This is an excerpt from Robert Martin’s novel, Boxcar.
He thumbed a ride on I-90 after hiking north from Gardiner. The gleaming red semi that wheezed to the shoulder and waited for him had fangs fixed to the grill and a cavern behind the seats for sleeping, where the driver told him to toss his pack. The luxury of a sleepspace made the truck, to Harlan’s understanding, one of the nicer models on the road.
The driver played the part: a stiff-billed, mesh-backed cap; a plaid, flannelled paunch protruding from a stained vest. His cheeks were unshaven, oily skin shining beneath the stubble. He introduced himself as a bad mother who you would not want to fuck with, then he looked at Harlan and grinned. “My name’s Dave,” he said. “Fooey, you are one smelly chicken.”
They drove below twelve-thousand-foot peaks, glaciated, snowbound. It was a rainy day. A gray and purple sky darkened the foothills. Harlan rolled down his window and told the man his name, then closed his eyes. There wouldn’t be mountains in Wisconsin. He wouldn’t see mountains past Bozeman.
“Where you headed?” Dave asked over the roar of the engine, of the huge tires on the wet pavement. Their motion had a propulsion to it, like a gallop. Not the steady pull Harlan anticipated.
Harlan coughed, his throat dry, and said, “East,” but the wind coming through the window swallowed it. He had to repeat it several times for Dave to hear.
“Well I know that, Dan, we’re all headed east on this side of the road. Where you headed? How far?”
Harlan opened his eyes. “My name’s not Dan,” he said. “Luke Harlan.”
“Maybe, but you’re as Dan a man as I ever come across,” Dave said, and then laughed so hard that specks of something flew from his mouth, disappearing into the recesses of the dashboard.
“Wisconsin,” Harlan said. “To see my nephew.” He wanted to tell the man more. He wanted to tell him that his nephew was experiencing something only Harlan could relate to. But Dave was busy checking his mirrors like he no longer cared, like the whole question of destination was a formality. They sat inside the hum of the truck, no words between them.
“This is a nice truck,” Harlan said. “I’ve never been in a truck before.”
“How do you know it’s nice, then?” More specks launched from Dave’s mouth, and then he dug into a sack between his seat and the door, replenishing a mouthful of what Harlan identified as sunflower seeds.
A squabble of spitfire burst through Dave’s CB, and Harlan caught the word astronaut because it was repeated several times. Dave settled into the slow lane.
“Why are they talking about astronauts?” Harlan asked.
Dave spat the hollowed shell of a sunflower seed onto the floor and pointed through the windshield at a speck in the sky. A Cessna plane flew parallel to the freeway a thousand feet above them.
“Huh,” Harlan said. “You have a code.”
The slow lane was a parade of semis, all pulling the speed limit until the grade steepened at high elevation. This steady pace was some kind of a magical velocity, and the air swirled through the cabin in a tight eddy.
Dave said, “Jesus shit, you are the smelliest sack of bones I have ever laid nose on.” He rolled his window down and leaned way out. He said, “You been living inside a fart?”
“I’ve been hiking,” Harlan said. He shifted in his seat but there was nothing he could do.
“What, for a goddamn year?”
“Five years! What the Christ for? I been camping one time in my life. Skeetoes ripped me alive. Never do it again. What the hell you been hiking five years for?” He grimaced across the cab. “Five years?”
Dave smacked his lips and ran a finger beneath his nose. Harlan thought he’d ask him what might compel a man to abandon the trail after five years. What could be so important that it pulls a man back into a world he’d abandoned? Instead, Dave asked, “You see any buffalo?”
The image that sprung to mind was one that occupied a regular place in Harlan’s imagination. It was from two winters ago, something he hadn’t mentioned to anyone, even Thalia. He said, “Sometimes in the middle of winter some of the hot springs will freeze over on the surface. Bison have pointy hooves but they weigh a ton. One was walking across and his legs broke through the ice and then the rest of his body dropped into the water, a deep section, and he couldn’t climb out.” Harlan left out that it took three days, that the rest of the herd stood on the shore and watched it, pacing and moaning, that the fallen animal had to exhaust itself treading water before finally letting itself go under. He left out that it kept its eyes open while it died, that its last vision came up through the milky gray lens of the water, pleading until the end. “I don’t know if it was a male or female,” Harlan said. “I think they both have horns.”
“Boiled alive,” Dave said. “Did you eat it? I eat buffalo burgers every time I’m in this part.”
Harlan had the urge to yank the steering wheel, pull the whole red fanged mass into the rock wall beside them. He said, “I couldn’t get to it. Because of the thin ice.”
A clearer string of squabble lurched through the CB, and they both heard a distinct, intentional voice say, “Breaker one nine, Bad Mother. Mongoose up front.”
Dave pulled the mouthpiece by its coiled cable and held it sideways beside his face. “This is Bad Mother. Kick it in Mongoose.”
“I think I got a bumper sticker,” Mongoose said.
Mother leaned over the steering wheel and peered at a Nissan Sentra tailgating the semi in front of them. “Affirmative. Stuck tight,” Bad Mother said.
“Been on me at these damned double nickels since the pull.”
Harlan stared at the radio in Dave’s hand like he could see the language coming out of it. Dave switched hands, the truck lurching laterally just a bit as he released the wheel.
“Come back Mother,” Mongoose said. “You think we can scrape ’im?”
“Negative,” Dave said. “Bear plane’s a-flying.” In a slightly quieter voice, he added, “Got a Dirty Dan O-B.”
Dave had called Harlan “Dan” earlier. “O-B” must mean “on board.” This spark of translation thrilled Harlan.
Mongoose’s laughter sounded out of place in the current of static over the CB. He said, “Bad Mother, you off and picked up another buffalo?”
Dave glanced at Harlan’s hands in his lap and then looked him in the eye. Harlan didn’t mean to be staring back. Dave lifted his finger off the CB’s talk button and leaned directly into Harlan’s stink. “How about it,” he asked. “You buffalo?”
This was not a question Harlan understood. “It’s a different animal,” he said. “They’re Bison around here.”
Dave seemed to like this. He laughed and slapped his thighs. He said to Mongoose, “Recon at the Choke ’n’ Puke. Over,” and he clipped his mouthpiece back in its holster beside the sun visor.
Harlan leaned his head against the headrest and let his eyes fall closed.
“Lookin’ for pinholes, huh?” Dave said. He pointed with his thumb to the space behind the seats where Harlan had set his pack. He said, “Lay on down, take a snooze. I’ll wake you when we stop.”
Harlan moved to the den behind the seats. He tucked his body beside his pack so that it hugged him from behind, as if they fit back together out of habit.
Only twice in five years did the park catch him off guard: once while he was descending a scree-covered slope. It was late spring of his third year. The rocks underfoot began to shift, not uncommon on the scree. He assumed his own feet were at fault. You loosen one stone and it weakens the whole equation.
Harlan froze, trying to regain his balance before finding a delicate way down. Ten feet to his left, a jet of steam burst through the dirt and rocks. The blast knocked him backward and onto his backpack, like a turtle, his legs in the air. The hill shook like a sifter. He slid downward along with the rocks and dirt and the rest of the hillside. Steam jetted steadily through the orifice and the rocks quivered all around him, and in the clarity of panic he noticed he wasn’t moving any farther away from the vent.
A few seconds after the steam dissolved, after the hillside had settled down and resumed being a nondescript slope, Harlan inched closer to the vent. He hoped for a glowing red eye of lava, an opening large enough for his body. By the time he got near enough to see it, the vent had been sealed over by dirt and rocks like a scab healing over a wound.
His days after that were the same: peaceful, filled with isolation and motion. But his dreams for a while afterward fixated on these fissures, like doors he now knew were opening and closing all over the park. In his dreams, he leaped like an animal over crevasses, sailing through the heated air, looking down at the planet’s glowing red wounds. His instinct in the dream was to enter the fissure and lick it clean, purify and soothe the earth with his tongue. But he landed safely, over and over again. He woke from these dreams exhausted.
The other time he’d been surprised was when the bison fell through the ice, moaned and kicked for three days, and then died.
Bad Mother grunted into the sleep-space beside him and heaved the backpack off the bed to make room. He slipped into the pack’s spot behind Harlan, laying a heavy arm over Harlan’s shoulder and pressing his gut into the small of Harlan’s back. Bad Mother’s unshaved cheek scraped against Harlan’s neck. His breath, bacterial and briny, crawled through the spirals of Harlan’s ear and down his cheek. Harlan jolted awake and tried to escape the sleeping den, but Bad Mother clutched him in a frantic, desperate grip.
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” Bad Mother said. “I ain’t flirtin’. It’s a tight squeeze.”
Harlan sat up anyway, making room for Dave to stretch out. He excused himself. “I was dreaming,” he said. Dave didn’t care.
Bad Mother said, “We’re in Billings. Outside of Billings. Truck stop. There’s a restaurant. Bathrooms.” He paused. “Showers.”
Bright digits from a gas station sign shone through the windshield and blinded the night sky. Harlan climbed over into the front portion of the cab, where his pack sat upside down on the passenger seat. “How long are we staying here?” Harlan asked.
“About a hour of shuteye I’ll be good to go,” Dave said. He spoke with his face muffled by the blankets, already on his way to sleep. “Plenty of time.”
The showers would cost money, which was something Harlan hadn’t carried for years. He asked Dave to borrow some quarters.
“Look on the thing.” Dave waved a hand toward the gearbox. A wallet sat near the shifter. Harlan pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and promised he’d pay him back when they got to Madison, but Dave was already snoring.
Harlan bought a sandwich sealed in an airtight plastic package and had to pay ten dollars to wait for a shower. They called his number while he was only halfway through the sandwich, and finished it while he undressed, folding his filthy clothes and setting them on a metal stool just out of the shower’s spray. He sudsed up with soap from a wall dispenser, working a lather into his beard and worrying that even if he didn’t smell so rank, he might still resemble a hobo more than the uncle his nephew remembered.
He worked the soap into parts of his body that had forgotten what clean felt like, and he daydreamed possible reactions the boy might have: surprise, joy, anger, fear. It also occurred to him that he might not recognize Jared. The boy was a grown man now, and he could have tattoos, piercings, a Mohawk. A motorcycle accident, horrible disfigurement. Anything. He didn’t know. His nephew could be anyone, all of the people in the world to choose from, any story ever told.
Cleansed, he returned to his still-redolent clothes and tried to find Bad Mother’s semi in the parking lot. It wasn’t where he’d parked it, so Harlan circled the Travel Plaza, thinking Dave had had to move for some reason. Wherever he looked, neon signs advertised food and cigarettes and alcohol. He stood in the middle of the paved expanse and swatted away bugs that flew near his face. Bad Mother’s truck was gone. His backpack still in the truck. He had one letter in his right breast pocket, another in his left, and that was it.
Sudden rushes of engine and wind shook him awake. He’d slept in a nook between a fenced off generator and some small feat of engineering, tubes and gauges and levers. The entire big sky was filled with dawn, the spectrum arcing from horizon to horizon, interrupted squarely by the Flying J sign, still shining. Even after sleeping on the ground outside of a gas station, he could feel a difference in his clean skin. He felt lighter, younger.
He walked toward the freeway because it was uphill, and the elevation let him see the sunrise without the sign impeding it. He kept walking the shoulder and stuck out his thumb whenever a car passed. It felt like a week before one stopped, but when he climbed in, the clock on the dash said 9:30 am.
“Is that right?” Harlan asked the driver, a young woman all by herself. She seemed to be forcing herself to meet his eyes, her hands gripping the wheel tightly, her mouth a thin, flat line. “Is it really only 9:30?” he asked.
She nodded. “It’s right,” she said, and they lurched into traffic. The car seemed tiny after Bad Mother’s truck, and he felt insufficiently distanced from the concrete screaming past only a few feet beneath him. Something about the repose of his seat made him feel sleepy, though, and within a few minutes he struggled to keep his eyelids open. He felt he should explain himself to the driver, that he’d slept outside and poorly, but she didn’t force him to speak and he slept what felt like hours.
When he woke up, the sky was a disturbed shade of gray—cloudier than overcast, but not exactly a storm. “Good morning!” the driver chirped. Harlan rubbed his eyes and guessed that sleeping soundly was about as disarming an action as he could have made. He wanted to ask where they were, but didn’t have to: billboard after billboard reminded them that Wall Drug was the world’s most curious and elaborate and multifaceted shrine to pointless junk yet created. “Have you ever been?” the driver asked.
“I have,” Harlan said. “Don’t go.”
This launched a fifteen-minute trudge of small talk. He tried not to project any particular image of himself, just told her the facts: he’d been hiking for a long time and he left because his nephew wrote him, then he’d lost his pack. “I never should have left the park,” he said.
“Things have a way of working out,” she consoled him. Harlan didn’t doubt that for her this was entirely true. Her name was Camilla. He suspected this was a fake name, but she said she’d take him all the way to Madison if he didn’t cause any problems. She had dark features, eyes like pebbles and thick, rotund cheeks. He found that he liked her in a fatherly way. At one point she yawned and cursed to herself. She’d been driving for three and a half hours through the unending plains of eastern Montana and western Dakotas. Harlan said, “I could drive, if you want.”
She flipped on her blinker and took the first exit available.
It had been a long time since he’d sat behind a steering wheel, but it felt disappointingly normal on their way down the ramp. “Nice car,” he lied. It felt sturdy as a roller skate. When it came time to merge, though, a row of semis blocked the slow lane, packed too tightly for Harlan to squeeze between them. He panicked and wound up driving along the shoulder, the tires rattling in the rumble strip. Camilla looked perturbed—sorry for him, but also concerned that she’d let him drive her car. Harlan stopped the car and waited for a break in the sudden traffic. One of the trucks chewing up his mirror had fangs on the grill, a red cab, and as it whooshed by Harlan read the words “Bad Mother” on the door. Dirt and gravel sprayed beneath his tires and Harlan swung the car into the lane, causing a truck to swerve into the fast lane, but he got up to speed and overtook Dave’s truck and started honking and flashing his lights.
Camilla clung to the handle above her window. “What’s going on?”
“I know this guy,” Harlan said. He got in front of the truck and pulled halfway into Dave’s lane, flashed the headlights, pulled in behind the truck and started tailgating. At the next exit, Bad Mother pulled off without signaling.
“Stay in the car,” Harlan said.
Bad Mother climbed out of the cab and dropped to the ground. He scuffed his feet while he walked and flung his arms in the air. “What the hell is your problem?” he shouted, walking the length of his trailer.
Harlan met him at the back wheels. “You stole my pack,” Harlan said.
Dave dropped his arms. “Dirty Dan!” he said, like he only now recognized Harlan. “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you again.”
Harlan said, “That’s everything I own. I’d like it back.”
“Hey, now, I don’t appreciate the accusation.” Dave grimaced and spat into the wind—no sunflower seeds, just saliva. He leaned and glanced past Harlan to the Hyundai, where the woman was still sitting in the passenger seat. Slowly his gaze returned to Harlan. “Sorry to hear you lost your pack,” he said.
“I’m the only person you need to worry about right now,” Harlan said, stepping more firmly between the Hyundai and Dave.
“I don’t need to worry about you,” Dave said. A smile slipped across his face. “I woke up and you were gone, your pack was gone. I figured you found another ride. Looks like you did.”
“I left my pack in your truck when I showered, because you told me to. I got out and your truck was gone.”
“Come check the cab if you want,” Dave said. He spat again.
His backpack wasn’t inside, which didn’t prove anything. Harlan said, “If you really didn’t take it and I keep blaming you for it, I don’t know if I’ll feel bad about that.”
“I guess there’s nothing we can do,” Dave consented. “I got a schedule to keep. Flashing your damn lights. I thought I had a latch loose.”
Harlan dug into his pockets and pulled out the change from the twenty he’d used to buy the shower. “I also bought a sandwich,” he told Dave. “Sorry.” He left the money on the seat and didn’t look back.
Camilla had returned to the Hyundai’s driver’s seat. “Who was that guy?” she asked.
“No idea.” He buckled his seat belt. “Camilla, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”
“Well,” she said. “We’ve got another seven hours at least. We’ll figure it out.” She started the car and returned to the freeway. “I’m Sierra,” she told him, and reached awkwardly across the seat to shake his hand.
They overtook Bad Mother within a couple of miles. Harlan waved but Dave didn’t look at them.
This is an excerpt from Boxcar, a novel in four parts by Robert Martin. Read the other excerpts here.
Front page image by Great Deku Tree.