Eric Barnes

Counting Trucks

When I was six years old, I found a ten dol­lar bill under­neath the cush­ions of the couch. I gave it to my moth­er of course, know­ing, I was sure, that it was some sort of prize. A treat that held so much promise of some­thing fun that would hap­pen for her or me or my broth­er.

She told me many years lat­er that the ten dol­lar bill was all the mon­ey we had that week. That she bought food with it. That she fed me and my broth­er and her­self.

It’s decep­tive to tell the sto­ry that way. It’s not as if my old­er broth­er and I would not have eat­en if I hadn’t found that ten dol­lar bill. There were cans and box­es in the cab­i­net. My moth­er would get paid soon.

And my moth­er had fam­i­ly. Her broth­ers and sis­ters and her moth­er and father.

We went to their hous­es all the time. We played there. Often, we ate din­ner there.

• •

In my ear­li­est mem­o­ries, my broth­er and I live with our moth­er in an apart­ment com­plex on the edge of Tacoma. William and I play in a large, deep ditch that’s been dug at one end of the com­plex, a ditch where more apart­ments are about to be built.

Some days, after we’ve been play­ing, we look under the cush­ions on the couch to find coins so that we can walk to the 7–11 a few blocks away to get drinks and can­dy.

By the time we are in kinder­garten and first grades, we’ve moved to a small house near the school, and my broth­er and I walk each morn­ing. It is six blocks or so to Sherman Elementary and we walk it togeth­er.

It is a neigh­bor­hood of very small hous­es, some of them not very nice, with cars being worked on in dri­ve­ways and boats on trail­ers parked on front lawns.

We know every house along the way, it seems. Every bush you could hide in. Every house with a dog that would lunge at the fence. Every mean adult who would yell at you if you even stepped near their lawn.

There is a house that for sale for awhile and I remem­ber my broth­er and I talk about how our dad could maybe move there. And then he wouldn’t live so far away.

For the most part when I was a kid, I saw my dad only a cou­ple times a year.

• •

When my dad was in town, we’d often dri­ve up to Seattle to see his broth­er, which meant we’d play the game where we count­ed trucks.

Got it, pulling the trail­er,” I say. “Twenty-nine.”

I remem­ber that Friday, dri­ving to Seattle in the gray rain, me and William and my dad count­ing trucks. Cars and trucks push­ing toward us on the south­bound side of the free­way, hit­ting the shal­low pools of water on the pave­ment and splash­ing the water into the grass in the medi­an and the grass along­side the road, the big, fast semi’s some­times send­ing high arcs of white water as far as the dark woods past the shoul­der.

Got it, green, with the hay,” William is say­ing. “Thirty-one.” He is lean­ing for­ward from the back seat, the knees of his small body on the edge of the pas­sen­ger seat, his fore­head and hands almost touch­ing the rearview mir­ror.

It’s 1974 and no one wears a seat­belt.

My dad rolls down the win­dow and throws a cig­a­rette butt into the wet air. He takes the plas­tic-cov­ered pack of Winstons from his shirt pock­et, slides out anoth­er cig­a­rette and lights it, the smoke rolling slow­ly against the inside of the wind­shield.

We count semi’s pulling cut tim­ber. Pick-ups and flat beds car­ry­ing yel­low fork­lifts, rust­ed boil­ers, bun­dles of gray-black wire.

Got it, car­ry­ing the cement,” William says from behind me, near my ear. “Twenty-two.”

The three of us would all stare ahead, ready to count, try­ing to get the most trucks by the time we reach Seattle. Pick-ups and semi’s are allowed, but my broth­er and I insist vans and bus­es aren’t real trucks. Jeeps aren’t trucks. Tow trucks aren’t trucks. No one ever asks why.

Got it, blue. Got it, green,” William yells. “Twenty-four, twen­ty-five.”

There is again and again the slide and hit as the wind­shield wipers kick in front of us.

We’ve already talked about school and how we’ve been since we last saw my dad in the spring. Now we aren’t talk­ing much. We watch the road. We count.

And as I remem­ber it, we were hap­py, all of us, just to play our game.

Got it, blue on the over­pass,” I yell, lean­ing for­ward against the dash­board. “Twenty-nine.”

It wasn’t per­pen­dic­u­lar to us,” William yells.

Only trucks dri­ving per­pen­dic­u­lar to us or dri­ving in the oppo­site direc­tion of us are allowed. Another rule.

William touch­es my arm with­out look­ing, says quick­ly, so even­ly, “Dad’s los­ing now.”

William is just two years old­er than me, but he remem­bers when our par­ents lived togeth­er. I don’t remem­ber that at all and it’s hard for me to pic­ture.

Thinking back, William often talked to me about dad when the three of us were togeth­er, talk­ing about him in the third per­son, using dad’s name as if he weren’t there.

Dad is tak­ing us to Seattle,” William would say. “Dad is los­ing the game now. Dad, he has to leave.”

• •

There was a restau­rant called Gordon’s that my broth­er and me would go to with my mom, a fast food place where we’d sit on the hard plas­tic bench­es with the table between us and it’d be dark out­side, rain­ing, late at night after she’d got­ten home from work.

I real­ize now that my moth­er went to Gordon’s when she was in junior high, leav­ing Mason Junior High across the street to go to Gordon’s for lunch and prob­a­bly on the week­ends, because she only lived a few blocks away.

You real­ize that now, when you’re old­er and maybe you make too much of it, how she goes there as a kid, then takes her kids there lat­er.

We’d get home from Gordon’s and after awhile me and my broth­er would go to bed but often my mom would stay up watch­ing our big black and white Zenith tele­vi­sion in the liv­ing room, lying on the couch and cov­ered up in a big pink blan­ket. Sometimes when I got up in the morn­ing the blan­ket was still there and she’d slept there that night and to think about it now, I have to remem­ber that she was maybe 26 then, sin­gle and with­out much mon­ey and back in her home­town, a city she’d left and returned to only after she got divorced. She was sad, prob­a­bly, and lone­ly, and shocked that her mar­riage had failed and unsure what she would do next, no col­lege edu­ca­tion and these two boys to take care of.

Three years lat­er, my broth­er would move away to live with my dad.

Ten years lat­er, I would move to Virginia, a place, I often announced, that was as far away from Tacoma as I could find.

I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly feel great about how all this worked out for her.

• •

On week­ends we go with my mom to my Auntie Debbie’s house, William and me play­ing with Debbie’s younger daugh­ter while Debbie and my mom talk. My mom and Debbie sit at the kitchen table and have drinks while me and my broth­er and Debbie’s daugh­ter drink cans of diet pop. Pop with fla­vors like grape­fruit or straw­ber­ry or cola and all with that diet taste, which always makes me want some­thing more to drink.

When it is dark we play hide and seek in the back­yard. We are prob­a­bly nine and eleven then. We play seri­ous hide and seek where you climb under wet bush­es or up the damp bark of a tree and where the best trick some­times is to stand still against the fence or the side of the house and the per­son look­ing is try­ing so hard, star­ing so intense­ly at the bush­es and under the deck, that he or she some­how doesn’t notice you.

Debbie isn’t real­ly my aunt. We just always call her that. My mom and Debbie sit in the kitchen laugh­ing and telling sto­ries about a class reunion or sto­ries from back in junior high when they met each oth­er. They drink scotch and waters and talk and all of that is decep­tive to tell, because in truth my mom nev­er was a drinker like the rest of her fam­i­ly. Or even a drinker like Aunt Debbie, who would sway and slur by the end of the night.

Sometimes when I ask my mom, she gives me a taste of the scotch. It is bit­ter and pale and bad.

Just a sip,” my mom says.

We stay at Auntie Debbie’s till late and me and my broth­er ride home in the cold back seat of that big green car my mom had for a lot of years, before she got a new job that let her get a new car and let us move from the lit­tle house we rent­ed to one that was a lit­tle big­ger. I remem­ber the car was a Plymouth and had rough vinyl seats that didn’t warm up till we were already home.

Sometimes at Debbie’s her old­er daugh­ter is there. She seems much old­er, like an adult, though I know now she was only 15 or 16. She is very nice, although some­times she and Debbie argue, the way mom’s and their teenage daugh­ters do.

I remem­ber a cou­ple times when Tricia is there but my mom and Debbie isn’t, when they’ve gone some­where for a few hours, and Tricia is stuck watch­ing me and my broth­er and Tricia’s lit­tle sis­ter, who is actu­al­ly her half-sis­ter.

With the par­ents gone, Tricia pulls out cig­a­rettes and some­times she opens a beer. Tricia looks dif­fer­ent then, and sounds dif­fer­ent. She gains a few years when the par­ents are gone.

It reminds me of a few years lat­er, when I am maybe eleven, and me and a friend re being babysat by his old­er sis­ter, and her boyfriend comes to the house and we all go for a dri­ve. It is an old­er car, maybe a Pontiac or Oldsmobile with the big doors and buck­et seats that you have to pull hard on to lean them for­ward so you can climb into the dark back seat, and we dri­ve around for awhile, across town, to some neigh­bor­hood I don’t know, and we pull up at someone’s house and just the sis­ter and the boyfriend go inside. “Stay here and shut up,” she says to us, and they come back in 10 or 15 min­utes, smelling dif­fer­ent, like pot I sort of under­stand then and know for sure years lat­er, and then we dri­ve around some more, the boyfriend and the sis­ter drink­ing beer, and me and my friend, we just talk some, qui­et­ly, and ride with them, until final­ly, just a few min­utes before the par­ents, we get back home.

I had many nights like that. With cousins. With friends and their broth­ers or sis­ters. Strangely qui­et, for­eign nights where I rode along in the back seat as if the teenage kids dri­ving where actu­al­ly adults. Nights where I was watch­ing all that hap­pened. Nights where it seemed like I could have been in very bad trou­ble but instead I just sat, lis­ten­ing, and what I remem­ber most about those nights is how it seemed like I was alone.

• •

Still, as an adult, when I walk into a liquor store, I feel like I’m doing some­thing illic­it.

Still, when I see a police car dri­ving behind me, I feel like I might get pulled over.

Still, when I enter a restau­rant or a bar or even an air­plane, I feel like I am younger than any adult I see.

• •

When I was eleven, my dad moved to Wishkaw, a very small town about an hour and a half from Tacoma. My broth­er and I would vis­it my dad there every oth­er week­end.

There was no email back then. There were no cell phones. Before my dad moved to Wishkaw, I would maybe talk to him every few months, stand­ing in the kitchen, hold­ing the big, heavy phone, want­i­ng very much to talk to him, but strug­gling to find some­thing to say.

Now he lived in Wishkaw and at least I would see him in a week or two.

The house was out in the coun­try, on the edge of the woods. My broth­er and I would run through those woods and play in the creek that ran near the house and at night we’d have din­ner with my dad at the table near the liv­ing room. We would play on the grounds of the big high school near­by, run­ning through the foot­ball field and buy­ing Cokes from the machine near the gym. I remem­ber once there was a game of don­key bas­ket­ball at that high school, some sort of fundrais­er with adults rid­ing don­keys around the gym try­ing to shoot bas­kets at the rim, all these dads and moms in the gym and so many kids around, yelling for them. We would eat din­ner at the table, me and William set­ting the table and Dad telling us how to hold our forks and knives. And I remem­ber that when we’d dri­ve down to Wishkaw from Tacoma, the three of us would play the game where we count­ed trucks, semi’s and pick up trucks that were dri­ving near us or past us or that we saw in restau­rants or park­ing lots along the way, and the three of us would be scream­ing, yelling as we saw a truck, count­ing loud and fast and claim­ing each truck we saw, and who­ev­er got the most trucks before the ride was over, that’s who would win.

• •

In Tacoma, we moved again, from one house near our school to anoth­er. We’d walk by the old house every day on the way to school.

The old house hadn’t rent­ed yet and so some days, if I wasn’t with William, I’d use my key to go into our old house. I’d go down the alley and sneak over the fence and go in the back door, the way I always had when we’d still lived there.

It was a small house, with blue and green car­pet and a light green refrig­er­a­tor and my mom’s room and the room William and I had shared.

I’d just walk around, or some­times sit down in the mid­dle of the emp­ty liv­ing room, star­ing at the emp­ty room, think­ing about what it had been like to live there.

• •

It was about a year after he’d moved to Wishkaw that William and I got to my dad’s house and it was filled with box­es.

I can’t remem­ber if he told us he was mov­ing before we got to the house or only when we got there. It doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mat­ter. But it’s a detail I’d like to know.

I remem­ber being in the house and I had a mark­er and was writ­ing room names on the box­es.

Living Room, Kitchen, Bedroom, Bathroom.

He was mov­ing to Alaska that week.

My dad often used to say to us that he knew my mom was a bet­ter par­ent. That’s why we lived with her.

• •

When I was in my thir­ties and back home in Tacoma for a cou­ple of days, I saw an old fam­i­ly pho­to of all the cousins. I saw me and my cousins and we were lit­tle kids, so much younger than I remem­ber us being in ele­men­tary school, and I looked at the pho­to for a minute before I rec­og­nized my broth­er William, anoth­er lit­tle kid in the pho­to, with dim­ples and blonde hair, and back then it was nev­er like my broth­er was a kid at all. William, who the last time I saw him was get­ting a cheap meal and cheap booze in the base­ment bar of a VFW in Tacoma even though he’d nev­er been in the mil­i­tary, and whose three kids, teenagers now, who live with my mom, they seem okay, I don’t know how, but, at a glance, they seem fine, and after I had a beer with William at the VFW and after I’d left and got­ten in the car, I real­ly thought I might cry. An adult. In the dark, grav­el park­ing lot of a VFW. But I thought I might cry.

~

Eric Barnes is the author of the nov­els Shimmer, an IndieNext Pick from Unbridled Books, and Something Pretty, Something Beautiful from Outpost19, which The Millions called a “remark­able book … where cars are free­dom, sto­ries are every­thing, and home is thick with ghosts. ” He has pub­lished near­ly thir­ty short sto­ries in Prairie Schooner, The Literary Review, North American Review, Best American Mystery Stories, and else­where. He is the pub­lish­er of news­pa­pers in Memphis and Nashville that cov­er busi­ness, pol­i­tics and most things in between. He hosts a news talk show on pub­lic tele­vi­sion, and, many years ago, grad­u­at­ed from the MFA writ­ing pro­gram at Columbia University.