Thursday, 5 November 2015

Most Wanted


The Mexican girl at the west Texas rest stop faced New Mexico as if New Mexico was all of tomorrow’s problems stretching before her in rust and fire. She was en route to nowhere, standing by the vending
machines, her beat-to-hell Tercel parked where the state troopers would not see her expired plates. My Peterbuilt rig idled in the painted light. We were on the westbound side of I–40, close to the ghost town of Glenrio. Texas was where the night’s long-haulers would roll in from. She was short and round-cheeked, hair tied up in a bouquet of auburn corkscrews, eye shadow lavender. In her line of work, it was early. In mine, the middle of a long day.
Her youth was bent from a scarcity of comfort. Or maybe that’s what I projected. I had this bad habit of seeing the girls working the truck stops as victims, especially the young ones. But I knew that if you let your guard down, you’d be left pondering how it all went wrong so fast. She tracked me the whole time without meeting my eyes. She had watched me step down from my cab and walk up with the missing flyer in my hand.
“Mira, por favor.” I held up Sarah’s picture. “Conoces? Mira aqui.” “No,” she said with a scant glance.
I stapled the paper four cornered to the inside of the lean-to sheltering the vending machines.
“Maybe you rest?”
She lifted her eyes the direction of my rig.
“No rest,” I said.
I walked back to the rig and looked up the grade to where the girl was little more than another signpost along the road. I refrained from lecturing them, but I thought a few good thoughts for her, for at least
enough mercy to keep her leg from turning up in a coyote’s mouth one morning. I couldn’t remember if her toenails were painted, or if she had any visible tattoos. Those things were important, as they would connect her to this world again if my well-wishing didn’t hold. I was out of flyers. Five hundred down, another five hundred to be printed. In my cab I emailed a new master copy to an Office Depot in Albuquerque, where a stranger would prepare Sarah again for me.
She was always ahead of me and behind me and yet nowhere. From this rest stop and a hundred others, two pairs of Sarah’s eyes, fourteen and eighteen, gazed unblinking onto the rivers of interstate
traffic and the insides of doorless bathrooms.
She rode along with the sympathetic long-haulers and territorial state cops, lay taped down to convenience store counters between the herbal methamphetamines and headache powders. She crumpled
under the backseats of family SUVs, tucked politely away on others’ vacations, then promptly forgotten, mashed with the clay, candy, and dog-shit shoe soles of other people’s children. The ink and toner of Sarah as she was and Sarah as she might be ran in the sleet, baked in the sun, and withered in the rain.    When the staples holding her fast gave up, she stared into the empty sky from littered ditches, among the cellophane discards and chucked lug nuts. I replicated and distributed, shared and asked, scanned her
and posted her, and as always, in the end, it was the same. I left her behind.
One of the lucky breaks amid the compound fractures of my divorce from Miranda was the fact that we sold the house at the height of the real estate boom. We were gifted in our quitting. We sold,
divided, and quickly relinquished the painful sight of one another. In less than a year, everything else collapsed. I went through trucking school just as the safest real estate you could own was portable.
My rig was the only six-figure loan I carried. I went from a priest in the church of home and hearth to a full-time nomad on eighteen wheels in under a year. If Sarah swam out willingly, or against her
will on the back of one of these big alligators, I would swim with them, too.
I made the Office Depot in Albuquerque a half hour before close. I locked the rig with its engine idling and trotted across the soft blacktop to work the stiffness out of my legs. I was forty-two and beginning to feel it. It was easier to freeze up as I got older. I tried to keep off the weight I’d lost. I ate a lot of canned tuna and did pushups in parking lots and playgrounds.
A few kids slouched on ruined Hondas. I counted three guys and two girls. I never stopped looking at boys of that age without imagining what I’d have thought if Sarah had brought them home.
Maybe I stuck on it because I last saw her on the cusp of full-blown high school adolescence and never had to get acclimated to the boys coming to the house, never had to divine their true natures beneath
junior varsity jackets and drugstore, body spray deodorants. It was much the same way when I went to truck-driving school. Scrawny redneck kids without the granddaddy that owned a fernery, poorer than the migrant workers because they didn’t even have family, buying a case of Budweiser and shoplifting a jar of peanut butter every week to stay alive. I knew those kids personally after so many weeks in the driving classes, and I still couldn’t keep from looking at their axle grease nails and thinking If Sarah had brought
one home, I would have choked him at the door.
                     I smelled sage and lavender on the desert wind before disappearing into the shrink-wrapped air of the Office Depot. The clerk behind the print counter wouldn’t even have been a contender. He was a smeary white stoner with dyed blond hair and tribal tattoos, the sort who went vegan in the desert and filled up on drum circle, his vacant head drifting with tumbleweed stories of an older cousin who went
to Burning Man.
“Picking up. Name’s Robbie.”
He scanned the shelves below the counter.
“Flyers?” he asked. His eyes flicked over my face. Having done this in a dozen copy centers across as many states, I developed a story to cover for the fact that the girl on the flyer was my stepdaughter.
“Part of the program,” I said. “Truckers for the Lost? Ever heard of it?”
“Nah,” he said. He scanned a bar code taped down to the counter and entered in the number of flyers.
“It’s a good organization. They send the flyer, I post it along the way. Back and forth,” I waved my hand in the air. His eyes tried to track it. He was anxious to close, high already.
“Mind if I post one near the door? That okay with your manager?”
“I am the night manager. Go wild.”
I peeled a fresh color copy of my Sarahs from the cardboard box and rubber-banded the box closed again. The kid looked at her and made a show of scratching the black soul patch under his lip, a kind of burner’s bad acting for careful consideration.
“You ever find one like her?” he asked.
“What do you mean, ‘one like her’?”
“A runaway.”
“I never said she was a runaway.”
Maybe he put it together, maybe not. I didn’t think Sarah looked at all like me.

“Well, yeah, I guess she coulda been kidnapped. But she looks like a runner.”
“What makes you say that?” I looked at the young version of her for something I’d missed over years, but it was the same photo, a yearbook shot with the false blue sky-and-cloud background.
“Takes one to know one, maybe? I was a runner. She’s almost jumping out of that picture. Like she was thinking about it when they took it.”
Outside, the night was not any cooler, but had come alive with a wind. I held the box of flyers under my arm. One of the boys I’d counted on my way in was looking at my rig. He had his back turned to me. They looked like high school dropouts. I scanned their hands for spray paint cans, in case they planned on tagging my trailer. The two girls and two remaining boys idled near their cars, a few bottles poorly hidden in white McDonald’s bags by the tires.
“Evening,” I said outside of the kid’s striking distance. It was a well-lit lot. Not empty, but you could never tell.
I expected him to return to his friends, but he stood unperturbed by my presence, hanging around as though he’d been waiting for the guided tour to start. I unlocked the cab and stepped up. The kid craned his neck to see inside. He was wearing a no-known-color hoodie, hands stuffed in the kangaroo pocket. His jeans slouched far below his waist. His mouth was open enough for me to see the drunken clutch of teeth forming his overbite.
“You can sleep in there, right?” he asked.
“Yep.”
“I knew it,” he said, like he’d nailed a game show question. “Hella tight.”
“Mind taking a look at something for me?” I asked him. I wanted to see his hands.
“You one of those Jesus freaks? Highway holy roller?”
I unbanded the box, pulled out a flyer at arm’s length, and put the box on the stairs of the cab. He looked back to the car where his friends watched with the girls. He leaned forward to look at Sarah.
“Here, take it.” He took it and bit the quick of one thumbnail.
“Hey, Tanya!” he shouted over to the cars.
“What?”
“Come here!”
“A.J., leave that guy alone.”
“Get your skank ass over here.”
“Best watch how you talk to me,” she shot back. “I’m not your bitch.”
She sulked over with her bagged bottle. She was the youngest in the group, on fire to burn the brightest, the one with the most fear of being left out. She was short, a little splay-footed and skinny-hipped, built like a Little League t-ball player with tits. Out-flourished orange blond hair in a midlength Japanese helmet, two different drugstore hues. She’d taken on the boys’ mouth to cover up the fact she was
about fifteen and wearing tough around like it was the one nice pair of jeans she owned.
“You seen this girl?” he asked her. She drank from the bottle openly.
“No.”
One of the boys, his black hair parted in the center and smoothed to his knobby head, loped over to where we stood. They were all by the rig now, including the third boy, a stumpy, muscled, pimply kid who looked like he had a religious devotion to steroids and Big Macs. The girl with him looked Navajo. She had an unlit cigarette between her fingers. She stood behind him and picked at the filter with her nail. The muscle kid stepped up, and by the way he parted them, I could tell he was their alpha dog. He had a moon face, a shiny black ponytail, and a dust-brush mustache as fine as baby’s hair. His biceps must have seventeen inches around.
“All you truckers like crystal, yeah?”
The kids seemed to draw together then, an unspoken change in the flock, a less significant me standing before a unified them. The first one, A.J., turned his back to me and put his hand on the musclehead’s
shoulder. “This dude ain’t no tweaker, Ali.”
“They all tweakers. Wheels ain’t turning, he ain’t earning.” He folded his hands in front of his waist. “What do you say, Dad?”
No one ever called me Dad. Not even Sarah.
“You ought to be more careful,” I said.
“Why’s that? You a cop?”
“I’m not a cop.”
“Don’t matter. I didn’t make you no offer. Just asking if you got a substance abuse problem.”
“You’re a drug counselor, then.”
“That’s right. You gonna hate on that, I show you how I handle my business.” He lifted the edge of his shirt, revealing an inch of pistol stock and gothic lettering above his elastic waistband. The Navajo
girl moved in closer to the Ali kid and draped her arms around his shoulders. She was a little taller than he was, no longer a young girl but not the ground-out woman she would become. Her beauty was cutting her to pieces and she couldn’t feel a thing.
“How much?” I asked.
“How far you wanna go? Forty get you through tonight. Sixty, you have a little extra just in case.”
I took out my wallet. Ali slit his eyes at A.J. and fired a shaming laugh. “What I tell you. You gotta listen to me, homes. They all tweakers. Go get his shit.”
 “Skip the shit.” I picked up a stack of flyers from the box and held the two twenties on top of the stack with my thumb. “Take the forty, keep your shit, and hand these flyers out.”
Ali took the stack of flyers and stuffed the twenties into his front pocket. He frowned. “Give them to your customers, the guy who’s cooking the shit for you, anyone who might know where girls go when they can’t be found.”
He showed Sarah’s face to the Navajo girl on his shoulder. She looked at Sarah’s face, then to me, and unwrapped herself from Ali. Ali considered Sarah, then threw the stack of flyers straight up into
the air. “Fuck your flyers.”
They fluttered and caught in the breeze of the diesel. He rested his hand on the gun stock under his shirt and slinked off a few steps before turning back to the cars. The Navajo girl stuck the unlit cigarette into her mouth and followed him.
“Let’s ride,” Ali shouted at A.J. and the mouthy girl. A.J.’s jaw tensed as his only apology. He followed, but the mouthy one didn’t. I picked up the flyers that hadn’t escaped yet. I could hear the girl take another drink. She dropped the bottle in the bag on the asphalt and it rolled away. I pulled a flyer from under her dirty white Keds.
“Tanya!” A.J. shouted from the open door of his Civic. “Now!”
I looked up at Tanya, her face smoldering where the booze had doused her fire. A.J.’s patience expired. He slammed the door and started the engine. Bass and a razzing electronic music Dopplered past as he sped out of the lot, chassis sparking on the asphalt.
Tanya watched him go, unperturbed by abandonment. The truck rattled its sweet rattle and a downdraft brought the warm exhaust across my neck.
“You think you know what you’re doing, hanging around guys like that.”
“You don’t know me.”
“No. But I recognize you. You think you’re invincible.”
She scoffed. “No I don’t.”
“You want to end up on one of these flyers?”
“Depends.” She was so full of herself.
“It depends?”
“Depends on what got her on the flyer.”
“It’s a missing flyer,” I shook it at her. “What do you think got her on the flyer? She disappeared. No one can find her.”
She took the smeared flyer from my hand and looked at Sarah’s face.
“Alls I’m saying is, how do you know where she is now ain’t better than where she’s from?”
The lights in Office Depot darkened.
“Is that really what you think when you see a girl’s face on a missing flyer? It’s a sign of her good luck?”
“Maybe she got something better and kept it to herself.”
I could see the shadow of the Office Depot stoner behind the big windows. He pushed the automatic doors open with his bony arms, stepped outside, then closed them and locked up.
“You don’t think that hanging out with drug dealer assholes and talking to strangers in parking lots at night is a more likely reason to end up on a flyer?”
She returned a look of impenetrable indifference.
“Sweetie, if it’s such a good idea, why don’t you climb up in that cab and hit the road with me?”
She looked at the twilight interior of the cab and smirked. “You don’t seem like you’re going somewhere better.”
I stepped closer to her, into the radius of her candy perfume and Kool-Aid booze. She stood her ground, may have even leaned in a little. I lowered my words on her head.
“You know who the biggest serial killers in this country are? Longhaul truckers.”
She raised Sarah’s flyer between us and pulled it tight against her face like a mask, her features distorting the twin photos. She twitched her head left and right with each mocking word.
“You’re. So. Scary.”
I surprised her when I ripped the paper from her hands. But she was fast, and she decked me with a closed fist before I could step back. She threw a right cross like she learned from older brothers.
The blow caught me across the cheekbone, glancing over the bridge of my nose. My eyes stung. I caught myself before slapping her back, which was a good thing for a lot of reasons, the first of which was the
night manager, jogging toward us across the empty lot.
“Hey!” he shouted.
“You like that, you fucking psycho?” she spit.
“Go home!” I shouted at her. “Go!”
She reached down and picked up her bottle from the ground. I backed away and she pitched it into the side of the rig, where it shattered in the bag and rained on the ground. I scooped the box of flyers into the cab. They sloshed onto the floor.
“Think I can’t protect myself? Fuck you!”
I slammed the door to the cab, but I could hear her outside.
“You go home! Run! You ain’t never going to find that girl! That’s a curse on you, motherfucker! Never in your fuckin’ life!”
I ground the gears bad, my eyes watering, my heart unused to the adrenaline. I heard something solid hit the side mirror of the rig and the glass fell out in a funhouse spider web. I gripped the suicide knob and hammered the gas, the cab bucking over its air shocks. The rig heaved away in a large arc, tilting from the girl still screaming profanities and the jabberwocky night manager by her side. The big diesel roared. I felt the load shift and the trailer start to get light on me. Horns lit up. I bounced across two lanes, let off, and tucked it in just before pulling head-on into oncoming traffic. Four hundred copies of Sarah sloshed around me.
At 4 a.m., I parked in a rest area near Barstow. Getting socked in the face by a teenage girl was about as good as crystal for keeping you up all night. I replayed the image of her with Sarah’s flyer pulled to her face. There was no sleep in the air, just the absence of any image in the busted side mirror, which was doubly disorienting when you expected to see your own exhausted face.
I watched a lot lizard climb out of a sleeper cab down the line of rigs, a midriff jean jacket flung fast over her shoulders. Her red hair was perm-fried and cab-tussled. She scanned the lot self-consciously, looking for the twilight cockpit of a state trooper, gentlest of her natural predators. The rig she climbed out of kicked on the low beams and lurched into gear. The guy got his rocks off and had to start turning those wheels.
I blipped through the dead channels on the CB radio until I heard a guy singing a spiritual in a strong, low voice. The last note carried and died. There was a long emptiness, and then someone squawked back “Amen, brother,” and then it was silent again and stayed that way. Nobody looking for conversation in the holy predawn hour.
It was about this time of night Sarah disappeared. No more talking. That’s what the abandoned phone had meant. She was like a satellite that had just broken orbit, momentum carrying her deeper into the void with each passing minute.
Six years on and I often woke at this hour, unable to sleep. The stars would be over soon. Idleness was no good when you were solving for peace in the long division of estrangement. I squared up Sarah’s flyers and peeled one off the top of the stack. With my staple gun hooked in my belt loop, I stepped down from the cab.
In the men’s room, the tireless war between vandals and the manufacturers of automatic hand dryers continued. On the women’s side of the building, I could hear the hooker gargling, brushing her teeth.
Time passed in the click and running intervals of the water conservation faucets. My cheek was swollen. I had a scrape on my nose where the girl’s ragged, bitten fingernail grazed me.
On the narrow grass island by the bathrooms was a hutch protecting  a faded map behind a scratched up Plexiglas panel. On the map, the roads and landmarks were redacted by hieroglyphics of paint pen.
It was the legend for the underworld beneath the trucker’s atlas. I found a clear spot on the side of the hutch, facing east. The sky was lighter by degrees, dawn coming. I stapled Sarah’s flyer looking at the
miles I’d covered. The sun would fade her fast, but it would be a good view while it lasted.
The hooker bought a Coke and a pack of peanut butter crackers from the vending machines. She perched on top of a picnic table with a passing glance my way. I flattened out a rumpled dollar bill and fed it to the machine. The machine rejected it. I fed it again; again rejected. I worked the bill on the side of the machine in two hands, ironing out the wrinkles, but the bill ended up wet from the dew. The machine scorned it a third time.

The hooker walked over and reached around me to feed four quarters into the change slot. She pulled the tongue of my damp dollar from the machine and pocketed it. She returned to her breakfast.
“Thanks,” I called after her.
She raised her hand in my direction. A gesture between you’re welcome and be quiet.


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