Ramblings and whinings

Been having some deep thoughts regarding the future of Raca Baka. I know that the current pattern of huge plodding chapters is not sustainable, if I’m ever going to finish it. It’s not that I’ve ignored the project; I’ve been working on how the end of the story is going to play out, and although there are a few details left to hammer out, I have a fairly firm grasp on the ending(and an epilouge, too.)

Problem is, I don’t want to write another 200K words to get to the ending. I’ve worked on chapter 2-2 off and on for several weeks now, and I can’t get inspired, mainly because the story is stuck in a rut, and and I can’t figure out how to transmit my thoughts in an efficient and engaging manner.

For example: the part that I’m stuck at right now, Louise is taking Dakotah to the plastics plant. On the way, she is explaining in detail all the landmarks Dakotah must remember in order for him to make it home, and to work. My thoughts are, at this moment, “Does it even matter if Louise is giving directions? Dakotah getting lost isn’t going to drive the greater story forward, as best as I can tell at this moment. So, why am I wasting my time writing about Louise’s directions?”

I’ll be honest, and say that I wished I was finishing this now. When I first started thinking about the concept of writing Raca Baka, I figured it would take me about three years to write. Well, it’s almost been three years, and I’m not even half way done yet. The prospect of taking another four years to finish the first draft is daunting, to say the least.

I think it would be easier for me to get excited about writing this if more people are reading it, and commenting, be it good or bad. I can’t blame all the people that started reading chapter 1, and are no longer reading it. It, at times, has turned into an overmelodramatic slog, IMO. (This is just me being hypercritical, don’t pay me any mind, lol)

Writing isn’t fun right now. I know that this is a challenge of writing something in the scale that I’m doing, but it’s getting tiresome. I could probably sit down, take two months, and give a play by play of everything major that will happen during the rest of the book, and keep it under 10000 words. The trick is to add dialogue and whatnot to keep it interesting, and to make the characters come alive.

(In case you haven’t noticed, I’m brainstorming as I write this.) :crazy:

One problem is that for the most part I’ve been winging it. I don’t think I can do that anymore. The story is getting too big. I think I’ll have to write the framework for the rest of the book first, and then fill it in with dialogue and flesh it out. I can still improvise parts as necessary to make the story better as I go.

Thanks for listening.  This post will probably self destruct in a few weeks.

Chapter 2-1

 Chapter 2-1

February 5th, 2009

“Sky’s gettin’ pretty, ain’t it?” Ralph said, smiling a little. “I’ve been drivin’ for about twenty-five years now, and the views never get old.”

Dakotah snapped out of a trance, and gazed upon the sky, a light blue up above, turning to a light coral on the horizon. “Uh-huh.” he acknowledged, emotionlessly.

“Poor guy’s brain is still fried.” Ralph thought. “Bet he ain’t said ten words since we left. Can’t blame him, he done been through a lot.”

“Lookie there, Dak!” Ralph exhorted. “There’s the state line sign! We’re in Indiana now! You ever been out of Michigan?”

Dakotah silently shook his head, and looked down.

“We still got a little bit to go before we shut ‘er down for the night.” Ralph said plainly. “We get past Chicago, we’ll stop at a truck stop and get some supper.”

Miles passed silently, save for the low roar of the engine, and the hum of the tires. The relative quiet was unnerving to Ralph; “I reckon I need to get him to talk, somehow.” he thought. “Can’t be like this the whole trip.”

“Hey Dak!” Ralph barked. Dakotah stared at Ralph blankly.

“Over to your right a mile or so is Lake Michigan, though you can’t see it from here.” Ralph said. “You ever been to Lake Michigan?”

“No.” Dakotah replied flatly.

“Well, I reckon either Lake Huron or Lake Erie is closer to your house, huh?” Ralph asked, coolly. “You ever been to one of those?”

Dakotah shook his head.

Ralph sighed. “Well, where have you been? Have you even left town before?”

“I’ve been to Detroit twice, and Ann Arbor twice.” Dakotah replied indifferently, tiring from his uncle’s questioning.

“I reckon you just broke all your records today!” Ralph chuckled. “We ain’t done yet, either! Got about 2700 miles before we get home!”

Once again, Ralph’s words did not register with Dakotah, who continued to stare out the window.

“This time tomorrow, we’ll be in North Dakota!” Ralph continued, struggling to keep upbeat. “A Dakotah in Dakota! How about that?”

Dakotah sighed.

“Well, I wouldn’t get too all fired up about being in North Dakota.” Ralph said, giving up on trying to cheer Dakotah. “Ain’t much more than a whole lot of nothin’ out there, anyway.”

“Then me being there would just be redundant, then.” Dakotah said, morosely.

Ralph thought for a moment, slowly realizing what Dakotah meant. He grumbled.

“You know, I ain’t got no problem for a guy to bitch about his lot in life,” he growled, “but there comes a time where it’s time to shut the hell up, and do something about it.”

The force of Ralph’s words stunned Dakotah. “Well, I’m on my way to Kentucky, and a new life, right?” he said, weakly.

“You ought to be thankful you have a way out of that dead end life.” Ralph said, matter-of-factly.

“I don’t think that was one bit a dead end life!” Dakotah protested.

“If it wasn’t for the preacher bailing your ass out, you’d be out on the street, you know that?” Ralph barked.

“Mama would’ve taken me in!” Dakotah yelled back. “She already said I could!”

“Oh, yeah?” Ralph snarked. “She offer you a job, too?”

“I already had a job.” Dakotah muttered.

“Part timin’ for not enough to live off of ain’t no job.” Ralph said, pointedly.

“I would’ve made it work!” Dakotah shouted, frustrated. “I would’ve proven everyone wrong!”

Ralph paused for a moment, thinking. “Why would you want to struggle up there, when you have an opportunity to get where you want a lot faster?” he said, calmly.

“Because my home is in Michigan.” Dakotah stated, firmly.

“No, you mean because that girl is in Michigan.” Ralph countered.

“It’s not just Ely!” Dakotah said, becoming flustered. “Rev. Daniels, Mama, and New Hope are there, too!”

“Yeah, but you got blood kin in Kentucky that love you a whole lot, too.” Ralph said, assuredly. “I know your mama’s up there, but I ain’t too sure about her.”

“Unk, with all due respect, this is only the second time I’ve met you.” Dakotah said, gingerly.

“So?” Ralph shot back, derisively. “How long you knowed that reverend and that lady workin’ for him?”

“Ah, seven months?” Dakotah replied, weakly, knowing his argument was failing.

“Tain’t exactly a lifelong relationship, is it?” Ralph stated, coolly. “I ain’t a sayin’ that they don’t mean a whole lot to you-”

“I love them, and they love me too, like I’m family!” Dakotah blurted.

“Me and your aunt are family.” Ralph replied, firmly. “I know you ain’t had much in the way of people caring about you over the years, but Dak boy, there’s people you ain’t even met yet down home that love you!”

Dakotah shook his head. “I don’t see how.”

“My Ma and Pa are tickled to death you’re comin’ home with me!” Ralph said, enthusiastically. “Wait’ll Ma gets ahold of you; she’ll fatten you up, for sure!

Dakotah smiled slightly, but remained silent.

“Dak boy, let’s get real for a minute.” Ralph said, trying to sound hip.

“Wait, did he say ‘get real’?” Dakotah thought.

“How really bad do you got it for that little girl?” Ralph asked.

“I love her. A lot.” Dakotah replied, in all seriousness.

“Oh, yeah?” Ralph said with a smirk. “You wanna marry her? Have babies? Spend the rest of your life with her?”

“Y-yeah. I do.”

“Even if one day she starts cussin’ you out for no good reason, and wished you’d die and go to hell?” Ralph asked, pointedly.

Dakotah became instantly confused.  “Huh?”

“Trust me, all women do that.” Ralph said, with an air of authority. “It’s so they can get an emotional advantage on you. Would you stay with her even then?”

“She has told me she’s hated me several times.” Dakotah replied, coolly.

“There you go.” Ralph said, confidently. “That tells me she’s interested in you, at least a little bit. Do you think she loves you?”

“I think so.” Dakotah replied, honestly.

“You think so? Why?”

“Because when I kissed her, she kissed me back.” Dakotah said, matter-of-factly. “She denied it, though.”

Ralph nodded silently, and thought for a moment. He began to frown.

“She’s with that rug muncher, right?” Ralph grumbled.

“H-Huh?” Dakotah stuttered, confused. “What are you talking about?”

“She’s with that other girl, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Think they’re fooling around?” Ralph asked, stone faced.

“I-I don’t know.” Dakotah replied, feeling very uncomfortable. It was a subject he had purposely avoided.

“You ain’t never been curious?” Ralph asked, a little surprised.

“I’d rather not go there.” Dakotah mumbled, evasively.

“Reckon we’d better.” Ralph said, firmly. “I think it’s important.”

“Can we talk about something else?” Dakotah whined, beginning to panic. “Does Kentucky get snow?”

“No.” Ralph replied, abruptly.

“Kentucky doesn’t get snow?”

“We get some snow, but no, we ain’t changin’ the subject.” Ralph growled, becoming impatient. “I done said this is important!”

“Why?” Dakotah moaned, wishing he were anywhere but there at the moment.

“’Cause it’ll help you figure out how to get on with your life.” Ralph said, firmly. “So, do you think they’re foolin’ around?”

“I don’t think so.” Dakotah mumbled.

“Why? Did you ask her?”

“NO!” Dakotah shouted.

“Why not?” Ralph asked, wearily.

“It’s none of my business!” Dakotah replied, indignant.

“It is.” Ralph said, firmly. “You want her in your future, don’cha?”

“Yeah.”

“If you did ask her, and she said yes, then what?” Ralph said, calmly. “Do you still think you would have a chance?”

“I don’t know.” Dakotah replied, sadly.

“I’d say you wouldn’t have a chance in hell.” Ralph said, matter-of-factly. “Especially if she got an orgasm. Women tend to be blinded when they get the Big O for the first time. How do you think I’ve kept the old woman around all these years?” he said, smiling.

“Too much information!” Dakotah thought, trying desperately not to think. He wanted to run, but they were speeding down the interstate at 70 mph.

“Point is, odds are you ain’t ever gonna be with this girl, so you might as well cut bait, and move on.” Ralph said, confidently. “Lotta girls out there.”

“I can’t do that.” Dakotah said, shaking his head.

“That’s okay.” Ralph said, empathetically. “Moving on from someone you love who dumped you takes time. Besides, you can find a college girl in Kentucky, and let your little girl up there know about it. Maybe she’ll get jealous!”

“So, you want me to hurt some innocent girl in order to make Ely realize she loves me?” Dakotah asked, incredulous.

“All’s fair in love and war!” Ralph said, laughing.

“I’ll pass.” Dakotah countered, coldly. “I’d rather lose honestly.”

“And you’ll lose often.” Ralph said, becoming serious. “You’ll wind up being some girls’ doormat.”

“I think Aunt Lou has you wrapped around your finger!” Dakotah accused.

“Hey, I got her right where she wants me!” Ralph laughed. Deep down, Dakotah felt his uncle meant well, but he thought Ralph was a little wrong, maybe a whole lot wrong. He decided to stick with his gut, at least for now.

“Hey, look, Dak boy, there’s Chicago up ahead!” Ralph announced, enthusiastically. “All those lights are cool, huh?”

“Yeah.” Dakotah replied, suddenly filled with angst. The lights reminded Dakotah of Detroit, and the times at the diner. He thought those days were forever ago.

“You gettin’ hungry?” Ralph asked.

“A little.” Dakotah replied, without emotion.

“Good.” The truck stop is about a half hour ahead.” Ralph said, enthusiastically. “They got lots of good artery-clogging grub, so don’t be shy when they give you the menu!”

*****

An hour later, Ralph wheeled the semi into the gravel parking lot, cursing. “Damned rush hour traffic.” he grumbled. “Figures some dumbass would get in a wreck and screw things up.”

The sight of the truck stop awed Dakotah. There were hundreds of trucks parked over twenty acres, with a constant stream of trucks pulling in and out of the parking lot. Ralph deftly whipped the 18 wheeler into a parking spot, the air brakes kicking up a cloud of dust.

Ralph and Dakotah climbed out of the truck, and were met with a stiff cold wind. Leaving the truck running, they made their way across the parking lot to the truck stop building. Ralph maneuvered through the traffic, with Dakotah close behind. To the side, there were about 20 diesel fuel pumps, half of which were occupied by truckers filling up their rigs.

“We’ll fill up before we leave.” Ralph said. “Won’t be as busy then.”

“When are we leaving?” Dakotah asked, curious.

“About one.” Ralph said, flatly.

“A.M.?” Dakotah asked, surprised.

“Yep. That’ll give us about an hour to an hour and a half to spare.” Ralph said, gravely. “I ain’t likin’ cuttin’ it that close, but it is what it is.”

Soon, they were inside the truck stop. It was very warm, very noisy, and strongly smelled of coffee and food. Dakotah became instantly hungry.

The lobby was set up much like a convenience store, with snacks, drinks, medicines, and other necessities for the road. There was a section dedicated to souvenirs, and another dedicated to clothing.

It became apparent to Dakotah that the place was largely used by men. A good many of them were large in stature, which intimidated Dakotah a bit. Some of the men were older, generally clean shaven, and kept a neat appearance; some wore uniforms with boots. Most of the younger truckers had longer hair, kept either a beard or a goatee, and wore sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers.

The restaurant vaguely reminded Dakotah of the diner; there was plenty of chrome, Formica, and vinyl, but everything was worn, and a little dingy, unlike the shiny, spotless diner in Detroit.

“We’ll eat at the counter.” Ralph said. “Faster service there.”

They quickly made their way through the dining area; Dakotah noted some of the tables had notecards stating “truckers only” on them, which struck him as odd. Soon they arrived at the counter, and took a seat on the barstools.

Almost immediately, a pretty 20-something blonde greeted them with pot of coffee in hand.

“Hold off on that high octane stuff, Mel.” Ralph said, holding his hand up. “I need me some decaf tonight. Gotta get up early. Runnin’ behind because of this thing.” he said, pointing at Dakotah with his thumb.

“Oh, yeah?” Mel said, giving a tired smile.

“Yeah, this is my nephew, Dak.” Ralph said, smiling. “Dak, this is Mel. She usually takes care of me when I stop by here.”

“Hello, Dak!” Mel said, brightly. “Are you going to be a trucker, too?”

“Uh, no.” Dakotah replied, embarrassed.

“Nah, he’s gonna work at the old lady’s factory.” Ralph said, shaking his head. “Had to go to Michigan to get him. Lemme just have the usual, okay?”

“Coffee?” Mel asked, sweetly.

“Uh, uh, no.” Dakotah replied, still embarrassed. “I’ll have a soda.”

“Know what you want?” she asked.

“Ummmmm…….” Dakotah hawed, scanning the menu in vain.

“Just give him a burger and fries.” Ralph interjected, abruptly. “That be alright, Dak?”

“Okay.” Dakotah nodded.

“What would you like on your burger?” Mel asked, amused.

“Ah, everything’s fine.” Dakotah replied, snapping to.

“Alrighty, I’ll be right back!” Mel said brightly, as she hustled toward the kitchen.

“Cute, ain’t she?” Ralph said, grinning. “You need a girl like her!”

“Uh, I don’t think so.” Dakotah muttered, irritated.

“Why not?” Ralph asked, surprised. “She’s good lookin’, works her butt off, heck I think she’s only got one kid! What’s not to like?”

“I dumped a prettier girl than that.” Dakotah said, matter-of-factly. “She was working to be a nurse, and she had no kids.”

“No you did not!” Ralph shouted loudly, in disbelief.

“Yes, I did.” Dakotah countered, quietly, in stark contrast to his uncle. “Her name was Vanessa. She really liked me, too. I felt bad for her, but she’s dating a doctor now.”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Ralph exclaimed, incredulous. “The worst thing you could’ve done is been one of them house husbands!”

“I didn’t love her!” Dakotah protested. “I love Ely!”

“Okay, okay.” Ralph said, burying his head in his hands.

Mel arrived with Dakotah’s soda and Ralph’s decaf, and as they thanked her, she smiled and left.

Ralph took a sip of his coffee, breathed deeply, and exhaled. “All right.” he said, keeping his composure, “Can you describe this Ely to me? She got big knockers, right?”

“What?” Dakotah said, confused. “Excuse me?”

“Does she have big knockers?”  Ralph said, holding his hands palms-in about a foot from his chest. “You know, boobs!”

Dakotah’s face instantly reddened. “Ah, no.” he said, embarrassed. “She’s about 5’4”, petite, shoulder length red hair, and amazing blue eyes.”

Ralph shook his head. “What am I gonna to do with you, Dak boy?”

“What?” Dakotah protested, indignant. “She’s perfect!”

“Perfection is firm D-cups.” Ralph said, tersely.

At that moment, Mel arrived with the food, much to the relief of Dakotah.

“Eat up.” Ralph ordered. “Time’s a-wastin’.”

Ralph wolfed down his meal of chopped steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and a yeast roll. Fortunately, years of dining with Frank, and the necessity of leaving the school cafeteria quickly, enabled Dakotah to keep up easily. In ten minutes, both plates were empty.

“Do you two want a piece of pie?” Mel asked, picking up their plates. “We have some chocolate pecan still.”

“Nah, we gotta git.” Ralph said, shaking his head. “12:30 comes awful early.”

“Well, alrighty, then.” Mel said kindly, placing the check on the counter. “See you next week?”

“Yup!” Ralph said, smiling. “I’ll take you up on that pie next week!”

“You two be careful!” Mel exclaimed, as they got up from their seats.

After Ralph paid, they walked quickly back to Ralph’s rig. Dakotah had to slow down a couple of times in order for Ralph to catch up.

“Walkin’ with you makes me feel old.” Ralph said, trying to catch his breath.

Ralph opened the driver’s side compartment under the sleeper, and pulled out Dakotah’s suitcase.

“You got somethin’ to sleep with in here?” Ralph asked.

“Yeah.” Dakotah said, shrugging his shoulders. I think I have some pajamas in there.”

“Well, go change in the bunk.” Ralph said, yawning. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

Dakotah climbed in the sleeper area, taking the plaid flannel pajamas that were donated to him. He changed quickly, in case Ralph came in.

“You dressed?” Ralph hollered.

“Yeah.” Dakotah shouted back.

Ralph climbed in the truck. “Well, scoot over!” he barked. “Here I come!”

In a flash, Ralph stripped to a pair of white briefs, and climbed into the sleeper. In the semi-darkness, Dakotah could not ascertain what was underwear and what was Ralph.

Suddenly, the sleeper was awash in light from a flip phone Ralph had in his hand. “I ain’t smart enough to use a smart phone. Louise got me this so she can keep tabs on me.” he said, chuckling.

He dialed, and after a couple of seconds, Dakotah could hear Louise say “hello” through the speaker.

“Hi, honey.” Ralph said, softly. “We’re outside of Chicago at the truck stop. Yeah, Mel was there. Now don’t get your panties in a wad, she’s young enough to be our daughter!” he said, becoming slightly irritated. “Whatever. Yeah, Dak’s doing okay. I ain’t never seen no one that’s as green as this boy. Whataya mean, don’t be tryin’ to teach this boy anything? What kind of yahoo do you think I am, anyway? Don’t get started, I gotta go to bed. Call you tomorrow. Love you. Bye.”

Ralph closed the flip phone, and sighed. “Dak, whatever you do, don’t marry no high religion women. They’ll peck you to death! Well, I gotta get me some sleep. Don’t even think about spoonin’, y’hear?”

“I don’t think you have to worry about that,” Dakotah said, gravely.

Ralph laughed. “I’se just messin’ with you, Dak boy. G’night.”

Dakotah looked up at the top of the sleeper, and sighed. “I wish I could talk to Ely.” he thought. “I wonder what she’s doing.”

Dakotah’s reverie was interrupted by Ralph’s snoring. It was exceptionally loud, exacerbated by the confined space of the sleeper. Dakotah tried desperately in vain to mute the din by covering his head with his pillow.

Without warning, an odoriferous stench engulfed Dakotah, causing his eyes to water, and making it hard to breathe. He felt about the side of the sleeper for a door handle, but was unsuccessful. Climbing over the huge man next to him wasn’t an option, so he pulled his shirt over his face, hoping the fabric softener that mama used would filter out the offending odor. “Could this be worse than sleeping in the attic?” he thought.

After a while, both the snoring and the smells subsided, leaving Dakotah to think about Ely. “I wonder what she’s doing now. Heck, I don’t even know when ‘now’ is. I wonder if she misses me yet? Probably not, it’s too soon yet. She’s probably relieved I’m gone.”

Dakotah sighed. “Well, might as well try to get some sleep.” As if on cue, Ralph shifted his body, and began to snore loudly again.

 

February 6th, 2009

 

Dakotah was awakened by twin alarms; one was on Ralph’s watch, and the other was on his phone. Ralph shut them both off quickly, and began to get dressed.

“Better get some clothes on, Dak boy!” Ralph barked. “You’re gonna have to go take a leak before we get on the road.”

Ralph released the air brakes on the semi, and piloted the rig to the fuel pumps. He grabbed his wallet from the top of the dash.

“Here’s twenty bucks, Dak.” Ralph said, handing Dakotah some money as Dakotah exited the sleeper. “Get yourself some drinks and snacks to get through the day.”

“What am I going to do with the drinks?” Dakotah asked, confused. “They’ll get warm by the time I get thirsty!”

“Didn’t you notice the fridge and microwave over your head?” Ralph asked, surprised.

Dakotah looked above the sleeping area, and sure enough, what he thought was the ceiling to the sleeper was actually a shelf, which housed a small refrigerator, and a microwave.

“I’m thinking of having a toaster oven installed too, but I’m not sure how to rig the wiring.” Ralph stated. “It’ll need 1500 watts to run it. Well, no time for BS! Get going!”

Ralph climbed out of the cab, and started to fill the tanks, checking the air pressure of the tires with a tire bat while the twin 100 gallon fuel tanks were filled.

Dakotah sleepily headed out in the chill to the truck stop. Inside, he went to the restroom, then picked out a couple of bottles of soda, a large bag of chips, and two prepackaged ham sandwiches. Seeing that he still had a few dollars unspent in his budget, he unloaded the items he had picked out on the counter.

“Will this be it?” The man at the counter asked.

“Do you sell earplugs?” Dakotah asked.

“Over on aisle seven, in the safety supplies. The man answered. “See the orange flags and stuff?”

Dakotah walked over to the aisle and saw the packages of ear plugs.

“Only a dollar! Good!” Dakotah thought, relieved.

Dakotah also picked up a couple of candy bars at the counter, which brought the total to nineteen dollars. After paying for his supplies, Dakotah strode rapidly to the truck.

Ralph was waiting in the driver’s seat as Dakotah climbed in. “Took you long enough.” Ralph said, irritated, as he pulled away from the pumps.

Dakotah stored his drinks and sandwiches in the fridge, and the chips on the shelf.

“I didn’t think I took that long.” Dakotah protested. “I didn’t see you come in to pay!”

“Didn’t have to.” Ralph said simply. “I paid at the pump.”

“Didn’t you have to go to the restroom?” Dakotah asked, curious.

“Did that at the pump, too.”

Dakotah processed Ralph’s words, then recoiled.

“Are you kidding me?” Dakotah cried, shocked. “What if someone saw you?”

“Who cares?” Ralph said with a shrug. “I was between the truck and trailer, anyway.”

“How did you wash your hands?” Dakotah asked, incredulous.

“I didn’t.” Ralph said with a straight face.

“You’re supposed to wash your hands after you pee!” Dakotah exclaimed, indignant.

“Why?” Ralph shrugged. “Didn’t get any pee on them.”

“You are not ever touching my food!” Dakotah wailed.

“Relax, I got disinfectant wipes.” Ralph said, coolly. “No problem.”

Dakotah shook his head as Ralph pulled out onto the interstate.

“I’m going to go lay down.” Dakotah sighed. “At least you won’t be snoring now. At least I hope you won’t!”

“Oh, that.” Ralph said, pensive. “The old woman usually clubs me upside the head, and I roll over.”

“I’m not going to do that.” Dakotah said, smiling slightly at the thought of Louise clubbing Ralph. “I bought ear plugs from the truck stop.”

“Well, it looks like you’re going to put them to good use, ‘cause it’s gonna get loud again.” Ralph said, matter-of-factly. “I gotta crank the tunes while I’m driving this time of night.”

“Seriously?” Dakotah complained.

“Nothing more boring than driving at night.” Ralph said in all seriousness. “Time to jam!” He pulled the mp3 player out of his pocket, and attached it to the stereo. In seconds, the Who’s Eminence Front was blasting through the speakers.

Dakotah started to dig the earplugs out of his pocket as Ralph began to sing loudly.

Stuffing the earplugs in his ears, he closed the curtain to the bunk, and laid down, pulling a pillow over his head. The din subsided, but not entirely, as the earplugs did their job. Soon, aided by the low roar of the diesel, and the rhythmic ‘thump-thump’ of the tires running over the road’s expansion joints, Dakotah finally dozed off.

*****

The sound of Ralph gearing down woke Dakotah. Stretching, he peeked through the curtain to see Ralph pulling into a rest area. He realized the music was no longer blaring, as it was replaced by a news program.

“Piss break time.” Ralph announced. Dakotah stretched again, plopped into the passengers’ seat, and began to put his shoes on.

Five minutes later, they were on the road again, travelling west. Though it was still dark, Dakotah decided to ride up front.

“Where exactly are we?” Dakotah asked.

“We’re in eastern Minnesota, about 650 miles from our destination, according to the GPS.” Ralph replied, pointing at the electronic device on the dash.

“Are we on time?” Dakotah asked, curious.

“So far.” Ralph muttered. “All it would take would be a wreck slowing traffic down, or a flat tire, or somethin’.”

“I’m sorry for the trouble.” Dakotah said, sadly.

“Naw, it’s okay.” Ralph said, kindly. “Ain’t your fault. I misfiggerd by eight hours, for some reason. Gettin’ old, I reckon.”

“You don’t seem old to me.” Dakotah said, pleasantly. “You have a lot more ‘motivation’ than Frank.”

“That ain’t a’sayin’ much, but thanky.” Ralph said, shaking his head. “Lazy worthless bastard. Old woman made me promise not to pay him a visit.”

“What would you have done?” Dakotah asked, nervously.

“Oh, probably woulda gave him a good cussin’. Ralph said, beginning to smile. Unless he said somethin’ smart, and I’da hadda put him in the hospital. Got no tolerance for people like that, y’know?”

“I’m glad you didn’t, either.” Dakotah said, relieved. “Much as I don’t like it, he’s Mom’s problem, now.”

“I ain’t never figgerd out your mama, Dak.” Ralph said, shaking his head. “Most mothers put their youngins first, but you were just an inconvenience, at least that’s the way I see it.”

“I think I was very convenient, especially for Frank.” Dakotah said, matter-of-factly. “I was a housekeeper, and someone to kick around.”

“Well, I reckon all that crap is behind you now.” Ralph said, assuredly. “You’re headed to a much better place, where people love you.”

Dakotah knew that there were plenty of people at New Hope that loved him too, but he chose not to argue.

“Hey, Dak boy, you like music?” Ralph asked, smiling.

“Uh, yeah, I guess so.” Dakotah replied, simply.

“I pretty much play the classics, rock and country, that is.” Ralph stated. “That okay?”

“I don’t care.” Dakotah shrugged.

“Music is the best thing for driving long distances.” Ralph said, as he turned on the MP3 player. Good Hearted Woman soon began to play loudly through the speakers.

“Sing if you know the words!” Ralph shouted, gleefully. “It’s more fun that way!”

Dakotah shook his head, and remained silent. Ralph shrugged his shoulders and kept singing. Dakotah looked out the window at the emerging landscape.

“I wonder if Ely is missing me as much as I’m missing her.” he thought.

*****

The next few hours followed the same pattern; Ralph would play music and sing, then pause the MP3 for a few minutes to give commentary of whatever town or geographical feature they were passing.

“Dak boy, do you know the words to any of these songs?” Ralph said, becoming frustrated.

“No, I’m afraid not.” Dakotah replied, sadly. I haven’t heard of most of these songs before, anyway. I think I’ve heard of Hotel California before. Eye of the Tiger was in a movie, right?”

“Yeah, Rocky 3.” Ralph muttered.

“I’m afraid that’s all.” Dakotah apologized. “I’ve never heard any of the others before.”

“Not On the Road Again?”

“No.”

Walk This Way?”

Dakotah shook his head.

Legs?”

“Nope.”

“Do you listen to anything?” Ralph exclaimed, exasperated.

“I sing hymns at church.” Dakotah said, simply.

“Geez, you and the old lady will get along fine.” Ralph sighed, shaking his head. “Kids can’t even sing We are the Champions anymore!”

Dakotah looked at the clock. “I guess I would be at work right now.” he thought, which saddened him.

Ralph turned on the MP3 player again, this time adjusting the volume to a much lower level. “I reckon I’ll take a break from singing for a while.” he announced.

“You don’t have to stop on my account!” Dakotah blurted, feeling guilty. “I don’t mind!”

“That’s okay.” Ralph said, waving his hand. “Ain’t as much fun if there’s somebody there that ain’t singin’ along. Besides, my voice could use a break.”

That’s hard to believe.” Dakotah thought, staring out at the unending landscape.

*****

By mid-morning, they passed a small river, arriving in the town of Fargo, North Dakota. Ten minutes later, the suburbs receded behind them, and they began to speed through prairie.

“Here we are in North Dakota, Dakotah!” Ralph announced, cheerily, pointing at the vast snowy countryside.

“You were right about a whole lot of nothing out here.” Dakotah said, his voice as bleak as the landscape.

“Now, I wouldn’t go and say that now, Dak boy.” Ralph shrugged. “Is that how you are, just like this countryside?”

“Kinda.” Dakotah replied, matter-of-factly.

“I see. Well, look over there to the right.” Ralph said, pointing. “You see that farmhouse near the horizon?”

Dakotah nodded. In the distance, surrounded by several wind-beaten trees, was a two story farmhouse, a weathered barn, and a few rusty silos.

“Now, I ain’t got no idea who lives there, but I reckon there’s been several generations of folks lived in that house.” Ralph said, thoughtfully. “Whole lives that were born, growed up, fell in love, had heartbreak, had good times and trials and tribulations, and even died, and several times over, too. You know what I’m talkin’ about?”

“Not sure.” Dakotah said, shaking his head.

“You went and said there was a whole lot of nothin’ about you, just like here, right?” Ralph said, confidently. “I’m sayin’ that if you look close, there’s a whole lot of somethin’ there.”

Dakotah said there silently, stunned, as he realized his uncle had said something profound.

“Everyone has value, Dak, at least they are born with it.” Ralph continued. “Problem is, a whole lotta people throw that value away. Seen a bunch’a good ‘ol boys over the years throw their lives away on booze, drugs, and who knows what else. Guys a whole lot smarter than me.”

Ralph pointed his finger at Dakotah, and raised his voice. “You’re a whole lot smarter than me, Dakotah. Don’t ever sell yourself short, or throw your life away. You hear?”

“I’ll try.” Dakotah mumbled, meekly.

“You’ll do more than just try.” Ralph said, firmly. “You’ll do it, and you’ll make me and the old woman proud, y’hear?”

“You make it sound like there’s nothing to it.” Dakotah said, skeptically.

“I guarantee there’s a lot to it.” Ralph said, as he shook his finger at Dakotah. “It’s harder than hell to break even, much less succeed sometimes. You got what it takes to make a go of it, though.”

“I hope you’re right.” Dakotah said, unconvinced.

“I know I’m right.” Ralph barked, almost insulted that Dakotah remained unsure. “Look. I’ve met thousands of people in my life. I know the difference between someone who wants to do something with their life, and those that are just screwing around. You’ll be fine, if you just trust yourself.”

Ralph’s words heartened Dakotah a little. He remembered Mama’s words to him, just a few days ago:

All you need is courage and faith. Lord ain’t gonna give you more than you can handle. You have to have the faith to believe in yourself, and the courage to deal with whatever life throws at you. I know you can do it, Dakotah.”

Dakotah shed a tear. He missed Mama, Rev. Daniels, and Ely.

*****

The transit across North Dakota had progressed smoothly; Ralph spent the time giving Dakotah a crash course on classic rock and country music. Dakotah choked down his last ham sandwich (the bread had become stale), and finished his potato chips.

Ralph turned the MP3 player off, and pointed ahead. “Alrighty! We ‘bout got ‘er whupped now!”

Dakotah spotted a small truck stop at the next interstate exit. Ralph flipped the turn signal indicator, and soon after turned down the exit ramp. He pulled into the parking lot, stopping at a place where he could pull out easily later.

“Final pee break before the oil fields, Dak.” Ralph said, setting the air brakes. “You won’t have a chance once we get there. You’re not actually supposed to be there in the truck with me. Oilfield security policy, y’know.”

Dakotah was stunned. “Why would you risk your job to do this?”

“Just how I roll, Dak boy.” Ralph laughed, winking. “Besides, it ain’t like they could fire me. I own this truck, and I’m my own boss. Now, they can tell the freight company I contract with to ban me from coming here, but I would just deliver freight somewhere else. Wouldn’t pay as much, though.”

The men went inside, did their business (much to the relief of Dakotah, Ralph actually washed his hands), and within ten minutes of pulling off the interstate, merged back on it.

At 4:15PM, Ralph turned the rig onto the main road to the oilfields.

“Time to jump in the back, Dak boy.” Ralph directed. “Oh, and grab those shoes, too. If they see basketball shoes in the floorboard, they may ask questions. You never can tell.”

Dakotah lay nervously in the bunk, while Ralph stopped at the security shack, and presented the guard his papers. Though it seemed like an eternity to Dakotah, after thirty seconds Ralph had the truck in gear, and started to pull away.

“We’re in, Dak. Piece of cake.” Ralph said confidently.

“What now?” Dakotah asked.

“We go to the receiving area, and unload. With a little luck, we can get out of here in an hour. Just sit tight. Take a nap, or something.”

Dakotah, relieved, did just that.

*****

Dakotah awoke to the clanging of metal, and the shaking of the truck. He surmised they were unloading the pipe. Carefully, he took a peek out the bunk curtain; it was now dark, but the oilfields were lit up by thousands of lights, creating a pretty, if surreal, scene. Ralph was nowhere to be seen, but Dakotah guessed he wouldn’t have gone far while his truck was being unloaded.

Soon, the clanging and shaking stopped, and after a few minutes, Ralph boarded the cab, started the truck, and released the air brakes.

“One quick check out at the guard shack, and we’re done.” Ralph said, a trace of relief in his voice. “They had a rookie forklift driver unloading the truck. Did it shake you up much?”

“A little.”

“Regular forklift driver had the day off, so they were stuck with a trainee. Slower than shinola. There were two trucks in front of me waiting to be unloaded.”

Soon, they were at the guard shack. A quick signature from the guard, and they were on their way.

“We’re clear, Dak boy!” Ralph said happily. You can come out now. Did you get a nap?”

“Sorta.” Dakotah replied, stretching. “The fork truck woke me up.”

“Well, that part is all behind us now.” Ralph said, content. “Time to get something to eat, a shower, and some rest.”

“Oh, are we getting a motel?” Dakotah asked, happily surprised.

“Hell, no!” Ralph retorted. “Them places are high! Why’d you think we was goin’ to a motel?”

“Well, you said something about a shower, so-“

“Truck stops have showers.” Ralph interjected. “Didn’t you see them at the truck stop in Chicago?”

“I guess I didn’t pay attention.” Dakotah replied, sadly.

“Figures.” Ralph grumbled. “Kids today could have an alien landing next to them, and they wouldn’t know no different.”

“Uh, these showers aren’t in the open, are they?” Dakotah asked, becoming concerned.

“Nah. They got stalls and doors and stuff.” Ralph replied, nonchalantly. “Cain’t nobody see nothin’, usually. Did see one ol’ boy in Shreveport that was hung like a horse, though. That was somethin’ else, right there!” he said, impressed.

Dakotah shook his head, embarrassed. Ralph’s words didn’t comfort him at all.

*****

After a thirty minute drive north, Ralph pulled the now empty eighteen wheeler into the parking lot of a small truck stop. The wheels of the trailer bounced over the ruts in the gravel, jarring Dakotah.

“Here we are, Dak boy.” Ralph announced, relieved. “Time to get cleaned up, filled up, and rested up.”

“This is a truck stop?” Dakotah asked, a little confused. “Looks more like a convenience store, to me.”

“I reckon it is a convenience store to the locals.” Ralph said, as he set the air brakes. “Not much around these parts.”

Ralph stepped out of the truck, and searched into the cab’s side compartment, pulling out some clothes, towels, and washcloths.

“Here, Dak!” Ralph shouted above the din of the idling truck. “Get you some clothes, and come on!”

Dakotah searched his suitcase for a fresh change of clothes, sighing at the selection Mama acquired for him. Finding the least offensive combination of clothes, he slipped on his shoes, pulled on his coat, and exited the truck, stretching as he walked. There was a raw wind from the northwest, and it chilled him a little.

They entered the truck stop, and the difference between the one outside of Chicago and this one couldn’t have been more to Dakotah. Unlike the many rows of items dedicated to the wants and needs of truck drivers at the other truck stop, this one only had a few rows of basic staples, a refrigerated area that had mostly drinks, and a lone frozen goods section. He followed Ralph to the counter, where a sullen young man of Indian heritage awaited.

“Need a couple of showers, please.” Ralph stated pleasantly.

“That will be ten dollars.” The man said with an Indian accent, emotionlessly. Ralph pulled out his wallet, and digging through the currency, found a ten dollar bill and handed it to the man.

“I’ll need a receipt, please.” Ralph said, tersely. The man punched a few buttons, and the register spat out a small piece of paper. The man snatched the receipt, and handed it to Ralph without saying a word.

“C’mon, Dak.” Ralph grumbled, and headed toward the back of the store. Dakotah nodded, and followed close behind.

“I don’t know why those people came over here in the first place.” Ralph muttered. “You’d think them people would be happy they’d have an opportunity to make a go of it over here.”

Dakotah pondered Ralph’s words, and the young man’s attitude. “Maybe he just misses his homeland.” Dakotah said, simply.

“You would say that.” Ralph snarked.

They came upon what looked like regular restroom doors to Dakotah. “The showers are here?” he asked, confused.

“Ain’t much, but it’ll work.” Ralph replied.

They entered the room, which consisted of two toilet stalls with doors, two urinals, and four shower stalls, each with an inner and an outer door. One of the showers was occupied, as the steam from the shower filled the top of the room. Dakotah immediately noticed that the restroom hadn’t been cleaned in a while, and reminded him of the old school restrooms back home. He shuddered.

“It’ll be okay, Dak.” Ralph said. “We’ll be out of here in a few minutes.”

Very self-consciously, Dakotah quickly got undressed, shivering in the cold stall. Picking up the bar of soap and travel shampoo Ralph gave him back at the truck, he walked quickly into the shower area, and turned on the hot water only. After a very long moment, warm water started to exit; however, it didn’t get hot, and Dakotah quickly began to wash his hair, expecting to run out of hot water at any moment.

In the next stall, Dakotah could hear Ralph began to sing, loudly, and off key. “Seriously?” he thought, incredulous.

“Shut up!” yelled a gruff voice from another stall. “You suck!”

Ralph ignored the plea, and upped his volume.

“Shut the hell up!” protested the other voice. “Goddamn!” The man in the other stall began to beat on the stall wall.

Dakotah nervously and rapidly washed himself, shut the water off, and in the changing area, toweled off and dressed. By the time he exited the stall, Ralph had finished He Stopped Loving Her Today, and shut his water off, humming as he dried off. Exiting his stall a moment after Dakotah, the other man scowled at Dakotah.

“Was that your stupid ass that was caterwauling in there?” the man accused. Dakotah was taken aback, speechless, and not a little alarmed. The man was Dakotah’s height, about 220 pounds, had black shoulder length hair, a scraggly goatee, and wore a T-shirt, jeans, boots, and a leather vest. He also had intricate tattoos on both his arms, and Dakotah briefly wondered if the man was friends with his father.

“Uh, no.” Dakotah said meekly, wanting to disappear.

At that moment, Ralph exited his stall. “Oh, we got us a music critic, Dak boy?” he boomed.

That wailing shit ain’t got nothin’ to do with music.” the man growled.

“Just ‘cause you look like a roadie don’t make you no expert.” Ralph shot back.

“Fuck you, motherfucker!” the tattooed man screamed. “Last thing I want is to hear shit from your fat ass!”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, easy there dude.” Ralph said, holding his hands up in an attempt to defuse the situation. “Ain’t nothin to get all fired up about. Tell you the truth, I really like your tats. Hell, I’d probably have some myself, but the old woman would chuck my ass out of the house.”

The man stared at Ralph, still angry, but silent.

“Tell you what, mister.” Ralph said firmly. “I apologize for hurtin’ your ears. I usually sound better’n that, but the acoustics in here must suck, y’know? Ralph chuckled a little.

The tattooed man shook his head, and started gathering his things. “Sorry I yelled out you.” he said, quietly. “Loud noises make my head hurt bad.”

“I reckon I do that a lot.” Ralph said, smiling. “Hey, you already eat yet? If’n you ain’t in no hurry, care if I buy you supper?”

“Why would you want to buy me a meal?” the man replied, becoming irritated.

“I reckon to make up for giving you a headache.” Ralph said, shrugging his shoulders.

“No, I’m good.” The man said, dismissively.

“You sure?” Ralph asked, probingly. “Sometimes a little BS with another trucker does a fella good.”

“No, I really have to go, thanks.” the man mumbled.

“Well, okey-dokey, then.” Ralph said, defeated. “God be with you, brother.”

The tattooed man shook his head, and silently exited the shower room.

“You may have had it rough back there in Michigan, Dak.” Ralph sighed. “But I’m guessing that fella’s had it a whole lot worse.”

“W-why do you say that?” Dakotah asked, confused.

“Did you see that tattoo of the rifle stuck in the ground with a helmet on top?” Ralph said, pointedly. “I’ll bet you anything he was over in Iraq or Afghanistan. Besides, he was jittery, and loud noises bothered him a lot. Betcha he got his noodle rattled over there.”

“Why did you offer him a meal?” Dakotah asked, curious.

“’Cause I figured he needed to say whatever was buggin’ him.” Ralph, said, solemnly.

They exited the building, and walked to the truck, the cold wind causing Dakotah to shiver. “Unk, with all due respect, I don’t think you can be a psychiatrist.” he said, humbly.

“You’re right, I ain’t no head doctor, but I got me a PhD. in life.” Ralph said, emphatically. “I know from experience gettin’ somethin’ off your chest makes a man feel better. Here, throw this stuff in the dirty clothes bag. Old woman will wash them when we get back.”

They walked back to the convenience store, to the deli area. The only thing they could find was some old boxes of fried chicken under a heat lamp.

“Doesn’t look very good.” Dakotah surmised.

“Hey, shopkeep!” Ralph bellowed across the convenience store. “You care to fry us up something fresh? Nothin’ fancy, just some chicken strips and tater wedgies?”

“Sorry.” the clerk replied, at first startled, then annoyed. “Fryer shut down.”

“Well, I reckon we can nuke a burger, or eat a chicken salad sandwich?” Ralph pondered aloud. Ralph and Dakotah checked the slim selection of sandwiches in the refrigerated section.

“Dak boy, you see anything that ain’t expired?” Ralph said, becoming frustrated.

“I’m afraid not.” Dakotah said, sadly, as he wondered if he should take his chances on the ham and Swiss cheese sandwich.

“Hey, shopkeep, you got anything newer than the mole on my ass?” Ralph shouted angrily.

The counterman glared at Ralph, but remained mute.

“Let’s get the hell outta here!” Ralph barked. “I think I have some soup and beans and wieners in the truck pantry!”

Ralph stomped out of the convenience store; Dakotah followed, making sure he didn’t make eye contact with the counterman as he began to brace himself against the frigid wind.

“I would’ve bought fuel from them, but they’re fifty cents a gallon higher than 100 miles up the road.” Ralph complained. “It’s kinda cutting it close, but since we ain’t got a load, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Ralph looked at a figure moving around in the truck parked next to his. “Looks like our tattooed friend is next door.” he observed. He began to rummage through the items in his pantry. “Got some canned spaghetti, chicken noodle soup, and beef stew. I got dibs on the beans and wieners.”

“Do they give you gas, too?” Dakotah asked, becoming full of dread.

“No more than anything else.” Ralph laughed.

Suddenly, someone began to bang loudly on the driver’s side cab door. Ralph peered out into the dimly lit parking lot, and saw it was the counterman. Confused, he lowered his door window.

“Can I help you?” Ralph asked, unsure.

“If you don’t buy fuel, you have to leave.” the counterman said, crossly.

“Do what?” Ralph said, trying to understand what was said.

“If you don’t buy fuel, you have to leave.” the counterman repeated, losing patience. “No fuel, no parking.”

“Well, you can go pound sand up your ass, amigo!” Ralph shouted with full fury.

“That fine!” the counterman retorted. “I call the cops!” He stomped over to the neighboring truck, and banged on the cab door. The door flung open, and suddenly, the counterman shrieked, and ran wildly back to the convenience store.

“Well, I reckon.” Ralph said, and began to put on his boots. “I guess the pork and beans will have to wait. Hold on Dak, we’re leaving.”

“I guess you don’t want to deal with the police, do you?” Dakotah asked, curious.

“Not for the reason you think.” Ralph said, as he pulled the truck out of the parking lot. “I believe our tattooed friend either pulled a knife or a gun on ‘ol Hadji back there.”

“Do you really think so?” Dakotah said, unsure.

“Yep.” Ralph nodded. “Did you see him run and scream like a little girl? It usually means that a fella fears for his life. At best, the cops would just run us all off. At worst, we’d be witnesses.”

“Witnesses?” Dakotah asked, confused.

“Yeah.” Ralph replied, gravely. “In case there was shooting involved. I ain’t got a dog in this fight, and I ain’t gonna stick around and see what happens. Too much paperwork.”

Dakotah said a silent prayer for the tattooed trucker. “I guess I’ll have a story to tell Rev. Daniels or Ely sometime.” he said, simply.

“Not with the old woman around, you ain’t!” Ralph barked.

“Why?” Dakotah asked, surprised.

“What happens on the road, stays on the road.” Ralph said, emphatically. “If she knew one tenth of the crazy crap and wrecks I’ve seen, she’d either never let me out of the house, or divorce me.”

“Oh.” Dakotah said, nodding weakly.

“Well, let’s get on down the road.” Ralph sighed. “There’s a good truck stop about an hour and a half from here.”

Dakotah said another silent prayer, as Ralph pulled the truck on the interstate.

*****

It was relatively quiet inside the cab, as they sped down the four-lane; the radio was silent, as was Ralph for the most part. The only noises were the low roar of the engine, the jostling of the cab, and the sound of the tires hitting the expansion joints in the road. Ralph, when he did speak, said only a few words, and in a subdued tone. Dakotah wondered if the episode with the tattooed trucker had bothered Ralph. His uncle was a man that nearly always said what was on his mind, and his sudden reticence was noted by Dakotah.

Dakotah realized he hadn’t thought of Ely or anyone from Michigan for several hours, and it saddened him. He hoped he wouldn’t get so busy in Kentucky he would forget them.

At nearly 11PM, Ralph pulled the rig into the truck stop parking lot. This truck stop, though tiny compared to the one in Chicago, was far superior to the one they left 90 minutes prior. Ralph stopped the truck next to a fuel pump.

“You want to get yourself a burger, or anything?” Ralph asked, unfocused. “I’ll give you some money.”

“You’re not going in?” Dakotah asked, confused. “You haven’t eaten anything yet!”

“Naw, ain’t hungry no more.” Ralph said, subdued. “Kinda lost my appetite. I reckon I’ll go fill up the truck, and crash. I’m purt near wore out. Gettin’ old, I guess. You gettin’ you anything?”

“No, I think I’m okay.” Dakotah replied, shaking his head. “I did eat a can of spaghetti and meatballs earlier. I’ll be fine until morning.”

“Well, suit yourself.” Ralph said, dismissively. “We’ll get a good breakfast before we head out in the morning. Still gotta long way to go yet. Pickin’ up a load in Davenport, and droppin’ it off outside of Louisville before goin’ home.”

“When will we get ho- uh, your place?” Dakotah asked, catching himself.

“Hopefully, if everything goes right, Sunday, right before sundown.” Ralph said, matter-of-factly. “By the way, it’s your home now, too, I reckon.”

Dakotah sighed. “I’m going to the restroom. I guess you’ll do your business out here again?”

“Maybe.” Ralph said, as he smiled slightly. He got out of the cab, and checked on his fuel nozzle, as Dakotah made his way to the store.

It was instantly obvious to Dakotah that this truck stop was much larger, cleaner, and more well-stocked than the previous one. The smells of the restaurant made Dakotah hungry, but he ignored his stomach as he searched for the restroom.

Dakotah returned to the truck, climbed in, and reclined the passenger seat back as far as it could go, so that it leaned back at a forty-five degree angle. He crossed his arms in front of him, and closed his eyes.

A few minutes later, Ralph climbed in, and started to drive to a parking spot.

“Hey!” Ralph exclaimed, seeing Dakotah in the passenger seat. “Why ain’t you in the bunk?”

“Because I like to be able to breathe, and it won’t be as loud out here, I hope.” Dakotah said, pointedly. “Besides, this seat isn’t too bad.”

Ralph parked the truck, and set the air brakes, once again leaving the truck idling in order to run the heater.

“Whatever, suit yourself.” Ralph grumbled, as he began to shed his clothes. “You get a crick in your neck, I ain’t rubbin’ it out, y’hear?”

Ralph climbed in the bunk; Dakotah turned his head, making doubly sure he didn’t see Ralph in his underwear. Ralph rolled around for a few minutes, then became still. A moment later, a low rasping sound began to emanate from within the bunk.

Dakotah sighed. He said a silent prayer for the tattooed trucker, then mindlessly watched the traffic file in and out of the truck stop as he began to think of Michigan. Less than two weeks ago, his grandmother was alive, he had a place to live, a church he belonged to, and a girl he loved that needed him. “It’s all gone now.” he thought to himself, as he began to tear up.

 

February 7, 2009

 

It was still dark when Ralph’s alarms sounded. Dakotah rubbed his eyes, and tried to focus. The digital clock in the dash read 5:00AM.

“I thought we were sleeping in?” Dakotah asked, confused.

“This is sleeping in.” Ralph barked, as he dressed. “Got about 24 hours of road time to cover in the next 36 hours. Not as bad as the last two days, but there’s not any time for lollygaggin’ either. Let’s go eat.”

Ralph and Dakotah strode quickly to the restaurant, and once again, took a seat at the counter. They were met by an older lady with short salt-and-pepper hair, and tired eyes.

“Coffee?” She said, emotionlessly.

“Black for me, please.” Ralph replied, as he flipped his cup over. “Dak boy, you want OJ and milk?”

“Yes, please.” Dakotah replied, as he watched the waitress write down his order.

“Lemme have an order of biscuits and gravy, two eggs hard scrambled, bacon, and hash browns, plain.” Ralph said, flatly. “Dak?”

“Ah…..” Dakotah replied, as he tried to think of what he wanted. “Let me have a stack of pancakes with a side of sausage.”

“Okay. It’ll be a few minutes.” The waitress said, plainly, as she turned to place the ticket on the wheel.

Within minutes, the food arrived, and they silently wolfed down their breakfasts.  When they were finished, Ralph placed a twenty dollar bill on the counter as they rose from their seats.

“Time to roll.” Ralph ordered. “Last opportunity to go to a restroom for the next four hours.”

Minutes later, after they boarded the semi, Ralph turned on the radio, turning the dial back and forth until he found a station broadcasting the local news. After a couple of minutes, he exhaled, relieved.

“There’s nothing in the news about a shootin’ at that crappy truck stop, best as I can tell.” Ralph announced, relieved.

Dakotah said a silent prayer of thanks.

“A big part of me wanted to go talk to that fella, and try to calm him down, but I ain’t much on talkin’ to someone with a gun or a knife.” Ralph said, somberly. “’Specially a dude that probably been trained to kill. I ain’t no coward, but I ain’t stupid, neither.”

“I’m definitely a coward.” Dakotah thought. “No way I’d mess with a guy with a gun.”

As if he turned on a switch, Ralph’s disposition suddenly brightened. “Let’s go to Davenport, then Louisville, then get the hell home!” he bellowed, as he turned on the MP3 player.

*****

A few hours passed, and they were well inside Minnesota; clouds had taken over for dawn’s clear skies, though thankfully, it was not snowing. Ralph continued Dakotah’s education on classic rock and country music; Dakotah began to loosen up a little, and joined Ralph on a couple of songs.

“Hey, you can sing!” Ralph announced happily.

“Anyone can sing.” Dakotah shrugged.

“A lot bettern’ than me!” Ralph exhorted. “You need to enter one of them talent shows in Lexington!”

“I don’t think so.” Dakotah muttered, becoming embarrassed.

Ralph laughed. “Hey, there’s rest area a couple miles up ahead.” he said, pointing forward. “Whattaya say we stop, stretch our legs, and eat there?”

“I didn’t know rest areas have restaurants.” Dakotah said, confused.

“This one ain’t, it just got vending machines.” Ralph said, shaking his head. “What I’m a talkin’ about is getting’ some grub out of the pantry, and eat it in here, while we’re parked. Didn’t want to eat a microwave burrito while driving. Sometimes a hot chunk‘a meat will fall out of the burrito and into your lap, and that ain’t none pleasant.”

Ralph pulled into the rest area, and parked the truck in the truck parking lot. Dakotah donned his coat, and quickly walked in the subfreezing air to the main building.

The facilities were dated, but clean, and Dakotah appreciated the latter. Before returning, he stopped by the vending machines, and using money Ralph had given him, selected a soda and a bag of plain potato chips.

Ralph had already returned by the time Dakotah reached the truck, and was microwaving a can of beef stew in a heavy paper bowl.

“Is there another beef stew in there?” Dakotah asked, becoming hungry as he smelled his uncle’s lunch.

“Yep.” Ralph said happily, as he handed Dakotah another can. “I try to keep it well stocked. The more I eat in here, the less I spend in restaurants.”

Ralph had almost finished eating his stew when his cell phone began to ring.

“What the hell does that old bag want?” Ralph grumbled, as he picked up the phone. “Yeah. Oh, yeah? Ain’t surprised. Well, you can always tell them to shove it up their ass. What? Watch my language around Dak? You should hear him talk! Made me blush, it did! I know, I know, we can’t afford it. Well, your day ain’t got much longer. Yeah, he’s doin’ good. See you tomorrow night. Love you too. ‘Bye.”

Ralph ended the call,  sat the phone down, and sighed. “Should have never bought that dually and tractor.”

“Why?” Dakotah asked, curious.

“For years, I drove this old piece of crap Dodge, and messed around the farm with a Ford tractor that was older than I was. After I started making some good money with this truck, I thought I’d get my dream truck, and a decent tractor, so I did. Remember the black dually?”

“With the loud sound system?” Dakotah asked.

“Yep. Problem is, I’m still paying 800 dollars a month for the next four years for the dually, plus 400 for the four wheel drive tractor with loader for another three years.” Ralph said, his voice filled with regret.

“Wow.” Dakotah blurted, amazed.

“When the economy tanked, and my loads started to do the same, she took that job to help pay the bills.” Ralph said, sadly.

“Oooohhhhh.” Dakotah nodded. “So you feel guilty for having Aunt Lou work?”

“Yeah.” Ralph replied, solemnly. “Don’t help that the whole plant is full of dumbasses and worthless pieces of crap.”

Dakotah was unable to speak, trying in vain to process Ralph’s words.

“The only reason they’re working today is that they can’t make their production goals.” Ralph said, becoming irritated. “If their customers run out of parts, their plants shut down, and the old woman’s plant is in a world of hurt.”

“And you want me there, why?” Dakotah said, alarmed.

“Hell, it still pays good.” Ralph replied, pointedly. “Old woman has been there six months, and she’s already making fifteen dollars an hour! This week, working five ten hour shifts, and six on Saturday, she’ll make over 900 bucks! You could use 900 bucks, well, I think they start out at fourteen an hour, so still over 800 bucks? That’ll go a long way to paying for school, right?”

“Y-yeah.” Dakotah said, stunned.

“Problem is, a whole lot of people round where I live is on disability for one thing or another, and I reckon most of them are just too damned lazy to get a job.” Ralph said, angrily. “Most of the yahoos at the plant are just as lazy and worthless, but they’re just too stupid to figure out how to get disability.”

Dakotah couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Ralph released the parking brake, put the truck in gear, and began to ease the truck down the empty parking lot.

“I’d like her to spend more time at home, if for no good reason but to keep an eye out on my folks.” Ralph said, sadly. “Pa’s gettin’ near eighty, and Momma ain’t far behind.”

“If you guys are having money troubles, why did you send me all that money?” Dakotah blurted out, exasperated.

“Aw, that money weren’t nothin’ but a drop in the bucket.” Ralph replied, calmly. “If a hundred bucks a month was going to break us, then we’d have a lot more troubles than just sending you money.”

Dakotah’s guilt faded slightly, but not completely. “When I get the chance, I’ll pay you back, I promise!”

“You ain’t doin’ no such a thing!” Ralph barked, shaking his head. “You ain’t had much of chance in your young life so far, so if’n me and the old woman can help give you a chance to make a go of it, then you doin’ good for yourself is all we want in payment. Maybe buy us a steak sometime when you get that weather job!”

Dakotah sighed, and thought for a moment. “I thought Japanese plants are run better?” he asked.

“The old woman says she almost never sees the Japs.” Ralph said, flatly. “She reckons all they do is go to meetin’s. All the decisions on the floor are made by Americans, and the people workin’ on the machines and stuff are all Americans.”

“Really?” Dakotah said, surprised.

“Problem is, ain’t nobody in charge there knows anything about how to run the machines good.” Ralph grumbled. “They don’t really care, either, unless their ass is on the line, and they don’t have any problem with stabbin’ anyone else in the back, either.”

“How do they stay in business, then?” Dakotah asked, incredulous.

“There’s a few of them that still give a damn, like the old woman.” Ralph replied. “So far, working six days a week, they’ve been able to keep up, mainly because the customers’ quotas have slowed down due to the economy. If the day comes when things start to pick up, the plastics plant is screwed, ‘cause they won’t be able to keep up.”

Dakotah gritted his teeth. “Is it too late to go back to Michigan?” he moaned.

“Yes!” Ralph boomed. “Your ass is going to Kentucky, make money, go to school, and have a good life!”

Dread began filling with Dakotah again, and he sighed.

“I do know one thing.” Ralph said with gravity, “There better nobody mess with the old woman. I don’t think anybody would mess with her, ‘cause I think they’re all scared of her,” he said with a chuckle, “but if anybody down there messes with her, I’ll have to go down there, and pay them a visit.”

Dakotah thought for a few seconds, and he became alarmed. “You know you’d be arrested, wouldn’t you?” he said, concerned.

“So?” Ralph shot back, annoyed. “Wouldn’t be the first time!”

“You’ve been in jail?” Dakotah asked, shocked.

“Yeah, a few times, when I was your age.” Ralph said, matter-of-factly. “Mostly fights, and drunk and disorderly. I was wilder than hell before I met the old woman.”

“How did you meet her?” Dakotah asked, really curious.

“Long story short, I just started truckin’.” Ralph recalled. “I was chasin’ every skirt from coast to coast. Your aunt was a waitressin’ at a truck stop, and I thought I’d put a move or two on her. She told me to get lost, and that pissed me off. I got all puffed up, like I was going to do something to her, and she grabbed my thumb, put me on the ground, and before I knew it, she had a steak knife to my throat!”

Dakotah started laughing loudly. “Are you serious?” he said, chortling. “You’re making this up!”

“I swear on a stack of Bibles!” Ralph said, defensively. “Ask the old woman when we get home! Right then and there, I fell in love with her!”

“You’re really kidding me now, aren’t you?” Dakotah howled in disbelief.

“No, seriously, I’m not joking!” Ralph laughed. “I realized I needed a strong woman who would put me in my place when I needed it.”

“What I want to know is how you managed to get her to love you.” Dakotah asked, bewildered.

“Once I got my head on straight, I changed my tune.” Ralph said, plainly. “I cleaned myself up; you know, I make a damned ugly hippie! I became respectful and polite, at least as best as I know how. Most of all, I was real patient.”

“It‘s a wonder they even let you back into the restaurant.” Dakotah said, smiling.

“It helped that she didn’t recognize me at first!” Ralph laughed. “I only saw her once every week or so, and it took six months before she she’d even agree to go on a date! It took a while longer, but one day she realized she’d fallen for me too, for some reason. I asked her if she wanted to go to Kentucky with me, and she said yes. We stopped by her mom’s to get her stuff, and we were headed south in an hour.”

“An hour?’ Dakotah gasped.

“Yep!” Ralph grinned. You should have seen the look on your mom’s and your grandma’s faces when Louise broke the news! I reckon she’d been keeping me a secret the whole time! Can’t imagine why!”

Dakotah shook his head, chuckling. “Maybe that’s what I did wrong. I should’ve asked Ely to elope!”

“I’ll tell you one thing, Dak boy.” Ralph said, meaningfully. “If that girl really loves you, and wants you, it won’t take long before she figures it out, now that you’re gone.”

”I hope so.” Dakotah thought.

*****

Miles and miles of plains melted away beneath Ralph’s rig, and after seven hours, two bathroom breaks, fifty-odd songs, and a couple of news shows (which prompted Ralph to cuss about his taxes going to people that didn’t deserve it), Ralph pulled the truck into the driveway of the plant.

“Do I need to get in back?” Dakotah asked, concerned.

“Nah.” Ralph said, waving his hand dismissively. “These folks don’t care.”

At the guard shack, Ralph handed the guard his paperwork, and true to Ralph’s prediction, the guard never said anything about Dakotah, much to Dakotah’s relief. A few seconds for instructions from the guard, and they were on their way.

“Told you.” Ralph said, smiling. “This place is pretty laid back.”

“What are we getting here?” Dakotah asked, curious.

“Some aluminum extrusions.” Ralph replied. “Don’t know what the factory in Louisville is going to make from it. Some sort of stuff, I reckon.”

Unlike the oil fields, the person manning the forklift at the Davenport facility was both efficient and careful, as Dakotah barely felt the 30,000 pounds of extrusions being loaded. Forty-five minutes later, they were pulling out of the plant.

“Wow, that was quick!” Dakotah exclaimed, impressed.

“Caught him before suppertime.” Ralph said, nodding. “He was in a hurry, too.”

Ralph pulled back on the highway that led to the interstate. “Truck stop is about fifteen minutes from here.” Ralph stated. “We’re doin’ pretty good on time, so maybe I can work on the old woman’s Valentine’s Day present.”

“You haven’t gotten her anything yet?” Dakotah asked. He thought about being away from Ely on Valentine’s Day, and it saddened him.

“Not exactly.” Ralph said, shaking his head. “I’ll show you here after supper.”

Ralph’s answer confused Dakotah, but he chose not to pursue it further. As Ralph pulled onto the interstate, Dakotah’s stomach began to growl.

“Is the truck stop ahead a good one?” Dakotah asked.

“One of the better ones around in this region.” Ralph said, grinning. “You’ll get filled up, for sure!”

The truck stop Ralph had chosen was as big, if not bigger, than the one outside of Chicago. Dakotah noted that the parking lot was paved, unlike any of the others he had been to, and the lack of bumps and potholes was appreciated.

The restaurant did not have any chrome or Formica, instead choosing a Western motif, with plenty of wood and wrought iron, plus a large wood burning stone fireplace, which both smelled and felt wonderful to Dakotah.

Dakotah looked for a counter, but found none; instead, they were led by a hostess to a booth. A couple of minutes later, a young brunette with an engaging smile greeted them, pouring Ralph a cup of coffee, while getting Dakotah’s soda order.

“Pick whatever you want.” Ralph ordered, as he began to look through the menu.

Dakotah gasped. Most of the entrees were over twenty dollars, with a couple of large steaks over thirty dollars.

“This place is expensive!” Dakotah whispered frantically.

“You better enjoy it.” Ralph directed. “This may be your last restaurant food for a while. Me, I’m getting the eighteen ounce ribeye. Get whatever you want. I’m splurging tonight.”

Dakotah guiltily scanned over the menu, finally choosing the rack of barbequed ribs for a shade under twenty dollars. The waitress returned, and after giving Dakotah his soda, proceeded to take their orders. After ordering the ribs, Dakotah looked at Ralph for any indication of disapproval. After seeing none, he breathed a sigh of relief.

“You ain’t used to this, are you?” Ralph asked, kindly.

“Uh, no.” Dakotah replied, uncomfortably. “Especially since you owe so much money. This is the most expensive meal I’ve ever eaten.”

“Aaaahhh, it’d be alright, Dak boy.” Ralph said, smiling. “What’s the good of livin’ if you can’t live once in a while?”

Not much was said during the meal, as both Ralph and Dakotah ate quickly. Dakotah chose not to think much about the reality of the moment; instead, he concentrated on the ribs, which were of a huge portion, and delicious, too.

Soon, their meals were over, and although Dakotah expected Ralph to order dessert, he declined, as did Dakotah, much to the consternation of Ralph.

“Why didn’t you order dessert?” Ralph asked, as he placed three twenty dollar bills on the table.

“I was full.” Dakotah replied, simply.

“You’re not lying to me, are you?” Ralph accused.

No.” Dakotah replied forcefully, insulted.

“Okay, okay.” Ralph said, holding his hands up. “I was just making sure.”

As they left the restaurant, Dakotah noticed the wind had turned sharply colder as they walked back to the truck.

“Feels a lot like home here.” Dakotah said, shaking his head. “No snow, though.”

“A little warmer at home.” Ralph said, matter-of-factly. Made it up to 47 at home last week.”

“Really?” Dakotah said, surprised. “That would feel pretty good.”

“Hey, Dak boy, wanna see what I got the old woman for Valentine’s Day?” Ralph yelled as a truck passed.

“Uh, yeah, I guess.” Dakotah replied, unsure.

“All right!” Ralph shouted with glee. “Hop in the truck, and I’ll be there in a minute!”

Dakotah climbed in the truck, while Ralph rummaged around in the passenger side storage compartment. Ralph shut the door to the storage compartment, and strode around the truck to the driver’s side.

Dakotah noticed something in Ralph’s hand, and stared hard. “Is that a guitar?” he thought, not quite believing his eyes.

Ralph climbed inside the cab, and Dakotah’s suspicions were confirmed, for it was an acoustic guitar Ralph possessed.

“You bought her a guitar?” Dakotah asked, smirking.

“Oh hell, no!” Ralph replied, annoyed. “I done went and wrote her a song!”

“No way!” Dakotah laughed.

“Oh, yeah!” Ralph said, prideful. “Been workin’ on it for a couple of months now. Been thinkin’ about how I feel about her, and how she feels about me, so I figured the best way to show her how I feel is to write a song.”

“Cool.” Dakotah said, impressed, with reservations. Dakotah was unsure about Ralph’s ability to convey his feelings in a romantic song. Would it be awful? He hoped not. He also wondered if he could write a song for Ely someday.

“Okee dokee, here goes nothin’!” Ralph cried enthusiastically. “This is a little tune I wrote for my lovely bride! It’s called Butcher Knife!”

Dakotah was unsure of exactly what Ralph had said. “Wait, what did you call it?” he interrupted, just as Ralph began to play.

“Kinda rude to interrupt an arteest as he was about to perform, Dak boy.” Ralph scolded.

“Sorry.” Dakotah apologized. “What was the name of the song again?”

Ralph cleared his throat. “The name of this tune is called Butcher Knife. Now don’t interrupt me again!”

Ralph began to play the guitar; it immediately became apparent to Dakotah that Ralph was fairly good.

“Hey-aay hey-ay! Put away that butcher knife – oh no!

Hey-aay hey-ay! I’m a beggin’ for my life – oh no!

Ever since the day you – married me

I’ve spent my life in a – misery

You know dang well I’d never try someone else

Got no idea why you get all that jealous

 

Ain’t like I’m a cheatin’ on you – oh no

Ain’t like I’m embarrasin’ you – oh no

Ain’t like I’m bankruptin’ you – oh no

Ain’t like I’m divorcin’ you – oh no

 

At this point, Dakotah could hardly keep from laughing out loud, as he struggled to keep his composure.

Hey-aay hey-ay! Why’re you pointin’ that thing at me – oh no!

Hey-aay hey-ay! Why can’t you just let me be – oh no!

I work dang near eighty – hours a week

Still you want to send me – up the creek

I don’t know what I have to do to get you – off my back

I just try to love you, but all you want to do is attack

 

Ain’t like I’m a cheatin’ on you – oh no

Ain’t like I’m embarrasin’ you – oh no

Ain’t like I’m bankruptin’ you – oh no

Ain’t like I’m divorcin’ you – oh no

 

Hey-aay hey-ay! What is that you’re saying to me – oh no!

Hey-aay hey-ay! I’m just being a big dummy – oh no!

You say you’re just cutting – ribeye steaks

You just put in – a couple of taters to bake

Well mama I’m sorry I guess I – misunderstood

Didn’t realize you were – treating me good

 

Hey honey let me – light that grill – oh yeah

Hey honey let me – tap that still – oh yeah

Hey honey let me – take that pill – oh yeah

Hey honey I’ll give – you a thrill – oh yeah

 

Dakotah began to laugh uncontrollably immediately after Ralph stopped playing.

“What?” Ralph protested, indignant. “It ain’t that bad!”

“No, no!” Dakotah cried, still laughing. “It’s totally awesome! Aunt Lou is going to get a real butcher knife, and kill you for real!”

Ralph laughed. “She ain’t killed me yet! I reckon with all the stupid crap that I’ve done over the years, if she ain’t did me in by now, she ain’t gonna.”

“Do you really think she’ll like it?” Dakotah asked, curious.

“Who knows?” Ralph shrugged. “Thing is, that for me to make a total fool of myself to her on purpose, well, I reckon that’s true love right there, I think.”

Dakotah didn’t understand Ralph’s words, but he wasn’t about to deny Ralph’s conviction in how he felt, so he nodded affirmatively.

“Well, I guess we’d better call it a night.” Ralph said, yawning. “Big day tomorrow!”

Ralph took the guitar, climbed out of the truck, and stored it where he found it. As he reentered the cab, he noticed Dakotah stretching out in the passenger’s seat.

“Sleepin’ there again, huh?” Ralph asked, shaking his head.

“Better than sharing the bunk with you, and a whole lot better than the attic!” Dakotah said, smiling.

“The attic?” Ralph asked.

Dakotah told Ralph about the time spent with his father.

“Well, I reckon.” Ralph grumbled. “I’d be sore tempted to let him burn, but the EPA liable to put me in jail. I think you did the right thing, if for none other than God’s eyes.”

“Grandma always told me that when no one else is watching, God is watching twice as hard.” Dakotah stated.

“One thing about it, Dak boy.” Ralph said, assuredly. “You ain’t never gonna hafta worry about sleepin’ somewhere you ain’t wanted, at least as long as me and the old woman has something to say about it!”

“That’s good to know.” Dakotah said, solemnly. “I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done.”

“Just do your best.” Ralph said. “That’s all we ask for.”

“I will.” Dakotah said, confidently. “You can count on it!”

“Well, time for yappin’ is past over.” Ralph said, yawning. “Five o’clock comes early!”

“Good night, then.” Dakotah said, simply.

“Good night, Dakotah.” Ralph groaned, as he rolled over in the bunk.

It struck Dakotah as odd that Ralph called him by his name. He closed his eyes as he inserted his earplugs, and within a few moments, drifted off to sleep.

 

February 8th, 2009

 

As they had done the previous mornings, the twin alarms sounded, rousing Ralph from his slumber.

“Last day!” Ralph said, full of gusto. “We’ll be home in twelve hours, God willin’! Time to get movin’!”

An exhausted Dakotah groaned, stretched, and began to put his shoes on.

“Do you have anything for a headache?” Dakotah whined.

“Yeah, I got some aspirin.” Ralph muttered, as he clothed himself. “Told you that seat ain’t no good for sleepin’.”

“The seat is fine.” Dakotah asserted. “I woke up at about one o’clock, and couldn’t go back to sleep. I had a lot to think about.”

“Let me guess, most of it was about that girl, wasn’t it?” Ralph snarked.

“Well yeah, I thought of her a lot.” Dakotah said, defensively. “But that wasn’t the only thing. The plastics plant was on my mind, too.”

Ralph sighed. “If I know one thing, that’s there ain’t no point worryin’ about stuff you can’t control. Just deal with crap when crap happens, you know? Now git! We’re getting behind schedule!”

Ralph handed Dakotah a twenty dollar bill. “Go over to the store, and get a dozen glazed doughnuts, the biggest coffee they sell, and whatever you’re going to eat and drink during the day.” He ordered. “I’m sure the old woman’s gonna cook a big supper tonight.”

Dakotah slogged to the truck stop, used the restroom, and gathered the items he wanted, plus Ralph’s doughnuts and coffee. Exhausted, he paid for the items, and made his way back to the truck.

“You’re slower than my dead grandma!” Ralph chided as Dakotah climbed inside. “We’re ten minutes behind schedule!”

Dakotah handed Ralph the coffee, and unloaded the doughnuts on the console. Ralph shifted the truck into gear, and grabbed a doughnut with his free hand as they creeped through the parking lot. Dakotah turned, trying to keep his balance as the truck lurched, and loaded his items for the day in the pantry and refrigerator. He removed a granola bar and a pint of milk out of the bag, sat down, and buckled up.

“You don’t like doughnuts?” Ralph asked, surprised.

“I do, but I thought the doughnuts are for you?” Dakotah replied, confused.

“What kinda fatass do you think I am, anyway?” Ralph said, indignant. “Eat as many as you want!”

“Maybe later.” Dakotah said, opening the package to his granola bar.

“Suit yourself.” Ralph grumbled. He shifted gears with the palm of his right hand, while holding the doughnut with his index finger and his thumb. “Hey, Dak boy, hit the play button on the music player, and then turn it up! It’s time to get the hell home!”

*****

Dakotah rubbed his eyes, and became fully awake. He pulled the earplugs out of his ears, and stretched. Sunlight was streaming on his face, and he noticed that Ralph had the radio off.

“Where are we?” Dakotah asked.

“We’re outside of Crawfordsville, Indiana!” Ralph said, shaking his head. “You done went and slept through most of Illinois!”

“Did I miss much?” Dakotah asked, feeling guilty.

“Not really.” Ralph laughed. “Pretty much like Iowa, if’n you ask me.”

“How much longer until we get to Louisville?” Dakotah asked.

“A little over two hours, if Indy doesn’t give us no trouble.” Ralph answered. “Why, you gotta go take a leak?”

“I think I’m good for a little while longer.” Dakotah said, thinking. “Don’t think I can make it to Louisville.”

“When we get to I-65, I’ll start looking for a stop.” Ralph said, matter-of-factly. “It’s still early in the morning, so I want to get through Indy before people start getting out on the highway.”

As they approached Indianapolis, the lanes expanded from two lanes each way to three, then four, then five. Traffic picked up too, and it made Dakotah nervous when faster drivers weaved their vehicles from lane to lane in order to make their way through traffic.

“This is the part of my job that gives me my gray hairs.” Ralph said, gravely.

“Do you see a lot of wrecks?” Dakotah asked, curious.

“More than I care to.” Ralph muttered. “All wrecks are bad, ‘cause they slow things down to a stop. The worst ones are the ones you get to before the authorities do. Whenever that happens, I holler over the CB radio for help, and go see if I can do anything.”

“Did you ever save anybody?”

“I don’t know for sure.” Ralph said, quietly. “I usually see them hauled off in the ambulance while I give my statement to the cops. Don’t know what happens to them afterwards.”

“Anybody ever die?”

Ralph took a deep breath, and exhaled. “Promise you never, ever tell Louise, or anyone else, do you hear me?”

“O-okay.” Dakotah replied nervously.

“I’ve come up on five wrecks over the years where people died.” Ralph said, solemnly. Two of them were kids driving too fast, two others were drunks, so they pretty much had it coming.” His voice trailed off.

“What about the fifth one?” Dakotah probed. “What happened there?”

Once again, Ralph took a deep breath, and exhaled. “It was about fifteen years ago, in Oklahoma. I reckon there was some freezing rain passed though earlier, ‘cause up ahead a minivan I was following started slidin’ around, run off the road, and flipped. I figured none of them was wearin’ seat belts, ‘cause they all got throwed out of the van.”

Dakotah remained silent.

“I hollered on the CB while I was pullin’ over, and sure enough, it was real slick there. Almost jackknifed the damned truck! Got out of the truck, and I made it to the first one I saw. It was a boy, but he was mangled up pretty bad, and dead. The next kid I made it to was a girl, but she was dead, too, and so was the third. I made it to the momma, but the van had rolled over her, and she was dead. I looked into the van, and there was a baby strapped in a car seat, and cryin’! The sliding door was on the bottom, so I managed to get the back hatch open, and crawled inside. About the time I got the baby out of the car seat, I started smellin’ smoke, so I got out of there right quick, and by the time I got back to the truck, the minivan caught on fire. A couple of minutes later, the cops showed up. Gave them the baby, told them what happened, and I was gone in a half hour.”

“Wow, Unk, you were a hero!” Dakotah exclaimed, impressed.

“No, I ain’t.” Ralph growled. “Just did what had to be done, that’s all.”

“Aunt Lou doesn’t know about this?”

“Nope, and she ain’t gonna, either.” Ralph asserted. “She worries about me too much as it is. I don’t want her to be thinkin’ I’m gonna die every time I leave the house.”

Dakotah thought for a moment. “Unk, you don’t have a lot of faith in her Faith, do you?”

“I ain’t a gettin’ what you’re sayin’, Dak boy.” Ralph said, shaking his head.

“I think her Faith dictates to her that God will be with her and you and take care of you both all the way to Heaven.” Dakotah said, thoughtfully. “You are just a means for God to take care of her.”

“You might be right.” Ralph said, as he slowed him down for a merging RV. “Ain’t changin’ nothin’, though. What she don’t know won’t hurt her.”

Dakotah sighed, choosing not to further the conversation.

“You know, that’s kinda funny, you talkin’ about havin’ faith that God will take care of you,” Ralph said, pointedly, “when you don’t act like you think He will.”

Dakotah looked out the window. Ralph’s words had stung him; “After all that’s happened to me, I should be more thankful?” he thought.

*****

Indianapolis offered no resistance, and after a brief restroom break, they continued on their way to Louisville. Dakotah decided this was good time to eat lunch, and chose the items he bought earlier in the morning. Ralph cued up a few Buck Owens songs on the MP3 player, but this time, chose not to sing, and kept the volume low. Instead, he helped himself to a couple of doughnuts.

Dakotah remained quiet; the earlier conversation with Ralph troubled him. He knew deep down that he should be thanking God for his situation, instead of being wrapped up in leaving Michigan, and the possibility of being in a bad situation in Kentucky.

Dakotah closed his eyes, and began to pray silently: “Lord, thank you for getting me this far, and presenting me with a new life in Kentucky. I pray that I will take advantage of this opportunity in a manner that pleases you. Please grant me the wisdom to always do what’s right in your sight. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

They crossed the Ohio River, and the size of it impressed Dakotah. Soon, he saw the “Welcome to Kentucky” sign.

“Yehaaaw!” Ralph yelled at the top of his lungs. “We’ve finally made it to the Bluegrass! The sun is shinin’ bright on my Old Kentucky Home today!”

“How much longer until we get, uh, home?” Dakotah asked.

“It depends on how fast we can drop this aluminum off.” Ralph replied, as he geared down for an exit ramp. “If we spend an hour at the factory in Louisville, we can get home by 4:30!”

Fifteen minutes later, they were at their destination. “Better hop in the back, Dak boy.” Ralph ordered. “I ain’t never got a good read on how these folks are.”

Ralph parked at the unloading area, exited the truck, and began to remove the chains off of the extrusions. Dakotah fidgeted in the bunk, nervously waiting for the truck to be unloaded. Within minutes, Dakotah could feel the light jostling of the forklift on the trailer, and after a couple of minutes felt Ralph climb aboard.

“All done!” Ralph announced gleefully. “Gotta sign out at the  guard shack, and then we’re on our way to Lexington!”

Shortly afterwards, they were once again on the interstate. The topography had changed significantly from the plains of the Midwest, as the road began to snake around and over ever greater hills.

“Wait’ll you see home when it gets some green on it!” Ralph exhorted. “It’s really somethin’ to see! Ain’t seen nothin’ purtier, but I’m biased!”

“What’s the name of the town we’re going to?” Dakotah asked.

“We don’t live in town, we live out in the country!” Ralph corrected forcefully. “The town of Pig Lick is where our post office is at, and that’s seven miles away!”

“Where’s the plastics plant?”

Oh, that’s right off the parkway, about fifteen miles toward Lexington!” Ralph said happily. “You’re going to have to get a crash course in navigatin’ these parts. Make a wrong turn, and you could wind up lost, with no ways a knowin’ how to get home!”

Dakotah swallowed hard.

“Don’t worry about it much.” Ralph said, dismissively. “We’ll keep it simple to start off with. All you need to know is how to get to home, work, the store, and the gas station. Oh, and the post office and the bank would be good, too!”

“So much to learn, so little time!” Dakotah thought, trying not to be overwhelmed by it all. “I hope I don’t screw things up!”

*****

It was nearing 3PM when Ralph piloted his truck into the terminal. “Here we are!” he said, joyfully, as he parked the rig next to his dually.

Although he had seen it once before at his mother’s house, the crew cabbed one ton truck still impressed Dakotah greatly. An imposing colossus in black and chrome, it seemed part truck, part limousine to him.

“Clean out all the perishables in the fridge, and put it in a sack.” Ralph directed. “Take that, and all the sheets, pillowcases, and clothes, and throw them in the back seat of the truck.”

“Do you want me to put the guitar in the truck?” Dakotah asked.

“Naw, I’ll do that next week.” Ralph said, shaking his head. “If I take it home now, she’ll get suspicious!”

Within minutes, Ralph and Dakotah boarded the dually, and pulled out of the terminal.

“I can’t believe how quiet and smooth this truck is!” Dakotah said, surprised.

“After a week in the big truck, I would imagine it would.” Ralph said, smiling. “It’s funny; after a couple of days in the old woman’s car, this thing feels rougher than hell!”

As they traveled east, the sun began to dip behind the big hills. Where the road was cut into the hillside, small waterfalls cascaded out of the cut rock. Dakotah marveled at the scene.

“I reckon that’s where you’ll be working at here shortly.” Ralph announced, pointing at a collection of large gray buildings near a parkway exit. In large letters, a sign said “HPK”.

Dakotah could feel a knot in his stomach, but said nothing.

Three miles further down the road, a sign announced “Pig Lick exit 1 mile”.

“There’s our turnoff, Dak boy!” Ralph boomed, his excitement growing with each mile. Dakotah was growing increasingly anxious as they got closer to their destination.

Pig Lick was at best, unassuming; for most people speeding by on the parkway, it didn’t warrant a moment’s notice. There was a convenience store, a gas station, and a post office, a few old houses clothed in clapboard and aluminum siding, and quite a few mobile homes of various shapes, sizes, and states of repair.

Soon, Ralph turned the dually onto a small asphalt two lane road. Hills, green with rhododendron, towered above them. Dakotah could only see glimpses of sunlight, as the sun conspired to stay hidden. Ralph deftly piloted the dually through the curves at a speed that unnerved Dakotah, but he tried to reassure himself that Ralph had driven in these mountains all of his life. To Ralph, the speeds suggested on the curve signs were just that, suggestions, mostly ignored.

Just as Dakotah began to feel queasy from the undulations in the road, they crested a small knoll, and immediately, Ralph began to slow down. To the left, parallel to a creek next to the road, was a small green pasture, perhaps three acres in size, at most a hundred yards wide. A couple of paint horses grazed in it. Above the pasture, cut into a hill, was a doublewide with light yellow vinyl siding, and a wooden covered porch. To the right, also cut into the hill, was a red 30’ x 50’ pole barn, with a white roof and a white sliding door in the front.

“Here’s home!” Ralph bellowed merrily, as they turned into the driveway, crossing the creek on a small wooden bridge. At the base of the hill, the driveway made a sharp turn left up it, revealing deep ruts in the gravel.

“Gotta get the tractor and smooth it out.” Ralph growled. “Sometimes I feel like I gotta do everything around here.”

Dakotah didn’t expect Ralph’s sudden change of attitude, and it bothered him for a moment. However, like a summer thundershower, Ralph’s sour countenance dissipated, and brightened considerably.

Ralph hit the horn three times, the last one a long drawn out blast, as they came to a stop. Dakotah saw a blur run from the porch, toward Ralph.

“Toby!” Ralph yelled as the missile jumped into his arms, and began furiously licking his face. Dakotah surmised the missile was a large German Shepherd, big enough that if it were to jump at him, it would certainly knock him down.

“Here, Toby, meet your new cousin!” Ralph shouted, walking to the passenger side while Toby pranced about. Dakotah became instantly nervous; his only interaction with dogs up to this point had been ones where they were barking and snarling at him from the other side of a fence.

Toby saw Dakotah, and immediately sensed his unease. He cocked his ears backward, and began to whine.

“It’s okay, Toby.” Ralph said soothingly. “He ain’t gonna bite! Here, Dak, stick your hand out, and let him sniff it!”

Dakotah tentatively stretched out his hand; Toby sniffed it, and began to wag his tail. Dakotah lightly petted the German shepherd, and Toby gave an appreciative bark. Dakotah jumped back, but Toby paid him no mind, as he began to prance around Ralph.

Ralph and Dakotah started to remove their belongings out of the back of the truck; the sun had set behind the hill across the road, and a light breeze made it chillier. A strong earthy scent filled Dakotah’s lungs, and it wasn’t all that unpleasant to him.

Louise Jones stepped out of the house, and walked briskly toward them. Ralph dropped his suitcase and laundry on the ground, and held his arms open.

“That’s what I’m talking about, honey!” Ralph gushed. “Come over here, and give me a smoochie!”

Louise ignored her husband, walked over to Dakotah, and hugged him tightly. Dakotah released his suitcase and reciprocated.

“Well, I reckon.” Ralph said, shaking his head, disappointed.

Louise let go of Dakotah, and turned to Ralph. “You old goat, I see you all the time. Haven’t seen my nephew in over a year!”

She turned to Dakotah. “Need to get you a haircut.” Louise said, pointedly. “Can’t have Brother Dempsey see you like that!”

“H-haircut? Brother Dempsey?” Dakotah stuttered. Dakotah instantly became uncomfortable with this idea, since he had longish hair as far back as he could remember.

“Our preacher.” Louise stated, simply. “Need to make you presentable for the job interview tomorrow, too.”

“J-job interview?” Dakotah squeaked. “Already?”

“Got your application all filled out, except your personal info, like your social security number, and stuff like that.” Louise said, confidently. “It’s at eight tomorrow morning, so you’ll have to go to work with me at six, and sit in the lobby until then.”

“Why so soon?” Dakotah said, curious.

“Don’t you want the job, boy?” Louise said, becoming irritated.

“Y-yeah.” Dakotah replied, weakly.

“Gotta get it while you can!” Louise said, forcefully. “You wait a day or two, and it may not be there!”

“O-okay.” Dakotah mumbled, overwhelmed.

“See?” Ralph interjected, tapping Louise on the shoulder. “All safe and sound! Reckon I could get me a reward smoochie?”

Louise gave Ralph a light peck on the lips, and frowned. “No telling what kind of filth you’ve been filling in this boy’s head.” she muttered, and turned to Dakotah. “That’s okay, hon. You’re with real Christians now.”

Dakotah almost asked Louise her opinion of the Christians at New hope, but he held his tongue. An elderly couple stepped outside the house, and made their way to the trio standing at the truck. The man was Dakotah’s height, slightly stooped, thin, with light gray hair tucked underneath a baseball cap, and a matching goatee. The lady was heavyset, her gray hair in a bun. Both smiled broadly at Dakotah.

The man reached out with his hand; Dakotah shook it, unsure, and was instantly surprised at the old man’s strength.

“Hidee, young man!” The elderly man said, smiling warmly. “My name is Len Jones, and this is my wife, Sarah. We’re that varmit’s mama and daddy!”

“Pleased to meet both of you!” Dakotah said pleasantly.

“How was your trip?” Sarah asked. “Are you hungry?”

“It wasn’t too bad.” Dakotah answered simply. “I’m a little hungry. Unk has been keeping me fed.”

“Well, we’ll fatten you up for sure!” Sarah said enthusiastically. “Poor thing’s skin and bones!”

“Sugie, I weren’t much biggern’ him when we got married!” Len said, chuckling. “Remember?”

“You worked yours off, remember?” Sarah rebuked. “Eight hours in the coal mines, then you’d come home and tend to the farm! No offence to you, young man.”

“I heard you are down here to work at Louise’s factory.” Len asked. “Is that right?”

“Yes sir.” Dakotah replied, full of respect. “There are no jobs in Michigan.”

“Ain’t much work down here, either.” Len said, shaking his head. “Coal mines are all shutting down. At least you want to work, that’s better’n a lot of folk.”

“Speakin’ of not wantin’ to work, where’s Dylan?” Ralph said, agitated.

“Inside, playing video games and watching TV, I guess.” Louise shrugged.

“I swear, that boy ain’t worth tits on a boar hog.” Ralph muttered. “Where did he get his laziness from?”

“I recollect you wasn’t much force either, when you was his age.” Len chuckled. “Young man, I’m glad to have you here. I hope you can make a good go of it.”

“Me, too.” Dakotah nodded.

“We’d better get in.” Sarah commanded. “The biscuits are almost done!”

Ralph and Louise’s home was a standard doublewide manufactured home; 56 feet long, 28 feet wide, a dormer in the front, tilting double-paned windows with plastic shutters. As they walked up to the covered wooden porch, Dakotah began to smell food.

“Is that your chicken, Mama?” Ralph asked, breathing deeply.

“Yes, I helped out.” Sarah replied, simply.

“All right!” Ralph cried happily. “Dak boy, you’re in for a treat tonight!”

As they entered the house, leaving Toby outside, the aroma of fried chicken and biscuits engulfed Dakotah; it reminded him of Mama’s at Christmas, and it saddened him a little.

“Go wash up, you two.” Louise ordered. “Dak, what are you drinking? We have cola, sweet tea, and coffee.”

“I guess I’ll try the tea.” Dakotah said.

“Oooohhh, that’s some good stuff right there!” Ralph enthused. “It’ll put hair on your chest!”

“You don’t have hair on your chest.” Louise said, rolling her eyes.

“That’s why I drink mostly coffee!” Ralph said, grinning.

“Don’t let that fool kid you, Dak.” Louise deadpanned. “He drinks it by the gallon, especially in the summer.”

“I guess our son is locked away in his dungeon?” Ralph growled.

“I’ll go tell him supper is ready.” Louise said, as she walked toward the hallway.

The scene reminded Dakotah of the Christmas Eve meal with his mother, Frank, and Frank’s kids, and he felt sorry for Dylan.

Louise returned alone, frowning. “He won’t be joining us for supper.” she said, disappointed. “He’s not feeling well.”

“I think they switched babies at the hospital.” Ralph muttered, bitterly.

“Your father used to say that about you all the time.” Sarah chided sweetly.

“Whatever.” Ralph growled, becoming angry. “Antisocial little-“

“That’s enough.” Louise interrupted, raising her voice. “He’ll figure it out, just like we all had to, just as Dak is now. You certainly didn’t have your act together at 21!”

“At least I didn’t stay cooped up in my room 24/7!” Ralph protested.

“No, you ran around all over the countryside partying, and chasing girls.” Len said, pointedly. “How long did you last at the coal mine, two days?”

“It was three days.” Ralph said, under his breath. “Hey, that job was dangerous!”

“I did it for forty years.” Len said, simply.

“I can’t help that you were lucky!” Ralph protested. The guy I was replacing put twenty years in, then was killed when the roof fell on him!”

“Roof?” Dakotah asked, confused.

“Roof of the hole he was diggin’ out of.” Ralph said, gravely. “One minute he was alive, the next he was dead. Didn’t take much for this ‘ol boy to figure out that wasn’t the life for me.”

“Maybe driving a truck or working in a plastics plant isn’t for him, either.” Louise said, simply. “We’ll just have to be patient, that’s all.”

Ralph remained quiet, and chose to spoon an extra helping of mashed potatoes on his plate, instead.

“Young man, Louis said you were going to save your money, and go to college.” Len said, changing the subject. “Is that right?”

“Yes, sir.” Dakotah replied.

“What are you going to study?” Len asked.

“Meteorology.”

“Oh, are you going to be a weatherman?” Sarah asked, impressed. “How exciting! Do you think you can get a job on TV?”

“Oh, no, I don’t want anything like that!” Dakotah replied, shaking his head. “I just want a job at a National Weather Service office somewhere, hopefully in Michigan.”

“Lot of snow, up there, ain’t there?” Len asked.

“Yes sir, we get quite a bit, well, at least compared to here.” Dakotah said, matter-of-factly. “When we left there, I think there was still six inches of snow on the ground.”

“Goodness.” Sarah said, impressed. “I reckon you all are used to it, ain’t you?”

“Kinda.” Dakotah replied, thinking. “I was getting a little tired of it, though. We had a lot this year.”

“Dakotah, I’m sorry to hear of your grandmother’s passin’.” Sarah said, pensive. “It must’ve been quite a shock.”

“It’s hard to believe she’s gone.” Dakotah lamented. “Heck, it’s hard to believe I’m here. It’s like I’m in a dream.”

Dakotah ate his fill of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits, green beans, cutoff corn, and candied sweet potatoes. He was incredibly impressed by how good it was.

“Whataya think?” Ralph asked, grinning. “Was I right?”

“These are the best vegetables I’ve ever eaten!” Dakotah gushed. “Not even Grandma’s was this good!

“That’s because everything on this table is grown here, except for the chicken, and every once in a while, we get a hen that quit layin’!” Sarah said, proudly.

“Dak, if you’re done, we got some business to care of.” Louise said, straightforwardly. “Just leave your plate, and I’ll take care of it in a little bit.”

Sarah and Len began to clean up. “You all go on.” Sarah said. “We’ll take care of the supper dishes.”

“Just leave them, Mama.” Louise ordered. “You already helped with supper. You two can just go sit down, and rest.”

“Just because I’m 77, don’t mean I have to take it easy!” Sarah blurted, indignant. “I ain’t dead yet!”

“Okay, suit yourself.” Louise acquiesced. “I’ll put up the dishes when I get back. Dak, get your coat. We’ll start outside first.”

Louise, Dakotah, and Ralph, with Toby close behind, walked out to the pole barn. As they approach the service door to the side, a motion detector light over the door illuminated.

“Well, I know where you get your hardheadedness from.” Louise grumbled.

“You ain’t no softshell yourself.” Ralph chuckled.

They entered the pole barn through the service door. It was initially pitch black inside, but Ralph flipped two switches by the door, and instantly, the entire interior was flooded with fluorescent light.

“This is my happy place when I’m home!” Ralph said proudly. “It’s fifty foot long, thirty foot wide, and the rafters are twelve foot up! Got a nice concrete floor, too! Woodworking area is over there, welder is over there, Louise’s crap is over there, there’s my tractor, bush hog, grader blade, and tiller! And this,” he said, as he lifted a blue plastic tarp off a large object, “is yours!”

Sitting before Dakotah was a dark green 1987 Ford Escort. It was obvious that it, up to now, had lived a hard existence. The entire body was an assortment of dents and rust. The tires on it were in good shape, but none of them were of the same brand. The interior was either stained or torn, and a crack crossed most of the lower quarter of the windshield.

“She ain’t much, but she’s free!” Ralph said, his voice showing a false enthusiasm. “Fire it up, Dak! Keys are inside!”

Dakotah gingerly climbed inside the car. Hanging from the rear view mirror was a black tree air freshener; the strong scent disgusted him, and it made him cough. He pressed on the brake, and turned the ignition key. There was a clicking sound underneath the car, but the engine failed to turn over.

“Well, hell, the battery’s down again.” Ralph cursed. “Just put a new one in a couple of weeks ago. Probably a drain on it caused by a short. Ain’t been driven for a week. Hang on, let me jump it.”

“Are you sure this thing is safe?” Louise asked, becoming concerned.

“Sure it is, or I wouldn’t a bought it!” Ralph said, indignant. “Brakes work good, and it ain’t got no gas leaks!” He attached a battery charger to the battery, and turned the switch of the charger to “jump”.

“Hey, Dak, open the big door!” Ralph ordered. “Don’t want the fumes to get us!”

Dakotah, with a little direction from Louise, opened the sliding bay door. Toby ran outside, and sniffed something on the ground.

“Get on over here, and try ‘er again!” Ralph shouted enthusiastically. “It oughta be charged good enough now!”

Dakotah once again entered the car, pressed on the brake, and turned the ignition. This time, after a few revolutions, the engine came to life, engulfing everyone in a cloud of blue smoke.

“Ralph Jones, you bought a piece of junk!” Louise cried, aghast. “How is Dak supposed to use this to get to work?”

“It ain’t as bad as it looks!” Ralph said, defensively. “Just some leaky valve seals, it’ll clear up in here in a minute!”

A moment later, Ralph’s prediction came true, as the smoke mostly stopped, though some still exited the tailpipe whenever Dakotah revved the engine lightly.

“Tomorrow, after your interview, we’ll have to go make you legal in Kentucky, and show you around some more.” Ralph said, matter-of-factly.

“When I get home from work, we’re going shopping for you some proper clothes, too.” Louise said, simply.

That news gladdened Dakotah, for although he was grateful for his clothes from New Hope, they didn’t fit all that well, and they looked as if they had been in a closet somewhere for thirty years.

The three humans and Toby walked back to the house; Toby tried to lick Dakotah’s hand, which unnerved Dakotah a little but he quickly realized Toby simply wanted to play. Dakotah scratched behind Toby’s ears, and the delighted German Shepherd jumped around, barked, and wagged his tail.

“I think you got yourself a buddy.” Ralph said, smiling.

“He is friendly, isn’t he?” Dakotah said, surprised. “Is he really a guard dog?”

“He’ll raise a ruckus whenever someone he doesn’t know pulls up.” Louise said, nodding. “Thank the Lord, never had to see if he would attack someone to defend me, but I think he would. He’s very intelligent. Some days, I think he’s smarter than Ralph! That’s not saying much, though!”

“Ha, you’re almost as funny as you are good lookin!” Ralph said, grinning, as Louise swatted him.

Toby took to his bed on the porch as Dakotah, Louise, and Ralph went inside. Sarah and Len had completely washed and put away the dishes, causing Louise to sigh in frustration.

“I reckon we’ll be getting’ on home. Nice meeting you, Dakotah.” Sarah said, as she hugged him. “You’ll have to come over and have supper with us, sometime.”

“Thank you.” Dakotah said, smiling. “That would be great!”

“Nice meeting you, young man.” Len said, as he shook Dakotah’s hand. The grip of Len’s handshake was strong enough to make Dakotah wince. “I think you’ll come to love it here as much as we do.”

“I hope so.” Dakotah replied politely, though in the back of his mind, he’d rather have been in Michigan.

After Len and Sarah left, Louise turned to Dakotah. “Want to see your room?” she said, pleasantly.

“Sure.” Dakotah said, yawning.

They walked through the living room, and entered the hallway. “This is the bathroom.” Louise said, simply. “When we go shopping tomorrow, I’ll get you some shampoo, deodorant, razor blades, and shaving cream, and anything else you need.”

“Cool.” Dakotah replied.

“The room on the right is Dylan’s.” Louise said, pointing. “Here’s yours on the left.”

Louise opened the door, and turned on the light switch. It was furnished simply; a full sized bed with a plain headboard, matching four drawer chest, and a nightstand with a reading lamp and an alarm clock. A ceiling fan with three lights hung from the sloped ceiling, and to the side, a door to a small walk-in closet. A cheap berber carpet covered the floor, and the cream colored walls were bare, save for a small cross over the headboard. All in all, the relative emptiness of the room made it appear huge.

“These are also yours, Dak.” Louise said. She pulled a couple of items out of the nightstand drawer, and handed them to Dakotah.

“You bought me a phone?” Dakotah exclaimed, looking over a small flip phone. “Cool!”

“It’s a “pay as you go” phone.” Louise explained. “You get 200 minutes a month base time, plus after 9PM and weekends free. We paid for the first month; once you get working, you’re responsible for paying for your own minutes. Got it?”

“That’s fine.” Dakotah nodded. He gasped as he plucked the other item out of Louise’s hand. It was a Scofield Bible, with his name embossed on the cover, exactly like the one his Grandmother bought him. He began to tear up. “You couldn’t have gotten me anything better, Aunt Lou! I’ll put it to good use!”

“I reckon I’ma gonna go get me a shower.” Ralph said, yawning.

“Not yet you ain’t!” Louise barked. “I have to give Dakotah a haircut first!”

“Why do I have to get a haircut again?” Dakotah whined, confused.

“To look presentable to the church!” Louise said, impatiently.

“Why should they care what I look like?” Dakotah protested. “As long as I’m saved, that should be all that matters!”

“Dakotah, my church is very conservative.” Louise said, firmly. “Someone with long hair would cause a lot of friction amongst the congregation. Besides, you want to look good for your interview tomorrow, don’t you?”

Dakotah frowned, and pondered Louise’s words. “Besides, what barber shop is open at this hour on a Sunday?”

“Don’t need one.” Louise stated, full of confidence. “I have everything here.”

“You’re going to cut my hair?” Dakotah blurted, shocked.

“Sure. Done it for years.” Louise asserted. “Not too bad at it, either.” She took a chair from the dining room, and turned it around. “Here. Sit.”

Dakotah looked at Ralph worriedly. Ralph smiled, and gave Dakotah two thumbs up.

“She ain’t drawed blood on me yet!” Ralph laughed. “Honey, just don’t cut it as short as mine. He may look better that way.”

Louise wrapped a towel around Dakotah’s neck as soon as he sat down. Almost immediately, Louise began to cut huge swaths of hair off Dakotah’s head, causing him to wince. The hair cascaded to the floor like an ash colored waterfall.

“I don’t know why you boys always make a fuss.” Louise chided.

Dakotah once again wished he was still in Michigan.

Ten minutes later, Louise set her clippers down. “Ahhh, that’s much better.” she said, pulling the towel off Dakotah with a shake.

Louise pointed to a picture mirror hanging in the living room. “See?”

Dakotah saw a stranger looking back at him. One with a huge nose, and ears that stuck out.

Dakotah sighed. “I’m getting my shower now.”

“Don’t use all the hot water!” Ralph yelled.

Dakotah gathered his sleeping clothes, and trundled off to the bathroom.

Dakotah turned on the water to the shower; the water had a hint of a sulfur smell to it. He pumped three squirts of shampoo out of a bottle, and when he realized he had pumped far too much for the amount of hair he now had, it depressed him.

After Dakotah finished his shower, he looked at himself in the medicine cabinet mirror. Once again, the view dismayed him. He thought he looked a little like his grandfather, if only in the eyes.

Dakotah dressed and left the bathroom. Standing in the hallway was a young man; a little taller than Dakotah, a little heavier, dark greasy hair that was over the ears, dark eyes, and a thin goatee.

Dakotah was taken aback for a split second, but gathered himself quickly. “Hi, you must be Dylan.” he said, with a trace of nervousness. “I’m Dakotah, but you can call me Dak.”

“Hey.” was all Dylan muttered, as he stepped into the bathroom.

“That’s Mr. Congeniality.” Ralph growled.

“He’s a little shy, but he’ll warm up to you in no time, I’m sure.” Louise said, confidently.

“Why is his hair longer? Dakotah said, confused. “And a goatee? I thought your church didn’t like that stuff!”

“He doesn’t go to church, I’m afraid.” Louise said, sadly. “I’ve been praying for him, just the same.”

“Can’t say I blame the boy on that one.” Ralph said, shaking his head.

“You stay out of this, Ralph Jones!” Louise shouted angrily. “If anyone needs Jesus in their life, it’s you!”

“Why would I go down there and listen to that squawkbox holler about the world’s comin’ to an end, and I’m goin’ to Hell if I don’t get right with Jesus?” Ralph shouted back. “He’s said the same dang thing for the past twenty years, and the world ain’t ended yet!”

“Someday, he’ll be right, and it’ll be too late for you, you old sinner!” Louise retorted.

“Ain’t no way!” Ralph countered. “I’m a goin’ to heaven!”

“Not acting like the fool you are, you’re not!” Louise sniped.

“I-I don’t mean to interrupt,” Dakotah said, gingerly, “but what time do I need to get up in the morning?”

“I usually get up at 4 AM, but I have a couple of chores to do.” Louise said, calming down. “I guess 4:30 is fine?”

“Okay.” Dakotah said, saddened somewhat by the fact that he had to get up early again, though he tried not to let it show. “I guess I’m going to my room now. See you in the morning.”

“Dak, holler at me on the home phone with your cell when you get done at work.” Ralph said. “I’ll pick you up, and we can get your driver’s license and stuff.”

“I guess I need to write your phone number down.” Dakotah said, simply.

“I already have all our numbers stored in your contacts, Dak.” Louise said.

“Cool.” Dakotah nodded. “Good night, then.”

“’Night, Dak boy.” Ralph said.

“Oh!” Dakotah remembered. “Thanks for everything!”

“Glad you finally made it down here with us!” Louise said, cheerfully. “Goodnight!”

Dakotah set the alarm on the clock for 4:15, and got in bed. He flipped open the flip phone, and wondered if Rev. Daniels was done with church yet. He was unsure, so he figured he would take his chances with Ely. Taking a deep breath, he dialed her cell phone. After several rings, it went to voicemail. Saddened, he left a message. “Hi, it’s me. Hope you’re doing okay. I go to my job interview tomorrow. I have a decent room, and a beat up old car. And this cell phone. I miss you so much! Love you, ‘bye.”

Dakotah exhaled, and wondered if she would call him back. It only took a couple of minutes to call Ely and leave a message, so he decided to call his mother instead of Rev. Daniels. He dialed her cell phone as he rubbed his now shortened hair with his free hand. It rang a couple of times before his mother answered with an unsure “Hello?”.

“Hi, mom, it’s me.” Dakotah said, relieved that Frank didn’t pick up. “I’m here at Aunt Lou’s and Unk’s now.”

“Sweetie!” Sylvia exclaimed. “I’m happy to hear from you! How was the trip?”

“Exhausting.” Dakotah said, realizing his fatigue. “I have to go to sleep soon. I have my job interview in the morning.”

“That’s great!” Sylvia gushed. “I hope they hire you!”

“I hope so, too.” Dakotah said, simply. “Are you doing okay?”

“Same as always.” Sylvia grumbled. “Babysitting Voldemort.”

Dakotah chuckled, but he also felt sad for his mother. “I probably need to go.” he said, yawning. “I’m pretty wore out.”

“I’m glad you called, Dak.” Sylvia said, kindly. “I love you.”

“Love you too.” Dakotah said, warmly. “I’ll keep you updated.”

“That’s good. ‘Bye.”

“Bye.” Dakotah exhaled. He felt it odd that he actually missed his mother. He decided to try Rev. Daniels at home, since it was getting close to 8 PM, and he figured that he would be home by then. The phone rang four times, then went to the answering machine.

“Hi, it’s Dak.” Dakotah spoke. “I made it down here. This is from my cell phone. I’m going to my job interview tomorrow. I’ll call tomorrow with an update. I miss you guys! ‘Bye.”

Dakotah exhaled, frustrated. On a whim, he decided to call the church. On the second ring, the phone picked up. “Hello?” answered a familiar voice.

“Mama!” shouted an excited Dakotah. “It’s me! Dakotah!”

“Oh, honey!” Mama exclaimed. “Are you down there yet?”

“I made it!” Dakotah said, happy to hear a familiar voice. “I’m calling from the cell phone they gave me! I have a job interview tomorrow!”

“That’s real nice, Dakotah!” Mama said, thrilled. “Do you want to talk to Brother Alan? He’s right here!”

“Yes, please!” Dakotah gushed. “I’m so glad to talk to you, Mama! I miss you!”

“Miss you too, honey!” Mama said, warmly. “Here he is!”

“I see you made it safe and sound, young man!” Rev. Daniels said, warmly. “How are you?”

“I’m okay, I guess.” Dakotah replied, as he took a deep breath. “Exhausted from the trip. I’m sorry I didn’t see you guys before I left!”

“Couldn’t be helped.” Rev. Daniels stated, sympathetically.

“Where’s Ely?” Dakotah asked, anxious. “I called her cell and the home phone, but no one answered.”

“That’s odd.” Rev. Daniels said, puzzled. “She’s home. Maybe she’s in the bathroom?”

“Makes sense.” Dakotah said, his concerns subsided somewhat, but not completely. “Oh, I’m going for my job interview at the plastics plant tomorrow.”

“Great! Already?” Rev. Daniels said, surprised. “You haven’t filled out an application yet, have you?”

“Aunt Lou did it for me.” Dakotah said, slightly irritated. “I’m not sure about this place. Unk seems to think it’s not run very well.”

“Well, you’re not there for the long term.” Rev. Daniels reassured. “You’re just there for tuition money, right? Maybe, and I mean maybe, things will pick up here, and with your work experience down there, you could get a job up here, and save your money up here. Just a thought, so don’t get your hopes up about coming back soon.”

“That’d be awesome!” Dakotah enthused, ignoring Rev. Daniels’ last words. He rubbed his short hair. “Oh, guess what. Aunt Lou gave me a haircut.”

“Why? Rev. Daniels asked, curious. “So you’d presentable for the interview?”

“Kinda, but mainly for her church.” Dakotah grumbled. “Apparently, they don’t care for people with long hair.”

“Some churches are strict that way, though I don’t believe short hair will get you into Heaven.” Rev. Daniels said, confidently.

“I don’t think so, either.” Dakotah said, in agreement.

“As long as the messages from that church are true to what the Spirit tells you, and the people are good, I wouldn’t worry about it.” Rev. Daniels advised. “How do you look?”

“Weird.” Dakotah said, as he rolled his eyes. “My nose is twice as big now, and my ears stick out!”

Rev. Daniels laughed. “You’ll get used to it, I hope!”

“I’d better go now.” Dakotah said, sadly, as he looked at the alarm clock. “I only have 200 minutes on this phone plan.”

“I’m glad you called, Dak.” Rev. Daniels said, contentedly. “Keep me updated, okay? Just a minute or two here and there. Letters are good, too, just a thought.”

“I will.” Dakotah said, forlornly. “I miss you guys.”

“I miss you too.” Rev. Daniels said, heartfelt. “Be well. I’m praying for you.”

“Tell Ely I said hi, and I miss her!” Dakotah blurted.

“I will.” Rev. Daniels comforted.

“’Bye.” Dakotah said, and after Rev. Daniels replied in kind, he closed the phone. He was so excited by talking to Rev. Daniels and Mama, and frustrated that he couldn’t talk to Ely, even though he was exhausted, he was unable to go to sleep. He picked up the Scofield, and began to read The Acts from the beginning. Fifteen minutes later, he was fast asleep.