Mack’s eyes locked onto the sight in his mirror as his rig’s eighteen wheels rolled away from his boyhood home of Pampa, Texas. The do not pick up hitchhikers sign above where a man once stood now topped a bare metal post. The man was gone but the memories his image evoked seared into his soul like a branding iron.
He indulged in the perverse pleasure of wallowing in the memories until his stomach twisted into the same old knots he could never seem to untangle. The memories brought comfort to him in a strange kind of way—as in the way a man hangs onto a grudge because it feels familiar and is easier to hang onto than let go.
When the sign faded from sight Mack eased back onto his seat. He shook the memories off with humor, like he always did, driving them back into a forgotten graveyard in his mind.
Maybe that was the ghost of dear old Dad leaning against that post, he thought, though dear old Dad died long ago in the Huntsville state prison. He chuckled to himself and glanced at his watch before turning his thoughts to Chicago, where he would unload his first load in decades. Almost three full days to make it there. Guess I can take the scenic route.
But his peace of mind vanished like a vapor as he eyed the solitary figure of a man walking toward a midmorning Texas sun that brought the promise of another blistering day to the Panhandle Plains. Even with the man’s back to him, Mack recognized the hitchhiker as the same one he passed on the way to the slaughterhouse.
He steered his new Peterbilt onto the shoulder and watched in his mirror as the man jogged to his truck. The hitchhiker flung the passenger door open and tossed his bag onto the floor before plopping himself onto the seat and turning to face Mack.
“Where’re you headed, son?” Mack asked.
“Away from this God-forsaken place,” replied the hitchhiker.
Mack turned his eyes to the highway and floated through ten gears before casting those eyes toward his new passenger. “Good luck with that. Unless you have somewhere to go your mind will stay locked up in that prison back there as long as you live.”
The hitchhiker fixed his eyes on Mack and smiled. It was a one sided, tough guy kind of smile. “How’d you know I just got outta prison?”
“You may as well have it stamped on your forehead.” Mack glanced left and then right at his West Coast mirrors. He shrugged and attempted to suppress a grin but failed. “Besides, I saw you on my way to the slaughterhouse to load. You were leaning on a signpost beneath a ‘Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers’ sign just down the road from the Jordan Unit.”
The hitchhiker laughed. “I just set my bag down to rest. I never read the sign. A cop came along an’ told me if I didn’t wanna go back to the joint I better hightail it out of his territory.” He snatched up his bag and rested it on his lap for a long moment before tossing it onto the floor by the sleeper. “So why’d you pick me up?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Mack studied the hitchhiker’s eyes before focusing once again on the painted lines darting past his Pete. “Let’s just say you remind me of someone I once knew.”
He watched his speedometer needle rise until it reached the speed limit, set the cruise control, and placed an arm on the armrest. “I’m taking a load of swinging meat to Chicago. So buckle up. I haven’t driven a big rig in a month of Sundays. Should be an interesting ride.”
The hitchhiker settled onto his seat and folded his arms before cocking his head in Mack’s direction. “Swingin’ meat?”
“Yeah. Swinging meat.” Mack thrust a thumb over his shoulder. “Picture a bunch of cows hanging from their tails back there in the trailer. That’s about how unstable the load is. Actually it’s sides of beef hanging from hooks. Anytime I make a sudden move, you’ll feel those babies get to swinging around. And if I jerk the wheel too hard, we could end up with the truck shiny side down.”
“Shiny side down?”
“Yeah. You know, upside down, dirty side up. Whatever you want to call it. This rig could easily end up that way.” Mack scanned his mirrors before facing his passenger once more. “Like I said, it’s been awhile since I’ve driven one of these things, and I’ve forgotten some of the lingo.” He inclined his head toward the hitchhiker and grinned. “You may be dead when that happens, so I don’t think the terminology will really matter at that point.”
“It can’t be that dangerous.” The man turned to face the highway and laughed. “Listen, I just spent the last four years of my life thinkin’ I might get the shiny side of a shank to my jugular vein any day—just ‘cause maybe I hung around with the wrong people or somethin’.” He flopped his head around to face Mack and smiled his one-sided smile. “I ain’t scared of no swingin’ meat.”
“Whoa!” Mack yanked his steering wheel hard left, dodging a slow-moving combine before jerking the wheel back to the right and returning to his lane. The shifting carcasses in the trailer sent it reeling left before tilting back to the right as the rig swerved across both lanes.
After slamming on his brakes, he watched as his trailer skidded across the highway and slid around toward his Pete. Mack spun the wheel right and back to the left, but his trailer just loomed ever larger in his mirror.
Attempting to reign in the out-of-control rig Mack wrested his wheel back hard to the right, sending his truck careening off the highway. He veered off to the edge of the shoulder as his rig hit a soft spot. A chill shot up his spine upon hearing a whump when the carcasses shifted as the trailer leaned toward the embankment.
“Hang on!” Mack hit the brakes once more, easy this time. His truck continued rolling along the shoulder until the big rig’s wheels wound down and rolled to a stop. He gripped his steering wheel with arms locked forward and listened to his rig creak like an old rusted door as his trailer tilted inch by inch farther to the right.
“Whewww…” Easing air from his lungs as if too much at once might unbalance the rig and send it crashing over the side of the highway, Mack considered his options. His best option at this point seemed to be to abandon ship by hopping out of his truck. But after glancing at his passenger, he decided against it.
“Hey! You crazy, man?” the hitchhiker shouted as he fumbled around for the door handle. “I’m gettin’ outa here!”
His door flew open, sending him sliding out of the cab. He grasped for the grab handle and peeked over his shoulder at the jagged concrete and steel left by a highway construction crew. Clutching the handle with both hands now, he tightened his grip and glared at Mack.
“Okay.” Mack eased his hands away from the wheel before holding them up “Look, Ma” style. “Hopefully the truck won’t fall over on you when you get out.”
The hitchhiker punched a foot hard against the side panel and pushed himself onto his seat before releasing a hand from his grab handle. He leaned in toward Mack. “Okay. So what’re you gonna do?”
“Well, if we just sit here the truck will turn over for sure. And if we drive off, the rig still may flip over. But there’s a chance it won’t.” Mack positioned his hands onto the top of his steering wheel before sliding his moist palms into place and facing his passenger. “So I say we drive forward and pray.”
The hitchhiker clicked his seatbelt into place with his free hand. “I’m with you man,” he said before digging his fingers into his armrests. The man stared lock-jawed at the highway ahead. “Let’s do it.”