short fiction by Bronwyn Mauldin
“No way in hell I’ll do that dray for seventy-five!” I shouted down the radio. “That’s a one hundred dollar trip.”
“Offer’s seventy-five,” Kurt the dispatcher yelled back.
“Rate’s one hundred dollars since July.”
“Take it or leave it.” Kurt don’t care. He’s on salary.
“It’s sixty miles, railhead to Auburn and back,” I said. “You know how much fuel that is?”
Kurt snorted. “I’ll get you some good runs tomorrow, Bud.”
“Bullshit.” Tomorrow he’ll sing a different tune. Sorry, Bud, all we got is landbridge.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll call Tesfaye. He’ll take it.”
“No way,” I said fast, but I knew better. Ethiopians will take anything. They think burning diesel is making money. Somebody needs to buy them a calculator.
Kurt said, “Bye.”
“Hang on!” I hollered.
Goddamn, I wish I was back on the open road. I made real money driving long haul. Saw the whole country, too. Chicago. New York. Dallas. I was a free man. Full head of hair, getting laid most nights in the sleeper of my chrome-plated bobtail. Fifteen-speed overdrive transmission, stainless steel quarter fenders and a fifth wheel slide. Now I drive this piece of shit, bad brakes, twelve-year-old Freightshaker, back and forth all day. Auburn to the Port of Seattle. Port to the BNSF railhead. Railhead to the Port of Tacoma. Good day is three trips trapped on city streets in wall-to-wall traffic.
“You taking it?” Kurt said.
Won’t be like this for my kids. My girl starts college next year. Smart as a whip, but she’s got her mama’s good heart. Not like her ornery old pop. Son’ll do all right too, day he pulls up his pants and takes them headphones out his ears.
I said, “Ninety.” First time ever. Fuck the Ethiopians.
Fuck the Ukrainians too. Just as soon kill you as look you in the eye. They shout all angry bullshit you can’t understand, but they’d take the dray too. Last chance to make a buck that day, no way to know if there’s work tomorrow.
Kurt said, “Eighty.”
Punjabis are different. Bunch of them stopped driving one summer at the Port of Vancouver. Said hell no for better pay. It’s like socialism up there, so government started setting rates. For a while, them guys was making money. It all died out, but even now Punjabis try to hold the line. Maybe they got wads of cash stuffed in them turbans. Me, I ain’t got two dimes to rub together. I love my wife and kids, so I got to take what’s given.
“Eighty-five,” I said.
“Eighty,” Kurt stood firm.
Clock on the dash read 4:08 p.m. Get started quick, I might catch the end of my girl’s soccer game. “Eighty,” I agreed. Punched off the radio and slammed my fist down hard on the dash.
Next Saturday we was doing landbridge, Port of Seattle Terminal Eighteen to railhead. Ship loaded with a couple thousand twenty-foot containers bound for Wal-Mart stores. We take them to the train. Train takes them to Chicago. Some other truckers drive them all over the Midwest. Wish I was them and not me.
T18 gates’d open at seven a.m. I pulled up around five, third in line. By six, forty of us draymen was lined up. Park. Sleep. Walk around. Wait.
When the gates opened I’d drive in, pick up a container and chassis, drive two miles to the railhead, get in line to be unhitched. Drive my bobtail back to T18. Get in line, do the same damn thing all over again. Little fifty dollar runs. They hold the gates open late, I’d get five, maybe six turns.
I’d worked five days that week already, at least ten hours each. I was pissed off but grateful for the work. In six months I’d be lucky to get four days a week. Wife asked me that morning, why don’t you get a regular job don’t make you work weekends?
What the hell else I know how to do? Been driving a truck since I stole my brother’s license and lit out at fourteen. I’m tired and wore out. My back hurts. Acid out my stomach’s burning a hole in my throat, but what can I do? Tried construction back in oh-five, but it didn’t take. I don’t know nothing else but trucking.
Couple longshore assholes wandered out to shout at us. We ain’t supposed to wander up and down the truck lines. Guy was killed last year when another driver backed up his truck over him. Longshore’s got no jurisdiction out here. Their job is unload the ships, check our paperwork in and out. But we got back in our cabs. Inside the gates, they remember a driver. Call up other trucks, make you wait. Type I.D. codes for your container real slow.
See, longshore’s paid by the hour. They don’t care how many trucks move in a day. Short haulers, we’re paid by the trip, so more trips is more money. Come noon, everything on the terminal stops while longshore takes a paid lunch hour. Paid! Us truckers can’t hardly afford lunch. We sit at the gate and wait, and don’t nobody give us a dime for it.
Longshore screws with us every chance they get.
I settled into my cab, pulled my Teamster cap down over my eyes. It’s so dirty the wife won’t let it in the house no more, but it fits me perfect. I put on a old Bocephus CD.
We cooked a pig in the ground,
We got some beer on ice,
And all my rowdy friends are comin’ over tonight.
All a sudden BANG! BANG! BANG! Somebody pounding my door.
“What the hell?” I looked down. Tesfaye and a couple Ethiopians standing there. Guys looked pissed.
“Did you take that dray?” he shouted.
“What’s it to you?” I said.
“Get down here! Talk to me like a man!”
Drivers poking heads out they windows. I opened the door slowly, sucked in my gut. Took my time climbing down. Didn’t say nothing. Left my cab door open.
“Did you take that dray?” Like I’m deaf.
“What dray?” I said.
Tesfaye drives for the same company as me. Owns his own bobtail, like me. Company calls us “independent contractors,” but you tell me how much independence we got. Can’t say no to one lousy dray they ripping us off. Contract says we can’t drive for nobody else.
Tesfaye looked around, catching nods from his homies. They drive for my company? Could be. There’s about thirty of us, maybe eight of them Ethiopian. There’s some other countries they come from, but they all look Ethiopian to me. Not the starving kind, but wiry.
“You know what dray. Wednesday, to Auburn. You delivered that container for seventy-five dollars.”
“Hell no!” I clenched my fists. Homies came closer.
“Kurt can go to hell.”
“He called each of us and asked us to take it,” Tesfaye said. “We stood together and refused.”
“Okay, I took that dray,” I said, “but I got ninety dollars.”
Tesfaye threw up his hands, coming at me for sure. I grabbed the tire iron from behind the driver’s seat. Figured I’d get in a few, then it’d be his people against mine.
He saw the tire iron and balled his fists, but I moved first. Landed the iron on his left shoulder, solid. Then brung it the other way across his ribs. Tesfaye landed a quick one-two punch, caught my left cheek, my chin. A third to my ear. I went for his shoulder again, try to stop his lightning arms.
Them homies was on me fast. I’m bigger, but they was tough and stringy, like gristle. They come at me kung fu kicking and punching. Took a couple hard blows to my belly. I pulled back aiming for Tesfaye’s head, then — wham! — one of them got my nose. Blood dripped all down my face.
Tesfaye snatched the tire iron out my hands. Couple his homies pressed me up against my bobtail while he pounded me with it. One. Two. Three. I twisted around try to loose my arms, but them Ethiopians hung on tight.
Then Tesfaye whacked my good knee, hard. Good one went, bad one buckled. Homies let go as I fell. Side of my head smacked asphalt and my hat went flying. Tesfaye lifted the tire iron overhead with both hands. He was panting. I was too. Nobody coming to help me and he knew it.
“That dray is one hundred dollars for every driver!” Tesfaye shouted.
“I know! I been driving a truck longer than you been alive.”
“You stupid rednecks, you sell us out every time.”
“I ain’t sold out nobody!” I scrambled to sit up.
“You took that dray.”
“Ninety dollars,” I said, sticking to my story. I was on my ass now, rubbing my swole-up knee. “Somebody’s gonna take it. Better the money in my pocket, not yours.”
Tesfaye dropped his arms. “Is that so?” he said. He straightened hisself up. Pulled his guy wires together ’til his chin was higher than his homies’ heads. “Mr. Buddy, I have a college degree,” he said. “In Ethiopia, I was a schoolteacher.”
“So what?” I said. Wiped blood off my face with my sleeve.
“I track the costs to run my bobtail on computerized spreadsheets. I know every dollar I spend on fuel, insurance, taxes, tonnage and maintenance. I could not profit if I did that dray for ninety dollars. None of us can, not even you.”
That was the truth.
Tesfaye tossed the tire iron into my cab and reached a hand out to me. I slapped it away. He turned and spit, caught sight of my hat. Picked it up with two fingers like it might bite. “Maybe you are waiting for your beloved Teamsters to save you.”
“Ain’t they fault the law won’t let us independents join the union.”
“Yes, and the short haul companies will only hire independents. Where does this leave your Teamsters here on the docks?” Tesfaye waved up and down the terminal.
There was truckers everywhere, watching. Some I knew by sight, a few by name. Most was strangers to me. White guys, brown guys. Guys in jeans, t-shirts and plaid flannel shirts. “None of us are Teamsters now,” he said.
“Fuck you,” I said.
“You illiterate white rednecks are the history of trucking. My friends and I, we are the future.”
I stared at him straight on. “You don’t look like no schoolteacher.”
Tesfaye reached his hand out again. “The next time Kurt tries to shortchange you, call me. I will help you calculate your costs.”
Tesfaye’s a prick. What I care he went to college? But he’s got his facts right. Company’s the one screwing us. Six years I worked Port of Seattle, trucker rates only gone up twice. Price of diesel’s through the roof. Don’t even ask what a big rig oil change costs. My bobtail’s held together with duct tape and bailing wire. Day the cops pull me over, the fines’ll put me out of business.
Ain’t like the days when I was free and easy on the open road. Driver’s license in every state, a girl in every truck stop. Fool I was to fall in love with one wanted to see my ugly mug every day. Made me trade in my chrome-plated sleeper for this rust bucket. That’s when I realized it’s only one letter difference between love and lose.
Seem like losing’s all I done lately. Lose my hair, my freedom, my good looks. I love my wife and kids, but I love the open road. Reckon you love one, you got to lose the other.
Tesfaye’s hand was still in my face. “Next time, call me,” he said. Truckers staring from all around.
I’ll be fifty-three years old next week. What else I got to lose? I took the man’s hand and let him help me up. He’s a strong fellow. Might make a decent drayman yet.