THE SECRET TO A LONG LIFE by Kevin Grauke

THE SECRET TO A LONG LIFE by Kevin Grauke

This was back in the seventies when I was still driving a rig for Old Dominion Freight. I had just passed through Carthage in East Texas and was heading north toward Shreveport on US 79. It was long past midnight on a night in August, deep in the middle of those dead hours when clocks seem to stop telling the right time. As per usual for that time of the night, I was going long stretches without seeing any other drivers, which was how I liked it best. No other drivers meant no daredevils, drunks, or dozers to have to keep an eye on. To help stay alert—again, as per usual—I was singing along with whatever the strongest signal I could pick up was playing. Back then, I knew nearly every song for every type of station, no matter if I liked it or not. That night, I had locked in a station playing nothing but Elvis Presley, who’d been found dead in one of his Graceland bathrooms not long before. Lots of stations that week had been paying tribute to the King the same way. It was a mournful time, the passing of an era.

It’s not too hilly along that stretch of 79, but like most two-lanes in most places, there’s still a gradual rising and dipping to the land as the miles unfurl, and the driver of the Ford Granada—the father—took full advantage of this. He also took advantage of there being no moon that night. In fact, I bet he’d been waiting all month for that blackness. Except for the palest of light cast by the stars, it was darker than inside a pocket out there.

With all the lights shining along my cab and trailer, he couldn’t have missed me as we rose and dipped toward each other. Though there was no reason for me to take any special notice of him, I’m sure I saw his headlights as well—that is, until he shut them off when I was out of view for the last time.

We met on the northbound side of the road as I crested a rise. No telling how many trucks he’d let pass because the road had yet to do its part in bringing them together. Only once it was too late, my high beams hit his car, illuminating the insides. He looked so calm, the very picture of peace. Beside him, oblivious, his wife was asleep. This moment lasted no more than a second, but time seemed to slow down and stretch out. Scientists have theories about why this happens, but I’ve got one of my own: our brain wants us to remember our horrible moments most clearly.

By that point in my life, I had driven past—and been involved in—enough bad accidents to recognize the wisdom of wearing a seatbelt, no matter how unpopular that was with most drivers at the time. That’s what saved me—that and the ten-ton cushion of my Kenworth cab. For the three of them in that four-door sedan, seat belts wouldn’t’ve made any difference.

The first thing I remember afterwards was Elvis singing “In the Ghetto” from what sounded like the bottom of a well. Except for something dripping nearby, there was no other sound—just the silence of an empty night. All these years later, I can’t hear the first words of that song without getting clammy and lightheaded. “As the snow flies…”

Lots of folks—friends, family—expected me to move into another line of work once I recovered from my injuries, but what the hell else could I do? I’d never done anything but drive freight, and I was too old to learn something new, so I climbed into a new cab, buckled myself in, and turned the key. As soon as I felt the engine come to life, my hands and feet took care of everything from there. Off the road, though, I didn’t do as well. At truck stops, my reputation often preceded me, even though I’d done nothing a bridge column couldn’t’ve done just as well. I don’t know whether the other truckers ever outright ducked me, but nobody went out of their way to strike up a conversation anymore, either. I’d been tainted with something that nobody wanted to rub off on them: the curse of death.

For several months, that small rise somewhere between Carthage and Shreveport kept coming back to me in nightmares. I stayed confident that I’d move past it eventually.  Ultimately it hadn’t been my fault. I wasn’t the one who shut off his headlights on a moonless night and drifted across the double yellows while his wife slept beside him and their daughter slept in the back. I learned that she’d only just turned three. The daughter. Her name was Marie. The family’s name was Notley. Richard, Candace, and Marie Notley. They’d lived in Lafayette, Louisiana, until the moment Richard introduced everyone to me.

Even though my Kenworth had outweighed his Granada five times over, I still suffered. When the hospital finally released me, the nurses made Lorraine push me to our car in a wheelchair even though I could’ve walked on my own by that point. Outside, I blamed my tears on the first sunshine I’d felt since the morning of.

“Of course, honey,” my wife said. “Of course.”

*

I retired five years later, at the age of sixty-seven. That was thirty-nine years ago, which makes me a hundred and six years old now. My sweet Lorraine died thirty-one years ago, and I’ve lived at Scarborough Personal Care Home for twenty-seven now. We never had any children, so nobody visits me but the grandkids of a guy named Karl who lives across the hall. They only stop by because I keep a bowl of butterscotch candies. You should see how their faces beam up at me, the greedy little things. Their mother, Karl’s daughter, always has a smile for me, too. Sometimes I wonder what she would think if she knew how I still wake in the middle of the night, sweating, shouting at the darkness, crying.

Yes, I did see all three of them afterward. Almost everyone who’s ever learned about that night has asked about this eventually. Once I got myself free, I stood on the asphalt and stared helplessly at their stillness, which was just barely visible in what was, with the obliteration of both our headlights, close to complete darkness. There was the father, Richard, who I would’ve spat on had he still been breathing. There was the mother, Candace, who I felt sorry for, but I couldn’t help but think she should’ve seen this coming. And then there was little Marie, the only one who’d been thrown clear. Before I learned her name, there she was, fully and completely innocent of everything, and I was the only one on the planet who knew she was gone. And there was nothing I could do for her but be her witness.

Late at night when I can’t sleep because the amputee who shares my tiny room snores, I think about how Marie’s been lying under six feet of rich Louisiana soil for almost fifty years now.

Then I’m there again, limping around in the silence, moaning. Just off the highway, I find her curled up in the weeds like a fawn, miraculously perfect in every way. In the pale light of the black sky’s dusting of stars, her skin glows a dim silver. Joyous at having found her, I kneel to rouse her from what looks to be nothing more than deep sleep, but there’s no rousing her. There’s another side of her that I can’t see.

I’ve been the oldest resident here at Scarborough for a while now. Reporters from local newspapers like to ask me the secret of my long life. They want me to say something funny, like cheap whiskey and greasy cheeseburgers, but I don’t cooperate. I lie and tell them the key is getting plenty of sleep. What I can’t say is what I fear might be the truth. That when I touched Marie there along the side of US 79, she gave me all the years ahead of her that she’d lost. She meant it as a gift, the sweet thing, but I don’t want it. I’m tired of being alone, without anyone who knew me before I came to this place, this breathing cemetery. With each night that I survive to see the morning, I grow more afraid that maybe I’m nowhere near the end. And there’s nothing I can do about it myself, not after having cursed Richard for using me to do what he’d done to himself and his family. 

In eleven days, I’ll turn one hundred and seven. The Scarborough staff will throw me another party with a cake from the grocery store, and they’ll make the same joke about how the right number of candles would make for a fire hazard. When it’s time to take the annual photo for the local newspaper, they’ll snap a party hat on my head, tie a balloon to my wrist, and pose their young, cheerful faces all around mine. And if it’s the same photographer, he’ll tell me he’s not leaving until he gets a smile out of me, so I give him one hell of a smile. 


Kevin Grauke has published work in such places as The Threepenny Review, The Southern Review, StoryQuarterly, Fiction, and Quarterly West. He is also the author of Shadows of Men (Queen's Ferry), winner of the Steven Turner Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. He’s a Contributing Editor at Story, and he teaches at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

Art by Levi Abadilla

Read Next: ROADRUNNER by Dave Housley