“Do you ever get so lonely that your stomach hurts?”
The waitress behind the counter glanced at me as she topped off my coffee. “Can’t say I do.” Her brunette hair bounced as she shook her head, offering me a smile that stunk of pity. “Can I getcha’ anything else, hon?” Her eyes darted toward a customer waving for her attention further down the bar top.
I gave a closed-mouth smile—concealing the bite of turkey bacon in my mouth—and shook my head no.
It was almost 8 AM, and the 24-hour truck stop café was hopping with truckers and travelers headed places for the holidays. The sound of Bing Crosby crooning Jingle Bell Rock was hardly audible over the din of the diners.
It was Thursday, and I’d pulled into Pasco about thirty minutes earlier. I was on my way back to Spokane for another drop-and-hook. Amazon was short on drivers and contracting out to independents like me through the holidays. Santa Claus always gets the credit for delivering Christmas gifts, but it was tired, overworked bastards like me making sure everything got there on time. It wasn’t reindeer getting us there either; it was a 13-speed, 500-horsepower white Freightliner pulling a dry van, and rather than shouting ho-ho-ho and whipping reins, we were throwing gears and blowing our horns at assholes in beemers cutting us off at every exit.
I had one last Spokane to Portland trip before I was off for Christmas.
I took a sip of coffee and winced as the liquid hit my tongue. Not from the heat, the taste. Wet, rotten bark is what came to mind. I wasn’t used to drinking it black. I’d been trying to lose weight (when wasn’t I?), as well as fighting high blood pressure, so I was making concessions. I took another sip, set my cup down, and looked at my plate of mixed fruit, egg whites, and a lonely slice of turkey bacon.
What I really wanted was a Saturday breakfast like the one’s Mom used to make. A mess of over-easy eggs, piled high on buttermilk biscuits with sausage gravy. Or a stack of waffles drenched in maple syrup and a pile of hickory bacon. Not this turkey shit. Real bacon. And some fucking creamer in my coffee.
My phone buzzed from my hip holster. Idaho number. I lived in Post Falls, worked mostly out of Spokane.
“Good morning, is this Paul Doyle?” It was a woman’s voice.
“Hi, Paul. My name is Judy. I’m with Dr. Simons office.”
“Hi, Judy.” Simons was my PCP.
“Dr. Simons wanted to make this call himself, but he has a tight schedule and wanted to make sure you got this information this morning.” Mouse-click. Mouse-click. “We got the results from your tests back, and the doctor has diagnosed you with a gastric ulcer. He’s written you a prescription for omeprazole. He’d like you to begin that medication today. We’ve sent it to your pharmacy.” Mouse-click. “Walgreen’s in Liberty Lake still good?”
Fucking ibuprofen. I started taking them way back in middle school after football practices. By the time I was in high school—starting offensive line on Varsity as a sophomore—I was popping them like candy. Never really stopped taking them up until the last few years. Little did I know they’d already burned a fucking hole in my stomach lining (I’m sure my fondness for pizza and beer hadn’t exactly helped matters, either). So it made sense. Still, not something I was hoping to start my day with. Now I had high blood pressure and an ulcer. Lucky me.
“Yeah.” I pushed a piece of cantaloupe around on my plate. “I’m on the road right now, though. Headed to Montana after that. I’ll pick it up when I can.”
“Would you like us to send that order to a different pharmacy so you can pick it up today?”
The thought of trying to figure out a pharmacy somewhere between Portland and Spokane where I could park an eighteen-wheeler, just to pick up a stupid medication, almost made me laugh. “No, it’ll have to wait.”
“Ok,” she said. “And we’ll also need to schedule you for a follow-up so we can discuss diet and exercise.” Mouse-click. “I see your weight increased again upon your last visit. Your blood pressure was still high, too. At your age these things can change rapidly. Dr. Simons will want to discuss that with you, provide you with educational materials.”
I see your weight increased again. She said it so casually.
“Alright,” I said. “I’ll have to call you back, not sure what my schedule looks like. I’m on the road a lot. I drive truck so it’s—”
“I understand, sir, give us a call. Happy holidays.” Click.
I pulled the phone from my ear and glanced at the screen, shook my head, and slipped it back into my hip holster.
Diet and exercise.
I see your weight increased again.
Dr. Simons will want to provide you with some educational materials.
Did she really think at my age I didn’t know I was fat? Did I look like some trailer park bumpkin who’d never heard of keto? She’d said it as if I hadn’t already been told by every doctor I’d been to that I was overweight. As if I hadn’t been perpetually cycling from one diet to the next since I was a kid. As if I hadn’t spent the better part of twenty years tracking macronutrients in notebooks. As if I didn’t already try to exercise whenever I could, trying not to think about what people thought when they pulled through a truck stop and saw a middle-aged fat dude in cowboy boots and Wranglers doing lunges alongside a truck and trailer.
There was a part of me that thought I was wasting my time constantly trying to lose weight. I’d never been able to keep it off. Lose ten pounds, gain back fifteen. Lose five, gain ten. I got bullied pretty ruthlessly for it as a kid. Like, real bad. I won’t go into details, but everyone’s heard the stories. By the time I was about thirteen, fourteen, I’d started having these episodes where I’d feel real bad about myself for weeks at a time. I didn’t know it was depression at the time, but I guess that’s what it was. I’d feel fat and ugly and worthless, and I never had no one to talk to about it. Tried talking to my dad a couple times, but he’d just get kind of uncomfortable and clam up. And Mom, she’d just make me something to eat. Tell me that’d make me feel better. So that’s what I did. I ate. That was my comfort. That’s how I blocked out the negative thoughts. It was almost like I’d enter a trance, a hypnosis, and I’d hardly even remember eating an entire box of maple bars, or a family-size supreme, or, when I got older, drinking a whole case of beer, all in one sitting.
Anyway, being fifty and single, not seeing any discernible light at the end of the tunnel, it all made me wonder if I was beating a dead horse. If I should just enjoy life, eat what I wanted, drink what I wanted, and die in a diabetic blaze of glory.
I took another bite of eggs and set down my fork, leaving half the food on my plate. That was a sin in our house growing up. There were starving children in China, after all.
I downed the rest of my coffee that had gone lukewarm, tucked some money—with a generous tip—under my plate, and shuffled out into a sunny, hoarfrost-bitten, twenty-degree morning.
I finished my final drop-and-hook at the warehouse in Portland late that afternoon. Now I was headed east, getting out of the city as fast as I could, craving the traffic that grew sparser the further I backtracked along the Gorge. It was a quarter ‘til five; already dark. I had to be off the road by about six, which marked my eleven hours. Then it was a mandatory ten-hour break.
I passed the sign for Multnomah Falls. I had just enough time to make it back to the desert, to a little truck stop at Biggs Junction. I’d stop there for the night to catch a few winks.
The dark of night, the blackness of the pines along the interstate, and the fog continuing to come off the river, combined with everyone’s headlights, created a shine on the road, as if there was a layer of laminate glass atop the pavement. I kept two hands on the wheel, turned off the radio, and kept my eyes peeled, listening to the hum of my tires.
I pulled into the truck stop, tipped the attendant who refueled my truck, then found a semi spot close to the convenience store. I broke out my log book and wrote down 5:54 PM. That meant I’d have my truck warmed-up and ready to get all eighteen wheels moving by 3:54am tomorrow morning.
I took a deep breath, set my log book down, and looked across the dark asphalt expanse. There was an SUV parked in front of the convenience store, and just two other semis in the lot. Both were dark, curtains drawn, the drivers likely snoozing in their sleepers, timing it to have a midnight start when traffic was light, hoping they didn’t wake up to snow or too much black ice, hoping not to have to fuck with chains or get stuck on a closed freeway.
As I pushed the door open I noticed a family emerge from the convenience store. A mother, father, three kids. One of them said something, the others laughed. They each carried snacks in their arms and piled into the SUV. I felt a pang in my side, and I realized, recognized, how alone I was in that parking lot. It’d been two years since the divorce, and I hadn’t done much since then but work, work, and work.
I glanced at the door of my truck, my name on the side of it: Paul Doyle Trucking, Post Falls, ID. I had a mini-fridge in the cab, stocked with the fixings for a chicken and romaine salad. My lip curled at the thought of eating a cold salad on such a cold night, washing it down with water. Like I could get from a cold salad the same feeling I did from a warm platter of chicken carbonara, or a 16-ounce ribeye with piping-hot au jus, or a steaming tuna casserole that left me leaned back in my chair. Nurtured. Loved.
I looked away from the truck and puffed out a great exhale, producing a cloud of breath that floated up into the darkness.
“Fuck it.” I took off toward the convenience store. What was one cheat night? I’d be off work by tomorrow afternoon, I’d pick up my prescription, and I’d get back on the wagon. I’d get my fill tonight, get it all out of my system. Then I’d feel better.
Once inside I headed straight to the beer, snatched an 18-pack of Rainier. Grabbed a big bag of jalapeño chips. I stood in front of the nacho machine for a moment, staring at a photo of tortilla chips drenched in a slop of liquid cheese. No, nachos wouldn’t do. I made my way to the food warmers at the front, staring at sausages and hot dogs glistening with grease, crispy burritos, hot pockets, taquitos. Greasy piles of chicken gizzards and JoJos. A nervous excitement gathered in my chest. The same thrill I’d get as a kid when I’d get away with something I wasn’t allowed to do.
A pale, rail-thin, middle-aged guy walked up on the other side of the food warmer. His eyes were bloodshot, like he’d just smoked a joint on his break. “Want something?”
Out of nowhere, a sneering voice that made my stomach turn rattled through my mind. Quit being so goddamn weak. Go make yourself a fucking salad.
But then the voice was gone. Poof. Another part of me spoke up, accompanied by a cool sensation in my jaw that made me clench my teeth. Those taquitos look good. Get some of those. I could already taste the salt and seasoning and fake meat-paste they were filled with. Saliva collected under my tongue.
“I’ll have two boats of those taquitos, some JoJos, a beef and bean burrito.” I paused, ducking down to look at the bottom shelf. “And three corndogs.”
I watched the guy, waiting for his eyebrows to raise, for some sign of judgment at the amount of food I’d ordered. I was ready to lie and tell him I was sharing it with another person. But his reaction was even. Nothing. Without a word he began pulling the food out of the warmer, depositing it in wax-paper bags.
I breathed a sigh of relief. The man was a professional.
“Yeah, ketchup and hot sauce.” That voice, the mean one, began to make some comment about how all this shit was going to collide in my stomach and turn my ulcer into an inferno. But then, again, that voice vanished as I glanced behind the man ringing up my order, taking in the dazzling kaleidoscope of tobacco products on the wall. Those sound good. “I’ll take a pack of King Mountains, too.” They were the cheapest cigarettes on the shelf.
After paying I set off across the parking lot and climbed into my truck. I busted open the box of Rainier and guzzled the first one down in one continuous drink, letting out a gasping breath, and a burp, once I finished. I tossed the can behind me and opened another, smoked a cigarette with my window down, and dug into the JoJos and taquitos.
“I need some music,” I mumbled and shuffled my “On the Road” playlist. “Willin’” by Little Feat was the first to come on, filling my chest with a warm feeling of love. I nodded my head to the beat, humming along to stories of being pummeled by bad weather and smuggling folks and smokes out of Mexico. I continued to drink and eat, all the while trying not to catch my own reflection in the rearview mirror.
Over the next couple hours I finished all the hot food I’d bought, and had since continued to sip beer and munch on chips. So far, my stomach felt alright. No cramps, no shooting pains, no grumbling fire in my midsection. My eyes were closed most the time, just listening to the music and filling my mouth with food or drink or smoke, nodding to the beat of songs that ranged from Charley Pride to Billy Strings; from Nirvana to Townes Van Zandt. When “White Freightliner Blues” came on I listened to it two or three times. Maybe four. The beers had begun to get the better of me. Before I knew it half the 18-pack was gone, the empties crunched and scattered on the floor.
It was approaching 9 PM when the first car I’d seen in well over an hour pulled into the desolate truck stop. It was a shitty-looking, ‘90’s model Saturn with tinted windows. A woman got out, and no sooner than her feet hit pavement did the car take off.
The woman yelled something toward the car and flipped it off, then adjusted the purse on her shoulder and walked off toward the nearest truck to me. She dug through her purse, producing a cigarette and a lighter.
Lot lizard. You’re on the road long enough you can spot them from a mile away. It was probably her boyfriend who’d dropped her off, hoping she’d find some lonely trucker here. She looked to be maybe an inch or two over five-foot, with a heavy black ski jacket. She wore tight black leggings and heeled winter boots with a furry ring around the ankle. Her right hand held the cigarette and her left hand was stuffed in her pocket, shoulders drawn to her ears, bracing against the cold.
Her eyes settled on my truck. I wasn’t sure if she could see me in the dark, but a smile formed on her lips, and she waved at me with the hand holding the cigarette, just a flick of her pinky and ring finger.
In no rush, she dropped the cigarette, squashed it with her toe, then sashayed over to my truck, her stride easy and confident. She climbed up my running board, grabbing the mirror to steady herself, and gave three slow taps on the window with a long fingernail, the red nail polish mostly chipped away. She looked to be around thirty, hard to say for sure. She was pretty, dirty blonde hair done up in a bun. Her teeth looked healthy, too, so she either didn’t do meth or hadn’t done enough of it to fuck them up yet.
I rolled my window down.
“Evening.” She propped one hand on the window and kept what I could tell was a firm grip on the mirror, her knuckles an even lighter shade of white than the rest of her pale skin. I could smell on her breath the cigarette she’d just smoked.
“You look cold,” I said.
She gave a false shiver on top of the real shiver her body couldn’t hide. “I am cold, baby. Mind if I come in and warm up?”
After well over twenty years on the road I’d never taken a prostitute up on an offer. Not once. Even living in Post Falls, where the infamous state-line brothels once thrived, I’d never done it. There’d been times I’d wanted to. Times when the loneliness set in so deep, so acute, that I thought I might disappear altogether, become part of the driver’s seat I sat in, my flesh turning to whatever material the seat was made of.
I reached down and hit the unlock button. She smiled and descended the steps, walked around the front of the truck and climbed in the other side, the cab now filling with that stale cigarette smell that, when it’s cold, seems to cling to a person’s clothes in a way it doesn’t when it’s warm. I rolled my window back up. She took off her coat, revealing a black camisole.
I saw her glance at the empty beer cans behind my seat.
“Got any more?” she asked.
I nodded and fished a can out of the box behind the passenger seat. I started to open it for her.
“No.” She held up her hand, motioning for me to give it to her before breaking the seal. I obliged. She smiled and cracked it open, took a long, thirsty drink.
I felt old, ugly sitting next to her. She seemed to get prettier the longer I stared. She didn’t seem to notice me staring, her eyes on the can of beer. Eventually, finally, she glanced over, acknowledged the attention I was paying her. She didn’t say anything, just met my gaze.
I was nervous. I knew what was happening. I knew what she did, and I knew what I was to her. More importantly, I knew what she was to me, and for that, I was ashamed. That voice cut through, the one in the store that had told me to leave and have a salad. What would your parents think? But then it was gone, vanishing as quickly as it had arrived, replaced by a pressure gathering below my beltline, put there by the other voice.
I looked at her chest. My gaze remained there for far longer, eons longer than I would ever let it remain on someone in a bar or restaurant. Not a passing glance, but a gaze, a slack-eyed gaze.
“Well?” She said.
“Do you like what you see?”
“Yes.” My voice sounded quiet and small.
She took a drink of beer. Stared. Waiting.
Other than the Soundgarden song quietly coming from the speakers, the truck fell silent. Finally, she rolled her eyes, held up a fist, pointed at it with the other hand. “Hundred.” Pointed at her mouth. “One-fifty.” Pointed between her legs. “Two-fifty.”
I allowed my eyes to scan her body again. I pictured my pale, round, hulking figure over top of her. I nearly grimaced at the thought. Finally, I reached up and tapped my mouth.
She offered me another smile, this one not quite so friendly.
“Payment up front.” Her tone changed. All business.
I nodded and retrieved my wallet, handed her the money. We went back to the sleeper. She sat me down on the edge of the bed, told me to lie back. So I did, propping myself on my elbows. She undid my pants, pulled everything down to my ankles, and I closed my eyes. Then, like a flash, I saw an image of myself behind the darkness of my eyelids, a young version of myself, sitting on a hill outside my high school, drinking Diet Coke. Then it was gone. I blinked my eyes shut tighter, driving the random, intrusive image from my head. Eventually, I opened them again. All I saw was this young woman’s messy bun bobbing up and down.
She stopped and looked up at me. “Problem?” She glanced down at it.
“Sorry.” I shook my head. “I’ve drank quite a bit.”
She said nothing, resumed.
I stopped watching her and stared at the ceiling. I closed my eyes, tried to enjoy what was happening. Tried to forget where I was, and that I’d just solicited a down-on-her-luck hooker who’d likely be going home to an abusive boyfriend who’d take most of the money I’d given her. A woman who was not only operating outside the bounds of the law, but also working in a profession that most folks deemed immoral. She was an outlaw, a true outlaw, just as much of an outlaw as any biker or gangster or modern-day cowboy.
“I’m sorry,” I said, sitting up. “You can stop. It’s not going to happen.”
She sat back on her hips, giving me a look I couldn’t get a read on. Not exactly relief, but certainly not disappointment. Indifference, maybe. “Alright.” She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Hope you don’t want your money back, because—”
“No, of course not.” I waved a hand through the air then shimmied my pants back up. Then I reached into my pocket, handed her another couple twenties as a tip.
“Thanks.” She took the money, then crawled back into the passenger’s seat.
I buckled my belt and climbed into the front seat. “You can hang out in here where it’s warm until your ride gets back.”
She laughed, then pulled her coat on, zipping it up to her chin. She retrieved her phone, texted someone. “I’m not waiting on a ride. My car is right over there.” Without looking up she motioned toward a small lot behind the convenience store. “Was just going to finish this beer before I left, if that’s alright.” She took a sip, set it back in the cup holder.
“Oh, yeah,” I said, then frowned. “Who dropped you off earlier?”
“A john.” She shook her head, eyes still on her phone. “Prick. Didn’t even tip me.”
I nodded. “So is this place, like, your spot? You just hang out around here looking for business?”
“I’d have to be pretty stupid to hang out at the same bumfuck truck stop all the time.” She laughed. “I’m a nomad. Always on the move. Just do this shit on the side for gas money.”
A car passed by. It said “Sherman County Sheriff” along the side. She leaned forward, completely still, watching it pass. Once it was gone she relaxed, returning to her phone.
“I’m a photographer.” She glanced at me. “That’s my real job. My passion, or whatever.” She held her phone up, shuffling through an Instagram page. I saw Palouse Falls in Washington, the painted hills in Oregon, Craters of the Moon in Idaho, the California redwoods.
“Wow,” I said. The photos were stunning. “Beautiful. So you just live on the road?”
“Most the time,” she said. “My aunt lives in Bozeman, has an extra bedroom. I stay with her a few weeks at a time, then I’ll be on the road a few weeks at a time. I just take pictures and sell what I can to magazines. I don’t have enough Instagram followers yet to monetize it, and I’m still figuring TikTok out. Not gonna fuck around on Onlyfans. Too public. But I’m hoping I can afford to stop doing this shit within the next year or two.” She glanced at me. “No offense.”
“None taken,” I said. “A young woman like you shouldn’t be in this line of work, anyway. Dangerous.”
She let out something between a scoff and a laugh and shook her head, stared at me for a moment, then reached into her purse and produced a pistol. “I can take care of myself.” She winked, then stuffed the gun back in the bag.
I smiled and nodded.
“Well,” she said. “I’m out of here. Sorry I couldn’t help ya get off, but thanks for the tip.” She tilted up her beer, crunching the can after she finished it, and tossed it back with the other empties. She let out a burp, then held her phone in the air, the screen black, and said, “You should follow me on IG. More followers I get the better.”
“I don’t have Instagram,” I said. “Just Facebook.”
She laughed in that way young people do, as if I’d missed some joke. She began to open her door.
“Hey,” I said. “Can I ask you a question?”
She glanced back, the door half-open, a foot on the running board, and said nothing. Winter air flooded the cabin.
“How old are you?”
She frowned a little. “Twenty-eight.”
“Just curious.” I nodded, feeling a pressure building in my throat, acid rising, accompanied by a pang of guilt. The guilt of having originally seen her as nothing more than a sex object, a commodity. The idea that she had an aunt in Bozeman who cared about her, that she was a photographer, that she was passionate about something, that she was running her own independent business—just like me—had never even crossed my mind. I’d just seen her as another woman abused by, and dependent on someone. A victim. A victim that, moments ago, I’d decided could fill my own emptiness for a moment or two. “Sorry about all this.”
I paused, unsure of how to explain. “I don’t know.”
She stared at me. Her gaze lingered, longer still, meeting mine, which began to waver, my eyes darting out the windshield to look at nothing, just hoping that when I returned she’d no longer be watching me. I felt an itch on the back of my neck, an urgent itch, the kind where you jerk your hand up and slap your skin to get it to stop. When I brought my gaze back she was still staring, unblinking, the smallest hint of a smile on her lips. A wry smile that seemed to grow wryer the longer I looked at her.
“Stay safe out there.” She climbed down the steps, and before slamming the door shut, said, “Get some sleep, man. Roads’ll be icy tomorrow.”
I cracked my window and lit a cigarette once she was gone. My hands were shaking. Acid continued to rise in my throat, and my stomach was cramping. After finishing the smoke I checked the beer box. Five left. I stared at them, grimacing at the growing pain in my stomach. It had started dull, but was coming on sharper. Go to sleep, Paul. I took a deep breath and nodded, stowed the box behind my seat, then fished a bottle of antacid out of the jockey box. I popped four of them and chewed, a chalky film coating the inside of my mouth. I took a drink of water, then took off my boots and crawled back into the sleeper.
As I laid on my side under a weighted blanket—my world spinning from the nicotine and the beer, and a vicious heat that felt like lava bubbling in my throat—all I could see was that look she’d given me. A look I didn’t understand, couldn’t figure out. A look that seemed to implicate me in something, something larger than just our encounter tonight.
I cradled my stomach—which continued to ache—and clenched my eyes shut, wanting nothing more than for my brain to turn off for the night, for my mind to drift into that unconscious chasm called sleep. But I knew sleep wouldn’t come, because other than the pain in my stomach and throat, all I could feel was shame. Shame that seemed to be living and breathing, seething with hatred. Hatred that had been there for years, decades, my whole life, pointed inward. Like a gun whose barrel curls back, a narrow tunnel of oily blackness aimed in the eyes of the shooter. That hatred created a great pressure, a pressure in my chest, in my gut, in the hot acid that collected in my throat, in the very blood that flowed through my veins.
For the first time in years, I began to cry.