Endless Black Ribbon
by Rick Beck
Joe Buck can tell you how to get from Kankakee to Indio and he doesn't need a map. He can tell you where you'll find the best food and the cheapest fuel without thinking twice.
Joe doesn't have a lot of creature comfort but he'd trade comfort for a good lumper. A good lumper handles the freight, cleans the truck, and has it ready to roll when it's time. For a cross country trucker, that's as good as gold.
The best lumper is an indispensable friend on the long haul. Troy is about to become Joe Buck's best lumper.
A standard truck, eighteen wheeler, in the U.S.A. is sixty feet long and has a load limit of 80,000 pounds in most states, and would be called a lorry in Britain.
When I start a coast to coast run, I know where I'm going to eat in three days before my wheels turn. Even when slowed by weather or traffic, my stops will remain the same.
My goal as a professional is to keep my stops short. That means easy to reach cheap fuel with a good restaurant within walking distance from the pumps. This helps to makes a trip successful. Time is money and stops are measured by the minute.
That said, you can't drive too far for a good cup of Joe; coffee for you four wheelers. There's some rank coffee out there. My rule being, if it smells like diesel fuel when the waitress slides it to me, I slide it back.
There aren't any Starbucks on the Interstate. A trucker won't pay five buck for a cup of Joe. Coffee keeps us moving. We wouldn't be truckers for long paying Starbuck prices.
Truckers want quality and they're willing to pay a fair price to get it. It's out there if you look. While you're looking for quality at a fair price, you'll find guys looking to swindle you. They're everywhere.
It's all out there on that long lonesome highway.
I like my coffee hot, strong, and black. Surprisingly, McDonald's has a consistent cup of coffee everywhere I go. When I see the golden arches in Bangor or in Grant's Pass, I know I'll get a decent cup of Joe, and I can eat their greasy burger and fries if I'm running behind. They'll even fill my thermos for a price. That price isn't consistent.
Most drivers look for the pretty waitress – not to mention easy. There isn't a lot of time for romance. The wheels need to keep turning.
For me, it's the diesel jockey, wash rack attendant, or tire changer who gets my pulse racing. It's one of the good things about fueling.
When you're out there 24/7, and you need service, you go where the scenery is good. I remember where I spot a hot guy, even if all I get to do is look. Natural beauty often makes my day and the vision keeps me smiling for miles.
When I go out of my way to say something nice to one of the guys I like, I may get a smile and a wave for my trouble. He'll remember me. One day when I stop, he'll take his break, and I'll show him my bunk. It's how memories are made. We are everywhere, you know.
It's a long hard road and we all need a hobby.
I find the best guys in the mid-west. They have more than their share of healthy looking guys with easy smiles. Once you leave the East Coast, guys stop wanting to fight if you look them over. Even if they catch on, country boys like being admired. When they look down to see if they've arranged their package just right, you've found a friend.
It's why they wear their jeans soooooooo tight.
Mostly I'm just looking, thank you, but I do dream. I like to think one of those handsome guys would want to ride with me for a spell, but I usually find that kind of guy on the side of the road with their thumb out, and when I ask, 'Where you heading,' they give me a blank look, as if they hadn't given it a thought. Everyone needs a little help from a friend from time to time.
The good looking fuel jockey wanting a ride on my truck didn't happen that often. This story is about the time it did.
The Iowa City Texaco truck stop was just off Interstate 80 on the exit to Iowa City. I didn't get too far from the Interstate unless it was worth my while. I'd have stopped at that Texaco I had to get in crosstown traffic. if it was five miles away.
Troy was my favorite fuel jockey. He came out with a big smile, wearing jeans packed full of wonder. I wondered what was inside. He worked the pumps between 4p.m. And midnight six nights a week. When I planned my trip, I'd be at the Iowa City exit needing fuel, sometime after five.
I'd drive in cross-town traffic to look at Troy for five minutes.
For two years he'd been there every time I'd stopped in the evening. I'd get out his way eight or ten times a year on coast to coast runs.
Route 80 was a direct road to northern California by way of Truckee, Donner Pass, and Sacramento. Each time I came down that section of Route 80, my truck knew where to turn. Luckily, and the food at the Texaco was good.
By the time I was on Iowa City's surface streets, my pulse was increasing. If that boy didn't get your juices flowing, you needed urgent care.
After driving the several miles to the Texaco, I was disappointed when another boy came out in Troy's place. He was no Troy and I was loyal to my pump jockeys.
I'd been looking forward to watching Troy work around my truck since I pointed my truck west. Since the first time he serviced me, this was the first time he failed to appear when I pulled up to those pumps. Even my appetite was gone. Change was hard on me, especially when one of the best boys moved on down the road.
Since the new guy wasn't that interesting, I wandered back along the service bays to see if Troy might be assisting a mechanic or doing one of the shit jobs the mechanics passed on to whomever was handy.
He wasn't around and I needed to pay for my fuel and get my truck off the fuel line, although it was quite quiet at seven forty-five.
I did a quick walk around inspection to make sure all my lights were working. Maybe there'd be someone interesting inside, I thought as I walked toward the restaurant.
The place was all but deserted. The smell of bacon was nice, but it got better fast. As I approached the trucker's section, I saw Troy seated at a table in the farthest corner. It was only a side view but I'd know him anyway.
I sat at the next table to be facing him. The man of my dreams, in Iowa anyway, appeared as if the Gods were favoring me. Just as I was about to give him a big, 'Howdy, Troy, how's it hanging,' it became obvious he was in some distress.
Sure glad I didn't let the 'How's it hanging' remark get away from me.
I was at a loss for what to do. Seeing him so sad tugged at my heart and he didn't know I was alive. Especially he didn't know I was sitting there looking at him. In spite of his misery, he was still one hot guy.
The line, 'amber waves of grain,' described his blond hair with a distinctive red tint. His eyes were vividly blue, his lips were moderately full and his smile could warm my heart.
His hair hadn't been combed. The light appearance of facial hair was a new feature. His wrinkled shirt was open several buttons down, exposing the middle of his chest. There were light red hairs there. His hands were folded in front of him on the table. His coffee cup was empty.
It was the first time I'd seen Troy when he wasn't beaming. He leaned forward looking forlorn. I was sitting eight feet away and he didn't know I was there. I wanted to comfort him. I felt like I knew him.
Should I leave him be or should I break the spell that was dragging him down. I was only a trucker with a hard-on for him. Maybe leaving him alone was the best idea, but I'd seen too much for that.
"Hi Troy. Missed you out at the pumps," I said to break the ice.
It took him a few seconds to look up from where he was. His eyes were so red, he'd been crying. He knew I knew he'd been crying. Why didn't I leave well enough alone?
"Sorry. Don't work here any more," he said in a raspy voice.
The waitress had walked between us to pour both of us coffee. When she left, I took my cup to Troy's table and sat down.
"Mind if I sit down?" I asked, after i sat down.
"Help yourself," he said.
He tried to gather himself together. I still didn't know if I should mind my own business. If I really liked the kid, I shouldn't insert myself into what was obviously not one of his good days.
I looked him in the eye with great concern for him.
" I've never introduced myself. You've been fueling my truck for several years. I'm Joe Buck," I said, not offering my hand. "I know when I see a man in trouble. I'm just passing through, Troy. I'll be moving on down the highway after dinner. I'm not an educated man but I've been told I listen well. I'd listen if you feel like talking. I've never seen you unhappy. You might say it disturbs the natural order of things to see you so sad."
He looked up from his big freckled hands. He took a deep breath but didn't make eye contact. His eyes gave him away.
He cleared his throat before speaking. His eyes were moist.
"I just found out my girl, Bonnie, is screwin' my best friend, John."
I heard a rapid discharge of air. It came from me.
" Woe," I said, unable to hide my reaction. "A girl you're dating went out with another guy? Whatever was she thinking?"
" No, they aren't going out. They're fucking," he clarified with venom. "I'm engaged to her. I've been best friends with John forever."
" She's obviously not as engaged as you are, and as friends go, John's a creep."
" Don't I know it. He was dropping me off at work. My cars fucked up. Then he was going over to her place to fuck my girlfriend. He offered to drive me any time I needed a ride."
"Sly bastard," I said.
" Harold didn't need me two nights ago. One of the mechanics dropped me at Bonnie's. John's car was there. The lights were off. I pay her rent. I figured a fuse blew. She called John for help. He was helping all right. I turned on the light and he was humping away...."
He stared blankly, seeing it all over again.
"Jesus. People are real pieces of work, Troy. Good thing you found out before you got married," I said, shaking my head.
"Do you think?"
"What can I say? It'll pass? Love can bust your ass wide open sometimes. I've been there. The only advice that comes to mind, send Bonnie packing, and send your buddy John with her."
"I figured that out on my own. I quit the Texaco. I'll hit the road. They're my entire life. I hardly see anyone but those two. I live with my sister but we aren't close. She rescued me from the state home when I was sixteen. She's let me stay with her since then, but I can't stay here. I'll be the laughingstock of Iowa City if I stay."
" I understand how you feel. You don't want to see those two together."
" I'd kill them," he said angrily.
" No you wouldn't. You're the good guy, Troy. Don't let anyone make you into the bad guy. Walk away."
" I can't guarantee what I'd do if I saw them together."
" You have no alternative. You've got to leave until you cool down."
" That's how I figure. I don't know if I can ever come back here. I don't know where to go. I don't have any family. I live with my sister. My car's ten years old and the tranny's trashed. I thought of Chicago. It's not far. I can get lost there. Should be work there."
"Bad idea, Troy. Don't go to Chicago. It's a great town, loaded with adventure and opportunity, but it's loaded with trouble. They'd see a country boy like you coming. They'd eat you alive. Big cities are jungles if you don't know what you're doing. If you know someone who can show you the ropes, you'd be OK."
"I've only got a few hundred bucks and a car that won't make it out of Iowa. I don't know what to do," he said, looking into my eyes, as if he was hoping I'd give him an answer.
I thought for a moment before giving him the only answer I had.
"You like to travel, Troy?" I asked.
"Sure, but... I don't know. I've never been out of Iowa. I thought of hitchhiking. It's scary. I could starve. Get picked up by a weirdo."
"How'd you like a job that'll take you out of Iowa and away from your trouble. You can see the country; get a taste of what you like. It doesn't pay a hell of a lot, but you'll get fed and you'll have a warm bunk to sleep in when I'm not sleeping in it. It'll be cramped, but it'll be better than standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, freezing your ass off, while waiting."
His eyes widened. He didn't move them out of my eyes.
"You mean you'd hire me on just like that? You don't know me."
There was a bit of disbelief, followed by a smile. He had the answer before I gave it to him.
I simply nodded my confirmation. I didn't think telling him that I thought he was the hottest guy on the pike was a good idea just then.
" Everything has complications," I said, intending to come clean.
" Like staying here might end up with me going to jail complicated?"
"That's not what I had in mind, but it's complicated like that. I'll hire you and be glad to have you. You'll handle the freight and get eight bucks an hour when you're working. I don't pay riding time and I expect you to keep the truck clean and ready to roll. For this I pay your food and expenses within reason. You need a new pair of those super tight jeans or a pair of gloves, that's on me."
" It'll get you away from here, and you'll be safe," I said, staring at a face that was completely changed.
"Take your time. Think about it. Think about your options."
He thought for a minute, not using the entire minute.
"You just hired yourself a helper," he said with a warm smile.
There was no way I could avoid telling him. I wouldn't put him in that position. I should have lead with the hard part but we'd never have gotten to me hiring him if I had.
"I'll get Harold to watch my car. My bag's already packed. All I need to do is put it in your truck."
" You remember me saying, 'Everything is complicated?'"
" You said, 'Everything has complications.'" he reminded me.
I hesitated, wanting to make sure it came out the way I wanted. "There's one you need to know about before we do this, Troy."
" Shoot. I'm listening," he said, leaning on his forearms to study me.
Something told me he already had a hunch about my interest in him.
" I'm telling you this to avoid complications from arising. I'll give you the job. You can help me for as long as you want, but we're going to be together 24/7. The bunk is thirty-six inches wide. I've shared it before. I'm saying there isn't a lot of room. We live close."
" OK," he said. "I told you I live with my sister. Speaking of close! At least we're guys. That will help."
" I'm not your sister."
"And I appreciate it. See, p roblem solved. It's one more thing I need to escape. If you can live in close quarters, I can. I've been sleeping on my sister's couch for over three years. She's got three little kids and a big boyfriend more often than not."
"Jesus!" I said. "Do you ever need to get away. How come every time I saw you, you had a big smile on your face?" I asked.
" Being clueless helps. I guess smiling is better than frowning. Harold said I should act like I want to be work here. So I did."
" That's not the point I'm trying to make. This isn't easy for me, because I'd really like to take you out of this place."
" Thanks, Joe. We'll be fine. Let's go. I'm cool with whatever it is."
I put my hand on his bare forearm. I found it invitingly warm. He didn't flinch but he looked at my face, which is what I wanted.
"I'm a gay man, Troy," I said, lowering my voice. "I don't want any misunderstandings. I don't discuss this with my help. We'll be living in a confined space. Ordinarily it doesn't come up, but as much pain as I found you in, I think you need to know."
He watched my confession closely. I'm sure he was thinking about all the times he caught me checking out his package or how his ass filled his jeans. He had to know I was attracted to him, but that wasn't what this was about. I wanted to help him.
He stared at me for what seemed like a long time. He did not look down at where I was touching him. He didn't look distressed by my words. It took him a minute to speak. He did think about it.
The waitress picked that time to come toward us with the coffee. I waved her away. I could see he'd made up his mind.
"This job is about work, right?" he said, after searching out words he was comfortable using. "It isn't about you and me, uh, me doin' shit like that with you, is it?"
" Absolutely not," I said, shaking my head.
"It's not about us doing anything like that. The job's yours. I just want you to know I look at guys. I've got books on the truck. You'll no doubt run across them. Some are with guys doing guys. You know... porn. I wouldn't want you finding one and thinking I'm going to make a move on you. That's all."
"Any sex books with girls?" he asked.
"A little bit of everything. I buy what looks good. Whoever's on the truck can use them or not. Being on the move so much, having backup makes it easier."
He seemed relieved.
" You jack off with your help?" he asked without alarm.
" I have. Some are bashful and like to fly solo. Some would whip it out and go to town when it needed attention. A lumper who has a healthy sexual appetite doesn't worry me."
" You ever do stuff with the help."
" A couple of lumpers needed a helping hand. Others just use their imagination and their hand. I think most dudes prefer that."
"I don't care about the other thing. As long as my ass isn't part of the help I give you, I'm fine. We're cool, Joe. I don't want anything to do with any of it at the moment. I might never fuck again and we've been fucking constantly, when I wasn't working."
"W here you put your ding dong is your business," I said.
I could see no sign of the trouble he'd had when I found him.
I slid out of the booth and stood up.
"We're cool then," I said. "I'm going to get a sandwich to go. You get your bag and take it out to the front of the station. I'll meet you there before I go to the truck. Can I order you something?"
"No, I'm cool. Harold's getting me cash for what he owes me. I'll get my stuff and meet you out front."
Everything Troy took was in a single gym bag. The boy traveled light, except for a heart overflowing with sorrow. His mind was made up. This is what he was going to do, but it didn't take away the pain.
Our conversations had been confined to, 'Hello.' 'How are you.' 'Have a nice day.'
For the first three hours, Troy talked about Bonnie. Maybe he was making a mistake. Maybe he should give her another chance. Maybe John really wasn't screwing her. Maybe he was helping her find her vagina. Maybe! Maybe! Maybe!
" Did I ever tell you about the guy who gave me my first blow job?" I asked.
He immediately sat up straight, looking at me strangely.
" Why would I ask you that?" he asked baffled.
" For the same reason I can't wait to hear more about you fucking Bonnie all over Iowa City, the adjacent counties, and local municipalities," I said bluntly. "Did I tell you, truckers don't care what you do with your ding dong?"
" Oh!" he said, going quiet.
For an hour it was entertaining but the blush had come off that rose. Silence was a vast improvement.
If they did it as much as he said they did, he was a good man for a woman to keep handy. He wasn't bashful, being careful to describe what he liked to do and how he liked to do it.
Over the next hour he was silent, cried twice, stared without blinking out the windshield while sitting on the edge of his seat. As it passed midnight, he unbuttoned his shirt. It hung back off his chest when he sat back in his seat. Even late into the night the truck stayed warm at night except on the coldest nights. The engine furnishing plenty of heat. On nights when it didn't cool down, it could get uncomfortable.
This view of Troy, visible by the light of the gauges in the cab, verified what a healthy Iowa boy he was.
He noticed me looking his way. He didn't button his shirt. Going on one a.m., I couldn't read my new lumper.
I broke into the silence.
" You want me to hit the air conditioner?" I asked as I looked to see the trace of red bunny tracks that had appeared under his now visible belly button.
Looking into his side of the windshield I got a view of his reflection.
" No, I'm fine," he said, sounding fine. "I always feel warm when I'm in a car too. I've always been like that. If I took my shirt off Bonnie right away wanted to be feeling on my.... Ops! Sorry. I'll be quiet."
" You're quite the stud, Troy. Do you think about anything but sex?"
He looked at me for a minute as if I'd asked a serious question.
He laughed pleasingly.
" No!" he said, glancing at me. "Is there something else?"
We both laughed. He looked at me again. This time he was taking my measure. He'd just gone off, left the only world he'd known, with a perfect stranger.
" You used to look at me," he said, having had time to think about it.
"I s till look at you. When you stop looking, they call that being dead."
" Why me?" he asked. "You were always nice. Tipped me a five every time I fueled your truck. You know how many truckers tip me? None."
"I do. Most truckers don't make a lot of money and they tip the waitress."
He turned his head to look at the highway. There was a question he wanted to ask but didn't. We'd known each other for six hours. The questions would come.
" You do?" he asked. "Have money?"
" I make enough to tip a guy who puts a smile on my face. You did a good job, so I tipped you for it," I said.
" Why me? There's a dozen guys look like me around there to look at."
I looked at him. He looked down to see what I was seeing.
" You ever look at yourself in a mirror after you squeeze into those skin tight jeans?"
" Yeah! I want to make sure I look good," he said, sounding sure of himself.
His back was now leaning against the door. He was facing me so he didn't need to turn his head to see me. He was the only lumper who did this.
In traffic and near big towns, he had to sit in his seat and buckle up, but late at night, west of Lincoln, the highway was straight, smooth, and empty. I liked it when he watched me.
" I don't do it for guys," he said. "I know they look. I know you looked. I figured the five was for something other than pumping fuel."
"Yeah, it's for taking pride in yourself. Taking the time to look good. You didn't need to do it for me. I got the benefit. I appreciated you pumping my fuel, but not five dollars worth . The five was for the effort you put into looking the way you do. A down payment on your next pair of skintight jeans."
" What's that mean?" he asked, his face a picture of curiosity.
" I don't want to get myself in trouble. Let's drop it. I think you look good. Let's leave it at that. We'll talk about later."
" You aren't going to get off that easy. I need to know these things. I'm trapped in a truck with you."
" No, say the word. I'll find the nearest bus station and give you the money for a ticket... home. That's a promise. Any time you say."
" Cool," he said, turning his head to look at the highway.
" When a nineteen year old boy bolts on his jeans the way you do, you know what you're doing, Troy. You pack it right up front for everyone to get a good look."
" I do not," he said, trying to see himself. "I want to look good is all."
" And you do. Right now, needing a shave and a shower, without combing your hair, you still look good."
" I do not. I look like a homeless guy. Package yourself the way you do at the Texaco, stand in front of any first class hotel after eight at night in a big city, and you'd be homeless for about fifteen minutes, and that's without shaving or combing your hair."
He was still trying to look at himself. Finding his reflection in the windshield, he sat back in the seat to see himself.
" For a gay man, you might say they see it as advertising. When a nineteen year old does it around where mostly men see it.... I'm just saying. It doesn't mean anything but it says a lot."
" So you say. I don't do it for guys," he objected, looking at the highway so he didn't need to look at me telling him how I saw it.
We were establishing our boundaries. Getting acquainted.
" Guys don't look at your dick?"
" No. No one asked them to look at it. They get to look if they want. It's difficult looking good for the ladies and the guys don't see it. I don't care who looks. I don't do it for men is all."
" But you know what you're doing?" I said. "Quite a statement for a guy who's engaged and ready to give his life to his woman. That marriage would have lasted about a half hour before one of you was fucking around."
He turned his head to stare at me like I just slapped him into consciousness. He was explaining how he showed off to the general public, and he's heartbroken because Bonnie is screwing John.
I'd hit a nerve.
" Just saying," I said.
He looked back at the highway.
" Twenty!" he said. "I turned twenty two months ago in June. I'm proud of what I got."
" As well you should. There's nothing wrong with knowing how to package yourself, but you need to know why you're doing it."
" I don't do it for guys. I may get a little off willing babes. I get horny. I'd never screw Bonnie's best friend. I've got more class."
" Of course you wouldn't," I said. "Her best friend is John."
" I'd fuck him just to hear him scream," Troy said hatefully.
" You're an interesting young man. You have a lot to learn about life, but I predict you'll be OK. I predict some babe will be rubbing on your crotch before we get to where we're going. She won't even ask you your name if you have those jeans on."
"I'd take my jeans off for that. You really think so?"
This idea perked Troy right up.
" I'd be surprised if it didn't happen." I said.
" That crack about John was cold, you know," he said.
" Truth hurts," I said. "And men look at your package. If you'd fuck John to make him scream, he'll still be a man you're screwing. Just saying."
" Yeah! I suppose," he said.
I was blunt with my observations so he'd think about what I said. For our first night together, he'd opened up far more than I anticipated.
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