Chapter Six: Russ Jacobs
It never fails. The drive from New York City to Cleveland should take about nine hours at most, not counting breaks. Russ doesn’t usually have a load to drop off in Cleveland, but with traffic delays that inevitably happen, he’s forced to stop for the night somewhere near the Midwest city. While his weekly schedule varies a day or two, Russ tries to spend his weekends back home in the Big Apple. He leaves New York first thing Monday mornings.
With no need to stop off at Cleveland, he’s on the Ohio Turnpike, bypassing the traffic around the city. He’s just passed several miles south of Cleveland now and is heading toward his destination for most major deliveries coming from New York: Chicago. But he knows he’s got to stop soon. As he approaches the rest area at mile marker 139, he remembers his encounter with Shelley from a few weeks earlier.
“What the hell,” he mutters. “Might as well stop off here for the night. They’ve got decent enough facilities.”
Russ makes a face, tired of his own stink. A hot shower and some time to stretch his legs in the truckers’ lounge would be just the thing, so he pulls off the turnpike and parks his truck behind the rest stop facility. It’s another unseasonably mild night for December as Russ steps out of his truck. The snow from a few days ago has melted. As he walks to the building, he half-expects to see Shelley.
Shaking his head, he thinks, Don’t be ridiculous. Why would she be here?
Fifteen minutes later, Russ enters to the longue and drops into one of the comfy chairs. That shower was great. If he’s not careful, he just might fall asleep in that chair. Instead, his stomach growls, so he leaves the lounge after a short while to grab something to eat. He passes the janitor, an older man with a gut, as he mops the dining area. Most of the chairs are up and a wet floor sign warns him to be careful.
Russ orders a burger and sits down at one of the tables with chairs on the floor. Even though it’s the middle of the night, people still wander in and out. While Russ chews his burger, his phone vibrates in his pocket. He reaches for it and pulls it out.
“Hey bro, what’s up?”
“Just stopped off for the night, sis. Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
After he hits “send,” Russ sets the phone down and is about to take another bite when the phone starts to vibrate. Damn it. She’s calling.
“Bran, it’s almost three in the morning.”
“Oh, come on, Russ. You know a mother never sleeps.”
“Jack’s still waking up a lot?”
“He’s only two months old. Maybe if you become a daddy one day, you’ll know what it’s like. You could, you know, babysit–”
Russ chuckles. “Not on your life, Bran.”
“What are you saying ‘no’ to? Being a dad or watching my kids?” Brandy’s accent grows thicker when she gets worked up.
Russ nearly laughs again. “Both. So, okay, what’s up?”
“You’ve got that big birthday coming up.”
“Yeah, don’t remind me.” Russ groans and rubs at his face with his free head, the exhaustion from the day hitting him.
“Okay, I’ll lay off, but you are gonna be home for Christmas, right?”
“That’s the plan. I don’t need my head on that Christmas platter with all of Mom’s cookies for not bein’ home in time. Don’t worry, sis. I’ll be there.”
“Great. But hey, about that party–”
“Bran, enough.” Russ stops talking as he spots her outside the building, walking across the sideway toward the picnic tables. “Hey, I’ve gotta go. Sorry.”
“All right. Talk to ya later.”
Russ ends the call and wraps the last bit of burger up, stuffing it in his coat pocket. He stands and tries not to jog out the doors in his haste to find her. When he catches up with her, he realizes how silly he must look running around out here at an hour like this. Shelley has stopped walking and is seated at one of the picnic tables.
“Hey,” Russ says.
She startles and seems about to stand, but Russ raises his hands in surrender. “It’s me, remember? Russ, the trucker from a few weeks ago?”
Shelley releases a long breath through her nostrils.
As Russ joins her, he keeps some distance between them and remains standing. “You sound like you’re either coming down with something or getting over something.”
“Your breathing. Are you stuffed up?”
“What are you doin’ out here, then?” Russ takes a step closer, hoping he doesn’t scare her away. She shouldn’t be afraid of him, but as he watches her, he can’t help but wonder if she really is crazy.
“I, um, well… What are you doing back here?”
Russ laughs. “I’m a trucker. I drive pretty much the same route from New York to Dallas and back every week. I pass through here a lot.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t have to stop at this rest area.”
Russ half-smiles. “Okay, guilty as charged. Maybe a part of me wondered if I’d see you again. Something about you from last time — the way you were out there in that blizzard around the same time as right now, lookin’ for all the world like you were lost — I dunno.”
“Why would you come here to see if I was here?” Shelley’s voice is guarded. She’s got those weird sunglasses on again, and she’s picking at a hole in the thigh of her jeans.
“Can you at least go inside? It’s damn chilly out here.”
Russ moves to the side to let Shelley pass, but she halts and turns, lowering her glasses to survey him.
“Are you coming?”
“What? Yeah, of course. I just–” I didn’t wanna walk too close. Russ begins to follow, but Shelley keeps her pace slow until he’s next to her, albeit with several feet between them. I guess she thinks I might try something if she can’t see me. “It seemed rude to walk ahead of you,” he settles on.
Shelley shrugs. Once they arrive inside, Shelley removes the sunglasses and stows them in her coat pocket.
“Did you, uh, want something to eat or drink?” Russ offers.
“No, but thanks.”
“You sure? I mean, not to assume anything, but you–”
“You must think I’m homeless.”
Russ’s face heats as he grimaces. “Sorry, but yeah. Why else would you be outside? I thought you might live here or somethin’.”
Shelley walks toward the dining area. While passing the janitor, the old guy stops in his tracks and stares at her with wide eyes.
“Hey, you finally came inside,” the janitor says, smiling slightly.
“Yeah,” Shelley says quietly, avoiding his gaze.
Russ raises his eyebrows, his eyes snapping from Shelley to the janitor. “You two know each other?”
“Wouldn’t exactly say that,” the old man says in a scratchy voice, “but this young lady and I share a cigarette or two together sometimes. Told her to come inside several nights ago.”
“So you’re here every night?” Russ asks Shelley.
Shelley is glaring at the janitor. “Let’s not talk about that, okay?”
The janitor shakes his head and chuckles. “Better luck to you with her,” he says to Russ and shuffles off, the wheels on his mop bucket squeaking.
Russ watches him go and then asks, “Can I at least get you a cup of coffee?”
“If you insist.”
“I do, actually.” As Russ and Shelley approach the coffee place, he wonders why she’s so cold, and he isn’t thinking about the freezing temperature outside that must chill her to the bone.
After she orders a cup of regular coffee, they find seats. Russ pulls the rest of his burger out of his pocket and says, “Hope you don’t mind.”
For a few minutes, they eat and drink in silence. Every so often, Russ glances at her, but her eyes are on the table top.
“My full name is Russell Daniel Jacobs, and I’m about to turn forty in a couple of weeks. I ain’t lookin’ forward to it. Now, Shelley, tell me something about yourself.”
“What?” Shelley sets the cup down with such force that it nearly spills.
“I told you a bit about me. Now it’s your turn. It’s called gettin’ to know each other.”
“Is this what this is?”
“Do you have an objection? Do I have a third eye growing outta my head I don’t know about? C’mon. I ain’t promising I’ll be back here anytime soon…if ever again.”
Shelley creases her forehead. “It’s just been a long time since I have a conversation like this or any reason to have one, I guess. Okay, my name is Michelle Parkinson, but no one calls me Michelle, at least when I had people to call me something.”
A dozen questions whirl through Russ’s head like the snow that’s starting to swirl outside. He stares out the window at their reflections mirrored back against the darkness. Shelley is back to looking at the table like it’s the most interesting thing in the world. He knows if he pushes her too much, she will close up.
For now, it’s enough to know her real name. Russ finishes the burger. If he knew it wouldn’t scare her away, he’d place his large, warm hand over that boney, pale hand that rests on the table next to the coffee cup.
Despite what he said, Russ knows he’ll be coming back here.