The Road to Salvation

Jim Logan studied the back of the business card. The handwritten address and phone number were compelling, despite having faded to a fuzzy, blue scrawl from years in his wallet. He scarcely noticed the waitress refilling his coffee. The writing stared back at him like an unpaid debt. He considered the table phone but slid the card back in his wallet, just like he had a hundred times before.

A man sitting in another booth looked barely thirty but road-worn, thin and all but swallowed up by a tan work shirt. His gaunt face was a portrait of fatigue, a haggard patch of stubble beneath a pair of sad brown eyes. He picked up his table phone and dialed it over an untouched plate of food, fingers trembling as he stabbed at the numbers. Jim watched him wait for an answer.

It didn’t come.

The man slapped the phone down and buried his face in his hands, then straightened up and grabbed his fork, but never made it to his food. He put it back down and took the phone again.
Don’t do this to yourself, Jim thought. She’s not going to answer. He couldn’t take his eyes off the man. He sat and watched, trapped between pity for the stranger and shame over the never-dialed phone number in his wallet.

The man glanced up and caught Jim looking. His face shifted to a dark scowl and his eyes, once moping, filled with scorn. Jim offered an apologetic look that the man rejected. The man slammed the phone down, threw a twenty on the table and walked out. Sometimes misery doesn’t love company.

Jim paid for his coffee and headed for his truck. The exit took him through a hallway that housed an abandoned shoeshine stand and a row of pay phones. He spotted the stranger again, slumped against the last phone. His forehead was cradled in the crook of his arm, the receiver pasted to his ear. He was silent, but Jim knew there wasn’t a voice on the other end, just the mocking ring of a telephone that wouldn’t be answered. Jim looked down and quietly passed out of the building.

The next morning, Jim took his Peterbilt back on the interstate and crested a hill just as the sun lifted over the horizon. The air was clean and sweet and held the slight chill of morning. It eased through the window, sliding under his collar like cool fingers. The Arizona landscape was a panorama of earth tone mountains and a pastel desert floor that spanned endlessly beneath a cloudless, chalk-blue sky. Scrub brush and some other scrawny, nameless plants clung stubbornly to life by the asphalt while cactus rose from the rocky sand like ancient guardians. Phoenix was 200 miles and 300 years ahead, and for the moment Jim found peace in the beauty of his surroundings.

He spotted a truckstop and café, an ugly, aging box of cracked adobe with dull, sand-blasted windows, but it registered with his stomach, so he took the Pete out of gear and coasted onto the off ramp. The parking lot was a badly cratered sweep of dirt that stretched out behind the fuel island like a dingy moonscape. He eased around the worst of the potholes and swung around to back into a spot when he saw an ambulance and a gaggle of men gathered around one of the trucks.

It didn’t look good. He set his brakes and approached the small crowd. They were speaking in the low, hushed tones of hospitals and funerals, all eyes to the ground and faces bearing the grave weight of misfortune. Paramedics were lowering a gurney covered in a white sheet out of a blue Freightliner.

“They said there was a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of pills in the truck. Both empty,” said a man clad in coveralls. As the paramedics turned the gurney toward the back of the ambulance, the wind caught the edge of the sheet and lifted it up, revealing a thin, white arm extending from the sleeve of a tan shirt. Jim knew instantly who it was.

“They couldn’t find the keys to his truck,” another man offered glumly.

“He probably threw them out so he wouldn’t try to drive,” said Jim. The other men seemed to accept this and nodded silently. Jim stepped, almost staggered, back to his truck, feeling like he had been punched in the stomach.

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Jim thought, gripping the steering wheel so hard it drained the blood from his knuckles. You could have said something to that guy, but what did you do? You gawked at him like a circus freak! You made him feel worse! Maybe if you had said something to him