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It was a typically hot mid-July day in Enterprise, Alabama, and as I unhooked a loaded trailer at a textile factory, two boys in a distant field watched. They were probably around 11 or 12, standing while straddling their bicycles.
As I hooked to an empty trailer destined for South Carolina, they peddled my way.
“Hey, fellas,” I said as they neared. I always called younger boys “fellas.” My uncle Russell called me and my friends that when I was a kid, and it always made me feel older, which is all I really wanted to feel when I was young. Besides boobs.
One of the boys, chubby, his dark skin glazed with sweat, wore cut-off jeans and a shiny blue and white shirt featuring Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman throwing a football. The other boy was skinny and wore his hat backward.
“Hi, sir,” said the chubby one. “Is this your truck?”
“Naw, it’s the company’s,” I said. “But they let me drive it. Unless I run into a wall.”
I bet if I’d have added “or fart in it,” it would have brought down the house. I smiled at them and they beamed back these great kid smiles.
“You guys want a soda?” I asked.
“Sure!” they replied.
And just as they said “Sure,” I realized all I had was crummy diet soda. They’d caught me on the one week I thought I was fat or something and had bought a case of some sugar free bilge that tasted like steel wool submerged in carbonated water. So here I was, asking them if they wanted a soda with them thinking I had Coke or root beer, or worse case scenario, orange or grape. It felt cruel on my part. It was as if I had said, “Hey! Would you like a free 52” widescreen TV? Yeah it’s a plasma screen and movies look awesome on it. And yes, it comes with a remote. Oh, why is it free? Well, I was out of town and my roommate thought it would be hilarious to pause the SNL Best of Chris Farley DVD at the point where he’s shirtless in the Chippendales audition and left the TV on for a week. So if you don’t mind a ghost image of Farley’s man boobs burned permanently into the screen, it works great.”
So I apologized for not having regular soda. But they didn’t seem to mind.
“He’s on a diet, anyway,” said the skinny one. The chubby kid laughed.
I got into the truck, retrieved the sodas, and handed each one. They thanked me and drank thirstily.
“My uncle used to drive a truck,” said the skinny one.
“Yeah?” I said, hooking up to the trailer’s brake and electrical connections.
“Well, he used to. One time he was driving down one of those things…” he paused and scratched his elbow with the lip of the soda can, “and his truck fell down one of them…”
He couldn’t remember the word, then made a downward motion with his free hand.
“A hill?” I asked.
“A hill. Yeah.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You have to be careful on hills.”
“I know,” he said. “They had a big funeral and everything. He dead.”
I wasn’t expecting him to say that and told him I was sorry. The chubby one told me his name was Darryl and reached his hand out to shake mine. I felt a little uncomfortable shaking a kid’s hand, as if I’d look like a pedophile or something, but since I’m not I got over it. His hand was sweaty like a soaked oven mitt. The skinny kid said, “I’m Kerry,” and lifted his hand from his hip for a quick wave, then slid his other hand along the trailer until he came to the fuel tanks and pointed at them.
“What’s those?” Kerry asked.
“Fuel tanks,” I said.
“Man,” he said, marveling at their bulk. “You gotta pay for all that fuel?”
I told him the company did. He looked relieved for me.
“How much do you make?” Kerry asked.
“Oh, probably about $1000 a week,” I said.
“A thousand dollars?” said Darryl. Both of them went wide-eyed, like they had no idea they’d been talking to a millionaire. “Wow. My dad only makes $20 a week.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked, thinking, I love a kid’s concept of money.
When he saw that I was smiling a little wider, he realized $20 must have been way short of his dad’s actual earnings and upped the amount.
“Sometimes he makes a hundred though.”
They seemed to think I had the best job in the world. I wanted them to understand the reality of it though, so I explained to them how driving was no picnic as I checked the lights on the trailer and asked them to imagine how boring it would be to sit all day.
“That’s what my mom do and she don’t make nothin’,” said Kerry.
These kids are killing me, I thought.
I suppressed the urge to laugh by biting my tongue and had to chomp down hard. When biting wasn’t sufficient, I had to cough it out, which brought tears to my eyes. Darryl asked if I was okay and I said “yeah,” coughed a few more times, collected my wits, and explained the dangers of smoking. They vowed never to start and eventually things got back on track.
“Where you goin’ after this?” asked Darryl.
“How far is that?”
“About 700 miles.”
Darryl shook his head.
“No it’s not. It’s about 10 feet from here.”
“Oh yeah?” I said. “I tell you what, if you can make Missouri ten feet from here, I’ll give you $20.”
That got them busy. Darryl turned and faced the south, pretending to pull on a thick rope with Missouri attached at the other end. Then Kerry joined in and they both heaved and grunted, looking back at me while they pulled, until finally Darryl dropped the rope and said, “Do you see it?”
It had been a long time since I’d been around kids. I missed them. So spontaneous and full of energy, questions, and imagination. As I laughed, I wondered if I’d have some of my own someday.
They knew they weren’t getting $20 out of me, but I appreciated the effort and handed them each another lousy diet soda, which thrilled them.
After they inspected the exterior of my truck, I left the door open so they could hop on the steps and peer inside. Eventually they wanted a tour, so I helped them up, making sure not to step into the cab with them in case their mom or dad was watching. It’s a shame. Pedophiles have ruined it for grown men who simply like kids and don’t want to have sex with them.
Darryl pretended to drive while Kerry checked out the CB. I said the heck with pedophilic perceptions, joined them in the cab, and turned on the CB just in time to hear a rooster call and someone burp. Their eyes went wide. Kerry asked, “What’s that?” and I told them about the wonders of citizen band radio. I grabbed the mic and meowed through it. Someone barked back. It floored them.
I let them say a few words on the CB then had to get back on the road.
“Thanks a lot for the soda,” said Darryl as he and Kerry got on their bikes.
“Yeah,” said Kerry, who waved and almost lost his balance as he and Darryl began pedaling off.
After I pulled out of the textile factory and onto Industrial Boulevard, they followed me with their bikes for about a block. I could see Kerry waving at me in my side mirror. They peddled harder and harder to keep up until their bikes appeared to go horizontal underneath them. Then my mirrors vibrated wildly as I drove onto a rough part of the road, and their images dissolved with it.