I broke the dead man’s truck. Maybe I didn’t. But it is broken now, and I was driving it. It broke at a gas station along I-85 in Kannapolis, NC. One of the gaskets broke-off and began spilling oil on the engine block. The truck doesn’t belong to me: it’s one of the company’s trucks. The trucks are used by all the field technicians, engineers, environmental scientists, and geologists. I’m a geologist, the only one at the Raleigh office. And the dead man’s truck was mine.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation wants to replace some bridges on I-85 between Concord and Kannapolis. The three of us are here to collect and analyze soil samples; the engineer in charge of the project needs this information so he can design the bridges properly. For some of these locations, we have to drill on the shoulder of Interstate 85, and in order to do this we have to close one of the lanes on the highway. The only way to close one of the lanes is to work at night. In the middle of December.
I am wearing four shirts: a sweater, coveralls, a jacket, and – underneath everything – a red union-suit. My mother heard about the cold; she got worried.
The right lane has been closed for twenty minutes. Jake and Steve have got the drill rig set up; I’m getting equipment out of the trucks that have been running all night with the heaters on, hazard lights blinking, and construction flashers in a strobe-panic as their light bounces off the trailer-trucks and cars that carry by while we work. Walking to the drill rig with the equipment, I hear Jake: he flinches and swears as a bob-tail-semi hammers beside us. He squints through his one good eye, and balancing a cigarette on his lips, he curses the truck again and the cold then stuffs his hands in his pockets. Jake’s been a driller since he left the army, and has been with the company for over twenty years. He’s sixty-five, and hasn’t been able to see in his left eye since a drill rig tipped over on him. He hates night work.
At first, night work seems manageable, but it quickly becomes more harrowing than originally anticipated. If it weren’t for the cars, the wind, the occasional snow, the dark, and the being in the cold for ten hours, it wouldn’t be so bad. But those cars roar past us with terrible speed. Five or ten feet to the right and I wouldn’t need to worry if the soil at twenty-tree-and-a-half-feet is a silty-sand or not, or what percentage of clay it contains.
My fingers are numb, dirt-red, and clay-creased by the time I’ve finished analyzing the soils, trying to catch up as Jake and Steve wait for me in their truck. As I get my gloves back on, Steve waves move over from the car window.
“Get in your truck and warm up.” Steve says, hand dangling from the open window, holding another cigarette.
I almost don’t see the road kill on my way to the truck. I barely step over it and stop to make sure it isn’t a fox. It’s a raccoon, I think. It looks as if were cold, curled up, gravel-eyed, one frigid paw exposed.
Back in the truck I take off my gloves, look back at the raccoon, and think of my older brother. I turn up the heat in my truck, and try to shake myself warm. The cab of this truck is crowded, hardly enough room for me. This new truck is much smaller. We’ve stuffed it with as much equipment as we could from my old truck: Truck 876, or as I refer to it the Dead Man’s Truck, Jason’s Truck.
I started driving the Dead Man’s Truck earlier in the summer, outside of Wilmington, in Leeland, NC near the Brunswick River. The DOT will be building a bypass for NC Route 76. They need data for the footings that support the bypass. I just started working with the company, this being my first job; the man I replaced left the truck to me. I don’t drive the truck many places, only to and from the work site and to JW’s Place: a small, dive of a bar right on NC Route 15 in Leeland. JW, the owner and sometimes bouncer, only serves beer; he stopped selling liquor because it made his hands hurt and he got tired of throwing people out of his bar. Jake and Steve work hard, they drink even harder, and after working in the July humidity, covered in sweat, dirt, and exhaust we’d leave the rig in the woods, get in our trucks, drive straight to JW’s, walk across his gravel parking lot full of bottle caps and cigarette butts, and sit down at the bar, in the worn out bar stools covered in duct tape.
Steve is almost thirty, having been a driller’s assistant for ten years. He’s short, over-confidant, a mean dart player, and a recent father trying to stay away from trouble. He’s been working with Jake for almost 4 years now. When they were first working together, Jake accidentally knocked some of Steve’s teeth out with a pipe wrench. Steve had all those teeth replaced, but you wouldn’t know by looking at him, and he doesn’t tell people about it very often.
While we’re sitting in this dusty, empty bar, plastic bags full of water hanging from its door frames, country music playing from the jukebox, I ask Steve how long he and Jake have been working. He leans back and nudges Jake.
“We’ve been working for how long now? Since Jason died?”
Jake nods. “About there.”
Steve turns back. “Four years, I guess.”
Jason used to be Steve’s boss. They had worked together for four years – this seems to be the only detail on which Jake and Steve agree. Over cans of Miller High Life, they iron out the rest: that Jason’s lover was leaving him; that he shot her in the head; then he killed himself. The rest gets hazy as they light another cigarette, but it is fact that Jason and his lover died in Truck 876. A truck that now idles in the company parking lot with a busted gasket, leaking oil, pooling underneath its body.
Back in the cab of this new truck, I wait for my feet, under three pairs of socks, to feel something and unstiffen as I watch the exhaust of Jake and Steve’s truck phantom after the passing cars on the dark highway, dodging and chasing it for a moment, only to find a weary equilibrium, only to anticipate the wake of the next car passing us, to try again. Our feet never do get any warmer.