Cattle Haul by Jesmyn Ward, 2008
The magic trick:
An on-the-road story that bounces back and forth between the highway and a trucker’s thoughts of life at home
I’m a fervent believer that short stories can save the world. So this summer, as we watch centuries-old problems long unaddressed in American society finally rise to the fore, it sure seems like a good time to invest in the empathy afforded you by reading a short story.
It’s really not difficult. Take a few minutes, read a short story, invest yourself in someone else’s point of view.
So this week we’re spending seven days reading seven short stories by African-American authors. I will concede that this plan won’t fix racism in America. But, hey, a little empathy can’t hurt.
Story one brings us to Jesmyn Ward, one of our great 21st century novelists – Salvage The Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing ranking among her most celebrated titles. But before the novels came this short story, 2008’s “Cattle Haul.”
The story tracks a trucker’s 48-hour drive from Mississippi to Arizona. There is drama and tension in those 48 hours on the road, to be sure. But what is even richer is the way we get to know this driver’s life back home through access to his thoughts during the trip. Seamlessly bouncing back and forth between the present action and the driver’s memories, the story introduces us to several characters and relationships all through brilliant first-person narration.
And that’s quite a trick on Ward’s part.
On the way home, I stopped twice to fuel up and check the pallets, once in Kentucky and once in Ohio. I pushed that rig. I watched the rest of the little bills I had left from the first drive disappear from my pockets to other truckers’ rough, ashy hands and leave lesser things at the stops: lint, receipts for tater chips and cold drinks, packets of blow. I parked in a Flying J truck stop once and slept for three hours with my head on my arms on the steering wheel. Least, I think I slept. I closed my eyes and then opened them and my watch said it was three hours later and I figured it was time for me to get back on the road.
Out in the yard, my daddy got out the rig and leaned against the door to shut it and almost tripped down the step.
I done passed through three weigh stations already and I don’t feel like pulling over, but I hear the cows squealing and I know they need water. The sun been done rose. These Mississippi cows, and I know they hate this kind of weather even more than I do. Ain’t no shade in Texas.
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