At a little after 11 p.m., Sputter chugs slowly through the lot at a Travel America truck stop and finds a space away from the harsh glow of Quiznos red and green and flashing L-O-T-T-O pink neon. She's logged about ten hours today, and now she lines all three axles of the rig just so, shifts into reverse, and puts her whole body into spinning the mighty steering wheel as she backs the 71-foot 18-wheeler into an impossibly skinny slot. It's dark over here, a good spot, and she has neighbors on either side, rigs rumbling. Most truckers keep the engines on all night, for the air-conditioning in the summer and the heat in the winter.
She throws a switch and the truck exhales a loud, satisfying hiss. "Okay," she says with a long sigh of her own. She rubs her knee. Stupid knee. Too many years climbing up and down and up and down the cab's steep steps. They don't make rigs with women's bodies in mind. Of course not. Last year she joined an awesome organization, Women in Trucking. Most of her friends in Women in Trucking have grown kids, started driving after. Some have husbands who drive, both of them trading off, like living together in an RV. She tries to imagine Michael doing that and laughs out loud at the thought. He would die! Michael likes everything nice. Likes his fancy clothes. Likes to shop. Loves to shop.
She has two questions for Michael when she gets home: When did he know Sputter was the one? And: What does he love most about her? She's going to ask him and start planning her future.
She makes about 40 grand a year driving a truck. You can make more if you want to drive more, but Sputter doesn't like driving in snow or ice. Rob, back in Kalida, leaves it up to her. Technically, Rob owns Sputter's truck, along with about 30 others. He hires the drivers, maintains the fleet, writes her paycheck, gives her full benefits. Like she says, it's a dream job.
She crawls into the back of the truck, her cozy capsule of a home: twin bed topped by a blue fuzzy decorative pillow; refrigerator stocked with apples, grapes, and soda; microwave; and built-in cubbies holding her shampoo, Febreze, Lubriderm lotion. People ask if she's afraid out here and honestly she isn't. She thinks of the guys as brothers—ornery, sometimes stupid, but more or less protective. When the lot lizards in heels and tight tops come knocking at her door, they freak out when they see she is a woman, and she tries to reason with them to go back home and find another way to make a living. You can do better for yourself!
It takes a special person to be a trucker, Sputter thinks. You have to have a sense of responsibility and you have to remember people need the stuff you're hauling. One day a trailer full of soup, another day juice, carpet, bleach, ketchup and mustard packets. She has hauled all that. She has hauled mail, oxygen tanks, caskets, fireworks, plastic eating utensils, tissue, paper towels, cardboard, books, sales inserts for newspapers, bundles of shredded paper and aluminum cans, paint, cat litter, dog food, toys, garbage, garbage cans, TVs, DVDs, camcorders, Whirlpool products, plant pots, military ammunition and tank parts, freezer coolers, oil, batteries, hydrochloric acid, white powder calcium, liquid chemical solvents, aluminum ingots, powder coating, 50-gallon drums of car wash liquid, and literally tons of auto parts: crankshafts, bumpers, rims, doors, gas tanks, windows. It's like everything is in bits and pieces all over the country and she's hauling it so people can put it together. It makes her feel like she's a part of something big.
One good thing about Michael is he understands that, or he takes her word for it. Her work is important. He doesn't whine and beg her to come home. That shows respect right there. Yes, it does.
Michael didn't know she was a trucker when they met, not that it would have mattered. He heard her laugh at a comedy club. It was the laughter that drew him. He got her phone number. She thought, hey, a free meal if he shows up, and was shocked when he did. "I eat chicken, corn, and mashed potatoes," she told him. "That's it." She told him she didn't trust casseroles or anything mixed together like that. She knew nothing about the kitchen beyond the microwave and was not interested in learning. She laid down these and many other laws. Michael hung in there, worked on softening the heart piled beneath all those rules. She was afraid of losing control, of the responsibility, of being seen and being known. Eventually, though, she let go. She fell in love. She still wonders if he understands how huge this is.
"Oh my lord!" she says, checking the time. She steps up to the dashboard, turns the satellite radio to HLN's Nancy Grace, comes back and flops on the bed, then gathers her curls into a bandanna. Sputter has a lot of friends on her various radios, but none compares with Nancy. Her guest tonight is the aunt of a kidnapped little girl. Now, if that isn't sad. Sputter admires everything about Nancy: the way she kept going after her first fiancé was killed way back when, how hard she works, the fact that she didn't have her babies until she was 48 years old.
She sets two alarms, one to wake up Michael so he won't be late for work in the morning, and the second to remind Michael to feed her cats before he leaves. She wonders if he shampooed the carpets but she knows the answer is no, so she decides not to call him to say good night.
The ceiling curves low over the bed, a tight little cave; the voices on the radio are muffled, flat, and private back here.
Finally Nancy says, "Good night, friend."
"Good night, friend," Sputter says softly, and cuts the sound.