This always feels pretty real… for a moment. Minus the physical sensations, of course. How does it really feel to be descending to your death? It is slow? Fast? What are the G-forces like? Would I be conscious? When exactly would death occur? Would I be crushed when the truck landed on solid earth, or be finished off when the speeding traffic slammed me?”
by andy jenkins
I’m not supposed to drive the truck on the freeway, but I do. Usually at the end of my morning, after the 10 AM run, and only because I’m late already. I get it up to about 70 and it shakes so hard the empty racks fall off the shelves in back. Sometimes I try to get them all to fall before I get off the freeway. It gets pretty loud.
Driving back into San Pedro, I merge onto the 110 South from the 105 East. This is probably the tallest overpass in the world. This is where I am always sideswiped by a large tractor trailer hauling important consumer goods. The bread truck I’m driving careens off the cement and metal rail meant to keep me from falling off the overpass (it works), then skids, squealing across traffic and is smashed into by a red extra-large man’s truck that sends me spinning, then hitting — backend first — into the opposite cement and metal rail. This one does not work. The truck and I, and all my empty bread racks, plunge backward over the edge, proceeding past a middle-pass (where I catch the eyes of an astonished mom in a mini van), and down to the grounded freeway below.
This always feels pretty real… for a moment. Minus the physical sensations, of course. How does it really feel to be descending to your death? It is slow? Fast? What are the G-forces like? Would I be conscious? When exactly would death occur? Would I be crushed when the truck landed on solid earth, or be finished off when the speeding traffic slammed me? Ahead, in the dust on the back of the tractor trailer that might have killed me, someone has scrawled two words with their fingers:
I look over at the car next to me. There is a woman, sleeping, head tilted back at an impossible angle, mouth wide open. I sit up as straight as possible, tip my head left and right to adjust the neck, clamp my hands a little tighter at 10 and 2 on the wheel and stomp the gas pedal.
When I pull into the bakery it’s quarter to 11. That’s 15 minutes late. I have a procedure when this happens. I park and walk quickly through the front, where my dad is usually too busy to say anything. He never gives me the business in front of customers. I keep walking, slip out the side, unlock the gate, get the truck in, open the back, quickly pick up a couple of the empty racks and lean them against the building. Then, I stop for a quick smoke on the far side of the truck with the big, goofy portrait of the old man painted on it. Archie Knoll of Knoll’s Rolls. My dad. It always watches me smoke, with its big head, little round body and piles of bread surrounding him.
Tons of fucking bread.
“The first $4,500 paid to a son or daughter as an employee is tax FREE!” He reminds me of this every year. I can never understand why that matters, really. It couldn’t possibly add up to much. He barely paid me minimum wage, didn’t seem to like my “work ethic,” and I smoked around the bread.
“ADAM!” His whisper-yell. The words shoot through his teeth from under a gray, paintbrush mustache.
I throw my cigarette down. Crush it. “Don’t worry… there’s no bread around.”
“It’s your life, smoke it away if you want… but you’re late again.” He stands directly under the portrait. “And that effects my life and I don’t appreciate it. Get the truck emptied out, Carlos is ready for those racks.”
“Just do it,” he stomps inside. “NOW.”
“I quit.” I mumble this to the caricature before unloading the racks and sweeping out the crumbs. That’s what I get, the crumbs. Well, the squirrels get the crumbs. I’m supposed to put them in the compost bin out back, but I leave them on the asphalt so I can squeeze in a decent lunch break. The little bastards clean them up quick. Thank you little bastards. I get on my skateboard and push down to Monk’s. It’s Friday, the day I eat with Franklin.
It’s about a half mile down. You smell it first—burning meat, the aromatic nemesis of baking bread. The awnings are faded to an old denim blue and coated with pigeon shit. Cracks spread all over its Plexiglas sign. Inside, the wood laminates peel from the table edges, but there on Monk’s window, a blue letter A, the California seal of approval.
The same woman with the black beret has been working here since I was a kid. She’s never once acknowledged me as anything but a customer.
“Can I help you?”
“The usual,” I answer. She just stares, looking confused behind her thick glasses. This from a woman who has watched me grow up. “A #4. No pickles. Coke.”
I give her my last five and head to the far corner table with my plastic number.
“Sir, your nickel…”
Franklin always comes in after me, a Barney’s or Nieman Marcus bag in his hand, and orders an Orange Bang before he sits down. And he always bros me.
“What’s up, little bro?” I hate that.
“Not much. Fed the squirrels, now it’s my turn.”
“Pissing dad off again, huh?” His hands are busy tightening his long ponytail. “Dude, I just saw the raddest El Camino on Sepulveda. The fucking license plate said ‘ARMAGTN’ on it! Damn…” He takes a deep slurp. A busboy pushes my brown tray onto the table and takes the number.
“Armageddon…” he says, shaking his head. “How awesome is that? I wish I’d a thought of that one.”
I want to tell him about the finger-scrawled graffiti, but don’t. I just nod and look out the window. His car sits out there. Some sort of revived muscle machine from the 70s. Fatter tires on the back end. Perfect royal blue paint. I catch his profile reflecting in the window as he pushes a napkin across the table. I take it, pull the envelope from under it, hold it in my lap and gaze in.
“What’s this about? That’s gotta be twice as much as usual.”
Under the table he’s pushed the shopping bag over until it rests against my leg. “No reason, dude. Just treat it like all the rest. Same thing. Straight over to Deaver’s place, drop it — that’s it.”
My burger is burnt. There are pickles in it. I pull them out one by one. “No such thing as ‘no reason,’ Franklin.”
He shakes his head, puts the cup down. “And there’s no such thing as questions, Adam. Remember?” He gets up to leave, “Just do it.”
That’s twice in one morning. I tuck the thick thing into my back pocket, throw out my tray and begin my skate back to work.
The bag is a navy blue paper one with those twine handles that hurt your hands. A GAP logo on each side. Fairly heavy — substantial. I don’t care what’s inside and I don’t want to know. I just imagine Franklin shopping at the GAP. Buying tight jeans with cash. His pager going off while he’s flirting with the sales girls. Adjusting his ponytail.
When we were kids, he’d come into my room and leave with stuff. Small things. Hot wheels, G.I. Joe accessories. Once, I called him on it and he denied everything. “I didn’t steal nothin’! I already have one of those! Here,” he shoved a small plastic machine gun at me, “take mine, you pussy.” I cried. But it was my gun, he’d just brushed over it with black model paint. I scraped at that paint for a long time.
I drop my board between the seats and set the GAP bag carefully in the passenger seat of the truck and seatbelt it in so it won’t tip forward. I wonder what time it is.
“Godammit Adam! You get 30 minutes!” He’d been waiting for me. “You can’t eat in 30 minutes? Carlos here eats in 30 minutes! Your sister eats in 30 minutes!” Carlos is already loading the bread racks. “Well?”
I shrug. How do you answer a question like that? I bend to pick up a full rack of buns and the cigarettes and lighter fall out of my breast pocket. The smokes fall out onto the buns and the lighter clatters on the cement floor and slides under a dusty metal shelf. Though I don’t look up at him, I can just see him shaking his head. Then it comes. Methodically, every syllable enunciated, “J e s u s C h r i s t A l l M i g h t y !” Then faster, “I don’t know why I’ve got you in here. You have no interest whatsoever — in fact, you don’t give a rat’s ass about this business do you?” He stops just as quickly as he started, closes his eyes, sighs, turns and walks to the front. “Just get those buns delivered.” There, I beat down the Bun King again, without hardly trying — and lost a perfectly good lighter in the process.
The cash is almost an inch thick in my back pocket. I pull it out as I drive. Look at it. Put it back. Wonder why. I get caught at a light and take the time to glance over at the passenger seat. It’s still there. It hasn’t moved. I think of looking in it. A slim crossing guard holds up a large, red stop sign so a group of peds can traverse the crosswalk in front of my truck. One of them gazes at me with his pleasant moon face, mouth slightly open, vacant stare. That guy’s obviously retarded — wait — they’re all retarded. I scan for the chaperone, there’s always a chaperone. There — the black guy in a brown warm-up suit, clip board, toothpick in his mouth. He looks so relaxed, how can he be so relaxed?
I look over at the bag again. Still there. What’s in there? I think of hiding it under the seat and start reaching for it — KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK on the window to my left. I flinch so hard my right knee cracks the old steering wheel. Outside, the big pleasant Moon Face stares up at me through the glass. Smiling. I have no idea how to react and before I can, the Brown Warm-Up Suit pulls Moon Face away and says something to me.
“What?” I mumble. The chaperone says something again, but I still can’t tell… my window’s closed. I open it quickly, but he’s already walking away, practically dragging the Moon up the far curb as the light turns green. “LET’S GO TOMMY! Come on, son.”
I rub my knee and grind the long shifter into first. Shit, shit, shit. A glance in the rearview out through the two small windows at the back of the truck tells me Moon Face and crew are gone in the swirl of activity on Gaffey at 5pm.
I fell into zero time after that. Zoned everything out, went blocks without realizing it and almost missed the turnoff to downtown Pedro, where Deaver lives. The squeal around the corner onto 9th street dropped a full tray in back. Not my day. When I turned to look at the damage, I blew through the light at Harbor.
Siren. Motorcyle cop. GODAMMIT.
I reach for the passenger sunvisor where the registration lives — under my father’s name, of course — and I see it. The bag. The fucking GAP bag. I should have tucked it under the seat. If I do it now, he’ll see me duck and get suspicious. Pull his gun, maybe. Wait… it’s a GAP bag. As far as the cop — or I — know, it has GAP clothes in it, right?
The cop is taking his time on the CB. I look at my watch. My mind starts to tick through images — my dad, Franklin, Deaver… I reach for my wallet and feel the thick wad in my back pocket. Doom.
Riding down the opposite side of the road is a worn old man on a woman’s bicycle. Bulging green garbage bags hang from both sides of the back rack. He is steering a set of longhorn bull style handlebars, chopper-like with colorful plastic danglies flowing from the ends. He’s going about his way, headphones on, focused. Doesn’t even notice the fat man on this truck, or the cop’s confident swagger as he approaches me, the light on his motorcycle flashing a red message to the surrounding area. Look, I got another one. My dilemma. I wish I was that old man. Doom.
I’ll hand over the bag and turn myself in. Use my one phone call to apologize to the old man before I get thrown away. Here he comes. I need a cigarette. I put my head down and give my temples a rub.
All the time in the world.
In an instant I’m knocked from my self pity by the loud screech of tires grabbing asphalt and a fleshy loud thump that rocks my truck — the rearview is blown straight forward 45 degrees. Up ahead a uniformed body tumbles in slow motion.
9th is a narrow street and fairly busy this time of day and apparently I wasn’t the only person not paying attention. A tall, primered Blazer blasts past and skids 180 degrees into oncoming traffic before it rocks violently and stops. The body stops. For an instant all is silent.
No time at all.
I reach for my door handle and the Blazer begins to tear away in reverse. This is it, I think. This is what happens in real life. The momentum of living diverted in an instant. There is no bread, no brothers, no bags of God-knows-what… now it’s just blood, torn flesh. Glass. Incoherent moans. I reach him, the man, a real man right here on the ground at my feet, broken — his name perfectly etched on a badge pinned to a black uniform. I am yelling for help and applying pressure. I am the only one and he stares into my eyes. He is calm. It calms me. I talk to him. I have no idea what the words are. He listens.
Others come at last.
The area was roped off. The broken cop hauled away. I am asked a lot of questions, which I answer, then I sit on the curb just inside the yellow tape, in front of the Knoll’s Rolls truck. Something hard digs into my back. “Oh, sorry, man. I didn’t see you there.” Behind me the inevitable crowd. I didn’t know.
“It’s okay,” I tell him.
Is it okay? Time comes back. My mouth is dry. Blood on my hands like faint watercolor stains. I am just a witness here. I can go.
Eventually the crowd thins to one or two locals who chatter quietly with bored cops. The motorcycle is towed away on a flatbed, the street swept up and yellow tape taken away. I sit on the curb a long time more. My right ass cheek numb, reminding me of the cash. The GAP bag. Deaver waiting. Franklin. My dad. Carlos baking warm loaves for people to eat. I feel cold and sore and start to get up but cannot. Looking over at the truck, I notice a kid staring at the caricature and smiling. It’s Moon Face. No brown-clad chaperone. The Moon turns and catches me watching him, an invitation to walk over and sit down next to me.
“Dat is a nice picture on your truck. I like it. I like bread.”
The picture saw everything. Knows everything. Knows me. Never moves, never judges, just fades a little all the time. Cigarette — I have cigarettes, I need a cigarette. I pull the pack from my front pocket, then remember the lighter resting peacefully out of reach.
“You have a light?” I ask.
He tilts his head and squints his eyes.
“Matches.” I show him the pack. “For these.”
“Oh no, no. Smoking is baaad — that’s what Terry tells us. No good for your heart.”
“You mean, lungs.”
The Moon just stares at me, grinning. I take the creased envelope from my back pocket. It flops in my hand like a fish. I grab his hand and place the fish in it. “Here — for you.”
He just looks at me, the Moon does. “You should not smoke.”
(Illustrations by Andy Jenkins. This story originally appeared in Little Engines: Issue One, published by TNI Books. For more on Little Engines read the interview with publisher Adam Voith in this month’s issue of Smokebox.)
Andy Jenkins is an old skater and owner of Bend Press, an independent publishing company based out of Torrance, California.