I chose Selden because of the truck stop. The joke was that the town grew up around the Big N; in fact the town came first, but it only lived on as a fringe of houses around the immense asphalt oasis that enclosed the crosshairs of two interlocking highways in a sprawling complex of cafés, motels, gas stations, and, according to one sign, 2,401 TRACTOR TRAILER–SIZED PARKING SPACES, nearly all of which were always full. The Big N was five miles on a side and nowhere taller than a Greyhound bus, the tar lake of the parking lot a blue-black shimmer amid the amber waves of grain, but its true distinguishing feature was its odor. The smell of that place was so strong it was like a structure, a shelter, camouflage and windbreak both; it hid you and protected you, and for more than two years I roamed freely under its cover. It was all old and new gas, roiling clouds of exhaust pushing into each other like warring thunderheads, fresh diesel fumes snaking through the air like the jet stream, and when occasionally a space opened up in the middle of all that sweet poison what pushed through was the tang of fresh-baked bread. Another sign told you: TEN THOUSAND DINNER ROLLS BAKED FRESH DAILY. Ten thousand rolls, twenty-four hundred rigs, an endless river of passenger vehicles. With the exception of a bathhouse, the good lord has yet to invent a better place for a gay man to get laid.
I was one of the people who made the bread. Every night from eleven until seven the following morning I baked the thirty-three hundred dinner rolls consumed at breakfast time. Sometimes I went in early but usually I stayed on after. I took a shower, changed out of my floury baker’s whites. The public bathrooms were a good place, as was the corridor between the two folded wings of the Trail’s End Motel, but my favorite spot was The Well. No one called it The Well except those who knew to; to everyone else it was just an old-fashioned pump-action spigot out on the western edge of the north lot, and once you learned the drill it was pretty simple. When someone passed by, on foot or in a car or rig, you pumped the handle lazily. Nothing would come out. Nothing ever came out of The Well to the best of my knowledge, but if the passerby happened to stop then what you always said was, “Looks like it’s dry today,” and if the answer you got was, “There’s things besides water,” you knew you were in business. Not that money changed hands every time, but they barely paid minimum wage at the bakery and every little bit helped; and it was by The Well, a month or two before the insurance on Lily Windglass’s second-best car ran out, that I met Trucker.
Trucker. He picked the name out himself. He didn’t want to tell me his real name, which I thought was kind of sweet, an inevitable accompaniment to the anachronism of his wife, whose name I did learn, Judy—Judith—although one time he referred to her as Edith, but I didn’t question him about the slip. Trucker was Trucker as far as I was concerned, and Judy was Judy or Judith or Edith or Edie for that matter, it didn’t matter, her life was nothing more than an unknown array of facts reduced to a name and symbolized by Trucker’s wedding band, just as Trucker’s job as a traveling salesman was represented by the two sample boxes that took up the entire back seat of his silver Cadillac. He was fifty-seven years old when I met him, two hundred seventy-five pounds, four bulbous chins stepping down from his tiny mouth to the sharp swell of his torso, the half dozen strands of his hair floating above his head like a rain cloud, and, like a rain cloud, he passed through town twice a month. He never told me which way was coming from and which way was going to but he always told me when he was coming back, and in two years he never missed a single appointment until he missed those four in a row right there at the very end. I never once saw him walk, never saw the tops of his thighs uncovered by the silk of his suit pants, and I could have believed his ass and back were sewn to the seat of his Caddy save for the fact that he traded in the first car halfway through our acquaintance. I told myself I loved him and I believe I did, as much as I ever loved anyone: I loved him because he let me leave him. Trucker was the first person in my life who never left me and never sent me away, and I think I’d be with him still, even after I received the letter informing me of my mother’s death, if he hadn’t given me all those gifts. But that’s one of the peculiar privileges of being an orphan. Early on you learn the self isn’t a tangible entity defined by a list of enumerable characteristics, it’s just a gray zone defined in opposition to what’s around it. It isn’t a statue, in other words, but the rock carved away. By which I mean I wasn’t heading up to Harlem that morning to find out who or what I was: I only wanted to find out what I wasn’t.
The past makes for a bad traveling companion. It can’t be led but drags you back at every step, distracting you, slowing you down, throwing you off course. What I mean is, I’d needed to change at 96th Street for the local and I almost slept through the stop. I opened my eyes just as the bell signaled the doors’ closing, and I threw myself out of the car and ran straight into the hot sucker punch of the station. I wavered on the platform like a blade of grass. The heat paralyzed me, only instinct kept me upright. The first thing that came back was my hand. My wrist really: it was a quarter after eleven; then I checked the security of the key around my neck. The sun dripped through the sidewalk gratings, painting shadows that mockingly resembled the bars of a cage. Voices fluttered down, the shed feathers of conversations somewhere above me, and as I followed the words I caught sight of a fat black woman whose breasts were underlined by twinned crescents of sweat. She was eyeing a thin shirtless Puerto Rican man a few feet away from me, something that looked like jealousy filling her eyes. When the Puerto Rican man caught the black woman looking at him, she turned belligerent.
“Whyn’t you put your shirt back on?”
The man shifted position with exaggerated nonchalance, scratched his balls. “Whyn’t you mind your own business?”
“You think that turns me on?”
“I’d like to turn you off,” the man said. “At least turn you round.”
A few people standing nearby chuckled. Headlines fanned faces, eyes darted back and forth. The woman had at least a hundred pounds on the man and she moved in a little closer.
“You think I like seeing your skinny-ass chest and ticky-tacky arms? You know what you should do? You should take a bath. I can smell you from here. And whyn’t you pop those zits stead-a leaving them whiteheads all over your chin? You got herpes, boy?”
The man looked angry but distinctly intimidated. “Lady, I’m-a pop something besides a few zits.”
“Yeah, I’d like to see that, you skinny runt.” She stepped closer to him, and I heard the schmear of sweaty feet sliding in sandals. “C’mon, twiggy, let’s—”
Just then the downtown local roared into the opposite platform and, overpowered by its noise, the woman wandered away from the man with her hands on her hips, shaking her head. As she walked off it occurred to me that this was New York. New York was an accident waiting to happen. Even now, the woman was listing toward two boys throwing a baseball back and forth. Teenagers, although in their gleeful ignorance of the ridiculous place they’d chosen for their game they seemed much younger than me—younger than I’d ever been, or at least since it would have been worse if I stayed. The fat woman was talking to her shoes, the pop! of the boys’ baseball against their mitts metered the seconds to disaster like a leaky faucet, and it seemed to me that if the ball did strike the woman then the ensuing bloodshed would be on a par with CARNAGE ON THE GWB.
I looked at the woman’s back. I wondered if Trucker looked like that, from the back, standing: thick and shapeless as a stick of unpulled taffy. I wondered if Trucker had walked into his own baseball as blindly as this woman, and I looked behind me then, saw that the downtown train was still in the station, and quickly, before I could stop myself, and before anyone could stop me—before the baseball struck the woman and she exploded in a shower of blood—I jumped onto the tracks. I hopped over the third rail, pulled myself into the joint between two cars even as the brakes belched a jet of hot air and the train lurched toward 86th Street. I thought I heard a yell behind me but didn’t turn to see if it was the woman being struck by the baseball or someone exclaiming at my recklessness. I just opened the door, sat down in the first empty seat, refused to look at my fellow passengers until I was convinced we were safely in the tunnel.