DIXIE WHISTLE

Spring 2020 / Issue 107

Neil Serven

“Breaker, breaker one-seven for anyone coming this way. Mama Bear sleeps in the shadow of a Coca-Cola sign just past the mile marker two-six on I-20. She looks hungry. This is a public service announcement.”

Ma laughs. “Where’d you come up with that?”

And then the radio bursts: “That’s a ten-four. This is Sandstorm.”

A lady trucker. Candy squeals at getting a response, and her mother, in the driver’s seat, laughs with her.

“I didn’t think that thing worked,” Ma says.

The responses blast into the car.

“Mud Hut, copy here, much obliged.”

“Snapper, copy.”

“Y’all shittin me? Did a chipmunk just chew the wire?”

Sandstorm comes back on and says, “Now, Bronc, you watch that silver tongue around the child. What’s your handle, sweetheart?”

Candy hasn’t thought of a handle.

“Don’t look at me,” Ma tells her.

They pass the shopping plaza with the name that makes her think of paper cups. WINN-DIXIE. The radio in the car says whistler. “You can call me Dixie Whistle,” she says into the microphone.

“What’s your wrapper there, Miss Whistle?”

“My what?”

“Your wrapper’s your ride, Dixie Whistle. What you’re toodlin around in.”

Ma says, “Don’t you dare.”

“Blue Monte Carlo,” Candy says.

Their wrapper is really a maroon Dart, not new but new to them, with a black vinyl roof. Ma saved up six hundred dollars and the nice mister with the German shepherd said he’d toss in the CB unit for free rather than disconnect the antenna.

“Belongs to my pa.”

“Well ain’t you a helpful angel there, Dixie Whistle. You let your Pa Whistle know how obliged we are for the sniffaroo.”

Ma says, off-button, “I heard her.”

 

It’s a Burger King night. They get it through the window and Candy sneaks fries from the warm bag on her lap. For an extra ninety-nine cents they get an Empire Strikes Back drinking glass. Now they only need Lando to complete the set of four. They had a Lando earlier, but there was no time to pack him before they left.

In Aunt Vicki’s living room they watch Tic Tac Dough and Candy guesses right on a question about Colorado. She has a quiz on the capitals in a week.

“Aren’t you a smarty,” Aunt Vicki says. She takes a sip of Dr. Pepper.

“Top of her class,” Ma says.

“Show-off,” Maxine says from the floor.

Then a question comes up about the capital of Connecticut, which Candy knows because that’s where they used to live—where Pa still lives—before they got away. The screaming under the kitchen lights. The silver beer stacked in the Frigidaire Frost-Free Refrigerator-Freezer. Fruit magnets holding up her spelling tests. The Greyhound bus over the mountains.

Candy gets another question right, and Aunt Vicki points to Maxine. “This one could take a lesson,” she says.
Maxine sticks out her tongue at Candy.

Candy holds her hands over her ears when they play The Mean Dragon because the roar always startles her. Her intuition kicks in. She knows the Dragon is hidden behind Number Eight. The contestant’s smiling husband is sitting in the front row holding up four fingers so the woman says, “My husband says Number Four, Wink, so I’ll have to go with Number Four!” And then there’s the reveal, Candy pressing her ears with her fingers—wubba, wubba, ching!—two hundred dollars.

Then the woman goes on her own and picks Number Eight for their eight-year-old son, and she and her smiling husband are not going to Puerto Vallarta.

“You ought to be on this show, Candy-babe,” Ma says with a playful kick. “You win us a bunch of money and me and Vicki can quit working at Uptons.”

 

The apartment is too small for the four of them, but Ma says it’s only temporary until she can save enough for her and Candy to get their own place down here. For now, Candy sleeps on a cot in Maxine’s room and Ma gets Aunt Vicki’s couch. Ma made it sound like fun.

When Candy was little and Aunt Vicki and Maxine would come north to visit, she and Maxine would play, but Maxine’s got boyfriends now, wears tank tops and has boobs, and is hardly ever home. Some nights she’s out until it’s darker than Candy would ever be allowed to be out and a car with a revving engine peels away right as Maxine comes in the front door. And then when Aunt Vicki and Ma go out at night, it’s Maxine who stays with Candy and even though sometimes they still play it doesn’t feel the same, like Maxine is waiting things out.

For that first week or so it was like having a sister all of a sudden. Going around her room, Maxine plucked things on the fly for Candy to have: a couple of dolls, a stack of books, a few kiddie T-shirts that weren’t going to fit Maxine anymore. “Since y’all just left with the clothes on your backs,” she said.

Maxine had her own radio, like the one in Ma’s car, on the shelf next to her hi-fi, and she turned it on one night when Ma and Aunt Vicki had gone out. Maxine taught Candy the slang, some of which Candy knew already from watching B.J. and the Bear.

There was a low hiss, then a squawk of voices would spit from the speaker, and a line of red lights would glow all the way to the end.

Maxine picked up the microphone, held the button. The voices on the other end flirted back: howdy and kind.

 

The new box of Honeycombs includes a miniature aluminum license plate. It reads sky high in embossed capital letters and has an outline in the shape of Montana. Candy now has five plates in her collection and, more importantly, once she is finished with the box, she can mail two dollars and two box tops to the Post Cereal Company of Battle Creek, Michigan, to obtain the complete set of plates for the year 1980.

It’s Saturday morning and Ma and Aunt Vicki have left for their daylong shift at Uptons. Maxine is nowhere to be found. Before she left, Ma said it’s supposed to be a nice day, Candy-babe, you ought to go out on your bike and see if you can make yourself a friend. Except Ma forgot that Candy’s bike, as far as she knows, is still propped against the wall in their garage in Connecticut next to the Ford Granada. The used bike that Aunt Vicki found at a tag sale the day after Ma and Candy moved in may have been a nice gesture and all, but it is not her bike.

“Don’t know if I like you being cooped up here all alone,” Ma said. “Just remember your key, okay?”

“I will.”

“And if the phone rings?”

“Don’t pick up.”

“That’s a girl.”

Candy eats two bowls of Honeycombs and watches The Super Globetrotters and Fat Albert until she hears sirens coming from the interstate. She goes to Maxine’s room and turns the receiver to the state police channel.

Maxine told her that the local bacon sits on the S-curve past the Pizza Hut, where the speed limit is 35, and sets traps for the out-of-state haulers before the staties can get a chance.

Also, Channel 19 is the truckers’ channel, but around Atlanta they take it to 17 when they think they’re being sniffed. So many smugglers down in these parts, Maxine says, beer and whiskey for cheap.

A voice comes on: “Can I get a run on a Kentucky trailer, Romeo Romeo three-six. Kid says he’s en route to Tallahassee.”

A little while later: “That’s a squeaker in front of you, twenty-four.”

“No kidding. He’s barely out of the package.”

“I’m sure he went over at least one line, Officer.”

Candy turns back to Channel 17. She picks up the microphone.

“Breaker, breaker one-seven, calling out to Sandstorm. This is Dixie Whistle. You out there, Sandstorm? Snapper? Bronco? I’m here with a troop scoop.”

The line fritzes, whistles. They are probably out of range.

 

“Ask me another one.”

Ma is dressed for the evening, her eyelids silvered. They are waiting for Aunt Vicki and Maxine, who have gone out for chicken in a bucket. Ma puts down her cigarette, picks up the flash cards, shuffles, and draws. “Idaho,” she says.

Candy remembers Idaho as the state in the corner of the map that looks like a graham cracker with a bite taken out. She plays with the syllables. “Idaho. Eyed-a-hoe. I dun-no, Idaho. Des Moines?”

“Nope.”

She wonders if Sandstorm has been to Idaho. In Candy’s ten years and nine months on earth, she has only been to Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Georgia, and the states the Greyhound bus passed through in between. Mark Yetter had been to nineteen states and in class he pointed to each of them on the pull-down map.

“I give up.”

“Boys,” Ma says.

“Boys?”

Ma flips the card. B-O-I-S-E.

“Ask me another.”

“You sure you studied these, Candy-babe?”

“I’m studying now, aren’t I?”

Ma drags her cigarette and draws another card.

 

Maxine brought out her Hardy Boys game for her and Candy to play. But after Ma and Aunt Vicki go out, Maxine tells Candy that Jeff will be coming over. The game remains in its tape-cornered box on the kitchen table.

“You can meet him,” Maxine says, “but then you need to leave.”

Candy wonders if she’ll look like Maxine when she’s fifteen. After Ma and Aunt Vicki are gone, Maxine takes off her sweater to reveal a pretty red polka-dotted short-sleeved top. She puts on lipstick and mascara in the bathroom. She talks to the mirror, watches her lips move as she calls out to Candy that she doesn’t want any chicken, doesn’t eat anything fried anymore.

 

“Breaker one-seven, Dixie Whistle in her cave. Bronco? Sandstorm? You out there?”

“Well, good evenin, girlie.”

“Hi, Sandstorm! What’s your twenty?”

“I’m about twenty-five minutes outside the circle. Lookin forward to a knock back at the ol choke and puke with Bronco and Snapper, I’m gatherin they’ve started without me. Do you believe that, honey?”

Jeff had come in through the back door. He looked older than fifteen. Maxine’s polka dots rode up as she stood tiptoe in the kitchen to lock her arms around his neck. Candy watched the flutter of the boy’s hand down Maxine’s back, grazing her butt, settling at the hold of her hip.

Maxine suggested to Candy that she pour herself a glass of soda pop and take some chicken and biscuits into the bedroom.

The bones sit gnawed on the grease-spotted paper plate on the bedroom floor.

 

On Monday, Candy comes home with a 96 on her state capitals quiz, and Ma hugs her hard and says they ought to celebrate and go out to Pizza Hut, but Candy asks if they can go to the diner instead.

“What diner is that?”

“Near the Winn-Dixie.”

Ma holds her cigarette without lighting it and glances up to the ceiling like she does when she’s doing math in her head. “I don’t know of any diner there, Candy-babe.”

Over the newspaper at the kitchen table, Aunt Vicki says, “Honey, are you talking about the truck stop?”

Candy hadn’t expected her aunt or her mother to know anything about the place.

“I’ve heard the burgers are really good there,” Candy says.

Aunt Vicki chuckles, with Ma following, like there’s a joke flitting between them that Candy wouldn’t get. Ma says, “Not sure we’d be welcome there, Candy-babe. That’s kind of like waltzing into someone else’s church. What made you think of that place?”

 

Over pepperoni slices and sodas, Candy is confused as to why the talk seems to be about grown-up things when she and her near-perfect knowledge of state capitals are supposedly the reason they are out celebrating at Pizza Hut. Some guy named Philip keeps coming up.

“Who’s Philip?” Maxine asks.

“Nobody,” Ma says.

But then Aunt Vicki says, “Just a troublemaker who preys on unsuspecting women.”

“What?” Candy says.

Aunt Vicki looks across the table at Candy. “Your mom has an admirer, dear.”

“I want to hear more,” Maxine says.

“Where’d you meet him?”

“He works with us at Uptons. Vicki knows him.”

“He sells sportswear and comes over every day to talk to your mother,” Aunt Vicki says.
Maxine asks, “Is he cute?”

Ma shrugs, but then Aunt Vicki elbows her and says, “That’s not what you told me in the car!”

“He’s sweet, Vic!”

Aunt Vicki cups her hand around her mouth and whispers to Candy: “She thinks he’s quite handsome.”

Later, sitting on the edge of Candy’s cot, Ma says, “You know, it’s been a while since I’ve gone out with anybody, Candy-babe. You know how you’ve had trouble making friends? We’ve been down here long enough and sometimes when you’re a grown-up, you like having another grown-up around to listen to you. You get what I mean?”

 

Candy creeps down the hallway and peers into the living room. She hears whispers, giggles, shushes. She detects an odor like after gym class.

Ma was done up a little nicer tonight, in a dress that Candy hadn’t seen before. She could smell perfume behind Ma’s ears when they hugged goodbye.

This time, dinner is beef teriyaki and rice, straight out of the carton, with chopsticks. Maxine was wearing a tank top under her sweater and wriggled off her jeans in favor of a short skirt, full ensemble like in between scenes for a play.

Jeff didn’t bother to say hello.

Now the only light in the room comes from the seawater flicker of the TV, which illuminates Jeff’s shirtless torso on top of her cousin. Maxine’s nail-polished fingers run up and down his back.

Candy hops lightly back to the bedroom and closes the door. She puts on her sneakers, then her jacket. The window opens wide enough for her to pass through and she trusts herself to make the leap to the grass. The air is cool and since it’s already dark and past the time she would ever be allowed to be out, it feels like she doesn’t need to rush.

 

It’s five hundred and sixty-seven miles to Atlanta from Columbus, Ohio, where Sandstorm departed in her Kenworth earlier that morning hooked onto a tankerful of phosphoric acid. (“It’s stuff that goes in your Coca-Cola,” she explained over the wires.) From what Sandstorm told Candy, she can expect an eight-hour haul plus or minus the weekend traffic on Interstate 75. Then a knock back at the Choke with Mud Hut and Snapper and whoever hasn’t run their rig off into a ditch.

Aunt Vicki and Maxine’s house is close enough to the interstate that Candy can follow the railroad tracks with a flashlight and not get lost. The tracks go right over the highway. Cars whoosh beneath her, white headlights on one side turning into red taillights going out the other. She sings to herself to make the time pass and soon appearing over the horizon is the glowing sign for the Winn-Dixie and then the diner, which Aunt Vicki called a truck stop though it doesn’t seem to have a name other than D-I-N-E-R.

She hops down the grass slope and under the dusk ambles across the parking lot, past people leaning against cars, cigarettes blazing in their fingers. Women in skirts that end above their knees stand in a row like they’re waiting for rides. They let their glances linger on Candy as she walks, the way most adults seem to now, like she’s a curiosity and maybe a threat but surely someone else’s problem. She thinks of diners like Mel’s Diner on Alice or the silver ones shaped like trolley cars, but what she sees when she enters this one is like something closer to a Howard Johnson’s if they dimmed the lights and kicked out all the kids. No one is eating. A half-dozen folks at the bar laugh over mugs and saucers, and the haze is rank with cigarette smoke and burnt coffee.

The only women in the place are a couple of waitresses with their heads down, folding napkins or sorting silverware into trays, except for one woman who sits at the counter in a line of flannel and denim and mesh hats, swirling a cup of coffee and whispering to the man next to her.

Candy takes a chance. She walks past the sign that says PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED, winding through the tables unnoticed until she has positioned herself directly behind the woman.

A voice like a mouse in this hangar: “Hi.”

And then: “Excuse me.”

The woman doesn’t hear Candy, but one of the men does and then it’s the men turning around with their hats and grins, missing her at first, growly and confused. Then they look down and meet her eyes. Candy senses these men looking at her in a new way, from the bottom up.

“The fuck’s this going on?” one says. “Carlo, this your date here?”

The explosion of laughter causes the woman to turn around and get a load of the fuss. She stops laughing when Candy locks her gaze.

“Are you Sandstorm?”

The rest of the laughter drops.

“Who’s askin, may I ask?”

“It’s me,” Candy says. “Don’t you recognize my voice?”

The woman smiles, a half-smile like she’s waiting for the rest of the reveal. Sandstorm looks around for an adult assigned to this charge and when she doesn’t see one says, “Oh, honey. Oh, sweetie. You the one been givin me tips on the radio, ain’t you?”

“I knew you’d be here! I found you!”

“You sure did find me.” The woman’s eyes slide left to right and back. “Guess it ain’t hard to find me. When I’m not in my rig I’m usually here with these . . . knucklebones.” She opens her hand to the rest of the counter. “Snapper, Bronco, Mud Hut? You fellas know our girl Dixie Whistle.”

 

Lighting a cigarette outside the restaurant, Sandstorm says, “You ain’t really no Dixie, are you?”

Even by the glow of the flame, Sandstorm looks younger than Candy had envisioned from the voice that rasped through the radio. Her hair feathers out from the mesh of her STP cap and is the kind of reddish brown the Crayola company calls mahogany. She wears jeans and a man’s gray flannel shirt buttoned halfway up and underneath that flannel Candy can see a T-shirt with a design in red, white, and blue.

In the diner, Sandstorm bought Candy a Coca-Cola, which Candy sips from a glass bottle that feels cold and substantial in her hand.

“My real name’s Candace. My ma calls me Candy-babe.”

Sandstorm pockets her lighter. “No, I mean, you don’t talk like no Dixie. I heard that little voice squeakin over the radio and didn’t know where I was. You oughta call yourself Penny-Whistle. Cause you don’t sound a thing like Dixie.”

“Who gave you the name Sandstorm?” Candy asks.

Sandstorm blows a stream of smoke upward the same way Ma does when she’s trying to remember something. “So long ago, I don’t recall who it was. When you start out, they give you a handle. My real name’s Sandy, see. All the other truckers were men, and none of them were used to seein a lady blowin past them in a rig. I guess I made them go blind.”

“Hey, we rhyme!” Candy says.

“How’s that?”

“Candy and Sandy.”

Sandstorm laughs and says, “Well how about that! I didn’t even notice. You must be good in school.”

Candy shrugs. She was hoping for something else, anything but school. “I don’t like my school. I’m new there. They don’t like me.”

“They probably don’t like you cause you’re so smart. Make them feel slow, they’ll make you feel bad for it. That’s how it always happens. Ain’t your fault they can’t catch up to you.” Sandstorm takes a drag off her cigarette, leans her head back like she’s looking for something in the stars. “Try bein a girl who decides she wants to drive a truck for a living. People sayin there’s something wrong with you that you don’t wanna stick around and bake cookies and all that. I mean your teachers, friends, parents—all those people who were sayin before to follow your dreams, we love you, we believe in you, then you tell them your dream and it’s like a switch and they’re tryin to convince you you’re wrong in the head. I told myself, they’re all scared I might end up in a better place than them. Not long before you learn it ain’t worth wastin your time worryin about what people think. Like what these kids in your school think of you. They ain’t gonna change their minds, so make them think there’s something they don’t know.”

Then Sandstorm says, “You didn’t grow up around these parts, huh?”

Candy shakes her head. “We moved here from Connecticut. Ma and me.”

“Your ma know you’re out here this late, Candace?” Sandstorm shakes down her sleeve and holds her lighter over her watch and squints at the time. “Jesus, out after midnight, and you’re just a baby.”

“I’m almost eleven,” Candy says.

“Not that I’d really know, but that’s still gotta be too late for a kiddo your age. You sneak out or something?”
Candy doesn’t respond to this. Instead she asks, “Have you ever been to Idaho?”

“Idaho?” She exhales smoke. “Shit, sweetie, I been everywhere. Just like the song. Couldn’t tell you the last time I had a haul up there, though. It was probably beautiful. I really don’t remember.”

 

Candy knew she was in trouble when she saw Maxine’s window closed. She thought she could sneak around through the back of the house but that’s where Ma turned out to be. Aunt Vicky and Maxine were not in the apartment.

“Where the hell were you?” Ma had the yellow telephone from the hall with her, the cord stretched so taut around the corner the loops were flattened out of it. “I come home and it’s well after midnight and you’re not in your room, and some kid I’ve never seen before is on top of Maxine! I’d like an explanation!”

“His name is Jeff.”

Whose name is Jeff?”

“Maxine’s boyfriend.”

“Maxine is going to have a baby of her own to take care of at the rate she’s going. Where were you?”

“I was at the diner.”

“What diner?”

The answer that pops into her head—the one she has the presence of mind not to say—is the one with the big sign that says D-I-N-E-R.  She tries to think of a better answer when the radio calls from Maxine’s room:

“Breaker one-seven, breaker one-seven. This is Sandstorm calling out to Dixie Whistle. You back in your cave, Candy? Please give a holler.”

Ma hears the voice and looks around like it must have come out of one of the heating vents in the floor. She follows the voice to Maxine’s room. The radio squawks again and that’s when she sees the receiver light up, hears the hums fading in and out.

“Who have you been talking to, Candace Marie?”

“Sandstorm looking for a twenty on Dixie Whistle. Last seen at the Atlanta choke and puke. Anyone out there see Dixie back in her cave, please holler.”

“Sounds like you have yourself a following there, Dixie,” Ma says. She walks over and unhooks the microphone and swallows before she puts it to her mouth.

“This is Ma Whistle. Who is this?”

“I do beg your pardon, ma’am, this is Sandstorm callin out for Dixie Whistle. Lookin for a twenty on a girl about eleven years old, jeans and a green jacket with red stripes on her sneakers. She left the I-20 diner about forty-five minutes ago.”

Ma thinks of what she wants to say, with no idea what kind of rabbit hears these things, what the protocol is. She holds the button. “I appreciate your concern, Miss Sandstorm. Young Dixie is indeed back in her cave, and I think it’s safe to say she will not be leaving that cave for a good long time. This is Ma Whistle, over and out.”

It takes Ma a couple minutes to figure out which cord leads to where, but when the breath of the radio goes out and the red light is off she goes a step further and yanks the unit from the shelf, microphone dangling on its cord, bouncing and trailing along the carpet. She takes it into the living room, and Candy doesn’t follow her to see what she does with it but imagines that it involves one of Aunt Vicki’s cabinets that she was warned never to open.

Ma stomps back into the bedroom and pulls Candy around by both of her shoulders. Ma’s eyes are wet, the silver streaking down her cheeks. They haven’t been wet like this since Ma and Candy left Connecticut when her eyes were wet all of the time.

“Those are not your friends, baby. You hear me? Those voices out there? Those are strangers. You don’t know where they’re coming from, you don’t know where they’re going. You don’t know what they have to lose. I know you haven’t been finding friends easy down here but you can’t just pull them out of nowhere like that! They will use you up!”

 

The air has a new, unfriendly quiet, absent the crackle. Saturday, during her mother’s shift, Candy goes out on the bike that Aunt Vicki brought home. She has rubber-banded her Georgia license plate (peachy) to the rear frame beneath the banana seat. A couple of years ago it might have been a perfect size bike for her, but now her knees reach higher than the handlebars and she can only ride it to the 7-Eleven so many times. She finds some kids playing Wiffle ball in a schoolyard and doesn’t have the breath for words when they stop and turn around to ask her just what does she think she’s staring at.

At school they ask why she talks so weird. Why her skin’s so pale. She asked her mother what “reckon” meant, since that’s all people say they do down here is reckon, and when Ma didn’t know Candy looked the word up herself in the paperback dictionary that Aunt Vicki kept beneath the TV with the JC Penney catalogs, but all it said was something about paying the money you owe.

On her bike, the neighborhood feels small, and she tries to work out how likely it is she’ll run into the kids from her class. Fifth grade in Georgia feels like what fourth grade did in Connecticut, only down here all the girls except Candy already wear makeup and chew so much gum. They had already read the books for this year at Candy’s old school, so she gets bored and tries to answer the teacher’s questions without sounding like she knows it all, but they already know she knows it all.

Even Maxine doesn’t want her around now that she’s grounded for being caught with Jeff and blames Candy for her getting in trouble. Candy doesn’t see how it’s her fault; she was all ready to play Hardy Boys. If having a boy like you means getting painted up and squished on the couch and never being able to eat any of the food you like, then Candy wonders just what’s so special about the whole thing, but she doubts that Maxine knows, either.

 

Candy gets to meet Philip when he shows up early on moving day in his red pickup truck. His work-gloved hands grip the boxes that Candy packed herself, filled with the books and clothes that Maxine gave her, as well as her license plates. In work boots, he clomps up the stairs, three flights past the apartment of the new landlady, Mrs. Bergendahl, whose Jack Russell terrier barks and scratches on the other side of the door every time they pass.

This time Candy gets her own room, with a real bed and a real closet. Even though it’s only a couple of miles from where Aunt Vicki and Maxine live, for Candy the move means a transfer to yet another school, more explaining and pretending. There were no friends to say goodbye to this time, at least.

Philip sets the boxes down gently in her room, where her bed has been already assembled and made. He looks at the bare yellow walls with his hands on his hips like a frontiersman and says, “I guess we’ve got work to do, huh?”

 

Soon Philip is eating Burger King with them when they watch Tic Tac Dough, letting Candy know how impressed he is when she identifies Pennsylvania as the Keystone State. He is there again on the weekends, watching Georgia Tech basketball in the living room with Ma leaning into him, the two of them cheering when a Tech player scores even though Ma has never cared for basketball in her life.

As he settles in, Philip looks for ways he can help. He adjusts the handlebars on Candy’s not-really-hers bike so her knees don’t hit them when she pedals. He is comically bad at mini-golf and worse at Monopoly and doesn’t seem to care when he loses, which doesn’t make it as much fun as it should be when Candy wins. Candy wonders when she’ll see the rest of him. She hasn’t heard what it sounds like when he yells, hasn’t seen him smash a beer bottle into brown shards of glass. What he’s like when he doesn’t get what he wants.

The CB radio is gone from the Dart. Philip turned out to have a friend who was willing to buy it for forty dollars. It doesn’t matter because Ma had shut the unit off long ago and, anyway, they hardly ride in the Dart anymore; when they go out, it’s often the three of them packed in a row in the cab of Philip’s truck with Candy on the hump, the radio playing the twangy music they like down here that Ma was never into before she met Philip but suddenly she knows the words to, sings along to sometimes.

 

Summer arrives; a thicker haze descends. They don’t keep the public library open for long during the day, or else Candy would spend more time there. Tan boys with armpit hair howl at her out the windows of their cars, rev loudly at red lights.

At the 7-Eleven, Candy and Maxine buy cigarettes with their Twizzlers and Cokes. The boy clerk behind the counter likes Maxine and doesn’t care that she and Candy are underage.

They’re on the front steps of Aunt Vicki’s building. It’s a work shift for Ma and Aunt Vicki, but Philip was watching TV in his shorts like he was part of the upholstery. Then, out of the blue, Maxine called and told her to ride her bike over.

“Your friend,” Maxine says, lighting a Virginia Slim. “Sandstorm? Been askin after you.” She holds the flame out for Candy, who drags slowly, little suck-puffs until the fire takes. She expects to cough and is surprised when she doesn’t.

“You get your CB back?”
“Nope,” Maxine says. “Thanks to you. We listen in Jeff’s truck. He had to get a special kind of license and so he did and now he’s drivin all over the state for Brother Kane.”

Candy tries to flick ash like she has flicked it all her life. “I thought you were forbidden?”

“Not like Mama ever knows where I am. And know what else? Once I get me a job I won’t be goin back to school in the fall. Me and Jeff gotta save.”

“You havin a baby, Maxine?”

Maxine takes a long, drawn-out sip on her Coke bottle as she considers the question. She finishes the bottle, then peers at Candy through the green glass like it’s a telescope. “No, Candy. I’m not having a baby. Not so in the dark I don’t know that.” She sets down the bottle firmly on the wooden step. “Get me out of this shit town first.”

“So what did Sandstorm say?”

“Guess she wanted to know where her tips had gone. Checks in from the diner every Saturday. She misses you.”

Back at home, with the window open in her room, nighttime brings new sounds. After the TV is clicked off at the end of The Waltons, Candy hears the scratch of slippers around the kitchen, then Ma’s whispers entwined with Philip’s in a way that Candy has come to know means he’ll still be there in the morning. She senses Ma stopping at the door to her room where Candy pretends to sleep as though she’s been asleep for hours. Some nights, back in Connecticut, Ma would sleep in Candy’s bed, Candy curling into her and feeling Ma’s muscles and breathing in the cigarette smoke from her nightgown. But that doesn’t happen anymore, and with Philip around it’s never just the two of them anyway, and the last couple of times when Candy tried to curl with Ma on the couch Ma told her that she was getting too big to be doing this.

 

The rigs, parked in columns, look more immense up close than when they pass on the highway. From one end, the trailers stretch all the way to the dark horizon and on their panels scream letters as tall as buildings. The white-lettered tires come up to Candy’s head and behind them, warm engines tick as they cool down. The cabs slumber like animals that roared moments before: the Kenworths have angry, spread-out cat faces; the Peterbilts have square, doglike snouts; and all over there is chrome, reflecting the pink and blue neon of the diner and giving the sense that it would shock Candy if she touched it.

And the license plates: rusted, grimy, larger versions of the ones she collects from the Honeycomb boxes. Here she finds plates representing the states she has never come close to seeing in real life, from the half of the map where everything is bigger and shaped like a rectangle. Wyoming, the silhouette of a man riding a bucking bronco. AMERICA’S DAIRYLAND. LAND OF ENCHANTMENT.

Men in denim spill out of the diner, laughing, finishing off drinks and jokes. Squinting to light cigarettes. They talk up the ladies who have been waiting patiently for their rides like they were the last time she was here. Candy slips into the space between two rigs. The one she stands alongside casts a triangular black shadow where she can crouch without being seen. Her eyes adjust well enough to make out the code lettering on the tanker trailer and the diamond-shaped placard indicating that whatever swishes around inside could scorch rocks.

On the mudflaps: Petunia Pig in a cowgirl outfit. And then, on the driver’s side door of a navy blue Kenworth cab, in fine gold script: Sandstorm.

 

When the men have left with the women, Candy pulls herself up onto the metal treaded stair and slots her fingers into the handle and tugs open the door. She has to jump back down off the step so it can swing open wide enough for her to climb in.

The inside of the cab is warm like the inside of a hat. Candy sits in the driver’s seat, padded with blankets for a boost. There is duct-tape on the corners where the vinyl is torn. The windshield is like a movie screen. Her hands on the steering wheel are tiny; there’s sweat on the grips. The CB squawks to life and sprays out vulgarities, calls for a sign, then falls back to a hush.

A curtain divides the front of the rig from the sleeping compartment in the back. Candy draws it open. In the blue light, she can see that Sandstorm has furnished it like a tiny apartment: the outline of a mattress on the floor, pillows, a portable TV with an antenna telescoped out. A stack of magazines. There is a mirror mounted on the rear inside wall and photos slotted in corners of the frame.

Candy slides onto the mattress and closes the curtain behind her. She rolls over and backs herself up against the far wall and brings up her knees and listens to the voices rolling around outside, the motors hopping to a start and pulling out. Horns quick-tooting see ya later. She’s left a crack in the curtain where she can see the roof of the diner and the black sky above it and is nestled very comfortably when the door to the cab swings open and Sandstorm lugs herself in and exhales.

The ignition turns and, with it, the earth and everything inside the cab rumbles. Candy feels the vibrations beneath her legs. Sandstorm eases out, the truck like a lion awakening and stretching. Sandstorm needs both arms to turn the wheel around just to get the rig onto the service road and then tugs at the rope-horn a couple times and waves and hollers out at the people left in the lot. Then it’s a wait for an opening and a tricky, slow merge and the engine flattens to a murmur.

The only parts of Sandstorm that Candy can see are her baseball cap and her flannel sleeve, the only sound she hears an occasional clearing of the throat, else when a sass blasts over the CB and Sandstorm chuckles but doesn’t pick up the mic. Every so often, the red taillights of a car float past in the left lane. Candy’s legs begin to cramp, and she silently shifts into the position in which she’ll eventually fall asleep. Sandstorm whistles to herself to stay awake and it’s all Candy can do not to hum along.