Shitcanned, just like that. After eons working nights (data entry) at the same Travel Center in the same Unincorporated Area, stealing glances out the plate glass at all those headlamps strung East-West along the freeway—real speed, real wheels.
Not a nickel in severance. Fuck it, I said to myself in the company restroom mirror, wiping flecks of panic-vomit from my jowls, and on my way out, swiped a cap from the company store, mesh in back, ten four up front, a real good look. Next morning, hit the bank first thing. Emptied my savings, took out a loan, put down my first payment on a red sleeper cab with chrome exhaust stacks and nudes on the mud flaps, a modern-day caravel to ply the Great Plains. Having boosted some contacts from the spreadsheets before my managers got around to deactivating my company account, I made a few calls and, before long, landed myself a sweet short-haul contract hauling one giant tube.
My own boss, rolling under my own momentum now, windows down, Albert Ayler cranked on the radio, barreling up the ramp to merge onto the interchange, and then, the open road!
Five lanes of traffic backed up far as the eye could see—not far in that bologna-color smog. Felt the engine idling in my gut, churning the gas station coffee. Exhaust fogging the cab. Windows back up.
Zero noncommercial traffic. Just semis passing semis, eighteen-wheelers hauling signs, coffee tankers, giant tubes like mine, high-explosives, signs, and semi cabs. Semis flashing their hazards from the shoulder, eighteen-wheelers jackknifed on pylons, smoldering in the tumbleweeds below. At a crawl, following signs to Signage to follow signs to continue to Signville. Exit now to Signville.
Sky blotted out by billboards along with the Great Plains of my nightshift daydreams. Logos peeling off of slogans and older logos off of even older slogans: God’s Truth. Cheap Sleep. Premium Chunk. Steel Beans. In Pain? God’s Pain. Historical Marker. Limited Time Offer. Weigh Point Ahead. Road Work Ahead. No Dumping. Fines doubled. All Trucks Use Right Lane. Nauseous? Travel Palace. Limited Food. Corn Gas. Congested Area. Stomach Gas? Dino Xing. Merge Now. Dump Here. It’s The Law. Fines Quadrupled. Left Lane Ends Road Narrows Bridge Ices Over. Use Left Lane To Exit Now To Follow Signs To Road Work When Not Flashing Wrong Way God’s Pain Exit Now Fog Area.
Dozed at off the wheel, slapping myself awake every half hour or so to close the gap between me and the semi up ahead. When I came to the exit indicated by my GPS, it took me through a backwater near-identical, far as I could tell anyhow, to that backwater in the Unincorporated Area where I had worked for, I probably said, eons. Even boasted the same buckshot-riddled Pop. 7532 sign on the outskirts, under a different name though (Significance), and the same Main St. with the same strip malls, the same five-six fast food chains, gas stations, tire franchises. So much for the GPS. So much for the spoke-hub distribution paradigm. My road atlas might as well’ve been a Mandelbrot set for all the sense I could make of it. I’d been driving in circles, no, inching in scribbles round an endless interchange, no exit to the interstate.
Back on the main haul, workers in hard hats and orange jumpsuits peeled dinos and mammoths, giraffes and giant sloths—roadkilled flat—off the asphalt, now and then making way for a lumbering tumbleweed golem. Further on, workers up in cranes plastered the sun-dried hides onto billboards to serve as backdrops for tires ads, corn chip ads, gas station ads, signage ads, travel center ads—you get the picture.
I tossed the GPS out the window and followed one of those eighteen-wheelers hauling a tube giant as mine, linking up with others along the route until, gradually, the trucks hauling whatever else thinned out and we formed a caravan of tube-haulers, bunched up as if for safety on the tangle of ramps, all inching forward to the next Cheap Sleep or Travel Palace, wherever that might be—pushing West toward the severed cone of a volcano on the far horizon.
The trucks swung in a lazy arc toward the tunnel opening into the butte of billboards that replaced the horizon and, one after another, slid into a blackness ropey as molasses. There was no reversing, I too was swallowed up. Hours deep, truck traffic oozed to absolute standstill, as if the tunnel were still being drilled, or ended in a cul de sac. Lit by our headlamps, signage yawned across the sweating walls, images elbowed out by words, words by wingdings and numerals. Trucks now packed so close our tubes would just about connect, you could imagine pumping water, gas, or hazardous waste straight on through, out the tunnel. Then my AC cut out. Air steeped in the monoxide billowing from exhaust pipes on truck after truck, ahead and behind, mile after mile. My eyebrows sweating bullets, itchy greasy bullets, I tugged at my ten four hat, but the thing was epoxied on, like I’d played a practical joke on myself. This business, I made up my mind, was rigged from the start.
Exit Now, I thought, exit now.
With that, my truck collapsed like carboard under a box-cutter, tube flat as the core of a TP roll in a trash compactor, as I slipped through a gap between two numerals, out—out to a thicket of hollering sax and caterwauling violin, the canopy draped with giant sloths making “honk the horn” gestures in my direction.
William Repass lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His poetry has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Word For / Word, Denver Quarterly, Hotel Amerika, Threadcount, and elsewhere. His critical writing can be found at Full Stop, Colorado Review, and Slant Magazine.