“O Lord of the universe, master of life. O Lord, embodiment of compassion, great merciful one, guru of Earth. O Lord, who can destroy the fever and agony of this world, please take away my pain. Please be benevolent upon me. Your light is in Your creatures, and Your creatures are in Your light. Your almighty power pervades everywhere.”
- Raju’s prayer
It’s 3:27 a.m. and Roger Singh is dreaming of the beach from the sleeper cab of his cherry red tractor truck, a 2007 Mack Pinnacle. The northbound I-5 rest stop just outside Buttonwillow, California is quiet at this time of night, with the few passing cars and semis in the distance doing little to disturb a man who rarely, if ever, gets enough sleep.
In his dream, Roger swims along a sun kissed shore, taking frequent breaks to drift on his back and stare at a perfectly blue, cloudless sky. His long black hair, which comes down well below his waist, surrounds his shoulders, arms and sides like a shroud in the water. When his feet find the sandy bottoms of the water’s edge and he stands up, his head is pulled back slightly with the weight of his soaked curls. He squeezes the water out and starts toward the warm, dry sand. Behind him, the sun hangs low on the horizon. The palm trees cast long shadows. Shafts of golden, sunlit air pass through their fronds. The road ahead is empty, and there is no one on the beach. Only the sound of crashing waves behind him.
Now he is walking between the rails of a well-ballasted train track. To his left, the ocean stretches out to the ends of the earth. To his right, rolling hills tumble onward forever. He walks for hours, but the sun never sets.
There is a knock at the door, softly at first. Then louder on the passenger side window that is open just a crack.
“Hey, mister! Hey, mister!” a girl’s voice whispers. “Hey, mister, open up! I wanna talk to you!”
Roger stirs in his sleep. The knocking continues.
“Hey, mister, I know you’re in there! Why don’t you open up? Can’t you open up, please?”
More knocking. Roger rolls over on his back and opens his eyes. Fleeting memories of waves crashing on a shore.
Roger tries to remember his dream. Crashing waves. What else? He can’t recall.
Still more knocking. Roger curses this rude awakening. A moment ago he was somewhere far away and happy.
“Go away, please,” he calls out in the dark as he scratches the skin beneath his long beard.
“Will you talk to me for a second, please? Just a second?”
“Look at the sign,” Roger says. On the passenger side window of his truck, there is a sticker with the silhouetted outline of a lizard with a red cross mark through it.
“Look, man! I ain’t no lot lizard, okay?”
“Go away, please.”
“Just for a second, mister!”
Roger is silent as he lies in the dark.
“Hello? Come on, man! Please!”
He closes his eyes.
“Well, fuck you, then!” the girl cries out. She slams the side of her closed fist on the window and hops off the second step of Roger’s truck. Her feet hit the ground with a thud, and as she shuffles away, Roger props himself up on his elbow to look through the sleeper cab window. The girl has dirty blonde hair and wears platform sandals, blue jeans and a baggy red sweatshirt. As she passes, she raises her hands and extends both of her middle fingers up in the direction of Roger’s blacked out window.
“Nice,” Roger says to himself as he lies back down. He closes his eyes but he cannot sleep, knows he will not sleep.
In the dark, Roger wonders about the girl. About how it came to be that she should be knocking on truckers’ windows at 3:30 in the morning at rest stops in the middle of nowhere. He thinks about her parents and wonders if they know where their daughter is. Is she a prostitute? He has no doubt. Roger has been trucking for the better part of three years, so run-ins with rest stop hookers is nothing new to him. When Roger first bought his Mack, a brute of a machine with 800,000 miles on it for $25,000, the man who sold it to him explained the sticker on the window. “This will help keep the sleeper creepers away,” he had said. “I’d leave it on if I were you.” Roger found small relief in the ability of a simple sticker to keep unwanted visitors at bay. After the accident with his wife and son, Roger didn’t want to be bothered. Not by lot lizards, not by anyone. Besides, as a baptized Sikh, he wears a turban at all times and keeps a long beard that is never to be cut. His appearance alone, he knows, deters most people.
Outside in the moonlit parking lot, the girl gets into an old and creaky white Chevrolet Caprice. Roger, in the front seat now, can see everything from his side view mirror. The cabin light in the Caprice is on and a man in a black jacket smokes as he talks to the girl. The girl’s arms start to flail. The man flicks his cigarette out the window and sits motionless while she yells. Then, very suddenly, he grabs a fistful of the girl’s hair and slaps her twice on the face, hard. She slumps back into the seat, her hair covering her eyes. She does not fight back.
Roger must fight for the girl. He is obligated to. One of the tenets of his faith is to come to the aid of the oppressed, and the kirpan, a ceremonial dagger worn at all times by Khalsa Sikhs, is meant to remind him of this duty. Roger turns around and looks at the sheathed blade sitting on his unmade bed until he makes up his mind. He steps back into the sleeper cab and wraps a bright orange turban, another symbol of his faith, around his head. He considers his next course of action. He decides to invite the girl into his truck and call the police on her behalf or drive her somewhere safe. Getting her away from the source of her abuse is his priority. Once he has done that, he tells himself, he will have fulfilled his obligation.
The window of Roger’s truck is down now and he is waving in a “come over here” motion from the driver’s seat. Roger, tired, doubting the wisdom of his decision, begins to think about all the ways the scenario to follow could go wrong. Murdered by the man in the black jacket. Robbed by the girl. Maybe both.
On the steel of the passenger door, a knock. Roger presses a button to unlock the doors and the girl steps in and sits down. She smells like cigarettes and cheap perfume – cotton candy, he thinks.
“Aw, man! A real-live Muzlim!” she says as she sits down. “How ya doin’, guy? Wait a sec, you ain’t gonna kill me or nothin’ are ya? Aw, I’m just kiddin’, I’m just excited, man! I ain’t never met a Muzlim before, ya know?”
“I’m Sikh,” Roger says.
“Yeah, I’m not feeling so great either, mister. I got sick, like, a month ago and I’ve still got this cough I can’t shake, ya know?” She coughs.
“No, no. My religion. I’m a Sikh. Not a Muslim.”
“Oh, yeah, well, okay. I’ve never met a Sikh, either, but you look alright. Yeah, you look okay. Anyway, thanks for letting me in, man. My name’s Amy and I couldn’t really sleep tonight. What about you? What’s your name?”
“Roger,” she says. “You don’t look like a Roger.”
“Say, why are you awake, anyway? It’s late, man!” she says.
“You woke me up, earlier.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess I did. Hey, listen, I’m sorry about that. It’s just that -”
“You don’t have to explain,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean… How can I put this? Your situation.”
“What do you mean, my situation?”
“What you do.”
“What I do? You think you’re better than me or something? You’re the one sleeping in your truck in some nasty ol’ pickle park, okay?”
“Look, I didn’t mean anything by it,” he says. “I just mean I saw what happened back there. How that man hit you.”
“Yeah, well, you don’t have to talk to me like that.”
“Like you know what’s best for me, man.”
“I just want to help you,” he says.
“You wanna help me, guy? Alright, give me 40 dollars and make it quick. That’ll help me.”
“I’m not gonna do that.”
“I’m not gonna do that,” she says, mocking him. “Well, what are you gonna do, then? Because my time is money and there’s a price to pay for, you know, wasting time.”
“Look, I don’t expect you to understand, but it’s my duty to help you.”
“Oh, so I’m stupid now?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You think I’m stupid, guy? You think I’m helpless?”
“Look, it’s just that I saw that man hit you and I want to call the police for you or take you someplace safe.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, man. No police.”
“So, you don’t need any help?”
“Not from you.”
“What will happen if I ask you to leave? Is that man going to hit you again?” he asks.
“Look, buddy. You don’t know anything. You think you know, but you don’t,” she says.
“Well, what, then? Will it help if I call the police?”
“No, man! Are you crazy? You call the police and we all go to jail. What’s wrong with you?”
“We haven’t done anything,” he says. “I’m only trying to help.”
“You don’t understand, man.”
“Is there someplace safe I can take you? Family? Friends?”
“Man, you just don’t get it. Just make my life easier and let’s just do what we both know you want to do.”
“I don’t want to do that.”
The girl looks out the window. The two are silent for a time.
“What is it you want, man?” she asks quietly.
“I told you.”
“You want to help me.”
“Well, you can’t.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“It is,” he says. “I’m going to start the truck and we’ll just drive away, okay?”
“You start the truck and drive away and that guy back there is gonna follow you ‘til you run outta gas and put a bullet in your belly. Then he’ll kick the shit out of me.”
“I’m not afraid of him,” Roger says. “Besides, we can let the police sort everything out. That’d be better.”
“No pigs, man.”
“Fine,” he says.
“Let me just think a minute,” she says. She bites her lip. She looks out the window and contemplates the sprawling darkness of the fields beyond. She bites her mangled, filthy nails. “You know those are cotton fields out there?” she asks.
“Cotton fields. All around us,” she says. “A lot of folks don’t know this state grows cotton, but it does. Maybe I should just make a run for it out there and get lost in it or something.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“It’s your truck. You can do whatever you want.”
“What happened?” he asks.
“Like, why am I here?”
“It’s a long story, mister.”
“I see,” he says.
“Can I ask you something?” she asks.
“Where’s the rest of your truck?”
“The trailer, you mean?”
“I’m bobtailing,” he says. “Up to Merced to pick up a shipment. Then down to Anaheim.”
“You like this job?” she asks.
“I enjoy it, yes.”
“I think I would, too,” she says.
“It gets lonely,” he says.
“I wouldn’t mind,” she tells him. Roger doesn’t believe her. All the vista points in North America couldn’t make up for the cruel monotony of staring at endless white lines on asphalt, eating at one crappy diner after another, and sleeping in middle-of-nowhere, godforsaken pickle parks like this one.
“Tell me what happened,” he says.
“Okay, but I wanna know a couple things about you first.”
“Sure,” he says.
“What did you mean earlier when you said it was your duty to help me?”
“I told you,” he says. “It’s because of my faith. If there is somebody who needs help and I can help them, then I must help them. I can’t ignore a person in need.”
“Okay. Why do you wear that thing on your head and why do you have such a long beard? I mean, what does it mean? What do you believe in?”
“You mean as a Sikh? What do I believe in as a Sikh?”
“Are you a Christian?” he asks.
“I guess,” she says.
“Well, what Sikhs believe should be pretty easy for you to understand then. We believe in one God. We believe He is the Creator and that He is without hate.”
“What about your orange hat? And the beard?”
“Growing one’s hair is important for Sikhs because we believe the form in which God created man is perfect, so why go against it? Growing my hair symbolizes my love and respect for what God has given me. What he has given all of us.”
“So you guys take it to another level, huh?”
“Maybe. But even your Christian Bible says that God has so much love and care for man that all the hairs of your head have been well-counted by Him,” he says.
“Man, here I am thinking I have to show some stinky, greasy trucker a good time and it turns out I just walked into Sunday school. How come I ain’t ever heard of you guys before? This Sikh stuff’s not so bad.”
“We don’t try to convert people.”
“Well, maybe you should,” the girl says. She stares at her palms and thinks about all the things her hands have done.
“How did it all happen?” Roger asks.
“Even if I wanted to tell you the whole story, which I don’t, I couldn’t. I don’t remember most of it.”
“Just tell me the important parts.”
“Well, if you need to know, the guy back there used to be my source in Bakersfield. Meth, coke, all of it. Anyway, last year I wrecked my car. No insurance, of course. Couldn’t pay my rent after that. Couldn’t pay my bills. Definitely couldn’t support my habit. Lost my job at Dairy Queen. He was the only guy I knew who had any money, and he offered to help me. I moved in with him, but he got evicted, like, a month later. We stayed in motels and started using a lot more. Heavier stuff, too, you know? Heroin to balance out all the rest. Drinking on top of it all. We needed money. We did anything we could. It just happened. I mean, he arranged everything, and this is just the way things are now.”
“What about your family? Your parents?”
“I never knew my dad and my mom is in Chowchilla.”
“I can take you there,” Roger says. “I can take you there right now.”
“I don’t know how much good it’d do. She’s in the women’s correctional facility up there.”
“Oh,” Roger says. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” the girl says. “She’s not.”
“Is there anyone else?”
“Kind of. I have an older sister in Redding, but I haven’t talked to her in a long time. She left when I was 15 and never looked back. I don’t really blame her.”
“We can go to Redding. You can start over there.”
“I don’t know, man.”
“What’s the alternative?” Roger asks. “Things like this, they don’t end well.”
“Sometimes I wish it would.”
“Just end,” she says.
“It’s not too late. You can start again.”
“I can’t,” she says. “He’ll ruin me. You don’t know what he’s got on me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, even if I left, if you managed to get me away from him somehow, I’d still be fucked. We did some shit, man. He’ll use it against me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Man, you really wanna help me?”
“I haven’t told this to anyone. It’s why I can’t leave.”
“What is it?”
The girl puts her face in her hands and begins to sob. “This man,” she says. “This poor old man…”
“I shot him. I closed my eyes and I shot him. We were so yakked out. Frank said he wanted to do more than he’s ever done, and we just… we just finished everything we had. All of it. The money, too. We pulled up to some gas station and decided to rob the place. Frank gave me the gun. He was recording the whole thing on his phone. He was laughing. He was laughing the whole time. The old man handed everything in the register over. We didn’t have to do it, but Frank said, “Shoot him! Shoot him!” So I closed my eyes and I shot him.” The girl’s eyes are red and her voice is shaky. “I didn’t want to, I swear I didn’t want to! It was Frank… I mean, it was me, but it’s, like, he was in me, like, he shot the old man through me, but I know that’s not true. It was me, but it wasn’t me, I swear. I don’t even know if that old man’s alive or not.” The girl cannot control her tears now. “God, what have I done?” she says. “What have I done? What have I done?” She looks out into the dark field ahead and tries to compose herself. “A little while after that, I just decided to leave, you know? Just walk away. But I didn’t get very far. When Frank found me, he told me that if I ever tried to leave again he’d send the video to the cops. It’s how he controls me,” she said.
“I understand now,” Roger says.
“What am I gonna do?” the girl asks.
“You’re going to make things right,” he says. “You have to leave this place.”
The girl bows her head. Tears drip onto her blue jeans, leaving dark spots where they fall.
“Roger?” the girl asks quietly. “Is that your real name?”
“My Indian name is Raju,” he says. “Raju Singh. But I’ve been Roger ever since I was six. When I came here with my parents.”
“Where are your parents now?” the girl asks.
“They passed away.”
“It was a long time ago,” he says.
“Are you married?”
“She passed away, too. She passed away with my son.”
“My God. I’m so sorry, Raju.”
He flinches. Nobody has called him that in a long time. “It’s okay,” he says.
“Is that why you drive this truck?” she asks. “To run away from your heart?”
The question takes Roger by surprise. “Yes,” he says.
“Raju, am I a bad person? For killing that man?”
“You don’t know that he’s dead.”
“I don’t,” she says. “That's what makes it worse.”
“You never tried to find out?”
“I don’t exactly read the papers,” she says. “I don’t have a computer or anything, either. Frank doesn’t let me have a phone.”
“Don’t you want to know?”
“Of course I do.”
“Let’s find out then,” he says. “When did it happen? And where?” he asks as he reaches for his smartphone.
“A couple months ago, I guess,” she says. “Somewhere in Arvin. It was a Chevron station.”
Roger types the information into his phone and pulls up the first hit, an article from the The Bakersfield Post. “Look,” he says, reading the headline aloud. “Arvin Man Survives Brutal Robbery.”
The girl snatches the phone out of his hands. “Oh, my God. Holy shit,” she says, continuing to read. “Wow.”
“Amy,” he says.
“Should we go?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I’m scared.”
“I know,” he says.
“He’ll follow us. He won’t let me go.”
“I know,” he says. “But we have to try.”
“Okay,” she says. “Let’s go.”
Roger nods, smiles at the girl, and starts the engine. The Mack comes to life with a ferocious roar.
“Everything is going to be okay,” he says.
“I know,” she says.
Roger throws the truck into reverse and begins to back out slowly when there is a crunch from behind. The white Caprice. Its headlights are off.
“No!” the girl screams. “No, no, no!”
Roger puts the gear into park and hurries back into the sleeper cab for his kirpan, but the man in the black jacket is already up the passenger door steps and at the window.
“Get out!” Frank yells, looking at the girl. His voice is muffled behind the glass, but the glint of rage in his eyes shines through just fine.
The girl screams. She turns around and looks at Roger. “Raju!” she cries.
The man outside has his gun out now and is slamming the butt of it against the window. The glass shatters on the third strike and the man reaches in and opens the door from the inside. He grabs at the girl and when he takes hold of her, he pulls her back violently and the two go falling backwards out of the cabin and onto the hard parking lot below.
“I’m going with him, Frank!” the girl yells. Her jeans are torn at the knee and she is bleeding. She tries to make her way back up the steps into the truck.
“The hell you are,” he snarls, grabbing her foot and pulling her back toward him.
Roger is standing on the top step of the truck now, his kirpan in his hand. “Let her go,” he says. “She doesn’t belong to you.”
“What the fuck?” the man says. “Fuck you!” He aims, fires off a shot and hits Roger in the chest, just above the heart. Roger stumbles and gasps for air as he drops his kirpan and tries to balance himself on the open door. It swings forward under his weight and his feet slip on the metal steps. He falls to the ground just beside the girl, landing on his back.
“No!” the girl shrieks. Her eyes are wild. “Why, Frank? Why?” she screams.
Frank gets to his feet and pulls the girl up with him. He has her in a headlock and she is whimpering, barely putting up a fight. “You were gonna leave me?” he hollers. “You were gonna leave me for this raghead?”
Roger, his neck and face covered in blood, looks at the two standing above him. The man in the black jacket with fire in his eyes is pointing his gun at him. The girl is too distraught to watch. Her eyes are closed.
“Amy,” Roger whispers, struggling to find his voice. The girl opens her eyes and looks at him, tears streaming down her face. “You can start over,” he says. “We all start over.”
The man in the black jacket points his gun down and fires off a bullet into Roger’s belly. Amy screams again. Roger’s eyes meet hers, and then he smiles. His eyes trail off to find the stars shining brightly above the darkness of the parking lot below. He closes his eyes.
It’s 4:23 a.m. and Roger Singh is dreaming of the beach as he lies sprawled out on the black asphalt of a northbound I-5 rest stop just outside Buttonwillow, California.
In his dream, Roger swims along a sun kissed shore. His long, black hair surrounds him like a shroud in the water as he drifts along on his back while staring deep into a perfectly blue, cloudless sky. The sun hangs low on the horizon and the palm trees on the beach cast long shadows. Shafts of golden, sunlit air pass through their fronds. Only the sound of crashing waves before him. Roger floats like this for hours, but the earth, in the golden hour of its day, is still, and the sun does not set. The sun never sets.