Asphalt Minnows • Short Story

“It’s Johnston, actually,” he said. “There’s a ‘t’.”

The words came out a little more sharp than Johnston had intended and the receptionist jerked back. He felt like an asshole for saying it, but it was his name, damn it, and it was one of the few things he had left to cling to. But she was just doing her job and didn’t need his irritable tone and he felt sorry for her for having to deal with him.

“My apologizes, Mr. Cole,” the receptionist said, unconcealed ice in her voice. She handed him his room key. “Room 212. Back out the lobby and around to the left.”

Johnston accepted the key without comment and headed back to his cab. Once out the door he released his held breath in a deep sigh. Once upon a time he would have pushed down any feelings he had just to try to get a smile from a pretty little woman like her. Once upon a time he would have slept in the bunk in his cab, too, but the wear of the road had left him tender inside and out. Motel beds were now a necessity; smiles from pretty women were merely memories.

He grabbed his personals bag from behind the seat and slammed the door a little too loudly. He had skipped kicking the tires before walking to the motel’s check-in counter despite knowing he should. He knew he’d regret not doing it and he hadn’t done it and now he regretted it.

He heaved the bag over his shoulder. The old cloth was as worn as he was. The zipper had split long ago and the patches he had applied were peeling, exposing their glue which stretched like rows of skinny bared teeth.

He stared at the tire adjacent to the cab’s door. It was huge and black and steady. He kicked it gently, feeling the rebound from the hard rubber push his foot backward. Then he walked around to the passenger’s side and did it again, a little harder this time. He felt the rebound in his joints up to his hip. A few steps down the length of the cab and then he stopped at the rear double set.

Kick, rebound, pain. Kick, rebound pain.

The pain hurt just enough to draw his attention to his body and made his mind release the jumble of angry and depressed thoughts that he had accumulated over the drive.  He’d been stewing at a careless minivan driver for the last hour and he felt the tension of the anger vibrate out of his body from the kicks. He felt a little better.

Johnston’s stomach growled at him but he wasn’t ready to face all of the people between him and a real meal. Kicking the tires was good but only went so far. He had some nut mix and jerky in the bag and that would suffice until he calmed down. It was the stretch of I-74 inside Peoria that had really left him jittering. A wreck on the bypass had redirected all traffic through the city. It was one of those stretches where the minnows were dense and crazy – flitting this way and that without warning – and he always drove white-knuckled with that going on. Good thing he did, too, with that minivan driver.

The first time Johnston had ridden in a full-size cab, during his training decades ago, they’d been stopped at a red light and he’d looked at all the cars and trucks seeming underneath him. He was at a height above the road he’d never been at before and the perspective was weird. The drivers and passengers seemed so small and when the light turned green his rig lurched slowly up to speed but the little cars all raced ahead. Johnston was aware his sense of speed was off – the cars seemed like they were moving much too fast, accelerating faster than physics should allow. He was reminded of the view from a boat in shallow water. He felt like a bass surrounded by minnows. He’d thought of the little vehicles on the road as asphalt minnows since.

The minnows weren’t much to think about on the lonely stretches but in dense schools they made him nervous.

A lot of the long-haul drivers got to the point where they weren’t even aware of the traffic. Or so they claimed. They’d claim it but in the same breath bitch about the delays and added time that all the extra traffic was causing. Johnston had heard that same tune for twenty years. It was always getting worse on the road. Rising gas prices and falling driver IQs. Bosses that were always ratcheting up the pressure to go faster and roads were always getting worse. It’d probably been that way since the second day of having paving roads.

Johnston had never gotten numb to the minnows. He knew why. It was due to the perspective that made them the minnows. From the cab seat a person could see into the civilian vehicles in a totally unique way. He sometimes felt like a god, peering down from on high. That made him feel simultaneously powerful and unworthy. Sometimes he felt like a voyeur and that made him feel sick.

The radio helped. Listening to other people’s problems when they called in made his own seem insignificant. He had to remember their problems; that was important. Sometimes he tried audio tapes but they were never as good.

In his motel room he dropped his bag heavily on the floor and sank onto the bed. It was hot day and the Western states always seemed to hold onto to the summer heat as if afraid winter would come and never go away again.  He started sweating immediately but didn’t turn on the A/C. He needed the quiet. No machines, no motors, no compressors, no vibrations. No one talking. He listened to his breathing.

After a time his hands unclenched and he sat up.  He poked around in his bag for the jerky and gnawed it for a while. Then he began unpacking the bag.

Johnston knew he was a man of rituals and he was okay with himself for that. He’d never speak of it to another soul but he accepted himself for himself.

Each item came out of the bag and onto the bed in turn. Food stuffs, water bottle, the two days’ worth of clean clothes he had left for this trip, toiletries bag, gun safe. He survey his possessions. The toiletries bag went to the bathroom sink and the clothes went to the closet. The food and water went back into the bag. The gun case went under his pillow.

Then a bathroom break, shower, teeth brushing and change of clothes. He’d wear the same outfit tomorrow that he wore to dinner tonight. Double-check room key and wallet in pocket then out the door to dinner.

It was just past eight and in the hour of sharp decline in patrons for the diner. That’s how he liked it. Quieter at this time.

“Just one, hun?” the waitress asked. It wasn’t really a question and he didn’t give it an answer. She was old enough to have seen a thousand men just like him, just passing through, just needing a hot meal at the end of a long day. She was old enough to be calloused from the things men all alone in a foreign town would say. Johnston had met and forgotten as many like her as she had like him.

She hadn’t given him her name but she wore a name tag. Meg. He’d have to remember her name for later.

Johnston ordered without really looking at the menu and ate without really tasting his food. It was the same meal he’d had at every diner just like it.

The waitress’s name was Meg. Another waitress was Holly. Paul worked short-order. In a booth nearby was Garrison; he was a regular.

Meg. Holly. Paul. Garrison. The receptionist – but he hadn’t gotten her name.

Johnston returned to his room, undressed and sat in the quiet. Hot showers are good but sometimes, when you’re on the road, all you can get is a cold one. You have to brace yourself for a cold shower but it’s better than no shower at all.  Cold is just pain and pain passes.

He removed the gun case from under the pillow and placed it on his lap. Sometimes he thought about buying a lock for it but most times it didn’t seem to matter.

Meg. Holly. Paul. Garrison. The receptionist.

Johnston flipped open the latch and lifted the lid. Inside was a cowboy’s gun, a six-shooter revolver with a mother-of-pearl handle. The barrel was scuffed and dinged. Some previous owner had scratched the word “King” into the handle in blocky letters.

Johnson traced the word, as was his ritual, before lifting the gun from the case. He flipped open the chamber and laid the gun on the bed on his left. He pulled a cardboard box of shells from the case, tugged it open and counted each shell.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

There was still a week there, then, after tonight.

He tilted the box and slid out a single shell. Then he closed the box and returned it to the case.

Meg. Holly. Paul. Garrison. The receptionist. Johnston tried to imagine their problems. Perhaps Meg was like the woman on the radio this afternoon, worried about a sick child and with no health insurance. It was easy to imagine her that way.

He lift the gun, slid the shell in and pushed the chamber until it clicked,

Meg. Holly.

Johnston stared at the curtains drawn tight over the windows. The room was so hot and stuffy but so quiet. He could hear the traffic on the interstate but muffled with distance. He let the room get quieter. Now he could hear the low buzz of the electric alarm clock. In the hallway, ice clattered from the dispensing machine into a plastic bucket.

Paul. Garrison.

Sometimes showers are as cold as ice. Sometimes you have to take them anyway.

The receptionist.

Johnston turned over the revolver so the word faced down, then turn it back again. It was lighter than it should be. And colder than it should be.

Meg. Holly. Paul. Garrison. The receptionist.

Johnston lifted the gun and touched the barrel under his chin. He flinched from the cold.

Meg. Holly. Paul. Garrison. The receptionist.

Meg. Holly. Paul. Garrison. The receptionist.

He squeezed his eyes tight and then squeezed his finger.

* * *

The sun pierced through his eyelids like glittery needles. He rolled sideways and then upright, feeling his muscles creak and hearing his joints pop. He turned away from the bare windows to give his eyes time to adjust. After a few seconds he could see the revolver and its word, both glistening in the light. He put the gun back in its case and clicked the lid closed.

The water in the shower was warm and soothing and he stayed in it until his fingers pruned.

Sometimes the showers are cold. And sometimes you have to take them anyway.

Meg. Holly. Paul. Garrison. The receptionist.

Sometimes you have to take the pain so no one else has to die.