Fiction Writing Contest XXIII, First Place (2008)
NEW MILLENNIUM AWARD FOR FICTION
“Hazardous Cargoes” by Jacob Appel
Appel will receive $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.
By Jacob Appel
Know your load.
That’s rule numero uno in this business, which is why I make them count the penguins out in front of me one at a time. I’m not going to be the schmuck who shows up in Orlando two birds short of a dinner party. Or the screw-up who’s got to explain to the highway patrol exactly how sixty kilos of coke ended up in his rig without his noticing. Short John Silver used to tell about one fellow who kept trying to turn his radio off, over and over again, but it just wouldn’t shut off, and when he pulled into a rest stop for the night, he realized he’d got a ten-piece mariachi band camping out in his trailer. So I always insist on a comprehensive inventory. And the guys at the zoo grumble about it, giving me looks as icy as the day is hot, but they do it. So I know I’m pulling out of Houston with exactly forty-two Gentoo penguins, seventeen Jamaican land iguanas, four tuataras from New Zealand, and a pair of rare, civet-like mammals called linsangs. No more, no less.
Some drivers like to get themselves a five-course breakfast before they hit the road, but I’m one for hauling and then eating. It gives you a sense of accomplishment, knowing you’ve already covered so much ground. Besides, you avoid the pre-dawn crunch at Waffle House and Denny’s: If you pull off the Interstate mid-morning, you’re bound to be one of the only faces in the trucker’s lounge. And you get better service at the counter too, maybe even an ear to yak at. My plan is to push as far as Lake Charles by noon, but it’s sweltering, even with the A/C, so I pull into a Mister Bigbee’s to fuel up my bloodstream and check on the penguins.
Alaxa is my waitress. She’s tall and thin, maybe a bit flat-chested, with a tiny gray tuft above each ear, but not bad-looking except for a large, tear-shaped mole under her nose. I’m curious what kind of name Alaxa is—Guatemalan? Croat?—but I know that’s a lousy way to strike up a conversation. Makes me sound like the Border Patrol. More toxic in this part of the country than asking her age or her weight. Instead, I order a chef’s salad and tell her about the penguins.
“For real?” she asks.
Her accent is straight-up East Texas: like honey dripping from the hive. It strikes me that Alaxa could be one of those made-up names. That’s a weird business, made-up names. Like there’s not enough real ones to go around? But the woman didn’t choose her own name, so that’s about that. “Forty-two Gentoo penguins,” I say. “I counted them myself. That’s the Short John Silver method. Count everything.”
“You mean Long John Silver?” she asks. “Like the restaurant?”
“Short John Silver. He was a good buddy of mine,” I answer. But that’s like saying Joe Stalin had a mean streak. What I want to say is that I’ve been missing Short John Silver like I lost my own dad. It’s funny how you can see a guy only three, four times a year, and still he’s close as family. Better than family. I’ve got a wife, and a son, and two brothers, and a whole slew of aunts and uncles and cousins, and I haven’t seen any of them in a good five years. “He lost a leg to bone cancer as a kid. And never wore a prosthesis, just used a crutch. Like Long John Silver. But he was hardly five feet, so we called him Short John.”
“Whatever works for you,” says Alaxa. I realize she hasn’t read Treasure Island.
“He took a spill in Natchez last winter,” I say. “During that big ice storm. Nobody told him the drawbridge was jammed open.”
Alaxa clears some pocket change from the adjacent table and drops it into the pouch of her apron. “Can I see them?” she asks.
“Can I see the penguins?”
If I were looking for a hook-up, penguins would make excellent bait. But I’m not. At forty-two years old, what I want is a little peace and quiet—the reassurance of knowing that I’ll find my personal belongings where I’ve left them. I deposit a rumpled ten dollar bill on the tabletop. “Sure thing,” I say. Alaxa turns to the other waitress, a chunky girl with an oversized crimson bow in her hair, and announces she’s going on break.
Outside, the air is toxic. A hot breeze ruffles the banner announcing “Free Coffee” between 5:30 and 7:00 am. Rainbows whirl in the oil puddles on the asphalt. Along the traffic median, a solitary crow picks at a discarded wrapper. I climb up onto the platform and undo the locks.
“Penguins,” she says. “Strange thing to be driving around with.”
“Penguins are nothing,” I say. “My buddy, Short John Silver, back in the fifties, before the HAZMAT rules, he carried a nuclear warhead over the George Washington Bridge into New York City. Parked it right in front of the Chrysler Building while he ate lunch at an automat.”
“For real?” asks Alaxa.
There’s two separate doors to the rig, one for the warm compartment, one for the cool compartment, the sections divided by some high-tech synthetic glass. I roll open the cool door and the frigid air blasts us. It’s so cold it burns, like the opposite of a blow torch. The penguins appear pink under the coils of fluorescent light, their deep-orange bills protruding like mercury thermometers. They appear perpetually stunned. On the opposite side of the divider, the tuataras hiss in apparent displeasure. Alaxa extends a small, bony hand, and I hoist her onto the platform. I slide the door shut behind us, but only two-thirds of the way—to conserve cold without giving my companion any wrong impressions. If I have any goal in life, other than just minding my own business, it’s to keep another waitress from hoodwinking me into marrying her.
“There was a movie about penguins,” says Alaxa. “But I didn’t see it.”
“March of the Penguins,” I say. “But those were Emperor penguins. These are Gentoos.”
“They’re cute,” she says. “You’ve got a cool job.”
“I think so,” I answer.
I make a point of counting the birds again before I pull out of the lot. How a truck-stop waitress could make off with a rare penguin, or why, I couldn’t tell you, but people do things like that, so it can’t hurt to be too careful.
• • • •
From Lake Charles to Baton Rouge, I’m listening to Orson Welles read Tess of the D’Urbervilles. There’s another habit I acquired from Short John: Literature. The very first day he picked me up—a sixteen year old runaway out of Southwest Florida—he had a tape deck playing The Grapes of Wrath. That was in the days before you could buy audio novels. What Short John did was have his girls record the novels for him while he was on the road. He’d pull into Amarillo, crash a few days with this teacher’s aide named Bonnie Lou, come away with seven volumes of Proust in ninety minute segments. He had funny-looking girlfriends all over the map making tapes for him—plain-Jane country gals reading James Joyce in hayseed voices. It was practically a goddam cottage industry. He’d adapted the idea from his grandfather, who used to work for the cigar roller’s union, which hired professional readers to educate the men while they labored. Lots of fellows think I’m nuts for listening to audio books—like CEO’s who knit, or football players who do ballet in their spare time. But at the end of the day, I know something about something, and most drivers don’t know jack squat.
So I’m rooting for Tess. I know things aren’t going to work out for her—I’ve heard this novel at least half a dozen times—but I’m doing what Short John used to call “suspending my disbelief,” when it crosses my mind to check what year Welles recorded these tapes. Idle curiosity. Luckily, I’ve still got the original hard plastic package. “Copyright 1980.” Same year my Mom died, and I left Fort Myers. Long time ago. Indifferently, I toss the package into the back of the cab. What comes back at me is a startled yelp. High-pitched and sudden. I glance at the rearview mirror as I edge to the side of the Interstate. There’s a threadbare beach blanket behind my seat, and it’s trying not to move, but giving itself away with tiny, lapping breaths. It’s keeping too still for anything un-human. I ease my utility knife out from beside the ashtray. Once we’ve crossed the rumble strip, I shift into neutral. Then I yank hard on a corner of the blanket. The cloth gives quickly at first, but abruptly it starts tugging back.
“Let go,” I say. “Now. Unless you want to get shot.”
After a long pause, the tension lets up. When I draw back the blanket, I’m staring down at a blinking teenager. My stowaway has a shaved head and a chin-stud. It takes me several seconds to register that she’s a girl. A square-jawed, not-so-pretty girl wearing camouflage pants and a white tank-top, sporting a duffle bag with a skull-and-crossbones markered into the canvas. Tess of the D’Ubervilles, she isn’t. If it weren’t for the well-developed contents of her sweat-soaked tank-top—and how can I help noticing—my stowaway could probably pass as a child.
The girl scrutinizes me carefully, as though deciding whether she can take me in a scuffle. “Where’s your gun?” she asks.
I feel self-conscious holding a knife on a teenage girl. But you never know if she’s got a canister of mace in her pants. I keep the blade low, not wanting to attract the attention of passing motorists.
“This isn’t a taxicab,” I say. “Stowing away is stealing. It’s theft of services. No different than taking money out of a cash register.”
My passenger frowns, pursing her large lips. The stench of sewage rises from a nearby drainage ditch and drifts in through the open window. Each passing rig generates a gust of hot, angry wind.
“As soon as we get to Richmond, I’ll get out,” she says. “Don’t be a jerk. It’s not going to cost you anything.”
“I’m not going to Richmond. I’m going to Orlando.”
“But the address on the truck says Richmond.”
“Like I said, I’m going to Orlando,” I say. I could explain how I’m only a contract driver—penguins one day, cruise missiles the next—and that the company that leases the trucks for delivering zoo animals is based in Virginia, but that’s the kind of conversation that invites complications. “I’ll take you as far as Baton Rouge,” I say. “But that’s the end of the line.”
“Okay,” the girl says. “I thought you were going to Richmond.”
I pull back onto the highway. While we’ve been negotiating, something drastic has happened between Tess and Alec D’Uberville. I’ve heard this story God knows how many times, but I can’t remember exactly what. So I rewind the tape. “You can sit up front, if you want to…” I say.
“I’m fine here,” she says. “My grandmother lives in Richmond. Say, do you know any other truck drivers going to Richmond?”
At least she’s trying to get someplace, I think. Someplace specific. When Short John picked me up, I just wanted to get as far away from my step-father as possible. Wasn’t anything wrong with my step-father, either. Just wasn’t anything right with him. Kind of man spends his entire life collecting SSI and eating cheese doodles in front of a television with piss-poor reception. So I’m glad my stowaway has a grandmother in Richmond. What I don’t like is having her behind me, where I can’t see her.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
The girl says nothing. I give her a long time to think. She takes a cigarette out of her bag, and twirls it between her fingers, but knows better than to light it. Obviously, she’s a middle-class kid—the kind of daughter some family is going to be searching for—and that leaves me uneasy.
“Can’t you help me hitch a ride to Richmond?” she says. “Don’t be a jerk.”
“This isn’t a travel agency,” I say. “How old are you?”
“Old enough to get raped and murdered by a crazy motherfucker truck driver you don’t know from Adam? Ever thought about that?”
“Just take me to Baton Rouge, okay?” she says. That’s a conversation stopper, if ever there was one. I flip the tape back on. I’m just starting to lose myself in Tess, to forget I’ve got company, when she adds, “Old enough to say some crazy motherfucker truck driver did stuff to her without her wanting it. Ever thought about that?”
You bet I’ve thought about that. That’s why I’m not leaving her on the side of I-10. But I don’t want to get picked up for aiding and abetting, either. Who knows why she’s leaving Houston and who’s after her?
“Baton Rouge,” I say.
She shuffles forward, resting her chin on the seatback. “And can we listen to something else on the radio? This shit is giving me a headache.”
“Tell me your name and I’ll think about it.”
“Viktoria,” she says. “With a K.”
“Well, Viktoria with a K,” I say. “I’ve thought about it…..This is my truck. And this shit is Tess of the D’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy. Which is what we’re going to listen to, all the way to Baton Rouge. And if for some reason we do get to the end of the whole goddam novel, then we’re going to start over again at the very beginning. Am I making myself clear?”
“Clear as crystal,” she says. “Just one question for you.”
“Is it really your truck? Or do you just drive it?”
“Shut up,” I say. “Try and learn something.”
• • • •
We’re on the outskirts of Lafayette, Louisiana, when Viktoria “with a K” announces that she wants to use the ladies’ room. If she was a boy, I’d just send her out to the side of the road and let her water the tule grass. But with a girl, even a tomboy with an attitude, I recognize that really would make me into a jerk. So I’ve got two crummy choices: Either I dispatch her into a rest stop alone, and hope she doesn’t say something that gets me hauled off to Leavenworth, or I find a place for us both to take a breather together. As much as I don’t like the idea of walking into a luncheonette with somebody else’s teenage daughter, or losing the hour, a guy has got to play the cards he’s been dealt. Keeping my passenger on a tight leash seems like the surest route to getting my penguins to Orlando by the end of the week.
We pull up at a restaurant called Doctor Bigger’s. Clearly a play on Mister Bigbee’s, though right now they’re pitching a “health-conscious menu” with low-carb soups and a “king-size” salad bar. But it’s a sham, if you ask me. Nobody loses weight eating anyplace with laminated menus. The dining room is pretty full—maybe because outside it’s ninety-seven degrees and in here it’s like a meat locker—so the waitress seats us in the back section, the smoking-section, opposite a slot machine. “Special soup today is cream of barley,” she says. “Free refills on the iced tea.” She’s about my age, maybe a few years younger. Flaming orange hair. Clearly natural. Big brown eyes under dark blue eyeliner. Sadly, she doesn’t have a nametag. When Viktoria shuffles off to the restroom, the waitress stares after her.
“It’s a rough age,” she says.
“She’s not my daughter,” I answer. Regretting it the moment I say it.
The waitress’s face loses some of its friendliness. But only some. “She your niece?” she asks.
“Friend of the family,” I say. “I’m taking her over to her grandmother’s.”
That seems to satisfy her. She shrugs. “Rough age,” she says. When she comes back to take our order, she’s all smiles again.
I tell Viktoria to go first. She insists she isn’t hungry.
“We’ve got a long drive ahead of us,” I say. But not wanting to draw too much suspicion, I add quickly, “More than an hour to Baton Rouge.”
The girl pushes the menu away. “I’m old enough to decide when I’m hungry.”
“Why do we have to go through this every time we visit your grandmother?” I say. I roll my eyes at the waitress, hoping for sympathy. “Your grandmother gave me more than enough money to pay for you.”
Viktoria picks up my cue. Maybe a bit too clearly. Once it’s established I’m paying, she orders enough food to feed half of Africa for a week. Sides of fries and onion rings, an okra appetizer, two breakfast entrees. For dessert: A chocolate milkshake and a banana split. I throw her a dirty look, but there’s not much else I can do. When the waitress leaves, she says, “Chill out. Grandma can afford it.”
She’s beaming. She thinks this “grandma” routine is funny.
“Lend me a quarter,” she says. “I want to play some music.”
I do as I’m told. Soon, a high-pitched, pulsing noise rises out of the tableside jukebox. It has corresponding lyrics, totally indecipherable. Apparently, this is music. I suddenly feel ancient as the pyramids of Egypt: To this girl, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles, and goddam Frank Sinatra, are more or less the same thing. I can’t help wondering if my own son listens to this stuff—but I don’t wonder too hard. Ever since Maureen won full custody, I don’t let myself go there.
“I started driving rigs when I was sixteen,” I tell Viktoria. “Friend named Short John Silver set me up with a buddy of his who delivered carpets. Told them I was twenty-one and had a commercial license.” I did have a commercial license too—bought for fifteen bucks in the French Quarter. “You can’t get away with that anymore. On account of the terrorism crackdown.”
“Tell me later,” she says. “You’re wasting the song.”
So I sit with my hands on the paper placemat until the food comes. After that, I watch Viktoria eat. She wolfs down three scrambled eggs and four slices of French toast, then starts in on the ice cream. One damn hungry kid. Myself, I don’t have much of an appetite. At the next booth, there’s a trucker and his girl. I can tell he’s a trucker because he’s wearing a plaid hunting jacket. Only a trucker thinks to bring a jacket with him to a restaurant on a hot summer day. Or maybe an off-duty firefighter.
“What are you running away from?” I ask.
She slurps her shake loudly through a straw. She’s drinking a milkshake and smoking a cigarette at the same time. “People like you,” she says.
“You got penguins in your truck,” she says. “I heard you talking to that chick after breakfast.”
“Will you let me see them? I’ve never seen a live penguin before.”
Now I know how to make it as a pedophile. Forget lollypops. Antarctic wildlife is the ticket. I try again. “What are you running away from?”
“Stuff. Bad stuff,” she says. “Please, can I see the penguins?”
“We’ll see. Maybe once we get to Baton Rouge,” I say. “Can’t go disturbing them every time somebody wants to be amused.”
At that moment, our nameless waitress reemerges from the kitchen, the swinging doors slapping to and fro in her wake. She slides the bill face-down onto the table. Then she turns to Viktoria, as though I’m not even there, and asks: “You okay, sugar?”
The girl looks me over. I can see the newfound power in her eyes.
I mouth the word penguins, probably too conspicuously.
“I’m fine,” she says. Decisively. “Why? Was Dad giving you a hard time?”
My sudden paternity catches the waitress off guard. She must sense this is a situation well above her pay grade, because that’s the last we ever see of her. A bald man with a walrus mustache rings us up at the counter.
On the way out, Viktoria insists I buy her a gumball. While she’s waiting for the ball to swivel through a maze of grooves, building momentum to the bottom of a long, clear chute, the guy from the next table comes up to me. He’s taken off his jacket and he’s got his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “Saw you’ve got live cargo,” he says.
I watch Viktoria retrieve the gumball. “Penguins,” I say. “Forty-two of them.”
“You headed east or west?”
“East,” I say. “Probably.”
“Keep a heads-up,” he says. “Potholes like crazy, about two miles this side of Crowley.”
“That so?” I say. Non-committal. “Thanks.”
“Holes the size of basketballs, man,” he says. More emphatically. “Crater-of-the-fucking moon.”
“I’ll keep a lookout,” I say.
“Just wanted to give you a heads-up,” he says again. “Wouldn’t want to see you jackknife with a load of penguins.”
But he would, of course. That’s human nature. Nothing more basic than wanting to see another guy’s penguins flailing around in a ditch.
By the time we’re at the turnoff for Jennings, I’ve given up on Tess and her D’Uberville aspirations. Viktoria has started in on seeing the penguins again, and she won’t let Orson Welles get a word in edgewise. “You showed them to that chick back in Lake Charles,” she says peevishly. “You just wanted to get laid, didn’t you?”
This doesn’t deserve an answer. I take a deep breath and let it pass.
Viktoria snaps off the tape player. “How long since you’ve been laid, mister?”
We’re thrusting through the belly of the swamp. The highway’s an elevated track between towering cypresses. Lots of road-kill: mule deer, ring-tailed raccoons, other furry carcasses mutilated beyond recognition. Also an occasional live armadillo, waddling at the base of a grassy embankment. Not a promising place to abandon an teenager from the big city. But I’m sorely tempted.
“Bet it’s been a long time,” says the girl. “Bet I’m the closest thing you’ve had to a date in ages.”
That’s too much. “Mind your own fucking business,” I say.
“What language!” she gasps, all mock-southern-belle, but totally absurd coming from a girl wearing dog-tags around her neck. “Someone must have hit an open sore.”
I turn to face her, keeping one eye on the road. I try to look as unruffled as possible. “You ready to tell me why you’re running away?”
“I told you. Bad stuff,” she says. “What do you care?”
I shrug. “Maybe I don’t care.”
That’s all I say. I know this is a game that I can win. At my age, I’m willing to wait an awfully long time to get what I want. We pass the turnoffs for Estherwood, for Forked Island, for Hominy Heights. Not a peep from my passenger. But two miles out of Crowley, just past the bend where the highway narrows down to three lanes, she says, “I don’t get along with my dad, okay? Can we leave it at that?”
“But you get along with your grandmother?” I say.
“Yeah,” she says. Nothing more.
“I had a stepfather I didn’t get along with,” I say.
She folds her arms across her chest. “Good for you.”
I want to make eye contact with her, but she’s staring straight ahead. Practically boring holes into the windshield. A bright-red SUV passes us on the right. “Why don’t you get along with him?” I ask.
“Look, I told you why I’m leaving. Now, can I see the fucking penguins?”
“Don’t change the subject,” I say. “We were talking about your dad.”
She turns and glares at me. “What does a girl have to do around here to see a few fucking penguins? I didn’t know it was such a big deal, all of a sudden. It wasn’t when you were trying to screw that waitress. Why don’t I just give you a hand-job and then you show me the penguins and we’ll call it even?”
“Or how about if you don’t show me the fucking penguins, I’ll run into the next gas station we pass and tell them I gave you a hand-job.”
Her voices is breaking—she’s on the verge of tears—but I’m too agitated to care.
“You want penguins, dammit,” I shout. “I’ll show you penguins.”
I shift into a lower gear, intending to pull to the rig onto the shoulder. But I’ve still got my hand on the transmission when we hit a pothole the size of Rhode Island. That guy in the restaurant wasn’t kidding about the craters of the moon. One pothole is not going to knock out a rig, of course. It’s the next three—one after another, like artillery shells—that whack the axels out from under us. Before I can say so-long-sweet-Jesus, glass is shattering in my ears. Then I’m wedged sideways as the cab lands horizontal to the roadbed. I can actually see the wheels of the trailer spinning through the passenger-side window.
All of my limbs seem to move. I feel the trickle of blood over my temple, but I know not to reach for it. If there’s a hole in my brain, no need to poke a finger in it. If it’s just something superficial, no need to get my hands bloody.
“Holy fuck,” says the girl.
“You okay?” I ask.
“You could have fucking killed us,” she says. I guess that means she’s all right.
I throw my shoulder against the door of the cab. It inches open with a painful, scraping sound. I scoot across the hot metal and then I help clamber Viktoria out after me. Luckily, we’re the only overturned vehicle. No other crushed cars. That’s a driver’s worst nightmare: Somebody else’s baby pinned to death under your rig. But this is a textbook one-party wreck. In front of us, the highway stretches through the swampland. Open and empty. A few cars slow down for an instant, then plow forward. Behind us, the road is totally impassible. Traffic is building up quickly.
The wound in the side of the truck is large enough to drive a Cadillac through. The siding has peeled away like the lid of a sardine can. Both generators have conked out in the cooler of the truck, so the A/C’s off, but glacial air is rising as steam from the gash in the siding. We’re basically trying to refrigerate the entire bayou. “Get back,” I warn Viktoria. “Now! Whole goddam thing could go up.” Then I climb into the damaged trailer and gather up a handful of penguins.
I run them across the highway to Viktoria, in twos and three, like a one-man bucket brigade. Their tiny bodies feel warm and dry, not soft and slick, to the touch. But they flail a lot. Who can blame them? A middle-aged Indian woman has gotten out of her car and is helping the girl look after the birds. The good Samaritan is wearing some kind of traditional robe, with gold trim, that must be hell in this weather. “Try to keep the birds off the hot asphalt,” I shout. And then I’m back again with another pair of Gentoos.
More people are piling out of vehicles. One big black guy identifies himself as a medical student. He wants to take a look at my forehead. I hand him an unconscious linsang. Out-cold, but breathing.
“Does this thing bite?” he asks.
“How the hell should I know?” I answer.
Someone else shouts: “Look! Penguins!”
In the end, the tuataras are all dead. Crushed by the rear axle going through the flooring. But I’ve rescued both linsangs and all the iguanas, not to mention forty-one penguins. The forty-second has gone AWOL. That’s truly priceless. An AWOL penguin. Like something out of a comic strip.
“How long can these things last in this heat?” asks Viktoria.
The answer, I know, is not long enough.
I’ve always been one to avoid cops, but now I need one more than Jesus Christ needs a nail remover. Unfortunately, I don’t hear so much as a siren. Only horns honking, shouts. But I do catch sight of a box-truck a few rows back in traffic. It looks like the refrigerated sort. Has “Oscar’s Originals” in calligraphy on the paneling. I wade between cars and signal for the driver to roll down his window. “What you got in there?”
“Meat,” he says. He has a open, weasel-like face and bad acne scars around his mouth. “Kosher-style meat.”
I rub my tongue over my front teeth. “I got penguins,” I say.
“You got shit luck,” he says.
“That too. Penguins need to be kept cool. How’d you like to sell all that meat to the Orlando Zoo at cost, and let me refrigerate some penguins.”
“I’d like to help you, guy,” he says. Nervous. “But you know how it is….”
“No, I don’t know how it is. You see: These penguins here are endangered species. Only a few left in the world.” I’m pulling this shit out of my ass, right and left. But I figure: What’s this fellow going to know about penguins? “Think about it. There’s going to be television crews out here in a few minutes. Do you want to be the guy who’s face gets flashed all over the Internet because he wouldn’t sacrifice a few pounds of sirloin for forty-one endangered penguins? Or do you want to be the guy with his picture in the paper for saving them?”
“They’re that rare, are they?”
“Very rare,” I say. “Not what’s your plan? Because if you’re not playing ball, I’m going to go find another truck.”
The guy opens his cab door and steps down. “Okay, do it. But they better pay for the whole load. Market value.”
I’m already headed back to retrieve my first batch of penguins. “Walt Disney funds the zoo, for Christ’s sake,” I call after him. “They’re richer than God.”
The guy with the meat shipment manages to pull his truck forward fifty yards. Other motorists let him past grudgingly. In under five minutes, we’ve loaded the birds into the truck and handed out free cold-cuts to anyone who’ll take them.
“Forty-one for forty-two isn’t bad,” I say. To nobody in particular. But then the last of the penguins comes shuffling out from behind a mangrove hedge. How the hell it got there, I’ll never know. But it’s the missing bird—there’s no doubt about that. When its webbed feet touch the scorching pavement, the creature begins to wobble in confusion, or maybe pain, and it topples over onto its wing. I scoop the bird up in my arms and cradle it like an infant.
That’s when the first squad car appears. Two state troopers. One an Asian officer in reflective sunglasses. Built like a linebacker. The other a tall white guy with a blotchy complexion. But both cops—a common denominator that trumps race and religion and just about everything else. Cops are cops. These two park diagonally across the highway, like they own it, between my rig and the stopped traffic. Meanwhile, I attempt to soothe the penguin with a lullaby. Rock-a-bye-birdie, on the tree top…. I sway my torso while I sing. I have every right to be carrying this penguin, I know, but I feel like I’ve stolen a chicken.
“This your truck?” asks the Asian cop.
Viktoria approaches and I hand her the final bird.
“What’s that?” asks the cop.
“It’s a penguin,” I say. “I got a whole truck of them.”
The other cop whistles. “Penguins. This just takes the shit.”
Viktoria is holding the penguin’s face up to her own. “I think this one’s injured.”
“Who’s she?” asks the first cop.
I look from Viktoria to the penguin and back to Viktoria. They both appear so damn helpless, so out of place.
“That’s my daughter,” I say. “We’re on our way to Orlando, Florida.”
The cop nods. My relationship with Viktoria doesn’t interest him. “So you’re carrying penguins?” he asks.
“Forty-two penguins, seventeen land iguanas, four tuataras and a pair of linsangs,” I say. “But the tuataras are all dead.”
While I spell “tuatara” and “linsang” for the cop, more police cars arrive on the scene. One of the new cops, a detective in a jacket and tie, asks me if a tuatara is some kind of a weapon. I overhear another of the cops tell Viktoria: “You’ll have to leave those birds alone, miss. They’re evidence.” What a goddam mess! No matter how hard you try to mind your own business, eventually, no matter what precautions you take, you’re bound to find yourself surrounded by a bunch of flailing penguins.
I walk a few yards up the roadbed and phone my outfitters in Richmond. They’re not thrilled, obviously, but they’re insured up the wazoo. Wrecks are just the cost of doing business. Once I work things out with them, they give Orlando a heads-up and make the arrangements for a relief vehicle. With penguins, you might think there’d be more of a fuss. And there is for the media, but not for the shippers. At the end of the day, the protocol is the same for Gentoo penguins, and soybeans, and sheets of aluminum siding. Cargo is cargo. It’s when a guy gets too attached to his cargo—when he starts thinking of them as his penguins—that he gets himself into trouble.
I find Viktoria behind one of the squad cars. She’s arm wrestling with a female state trooper. Losing every time. When she sees me, the girl grins. The female trooper bends Viktoria’s slender arm to the trunk of the vehicle. Then she pats my daughter on the shoulder and wanders off.
“Hi, Dad,” says Viktoria. “Look, I’m sorry about before. In the truck.”
“You should be sorry,” I say. But I put my hand on the scruff of her bare neck, like an uncle might, and I say: “I spoke to my boss. They’re going to send a new truck from Shreveport. It should be here in a couple of hours.”
“And you’re taking me all the way to Florida?” she asks. Expectant.
“It looks like I am,” I say. “And then I’m getting an Atlantic Coast gig and driving you straight to your grandmother’s in Richmond.”
She nods, but she looks disappointed. Like she hoped I was going to adopt her or something. Take her under my wing. But I don’t have that in me. I’m no Short John Silver. I have a kid of my own who I haven’t spoken to in five years, who I should go track down sooner rather than later.
“Richmond,” I say for emphasis. “The end of the line.”
You’ve got to know your load. And you’ve got to know how far to carry it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jacob M. Appel’s first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Award in 2012. His short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, won the 2012 Hudson Prize and was published by Black Lawrence in November 2013. He is the author of five other collections of short stories: The Magic Laundry, The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, Einstein’s Beach House, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana and Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets; an essay collection, Phoning Home; and another novel, The Biology of Luck.
Jacob has published short fiction in more than two hundred literary journals including Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, StoryQuarterly, Subtropics, Threepenny Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and West Branch. He has won the New Millennium Writings contest four times, the Writer’s Digest “grand prize” twice, and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom competition in both fiction and creative nonfiction. He has also won annual contests sponsored by Boston Review, Missouri Review, Arts & Letters, Bellingham Review, Briar Cliff Review, North American Review, Sycamore Review, Writers’ Voice, the Dana Awards, the Salem Center for Women Writers, and Washington Square. His work has been short listed for the O. Henry Award (2001), Best American Short Stories (2007, 2008), Best American Essays (2011, 2012), and received “special mention” for the Pushcart Prize in 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2013.
Jacob holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Brown University, an M.A. and an M.Phil. from Columbia University, an M.S. in bioethics from the Alden March Bioethics Institute of Albany Medical College, an M.D. from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, an M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University, an M.F.A. in playwriting from Queens College, an M.P.H. from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He has most recently taught at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was honored with the Undergraduate Council of Students Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2003, and at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City. He also publishes in the field of bioethics and contributes to such publications as the Journal of Clinical Ethics, the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, the Hastings Center Report, and the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Detroit Free Press, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Times, The Providence Journal and many regional newspapers.
Jacob has been admitted to the practice of law in New York State and Rhode Island, and is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide.
“Hazardous Cargoes” © 2007 Jacob Appel