Squeaky. That was the truck driver’s name. Carson forced a giggle when he told it to her, only because he seemed to expect it. All of the false bravado she had conjured left her when she climbed up into the bright blue cab of Squeaky’s eighteen-wheeler. Now she sat silently in the passenger seat while he took the huge looping ramp onto I-49, too afraid of what she’d done to think of anything to say. The window for changing her mind and going back home had closed as soon as he put the truck in drive, and she was headed south for Baton Rouge now. Squeaky had assured her she could find a ride to New Orleans from there, and if not, he was stopping at a truck-stop where she could pick up a few days’ work until she found someone headed that way. The idea had seemed a lot more reassuring in the café than it did in the dirty cab of his truck. Her nerve gone, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to fake it for people again.
Outside the baked red earth of the early plowed cotton fields rolled by, already dry after the previous day’s rain, the soft hills undulating for as far as she could see. Carson wondered if she would miss north Louisiana; it was beautiful. Her heart hurt as she silently told it goodbye, and underneath that, held firmly below the thoughts of how pretty the green pines were along the edges of the fields, she said goodbye to Barrett too.
Picking up on her mood, Squeaky made small talk, telling her that Mr. Leebow, that man who owned the gas station she’d met Squeaky at, talked funny because he’d lost most of his tongue to cancer from dipping, giving her little bits of information about the towns they passed, how Pineville had the state nuthouse and Woodworth a huge lake and campground. He was clearly someone who had experience traveling with strangers, treading the fine line between friendly curiosity and prying with ease. He still asked too many questions for her taste, but most were for her opinion on things and he managed to stay away from anything that directly related to why she was hitchhiking across the state. It was a surprise to her that he avoided the subject, considering how blunt he had been in approaching her in the Get N’Geaux café, but she was relieved that he seemed to have some manners. In a way, his attitude towards her seemed almost paternal; he insisted that she choose the radio station—she found his surprise at her changing it to AM to find classical music somehow charming—and spoke words of approval and encouragement every time she answered one of his questions. For lunch, he stopped at a place called the Chicken King, telling her it would be a shame for her to pass through Port Barré and not try their chicken. And when she admitted a half hour further down the road that she had never tried boudin before, he pulled over in Krotz Springs to buy her some.
“Hot shit, girl. I’m from Clinton, Mississippi and even I know Buddy’s got the best fried boudin they is,” he said. “I can’t let you miss out on this opportunity.”
Carson sat in the truck while he went inside. She turned up the music until it filled the cab, the sweeping notes making a comfortable cocoon around her. Why did this man who hardly knew her, who would drop her off somewhere in a few hours and never see her again, why did he care if she missed opportunities? Then it hit her—he liked her. He had treated her to breakfast and lunch and now this boudin, the way he had kept his hand on her lower back as they ordered at the Chicken King was affectionate and territorial, and he sure looked glad to see her as he walked out of the store smiling, a grease-spotted white paper bag in his hands. Hope sprang up inside her at the thought of how much easier it would be to just stay with Squeaky—he seemed nice enough and she could go to all kinds of places with him.
She turned down the music and checked herself in the visor mirror. The green high-necked cotton dress she wore made her eyes look extra bright. If she were going to get him to take her wherever he was going, she would need everything to go perfect until they got to Baton Rouge.
Squeaky climbed up into the truck, and she took the bag and glass bottles of Coke from him, smiling and trying to seem sweet. He waited for her to have one of the boudin balls before getting on the road, wanting to see her reaction. She took one out of the bag, unimpressed by its appearance—it was about the size of a plum, but was brown and had a thick, crispy fried-batter shell. Even if you hate it, she told herself, pretend to love it because this guy sure seems to want you to. She held her breath as she bit into it, exhaling to cool a bite of the spicy meat and rice mixture held between her teeth. She chewed slowly and swallowed.
Squeaky watched, expectant, a huge smile on his face. She noticed brown stains between his teeth, probably from chewing tobacco, but she forced herself to look instead at his eyes.
“That is the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten,” she said, being honest. “It kind of tastes like rice dressing.”
“Rice dressing?” he asked, pulling out of the parking lot. “That’s like dirty rice?”
She shrugged but didn’t answer—the truck climbed a steep bridge, the sound of the engine escalating to a roar that she would have to yell over to be heard—just stuffed the other half of the boudin ball in her mouth and reached into the bag for another one.
All she could see around them, besides the steel trusses of the bridge, was the midday sky; a little panic gripped her at the thought that the bridge could stop midway over the river and they wouldn’t know it until they were falling towards the water. A sign on the right told her that it would be the Atchafalaya River they plunged into. But then they crossed the middle and started the downward slope of the bridge.
The engine fell quiet and he said, “I think they the same thing. When I asked the girls at Buddy’s what was in these, they said I didn’t want to know—it’s like scrap meat, you know, organ meats and stuff, like—”
“Please,” she interrupted, looking down at the food and pretending it was Barrett in the driver’s seat to keep from being as nervous. “I don’t need to know any more than that. I want to keep eating.”
Squeaky laughed at her and reached over to squeeze her knee, and it seemed totally natural for him to do this, and the fact that this man was nothing like Barrett really hit home. Carson turned to him and he was smiling and she laughed too. It was easy and she noticed how nice his dark skin crinkled around those eyes and she realized she was flirting with him a little. She shrugged her shoulders in a way that she thought might be pretty, enjoying how small and delicate they were, peeking out from the sleeveless cotton dress. Out ahead of them the land opened up, flat and covered in trees with shimmering waterways coursing through it.
As soon as they were over the Atchafalaya, they were on another bridge—this one low and long, going off as far as she could see. They were driving over the Morganza spillway swampland, mostly woods partly submerged in water on either side of them. There wasn’t much moss, she couldn’t identify any cypress trees, and everything was very lush and green; it looked nothing like the Louisiana she’d seen in Barrett’s research books, but it still held some of the haunted quality she’d read about in novels. The place felt lonely, like no one could leave a mark here because water would swallow it up as soon as anyone turned their back. It gave her chills and she thrilled at finally seeing what she’d only read about before. Gone were the hills of home; here was south Louisiana. She felt sorry for the girl she had been a few hours ago, the girl who had seen almost nothing of the world around her. And there was so much more to see, if only Squeaky would take her to see it.
“Where are you going after Baton Rouge?” she asked, careful to keep her eyes ahead and the eagerness out of her voice.
“I’m headed up to Jackson to deliver this load, then home for a few days before my next trip,” he answered.
“I’d love to see Jackson,” she said.
The bridge had ended and now they were in the middle of wide-open, flat farmland. Carson concentrated on identifying which fields grew what crops—the tall sugar cane that looked like corn, the flooded rice fields, the flat wide soybean leaves. Anything to keep her eyes off of him because she could feel him looking at her.
“It’s no New Orleans,” he said after a little while. Her heart sunk at his words and the careful way he spoke them. They passed through a small town with a blue wooden cutout of a trident nailed high up on a pole. The truck crawled along at 45 miles an hour for a minute, then he sped back up as they left the trailers and single gas station behind them.
She tried to call up her courage and said, “It doesn’t really have to be New Orleans. I just had to get away,” but instead of sounding brash and mysterious, she just sounded sad and like she didn’t know what she was doing, which was true.
“That’s where we’re heading,” Squeaky said, pointing to an auto park on the left side of the highway.
Directly ahead of them loomed an enormously high bridge over what she assumed was the Mississippi river. It was painted a dingy orange and rust had taken over where the paint had chipped, covering it in what, from this distance, looked like bloody scabs. It wasn’t the shining silver of the cantilever bridge she had envisioned after reading about it in one of Barrett’s books on Louisiana history. The truck stop sat in the combined shadow of the bridge and the levee.
“Is this Baton Rouge?” she asked.
“Nope, this is Port Allen.”
He exited from the highway before they started the upward slope of the bridge, making a huge loop under the raised part of the highway. She noticed a green sign on the right that said Baton Rouge 5 Miles. The curve pushed her, leaning to the right against the door of the truck, and she realized with a sinking feeling that she was still about a hundred miles from her destination.
Squeaky pulled around to the back lot where at least twenty other big rigs were parked. “Baton Rouge is on the other side of that bridge,” he said, gesturing to the orange monstrosity that all but blocked out the sun.
“But that’s where you told me you were taking me,” Carson said. Panic threatened to take over. If she couldn’t trust someone as nice as Squeaky, who exactly could she trust?
“This is as good as Baton Rouge. I always tank up here so I don’t have to stop in traffic, and like I told you, you can get a job here if you want one, so I’m doing you a favor, toots.”
Gone from his voice were the teasing and affectionate qualities. The change scared her and she turned away from him to look out the window. The bridge and the truck stop were all there were to see—besides them, there wasn’t anything else around. He was going to abandon her in the middle of nowhere.
Squeaky parked next to the levee. Across the wide gravel lot stood a group of tin buildings, all painted purple and gold. The largest one had a balcony on the outside and a half-dozen doors on each level; it looked like a cross between a warehouse and a motel. The second largest was long and single-storied, the free standing roof over the gas pumps nearly connected to it. She could see the plate-glass windows of a convenience store and diner on half of the building. The other half had no windows, just a large white square painted on the side with the words “Dancing Girls” stenciled in black spray paint.
“I don’t want to work here,” she blurted on reading the sign.
He looked up from fiddling with the parking brake and said, “Don’t give yourself airs, honey. Sweet or not, I picked you up in a gas station outside Alexandria.”
Squeaky leaned forward and grabbed her, pulling her towards him, and kissed her. He shoved his tongue in her mouth and she went rigid. Barrett hadn’t stuck his tongue in her mouth when she kissed him.
The dark bedroom came back to her. How hard the arm of the rocking chair was beneath her legs. The warmth of Barrett’s lap and the scent of aftershave on his jaw. How long she had waited for him to take her into his arms, to return the affection that she ached to give him. And then, it had been too much for him. He had thrown her from him and fled the room. Just as quickly, Squeaky released her from the kiss and the memory and started laughing.
“You don’t have to dance, little girl,” he said, the kindness back in his voice. “There’s a lady in there, Miss Bobbi Joe—” Carson smiled faintly at the name, shock and confusion keeping her absolutely still. “I know,” he said with a smile, “the name’s ridiculous, but she’s a good lady. She’s married to the guy who runs this place, and she’s as good a Christian as he is shady. She runs the diner part and you go to her and ask for work, not to him, you hear me?” Squeaky spoke more and more roughly, and she was scared when he grabbed her shoulder and shook her until she looked at him.
“There’s a lot of dope running through this place and most of the girls who work here are on it,” he said, “so stay away from that shit.”
Carson stood stunned. She didn’t even know what exactly he meant by dope. Weren’t people who dealt with and did drugs dangerous? He had made her believe that he would take care of her, help get her to New Orleans, but this didn’t sound like a safe place. Desperate, she said, “Can’t I just go with you?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t sign on for that. I got a woman at home, and you don’t even know how to give a kiss.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. Embarrassed, she looked back out the window and noticed a big, hurricane-fenced area tucked between the two largest buildings on the lot. There was a little purple and gold shed in one corner and she squinted at it, distracted from her fear and humiliation. She could see something moving back and forth inside of the fence. It walked from in front of the shed, and she saw that it was a fully grown tiger, its size dwarfing the cage that held it. Unnerved, Carson looked back at Squeaky, who was staring at her, frowning.
“Don’t be sorry for being innocent,” he said. He hesitated a second, then continued, “But you need to know that even though I’m not wanting anything from you, pretty much anybody you get a ride with from here, or just about anywhere really, is going to want something for giving you a ride.”
The idea of ending up in a truck with someone like Mr. Leebow sickened her—toothless and stinking, constantly mocking her, how would she manage to make it? And even worse, what if it was a drug dealer or someone violent who picked her up? She hadn’t thought of these things before she left home, or when she accepted the ride with Squeaky. Looking at him now, she realized how lucky she had been. He had a little bit of gut hanging over the waistband of his jeans, but it was just a little one. The stubble on his face grew in dark and he looked very masculine and handsome. Chances were that he would be the most pleasant person she’d come across out here. She took a deep breath and reached out to put her hand on his thigh.
“Just take me with you to Jackson,” she said, hoping that more time might change his mind. “Please, I’ll do anything you want.”
He took her hand off of his leg and threw open his door, but turned back to her instead of getting out. She could tell that he was angry by the redness of his neck and the look on his face.
“Don’t go offering what you ain’t ready to give, girl,” he said. And then he pointed his finger in her face, “And don’t ever, ever tell someone you don’t know that you’ll do whatever they want you to. It’s a good way to end up with a tire iron up your pussy.”
He jumped down from the truck and she sat stunned. What he had just said—the image of Mr. Leebow on top of her, droolhanging from his gaping toothless mouth as he tore at her clothes passed through her mind. She would be defenseless against something like that. And who knew, there could be men more disgusting than Mr. Lebow out there, wanting to do things that she couldn’t even imagine. Panicked, she pushed open the door, jumped down from the cab, and ran after him.
“Wait,” she called, catching up to him halfway across the parking lot. She could see the tiger over Squeaky’s shoulder, pacing. It paused to look at them, then continued its walk, back and forth, back and forth. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked when she reached him.
“What the hell were you doing at Leebow’s this morning?” he asked. “How did you get there?”
“I don’t know,” she said. The night before seemed like it had happened years ago now. It was blurry. The long walk to the highway, the strange, silent couple who had given her a ride to Pineville, it all seemed like a dream to her. Why had she left? As the possibilities of what could happen to her started to open up before her eyes, it seemed like such a small thing she had run from. Her play for Barrett seemed innocent enough, and maybe going home wasn’t the worst option, after all. But then, she thought of the shame on his face, his insistence on calling her daughter in the days following the incident, when he was forced to acknowledge her at all. No, she couldn’t go back.
“Go in there and ask for Miss Bobbi,” Squeaky said. “If she ain’t there, order food and wait for her to get there. Don’t talk to no one, not even your waitress.”
Carson nodded obediently, looking up into his face and wanting to change his mind so bad. He smiled and pushed her gently toward the door.
“Go on,” he said. She crossed her arms tight over her chest to keep from shaking and started towards the door.
“Oh, and if an old man with one arm comes up and talks to you,” Squeaky called after her, “smile and be polite, but don’t tell him anything.”
“A man with one arm?” she asked, turning back to face him.
“Yeah. That’s Larry LeJeune. He runs the casino.”
“There’s a casino?” she said.
“There’s a lot more here than that, sugar,” he said.
The wind off the river blew hot and stinking, smelling like sulfurous chemicals, and she remembered that there were chemical plants all along it down past New Orleans.
“I’m scared,” she said, her voice high in the wind.
“You should be,” he said, pulling a can of Skoal out of his back pocket and fitting a wad of tobacco into his bottom lip.
“You sure there’s nothing I could do…?” she said.
He cleared the distance between them in two steps and took her face in his hands. The gesture was so tender, it felt comforting after everything running through her head, even after the horrible thing he had said before. She closed her eyes as he leaned in close and wished as hard as she could that he’d offer to take her with him.
Squeaky pressed his rough cheek to hers and said, “Honey, I’d love to be the one to pluck that flower, it’s so tempting, but I don’t have time. I’ll be back by here in a few weeks, and there’s a chance you might still be here too. If you are, I’ll collect that dick-sucking you owe me then. But I want you to know, that when you aren’t so doe-eyed anymore, I’ll remember what you look like right now and think of it while you’re giving it to me.”
Carson tried to jerk her head free from Squeaky’s hands, but he held her tight, pulling her even closer. He licked her up the side of her face from her jaw to her temple, then let her go, laughing as she stumbled backwards and almost fell over.
She turned and ran towards the diner, disgusted by the smell of wintergreen dip on her face and his howling laughter behind her.
Lauren Lee Fusilier is from Reddell, Louisiana. She holds an MFA in fiction from Florida State University. She lives in Tallahassee, where she wanders the cemetery in the evenings with her blue tick mutt Doglene.