Sandlapper Society


By Chris Calcara

I bought the house on Saguaro Street in Mesa, Arizona for its swimming pool. If I knew then what I know now about the care and metered feeding of a big concrete hole in the ground, I would have requested that my realtor steer clear and not use a divining rod to find it.

Rented for a year to college boys high on testosterone, the place needed a bit of work. In truth, it was a mess. But that shimmering aquamarine jewel in the backyard, oh my!

On the burgeoning repair list was a neat, shoe-shaped gash in the garage drywall behind the washer and dryer, exposing the plumbing. Not amused, I released my anger in a word.

“Damn,” I said to the god of remodeling.

I got an answer: “Sonsabitches.”

In the open doorway stood a craggy-faced middle-aged woman with wispy gray hair pulled back from her face, stranded like DNA into a braid held loosely by a red rubber band and extending to the midpoint of her back. I held out a hand and introduced myself - “Wallace.” She shook it sore with the grip of 18-wheeler truck driver negotiating a tight turn.

“Got a nephew named Wally,” she exclaimed, as if that bastardization of my handle somehow related us. “I favor him because he's half black,” she volunteered. Then, eyeing me apologetically, “Not that bein' mulatto is a bad thing. We're very open-minded, you understand. Have to be in our line of work.”

Without a fragment of pretense in her bony body, Delia never had to say I am what I am or What you see is what you get. Every feature shrieked it. Materialized in tattered jean shorts and long-sleeved flannel shirts, she was an uncompromising anomaly, a mirage in the sands of the Sonoran desert.

“We're truckers - my better half and me.” She pointed to their driveway where sat a huge, deep purple metallic rig that towered over the house and garage like a Brobdingnagian eggplant.

“That's our bobtail,” she said proudly. “We were scheduled for Alamo City, but the flip flop was cancelled so we just gave it up for home 20. What's the point of a one-way deal?”

“What's the point?” I agreed as if I copied her, which I didn't. 10-4 was the only trucker term I knew. Unless you count beaver. Everybody knows what beaver is.

“You holler now if ya need anything, ya hear?” she offered. “Anything a tall.”

Dan's and Delia's truck was gone next day so I figured they found a flip flop that agreed with them. Come to find out, it was against the law to park the rig in their own driveway overnight. Dan had moved it to the Albertson's grocery store lot and walked home, his clothes soaked through by the time he got there.

“I could have given you a lift,” I told him.

“For a block? Are you crazy? Besides, need to lose a few pounds,” he said, rubbing his spare tractor tire of a belly.

Dan seemed younger than Delia, had a full head of black hair, but definitely cut from the same flannel. Down-to-earth, natural, plain spoken. He sported a short goatee, or it could have been the way his beard grew, that made him look impish.

“Good to meet ya,” he said, turning his back to me and walking away. “You'll have to have us over for dinner sometime.”

He chuckled to show he was joking. Or not. I couldn't see it to read his face.

Over the next few months, I continued to work on the house. Whenever the garage door was up and Dan and Delia were not traversing the big slab, she would pop over.

“Anybody but the roof rats home?” she might say. Or in deep contralto voice, teasing me, “Avon calling.” I looked forward to her impromptu visits.

Oftentimes, either in spite of or in tune with the thermometer, she gulped steaming black coffee as we balanced ourselves precariously atop a pile of rubbish and gabbed an afternoon away. I came to think this was more a break for her than for me. How would it leave a person to be trapped with their spouse 24/7 in a vibrating cab, two sardines dancing to a Freightliner fugue, each at their turn navigating a box the size of a double wide on wheels?

Married for 27 years, Dan and Delia had three children, one a boy who died at 18. Their surviving son was now 19 and lived with one too many rowdy roommates in Tempe, a college town in the east valley. A 26-year-old daughter named Sharon lived with their son's dad in Phoenix, along with two other youngsters fathered previously by a different man. They were good kids, Delia explained, and though she didn't judge them harshly, she would have preferred for their lives to be different than they were. She regretted that none would go to college. Delia felt everybody could benefit from higher education.

Dan and I never had the little talks that Delia and I did. He was always busy working on the rig or charring meat on their patio grill. You'd not catch him dead doing yard work. Their son mowed the crispy lawn (mostly weeds) when they were on the road. And nobody laid a hand on the sun-scorched exterior of the house. The wooden eves were rotting and the stucco, once the color of terra cotta, had gone peach and pleaded for patching and repainting. Never had to be invited inside, I knew they were clean people and made a decent living but probably helped the offspring more than was healthy for them or their home.

“We both love the anklebiters, don't get me wrong…” Big swig of coffee. “…but Dan had a hard time of it growin' up and doesn't want that for them, says our number one job is to be there for 'em when they need us.” Deep breath. “To my way of thinkin', what they need is to be excused from the goddamn bread line, pardon my French, and do more for themselves, but it's too late now, the damage is done.”

Delia recommended her son, an electrician's apprentice, to solve a wiring conundrum for me. He seemed like a nice enough kid, and he fixed the problem, but it took several attempts and weeks for him to finish the job. He wasn't cheap either, considering the symbiotic bond developing between his mother and me.

“Over and out, good buddy,” is how I said goodbye to Delia once.

She snickered, “Oh, Wally, you don't want to call anybody 'buddy'. In our lingo, that means homosexual.” She quickly added, ”Not that there's anything wrong with bein' a homosexual.”

“I guess I'll always be in the granny lane.”

So at ease with each other, she gave me a sisterly hug. “Not with me at your back door you won't.”

It was after I'd finished most of the interior, when we could sit on an actual piece of furniture and have a normal chat sans paint fumes and sawdust, that we had our most insightful conversations. Without provocation, she started talking about the dead child.

“I'm not proud to say this, Wally, but Dylan was heavy into drugs.” The loving look in her eyes reflected disappointment but at the same time clearly expressed Dylan was Delia's favorite.

“That's nothing to be ashamed of,” I absolved. I'd never had children. What did I know of why they go wrong or how their parents should feel about them when they do? It saddened me that Delia would blame herself.

She looked away, toward her house. “It's our own fault. Me and Dan did little white pills to stay awake on the road…” She applied the brakes, anticipating a pedestrian reaction to loom large in the side mirror. “…and we smoked pot at home.”

“Marijuana never killed anybody that I know of.”

“Dylan graduated to bigger and better stuff.”

“That was his choice, Delia, not yours.”

“But it all started with us. We were the example. The bad example.”

There was nothing I could say to guide her toward a less guilt-ridden exit. I wax-papered a sweet, juicy hunk of apple pie that I baked and sent her home with it. “Warm this up in the micro, heap on a generous scoop of Blue Bunny and pop a chick flick into the DVD.”

In the garage, leaning against my car, she continued. “Know what a dragon fly is, Wally? It's a rig that drags its way up a hill and flies down the other side. Dylan was one of those kids who has a hard time findin' his way, knowin' himself. When he thought he had, he took a triple digit ride and that was the end of it.”

After that, Delia and Dan were gone a lot. Working. Driving the big purple box. Dancing the Freightliner fugue.

Retrieving my mail one Saturday afternoon around Christmastime, they pulled in. Delia looked exhausted when she emerged from the cab, but she beamed at me. Dan gave my shoulder a squeeze on his way into their house. He appeared to be brooding over something, unrelated to me and even to Delia. She was in no hurry to join him inside.

“You know,” I said to her, “I'd love to see where you sleep in the truck.”

“After this trip to Tinsel City [Hollywood], blowin' not one but two alligators [flat tire treads], and puttin' a steak on the grill [hitting a cow], by all accounts this would have to be the worst possible time for a tour. Except for you, Wally.”

She opened the Lilliputian door behind the bigger one and I took a look-see. It smelled like a warm, windowless bedroom that needed its linens changed and I can't say it was luxurious, but it seemed comfortable enough.  There were two retractable bunk-type cots and lamps attached to a glossy wall, laminated in a generic pattern like you'd see in the bathroom of an RV. A dorm-size refrigerator stood among shelves loaded with paperbacks, music tapes and movies. The wall-mounted TV, CD player and video machine could be telescoped through an aperture into the cab. Over small portholes on both passenger and driver sides Delia hung opaque violet curtains. They let in enough light for me to spot pictures of the kids, all three of them, and the grandkids, everywhere. It was cluttered and claustrophobic, homey as a turnpike toll booth.

Pointing to a lumpy mattress, she asked me, “You wanna lay down a while to get a feel for life on the highways and byways of this great country of ours?”

“Would it be life on the highways and byways without Dan?”

Throwing her head back, Delia roared.

I noticed the children come and go during the holidays, but they never stayed long, enough for a quick meal perhaps or unwrapping presents. Delia and I hardly saw each other again until February.

It was rainy and cool, unseasonal for that time of year, but a perfect day for lifting the garage and windows to let a breeze circulate. I put a pot of coffee on the stove while Delia and I sat at the breakfast bar on high stools, next to but not facing each other. We made a big deal of the weather and the rainwater flooding the washes…

“It snowed last year, before you got here. On our wedding anniversary. Me and Dan were leavin' Luby's full as tics.” She shaped flakes the size of grapefruits with her calloused hands. “O' course, it didn't stick, but snow in Phoenix? Flagstaff sure, but Phoenix? Snowball's chance in hell.” 
…But that wasn't what Delia came over to talk about.

“How were your holidays?” I blindsided her.

“Okay,” she began unconvincingly. “The kids dropped by, and some of our truckin' friends.” I saw it coming in the rearview. “Dylan loved Christmas…” Her soft-spoken words trailed off like jabber, unintelligible foreign language on Channel 9, the emergency CB channel.
“Are there many truckers in the area?”

“Oh sure, truckers are everywhere. It's a big business, ya know.”

We stared at the rain pelting the kitchen window, watched one droplet rear end another and speed in tandem down the pane.

I sideswiped her. “Would you want the kids to follow in your footsteps?”

“Oh hell no,” banging her mug on the countertop. “Too dangerous…I have to say though they couldn't meet a nicer, more loyal bunch of people than over-the-road folks.”

With my right arm I tugged an imaginary diesel horn cord hanging from the ceiling. Delia mimicked the sound that, along with our laughter, filled the house.

Next it came, like an Arizona monsoon. “We were on a backslide from California when we got a call on the CB from Sharon. 'Dylan's OD'd,' she cried. Hysterical. We were about half way between Palm Springs and Cactus Patch [Phoenix], about two hours away.”

Our awkward gazes remained fixed on the window, or the thirsty pool beyond it lapping up the sky water.

“I panicked. I didn't know what to do. I put out a 10-33 [emergency] and another trucker on his base station CB rushed over and took them both to the hospital. Wally, we didn't know this driver from Adam, but he did that for us without battin' an eye.”

The rain let up and we could see a cloud yield over Delia's back porch so the sun could pass to its left.

“I didn't think to phone 9-1-1 and get a meat wagon [ambulance] there. Can you believe it? God told me to get on that CB.”

Over the sound of belching gutters, I sandbagged, read the mail, as CBers say when they listen without participating in a conversation.

“It was too late. Trucker said Dylan was waxen when he got there, already gone. That made me feel good because I wouldn't have wanted strange paramedics or worse, bears [cops] layin' their cold hands on my son, beatin' his chest and shovin' tubes down his throat. I was glad his sister and one of us was with him.”

We watched Dan walk heavily from their house to wipe the precipitation from the black barrel drum barbecue. He lifted the lid tentatively as if dreading to find something inside.

“Dan still blames himself for not bein' there. He's reminded of that night on all our returns.”

He looked in our direction and likely saw us through the glass with the sunlight on our faces but he didn't acknowledge us, nor we him.

“Every trucker within fifty miles of Phoenix was there at the funeral, too. You never saw such a convoy as that one highballin' its way to the cemetery.” Her voice cracked. “Dylan would have enjoyed that.”

Dan lit the grill. A drop splashed into Delia's coffee.

“He was the best kid, Wally. He was my little dragon fly.”

* * *

Following an education and degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri in Columbia, Christopher Calcara worked eight years in the field of advertising, promotions and publicity in Kansas and Missouri. He has written in fiction and semi-fiction genres that include short stories, memoirs, poetry, plays and novellas. Calcara has also collaborated with composers to write plays with music, including Joan, a play about Joan of Arc. A portion of its book, music and lyrics was performed in Kansas City, MO in 2002 at the invitation of composer Richard Held for his “Living Room” show. 

Calcara currently lives in Charleston, South Carolina where he belongs to the Lowcountry Creative Writing Forum.