We left the thrift store wearing every single thing we’d bought. They may have been new-old clothes, but it was beyond description how heavenly it was to be warm again.
Now we were seriously hungry. Good fortune was ours — there was a diner close by, so we trudged over, lugging our heavy back packs and the little bag holding our clothes from Hawaii.
We sat at the counter, wondering whether to stay the night in Las Vegas or not — we couldn’t afford a motel, so we’d have to find a park or somewhere we’d be safe from being robbed, beaten or arrested..
We got to talking with a guy sitting next to us, named Billy, who eventually said, “You guys need a ride outta town, right? I’m driving through to St. Louis, want to join me? I could use the company.”
How could we pass that up? He seemed like a nice enough guy, why not? So Billy took us over to his 18-wheeler, and we piled in — or I should say up! — to his cab, and off we went. T in the passenger seat, me next to him but kind of squeezed into the middle, over the gear shift. This would save our lives in the not-so-far future.
We drove and drove, and as night grew thicker and sporadic rain fell upon us, we turned north into Utah, heading for Salt Lake City. If we’d had access to his map, we’d have seen that he was avoiding Colorado and Denver. But we knew nothing. We kept on through the night. T and I were so spent that we dozed right off.
I awoke to the sky turning light, and a strange shaking feeling. I sat up, totally awake and alert, my inner alarm bells clanging my head off. What was that?
Maybe you know how some highways put ridges on the side of the road to alert you that you’ve gotten too close to the edge — that’s what it was! We were not only too close, but we were almost off the road! The cab was shaking like a Tahitian hula dancer!
I turned to see that Billy’s hands had fallen limp in his lap. His head was lolling back and forth like some adult-size doll.
I slapped him — hard. He woke up swinging, almost clobbering me.
“Wake up! What’s the matter with you! Why didn’t you pull off if you’re so tired? You’re going to get us all killed!” I was so mad I felt like spitting tacks.
He whined something about being on a deadline and having to keep going.
“Yeah, it will be a dead end of the line for sure, if you fall asleep!”
I could tell he wasn’t fully present. He was pale as a ghost, and his eyes fluttered like a hummingbird’s wings, trying to stay awake and open. He popped speed pill after speed pill, trying to conceal them from me, but I saw.
At last, he slumped over, his eyes finally quitting the struggle. I’m sure his heart must have been ready to blow out of his chest from all the pills. I pushed him back into the bucket of his seat and half-climbed onto his lap. I grabbed the steering wheel. I had to extend my leg in between his to reach the gas and clutch.
I was beyond terrified. I knew more about walking on the moon than I did about driving a 12-geared 18-wheeled semi.
T was out cold. It was just me on Billy’s lap, the truck, and the approaching dawn.
After the initial terror wore off, it was kind of fun, despite the completely awkward position of sitting half on Billy’s lap and straddling the center console. I discovered that I actually liked the feeling of having so much truck in my hands — two enormous trailers behind me! The wheel was bigger than I was, hard to keep hold of, but was actually easy to steer.
We were nearing a town, and I knew I couldn’t possibly do the winding down of the gears — I’d grind the gears mercilessly and stall the thing at 60 miles an hour, and we’d crash and burn in a huge conflagration.
Thankfully, I got Billy to wake up. He shoved me off his lap, and re-took the wheel.
I kept an eagle eye on him — even though I was exhausted from keeping watch, I knew if I fell asleep, we were done for. Even slowly going through the little town and after, I still had to keep slapping him and waking him up.
We finally reached Salt Lake City! I was so relieved I could have done a happy dance right there inside the cab. Billy skillfully maneuvered us into the last parking place at a truck stop, and T and I hastily climbed down and made tracks away from him as fast as we could.
We were sitting on the cold, hard curb, thanking goodness for still being alive and wondering what to do next, when yet another semi pulled up almost on top of us, and a huge grinning black man leaned out his window, and asked, “Want a ride? Next stop Des Moines!”
What the heck, why not? We got in, and off we went.
image: TERROR IN THE TRUCK
Also posted here: https://medium.com/@lyonlyon/billys-18-wheeler-b6950a5defeb