For more about former HHG owner-operator — and current journalist and novelist — Fred Afflerbach’s latest novel, The Bison & the Butterfly, read this review/brief interview with the author:
The following excerpt from the beginning of the second big section of the book, “The Backhaul,” follows 70-year-old small fleet owner-operator Ubi Sunt and his teenage grandson, Jeremy, after Jeremy has hitchhiked to the Texas panhandle from Philadelphia to deliver the message to his grandfather that Jeremy’s parents, including Ubi’s daughter, have died in a car wreck. Here, they’ve decided to run across the country in Sunt’s “Old Ironsides” 1950s cabover Peterbilt, recent restored with intentions of donating the rig to a truck museum. Chapter 18 picks up just as they roll out, early morning:
After the moon, but before the sun, the two travelers departed the lonesome compound. Ubi squinted into the darkness, hit the high beam switch and lifted his foot from the accelerator. Something on the shoulder ahead. A large, shadowy figure.
Ubi stomped the brakes. The rig skidded and bucked. Jeremy braced both hands on the dash but his head lurched forward and smacked the windshield with a thud. Ubi wrestled Old Ironsides onto the side of the road. Jeremy rubbed the red spot on his forehead.
“You all right?”
“I think so,” Jeremy said, eyes watering. “Damn.”
“What was that?” Ubi asked.
“That …” Jeremy said, still massaging his forehead, “I think, was another bison. I saw one yesterday when I was walking from the post office to your place.”
Ubi nudged the gearshift into low and pulled onto the dark highway. “Might be the same one I’ve seen pawing around the last couple of weeks.”
“I thought bison had been hunted into extinction.”
“They’re about all gone,” Ubi said. “But some ranchers keep a few around for old time’s sake. This one must have escaped.”
“Anybody who locks up a wild animal,” Jeremy said, grimacing, “that’s not right.”
A few miles up the road, Ubi pulled into a small truck stop in Guymon, Oklahoma. The silhouette on the highway and the near miss had spooked the old trucker. He needed to splash some water on his face, settle the nerves. This was going to be a long haul.
Ubi hesitated just inside the truck stop door, glanced up at a small black-and-white monitor hanging on the wall. Messages about loads for truckers flickered across the screen. Hmmm, this one sounds interesting. Someone abandoned a trailer in Liberal, Kansas. That’s just up the road. Need a driver who can haul it to New Jersey.
Ubi had expected to drive Jeremy home in Old Ironsides without pulling a trailer, then double back and deliver his trusty steed to the truck museum in Iowa. He could catch a bus home from there. But hauling this wagon would pay for fuel and expenses, and make a smoother ride.
For seven days, the trailer rocked in the wind at Woody’s Fuel and Food, catching dust stirred up by rigs pulling in and out of the dirt lot. The truck stop owner copied the toll-free phone number from the back of the unit and called Patriot Van Lines home office. By the time the call from the Kansas truck stop owner came in, the operations manager at Patriot had already initiated termination papers for the driver who abandoned the trailer. Still, it was a relief to find the missing wagon. The shipment on it was now long overdue, so dispatch posted a request with a nationwide broker that matches drivers with loads.
Old Ironsides rolled into Woody’s gravel lot with the sun still low in the eastern sky.
“Thar she blows,” Jeremy said. “Patriot Van Lines. Look at the red, white and blue stripes wrapped around both sides like a flag.”
The Patriot dispatcher had instructed Ubi not to worry about the load, just get the trailer to their Trenton yard and they would cut him a check. Ubi circled the trailer on foot. Tire bumper in his left hand, he banged it against the tread.
“We’re not going anywhere yet,” Ubi said. “We’ve got bubble trouble.”
“Bubble trouble? What are you talking about, Grandpa?”
“The driver left us with two flats.”
Ubi pulled the rig into the lube rack and tire bay. A gap-toothed man wearing greasy overalls rolled a hydraulic jack across the concrete floor and fired up his air compressor. The man squatted on his haunches. Wielding a tool that looked like a machine gun — rat-a-tat-tat — he soon had lug nuts spinning counterclockwise. He rolled the flat tires toward the automatic tire-mounting machine and slammed them onto the operating table. No split rims, thank God, Jeremy noticed.
Jeremy left the racket and slipped around the rear of the cafe. Already running behind. How are we going to meet the bus back home in time? Show up late riding in Old Ironsides with Grandpa Truck, boy that’ll piss off the Attorney General. He’ll probably sue Grandpa Truck into bankruptcy, send me to military school and close the borders for the whole state of Pennsylvania.
Jeremy dug in his jeans pocket and pulled out the crumpled pack of cigarettes. Several were torn and smashed, but he found three that were still whole and jammed one in his mouth. Jeremy gripped the matchbook the bus driver gave him and hunched over, back against the wind. After several tries, he was blowing smoke like Old Ironsides. Uh-oh. Now there’s a long shadow on the gravel parking lot headed this way.
“Jeremy, where you at?”
Drop the stogie. Stomp it out. Look innocent. Then Grandpa Truck rounds the corner, takes a deep breath. Second-hand cigarette smoke. Boy, boy, boy, he smiled, looking at his grandson. Don’t he know, you can’t hide that aroma, even out here with the wind blowing ninety miles an hour. And there’s the culprit on the ground. Sheesh, he snuffed out an entire cigarette. Must not know what a pack costs these days.
Ubi stooped over and picked up the cigarette. “Hey, look at this,” he said, holding the Winston between two fingers. “Somebody wasted a perfectly good smoke. Got a light?”
Jeremy dug in his pocket for the matchbook and handed it over. Ubi smacked and sucked on the filter, gumming his lips, and lit the cigarette on his first try.
“Want a drag?”
“No, thanks,” Jeremy said, again digging into his jeans pocket. “I got one of my own.” Jeremy extracted another cigarette and examined it carefully to ensure that he was inserting the filter end into his mouth.
Ubi held out his cigarette, red-hot ember glowing. Jeremy leaned forward, the Winston jutting out of his mouth. The cigarette tips touched and Jeremy puffed on it like he saw Grandpa just a few seconds ago. The cigarette immediately caught. Jeremy took a drag, careful not to cough and embarrass himself. What would Mom say? Grandpa Truck and me smoking together, out here in the middle of a desolate, run-down truck stop.
Ubi and Jeremy finished smoking and crushed the cigarette butts under their shoes. Ubi spied Jeremy’s right boot with half its sole now torn off. “Looks like you’ve got a little bubble trouble of your own, Jeremy. You can’t run across the country with half a right shoe.”
“We don’t have time,” Jeremy said. “I’ll be all right.”
“What size you wear?”
“I got an old pair of steel toe boots I keep in the cab,” Ubi said. “Haven’t worn them since, well that’s a long story. Anyway, they might be a little big, but it beats what you got on.”
Jeremy leaned against Old Ironsides and slipped on the heavy boots. He pulled the laces high and tight and took a test run around the rig. “A little heavy in the toe but I guess they’ll do.”
Looking onto the Kansas landscape, the two men passed a few minor landmarks that only seasoned travelers like Ubi Sunt and Old Ironsides would know. In the small community of Meade, the big rig purred past a wood-frame house with a sign that read: Dalton Gang Hideout. Ubi downshifted, tapped the brakes so Jeremy could get a good look.
“The Dalton boys had a sister who moved out here. Her husband built that place about a hundred years ago.” Ubi pointed to the newly painted, yet modest building. “Legend has it, they dug a tunnel about one hundred feet long between the house and barn so the outlaws could sneak in and out undetected.”
“Legend has it?” Jeremy said. “In school, we call that folklore, Grandpa.”
“Aw, heck, Jeremy, most of that history you get in school, and just about anywhere else, is written by folks who weren’t around when it happened. They’re just going on second and third-hand evidence.” Ubi pushed the pedal and cajoled the stick shift up to a higher gear. Old Ironsides gained speed. Jeremy leaned forward and looked in the rearview mirror, the old house growing smaller. Ubi said, “Folklore is the stuff that carries the weight of the truth without being bogged down in details.”
“Details, Grandpa? You mean facts.”
“You are a lot like Jeanne,” Ubi said, “truly your mother’s son.”
Hearing his grandfather invoke Mom’s name, well, Jeremy didn’t know how to react. He wanted to talk about her, sure, but he didn’t know how. And shouldn’t that be where a grandfather would step in? Jeremy watched the prairie drift by but remained miffed with Grandpa Truck. How could he be so stoical? Sure, he’d always been a gnarled oak, but at one time there were green leaves on those branches. Now, well, he’s petrified wood. Sixty miles down the road, Old Ironsides rambled into the small town of Greenburg. Ubi narrated another odd story about pioneer antics on the Great Plains.
“The deepest hand dug well in America,” Ubi said and pointed with his left hand toward what looked like a large gazebo. “Underneath that little building is where workers spent three years digging with nothing but shovels and picks, filling wooden barrels and pulling ’em out of the hole with pulleys. Didn’t stop until they were more’n one hundred feet deep and thirty feet across.” Ubi’s face went suddenly blank, and to Jeremy it looked like he had lost his train of thought.
“You okay, Grandpa.”
“Huh?” Ubi turned his gaze toward his grandson, blinked several times. “I was just remembering that I took your mom to this little museum there . . . long ago, when she was a kid. I can’t believe she’s gone.”
Another awkward silence hung in the air. Jeremy took a heavy breath. Grandpa Truck wants to talk about her, but he can’t bring himself to do it.
“They got a thousand pound meteorite on display there, too,” Ubi said. “Fell from outer space maybe ten thousand years ago, something like that. I forget.” Ubi frowned; the creases around his mouth turned downward. “I forget a lot of stuff.”
“What was she like, Grandpa? When she was a girl?”
Ubi wrapped both hands around the big steering wheel and turned it to the left, pointing the rig due north. Old Ironsides rumbled along in the shadow of the long-legged water tower that advertised the world’s largest hand dug well. Ubi again looked like he was daydreaming. And when the road took a hard jog to the right, it felt like Old Ironsides was driving itself.
“Well, she was … a girl, ponytail and tomboy and … we used to camp together.” Ubi’s voice trailed off. He bit his lip, jammed down the accelerator and threw the truck into the next higher gear.
Jeremy’s stole a glance at Ubi. This was a different Grandpa Truck. Whenever he rambled into town, Grandpa was laughing and spinning yarns, wrestling and tickling, tossing us up in the air. He doesn’t look like he could toss a balloon in the air right now. Maybe the news about Mom and Dad was weighing heavier than he let on. Maybe he was like Mom always said, unable to show what lies beneath that rawhide exterior.
“I gotta tell you something about what happened on the trip out West,” Jeremy blurted, screwing up his courage. His chest filled with air and expanded. He exhaled slowly. “Two times — once in Delaware and once in Oklahoma — I saw Mom and Dad.”
“What the?” Ubi shot a puzzled look at Jeremy.
“It scared the hell out of me, Grandpa. They were in that old Subaru wagon once and the other time in the Toyota, the one that, well you know.”
“Damn it,” Ubi said in a low voice. “You think that means you haven’t accepted what happened?”
“Probably. I’m scared it might happen again. On the way home.”
“You really saw them?”
“They looked just as alive as you do sitting next to me,” Jeremy said. “Mom had on that scarf and pair of sunglasses she liked to wear on road trips. She was waving.”
“I can close my eyes and see your grandma almost any time I want to,” Ubi said. “But I’ve never seen her out on the road. That would scare the hell out of me, too.”
“And I saw a photo of their wedding day on the night stand last night. I think I broke the glass when I slammed it facedown.”
“That was no mirage, Jeremy.”
“I’ve had their wedding photo on that night stand for years.”
“Oh, well that makes me feel a little better. Anyway, I’m just warning you in case it happens again,” Jeremy said.
“Okay. I got you, Jeremy. But when we get back to Pennsylvania you’re going to have to do something about that.”
“You make it sound like going to the dentist to get a cavity filled or something,” Jeremy said. “I don’t think it’s that simple.”
“Sorry, Jeremy. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I know, Grandpa. I know.”
Mercifully for Ubi, who was having trouble dealing with the uncomfortable conversation, the city limits sign to another small town popped up on the highway shoulder. It also had a landmark. A proud billboard proclaimed Kinsley “Midway, U.S.A.” One arrow pointed west: San Francisco — 1561 miles. Another pointed east: New York City — 1561 miles. Ubi sidled Old Ironsides up against a concrete curb and climbed down from the rig. He walked across the street, stood under the sign, spread his arms in opposite directions. This is the heartbeat, the pulse, the nerve center of America. This is where time and space connect.
“What are we doing now?” Jeremy muttered from the shotgun seat. “At this rate, we’ll be on the road until Thanksgiving.” Grandpa Truck’s gotten a little weird since his last visit several years ago. Maybe that remote life on the road, and now holed up in the far reaches of the Texas Panhandle, had turned his brain a little mushy.
Ubi slipped into a small café across the street and purchased a pack of Marlboro reds. He’d quit smoking numerous times, and it had been more than fourteen months since his last one. But a pack of cigarettes on a long trip, well, that was like an old friend at your side. And now, after enjoying just one cigarette with his grandson, he felt compelled to strike up the relationship.
Ubi returned with the smokes bulging from his shirt pocket. He pushed the starter button with this left thumb. The engine hummed below the floorboard. Jeremy draped an arm out the window and drummed his fingers on the door. Why is he stalling? We have to be home in three days. Maybe he doesn’t want to deal with everything that’s happened. Maybe he can’t handle it.
As if Ubi could sense his grandson’s anxiety, he pushed Old Ironsides along at a faster clip than normal, for him anyway, sixty-five miles an hour across Central Kansas. They caught the interstate just west of Salina. Rolling at a steady pace, Jeremy harkened back to that comment Ubi made in Texas, the comment about donating his beloved Peterbilt to a museum.
As a sensitive and romantic young boy, Jeremy sometimes thought about what would happen when Ubi died. Jeremy pictured a lengthy funeral procession. Coast to coast. Hundreds of big rigs led by Old Ironsides, Jeremy behind the wheel. Town to town, people would greet the convoy at the city limits, hats off, hands over their hearts. Jeremy would wave from the driver’s seat, proud to carry the torch. It was a fantasy of course, but now that mom and dad were gone, death wasn’t just something that happened to other families.
“Why are you putting Old Ironsides out to pasture, Grandpa,” Jeremy asked. “She never looked better, sounded better, that I remember.”
Ubi mulled the question. He itched for a cigarette. Quitting was hard. Picking up the habit was easy. And catching young Jeremy sneaking a smoke behind the tire bay brought him back to his early days when cigarettes didn’t cause lung cancer and a pack of Lucky Strikes was the best friend you could have on a long and empty highway. Okay, let’s wait awhile before we break open the pack. Anticipation, sometimes the best part.
“Who’s going to look after Old Ironsides when I’m dead?” Ubi said. “You? Molly?”
“Why don’t you put it in your will, donate it to the museum, after … you know?”
“I guess I could, but I’d rest easier knowing that it had been taken care of. Something that important, I won’t leave to chance,” Ubi said, stroking the stubble on his chin. “Or lawyers.” –Fred Afflerbach