“Where ya’ headed?” the truck driver asked her as she opened up the passenger door.
“Anywhere but here,” She said as she looked up at him from underneath her damp sweatshirt, her determined eyes asking for the ride she hoped he could give her.
“Well, hop on in. It’s too cold out for a small thing like you to be standing there freezin’.” The old man in the driver’s seat adjusted his tattered Yankees’ cap on his head and put the truck into gear as the girl climbed up next to him and slammed the door shut. Though the cabbie of the truck was already warm, he turned the heat up and and pointed the vents towards her.
“Thank you,” she said quietly as she buckled her seat belt.
“There’s a coat, if you reach behind the seat, it’ll keep you warmer than that wet jacket of yours.” He directed her.
She took her wet cover off and put the warm down coat on over her shivering body.
She nodded thank you.
“What’s your name?” He asked as he merged back onto the road.
“Delta, just Delta,” She answered.
“Well, if you’d like to stay for the long haul, this rig is headed across the country and we should be to the West Coast in about a week. Otherwise, I can drop you off anywhere between here and there.”
“The further the better.” Delta replied. She sat there silently for a bit before she asked, “What should I call you?”
“Ace, you can call me Ace, been my name since the 50s,” he replied, a faraway look in his eyes from a memory dark and distant.
“What, were you a pilot or something?” Delta asked him.
“Something like that.”
“Were you any good?” Delta asked with a raised eyebrow.
“I didn’t get the name ‘Ace’ from working in a mess hall.” He replied with a chuckle.
“So you were in the…” Delta couldn’t think of what war was at that time.
“Korean War, fought in the Korean War.” Ace replied. “But that was a lifetime ago.”
Delta got quiet thinking of what that lifetime ago must have been like.
“So, what’s your story, Delta?” he asked her, pulling her out of her reverie.
“Me? I don’t have much of a story. Just a wanderer.”
“How old are you?” Ace asked, glancing at her and noticing her very young features and the noticeable bruise on her left cheek.
Delta saw his glance and tried to put the hood up over her head to cover her bruise up, but he’d already seen it.
“I’m eighteen. I didn’t runaway, well, I kind of did, but not from anywhere I’m going to be missed.” She said with bitterness in her voice.
“Okay, that’s it. No, I should go back to my family. No, you’re being irresponsible.”
“Nope, not my place to judge. I’m just here to give you a ride. And have some friendly conversation on this long stretch of highway. Do you have family anywhere else?”
“Not really. Not that I know of. My mom left when I was a baby. My dad….” Delta trailed off. “I’ve been living with my dad’s friend, until he showed back up recently. But well, like I said, life anywhere but here is good.”
Ace nodded, keeping his eyes on the road. Rain had started to fall again and he turned the wipers on. They made a squeaking sound across the windshield as they swiped the drops of water away. Delta watched them with almost hypnotic fascination. The sun was already setting and Ace let her know that it would soon be time to stop for the night.
“Getting hungry?” He asked.
Delta had tried to ignore her growling stomach, but gave in and nodded affirmatively.
“Well, gonna stop up here at this diner up the way a few more miles. It’s my normal stop and then we will stay the night here. I have an extra bunk in this here semi you can sleep on. It’s not too shabby, but it’ll be warmer then sleeping on a bus bench or under the freeway.”
“Thank you, Ace.” Delta said and was quiet for the rest of the ride into the little town. A bright green and pink neon sign hung above a building, lit up with the name “Florence’s Diner.” They pulled into a giant parking lot lined with many other similar rigs.
“You’ll like Flo, she’s a good soul.” Ace said as he stopped the truck and nodded to her to hop out. She reached for her bag to take with her.
“Oh, looks like the gang’s all here.” Ace commented as he saw a few familiar trucks already parked near them next to the small diner.
“Flo set this place up for us truckers to stop and eat and sleep for the night. Go ahead and leave your stuff. It won’t get taken.” Ace said, noticing she had already picked her bag up and carried it out of the truck. She put it back reluctantly and shut the door, following him into the diner, her hands stuffed deep into the big coat pockets.
“Hey, Ace,” called a voice from the middle of the room where a group of truckers sat around a big round table. “Come take a seat. Dick quit snoozin’, Ace is here.” The small man who spoke sat next to a man with hands clasped over a big pot belly, eyes closed made a small snort and opened his eyes.
“What’s up? Oh hey, Ace.” Said the big man with the Santa like face and beard.
“Thought you wasn’t gonna be on this loop, Ace. Weren’t you retirin’? Gettin’ up there in years ain’t ya’” The same short man next to him asked.
“Sorry to disappoint you, Dale, you still can’t have my run. And if I’m getting up there, you should be using a walker by now.”
The man mumbled some half-irritated response and chuckled.
“Well, you gonna join us for supper or not?” he asked Ace with a lopsided grin.
“In a minute, Dale, hold your horses.” Ace replied.
“Who’s the girl?” Asked another man, who looked like the mirror replica of the guy sitting next to him.
“Well, Elwin, this is a friend I’m giving a ride to. Guys, this is Delta.”
Delta looked at the inquisitive, yet kind faces staring back at her. Taking her hood off, she tucked a strand of her dirty brown hair behind her ear and gave a small wave to the group.
“This is the guys,” Ace said as he introduced the bunch around the table, starting with the small man to the left. “This is Dale, he’s our resident historian, careful what you say, cause once you get him started…there is no off switch.” Ace then pointed to the man who looked like Santa Claus, “That’s Dick, but we like to call him St. Nick and not just ‘cause he looks like St. Nick, but he’s been delivering toys all of his life and makes all the kiddies happy at Christmas in a totally non-creepy way.”
Delta smiled a bit at this, the corners of her mouth turning up and trying to stifle her laugh. Ace smiled and continued, “These are the twins, Elwin and Albin, they drive one truck. Elwin can’t drive at night, so Albin takes over. If you get Albin to talk, you get $50 bucks, none of us have been able to thus far.” Elwin waved his hand and gave a “Hullo, little lady.” Albin sat there and nodded barely imperceptibly.
“Enough with the introductions, we’re starvin’ and ready to order,” Dale said impatiently.
“Well now, who’s this?” Came a cheerful voice from behind Delta.
“Hello, Flo,” Ace said as the happy older looking woman walked up to them, her heavy Southern accent and big smile greeting Delta.
“I brought a friend with me,” Ace said again, “Delta this is Flo, Flo, this is Delta. Flo, I want you to feed her all the good ol’ down home cookin’ you have.”
“You got it, Ace,” Florence answered with a smile. “You just all take a seat. Have the guys finished their bantering long enough to order?” She asked Ace with a chuckle.
“Don’t know,” Ace said with a wink as he brought an extra chair over to the table and held it out for Delta, before sitting down himself.
Delta watched as each man laughed and talked with Flo, who took a pencil from behind her ear and took their orders. She had a warmth about her that made Delta think she probably made the best granny or great aunt in the world. She had thick black hair that was just beginning to be a peppered with grey, tied up in a tight bun on the top of her head. Her eyes were deep brown and filled with a gentle kindness.
“Thank you,” Delta turned quietly to Ace. “I don’t have much,” Delta said as she pulled out a small fold of bills from her pocket.
“No, no, you put that away,” Ace said, “Dinner’s on me, for the rest of the trip.”
“You don’t have to do that.” Delta said, blown away.
“I know.” Ace replied, squeezing her cold shaking hands.
“Thank you,” Delta replied.
Dinner came quickly and the table filled with more food than Delta had ever seen before. Her eyes went wide as Flo placed a tall glass of milk and the biggest plate she had ever seen in front of her, filled with mashed potatoes, fried chicken and corn on the cob.
Delta lost all sense of propriety and ate hungrily, her last meal having been the night before.
“Slow down, child,” Dale piped up from across the table. “Don’t want to have to squeeze a chicken bone out of ya’. It’ll all still be there, don’t rush. You’ll enjoy it more.” Dale said with a heartwarming smile, surprising the rest in the group, who were used to his more surly sarcastic manner.
The men exchanged glances of care and concern for the young girl sitting with them. Ace had always brought his “strays” around on occasion as they called them. This looked to be his latest cause and they’d all willingly end up pitching in to give him something to him to give her when she left to whatever her next destination was.
The guys laughed and chuckled as Elwin related the latest in their last trip. Albin being not the talkative type, had had presented a few problems at their last drop off when the man receiving their load had tried to communicate with him. Elwin mumbled a few words about newbie, not the normal guy, and kids these days and just shook his head.
When the meal was finished, Flo brought them large cups of coffee and giant slices of apple pie.
“So Delta, where you headed?” she asked, putting a comforting hand on Delta’s shoulder. Delta jumped at her touch.
“I’m…going to see family…in…on the West Coast.” She half lied.
Ace looked at her, sadness in his eyes, but understood. Everyone had seen the shiner on her face and her jumpiness and knew that where she was going would probably be better than where she was coming from.
Dick passed a card over to her through Elwin and Albin. “If you need anything out there, my sister lives in California. She’s near Los Angeles. Feel free to call her. Just tell her Dick sent you. She’s got a spare room you can crash on it if you ever need to.”
Dick’s sister, Ellen, had been helping Ace with his “strays” for the last twenty years now.
“You should call her,” Dick said to Ace with a wink. “I can give you another card.”
Ace just shook his head and turned away. “That ship sailed long ago.” And had no more to say on the matter.
“Well, boys, it’s time I turned in for the night,” Dale said, the first to get up from the table. “Delta, it was very nice to meet you. I probably won’t see you at breakfast. I’m already behind schedule as it is and gotta get out of here much too early in the morning. So, I shall bid you all good night and good luck.” Dale said with a tip of his hat. He looked over at Albin with a wry smirk, “Albin, it’s okay, you don’t need to say good night.”
Albin looked at him with dark twinkling eyes from above his coffee cup and with two fingers, saluted him good night.
Delta nodded and quietly bid him good night. The men left at the table kept talking into the late hours of the night. Delta eventually went over to a booth to lay down. She listened to them talk until she fell asleep to the sound of their voices which had a soothing and comforting cadence. It was very different from where she had come from, where she almost never could sleep with the loud shouting that had always surrounded her and filled her nights.
For the first time she felt safe and she could feel a small spark of happiness and freedom slowly filling up her heart. She had a smile on her face as her chest rose and fell peacefully to her even breaths. Flo found her lying on the booth seat and put a small blanket over her, knowing the guys could be there for another few hours chatting the night away as they always did.
Photo: Source Unknown
Song Inspiration: Delta Dawn by Helen Reddy