Bound for New Orleans

by Tim Simmons


One more bag.

It seemed as if this haul would never end. But it was a job. A job that had to be done. The trucker strained as he lifted the bag and heaved it into his trailer, which was only half full. But that wasn’t his problem. He wasn’t the one to decide what his payload would be.

He wiped his hands on his overalls and took a hard pull on the cigar that dangled on his lower lip. Walking to his left a few steps, he grabbed the left door of the trailer and swung it closed, the right door following, and latched them shut. He pulled a handkerchief from the chest pocket of his overalls and wiped the sweat from his forehead. It wasn’t particularly hot, but being well over four hundred pounds and well under six feet tall had its disadvantages.

He walked to the front of his rig and stared at the long stretch of highway that lay before him. The day was new, but this haul was going to take a while. It could be worse, though. Compared to his first assignment, this one would be a cakewalk.

Climbing into his cab, he closed the door and started the engine. He checked the gauges. All systems checked out. Placing the cigar in the ashtray, he pulled the seat belt around his enormous torso and somehow managed to snap it securely in place. He leaned over a bit and picked up the can of Coors beer from the cup holder and took a long drink. The only thing lacking now was some good music to pass the time.

A massive hand pressed the play button on the multi-CD player. The player could hold up to six CDs and was loaded to the hilt with his favorite band, ZZ Top. The hidden speakers in the cab started to vibrate with the down-home Texas-blues sound of “Move Me On Down The Line” from the Tres Hombres album. Now he was ready to put this rig back into action.

The massive vehicle pulled onto the highway, shifting through gear after gear until it reached cruising speed. This new assignment took longer because he was required to make extra stops to pick up more cargo along the way. But he didn’t mind that so much. He was being paid for net weight, not quick delivery.

He watched cars speed past him doing at least eighty, but he was in no hurry. There was no law against driving the speed limit. Besides, he had always believed in old adages such as “haste makes waste” and “slow and steady wins the race.” At least they seemed to fit his lifestyle fairly well. But even so, a haul this long could start to make a guy a little stir crazy.

He was about fifteen miles southwest of Chicago, headed south on Interstate 55 when he spotted a hitchhiker off to his right. He decided a little conversation was in order and slowed to a stop on the shoulder.

The man, dressed in jeans and a muscle shirt, jogged toward the eighteen-wheeler. The passenger door opened automatically just before the man reached it.

“Hey,” he yelled up into the cab, slightly winded. “I’m trying to make it to St. Louis before night.”

“I’ll be passin’ right through there. Wouldn’t mind a little company myself,” replied the trucker. “Hop on in.”

The man climbed into the passenger seat and closed the door. He was obviously a transient. Unkempt beard and hair. His shirt dirty and torn. His body was thin and his breath smelled of alcohol.

The trucker reached up and turned down the music until it became no more than a soft underscore, perfect for maintaining the ambience while still allowing for conversation. The passenger looked around, checking out the space that would be his living area for the next four hours. He saw a small cross hanging from the rear view mirror. “Nice rig you got here.”

“Top of the line Peterbilt,” the trucker said with obvious pride. “Three eighty-nine long-nose, eighteen-speed transmission, five-fifty engine, Flex Air suspension and tricked-out custom sleeper. I call him Saint Peter.” The trucker shot a quick glance toward the man. “Better put your seatbelt on.”

“And that paint job...” he said, strapping himself in. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The whole right side looks like one big flame job. Bet that took some time to do.”

“It was Hell.”

“I’ll bet.”

“I mean, the painting is of Hell,” said the trucker, looking over at the man. “The right side of Saint Peter depicts Hell and the left side depicts Heaven. You should see Heaven. It’s amazing.”

“I’ll be sure to check it out the next time we stop. That must have cost you a fortune.”

“Actually, I got it all for free. Sort of a fluke, you might say.” The trucker grabbed his cigar, which had already gone out, and placed it precariously between his lips. “The guy who did it for me died before I could pay him.”

“Gee,” said the passenger, squinting his eyes at the trucker. “Well, you don’t need money once you’re gone, I guess. By the way, my name’s Thomas. Say, you got a cigarette on ya?”

“Sorry. I only smoke cigars. You can call me Prophet. That’s my handle when I’m on the airwaves.”

“So, what’s your final stop?” Thomas asked, scratching an itch on the back of his neck.

The doors clicked as Prophet auto-locked them. “New Orleans.” The rig pulled grudgingly out onto I-55 South and began to accelerate.

Thomas didn’t want to stare but he just had to look at the imposing figure behind the wheel. Overalls without an undershirt. Long, scraggly beard. Dishwater blonde hair pulled straight back into a long ponytail and on his upper arm was a tattoo that said “I Love God” with a red heart behind the words.

“You like ZZ Top?”

“They’re okay, I guess.”

“They’re my favorite. They rock. This album’s the best. Tres Hombres. It has some bad-ass blues rock on it. The title always reminds me of how three people can be thought of as one. Three members but one band. Sort of like God, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” Thomas looked over at Prophet blankly while Prophet scanned the highway.

With his left hand, Prophet reached up above his window and tugged at something. It made a sound like someone’s hair being pulled out. He removed a metal nightstick he kept secured with Velcro and placed it across his lap. “So...” he began. He dabbed fresh sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief and returned it to his overalls pocket. “How’s your walk with God?”

Thomas’ eyebrows raised slightly. “Um, that’s a little personal, don’t you think?”

Prophet continued gazing at the highway. “We’re persons, ain’t we? Heck, it’s just you and me in here. Ain’t nobody else listening in.” Prophet chewed on the unlit cigar.

“Well,” the man said, “I’ll be honest with you. I’m not really a religious person. I’m not a Christian, if that’s what you mean.”

“I didn’t ask you if you was a Christian. I asked you how’s your walk with God.”

Thomas stared at Prophet, trying to read his tone. “Well, I don’t really think there is a God. I mean, that’s how it looks to me.”

Prophet waited, chewing his cigar, then finally said, “So, you don’t believe the Bible then.” Thomas saw Prophet tighten his grip on the nightstick.

“Well...” Thomas cleared his throat, his eyes still trained on the nightstick. “No, not really.”

Prophet remained silent for a few moments and then seemed to relax. “That’s all right.” He smiled and shot a quick glance at Thomas. “Because today is the day of salvation! Everybody needs a second chance, right?”

“I guess. Look, I’m really not much on religion so maybe we could just—”

“You ever read Revelation?”

“Uh, no, not really.”

“Good book. See, God keeps givin’ people second chances to get right. Like he’s givin’ you right now.” Prophet paused, chewing his cigar while trying to gather his thoughts. “But one day... those extra chances are gonna dry up.”

He gripped his nightstick and tapped it absently on his leg while staring intently down the road. “Eventually, God’s patience runs out. He gets tired of beggin’, you see. It comes down to a simple yes or no. Sort of like the paint job on Saint Peter. You either choose one side... or the other.

“God gives us all a choice, Thomas. What they call free will.” Prophet chewed some more cigar. “Today could be the day of salvation. It’s really up to you.”

Thomas scratched his left arm. “Listen, uh, Prophet, I’ll really think about what you’ve said and maybe someday—”

“Someday? Someday may never come.” He shot a glance at Thomas. “God’s tired of tryin’ to convince people like you with miracles and prophecies and endless preachin’. He’s been waitin’ for thousands of years already. Second, third, fourth chances — God’s tired of waitin’.” He paused and chewed. “Very tired.”

Thomas stared at the nightstick as it gently tapped Prophet’s thigh, up and down, up and down. “Now, I’m gonna ask you plain and simple. It’s just yes or no. Do you want to be saved?”

Prophet raised the nightstick and laid it gently on Thomas’s left shoulder. The man hesitated, unsure of himself. “Look, I’m just trying to get to St. Louis, man. You can let me out right here. I... I appreciate the ride. Really, I didn’t mean to offend—”

“So, let me get this straight. You don’t want to go to Heaven. You don’t want eternal life. You would rather burn forever in Hell. Have I got that right?”

Thomas shook his head. “I didn’t say that. All I—”

The nightstick rapped Thomas hard on his shoulder, evincing a yelp of pain. “What I need from you,” Prophet said softly through gritted teeth, “is just a yes... or a no.”

Thomas’ hands were starting to shake visibly now as he cringed closer to the passenger side door. “I’m sorry,” he replied, voice quivering, “I... I don’t want to be saved right now. I just want to be left alone.”

Thomas watched as Prophet took his eyes off the road and glared at him for several seconds — glared and chewed the end of his cigar. Thomas wasn’t sure but he thought Prophet’s eyes had started... glowing. He saw Prophet return the nightstick to his lap and his eyes to the highway.

“Not a problem,” he said with resignation and put his cigar into the ashtray. “Your choice. I’ll pull over right here.”

Thomas slumped in relief, a huge smile spreading across his gaunt face. “Thanks. Thanks a lot.”

The truck came to a stop on the roadside. It was a few minutes before Prophet climbed out, fervently chewing his cigar. Strolling to the back of the trailer, he opened the doors and then walked over to the passenger’s door of the cab.

He opened the door and pulled a huge, black garbage bag over the limp body in the passenger’s seat. He worked the bag over the body and tied it tightly, then carried the bag to the back of his trailer and heaved it inside.

One more bag.

“Another doubting Thomas,” he mumbled and fastened the trailer doors. Wiping his hands together, Prophet took out a match, lit his cigar and took one long drag before exhaling slowly. He reminded himself that it was simply a job. A job that had to be done. He walked around to the right side of Saint Peter and scanned the large mural of Hell. There. Near the upper back corner. There he was.

Once back on the highway, he switched his CB radio to channel 7. “Breaker, breaker 7. This here’s Prophet lookin’ for Big Daddy. Come on back, Big Daddy.”

A thin, electric voice disturbed the speakers. “I hear ya, Prophet, loud and clear. What’s up?”

“Another no.”

“Look, he rejected your offer, right?”

“Yeah.”

“So, it was his choice not yours. How many second chances do they deserve?” asked Big Daddy. “Today is the day of salvation, not tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah, but why anyone would choose Hell over Heaven is beyond me. That’s the one thing I’ll never understand.”

“You did your job, big guy. You offered the free gift of salvation. The rest is up to them. If they choose Hell, you just sent ‘em there a little bit earlier than they had planned on.”

“I guess that’s true. I’m movin’ on down the line. I gotta long ways to go yet.”

“That’s a big 10-4. Big Daddy out.”

Prophet hung up the CB transmitter, turned on the CD player and reset the program to song number two. A slow, bluesy groove pumped the hidden speakers. It was one of his all-time favorites, “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” He started to sing along out loud.

“Jesus just left Chicago... and he’s bound for New Orleans.” A flash of gold gleamed through the crack in his lips as he smiled and bobbed his head in time with the music. “Well now, Jesus just left Chicago, baby...” Prophet played air guitar for a second, giving his best rock guitar grimace. “...and he’s bound for New Orleans... yeah heah...”

Far up ahead on his side of the road he could see what he thought was a young woman thumbing for a ride. “Workin’ from one inch to the other... and all points in between!” He slowed and pulled to the side of the road.

It was a young woman. She approached the passenger door, which opened as she reached for it. “Hey, thanks for stopping. I’m tryin’ to get to Memphis. Where you goin’?”

“New Orleans,” he said over the music. “Hop in.”

“Thanks. Wow, this is some nice ride you’ve got!” said the woman, climbing up into the passenger’s seat.

“It’s sort of my home away from home,” Prophet said and glanced at the woman. “What’s your name?”

“Elizabeth. And you?”

Prophet turned his gaze back down the highway and stared for several moments. “Elizabeth. I had an aunt named Elizabeth. You can call me Prophet.”

“You said had.”

“She passed away a long time ago.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. Elizabeth studied the man for some time, noticing an unusual scar on his right arm. Probably some gang initiation or war injury, she thought. Maybe she’d change the subject at least. “How’d you get that?”

“What? This?” Prophet asked, glancing down at his right arm. He chewed on his cigar a few moments, recalling the past. “Just some old injury I got ages ago. A little run-in with the authorities. Got one on this arm, too.” Prophet reached up and retrieved his nightstick, laying it across his lap. Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead.

“So...” he began, then turned and looked at Elizabeth. “How’s your walk with God?”


Copyright © 2008 by Tim Simmons

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