My brother Tony had taken out a loan to buy his own rig—a semi and trailer—but in order to make the payments, he had to keep the truck on the road, so that’s where he was living, on the road. Until his wife got sick and the doctor she consulted (she had consulted a doctor) put her on bed rest. Tony called Shawn and asked if he could run the rig for a week or two.
Shawn hated trucking long-haul, but he said he’d do it if I came along. Dad didn’t need me in the junkyard, and Randy could spare me for a few days, so we set off, heading down to Las Vegas, then east to Albuquerque, west to Los Angeles, then up to Washington State. I’d thought I would see the cities, but mostly I saw truck stops and interstate. The windshield was enormous and elevated like a cockpit, which made the cars below seem like toys. The sleeper cab, where the bunks were, was musty and dark as a cave, littered with bags of Doritos and trail mix.
Shawn drove for days with little sleep, navigating our fifty-foot trailer as if it were his own arm. He doctored the books whenever we crossed a checkpoint, to make it seem he was getting more sleep than he was. Every other day we stopped to shower and eat a meal that wasn’t dried fruit and granola.
Near Albuquerque, the Walmart warehouse was backed up and couldn’t unload us for two days. We were outside the city—there was nothing but a truck stop and red sand stretching out in all directions—so we ate Cheetos and played Mario Kart in the sleeper. By sunset on the second day, our bodies ached from sitting, and Shawn said he should teach me martial arts. We had our first lesson at dusk in the parking lot.
“If you know what you’re doing,” he said, “you can incapacitate a man with minimal effort. You can control someone’s whole body with two fingers. It’s about knowing where the weak points are, and how to exploit them.” He grabbed my wrist and folded it, bending my fingers downward so they reached uncomfortably toward the inside of my forearm. He continued to add pressure until I twisted slightly, wrapping my arm behind my back to relieve the strain.
“See? This is a weak point,” he said. “If I fold it any more, you’ll be immobilized.” He grinned his angel grin. “I won’t, though, because it’d hurt like hell.”
He let go and said, “Now you try.”
I folded his wrist onto itself and squeezed hard, trying to get his upper body to collapse the way mine had. He didn’t move.
“Maybe another strategy for you,” he said.
He gripped my wrist a different way—the way an attacker might, he said. He taught me how to break the hold, where the fingers were weakest and the bones in my arm strongest, so that after a few minutes I could cut through even his thick fingers. He taught me how to throw my weight behind a punch, and where to aim to crush the windpipe.
The next morning, the trailer was unloaded. We climbed into the truck, picked up a new load and drove for another two days, watching the white lines disappear hypnotically beneath the hood, which was the color of bone. We had few forms of entertainment, so we made a game of talking. The game had only two rules. The first was that every statement had to have at least two words in which the first letters were switched.
“You’re not my little sister,” Shawn said. “You’re my sittle lister.” He pronounced the words lazily, blunting the t’s to d’s so that it sounded like “siddle lister.”
The second rule was that every word that sounded like a number, or like it had a number in it, had to be changed so that the number was one higher. The word “to” for example, because it sounds like the number “two,” would become “three.”
“Siddle Lister,” Shawn might say, “we should pay a-eleven-tion. There’s a checkpoint ahead and I can’t a-five-d a ticket. Time three put on your seatbelt.”
When we tired of this, we’d turn on the CB and listen to the lonely banter of truckers stretched out across the interstate.
“Look out for a green four-wheeler,” a gruff voice said, when we were somewhere between Sacramento and Portland. “Been picnicking in my blind spot for a half hour.”
A four-wheeler, Shawn explained, is what big rigs call cars and pickups.
Another voice came over the CB to complain about a red Ferrari that was weaving through traffic at 120 miles per hour. “Bastard damned near hit a little blue Chevy,” the deep voice bellowed through the static. “Shit, there’s kids in that Chevy. Anybody up ahead wanna cool this hothead down?” The voice gave its location.
Shawn checked the mile marker. We were ahead. “I’m a white Pete pulling a fridge,” he said. There was silence while everybody checked their mirrors for a Peterbilt with a reefer. Then a third voice, gruffer than the first, answered: “I’m the blue KW hauling a dry box.”
“I see you,” Shawn said, and for my benefit pointed to a navy-colored Kenworth a few cars ahead.
When the Ferrari appeared, multiplied in our many mirrors, Shawn shifted into high gear, revving the engine and pulling beside the Kenworth so that the two fifty-foot trailers were running side by side, blocking both lanes. The Ferrari honked, weaved back and forth, braked, honked again.
“How long should we keep him back there?” the husky voice said, with a deep laugh.
“Until he calms down,” Shawn answered.
Five miles later, they let him pass.
The trip lasted about a week, then we told Tony to find us a load to Idaho.
“Well, Siddle Lister,” Shawn said when we pulled into the junkyard, “back three work.”
THE WORM CREEK OPERA HOUSE announced a new play: Carousel. Shawn drove me to the audition, then surprised me by auditioning himself. Charles was also there, talking to a girl named Sadie, who was seventeen. She nodded at what Charles was saying, but her eyes were fixed on Shawn.
At the first rehearsal she came and sat next to him, laying her hand on his arm, laughing and tossing her hair. She was very pretty, with soft, full lips and large dark eyes, but when I asked Shawn if he liked her, he said he didn’t.
“She’s got fish eyes,” he said.
“Yup, fish eyes. They’re dead stupid, fish. They’re beautiful, but their heads’re as empty as a tire.”
Sadie started dropping by the junkyard around quitting time, usually with a milkshake for Shawn, or cookies or cake. Shawn hardly even spoke to her, just grabbed whatever she’d brought him and kept walking toward the corral. She would follow and try to talk to him while he fussed over his horses, until one evening she asked if he would teach her to ride. I tried to explain that our horses weren’t broke all the way, but she was determined, so Shawn put her on Apollo and the three of us headed up the mountain. Shawn ignored her and Apollo. He offered none of the help he’d given me, teaching me how to stand in the stirrups while going down steep ravines or how to squeeze my thighs when the horse leapt over a branch. Sadie trembled for the entire ride, but she pretended to be enjoying herself, restoring her lipsticked smile every time he glanced in her direction.
At the next rehearsal, Charles asked Sadie about a scene, and Shawn saw them talking. Sadie came over a few minutes later but Shawn wouldn’t speak to her. He turned his back and she left crying.
“What’s that about?” I said.
“Nothing,” he said.
By the next rehearsal, a few days later, Shawn seemed to have forgotten it. Sadie approached him warily, but he smiled at her, and a few minutes later they were talking and laughing. Shawn asked her to cross the street and buy him a Snickers at the dime store. She seemed pleased that he would ask and hurried out the door, but when she returned a few minutes later and gave him the bar, he said, “What is this shit? I asked for a Milky Way.”
“You didn’t,” she said. “You said Snickers.”
“I want a Milky Way.”
Sadie left again and fetched the Milky Way. She handed it to him with a nervous laugh, and Shawn said, “Where’s my Snickers? What, you forgot again?”
“You didn’t want it!” she said, her eyes shining like glass. “I gave it to Charles!”
“Go get it.”
“I’ll buy you another.”
“No,” Shawn said, his eyes cold. His baby teeth, which usually gave him an impish, playful appearance, now made him seem unpredictable, volatile. “I want that one. Get it, or don’t come back.”
A tear slid down Sadie’s cheek, smearing her mascara. She paused for a moment to wipe it away and pull up her smile. Then she walked over to Charles and, laughing as if it were nothing, asked if she could have the Snickers. He reached into his pocket and pulled it out, then watched her walk back to Shawn. Sadie placed the Snickers in his palm like a peace offering and waited, staring at the carpet. Shawn pulled her onto his lap and ate the bar in three bites.
“You have lovely eyes,” he said. “Just like a fish.”
SADIE’S PARENTS WERE DIVORCING and the town was awash in rumors about her father. When Mother heard the rumors, she said now it made sense why Shawn had taken an interest in Sadie. “He’s always protected angels with broken wings,” she said.
Shawn found out Sadie’s class schedule and memorized it. He made a point of driving to the high school several times a day, particularly at those times when he knew she’d be moving between buildings. He’d pull over on the highway and watch her from a distance, too far for her to come over, but not so far that she wouldn’t see him. It was something we did together, he and I, nearly every time we went to town, and sometimes when we didn’t need to go to town at all. Until one day, when Sadie appeared on the steps of the high school with Charles. They were laughing together; Sadie hadn’t noticed Shawn’s truck.
I watched his face harden, then relax. He smiled at me. “I have the perfect punishment,” he said. “I simply won’t see her. All I have to do is not see her, and she will suffer.”
He was right. When he didn’t return her calls, Sadie became desperate. She told the boys at school not to walk with her, for fear Shawn would see, and when Shawn said he disliked one of her friends, she stopped seeing them.
Sadie came to our house every day after school, and I watched the Snickers incident play out over and over, in different forms, with different objects. Shawn would ask for a glass of water. When Sadie brought it, he’d want ice. When she brought that he’d ask for milk, then water again, ice, no ice, then juice. This could go on for thirty minutes before, in a final test, he would ask for something we didn’t have. Then Sadie would drive to town to buy it—vanilla ice cream, fries, a burrito—only to have him demand something else the moment she got back. The nights they went out, I was grateful.
One night, he came home late and in a strange mood. Everyone was asleep except me, and I was on the sofa, reading a chapter of scripture before bed. Shawn plopped down next to me. “Get me a glass of water.”
“You break your leg?” I said.
“Get it, or I won’t drive you to town tomorrow.”
I fetched the water. As I handed it over, I saw the smile on his face and without thinking dumped the whole thing on his head. I made it down the hall and was nearly to my room when he caught me.
“Apologize,” he said. Water dripped from his nose onto his T-shirt.
He grabbed a fistful of my hair, a large clump, his grip fixed near the root to give him greater leverage, and dragged me into the bathroom. I groped at the door, catching hold of the frame, but he lifted me off the ground, flattened my arms against my body, then dropped my head into the toilet. “Apologize,” he said again. I said nothing. He stuck my head in further, so my nose scraped the stained porcelain. I closed my eyes, but the smell wouldn’t let me forget where I was.
I tried to imagine something else, something that would take me out of myself, but the image that came to mind was of Sadie, crouching, compliant. It pumped me full of bile. He held me there, my nose touching the bowl, for perhaps a minute, then he let me up. The tips of my hair were wet; my scalp was raw.
I thought it was over. I’d begun to back away when he seized my wrist and folded it, curling my fingers and palm into a spiral. He continued folding until my body began to coil, then he added more pressure, so that without thinking, without realizing, I twisted myself into a dramatic bow, my back bent, my head nearly touching the floor, my arm behind my back.
In the parking lot, when Shawn had shown me this hold, I’d moved only a little, responding more to his description than to any physical necessity. It hadn’t seemed particularly effective at the time, but now I understood the maneuver for what it was: control. I could scarcely move, scarcely breathe, without breaking my own wrist. Shawn held me in position with one hand; the other he dangled loosely at his side, to show me how easy it was.
Still harder than if I were Sadie, I thought.
As if he could read my mind, he twisted my wrist further; my body was coiled tightly, my face scraping the floor. I’d done all I could do to relieve the pressure in my wrist. If he kept twisting, it would break.
“Apologize,” he said.
There was a long moment in which fire burned up my arm and into my brain. “I’m sorry,” I said.
He dropped my wrist and I fell to the floor. I could hear his steps moving down the hall. I stood and quietly locked the bathroom door, then I stared into the mirror at the girl clutching her wrist. Her eyes were glassy and drops slid down her cheeks. I hated her for her weakness, for having a heart to break. That he could hurt her, that anyone could hurt her like that, was inexcusable.
I’m only crying from the pain, I told myself. From the pain in my wrist. Not from anything else.
This moment would define my memory of that night, and of the many nights like it, for a decade. In it I saw myself as unbreakable, as tender as stone. At first I merely believed this, until one day it became the truth. Then I was able to tell myself, without lying, that it didn’t affect me, that he didn’t affect me, because nothing affected me. I didn’t understand how morbidly right I was. How I had hollowed myself out. For all my obsessing over the consequences of that night, I had misunderstood the vital truth: that its not affecting me, that was its effect.