18 wheels of silver graphic alex manley

“My nerves aren’t all there right now,” says Sarah, shaking as we walk outside of our highway motel.

“Down the worn white stairs, onto the gravel and to the side of the road. Desolate and bare, everywhere, is what it looks like on the side of highway two. The stone, straight Alberta road seems to stretch to an eternity.

“I’m getting sick of this view,” she says. “I’m getting sick of just seeing sky.”

It’s funny, I came here to be free and now I’m running away from a ghost that seems to catch up to me everywhere I run.

Sarah struggles with the lighter and drops it onto black pebbles that make up the parking lot. I pick it up, ignite the fire, hold the flame steady as she lights her cigarette. She inhales, exhales, but her frail body’s still shaking. The cigarette’s not working.

“How are you so calm right now, Chuck?”
I don’t answer. What am I supposed to say to her? Yeah, I’ve done this before. You’re in good hands, doll. I’m not gonna lie to her. I may be a bunch of things but I’m not a liar. She was in any hands but good hands. My hands, I can still see the blood on them. These hands, they ain’t good hands. They haven’t done any good in a while.

I can see her every thought by the way she scans the highway. Her eyes fatigued, but alert. She’s on her toes and shaking like her little body’s bare naked in the breath of winter.

The intense winds of exhaust from 18-wheelers buzzing through the dawn are blowing in our faces. The sun rises and reflects onto a wheat field that ebbs and flows in front of us like it was a sea instead of a drought. The sky is a vivid purple and auburn, mixing, meshing into different hues, randomly, freely and then inevitably a permanent patch of blue; nature’s clockwork.

“They should be here soon,” I tell Sarah. “They come by here all the time.”

She nods, she looks at me and it happens. Her big blue eyes tear up. I usher her to the steps leading up to the second floor of the motel, and we sit together. I don’t know if it was the owner’s intention, but under the psychedelic sky the motel glows like a Greek villa during the birth or death of day. I hold her body and press her against my chest. She feels so small, like a porcelain doll.

“Is everything going to be ok, Chuck?” asks Sarah.
“All I can say is we’re better off.”
“Are we going to be ok?”
I don’t answer. I don’t wanna lie.

“Strangers in the Night” plays quietly from a distance. The motel clerk has a DVD on. I can’t figure out what he’s watching, but that song is looping over and over.

Ever since that night, we’ve been together. Lovers at first sight, in love forever. It turned out so right for strangers in the night.

A Ford F-350 skids into the gravel parking lot without much thought. It skids abruptly and stops, spraying rocks at us. They bounce off my back, and Sarah screams.
A rambunctious looking man in the driver seat opens his door and hops out.

“Well I hope it wasn’t yer girl that was screamin’,” says the wiry, blonde boy who looks too small for his coveralls. “But if the maul-mouth was your lady, in that case I apologize.”

He runs to the road and waves his hands. Thirty seconds pass and a couple of 18-wheelers hauling 250 tons of rig trudge into the parking lot. The engines roar into the serene morning and sizzle in the heat. The sky’s completely blue by now. Our foreheads are sun-kissed. Sarah and I start to sweat.
The rambunctious man lights a dirty cigarette with his dirty hands. He’s taking hasty drags of his cigarette like he’s trying to suck all the nicotine in with one lungful. He coughs, loudly clears his throat, and then spits out the gob. He puts his hand to his nose and blows the snot out. He shakes his hand a little and wipes the rest of it off on his brown coveralls revealing glimpses of blue, which I presume is the colour they’re supposed to be. The truckers park and turn off their engines. I don’t see a crew, though.

“Maybe you should go ask him,” says Sarah.
I stand up. “Where’s your crew?”
“They all fucked off, got too drunk in the city and now I can’t find ‘em. Fuck ‘em, I can find other monkeys.”
“I can work. I know my way around a rig.”
“Yer lookin’ for work ‘round here? Usually it’s drunk chugs rollin’ ‘round here. Never seen a boy and girl like yourselves chancin’ it like that.”
“Rigs always come by here.”
“Yeah, but you only come here if you’re desperate,” says the man. “Into some kinda trouble? Anything I should know?”
“Well, I didn’t kill anyone, but the law’s treatin’ me like I did,” I tell him. “I was a jackass in my twenties, and I’ve collected a lot of debt. My lady and I, we need fast money and I ain’t gonna do any more shit to break the law.”

He eyes me down, studies me, coming to a conclusion. I look away and just stare at the blue sky, the sharp bristles of wheat and a silhouette of the Rocky Mountains. Albertans say that the big blue sky makes ‘em feel free, and that mountains just block the view. I could use a little security right now. I’d like some mountains around me.

I look back. He’s still eyeing me.

“I get it,” he says. “The man, he treats ya like ya gots blood on yer hands. Credit cards, they’re the modern-day machete fer guys like us, eh?”
“Guys like us?”
“Guys that got holes in their pockets.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“What’s yer name, son?”
“Chuck. You?”
“Curly,” he says. “Now I got an important question for ya. You know how to take off tire chains?”
“Well, welcome to the team,” Curly says. “You can start now. Meet me down here in a couple of hours.”

Curly walks up to the motel owner. He’s passed out. That loop of Frank Sinatra’s voice, soothing but ghostly, is still playing. Curly takes a couple of keys from the front desk, walks into his room below us and slams the door.

I start to take off the tire chains. It’s been a while since I did any physical labour. My hands blister quickly, as I try to take off the chain from around the tires. You just gotta grip the chain right with one hand, and pull the other part of the chain without letting the hook rip your finger off.

I don’t manage it. The hook rips my palm and it starts to bleed. By the time I get done, my hands are completely bloody. I wash up with a rag that Curly had in the back of the truck and some bottled water.

I look at Sarah. She’s not shaking anymore. There’s a glimmer of hope in her eyes. I walk over.
“That was easy,” I say.
“Didn’t look it,” she smiles, her eyes glistening in the sun. She takes my hand and brings me back down to sit on the steps.
I don’t respond.
“You know, I like you better when you’re playin’ in a band,” she says. “I think your hands are a better fit for the guitar than for tire chains, you poor thing.”
She kisses my hands and I feel a little flutter in my stomach. I can’t believe I’m gonna have to leave her soon, all alone on highway two.
“What are you going to do when I leave?”
“I’m going to run away until you or the taxman can’t find me,” she says. “I can’t really go home if the taxman took that too, can I?”
She laughs hysterically, and lets the laugh linger, the type of laugh you make when you’re so tired you feel like you’re delirious and dreaming. I don’t know if she’s joking.
“Do you think you can still be a good man if you did bad things?” I ask her.
“Who knows,” she says.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 06, published September 21, 2010.