The Santa Claus on I-40
The wipers struggled to push the heavy, wet snowflakes off the windshield while they kept rhythm to Wllie Nelson singing "On the Road Again."
Trint hit the eject button on the tape player. He'd heard that song four times in the last two hours and was sick of it. He shrugged his aching shoulders trying to shake off the miles. It was still a long way to Memphis, a storm was blowing in and Interstate 40 was getting hazardous.
In the distance, Trint spotted the welcome glow of lights at a truck stop and decided to pull off the road and grab a bite to eat while he waited to see if the weather would break or turn into an icy blizzard that would shut down the roads until morning.
He eased his orange Freightliner and fifty?three-foot-long trailer into an empty spot and shut it down. He was hauling a heavy load of tires to Nashville, and after that he was picking up a load in Baltimore and heading to Chicago.
He reached for his jacket and hesitated when he saw the box on the passenger seat. His mother had been worried about him spending Christmas on the road alone and had given him a box filled with presents. He smiled; his mom still treated him like he was a kid. He looked at his watch. It was nearly midnight on Christmas Eve, so he might as well open his gifts now
Trint tore open the box and found a warm flannel shirt, probably blue. It was hard to tell in the dim light, but his mom knew his favorite color was blue. There were some heavy socks and leather gloves. Mom was always fussing over him and worrying her youngest son would get cold. There were homemade cookies and fudge and a red stocking with Santa Claus on it. He reached into the stocking and pulled out a toy tractor trailer that looked a lot like his rig and wondered how many stores his mother had to go to before she found such a close match.
His eyes stung. Next month he'd be twenty?five years old. He was a man. Men didn't cry over cookies and a toy truck or because they were a thousand miles away from home on Christmas.
He climbed out of his cab and a cold blast of air hit him in the chest like a fist. He pulled his collar up and ran across the parking lot to the all?night cafe. He was tall and thin and without much meat on his bones to protect him from the cold. Inside, it was warm and cozy. A dozen truckers were spread out at the counter and tables. A man and woman and small boy were huddled in a booth, and they looked tired and unhappy.
Trint felt sorry for the boy. He looked like he was around eight years old, and no kid should have to spend Christmas Eve in a truck stop. The parents were loading up on coffee and Trint guessed they'd been driving somewhere to spend the holidays with relatives, and the snow forced them to hole up here. They were drinking coffee hoping to stay awake so they could finish their trip if the weather cleared up.
"It's so cold outside, I was spitting ice cubes," a fat trucker at the counter said, and the others laughed.
A cute waitress with blonde hair offered Trint a menu.
"I'll have biscuits and gravy . . . ," he said.
"And iced tea with lemon," she finished the order for him. You're the only trucker around here who doesn't drink coffee. She smiled and didn't seem in a hurry to leave.
"I'm surprised you remember me." Trint returned her smile.
"How could I ever forget those beautiful brown eyes and your country accent?" she asked, hoping he would guess that she watched for him every time a truck pulled in.
"Well, I remember you, too," he grinned. "You want to be schoolteacher, I think you said first or second grade, you're putting yourself through college by working here at night and your name is Melinda."
"You do remember!" she said, liking the soft way he said her name. Color flushed her cheeks and she hurried off into the kitchen.
Funny how truckers picked up bits and pieces of other people's lives. He looked across the room. Some of the truckers' faces looked familiar but he didn't know any of heir names. He might see them again tomorrow at another truck stop, or never see them again. Sometimes he job seemed awfully lonely. Trint liked driving a truck, he liked seeing new places and he liked the good pay, but sometimes, like tonight, he felt lonesome and wondered if this was really the life for him.
He missed his family. His mom raised four kids by herself on a forty?acre farm in Missouri but no matter how scarce money was, she'd always made sure they had a good Christmas. He thought about his box of gifts in the truck.
He looked at the kid again and knew what he had to do. He forced himself back into the bone?chilling cold outside to walk to his truck. He grabbed the Christmas stocking out of the cab and hurried back to the warmth of the cafe.
He walked to the booth where the family sat in weary silence.
"I think Santa Claus left this for you," Trint said and handed the red stocking to the boy.
The boy looked at his mother. She hesitated just a second and nodded. The boy eagerly reached out and took the stocking and dug inside.
"Wow! Mom, look! A big rig just like the real ones outside!" His crooked grin lit up the whole room.
"Tell Santa . . . well, tell him thanks," the boy's father said and shook Trint's hand long and hard. The mother smiled gratefully.
Trint returned to the counter and ate his biscuits and gravy. He gave the waitress a twenty?dollar tip and told her merry Christmas. She said the money was too much, but he told her to use it to buy some books for school, and she took it and slipped him a piece of paper.
"Take good care of yourself," she said. "And hurry back."
"I will . . . Melinda," he promised and noticed she had the bluest eyes he'd ever seen.
Trint walked outside. It had stopped snowing and a handful of stars sparkled through a break in the clouds.
There was a tap on the window behind him and he turned to look. It was the boy. He was holding up the truck and laughing. Trint waved good?bye, and the boy waved back.
Trint felt good. Somewhere along the road tomorrow he'd call home and talk to his brothers and kid sister. He'd tell his mom about giving the toy to the kid. She'd like that.
Trint reached his truck and stopped. Somebody had written "Merry X?mas," in the snow on his windshield and hung a candy cane on his side mirror. He wondered if it was Melinda or the boy or one of the truckers.
He started up his engine and felt the roar and power as he slowly pulled up to the road. Soon the snowplows would be out and clear the Interstate, but right now the road stretched out like a silver ribbon.
A quiet peace filled Trint's heart. He was lucky guy. He had a job he loved, Melinda's phone number in his pocket, clear weather and miles of open road ahead.
He wasn't tired anymore, or lonely. He loved this life and he wouldn't change a thing.