4.04 / April 2009

Measure of a Man

Luke at the foothills facing the Smokies for perspective, to be dwarfed, when this evening his flatbed couldn’t, nothing else could. Quit this gazing, the other drivers might see, might call out his nicknames: Hey Jolly Green Giant! What’s doing Tank? Paul Bunyan where’s your ox? Belts tight securing the steel beams, all else looked fine, and he climbed into the rig and jumped out onto the road, what he’d stare down for the next eight hours. Mostly it was a comfort, the rig especially for its solace, his talent at moving the massive vehicle about the world with an ease he’d never accomplish in his own bulky hull, some inches short of seven feet, few pounds shy of 400. But it could be hell when he was nagged by a thought and had 500 miles to chew on it. This time it was a date with Jessie to work over.

When he earlier got to the station, Randy and his shiteating grin intercepted and told “the new girl wants to see you.” He shouldn’t have, but Luke went into her office and she leaned over her desk so to make her cleavage known, a tiger or flower low on her breast, to say, “We should do supper tomorrow. Chinese maybe? Remember I do your schedule so don’t tell me you got work.” She smiled a way to make Luke have to Yes ma’am her and now he tugged his beard and cussed. It wasn’t her—she was a fine-looking woman and nice enough. It was about what it was always about, what sooner or later always turned his experiences with women into carnival freakshows.

Jessie was worked up after Luke left in her office a beastly scent and the ghost of his Man, so much she had to close her door, shimmy down her jeans and get herself off. When finished, she fixed her clothes, reopened the door, sat back at the computer to make busy, calling loud in herself Stupid Jessie, that was stupid. Office clerk at the trucking station was her first stable job in a long time, and the best thing to happen since getting sober. She was without drink coming on a year and was still learning what stable meant from her meetings, her sponsor, and of course, Jesus Christ. In the negative, the definition was easy: not drinking a pint of vodka for breakfast; not getting into fights in grocery store parking lots; not screwing married men and having two boys by the same one; and of course, not being so drunk those boys are nearly killed. A framed photo of them sat totem on her desk to what she almost lost, to what she’s remaining sober for.

Part of her recovery, unfortunately, was abstaining also from men. At least until everything else is in order, says her sponsor. But she’s been good. Things are in good order. And Luke’s different from the others. A good man according to his friend; not trouble, as far as she could tell. She put it together and it made good sense: she’s been good and Luke’s a good man and she deserves it. That he rattled the savage in her just by being near the mountain of him didn’t make it into her equation.

Only an hour staring down the purple mountain road, and Luke had come up with five possible excuses to get out of the date. They all ersatz to the real reason which flickered the windshield of Luke’s mind. These were women’s faces when they saw it: wide-eyed like child postnightmare; blush and turn away for allegiance to Christ, it told; laughter outright; skepticism, probing pubis for prosthesis, then his face for explanation. Only a truckstop prostitute with a vocabulary for these situations gave it to him straight: “Sorry big boy, but that would put me out of work for a year.” Luke shortly after had given up on sex and women, easier to avoid one by the other. So it was with Jessie.

Then Randy crackled over the CB: “Boy, you better not be setting there, scheming out of that date.”

“What you know about it?”

“Did she lean over the desk and squeeze her titties together?”

“Aw shit, I knew you had a hand in this.”

Randy laughed himself into a coughing fit. When he recovered, “Come on man. It’s just supper. Just go on and have a good time.”

A loud, sporty hatchback came up fast on the truck, accelerated, then near cut Luke off. It zipped away into the night, the taillights mocking.

“And who knows? Maybe she’s one of them freaky girls who—”


The next night Luke and Jessie sat at a booth in the Peking Palace off the highway. Dinner buffet-style, Jessie found pleasure watching Luke empty plates. By the third she was up at the tins of steaming food building him another meal. There was nothing to do while he ate but keep up or talk, so she talked, and soon she was saying everything she intended on keeping but for the space to fill and his gentle eyes. Then she reached the part of her story that she vowed never to tell again, where her baby boys were up to their chests in bathwater, Mama passed out on the floor. She wept into her palm, repeating “They saved themselves.” Luke put his fork down and pulled a handkerchief from his overalls and told, “Sons have a tenderness for their mamas always. They’ll have you back when you’re ready.” Jessie looked at Luke from the wadded kerchief.

Luke liked this woman, maybe loved. Loved maybe because she recalled in him his obese sister from Nashville battling her own addiction, pain killers for her back. Or it was his mama who fought to keep a family together, husband and son in prison both for growing acres of cannabis. These women warriors, their tragic stories, fight in them still. Luke spent a good part of his nightly route on a cellphone listening to sister and Mama spill their fears and failures. Listen until only a pause for the night when he gave a line of optimism to tide them over. So with Jessie across the table moving her mouth around her troubles, Luke’s heart instinctively swelled. But with her small hand now on his his body had a new reaction, and he took notice of her green eyes outlined in mascara, part-smeared but sexy for it; sun freckles on her chest, braless and maybe he spied the dark outline of nipples through white cotton but definitely their shape. An awakening in his pantleg.

Stroking his large hand, Jessie didn’t want to wait until the next date or the one after for sex. She hadn’t had a man in a year, and being in the presence of one such as Luke was like sitting before a sweating bottle of Gray Goose.

She tricked him into her trailer with an old standby: there was an ex just out of jail calling, threatening to come by. Would you mind keeping me company a bit? Once in, his size worked in her favor as he was too tall to stand straight. He was still finding comfort on the couch when she was at him, tongue in his meaty mouth and moaning into the hollow, fingering his beard, then using it to pull herself to her knees for better angle. She straddled his leg, her thigh and calf sleuthing what was pulsing. No, that can’t be right. Something other would know, an expert, so she set on it and knew immediately, the heat spreading through her confirmation. There between denim and lace a grinding battle until Jessie’s torso entire spasmed and she used God as a verb. Legs numb and fists full of his gruff, she smiled up at Luke. His cheeks were flush and face contorted looking down.

“Let’s go to the bedroom,” she said.

“Let’s stay right here doing this.”

“Shit.” She stood, yanked him off the couch, and pulled him along.

The old anxiety jittered through Luke as he stepped the small kitchen, the floor whining beneath his boots. In the bedroom the darkness buzzed; the carpet, wood paneling, unmade bed a smell each—the visible slow to follow. This was a familiar room, but so far, the woman was not. Randy may have been right about her. But there was another difference: a growl from the outskirts, the ache of just-about-to-leap. It was in him, and unrecognizable.
She was very thirsty. Stomach doing a dance at the juxtaposition between she and this giant, every possible move right there to be done. But her chest clamored danger. How would this be possible? Her thigh had memory and it was now calling out the measurement stained on the skin, big enough to get the attention of her whole stiffening body. The disease reacted differently: the taut chord from heart to pussy plucked, both tickle and ache. She pulled her dress off, pushed down panties, careful to keep watch of him. She was ready for anything now.

Naked she made more sense as her skin narrated her story: inked with names and skull themes, the type you’ve learned to quit regretting, scars here and there you’ll always regret. Muscle and a fierce skeleton belied femininity, but her breasts and pubis offered tenderness. Still, she stood before him as though to attack, that hurricane tension before a bar fight. He unlatched his overalls to fall at his ankles and pulled at the button snaps of his shirt to signal ready though he wasn’t. No man is ever he just does.

The dogs her daddy used to train for fighting in the backyard were taught not only to be fearless before danger but for the danger itself to trigger attack. The bigger the thing set before it, the wilder the dog got. Her daddy got good at building props of bears and lions, and he’d let Jessie help glue on the fur from her stuffed animals she enjoyed skinning. At eight years old she even helped train the dogs, especially when he was too drunk. It was every day after school for years until she realized she got trained too; fights with bigger, older girls; fights with boys; and now. The site of Luke’s heavy, hanging enormity set her off.
She came at him and he flinched and might have swatted from reflex if she wasn’t so quick. She worked on him wildly, then shoved him down on the bed and the bed’s legs gave, the thump hardly heard for the humming thrill. She climbed him and buried her tongue in his beard, her sour dick mouth. God, this will happen his head sang. Her mighty momentum, she rolled off, pulled him, and they were switched, bodies fuckready. Then she spoke words more phantom than form so at first they frightened. “Be good to me.” A sudden suck and white blaze. Stars, actual stars.

She was caught calling the double-o of good, mantra to a meditation that might have lasted hours. There was no feeling, then all feeling, filled up everywhere. Until space was discovered.

“Give me some more” to his eyes the twinkle of all she could see.

He did. She outright hollered.

“You okay?” he made to retreat but she quick as all snatched him firing “Don’t you dare.”

She took hold the meat of his hips, and her throat cleared to make way for these words: “Now give it to me goddammit.”

He was being mindful about what and how he gave. He was being good. But her teeth clipping his chest between calling out pornstyle, some words, most not, tugging his beard and hair—his brain switched off for the call of this fuck. His animal was taking over and it was ravenous.

The pounding, painful rhythm was delivering her elsewhere. She was learning something Eastern, thrust to opposite ends where those ends met. At each violent stab was rapture, where agony found orgasm, both distinctly felt. Her body told it better: biceps taught pulling him down; feet flat on his quads in leg-press push.

Luke was no more, lost to primal instincts. His buttocks had a surge working, a fantastic urgent pressure and his body worked furiously to deliver it. She screamed out Good or God as her whole body said to kick, moving beast back. The motion resulted in him kneeling idol-style before her, panting.

The room’s spinning slowed to a stop and faculties found him. He found her body like casualty, legs splayed as if permanent, unmoving but thank the Lord heaving. He completely Luke again, she too was another now: a mother with estranged boys, with disease for drink, with hopes for better than this and maybe she can’t. What things he’d done. How he’d treated her body.

“Fuck you if you’re pitying me.” Then she pulled Winstons and matches from the nightstand drawer, eyeballs hard on him.


Lighting and drawing. “Be sorry for that look on your face,” each word a chapter of smoke, “not for fucking me.”

Now kneeling in the center of this bed gone collapsed—or being in this room, this trailer—intolerable. He looked for his clothes.

“Come lay with me.”

She shimmied to the side, patting the space newly made. He fumbled to fill it, trying for invisibility along the way. Crater made by his bulk, their skin touching unavoidable. He made still.

An assurance itched her tongue, but she didn’t have mothering in her, not that moment, not for the man who just rocked her understanding of sex. Man up she wanted to snap, but smoked hard instead.

No, she’ll let him mope some. She’ll smoke another stale cigarette second in a year. Then she’ll summon the Man back, a host of ways to do it still to be done.

Jessie moved in with Luke a few weeks later. He had a house way off the highway in the peace of the mountains. Comfortable and lived in, but not by him. An older woman who made pies maybe, quilts on perfectly-made beds. Still she had a notion of herself as his woman: good woman for good man, she’d never known either. She didn’t cook since most her life she’d been holding a grudge against domesticity. But for Luke she’d try, so dinners were gummy spaghetti, watery Hamburger Helper, exploded microwave hotdogs.

The sex they were figuring out, but no less messy. Trial and error told which positions worked and which didn’t. She wasn’t sad to see her favorites go nor to be restricted to just a few since they all seemed new. They’d have to be careful, though, and every night they’d start careful. And every morning Jessie promised her body she’d take the night off to recover. Then she’d glimpse him changing or see it obvious through his pajama bottoms. It scared hell out of her; there was no way to refuse it.

Luke loyal to the company for fifteen years asked the boss to switch his overnight routes to daytime so he could have nights off with Jessie. Whatever makes you happy big man, and he was on the road to a normal relationship. Morning papers, evening mountain walks, primetime TV under a blanket—he wanted to tell someone about this good life, especially when on the road. But Randy no longer shared his route, and Mama and his sister were suspicious of Jessie even though he left out the unflattering details. They said she was after something and to watch out, most women are no account. Luke objected politely, and quit calling.

His time in the truck away from her he also passed studying another Luke he’d come to know. The one who takes over at night, a carnal, greedy other self. Recollection of him, of the sex, is vague but frightening as violent details tend to sneak up as if they hung in the corners of the cab cobweb, spring on his neck and creep icy on his skin. He’ll have to be careful. He’ll sit Jessie down tonight and talk about it how couples do. Hours to go to rehearse it.

Riding the shoulder striking a match for cigarette, Jessie was on her way to Target, fifth time that week. The bedroom armchair displayed new blouses, skirts, dresses, pants, tags still, receipts somewhere. Maybe the clothes couldn’t make her good mama to her boys; maybe no perfect dress to apologize for her neglect. She was to meet them tomorrow for lunch. After six years she out-of-the-blue called and too easily convinced their father’s grandparents to allow it. It was too soon. What outfit? What to say?

You could say she found herself there, but alcoholics, especially sober ones, are always aware of their proximity to drink, near or far. It involved agency driving past Target, parking, purchasing deftly, moving car to a desolate corner of the lot bottle between legs like erection. She blasted the radio but no decibel high enough to interfere the yelling-out objections.

She was in twisting motion when Luke opened the door.

She was supposed to be at the station when Luke returned from his route, like always. The boss was chewing Luke out over Jessie’s absence, until Luke, panicked, told him to fuck himself and raced off to find her. Not at home, not in the bar nearby, liquor store in the Target shopping center was the next stop.

She looked at him a child but her hands on the bottle a savage clutch. He leaned over her to turn the radio down, then “Maybe I should hold that.”

“I think you’ll have to take it.”

He did, a hard, swift yank. Detached from the bottle, her strength left and she crumpled to tears. Luke helped her out of the car and into his truck, then drove her home.

He made dinner. Chicken-fried steaks, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes and sawmill gravy. He was a wonder with a knife, a wizard with oils, a witch with spices.

“You big son of a bitch,” she laughed from the table watching him work. “We’ve been eating shit spaghetti two weeks straight.”

Dredging steaks he shrugged, “Seemed to make you happy.”

“Make me happy,” she echoed, getting behind him hugging his belly, watching as he laid battered meat into the snapping oil. “I’m going to get you a nice frilly apron.”

“I look good in pink.”

They laughed, a lot during the meal at no joke really. They fed each other, she’d sit on his lap eat off his plate. They were getting up often, getting more, just moving around. She came to the table with two drinks. Making no notice of it, done while telling a funny story that demanded attention. Still laughing, still playing—it must be okay. She must have exaggerated her disease to be able to drink so casually, make it look so ordinary. Alcoholics chug not sip; they drink in alleys, not out in the open. She wasn’t hiding it so it must be okay. Two more drinks won’t hurt anyone. They were hysterical, his stomach ached from it. He never drank and he’d never had a better time. By the third round, drunk already, he was the one pouring the vodka. He must have left he bottle in the truck. When did she get it? He was feeling too good to care.

The playing suddenly turned lascivious. He had grabbed her arm for reason unknown and that was all it took. The familiar seduction on her face now spoke meanness. She might have told him to fuck off swinging her arm from his harmless hold, just before grabbing his dick through his jeans. “I want to mash that monster cock” said her mouth but her eyes didn’t tell it. She pulled her shirt off and stumbled to the bedroom. Luke stumbled after.
Staring each other down, sizing the other up, they talked all manner of nasty while undressing; these were nightmarish scenes they forged not even in whisper. The graphic rhetoric riled them, and like things unspeakable spoken, the not-dared was done—smack punch choke and gag, but rapacity unfed, so she’s on her face, hands for pulling herself apart; he’s standing behind double-fisting his hulk'”where it couldn’t be undone ever.

Police siren, fire drill, alarm clock—telephone. You answer telephones. He made his arm reach to the nightstand, pick it up. It was 11 AM. Jessie wasn’t in bed. She couldn’t be.

She was on the phone.

“I’m in the hospital. Don’t come see me.”

Phone still ringing. Breathing. Very blue sky through curtain crack.

“Did you hear me!”

“I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Big fucking bastard.” His brain wasn’t working but at least now it knew to search the room for clues. He might have spotted something—“I was supposed to have lunch with my boys today.” At boys her voice crashed but she had more. “After six years get to see my babies now I can’t I can’t goddammit.” After an interminable whine where he hadn’t even context to console, the phone hung up.

It was a stain on the sheets, a bad dark color. A pattern of it went out the door. His truck was not in the drive. Something was coming to him. His heart jerked and he flung sheet from his body. Jekyll discovering Hyde’s bloody cane. That was where the night was hidden. He gripped his fat head and growled to abate the grisly images but they came faster and didn’t quit until he crumbled the nightstand with his heel. The phone laid easily defeated, dial tone its taps.

Now he wanted to talk to her, ask her how bad, plead forgiveness. But he went back through what she told and found she didn’t want to hear him or see him, ever is what he figured and who could blame her.

A sudden fantasy emerged so vivid he dared try it: tearing the curse clean off, many problems solved. There was even a Bible verse for it. He made to do it, but a cautious tug was all he managed. He wasn’t man enough, is what it came down to. But what does it mean? After all this time, stacking up pounds and inches, what’s the measure of it? Does it measure up? All men knew but him.

There was something she said he could do, but if he thought on it too much he couldn’t do it. He jumped off the bed, staggered into the ransacked kitchen, to the calendar pinned next to the phone. Jessie’s scribble said there was time.

He showered and changed, chugged out into the cool, bright afternoon. The sun hard on his hangover, but welcome. He had another vehicle in the garage and thank God it had some gas in it. He got in and sped down the highway in the shadow of the mountains where he’ll always be small and the road that runs along them should always be the right road. That’s the only wisdom Luke’s ever known and it’s still hard to live his life by.

No hesitation, he charged into the restaurant bypassing hostess to scan the booths. There, near the window, two boys building a pyramid from coffee creams.

He went straight for them, their eyes wide as he neared. Their eyes the same fierce as their mama’s which said they’d spend most their lives in fights, they’d always see one. Runty now, they’ll grow to scrappy men, the types who tease far bigger men for the thrill. They’ll get away with it too since bigger men don’t know what to do with smaller, reckless ones. The smaller are never expected to win so they’ve already won if they brave the fight. But if they are engaged, unless lucky, they’ll find themselves badly broken, and meaner.

“I’m Luke, your mama’s man.”

Jessie was tired of meanness. Sick of broken. This the worst she’d ever known. Gauze stuffed up in her and twenty stitches the least of it: maybe the last chance to ever see her boys, her position at the station probably replaced, off the fucking wagon, her life ruined again. And Luke, if only she could settle all the blame on him. How easy it would be to blame it all on a man, on a dick or a bottle.

Lying on her stomach in the hospital bed staring at daytime talkshows where lives should be worse than hers but not, she heard herself say: “I should fuck him in the ass.” It was in the room, the air, and it came back to her as if said twice, clearer this time and piercing the swamp in her head. The thought grew, took on detail. She was in a porn shop, picking out the biggest strap-on she could find; she was holding it up for Luke to see, the fear in his eyes; he was on all fours and she was giving it to him as good as any man; and he was taking it like a man.