TUESDAY: Desert Dog

BY GUINOTTE WISE

Copyright is held by the author.

“I’M A rover and a rambler and a high desert gambler!” I sing snatches of things I make up and real songs quite loud, quite loud in my Kenworth tractor Desert Dog with its GPS and satellite wireless; Bluetooth; computer screen; DVD-player, and iPod station and a high octane CD sound system that equals any luxury boat on the road. I am Hooked Up. I can listen or I can sing, or both. I love it.

You have the most awful singing voice, Priscilla says, with real astonishment but with smiling affection. A cross between an even more tuneless Johnny Cash and bad George Jones karaoke. It sounds fine in my head. She puts up with it in good humor. She is a school teacher and has such patience. A wonderful trait along with hotness, which she also possesses. Lucky kids in her class spend more time with her than I do.

I am sitting at the top of an icy-looking hill, idling, in the foothills of the Rockies heading East, the kind of hill that’s a brake-killer on good days and this is not your good day. I want to get to the flatlands and make some time.

It’s dusk, cloudy drizzle, 30 degrees, weather lowering. I look down this long winding snake-ass thing and I see my death, and the fear rises in my thorax. I don’t know exactly what a thorax is but it seems like a cross between my throat and my esophagus or something that would carry bile up the tube and spread it around like evil under my tongue and I’d swallow it back down, leaving an aftertaste of burnt truck stop coffee and bacon. Maybe ozone.

I think why did I take this up, this over-the-road madness, I am a huge flaming fireball of a news story waiting to happen, then the pretty girl with rosy cheeks and pumped-up lips looks at the male anchor she’s messing with and says, and now for a lighter look at . . . what, maybe a secret santa story.

I can’t back up. And if it’s icy, there’s no way I can steer through this serpentine slither without at the very least jack-knifing and shearing trees, guardrails punching through the saddle tanks, and — shoot I say, pulling out onto the roadway, here we go you sonsabitches, addressing my humourless dad and my grandpa, I’ll see you in hell in about one minute and a half, gears up, speed gaining, nothing coming, I take the whole middle of the road.

I ease off as I head down, hoping DesertDog don’t break traction, no turning back now, I’m all in. I tap the brakes, just tap them, air from the system shushing me in an angry little psshht. No yawing or slewing, no thorax-sickening, sphincter-tightening spinal frisson. Like that frisson, Priscilla. What a word! Like your Freixenet champagne. Chills. Up your spine, down your gullet, my girl Priscilla uses words like a poet, she teaches English, gaining speed, can’t gear down, hit a skate of black ice oohhhhh shitfire, no she’s straight, she’s moving, the road ain’t iced, just that one black-ice bad-ass patch, hanging onto the curve, not so snaky as it looked from up on top, whoa shit dawg, now we’re talkin’ DesertDog is gonna make ‘er. I got her name feather-ghost striped on the doors. Shines in the sun in a leaded glass blue and blue-green against the dark blue. Oh man, we did it, faced the abyss and beat the bitch.

I snap open a CD, one-handed, Joe Bonamassa, slide into the player slit which sucks it in like, well, I can’t say, as Priscilla does not like the metaphor, but it makes me smile and affects me well below the thorax, I’ll say that. I turn it up and Joe wails WAILS plays that thing like a banshee in heat in Dante’s hell circle number three. Oh my, I say out loud. Oh my.

Black smoke a-blowin’ over 18 wheels, I am feeling it in my blood, which flows like good synthetic 40 weight oil at 190 degrees, viscosity just right, I am steady as she goes rollin’ workin’ for the man ever night and DAY.

I hear myself laughing. Sometimes I talk. I say my dailies when driving, prayers for Priscilla, for the dogs, our home, our safety. I always sing. Joe makes me want to dance, but I can’t bounce around too much in DD, she likes a precision driver, and then there’s the load all chain-boomered down on the bed, hauling power plant sections tarped and ominous, looming and official like a government load of something Dick Cheney would like.

Load of doom. Doomload download at Alton or East St. Louis. Let me outa these Colorado Rockies. Across the plains. Flame licks from the blues virtuouso Bonamassa the master bender of Fender. But I don’t know what he plays, Gretsch, Gibson, what. Matters not. He could make a chinese banjo quote Shakespeare.

***

Kansas. Flat and windswept with Priscilla’s Capote lurking licking his lips still looking at Klutter luck or lack and . . . Hank Jr. sings, as do I, Hey little water boy bring the buck buck bucket down quack quack, always makes me laugh, lifts my spirits, good thing on this flatland wheatland weedland express.

Truck stop looms, Desert Dog and I dust it, shine it, don’t intertwine it, flashing by. I back off and the pipes rap at the waitress there who, maybe tired, maybe worried about a mammogram, maybe her kid sassed her, told me to eat shit and die when I questioned the freshness of the pie. Everyone has bad days, I said to her, and she said sorry, and I tipped her fat, but it leaves me sad, so I pass. Another one in 50 miles 40 minutes. I check my radar detector, it’s flashing red red red, means only that it’s on.

I dial from Jim Rome to Dave Ramsey to Rush Limbaugh, they seem flat as the Kansas-scape, I think Elvis! Yes, Blue Christmas without you, my phone rings, I snatch it up, pull the charger connection out of it. It’s Priscilla.

“Hey,” I say.

“Where are you?”

“Truckin’ through Kansas but don’t tell my momma, she thinks I’m a piano player in a whorehouse.”

“Funny.”

“Uproarious. Kneeslapping. Side-spl —”

She interrupts. “Be serious for just a second.”

“Like a doggone heart attack.”

I hear her blow nose air sort of like a laugh but not quite. “When are you home?”
Home being California, the high desert, actual location Hemet. Home in Hemet.

“I will be in Hemet, California 9:16pm December 22nd.”

“Perfect.”

“Better than perfect. Unless, of course, you forget my present and are dressed up to go out instead of butt nekkid.”

“We are going out during the holidays truckboy. And you will look nice.”

“We are and I will. Tell me something sexy.”

“Old truckers never die, they just get a new Peterbilt.”

“That’s old.”

“So are you.” She laughs. Can she be disparaging of my age, the difference in years between us?

“I’ve been reading the books you gave me,” I say.

“Good. Which one are you reading now?”

“That one by Kant about reason.”

“Really? I don’t remember giving you any philosophy books . . .”

“I made that up. Me and Wikipedia.”

“You goofball. I’ve got to go. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Blue Christmas swells in the cab, all the better because mine won’t be blue, mine will be sun streaming in the venetian blinds lolling in bed and then cooking brunch and the dogs bumping around me. Opening packages. I have gotten her presents at Neiman Marcus in Dallas, DD idling at the loading dock in back.

Blooooo bloooo Christmas without yoooo, Elvis smirks and dimples as he croons and moons and DD is humming at an 80 sweet spot and Kansas will soon be a memory into Missouri, East to Alton, Illinois.

I light up a 420 Marley, I’m a smoker, I’m a toker, I’m a midnight broker, I’m a joker and a Fokker and an Absaroker. This rig cost me, but if you live in one half the time, be happy. Desert Dog makes me happy. Lights everywhere, bluedots in back, illegal maybe but nobody says anything. Sleep compartment, I keep it clean, like to sleep in comfort, shower at stops, when the money’s good, in good motels, prime rib and a Manhattan on the rocks, read myself to sleep. Lap of luxury Priscilla says about some things, her lap is luxury and I’m a luxury-hound, she doesn’t like too much referencing of the hot spot, the blue dot, the fox trot. But she inspires me, leads me, educates me.

It’s not like she is trying to improve me — she just likes teaching. And I’m raw stock she can make something out of. She says I’m smart. Nobody ever told me that. It’s great to have a teacher that cares. They say you remember the good ones all your life. This is especially true of me, a teacher’s pet for sure.

Whoa shit some little sporty number passing me and my radar detector is squawking smokey X-band, there goes that guy’s Christmas bonus. Yes, here he comes hot on his ass. Nailed in Kansas in the unsympathetic wheat stubble!

Me and the Desert Dog hauling ass and power plant parts. I hit the all-windows-down button, fresh clean razor-cold Kansas air jets the cab, scrubs the ceegar smoke from the plastics, leathers and chromes, freezes my earring. A little kid in the back of a Volvo wagon pumps his arm, I give him two blasts of DD’s double airs, he claps his hands. We both laugh. It’s Christmas.

42 comments

  1. (Gloria Jean Hansen

    You mean you aren’t really a trucker? Loved every quirky, catchy line sir–was right up there with you riding shotgun!

  2. Michael joll

    Odd story, not without its quirks. Still, I had difficulty finding a thread. I couldn’t really find a link with Christmas. And I found the frequent puns and word play a bit tedious. But then, maybe it’s because I’m not from the California desert. Or Kansas. Intriguing, though, and worth reading more by Guinette.

  3. JAZZ

    OK, so it wasn’t exactly the “Once upon a Time”, story-telling model but that, more than anything, made this story great. I enjoyed every line, every metaphor and Guinotte’s ‘trucker” is one of the best characters to show up here.

  4. Charles Pinch

    Great short fiction writing isn’t about making you laugh or making you cry — journalism can do that. It’s way beyond. The best stories are self-contained, small universes with their own language and logic, their own symbols and laws, all of which emerge from the ‘voice’ inside the writer. What I like about this story — and I’ve just finished reading some others on Wise’s site — is the authenticity. He means what he says and he says it meanly. In ‘Desert Dog’ the prose is energetic, muscular and ballsy: the perfect fit for the subject. There’s more art in the paragraph that starts ‘I dial from Jim Rose to Dave Ramsey…’ and ends with ‘It’s Priscilla’ then in many complete stories and a paragraph like that could only be written by someone worth reading. Kudos, Mr. Wise. Please come back here.

  5. GW

    Hey thanks for the comments, I appreciate them all. This character is just a fairly happy guy with maybe a mild tourette’s syndrome, makes him spout what he does. There’s no real connection to Christmas, except that he’s going home for the holiday. It’s simply a time of year. Most of my things are more noir, and it could have gone that way with his reference to dad and granddad, but he surprised me, chose not to go that way. Again, thank you for taking the time to make these great observations! Feedback is nourishment.

  6. Ken Puddicombe

    Enjoyed every methaphoric, liberating minute of being on the road. The writer, if not an actual trucker, certainly paints a credible picture that convinces me he is one. Add a plot to this and it would be a great short story.

  7. Mary Steer

    Have to say I agree with Ken — this needs a plot to be a short story. As it is, it’s a truly wonderful character sketch.

  8. JAZZ

    Mary and Ken:

    Criticism for the sake of….?
    Why go back and change something that worked so well….?

  9. Charles Pinch

    Mary,
    Not all stories need plots and not all short fiction is concerned with plots. The post-modern tradition, to which Mr. Wise gives a nod, has been around over 50 years. If you really want to grow as a writer I urge you to read authors out of your comfort zone. It’s the only way to learn. Great short (or even long) fiction involves way more than making someone laugh or cry — jokes and funerals can do that — there is the whole matter of language and form. Rather than using fiction to ‘tell a story’, there is the flip side of the coin where the ‘process of fiction’ IS the story. Sometimes the meaning is handed to you and sometimes you have to go looking for it. The latter case does not represent any diminution of quality (unless it fails for other reasons).

  10. Wick Beavers

    I’m real glad I’m not the only one that sings real loud when I think most people aren’t around- they must think I’m loony like that old man on the park bench we used to walk by on our way to school — if he wasn’t singing loud he was picking nits out of his beard… rhythmically. Or like Wise’s trucker.

    And the straight shot down the icy dusky foothill highway? Bet Mr Wise took Anatomy 101. He got that fiery spit back under the tongue just right — you’d know, especially if you’ve just gulleted one or two of those horror show hot dogs off the spinning metal grills under the plastic see-through case at the last Love’s stop.

    What Mr. Wise sticks you with, like a great news shot, are the little details we all recognize spinning into new light. A great lyric, a perfect slogan. Maybe even a picador here?

    Love this stuff- I’d have to guess Wise is perpetually at altitude, eyes wide open, gears in 5th!

  11. Trabes

    Character sketch, story, flash fiction, whatever — I like the trucker immensely, the style is great fun, and I was immersed. The thing has energy and crackles right along, black smoke a’blowin’ over 18 wheels. I can hear the air horns blasting.

  12. Random Writer

    Wow, lots of commentary going on here.
    This could be a short story, but if it is, it’s the wrong way round. The tension is all at the beginning, with the hill — nail-biting time. Then it’s all over and the rest is just description. Flip it around so we see what he has to lose if it all goes south on that damn icy hill and there y’go: short story.

  13. keith newton

    Sight, sound, touch, colour, pace, flow, fun, wit, humour, ….streeeeeaming.
    Great stuff!

  14. JAZZ

    And here we have it…..another ‘Write between the lines writer’. God, aren’t they boring. Just think, if they were critics in the Art World, Picasso would be cleaning brushes.

  15. Random Writer

    It seems to me the reason writers publish on sites like commuterlit is to get feedback on their stories. Writers write to be read, after all, and if someone leaves a comment it shows they’re reading — or so we hope. Attacking commenters diminishes the reputation and value of a site like commuterlit. It should be that varied opinions are welcome here and not shot down. Not everyone is going to read a piece of writing the same way. That doesn’t mean that people who disagree with each other need to take swipes at each other.

  16. JAZZ

    Random Writer:
    I think if you study this site you will find that it’s full of comments: mild, strong and devilishly tough. Commentators/critics vie with each other to get their point across using debating skills that aren’t necessarily soft-coated. That’s what makes this site informative and fun. If you do get caught in the cross fire, fight back.

  17. Random Writer

    Charles: You made excellent points in this thread, respectfully I thought — I’m surprised you responded to what I posted. I hope you didn’t think I was suggesting you had taken a swipe at anyone. That had not occurred to me.
    JAZZ: Your penultimate comment had nothing to do with the story posted here, and everything to do with disparaging someone who disagreed with your POV. That does not make this site “informative and fun”. It makes it a place someone can post their thoughts — and get bullied for having an opinion.
    I enjoy debate and I have no issue with people expressing opinions that run counter to mine or to anyone’s on this site — though my preference is always for debate to be reasonably courteous. I do have a problem with people making ad hominem comments. I don’t see how those add anything to an author’s understanding of the debate on his or her piece.

  18. Charles Pinch

    I agree. I haven’t published my recent short fiction here because the writing I’m doing now is not a good fit (though I’ve had good luck getting it picked up elsewhere.) Nevertheless I value and support this site and applaud Nancy in her achievement. I read every story posted as well as all the comments. I belong to two other ‘lit forums’ and believe me, it’s choppier sailing than good ole CL. But at the same time — I feel I really learn something there. You not only get to read a ‘story’ but more enriching is the chance to see how different writers approach all manner of themes and the styles that emerge from these. You don’t get comments like, ‘Great story, X!’ or ‘Well done, Y’. You can count on your grandmother to say that (unless she happens to be Anais Nin) and while such comments are a balm to the ego they have no value as constructive criticism. As a contributor I try and restrict my comments to stories I feel have some quality and to explain why I think the story works for me or what’s especially good about it, because I think it’s important — both as an author and reader — to zero in on specifics: voice, word choice, dialogue, structure etc. I guess I’m an exception to the rule here but I don’t really see the value anymore of stories that are written simply to entertain. Sure, they have their place, but I am discovering — through discussions, blog threads, forum exchanges, there is so much more to writing: the ‘conflict/resolution’ template is only the tip of the iceberg as to what’s possible with fiction. I sometimes feel alone here because there’s not much analytical discussion and I would love to partake in it…but then, again, it ain’t my backyard.

    The real enjoyment is the chance to participate in a democratic forum. And again, thanks to Nancy for making it possible.

  19. Random Writer

    Congratulations, Guinotte! That’s a mighty fine book, by the look of the cover 😉 – and the look of the comments on amazon. I might have to trundle off to my favourite independent bookseller and get him to order me a copy.

  20. JAZZ

    Charles: you are by far my favourite contributor to this site….!!!
    Agreed, some very short stories on this site are written solely to entertain and provide very little opportunity for the In-depth analysis and discussion that you refer to. However, some of them are clever, need no analysis and if they provoked a smile the authors have accomplished what they set out to do.
    I, too, love analytical discussion. I am half Irish with a dash of Scotch and we are hard-wired for discussion and we can take the heat. And we don’t get huffy if we loose the debate.
    Please don’t “…..feel alone…” You have much so much to offer.
    JAZZ

  21. Charles

    Jazz,
    A compliment given is one returned. Thank you! More than once you’ve called it a spade when others said it’s a shovel and your comments, sometimes brash, always insightful, are well-taken. Though I won’t go so far as to call you a s*** disturber I do get the feeling that if there’s a pile nearby and you find a stick, we better watch out. Scotch? Irish? Yes, please. No ice and fill it to the rim. Warm regards, Charles

  22. Mary Steer

    Just read through this thread with some interest, and I was very impressed with what Charles posted and agree, largely, with what he says (still not entirely sure about the post-modern tradition — that alone is worth a whole conversation of its own, probably better over a pint or three).

    That being said, times I’ve submitted a story here and it’s been accepted, I have made the story all it can be — I don’t submit things I think could be better and then hope commenters will give me guidance. With all due respect, I don’t know the people here, so I honestly don’t know whether your critiques would be worth paying any attention to. I go to classes for that. (Mind you, feeling that I “know” Charles better now from what he’s posted on this thread, I would certainly pay close attention to anything he had to say.)

    I’m also interested in what JAZZ had to say here. JAZZ, why do you think this is a forum for debate? Surely whether someone likes a piece of writing or not, and whether they have suggestions as to how it could be “better” if they don’t like it, are purely subjective and therefore nothing than can be proven empirically? And why do you think of it as winning and losing? Doesn’t everyone win if we engage with each other in what Random Writer calls a “reasonably courteous” way? Or do you just prefer fighting? Some of your comments, here and in other threads on CL, seem kind of…fighty. Maybe that’s just the Irish in you?

  23. JAZZ

    The late Christopher Hitchens, a self-described contrarian, is one of my literary heroes. Love him or hate him, agree with him or not, he was a powerful critic with an incredible command of the language. He needed no popular vote on his work — and neither do I.
    So I will climb back on my broom stick and leave you all to your polite discourse.
    Cheerio,
    JAZZ

  24. Michael Joll

    Our writing group read and discussed “Desert Dog” at our last meeting. The unanimous decision was No Plot = No Story. But who are we to make such value judgements?

    Linguistically, the term “post modern” makes no sense. There is nothing more modern than modern.

    And I wouldn’t cross the street to attend a Picasso exhibition. Which may explain why my stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. All very predictable but I generally don’t leave the reader scratching her head wondering what I’m trying to convey.

    Just some thoughts. And I really did enjoy “Desert Dog”. Thanks, Guinotte.

  25. Frank Sikora

    My thoughts: On one hand, I love James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon and other works where the literary razzle dazzle outweighs an easy to understand narrative. I just reread Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist and Melville’s Moby Dick and my head still aches. These works combine great, innovative writing that surpasses most if not all modernist works and tells a great story. However, given an option between story or literary wonder, I choose story.
    My writing? I have many goals, but my objectives are simple: Break the readers hearts and then find an interesting and satisfying way to mend them…

  26. Hannah McKinnon

    Like you, Michael, my stories have a beginning, middle and end. And that’s just the way I like it.

    I don’t want people to read my stories and think, “What did the ‘artiste’ mean when she wrote this, how was she feeling, hmmm…” cue dramatic chin rubbing with furrowed brow.

    I write commercial not literary fiction because that’s what I’m good at. My aim is absolutely to entertain, whether the story is light and fluffy, dark and grisly or somewhere in between.

    I know very well I can’t please everyone with my writing, and that’s perfectly okay. If that makes my stories a bottle of Steam Whistle for some, rather than a glass of Jackson Triggs, so be it. Because for others it may well be the other way around.

  27. Charles

    I get the feeling these last three comments were skewered in my direction. Perhaps I didn’t make myself as clear on this issue as I’d thought. I don’t readily draw a distinction between ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’ fiction. I agree with probably the snobbiest of all 20th Century literary artists — Vladimir Nabokov — there is only one school of writing and that is the school of talent. That means Stephen King is a great writer and so is David Foster Wallace. My personal interest, as it stands at the moment, is for fiction that moves in a different direction from what I referred to earlier as the ‘conflict/resolution’ template, but that is simply an expression of preference and not a blanket dismissal of any other approach. The ‘rub’ no matter what gate you charge from is to write something that, on the most basic level, communicates, maybe moves, and on the highest level transcends ordinary experience — that is the magic of art. Like Truman Capote (and King BTW) I don’t think this kind of writing can be taught in the classroom or learned by route. Yeah, you can teach someone to write a story or a novel but you can’t teach them to write a great story or novel. Words are not only a means but an end in themselves and a fib, well told, works just as well as the truth.

  28. Charles

    He did but he said it as a dismissal of Jack Kerouac’s magnificent ‘On The Road’, the iconic novel of the Beat Generation. It took Kerouac three weeks to write, non-stop, on huge roll of paper measured in meters that he’d pasted together so he wouldn’t have to pause during sessions. He was a good-looking, smart ass rabble rouser and his sexually charged aura left Capote weak in the knees (or maybe wanting to get down on them). Kerouac spurned his advances (though he dallied with other men) and that’s when the author of the magnificent fact-as-fiction novel ‘In Cold Blood’ shot back with his zinger. His actual words were: ‘That’s not writing; it’s typing.’

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