Kemosabe by Mike Sutton
“Whatcha say?” Kemosabe presses the CB radio close to his lips as his rig tears down the highway putting miles between him and home. He never looks back.
“Broke down on I40, about thirty miles outside of Amarillo.” Rawhide sounds like he’s talking through a tin can.
“The fuck you do that for?”
“Hell if I know. Overheated or something. Got smoke pouring out everywhere, but ain’t no fire.”
“Get your dumb ass out of the rig,” Kemosabe hollers. Static cuts over the radio as he pauses to breathe. “Sit tight. I’ll be there shortly”
Motherfucker. He sounds the words out in his mind, stressing each and every syllable. Kemosabe doesn’t have time for this. Baby girl’s birthday is Sunday and he’s already gonna have to drive through most of the nights to get back in time. Missed last year. Can’t do it again. It’s 1980, so she’d be turning ten. He counts out the years in his head to be sure, glancing up at the three pictures pinned to the visor overhead. All of his kids smile back, two daughters and one big boy. They’re back home in Arkansas, tucked away in the hills with their crazy Momma.
Kemosabe slows to a stop just outside of Amarillo, he’d seen the smoke from Rawhide’s truck a mile away. The fat dumbass is waving and hollering, dancing in the fire’s orange glow, like Kemosabe can fix it. Worse, Rawhide probably believes it. The law is already on the way, so Kemosabe sits on the hood of his own rig smoking, not a damn bit of help, but present. Glad it’s Rawhide, he watches the fat man throw his hands in the air as everything turns to ash. Rather not be sitting with some of those other jackasses.
By the time the fire department makes it, the truck is gutted. The customer’d be pissed, but that isn’t Kemosabe’s problem. He offers to haul Rawhide toward home, something he regrets as soon as the words leave his lips. Kemosabe climbs back into his rig, fires her up, and heads West. His kids smile overhead as the odometer racks up dollar signs.
“Can’t believe it,” Rawhide says sitting shotgun, a wad of wintergreen long cut tucked tight behind his lower lip. “Smoke just started coming out from under the hood.”
“Ain’t no telling,” Kemosabe says. “Maintenance crew’s been shit back at the yard anyhow. Second rig to catch fire this year.”
“The whole thing’s a damn mess,” Rawhide says.
“Sure as shit,” Kemosabe says. “Bout sick of it myself. I’d hang up the hat if not for the kids.”
“How’s a man supposed to earn a living if he can’t get behind the wheel?”
Hell if I know, Kemosabe thinks.
Rawhide keeps chattering on and Kemosabe lets his mind drift. Every time he settles down behind that wheel, he likes his job. It has plenty of bullshit, but sitting behind that glass makes him feel free. He knows that by the time he reaches the load drop, he’ll be sick of it. At least he’s not dealing with the shit back home, all that baggage. No eight to five and a cold beer on the porch trying to drown out the nagging wife’s hollering about how something needs fixing. Honest to God, he feels trapped when he’s home.
No way to live, he thinks. Ain’t gonna do it. He keeps the miles churning out and only looks back when he feels like it.
Kemosabe pulls his rig to a stop in a parking lot, the loose gravel cracks and pops under his tires. Bright red lights spelling “DINER” beam over a building with worn down white siding and a front porch long lost to dry rot. Rawhide’s been bitching about food for hours, so Kemosabe thinks he better shut him up.
A ratty motel sits around back where he’d screwed a hooker once, but he’s too tired for hookers or for eating. Rawhide heads inside while Kemosabe slides into the sleeper and lies there, fiddling with the small pistol he keeps in his overalls, his nosepicker. He never goes anywhere without it and sure as hell won’t get caught with his pants around his ankles. He isn’t running from anything, just ready for something to come running toward him. It’s the wild west out here, and sometimes justice is what you make it.
Kemosabe wakes up earlier than God and slips into the old diner that never sleeps. They don’t mind truckers parking out back, so it’s a favorite spot for people headed on I40. Kemosabe spent many a night outside this fine establishment and the motel around back. As he enters, he slips off his green cap and straightens his overall straps. Rawhide is passed out in a window booth.
“I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age!” Miss Rita hollers, beaming. She’s a big woman, the kind that knows how to eat. “I’ll diet when I’m dead,” she’d say. She has the body to prove it. Her breasts swell, too big, and her hips swish and sway like a wrecking ball. She doesn’t wear any makeup and doesn’t carry any delusions about who she is or what she is.
“Mornin,” he says.
“What’ll you have, sweetie?”
“Sweet talking me, eh?” He winks at her with a side grin.
Rita puts her hands on her hips and puckers her lips with a don’t-fuck-with-me sorta look. She likes it. All the ladies like it, even if they don’t show it. He’s smooth. Worse, he knows it.
“I’d sure like a coffee.”
She drops the act, “How’d you take it? Cream? Sugar? I can’t remember.”
“Suit yourself.” She turns, her soft body swinging with each step.
Kemosabe’s met a thousand women like Rita. They have a weary look about them, like they’d figured it out. They’d danced before, that quick step with a man that fills you with electricity but drops you empty-handed in the darkness with tissue boxes. She’s figured out there’s no such thing as love, just a lot of screwing and shattered hearts. An endless cycle as old as Adam.
“Where’d you get that handle?”
“If I told you, I’d have to kill you.” He blows her a kiss. She always asks, and he always answers the same.
She offers a smile, takes a coffee pot off the burner, and dumps it down a sink.
“Gonna make you a fresh pot, hon. Figure you’ll be needing it.”
“Much appreciated, doll.”
He rouses Rawhide to hit the road again after stuffing down biscuits and gravy with a couple cups of black coffee, always black. The constant drone of the CB keeps coming, on and on as Rawhide snores. Dallas, another trucker, is mouthing off over the radio bitching about construction. He hits crank or pep pills, no other way that fool’d be driving at this hour. Too young, too green. Kemosabe keeps the CB on since it helps him stay awake and squeezing out those miles. Kemosabe doesn’t play with crank. Doesn’t need it. That line is for weaker men.
Kemosabe sticks with whiskey. None of that rice shit or the stuff the Reds make out of potatoes. He’ll gamble with tequila if he’s in a fighting mood. Something about it fills his belly with fire, sends him raging. Before long, those calloused fists find a face in need of pounding. He’s found plenty of faces and left his mark. Can’t even remember half of them, they were lost somewhere in all the miles he’d put behind him.
“This motherfucking construction,” Dallas all but screams over the CB. “Gonna put me behind a couple hours.”
“What they doin?” Kemosabe doesn’t recognize the voice. Must be somebody desperate for conversation at this hour.
“Putting up some new bridge or something,” Dallas says. He keeps mouthing off about his lot in life, but Kemosabe stops listening.
Dallas is a weaker breed of man, the kind they churn out in droves nowadays. They aren’t on good terms. Had cross words before, and Rawhide had broken them up outside of a bar near Vegas. Dallas doesn’t fight honest. His kind would pull a knife or a pistol in a heartbeat, kill you point blank, and brag about being the bigger man. Hell, Dallas’d done it himself. Got in a fight with another trucker a while back, alcohol was in the mix. Dallas shot the fella and let him bleed out. Cops couldn’t find any direct evidence to lock him up, so he’d walked. Kemosabe heard the tale straight from Rawhide, who claimed to have been present.
The mechanical chatter keeps bellowing out of the radio. It’s night now, and the slow drone of those empty voices talking about traffic and construction lulls him to sleep. He flips the CB off, cracks another cigarette, lowers his window just a hair, and sucks in the night air. He reaches down to grab a big plastic bottle he keeps in the door, twists off the lid, unbuttons his overall straps, and funnels his dick into the opening. He feels the hot piss escape him, brownish yellow from all the coffee he’s been guzzling. It took a while to get the hang of it, but it saves time, and time is precious in this world. The odometer notches another mile as he screws on the lid.
Rawhides sniffs the smoke and stretches with a wide yawn.
“Whereabouts are we?”
“Bout thirty miles off from Flagstaff,” he takes a puff and lets it loose with heavy clots of smoke.
“You’ve been pushing it pretty hard. What’s the hurry?” Rawhide lights a swisher sweet cigarillo. Heavy vanilla smoke fills the cab.
“Baby girl’s birthday is Sunday,” he says. “Gonna be ten.”
“That right? Didn’t know you had a girl.”
Rawhide isn’t married. Doesn’t know what it’s like having obligations back home. It’s hard work and best to leave it where it belongs.
“I think about settling down, finding me a wife and getting a white picket fence on a hill,” he takes another long draw. “Figure it’d be nice.”
Rawhide keeps droning on but Kemosabe lets his mind wander back home. He’d give anything to be sitting on the lake, fishing pole in hand. He grew up running around the shallow creeks in Arkansas and Tennessee, fishing for whatever’d take a bite. His mind swoons as he feels the slow rocking of his flat bottom. His eyes sag as he drifts, soaking up the sunrays. The rig rattles, almost like thunder, bringing him back from his lakeside dreams.
He thinks about his kids, staring down from overhead. Kemosabe keeps them fed, keeps a roof over their heads, but he’s always gone, always behind the wheel with the wide open road laying out before him. He gives them everything he has, but can never give them the one thing they need most. He’ll come home and in a week’s turn the asphalt will whistle, and he’ll slip out the door before anybody notices. The road is always calling. A year slips by, sometimes just a couple months, but he’s always gone, sitting behind the glass.
The hours burn away, and Kemosabe drops off another load without any trouble. He doesn’t allow time for rest, gets back behind the wheel, and rubs his eyes in deep circles. Baby girl is waiting. He spins the wheel, swinging wide to make the turn without hopping the curb, and pulls back onto the endless road, heading home.
A few days pass and Kemosabe pulls in beneath the familiar glowing letters: “DINER.” Rawhide is snoozing in the sleeper, giving Kemosabe some well-earned peace. Might just make it home in time for the party. Baby girl smiles from the visor overhead, like she knows he’s coming. Like she knows he’s gonna make it this time. He climbs down from his rig and makes his way inside. Miss Ritta works the bar, like always. Kemosabe takes a seat on a tall stool as she approaches.
“Hey there pumpkin.” She says bringing a steaming cup of coffee.
“Look awful hungry,” she says, hands on her hips.
“What’ll you have?”
She smiles, “Suit yourself.”
“I’ll have a beer though,” he says as she’s walking away, her hips swaying wide. It’s not normal. The home office would have a stroke if they knew, but he’s feeling good today. He deserves it. Miss Rita brings the beer and promises the food will be out quick. He doesn’t mind waiting. He’s got time to spare.
A patty melt and potato chips arrive. A big pickle spear sits on the side, its juices soak into the soft white bread.
“Thank’ya ma’am.” He says as Rita blows him a kiss.
“Best on I40,” she laughs.
Kemosabe relaxes, for a moment, stretches himself out and fills his belly with a hot meal. Couldn’t be happier to be out from behind the glass. The beer is better than he’d hoped. It’s nothing special, just cheap booze, but it’s light and crisp and tastes just right. He orders a chocolate milkshake with a cherry on top and thinks this is what heaven must feel like.
“I’ll be damned,” a familiar voice sounds behind Kemosabe. He isn’t happy to hear it.
Dallas takes a step and stands swinging distance next to him, patting a stool. He’s tall and slender, too slender, with mouse eyes and a handlebar mustache hanging over his lips. He’s wearing blue jeans and a denim button up shirt with too many buttons undone, not a hair on his chest.
“Heard ole Rawhide burned down a rig a couple days back. Heard you watched it happen.” Dallas pauses for a moment and sucks air through his teeth. “Know anything about it?”
Kemosabe takes a swig from his beer and turns to face Dallas, looking him straight in the eyes. They’re darting back and forth, like they can’t sit still. Those eyes remind Kemosabe of his kids when they get to eating cotton candy at the county fair. Can’t control them, no matter how hard you swing.
“Can’t believe they let you behind the wheel again.” Kemosabe says as Dallas pulls the stool next to him out as if he’s planning to sit. “That ain’t a good idea.”
“You bet your sweet ass that’s right.”
Dallas licks at his mustache, like he’s thinking about doing something. He’s chicken shit, Kemosabe knows it, but he’s crazy too. The way his eyes are darting, probably on the crank. Ain’t thinking right. He doesn’t know what’s weighing on Kemosabe’s mind. Doesn’t have a damn clue about the dynamite he’s playing with.
“Best shut your mouth, big boy,” Dallas says, spreading his smooth chest wide and flexing his arms out, his first mistake.
Dallas eases one hand around his back toward his beltline. Kemosabe knows what he’s after but sits there, tapping a thumb on the counter loudly. Dallas’s eyes twitch with every thumb stroke, keeping time.
“You hear me, you dumb son of a bitch?” There’s the second. Something snaps.
The stool flips out from under Kemosabe faster than greased lighting and he’s on top of Dallas, his big fists wailing down fury. A revolver flies free of Dallas’s hand and clatters to the ground, out of reach.
Kemosabe smiles, He’s right where I want him.
Miss Rita hollers, but Kemosabe isn’t paying her any mind. Dallas is younger and quicker, so he manages to snake himself free and take a few swings at Kemosabe. Even lands one, but Kemosabe’s taken his fair share of licks. He’d give Dallas what he came for, come what may.
As most fights end, the two end up grappling on the floor. Dallas lacks experience, so Kemosabe makes quick work of him. Balls his right fist and drives it hard into Dallas’s stomach. He can feel the air come kicking and screaming out with a pop and a gagging noise. Chicken shit claws at the floor, trying to get loose. He’s ready to run. Kemosabe knows it and lets him. Dallas rushes toward the door, trips, but manages to drag himself out. Kemosabe sits up, straightens his overall straps, and takes another swig of beer. He tastes blood this time, but doesn’t care. He feels good. That part of him that’s dormant most of the time, that raging animal caged deep inside, just got fed. Feels like he’s bagged a buck. Feels primal.
“What the hell!” Miss Rita hollers, coming around the counter and staring open-mouthed at the revolver.
“Mind your business Rita,” Kemosabe says. “Done taken care of.”
She knows better. This is a man’s world and she’d better toe the line.
“Still want that milkshake?” she asks, shaky but needing something to occupy her hands.
“Yes ma’am. I sure do.” He winks and lets himself feel that primal dominance. His chest swells as he picks up Dallas’s revolver and looks it over. He takes his seat at the stool, sets the revolver on the other end of the counter, and stares into the beer like he’s searching for life’s answers.
Miss Rita brings the milkshake before long.
“What am I supposed to do with that?” She asks, pointing at the revolver.
“Hell if I know,” he says, taking a slurp off the shake.
“Ain’t you something . . .” she says, shaking her head and walking back into the kitchen.
All he can think about is baby girl, smiling and waiting.
“Not long now,” he whispers to himself. “Not long at all . . .”
As he takes one last drag, an orange glow catches his eye sparkling in his empty beer glass. It dances, quivers, and swells. It reminds him of campfires, sunshine burning through the lake’s morning fog, and birthday candles. Kemosabe notices it, loses himself in it as his eyes weigh heavy, flickering in the glass. Something doesn’t feel right. He turns, slowly, and realizes his rig’s on fire. The whole damn thing is blazing. He knocks over what’s left of his milkshake as he stumbles out the door, hollering for someone to call the law. Nobody else is moving. Everybody’s frozen in place.
He stands there drowning in the orange light. There’s not a damn thing he can do, it’s too far gone. Funny thing, he doesn’t care about the truck. Doesn’t care about the two-hundred-dollar stash he’s got tucked in the glove compartment, the piss jug, or even whether Rawhide got out in time. It’s the pictures of his kids pinned to the visor. That’s what’s eating him up. They’re already ash, he knows it. Obliterated in a thousand licks of the inferno engulfing the sleeper and trailer. There’s no sign of Dallas. Chicken shit already ran off.
Sunday came and went, and the miles rolled by as Kemosabe headed home. Another trucker passing through picked him up and carried him toward home. He’d make it, eventually. Missed baby girl’s party. But it was too little, too late.
Mike Sutton calls the rolling hills of Northwest Arkansas home, where he practices law and writes in his free time. Prior to entering the legal profession, Mike served in the U.S. Air Force as a military police officer and attended Ouachita Baptist University, where he studied History and English Literature. You can find Mike writing in one of Fayetteville’s local coffee shops or on the water, fishing pole in hand.
Be sure to check out our exclusive interview with Mike on the Orson’s Publishing blog.