Steve had been trucking for eight years now. He started relatively late in life at 45 years of age. He was now 53 and relished every day of his life. He loved his life on the road. Every day brought new experiences and new country-side. He was seeing the USA as few people ever did. Life from the driver's seat of a big rig allowed Steve to see the real America. Yes he was able to stop and visit all the sites we've all heard about, from Venice Beach to Vegas to Wrigley Field to the Twin Tower memorial. Steve had taken time to see it all.
But what Steve really cherished about his job was seeing the parts of the city that travel brochures leave out. More importantly, Steve got to meet all the regular people who, like he, were working hard day in and day out to make a living. People working on loading docks to support their families. Truck-stop waitresses working two jobs and going to school to make a better life. Off duty state and local police being called out in the middle of the night during ice storms to work multi-vehicle accidents. In short Steve got to see normal people doing the everyday things it takes to keep our world running.
Over the years Steve had grown to honor and respect all people who worked hard every day to make a living regardless of their profession. Over the years, television has so glamorized the workplace to where many young people coming out of school expect to start out as CEO or, at the very least, VP. The reality is that 90% of Americans toil in a service industry or work at a shift production job to make it possible for all of us to have the quality of life that make living in these United States the envy of the rest of the world.
Steve had done it all. He had worked himself from the mailroom to a position in upper management with his first company. He likes to say he had worked himself up to his level of incompetence. He found, only in hindsight, that the higher he rose with-in the company the more he hated his job. His job had morphed from providing for his customers to serving his bosses. It was no longer a matter of providing a better product at a competitive price, but increasing profits.
Even so, if it hadn't been for The Accident, he would probably still be toiling away in blissful ignorance. Steve would still be getting up every morning going to a job that held increasingly less satisfaction because that is what he did.
The Accident Eight years ago the police arrived at Steve's office to give him the news. A drunk driver had weaved across the centerline hitting the car his wife and 15 year old son occupied. They were killed instantly.
In a daze, Steve stood to accompany the police to the morgue and collapsed. On the way down, he struck his head on the corner of his desk knocking himself unconscious. Hearing the commotion, Steve's secretary called 911 for an ambulance.
Steve woke two days later in the hospital to the new nightmare that was his life. Not only had he suffered a concussion in the fall, but now he was faced with the task of burying his family. Fortunately, Jack, Steve's brother dropped everything and flew 1500 miles to take charge. Jack made all the arrangements for the funerals. He contacted everyone who needed contacting and made sure that his brother got the best care available. Then he made sure that he was there for Steve, not allowing Steve the option of slipping into depression.
Slowly, after the first few weeks, Steve began to return to the land of the living. As he began to think for himself again, he realized that he would never be able to repay Jack for everything he had done for him and his family. Jack's simple reply was "that's what family is for."
Steve had been gone from his job for 4 weeks when he got a call from his boss. After giving perfunctory condolences, his boss came to the point. "Steve, when are you coming back to work? I realize you have experienced a tragedy, but we need you back at work or we may need to find a replacement."
"Mr. James, I have over 8 weeks of vacation plus comp time on the books. I have been with the company for 22 years now. Are you telling me that if I don't come back to work immediately, you will fire me?" replied Steve, starting to get upset with his boss.
"Yes Steve, unfortunately that's exactly what I am saying. We still have a business to run and you need to get back to work."
Steve, now thoroughly aroused, replied "Well Mr. James, why don't you consider this my exit interview and send my final check to my mailing address of record. I resign effective immediately!"
With that, Steve hung up the phone on his old boss and his old way of life.
Going forward 8years found Steve driving through Montana one fine summer day. The sky was the deep cobalt blue that is seemingly only found in the west's high desert. The temperature was hovering at 75 and, for a change, there was no wind. All in all, it was one of those perfect days that make up for all the miserable days.
Steve found himself thinking that this is the right time to be traveling through Montana. He remembered back to the previous winter when he spent 3 days in a truck stop because of a blizzard. Chuckling to himself he thought 'yes, this is definitely the right time of year to be in Montana.' Suddenly Steve saw a speck start to materialize in the distance. It was too small to be a car – definitely not a big rig. Whatever it was had caught Steve's attention because there was literately nothing around for 25 miles in any direction. This part of Montana was pastureland and in the high desert it took lots of land to support livestock. Consequentially, homes were few and far between and exits off the interstate were even fewer. There was simply no need to exit.
So when Steve saw this small something, something too small to be a vehicle appear, it got his attention. His first thought was that some livestock had gotten though the fencing and was on the roadway. This could be a problem because animals have a bad habit of dodging the wrong way when spotting traffic barreling down on them. Steve started to slow his rig down in preparation for dealing with whatever was up ahead. This was no problem as he was the only one on the road at this time.
Suddenly the speck resolved itself into a girl, well a young woman anyway. She was standing along the roadway with her thumb out hitchhiking. She had a forlorn look on her face and the only baggage she had was a worn backpack. All this Steve took in in an instant.
Now Steve normally did not even look at hitchhikers much less pick them up, but this was different. Something was wrong with the whole situation. What was this girl doing all alone along the side of this road? There was nothing, no broken down car, no houses in sight and the nearest exit was 25 miles in either direction. How did she get here and where was she going?
Making an instant decision, Steve pulled onto the shoulder and stopped. Even having slowed beforehand, even making a snap decision, Steve's rig didn't get stopped until he was 400 yards past the girl.
Steve climbed down from the cab of his truck and began to walk back to where the girl stood. The girl stood where she was and looked at the approaching man with equal parts hope and abject fear. Steve sensing her trepidation stopped his approach 50 feet from the young lady. The two studied each other for what seemed an eternity.
Steve saw a scared young woman of about 23 years old. She was thin but not skinny. Her hair was a light brown and was now a windblown mess. She had blue eyes and her clothes looked like she had been wearing, and sleeping, in them for a couple of days. She was cute without being what you might call beautiful. All in all, this girl looked totally out of place alongside this interstate, although while frightened she was certainly not cowed.
The girl saw a man of middle age who appeared to be reasonably fit. He had medium length brown hair going grey. He was around six feet tall and dressed for work with jeans, a tee-shirt and work boots. It was his eyes that drew her attention. In his eyes she saw only concern for this girl he had never seen before.
It was this look of concern that ultimately made up her mind. She took a step forward and said "Thank you for stopping, I've been standing here for over an hour and you're the first person to even slow down."
"Well, there's nothing around here, I couldn't just drive by. It wouldn't be right. You're on the west bound side of the road so I'm guessing you're going west. Can I give you a lift?"
The girl smiled for the first time – a smile that suited her, Steve noticed, and said "Oh yes, the sooner the better!" At this, she picked up her backpack and hurried to the truck.
Steve wondered at her sudden desire to be on the way but figured he would get an explanation at some point and if he didn't, well it really wasn't any of his business anyway.
They climbed into the cab and got underway. Steve noted that the girl, whose name he still didn't know, stayed as far from Steve as she could get, leaning against the passenger door. Additionally she seemed to shrink down when a vehicle would approach from the west. 'What the hell is going on' Steve thought.
"Well if we're going to share this truck for a while I guess introductions are in order. My name is Steve Roades, what shall I call you?"
"My name is Judy."
'Well that's a start.' thought Steve 'I wonder what her story is.'
"Where are you going?"
"We, I mean I was going to San Francisco, but anywhere west is ok with Me." replied Judy with a nervous look at her benefactor. She wondered how much she should share with Steve. She wondered if she could or should share her troubles with this man she just met minutes ago.
Steve for his part knew there was something going on here. The nervousness at approaching traffic, the gaff in mentioning another person and the vagueness of a destination all told Steve there was more, much more, going on here than met the eye.
'What have I gotten myself into this time?' Steve wondered. 'I hope it's nothing illegal.' However in glancing over at Judy, Steve was confident that if anything, Judy was a victim. Over the years Steve had developed the ability to read people. In his previous life reading people was imperative to successfully negotiating contracts. Steve had been very good at contract negotiations. In this case he would trust his instincts with this mystery woman.
After a while Steve noticed Judy nodding off.
"You don't look like you've slept in a while. Why don't you climb back into the sleeper and get some sleep. We aren't going to stop for a few hours and you can get a nap."
Judy glanced to the back and noticed the bed. It was true she hadn't had any sleep for quite some time and that bed looked inviting. Did she trust Steve enough to let her guard down enough fall asleep?
Steve read her mind and laughed "I'll be here in the driver's seat. You'll be safe."
Judy smiled sheepishly and agreed to go in back for a nap. Once her head hit the pillow it didn't take long for her to fall into a deep sleep.
Four hours and 250 miles down the road, Steve pulled into a truck stop. Judy awoke with the change of engine speed. She came forward rubbing her eyes and asked what was going on. Steve told her that it was time to take a break and get something to eat. Judy looked longingly toward the restaurant but said she wasn't hungry and would stay in the truck.
Steve realized Judy didn't have any money.
"Come on, I'm buying and I like company when I eat. Besides, being seen eating with a pretty girl will make me look good with the other drivers." Steve told her smiling.
"Oh yeah, you're really going to look good with a woman who hasn't changed or even had a shower in 3 days. My hair must be a mess and I know I look awful." Judy replied. Strangely as she talked her voice went from slightly teasing to depressed as if the reality of her situation was coming back to her conscious.
Steve didn't give her a chance to fall further into depression.
"You're right; before we eat you need a shower and a change of clothes. This truck stop has some clothes for sale. It's not Macy's but its good enough for traveling in a truck. I'm buying – no arguing, and after you shower and change then we'll eat. Got it?" Steve delivered this with a smile on his face, but his words brooked no argument.
Judy smiled and said "When you put it that way, I'd love to have dinner with you. Thank you for asking."
So the two developing friends walked into the truck stop bought some jeans shirts and underwear, showered (separately) and met up in the restaurant for dinner.
As they ate, Steve decided it was time to find out what was going on with Judy.
"Judy, I know there is something going on that left you alone and in the middle of nowhere. I like you, and I hope we are becoming good enough friends that you will consider confiding with me. I don't want to invade you privacy but at the same token if some of what is going on impacts me I want to know. In any event, if you'll let me, maybe I can help,"
For a couple of minutes Judy regarded Steve. She stopped eating and simply studied Steve's face. Finally she made her decision.
"Steve what I am about to tell you will probably sound crazy, but I swear it's all true. I'm telling you because you're right; now that you've helped me you're involved too."
Judy's Story I was born and raised in Appleton, WI. My father worked in the paper mills but he always said he wanted more for me. Mom and Dad scrimped and saved to provide me with a college fund and impressed upon me the importance of good grades. I guess I listened because I graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA.
My grades got me a full scholarship at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. That combined with my college fund made it possible for me to go to school and concentrate on classes rather than having to work part time like many of my friends. Because of this I was able graduate with honors in four years.
It was while I was in school that I met Ronnie. We met at a frat party in the fall of my junior year. He was two years older than me but we were taking a lot of the same classes. When I asked him about it he laughingly told me he was on the "six year plan". In hindsight I guess that should have given me warning. But, Ronnie was good looking in a bad boy/hippie kind of way and I guess I fell for his charm.
It turns out that Ronnie never put anymore into his classes than he had to. School had come easy to him when he was in high school and he figured that it would be more of the same in college. He had almost flunked out a couple of times during his first 2 years until he got into a fraternity. There he was able to use his older frat brothers to help him through his classes. I guess his frat brothers felt a need to help a brother as well as a need to keep up the fraternity's GPA.
Anyway, we graduated together and I was hired by a company in Oshkosh, WI. That's right; I was hired by Oshkosh B'Gosh!
Ronnie moved down to Oshkosh with me saying he would get a job in town and we could stay together. Six months later he still didn't have a job. He said he was looking but all I saw was him drinking and hanging out with his sleazy friends.
It was about then that my world started to collapse. My parents were killed in a house fire, a faulty furnace or something. I was devastated. They were the only family I had left, my grandparents having died years before. It was the worst experience of my life; having to bury the two people who had raised and nurtured me all my life. Everything I was, everything I had was because of my parents and now they were gone. I didn't even get to say goodbye.
I was in shock throughout the whole ordeal of burying my parents. I really didn't know what I was going to do next.
Ronnie was no help at all. In fact, he stayed in Oshkosh the whole time. It was when I returned that Ronnie first broached the idea of moving west. I was hesitant at first because I really liked my job and I was just starting to grow into it. But Ronnie was persistent. He kept telling me how great living on the west coast would be and how many more job opportunities there would be for him.
I finally agreed to move. I quit my job and we sold everything we couldn't pack in the car. I was scared to death, but there really wasn't anything holding me in Wisconsin, so that Saturday we left on, what I thought was to be, our great adventure.
The first indication that all wasn't what I thought it should be was when Ronnie suggested we pool our money and that he would hold it for us. I still trusted Ronnie, but came to realize that our "pool" money was really my money – Ronnie had no money of his own. Still, I thought 'we're together, what difference does it make who holds the money?' I was starting to have some doubts, but I still thought I was in love and that Ronnie was in love with me.
It was the next night that I found out the truth and what a bastard Ronnie really was. I was just coming out of the gas station restroom when I overheard Ronnie telling someone on his cell phone how as soon as we got to San Francisco, he was going to force me into prostitution to support him.
I started to scream at him and hit him with my bag. How could he? I was not under any conditions going to become a hooker – for him or anyone! He finally forced me into the car and got back on the road.
I continued to yell and scream at Ronnie as we sped down the interstate. Finally Ronnie pulled off to the shoulder and told me that if I didn't want to go to just get out.
I did and that's where you found me.
Now I'm afraid that Ronnie is going to come looking for me. Steve, I'm sorry if I have gotten you involved in this mess, but I didn't have anywhere else to turn. I'll understand if you just want to get away from me.
With that Judy sat back, partially in relief in finally being able to unload her burden, partly in fear that Steve would get up and abandon her.
Steve reached across the table and took her hand. Smiling to reassure her he said "Don't worry, I'm not abandoning you. I think, when you hear my story, you'll understand that our pasts are really quite similar. I understand more than you can know what it's like to lose your family and what it's like to have to start over. I couldn't do it alone, and I'll be dammed if you will have to either."
This last was said with some intensity as he remembered the unconditional support of his brother when he had needed it most.
Steve then proceeded to give Judy the short version of his own tragedy and of the do-over that life had given him.
It was as he was winding down his story that Steve saw Judy glance at the entry door, flinch and hide behind her menu.
"Ohmygod, it's him, he's here!" she whispered.
Steve turned around to see a skinny punk with long greasy blond hair tied in a ponytail. He went directly to the restroom.
"Don't worry, just trust me. I'll handle that creep, he won't bother you anymore. Do you trust me?"
Judy, wide eyed, just nodded.
"Ok, look out the window, do you see his car?"
"Yes it's the red Mustang parked behind that flatbed truck over there." Judy replied as she pointed out the car.
"Perfect! Absolutely perfect! Hey Zeke, you leaving soon?"
A mountain of a man turned from the counter and said "Just paying my bill now. Betts won't let me go for free."
Betty, the middle aged waitress called out "You got that right, you big freeloader."
The whole room broke into laughter at this.
"Come over here for a minute on your way out, will you?" Steve asked.
Zeke made his way over to their table and asked "What's up Steve? Got your daughter with you this trip?"