights lead on into the night.
After two hours of silence the cab became uncomfortable small, almost intimate. Alvin wasn't used to having a companion on the road. He was used to the loneliness and fatigue, boredom and coffee. It was exciting having a woman with him.
About ten Alvin began to talk. And he didn't stop until early the next morning. The tab of speed and the thermos of coffee kept him awake and alert through the endless miles of asphalt limbo. Mary Ellen listened, but didn't speak. And Alvin respected her privacy, by not asking her any questions. He talked about whatever came to his mind. Football, high school, his dead uncle Alvin (after which he was named), his mother and her cancer, his first girlfriend and his last, the time he jackknifed on an icy road in Durango Colorado and spent four weeks in traction; the honky-tonk in El Paso where he got the scar over his left eye...and Mary Ellen slept through most of it.
The pleasant mantra of wheel to road and his warm, constant, soothing voice pushed the fear of Luther out of her head and she slept. She dreamed that she was walking in a brown, autumn field. The corn had been harvested and the good farmer left the stalks to fade back into the earth. She walked through the field, occasionally glancing down at the ground expecting to see something that was not there. Staring into the green, gray sun, Mary Ellen remembered that she was looking for something. Something she had lost years ago. Something that had been tainted by a cruel face and that she had hid because it made her feel unclean when using it.
Desperation suddenly overcame Mary Ellen. She fell to her knees and scraped at the cold bare earth, digging deeper and deeper into the soil. She found that just beneath the fertile surface, the soil was black and dead. The dirt covered her from head to toe, seeking out the dirty crevices of her body, wedging itself into her very skin. Her digging became frantic, obsessive. She dug until she collapsed from exhaustion...and faded away into quite tears...
Mary Ellen woke up as the truck came to a stop. She looked around, disoriented until she saw Alvin. He was looking at her with compassionate, glassy, blue eyes.
"You're awake. Sleep well?"
"Yeah, I guess. I don't remember falling asleep," she said, setting up straight in the cab.
"I'm afraid, I probably bored you to sleep. I must of talked all night," he said, his voice raspy from overuse.
"Where are we?"
"About two hours outside Wichita Falls?"
Mary Ellen nodded her head.
"Listen, I got to fill up. And I'm stopping in Wichita Falls for the night," Alvin said, the speed had long ago run its course and Alvin was left half awake, half asleep.
Mary Ellen nodded her head, "I understand you don't have to say it."
"But. You don't have to go. I mean you can if you want, but I was thinking'. If you don't have anyplace special to go you could come with me to Wichita and have some dinner or something, maybe hit the bars. Have some fun."
Mary Ellen thought for a moment. She couldn't really think, because she was so tired. And her mind was busy trying to remember some dream that she had been having, and couldn't quite recall.
"Can we talk about it when we get there," Mary Ellen asked.
"Sure. It'll take bout' twenty minutes to fill up. You want to go inside clean yourself up a little?"
Mary Ellen look at the long side mirror as if seeing herself for the first. She was dirty. Her white shirt was now in the cleanest spots a dull gray and the smell of oil suddenly made her nauseous. A bruise was forming over her left cheek.
"Yeah." She climbed out of the cab.
She spent the entire twenty minutes in the bathroom. Washing her face and hands over and over again. She cried when she realized that she couldn't get the stains out of her shirt and realized that she would have to just live with the dirt on her body. She had cleaned her jeans pretty well, but the smell was still there. Oil and Luther. Sixteen hours later and he was still with her.
When she climbed into the cab, Alvin was waiting for her. A grocery bag at his side. She shut the door and stared out the front window. Alvin started the truck and shoved the gear box into low first. The colossus jerked forward.
"A bought some food. Donuts and orange juice and stuff. Help yourself..."
"Not very hungry..."
"...And I also bought you a T-shirt. I thought you might want to wear a clean one."
For the first time in their half-day long relationship, Mary Ellen looked at Alvin. Really looked at him. He wasn't bad looking, a little too skinny and his hair was thinning a little. But she liked something about the firmness of his jaw; it made her feel safe.
"You can change in back of the cab if you'd like," Alvin said pointing to the back section, separated by a blue cloth curtain that didn't close all the way.
Mary Ellen took the shirt out of the bag and opened it up to look at it. It was plain white with rainbow lettering that said "Keep on Truckin'."
She couldn't think of the right thing to say. Thank you came to mind, but that wasn't enough. She thought about offering to pay, or kissing him, but none of those responses seemed appropriate. So, instead, she just took the shirt out of the bag and climbed into the back of the cab.
The space was very tight and it smelled like a man: Beer and cheap aftershave. She had to stay on her knees to move around and had to turn back towards the front of the cab to have enough room to pull the dirty shirt over her head. When it was finally off, she felt strangely releaved and exposed. Her breasts swayed with the shift of the truck. It was then that she noticed the visor mirror.
The visor mirror over the driver’s side was angled in such a way that it peered directly into the compartment behind. She suddenly froze stiff. She could see Alvin's eyes in the mirror and that meant that he could see her, all of her. In a single heart beat, she went from furious to resolved.
This man had been nice to her. Picked her up off the side of the road, left her alone, even bought her this shirt and never asked for anything in return. No come ons or dirty groping hands. Maybe he deserved his peek.
Mary Ellen watched the mirror as she slowly unfolded the new shirt. With patience, she put one arm through the armhole and then the other, keeping her breasts exposed until the last possible moment. Finally, she ducked her head into the shirt and pulled it down over her chest.
She knew that he could see her. He knew it, too. But his eyes never left the road.