It had been a long haul for Steve Smith. He was on the return leg of the roughly 2000-mile trip from his hometown of Nashville all the way to Los Angeles for his delivery. Hauls this long were unusual for the freight company that he worked for—an import wholesaler of Chinese-made toys—but with the holiday season in full swing and store shelves rapidly emptying, a large order had come in from a new customer on the West Coast. Steve was their most dependable driver and therefore the man making this critical, high-profit delivery.
With his back aching from the long drive, he pulled into the truck stop to refuel and stretch his legs. His back popped as he bent forward at the waist to stretch his lower back, then cracked again as he leaned backward for the inverse stretch. He still had a dull ache between his legs as well due to a flare up of his chronic prostatitis that the doctor said was likely due to his profession. He had the last of some leftover antibiotics that would hold him over until he got back home and had been practicing some pelvic exercises as he drove, but they really didn’t seem to be helping.
Steve made his way into the truck stop convenience store to pick up a few things to get him through the next several hundred miles. First he stopped off in the restroom and entered one of the open stalls. He unzipped and waited. As he strained, a weak stream of urine finally began. It burned as it traveled from his bladder through his urethra.
He groaned and splashed a few more spurts of dark yellow urine into the toilet before zipping up.
“Goddamn,” he muttered to himself. He felt as if his body were falling apart. He exited the stall and washed his hands and face in the sink.
He looked at himself in the mirror. His beard appeared greyer under the harsh bathroom light; his hair was thinning more, too. His face looked swollen from weight gain as he hadn’t been able to exercise much since injuring his back.
He took a final glance at himself and then grabbed a paper towel to dry his face.
It had been a long year for Steve. Moreover, the past several years had been long for him. During this time, his marriage of ten years to his high-school sweetheart Sharon had been severely strained. He had cut back his work to accommodate more local hauls so that he wasn’t gone overnight as often, but it hadn’t helped. If anything, it had made things worse as the two of them felt worlds apart. Also, his ten-year-old daughter, Maggie, was having trouble at school and was distant toward him.
He had a lot of time on the road to reflect but he never could figure out where things had really gone wrong. People change, life is hard, it’s a difficult world, and we all have problems. Those were his general takeaways, but there was no defining moment that he could pinpoint, no epiphany to shed light on how things had gotten so bad with his family. He loved them and was committed to trying to make it work, but the strain on his soul was obvious.
His own health now failing with a busted back and chronic prostate issues, it was hard to keep his spirits up many days. The solitude of the open road could be a friend or foe depending on circumstances. Lately it had been proving more and more to be the latter as Steve was tired and hurting, burned out, and in desperate need of a break. His buddy had offered to get him hired on at the factory where he worked, but with his back problems he was in no condition to do much heavy lifting. For now, he’d have to keep driving to pay the bills.
With a large bottle of water, an energy drink, and a few snacks now in tow, he slowly climbed back into the cab of his truck and got back on the road.
“Hey honey,” Steve said as his wife answered her phone.
“Hey,” she said in a tired voice. “Where you at?”
“I’m a couple hundred miles outside of Oklahoma City. I’ll have to stop there for the night and if I get an early start it should put me back home for dinner tomorrow night. How are you guys?”
“We’re doing fine. I’m about to make some dinner for Maggie and I, and then probably just take it easy for the evening.”
“Making anything good?” he asked.
“I have some chicken in the fridge and some vegetables that need to be used up so I’ll whip something up with that.”
“I miss your cooking,” he told her. “This has been a long trip. Lots of fast food and truck-stop eats. Be nice to be home with you guys and have a good meal.”
“I can imagine you’ve got to be ready to get off the road,” she responded.
“I am. Sure will be nice to sleep in a good bed and spend some time with you guys.”
“I know you’ve got to be exhausted.”
The conversation went quiet for a few moments as neither of them was sure what to say. This had been the way most of their conversations had gone for quite some time. They were sincere and mostly polite despite the occasional fight, but the connection just wasn’t there. Despite his best efforts, the fire just wasn’t burning.
“Steve, I should probably let you go for now so I can get to cooking.”
“OK,” he said. “I love you. Hope the two of you have a nice evening.”
“Thank you. Be safe on the road and I’ll talk to you later.”
“Tell Maggie I called,” he told her.
“OK, I will.”
“OK, then, bye now.”
He took off his headset and set it down in the empty cup holder. He opened his energy drink and cracked his window to get some fresh air as the fatigue was hitting him pretty heavily. He was also feeling the blues as he really had nothing to look forward to with going home other than not being in the same cab driving down this never-ending highway.
One of the benefits of Steve’s truck driving was the number of new things he discovered through satellite radio. He’d grown up in a traditional Southern house and was fed a heavy dose of old country, gospel, and folk music growing up. It wasn’t until later in his life that he developed a taste for much of the music he had missed out on growing up as well as modern music. What would his old man think if he were still living? It was this new world of music that kept things interesting for him during the monotony of most of his hauls. Once the sun went down he found that electronic music provided the best soundtrack to fit his mood and to help keep him stimulated.
It was to a down-tempo electronic groove that he pulled his truck into rest stop #94 to pee. With his prostate irritation, he had to pee nearly every hour on the hour, which was really slowing him down. Normally he’d just use a water bottle but he found it difficult to pee while sitting in the cab with his prostate so inflamed. He was surprised to see so many trucks parked in the lot when he pulled in as it was only 8:00 and many drivers went well into the late night depending on their schedule.
Cautious of his back, he slowly got out of his cab and walked up to the bathroom door.
“What in the fuck???” he shouted as he opened the door, a wave of shock hitting his tired senses.
Inside, a dozen or so naked men were engaged in various sex acts. Some men knelt in front of others while some men were bent over with another man behind them. Two men wearing wigs and full makeup were in the bathroom as well with two men each, one fucking them from behind and another in front getting head.
“You here for the party, brother?” a man wearing a white tank top and blue jeans asked with a big smile as he slapped Steve on the shoulder. Steve immediately pulled away from the man—more an instinct than a conscious thought—and quickly left the bathroom. The man followed him out.
“What’s your problem? You don’t want no fun?” he hollered. Steve didn’t respond and kept on walking. When he got around the building he could see two men on his truck with the hood open.
“HEY! GET THE FUCK OFF OF MY TRUCK!” he yelled and ran over. The two men jumped down and scurried off. He couldn’t make them out due to the darkness.
The man from the bathroom continued to follow. “Relax, my man. This is a friendly stop.”
Steve, still in a rage, turned quickly. “Get the fuck away from me, pervert, or you’re going to find more trouble than you’d wish for.”
The man raised his hands in self-defense. He smiled. “I’m a man of peace here. I mean no trouble. Just trying to make you feel welcome.”
“I don’t want to feel fucking welcomed, you get it?” he shouted. “I want to be left the hell alone.”
The man smiled and slowly backpedaled away. “Hey brother, no worries. You go about your evening there. I intend no harm.”
Steve turned around and walked up to his truck. He climbed up and, using his pin light, inspected the engine. Nothing looked unusual to him so he closed the hood. He climbed inside of his truck, put the key into the ignition and tried to start the engine.
He tried it again.
He punched the wheel with the palm of his hand and jumped out of the truck.
He walked around the surrounding trucks looking for the men. No one was around and all of the trucks were empty. He circled around near the back of the truck stop where he heard cheering. Men were hollering and laughing loudly, which put Steve on high alert after what he had just seen in the men’s room.
He slowly proceeded further around the corner and took a look at what was going on.
There was a large white cloth hanging from the back of the building that housed the restrooms and a small projector was setup. Group pornography played on the makeshift screen, a large orgy—dozens of men and women in all sorts of sexual configurations—being projected. About twenty men sat in lawn chairs, some of them masturbating with pants around their ankles, some of them stroking each other as they sat side by side. His eyes blurred, as he couldn’t believe what he saw.
Directly to the right of the impromptu movie screen was a second viewing spectacle. A boyish looking guy, maybe twenty-one but looking more like eighteen, was bent over with his hands against the wall while a large bearded man mounted him from behind.
Sickened, Steve turned around and quickly headed back to his truck. His hands were shaking with adrenaline from both his anger and the anxiety of the situation he was in. Here he was, just trying to earn a living and get home to his family after driving the longest haul he had been on in over a year with a bad back and aching prostate, and now he had to deal with this mess.
He climbed back into the cab of his truck and tried to start the engine once more. Still nothing. With a dead truck, his CB radio wouldn’t work and he was without any cell phone coverage on this desolate stretch of highway.
What am I going to do?
Steve sipped his bottle of water and had decided to wait it out, hoping another trucker would pull in so he could use their radio or a pedestrian would stop off with a different wireless carrier who may have reception. His nerves had calmed a bit, but he could still hear the shouting and laughing from behind the building. What he had seen this evening were not things he would forget anytime soon.
Steve felt a sense of hope and relief come over him as he saw a truck pull into the parking lot. He watched the driver pull in and park, then Steve got out of his truck and hurried over toward him.
“Excuse me!” he hollered from a few feet away. The trucker didn’t look his way. “Hey! SIR!” he shouted louder and the man turned.
“Thank god, man. My truck is dead over there and there is some kind of freak sex party going on in there. Can I use your CB?”
The man looked at him. “Freak sex party?” he asked.
“Man, it’s horrible. There are men all over in their fucking and masturbating. Tried to get me to join in there. I just want to get home to my family.”
“It’s a long road, isn’t it?”
“Where you driving to?”
Steve was a bit confused. “I’m heading back to Nashville.”
“Where from?” the man asked.
“Heading back from L.A.”
The man shook his head. “Woo boy. That’s a heck of a haul. Tiring, ain’t it?”
Steve nodded. “Yes. I’m never going to get back if I don’t get my truck running. Your CB? Can I use it?”
The man spat tobacco juice on the ground. “Ain’t working.”
Steve felt a chill come over him. “How about your cell phone? Any coverage?”
“Nope,” he said, hands on hips. “No reception out this way.” He smiled.
“OK. Thanks anyway.” Steve turned to walk away.
“You don’t have to deal with all this alone. There are others who feel the same!” The man hollered at him. Steve kept on walking and got back in his truck. He desperately needed to pee at this point, so he grabbed an empty gallon jug from the passenger floorboard and unzipped.
He strained for several moments. Drops of urine began to slowly exit his body and finally a very weak, unstable stream formed that yielded a few ounces of urine in the bottle.
It was pitch-black out when Steve heard the tapping on his window. He had fallen asleep in his truck. He looked down and saw a group of four men standing outside his door. Among them was the man from the bathroom who had tried to coax him into joining and the trucker from earlier whose CB he had tried to use.
“Come on out,” the man from the bathroom said. “We’re just trying to help you. Nothing to be worried about.”
Steve didn’t know what to do. “Just leave me be.”
“No point in staying there in your truck all damn night. We got food and drinks. Come on out of there.”
“I’m not hungry. Just leave me alone.”
“We’re all the same here, friend. All of us are dealing with the same things. You don’t have to be afraid. No one is going to hurt you.”
Steve didn’t respond. He turned his head and looked straight ahead at the lot full of trucks.
“Why’d you sabotage my truck?” he asked.
The man shrugged. “We can’t have any police coming over here. This is an important evening for us.”
“I’m not going to call the police. I just want to get back to my family.”
“Then just come out and talk to us. I want you to meet Master. If you decide that you still want to leave after the two of you talk then we’ll restore your truck and you can be on your way.”
“Who is Master?”
“He runs our group.”
“Just come down and talk to us. I am telling you, brother, we mean no harm. You’re making this so much harder than it needs to be.”
“What type of group?” Steve asked again.
“A social group; a support group. We’re all truckers, we all know the pain the road can cause.”
“Then what’s going on with the sex stuff in there?”
“That’s not everyone. We all find release in different ways, that’s just the way some of our members choose to unwind.”
“I don’t want any part of that.”
“You don’t have to. You can choose anything you want. But I can’t let you leave before you speak with Master.”
Steve sat in silence for a moment, thinking.
“Sir, if we wanted to hurt you we would have already. Clearly that’s not what we’re after.”
The point was valid. They could have attacked him while he was in the bathroom or out in the parking lot. Even now, they could easily break his windows out. He took the keys out of the ignition and put them in his pocket.
“All right,” he said and opened his truck door. He slowly got out.
“I’m Billy,” said the man from the bathroom, extending his hand.
“Steve.” He nodded but did not shake hands.
“Good to meet you,” Billy said. “This is Adam,” he pointed to the trucker from earlier, “Johnny and Brian.” The men all exchanged nods. “Come on with us. Nothing to worry about here.”
Steve was unsure of that but could think of no other option than to cooperate.
Billy knocked three times on an unmarked door, waited a moment, and then knocked in a distinct sequence of kn-knock-knock-kn-knock-knock-knock-knock.
The door opened slightly and Billy nodded at the man behind the door. He opened the door further so that Billy and Steve could enter.
“Shoes off,” Billy whispered to Steve, taking his shoes off. Steve slipped his off as well.
As they entered further the room smelled strongly of nag champa and was lit dimly by a dozen large candles and a couple of small lamps.
Sitting on a zafu was a man dressed in loose black clothing with his eyes closed.
“Master,” Billy said softly. After a moment, the man opened his eyes. Billy bowed to him.
“Master, I bring to you Steve. He has stopped here this evening unknowingly.”
Master nodded. “Thank you, please leave us.” Billy nodded again and slowly receded, leaving Steve there.
“Please sit,” Master asked Steve.
He complied, sitting on the large rug in front of him.
“You are distressed at what you have seen tonight,” Master began. “This is normal. I felt the same way when I first stumbled here almost twenty years ago.” Master gave a small smile as he reflected on the time passed.
“It’s disgusting,” Steve said.
“Is it?” Master asked. “Why?”
“It’s a bunch of perverts out there. Masturbating and fucking each other like animals.”
“Why are they perverts?”
“Have you seen what’s going on?”
“Then I should have to say no more.”
Master looked hard at Steve. “I see men in need out there. Souls hurting, strained from the difficulty of this life. I see hard-working men. Hauling merchandise across roads, being paid a modest wage to break their bodies, hearts, minds.”
“That is true of anyone, but not all of us resort to that.”
“We all have to relieve our pain in our own ways. How do you relieve yours?”
“I just deal with it.” Steve said. “I accept that life is hard and you have to get through the hard times.”
“Must you suffer alone?”
“I’d rather deal with my own problems than resort to—” he fumbled, searching for words. “That,” he said, gesturing behind him.
“Not all of us choose that, but for those who do, we accept it. Our nature is flawed as a species and we judge too harshly what we don’t understand. This is a safe place for men who used to suffer before finding acceptance within our group.”
“I don’t need acceptance of the group. I just want to get home.”
Master nodded. “What is your rush to get home?”
“I’ve been on the road too long. I miss my family. I’m tired.”
“We have comfortable quarters here for our guests,” Master said.
“I want to get home but one of your—one of your ‘members’ sabotaged my truck.”
“I am sorry,” Master said with sincerity. “They are protective of the group and did not want to draw unwanted attention to us.”
“I don’t care what you guys do here. I won’t tell anyone. I’m just looking to get on the road.”
Master sat silently for several moments.
“I would like for you to remain for one evening with us. After that you are free to resume your life as it was and tonight can eventually be forgotten. “
“I don’t want to stay. I want to leave now.”
Master nodded. “Again, I would like for you to consider remaining for the evening. I feel you are here for reasons that perhaps neither of us yet understand. Besides, it is dark out and you are clearly tired.”
He was, but he’d rather drive another 1000 miles than stay anywhere near this place.
“I would prefer to go,” Steve told him.
“Steve,” Master leaned forward, “I want to help you. Some of us just need a bit more encouragement than others.” As he said this, a plume of white powder hit Steve’s face as Master blew it from his concealed hand. Steve’s nose felt on fire.
“AHH,” he groaned. “Jesus! AHH!” he looked at Master with a face as red as the worse sunburn you could imagine. “What the fuck?”
He continued to groan, his heart racing in his chest as if he had run a marathon. His limbs ached and he felt nauseated. Strangely, a calm began to come over him beneath the physical pain and discomfort.
“Relax,” Master told him, “Please.”
Steve began to see small swirls in the room as if he could see the particles of air moving. The swirls grew larger and colors began to form in them with a kaleidoscope-like appearance. He leaned back and rested his head as he was beginning to feel overwhelmed and disoriented. Master came in front of him and blew more of the powder directly up his burning nostril.
“AHH!” his scream intensified as the pain was nearly unbearable. His body felt feverish, his eyes filled with warm tears. But he was beginning to calm further as the room swirled and his mind drifted. He felt as if he had left the room, left this horrible place of debauchery. He felt as if he were leaving his body as he ascended into a dreamlike world.
Colors swirled through his field of vision and his body buzzed with what felt like light and energy. He began to laugh to himself, giddy, though he also felt a sense of wonder and awe at what was happening to him. Reverence took hold as what appeared to be tentacles of jellyfish or the wings of angels appeared around him.
His body was motionless though his mind and spirit drifted. He was everywhere yet nowhere at all simultaneously. He no longer felt like Steve the truck driver from Tennessee; he felt as if he were everyone all at once. The thought brought a feeling of peace over him. The angelic jellyfish floated closer to him and he reached out to touch them with an open hand.
He drifted further and further into the trance, his face placid and serene as his eyes closed…
Steve opened his eyes to a severely aching stomach and a mouth full of saliva. He sat up and the world began to spin. A wooden bucket had been placed next to him, which he vomited in violently. Waves of intense nausea hit him as he vomited again and again. He wiped his mouth and laid back down.
What is happening? He was beginning to regain his senses.
How long have I been here?
He remained there, perhaps dozing off again or perhaps just lying there. For how long he didn’t know.
When he opened his eyes again, Master was sitting in front of him.
“Are you OK?” Master asked.
Steve took a moment to collect himself. “Yes.”
He was better than OK; what he experienced had been exhilarating. He hadn’t fully realized the extent of the burden he had been carrying until now. He felt clearer in mind despite a headache.
“What was that?” he asked, sitting up in front of Master.
Master smiled. “The old magic.” Master handed him a bottle of water. “Hydrate.”
Steve took the bottle and drank. The water felt clean and pure on his tongue, his sense of taste keen.
“Your truck is ready for you, Steve. You are free to leave if you still desire.”
Steve sipped on the water and tried to make sense of what had happened to him. He remembered the pain, that intense burning, but all of that seemed so secondary to the bliss he had experienced. He thought of the waves of colorful light, the palpability of the air, the glowing energy in his body.
He then thought of his family and of what he had seen earlier with those men and the desperate perversion.
“Thank you. I will be going,” he told Master.
Master had a look of utter surprise on his face. “A decisive man,” he said. “Very well. The best to you, Steve.”
Steve nodded to Master and stood up. He was slightly dizzy but had no difficulty walking. He slowly put on his shoes, still trying to fully regain his composure. He took a final glance around and then left the room.
He sat down in the cab of his truck and, as promised, it had been restored as it fired right up. He took a few moments to gather himself.
What the fuck just happened?
He took a few more moments to clear his head before he put the truck in gear and wheeled back out onto the open road. It felt good to be on the road after the fear and disgust he had experienced that evening. No harm had come to him, though; none that he realized. Then there was the beauty of the “old magic” that Master had referred to. Some type of drug, he assumed, but the visions were still with him. He had felt so free; so much larger than this truck-driving father with a failing marriage; so much more sublime than an aging man with an aching back and swollen prostate.
He had been on the road for about an hour, reflecting on all that had taken place that night. His thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of his phone. It was Sharon calling.
“Hey sweetheart,” he said as he put in his headset.
“Hey, where you at?”
“Ahh, still approaching Oklahoma City.”
“What? You weren’t too far from there when we talked this afternoon.”
“Yeah, had some delays with my truck but back on the road now.”
“Oh, OK,” she said.
“What’s going on?” Steve asked. There was no response on the other end of the line. “Sharon, you still there?” he asked.
“Yes.” She said. It sounded as if she were crying.
“Is everything OK?” he asked.
“Steve, I’m leaving you,” she sobbed.
“What?” he asked. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m leaving you. We can’t keep doing this. It’s been so long.”
“I know we’ve been having problems, but I love you. We can fix it.”
“I can’t, Steve. It’s over.”
“Sharon, just let me get home. We’ll talk tomorrow, we’ll figure this out.”
“I’ve moved most of my things out already. I’m sure of this. I’m sorry. I just felt like you should know before you got home.”
“Sharon, please.” He heard a beep and the call had ended. He tried to call her back, but it went straight to her voicemail.
Steve got off at the next exit and parked his truck through teary eyes. He sat and cried. All of the years together, all of the long trips to keep his family going, all of it lost. He thought of all the good times together: the summer vacations, the sporting events and rock concerts, the birth of Maggie.
He closed his eyes and a calm came over him as he remembered how he had felt before the phone call. That sense of wonder that had been in his mind, the amazing curiosity about this mysterious life.
Drying his eyes, he put on his turn signal and got back on the highway. He was now heading west, away from Oklahoma City and back toward rest stop 94.
Steve was feeling weary as he neared the exit for the rest stop. He hadn’t slept and was in desperate need of rest. He was more than ready to take Master up on his offer of comfortable quarters. As he came over the hill he saw the rest stop building and carefully pulled into the empty parking lot.
Where is everyone?
He parked his truck and got out of the cab. There wasn’t a single truck or car in the parking lot, which was highly unusual for any rest stop. He walked over and opened the door to the bathroom. No one was inside. For a rest stop, the bathroom looked very tidy. He went around back and no one was there, either. He walked around, investigating the rear wall where the makeshift movie screen had been set up and looked around the lawn, but there were no signs of any party. No trace of anything at all left behind.
The door that housed Master’s chambers was unlocked when he pulled on it. Walking in, he found only mops and buckets, paper towels, toilet paper, and disinfectants. There was no scent of incense, only cleaning supplies.
Dumbfounded, Steve walked around the front parking lot, looking for any clue.
There were none to be found.