Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Welcome, James M. Hartley, Jr.
"Jeez, Andy, lookit that antique!"
Andy looked up from his burger platter and craned his neck around to see what Harv was looking at. "What, that rig that just pulled in?"
"Yeah, that thing must be a '53 or '54 Peterbilt, but it looks just like new. I'd expect any rig that old that's out on the road pulling loads to be a wreck."
"Ah, probably some old guy that makes one trip a month and spend the rest of his time polishing his rig." He turned back to his dinner, using a french fry to pursue a puddle of ketchup around his plate.
"Nope, you're wrong," said Harv. "The driver just got out, and it's a young kid -- can't be more'n 25." He looked around the diner. "This place is full up, he's gonna have trouble finding a seat. You mind if I invite him to join us?"
"Not as long as he sits on your side. I hate feeling crowded."
The driver entered the diner and stopped just inside the door to look for a seat. Harv waved at him until he caught his eye, then motioned him over to their booth.
"Come on and sit with us, kid. It's pretty crowded in here right now."
"Thanks, glad to. Rick's the name, but you may as well call me Dutch. Everyone does." He slid into the booth next to Harv and picked up a menu.
Harv said, "Pleased to meetcha, Dutch. I'm Harv, and the chowhound over there is Andy." Andy nodded and mumbled something unintelligible through a mouthful of food. Harv continued, "Ya know, Dutch, that is quite some rig you're driving there. What is it, a '54?"
Dutch gave his order to the waitress who had just come over, then replied, "No, it's a '53. But most people can't even tell that close, nowadays. It's a great little rig, I've had it since it was new."
"Come off it," said Harv. "You weren't even born in '53, let alone driving a rig."
"I'm a lot older than I look, Harv. I got out of high school in '50." Harv looked skeptical. "That's the truth, really. I went to truck driving school, then got a job driving. But I knew I had to have my own rig to get anywhere, and when my uncle died I took every cent he left me, and all my savings too, and bought Old Betsy out there. I had a girl, Laura was her name, and we wanted to get married. But she agreed that buying the truck was the right move, even if we had to wait a little, we'd be much better off in the long run."
"Makes sense to me," said Andy, in the brief pause between his burger and the wedge of pie the waitress had just put in front of him.
"It made great sense," continued Dutch, "but I got too greedy. This guy named Johnny that I knew from high school came to see me one day. 'Rick,' he says, that was before they started calling me Dutch, 'Rick, we've got a great deal for you. You let us know when you have a really valuable cargo, and we'll hijack it. Then you get the insurance, plus we slip you a cut under the table, and we all come out ahead.'"
"Yeah, I've heard of that racket," said Harv. "But you can't do it very often. They start to wonder why only the good stuff gets hit. Sooner or later word gets out and you can't get any loads -- you're dead."
"Well, I'd never heard of it, so I told Johnny I'd do it. Laura wasn't very happy when I told her about it, but I convinced her it was OK. Then for six months I didn't get anything worth taking. I was still hauling for the company I had been working for, and they'd send me out to St. Louis with roofing shingles, and the office there would send me back with animal food. Johnny was bugging me, I told him he could have his choice of shingles or dog food. That shut him up for a while.
"Then I got a good one. The dispatcher had me hook up an empty box and go see a Mr. Shaitan. This guy gave me the willies. He was paying full load price to put three coffin-sized crates in the empty box. He wouldn't tell me what was in'em, just kept saying they were harmless as long as nobody opened'em. And he told me they were real valuable, 'priceless, beyond price' was what he said. So I loaded them up, and I started out, and of course as soon as I was out of sight I stopped and called Johnny."
"I had a feeling that was coming," said Andy.
"Yeah," said Harv.
"Yeah is right," said Dutch. "I called him and we set up the arrangements. That night I parked way in the back of a truck stop, near the fence. Next morning the lock was broken, the box was empty. The police came, I knew nothing about it, they believed me. Only trouble is, that Mr. Shaitan, he showed up, and he didn't believe me, not one bit. I told him the company had insurance to cover it, and he just said, 'No insurance will cover this. I told you those caskets were beyond all price.' 'Caskets,' I said, 'you mean I was hauling stiffs?' He shook his head, and said 'No, they were just asleep. But I pity anyone who opens the caskets and wakes them.' After that he wouldn't explain any more."
"I once hauled a load of caskets from Jersey to L.A., but they were all empty," said Andy.
Harv and Dutch ignored Andy, and Dutch continued, "The cops told me I had to stay there, and Mr. Shaitan, he got a room and he stayed too. I didn't know how long I'd be stuck there, but it was only until the next night. Somebody reported a fire in a deserted warehouse nearby, but when the fire department arrived there was no sign of fire. The guy who reported it insisted he'd seen flames, so they broke in. They found the caskets, open and empty, and they found six corpses that looked like they'd been barbecued. More cooked than this burger," he gestured at his plate. "The really odd thing, though, was that nothing around them showed any burns or signs of heat. Just the six bodies. They identified four of the six, but the other two were so badly burned they couldn't find a clue. I guess Johnny was one of those two, because he wasn't on the list of names they showed me. I could honestly say I never heard of any of them."
"You were lucky there, kid," said Harv. "If the cops had identified someone who went to high school with you they might have tried to pin something on you."
"Yeah, I thought so too, then. But later I began to wish the cops had gotten me. It would've meant a year or two, maybe, no more. This way it's been 35 so far, and no end in sight."
"You're not making a lot of sense," said Andy.
"It was that Mr. Shaitan. The cops had taken us down to the morgue to see the bodies. After the cops left, he grabbed me and said 'You had more to do with it than those fools are capable of discovering, I can sense it.' Then he stared into my eyes. I was like paralyzed, hypnotized, whatever. I couldn't move. After a few moments he said, 'Ah, you and Johnny!' He looked at the corpses and pointed at one of the unidentified ones. 'He has earned death for his deeds. You,' pointing at me, 'I condemn to life, driving, never returning home until I recapture those who escaped.' Then I blacked out, and when I woke up I was in the cab of Old Betsy. I just wanted to get out of there, so I fired her up and headed home ..." He stopped.
"You headed home," prompted Harv.
"But I never got there. I can't get closer than about twenty miles. I try, and suddenly I find myself driving away from home on another road. I can't phone, the calls won't go through. I can't see my folks, if they're even alive any more. I can't see Laura, although I imagine she's married someone else by now. By the time Mr. Shaitan catches whoever or whatever it was that got loose, there won't be a single thing on Earth that I'll recognize. Already I'm losing touch, this diner is one of the few places that's been around that long."
They were all finished eating, and Harv started digging money out of his wallet. Dutch started to reach for his, and Harv waved him to put it back. "That was a terrific story, I owe you for keeping us entertained during dinner. You ever thought of taking up writing, science fiction or something like that?"
Dutch looked at Harv sadly. "You don't believe me, do you?" Harv shook his head. "Of course you don't. Nobody ever does. But I don't guess it really matters."
The three walked out into the evening air. Harv and Andy stopped on the steps and watched Dutch heading toward the old Peterbilt. Suddenly Andy called, "You didn't tell us where you got the nickname Dutch."
Dutch paused and called back, "Haven't you ever heard of the old legend, the Flying Dutchman? The wanderer who could never return home?" He turned away and swung up into the cab.
Harv and Andy heard him put the truck in gear, and watched him start up. They watched him pull out of the diner's parking lot onto the short stretch of old highway that was now the service road for the new interstate, and accelerate down the service road.
Andy said nervously, "Hey, Harv, isn't he going kinda fast to make the ramp out onto the interstate?"
"Yeah, he is. What the heck's he think he's ..."
His voice trailed off as the truck started to fade. It was still visible, but they could now see through it. Then, as they watched in amazement, the ghost truck rolled through the barrier at the end of the service road and on down the ghost of the old highway, the road as it had been 35 years ago. After a while it disappeared in the distance.
If this awesome story left you craving more, then visit Jim's website and find out more about his upcoming release.