Just west of Socorro, New Mexico where the highway splits from the interstate due south west, the soapweed yucca and sage brush screens the vast flat land as far as sight allows. Yellow wild flowers grow in the shade yearning for the hot desert rain. The arid sand floor is alive with creatures, indistinguishable from far. At a blurry distance the surrounding earth appears pale terracotta.
He shifts his big rig downward as he approaches the paved descent. The inside of his cab smells of stale air. The pine-scented air freshener bought in Amarillo has absorbed the nothingness of the desert air and no longer carries an odor. He is wearing a pair of worn out Wranglers and a faded tee shirt. The front shirt pocket clutches a pack of cigarettes to his chest, the neckline slightly tattered. It has been about a week since his last shave. The black and silver hair protruding from his chin and mustache resembles that of a pear cactus. He has traveled several hundred miles since his last shower, although, his scent is bland and almost entirely absent. The frigid air in the cab prevented almost any perspiration. His appearance is rough but charming.
The desert air dried his eyes to the point that they felt like sandstone. Fatigue and hunger breach his thoughts as he seeks his next exit to refuel.
The truck decelerates on the frontage road adjacent to the truck stop. A desert hawk soars above the road. As his eyes tracks the bird’s soaring descent, a woman in the souvenir shop catches his glimpse. He pulls alongside the diesel pump, exits the cab and begins to refuel.
When the tank of his semi truck is satisfied, he pays the cashier inside, uses the bathroom and walks out towards the souvenir shop.
Through the screen door he can see her in the perceived darkness of the store. The building is separate from the fuel cashier station and begs for a fresh coat of paint to shelter the structure from the sharp and buzzing sun. The sign on the exterior of the building is almost indiscernible.
He swings the flimsy screen door open and enters the shop.
His eyes are immediately upon the woman behind the counter. He feels the presence of the woman directly. The short distance that stands between them is incredibly apparent. He feels his face flush as his blood awakens and pumps toward his chest. His body now an empty vessel save his beating heart.
“Evenin’.” The woman says.
“Holler if you’re lookin’ for anything in particular. If it can be found in the desert and yer lookin’ for it, it’s probably painted, polished and stuck with a price tag somewhere in this shop.”
“Alright then, thanks.”
He turns and looks over the infinite shelves and bins along the wall. Mostly he does this to spare himself a moment to reattain his suddenly fleeting cool and calm demeanor.
“That your semi truck out there?” She said from behind the register. A customer exits, leaving them alone in the establishment.
He gently picks up a hand full of polished jade rocks, feeling the cold and smooth comfort of the fake minerals.
“Sure is. Just makin’ a quick diesel stop to stretch the legs.” He said.
“Well, I’m glad you stopped. We don’t get many visitors no more. Particularly a handsome fella like yourself.”
He feels himself blush but she can not see his face.
“Ever since we got new management, they ain’t painted er fixed nothin’. I’m beginnin’ to think this ol’ dump is scarin’ everyone away. I got half a mind to just up and quit. Gotta sister lives in Tucson, been wanting to visit her. Hell, if I like it I’ll move there. ” She says all this with her back to him while peering out the screen door.
By now he had almost circled back to the front of the store. He stops to think of what next to say as he looks over the painted arrowheads and toy tomahawks. He begins to move again, inching closer to the counter where the woman stands.
“Well, if you ain’t happy then you should quit.” He says, now facing her. She is surprised by his sudden candor.
“Pft..happy. Are you happy?” She asks.
After a sudden moment of hesitation, he says “Yes. Tough to say. But, generally, yes.” This feels like a lie and it pains him to speak anything but the truth to the woman. “What I mean is, some days ‘er better than others. Most the time it ain’t so bad.” He adds.
“I often wonder what the hell happiness even means.” She says. “My sister’s always tellin’ me how happy she is. She watches her kids all day while her husband’s at work and when he comes home she hands him a beer and makes him dinner, all with a big dumb happy smile on her face. She’ll swear up and down she’s happy as a jackrabbit. So who am I to argue? To me, that ain’t happiness.”
Their eyes deadlock, still alone in the store surrounded by all that material desert wonder.
“Contentment.” He says.
“Sounds like your sister is content, not happy. Some people treat them like the same thing. Sometimes I catch myself thinking it’s that way too. Some men ‘er unhappy and don’t even know it ‘cause they’re so caught up in being content with life. They don’t ever stop and think, ‘gee, life ain’t no good, it’s time to make some changes.’ I think it’s important to think about your own happiness. But ponderin’ a man’s own happiness too often can be dangerous. I guess it’s a fine line.” He said. He is surprised by how much he spoke. In all the miles he has traveled in the last month, he has spoken hardly a word. He hopes she doesn’t take him for a damn fool for everything he proclaimed to the woman.
“I like you. The name’s Jules, by the way.” She extends her hand eloquently, each of her fingers perfectly aligned and parallel, all barely making contact.
In this brief moment he feels overwhelming wonder in the charming presence of the woman. He feels this warmness but maintains his poise.
“I’m Len. Pleasure to meet you, Jules.”
The screen door flies open and a young boy walks in. All parties are startled and their minds return to the reality of the situation.
“I guess I’ll be on my way then.” He says.
“Take it easy out there, Len.”
He turns and walks out the door still swaying from the boy’s entrance. He steps across the hot asphalt parking lot and retrieves a cigarette from his front shirt pocket. He lights it, enters the cab, starts the truck and heads back to the interstate.
The desert evening’s dawn finds him in the cab of the rig. Chrome abound, the departing sun reflects narrow strips of brilliant light on the blacktop surface of the road, some reflections visible from his driving perch. He thinks about the terse exchange with the woman he had just encountered. He considers the significance of the woman in his life. Any feelings of regret he has on their interaction are quickly muted by memories of the woman’s bliss.
Outside the cab, the setting sun casts long shadows beyond the saguaros on the desert floor. The eyes of the desert descend upon the man, unconcerned with his current contemplation. The asphalt road stretches on as long as the eye can see until it reaches a point, tiny and insignificant.
By Warren Woods