I think my first, semi-conscious thought must probably have been, Was that a knock?
My second thought was another question: Where the hell am I, again?
As a long-haul trucker, I ask myself that second question three or four times a week. I'm a heavy sleeper, and I usually struggle out from under the pressing shroud of slumber like a guy who can't swim who suddenly realizes he's standing in ten feet of water. All too often, I spend the first few moments of bleary-eyed wakefulness trying to remember where I'm parked.
On this occasion, I was parked in a pretty spooky place. I was at the dead-end of the last side-street in an industrial park that was shut down for the night. Some zoning official, either half-crazed or well-paid, had platp down an industrial zone in the middle of a large agricultural district about five miles outside of the city. The city was one of many mid-sized cities that populate California's vast central valley. Which one, specifically, doesn't matter-- They're all pretty much the same. They all have the feel of some great, clamorous machine that has received very little maintenance and has been steadily losing momentum for about twenty or thirty years.
But I digress.
On one side of the broad, dimly-lit street where I'd chosen to spend the night stood a hulking, brooding steel-processing plant. On the other side, stretching away into the swaying shadows of night, was a damp, too-quiet produce orchard. Oranges, I think. The nearest highway was over a mile away. I was in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, and all alone.
Or so I'd thought.
I think I may have laid there, flat on my back, for anywhere from a few seconds to a few weeks. It's hard to tell. I alternated between blinking myself awake and simply staring into the near-total darkness. I wondered if I'd really heard somebody knock on the side of my truck. And I tried to decide which was more important to me-- finding out, or going back to sleep. But then I heard it again: A short series of knocks, about four feet from my head.Oh,
I thought, this can't be good.
There's a heavy curtain that separates my sleeping compartment from the cab. I sat up and peeked through it. The dashboard clock read 4:30 am. I glanced through the windshield and noticed that a thick, thick fog had formed while I'd slept. That was good, because the last thing I wanted was for the situation to be a little less creepy.
I eased my head forward a few inches. It's a little trick: From a certain angle, I can use the driver's side mirror to see anything along that side of the truck, all the while staying hidden from anyone who might be outside, looking in the window. I didn't like what I saw. There was a dark lump with wild hair hanging from my door.
I didn't know whether to be worried or annoyed.
Solomon-like, I decided to be a little bit of both.
Scowling, I thrust my scarred, shaved head through the curtain and looked directly through the window. It was a woman. My initial reaction was to relax a little. I felt less threatened by a woman. Then I told myself that that was stupid: Women, when they want to, can be just as dangerous as men. I took a quick look around. Every window, every mirror: All I saw was fog. I was in an isolated spot. It was the dead of night. There was a stranger at my door. And she could have just about anything up her sleeve.
I lurched forward into the driver's seat and cranked the window down about halfway. She was neither pretty nor ugly, although with that wild mane of dark hair she was ready-made for Halloween. All she needed was a big, black, pointy hat.
"Did I wake you up?" she asked.
I answered with something witty. I think it was, "Mhyuhhm."
"I'm stranded out here. I need a ride into town," she said.
It's an unlikely place to be stranded. The only road in is the only road out. Nobody goes there without a reason. And at four in the morning there are very, very few good
reasons and a lot of bad ones. I looked at her and tried to figure out if she had a gun under her coat. Or a knife. Or a ballpeen hammer. Or any of a hundred things my sleep-addled brain hadn't thought of, yet. Then I gave that up and went back to straining my eyes into the fog --there might, after all, be somebody with her-- but I couldn't see much more than about thirty yards.
One thing was sure: I wasn't going to give her a ride.
Perhaps you think me overly cautious; maybe even paranoid. But, you see, hardly a week on the road goes by that I don't cross paths with somebody who's working some kind of scam. Once inside the truck, it would be all too easy for her to conk me over the head and/or steal something while I wasn't looking. She could also, conceivably, decoy me into some weird sort of ambush-- although that didn't make much sense. I was already parked in the perfect spot for an ambush.
"How the hell did you get out here, anyway?" I asked.
"I came out here to a party with a girlfriend," she said, "but she got drunk and passed out. Now I'm stranded." She had virtually spat the "got drunk and passed out" part.
I was sleepy and slow-witted. Questions about her story swirled through my head almost too quickly for me to remember them. There were no houses nearby, so where was this party? Why had she chosen to walk home? Most importantly, why had she wandered away from the highway and down this gloomy stretch of road that didn't go anywhere?
It didn't matter. I still wasn't going to give her a ride.
I think she must have sensed my reluctance. I don't know if it was because I was shaking my head back and forth, or because I kept saying, "No," at regular intervals, but I think she must have sensed my reluctance...
...because then she said, "I'll make it worth your while."
Oh, I see: One quick ride deserves another.
Instinct can be a hateful thing, sometimes. Just when you think you're well-evolved, something happens to remind you that you still have a caveman living in some flickeringly-lit corner of your brain. I had absolutely no intention of letting this crazy lady into my truck, but when she said, "I'll make it worth your while," I automatically, unthinkingly, instinctively gave her a quick, appraising, speculative, visual once-over.
In other words, I checked her out.
Pure instinct. Automatic. No conscious thought involved. I actually caught
myself doing it. It was one of those unexpected, slap-in-the-face insights into one's own nature (and human nature) that makes you want to sigh in irritation and roll your eyes. By the way: Any man who says he wouldn't have done the same thing is either lying to you or lying to himself. Maybe any woman, too, but who knows anything about women?
She had played her trump card and lost. She said, "Please" and "I'm stranded" and "I'll make it worth your while," a few more times, but I shook my head and said, "No" and "I can't" and "NO," a few times of my own and she finally gave up and walked away into the fog...
...back in the direction of the highway.
P.S... Bud "Light" Selig must go.