The sound of the air conditioner blasting drowned out the roar of the engine and crooning of some country song on the radio. I was shivering in my coat, almost in sync with the vibration of the road, while I watched the heat waves rising off the highway. Wayne was driving the big red semi eastbound on I-80 through Nebraska while I tried to come to grips with my new life.
I was homeless, living in the cab of a truck with my husband and my 18-month-old baby girl, drowning in a sea of corn and cattle, on our way to deliver 42,000 pounds of French fries to someplace in New Jersey.
Only a week earlier, I was about to close a commercial real estate deal that would have paid our rent and launched my new career. Now Wayne was the only thing keeping me and my baby from standing in line at a homeless shelter.
The deal fell through. The landlord dropped off an eviction notice. My parents told me that I had made my bed and had to sleep in it. The church said that our landlord, who was one of their members and a savvy businessman was likely to kick us out even if we paid the rent. The neighbors across the courtyard said the landlord showed up with a gun the last time someone didn’t clear out by the deadline, and that the newest tenants were paying more than twice what was allowed by our lease.
So I turned down the church’s offer to pay my rent in exchange for a week’s work at the soap factory while other members, strangers to me, but just as fine and upstanding as our landlord, watched my little girl. Instead I cleaned and scrubbed and packed for a week and wished I could call my husband and tell him what was happening.
Wayne was on the road with his trainer. He was supposed to get his own truck soon, and then we would have a steady pay check and these money problems would be behind us. At least, that is what I believed, and what I tried to explain to our landlord.
“It’s your turn,” my husband announced suddenly, disturbing my thoughts, and grinning like an idiot. It was the grin that accompanied his practical jokes, many of which left me groaning instead of laughing. But what was there to joke about?
“What?” I asked, looking back into the bunk area of the truck. My daughter was sleeping peacefully on the bunk. There was no odor of dirty diapers. I was off-duty for the moment. No food to make, no diapers to change, no infant to entertain so she would not cry or climb or otherwise distract Wayne while he was driving.
We had been in the truck for 24 hours, and a new routine was already establishing itself as we adjusted to our new home on wheels, a home smaller than most bathrooms.
Wayne had returned to Salt Lake the day before we had to be out of our apartment and picked up the pieces of my broken dreams. We found a storage unit and he talked to the management at his company about our situation and got special permission for me and his step-daughter to ride on the truck with him.
At least, that’s what he told me.
Usually, new drivers had to wait until they finished a probationary period before they could have their family ride along in the truck. Anyone on the truck without written permission from the company was considered an unauthorized passenger. Having an unauthorized passenger on the truck was grounds for immediate termination, but I did not know that then.
“It’s your turn.” He said again, a little louder this time, with a more serious look on his face.
“My turn to what?” I asked, glancing back at my daughter again. “Kelly is sleeping.”
“Drive?” I laughed. I couldn’t drive. You have to have a special license to drive one of these trucks. Wayne knew that because he had just completed a 3-week school to get his CDL and a two month on-the-job apprenticeship with an experienced driver before his company would trust him to drive solo.
“I can’t drive this thing. I don’t have a license.” I said, shaking my head and turning back to the view out the passenger side window.
“You drive or no one does.” He shrugged. Then he made a show of setting the cruise control at 65 miles per hour and standing up between the driver and passenger seats. He had one finger on the steering wheel.
“I can’t,” I whispered, shaking my head again, scared by then that he was actually serious. I could see the pressure ease on his finger as he slowly started lifting it from the wheel.
I glanced back at my daughter sleeping in the back and imagined the truck running into the ditch that separated the road from those fields of corn. In my imagination it was a big fiery crash like a car exploding after driving off a cliff in the movies.
I didn’t know why he would do this. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was that I didn’t want my whole family to die in a ball of flames.
“I’ll crash.” I complained.
“No you won’t.” He replied, taking a step backward toward the bunk.
I didn’t think it was safe for me to drive this truck. I knew it wasn’t legal and I was afraid of its size and weight. I was afraid of being able to keep it in our lane, and of the damage I would do if I couldn’t. But I trusted Wayne, and if he thought I could do it, maybe I could. He must have known what he was doing.
I was bound to be better behind the wheel than nobody. I could at least, probably, keep it out of the ditch until Wayne came to his senses.
So I slipped across the cab and into the driver’s seat.
I held onto the steering wheel and kept us in our lane for a hundred miles, then two hundred. The air conditioning was not sufficient to keep me from sweating the whole time. I pestered my husband to tell me where the other gears were and asked questions like: “Where are the brakes?”, “What if I need to stop?”, and “What if I need to pee?”
He told me he’d tell me when I needed to know, that for now, I should just keep it on the road. By evening we were almost through Iowa and had climbed up and down some rolling hills where I learned to shift between 9th and 10th gears. I had no idea where the other 8 gears were, or how to stop the truck, or turn a corner.
All those things would come in the next few days as we made our way across the Mid-West and into the mountains of New England. A trip that transformed the husband I had thought of as my best friend in the world, sometimes my only friend, into a raging monster who yelled and threatened me if I did not agree to do more and more dangerous things each day.