Kentucky Wonder hates beets.
His CB handle says at least two things about him, he says before the beets I’ve ordered come. One, he is from Kentucky, and two, he was a whole lot skinnier years ago when somebody thought he looked like a string bean. Kentucky Wonder is a strain of string bean, he tells me. But he’s not skinny anymore.
He tells me he used to imitate Elvis back home on the porch, and he starts to sing a decent version of “Hound Dog,” his wife beside him looking like she could just cry it is so beautiful. Then my food arrives, and he gets up and walks away just like he said he would when the beets came.
Kentucky Wonder’s wife is always with him. They are good Christian people and good drivers, and like me, they’re signing on and getting oriented. Been in the business for years, she says, her hair tall as his but teased and thin, making her look a foot taller. Behind her thick glasses she’s thinking about how this job will let her send some money to their oldest back at the house taking care of the two young ones. It is a long winter only half gone by.
She goes by Jet Stream on the radio. It may be someone thought of her like a river of wind, a stream of words big enough and strong enough to change the weather. They had their own truck once, she says. She got pregnant and had a miscarriage in the bunk running for a load. She stayed home while Wonder went out on his own and sent every penny home except what they needed to keep the truck. She came back, though. She couldn’t stay home and not be a driver. And here they are today, company drivers looking for high miles and good pay.
We were all promised that. A few days in Baltimore to learn the ropes and pick up our trucks, and then everything was going to be OK.
I’ve eaten my beets, so Curtis and Lulu (without their handles because we’re friends now) come back. Curtis smiles and tells me why he doesn’t like beets. It seems his grandma raised him, and there was a time all they had to eat was beets and some potatoes. He just got plain sick of them.
I never saw Curtis and Lulu again. Somebody told me a few weeks later they quit and went home. Seems they took a load west and sat like me for a week or so and just couldn’t wait anymore.
Curtis had said they could stay home and raise the kids and work the farm, but there were no cows anymore and they’d have to start in dirt farming again. He’d told me he could do other things, but he was a driver and so was Lulu. The cab was home, too.
I get some loads, and things pick up for a while. I pick up a flat with steel beams going to Utah. It is the first time I have ever been anywhere there is no sign of civilization. No phone lines, no fence. I turn off the interstate, down a dirt track into a valley where the power plant is going up way off in the distance. And there’s a man and his dog. He lives in a covered wagon and tends sheep. I see him sitting by his fire with his dog, looking back at me like I am a dream.
He’s eating beans out of a can. He smiles but doesn’t say anything, just sits there eating his beans, gazing at the sheep. They are crossing in front of me, and I can’t go anywhere, so I get out and sit by the fire and eat some beans. He has a little radio, and after a while I can hear Elvis start singing. It reminds me of Curtis and Lulu, and I tell him how Curtis couldn’t stand beets. He laughs and says he feels that way about beans sometimes.
We all know about other ways to make a living, good chance it’d be a better living. But it seems to me the old man couldn’t be anything but a sheepherder. And people like Kentucky Wonder and Jet Stream and me, we couldn’t be anything but trucking people.