Apr/May 2009  •   Fiction

Box Beef

by Bob Barber

Clement and Samantha picked me up hitchhiking. It was late afternoon, and hot as hell. Clement offered me a joint.

"Where are we?" I asked.

"Delaware," said Clement.

Clement's forehead sloped like an Indian's, so I figured he was part Cherokee. They were the only Indians I knew. He drove erratically, speeding up, then slowing down. He stared long, slow, and hard at everything we passed, like he was looking for something.

A truck passed us.

"Box beef," I said.

"What?" said Clement.

"He said box beef, dumbass." You could see Samantha's temper in her eyes. They were pretty but older than the rest of her face. Her red makeup was old, too.

"I heard him," said Clement.

"Oh, Lord," Samantha said, tapping cigarette ash out the window.

I apologized to Clement. "That truck over there is carrying a load of box beef."

"How do you know?" Clement asked.

"It's got a reefer, it's from Kansas, it's an independent, it's got a metal seal on the door."

"What's box beef?" he asked.

"It's beef, in a box," I said.

Samantha giggled.

Clement lit a cigarette and stared at the truck. I stared with him. It looked like a giant animal with eyes, a head, and a belly.

"I used to unload those things," I said. Anxious to impress Clement with my strength, I continued, "A box of beef weighs over 100 pounds."

"100 pounds of beef is worth a lot of money," he said.

"Where are you going to sell 100 pounds of beef?" Samantha asked.

Clement looked at me, then back at Samantha. "I ain't no thief," he said. "Can't sell what you don't take." He took a deep draw off his cigarette.

"We'd be better off if you was a thief," said Samantha and looked out the window.

"I'm not a thief, either," I said. "I took a bicycle once, but it was the only time."

"Everybody's took a bicycle," said Clement. "I'm talking about big shit."

"Well, I never stole anything big," I said.

"Me, either," said Clement. He took another drag off his cigarette, then asked, "That metal seal on the truck, what's that for?"

"To show the load's good. It twists off with a pair of pliers. But there's a padlock on that door, too."

"I've got bolt cutters," said Clement.

Clement's driving was no longer haphazard. He was staying close to the truck.

"Just go ahead and rob the fucking thing," said Samantha. "You know you want to."

The way Samantha drawled her words out, and the sight of a cigarette on her lips, made me want her.

I turned to Clement. "Yesterday a truck driver told me he shot a guy breaking into his truck."

"Dude was trying to scare you," said Clement.

"Said cleaning the dead guy off the door was the worst part."

"And you believed him."

"He showed me the gun," I said.

"Nobody better show me a gun," said Clement.

It was dark now. The truck pulled off the highway into a small town. We pulled off right behind it. Our headlights shone underneath the trailer and illuminated a bumper sticker on the tractor. It said, "You suffer when you see me, Darlin'."

The driver parked his truck in front of a McDonalds. A single orange streetlight cast light on the cab. The trailer was in darkness. There was little traffic. The road was straight so we could see anybody coming from a mile away.

Clement pulled into the McDonalds parking lot. The driver walked into the restaurant. We followed him.

He was short and fat with a handlebar mustache. He called the girl behind the counter Darlin', but she didn't smile at him. He left the counter and sat down with two bags of food in front of a window where he could watch his truck.

Clement ordered a single Big Mac meal. Samantha paid for it. We sat down at a table behind the driver and shared the food. We waited for the driver to finish. He didn't turn around to look at us once in 20 minutes. We saw the fat sides of his cheeks chewing as he worked down the burgers. Finally he got up and walked out of the restaurant.

Clement followed him out to the parking lot. Samantha and I lagged behind a little bit. Clement got so close to the driver in the parking lot, I wondered if he was going to assault him.

Clement jerked his right hand out. The driver gave it one shake, then took a step back.

"Mister," said Clement, "We on the right road to Dover?"

"Yes, sir," said the driver. His right hand went to his pocket. He didn't take his eyes off Clement.

Clement held both hands out away from his body, palms down. "Yes, sir, we do want something," he said, smiling at the driver. "We're good country people, but we've had some bad luck. We need gas money to get to my girl's aunt in Wilkes-Barre. Sometimes a driver will pay us $20 to shine their hubcaps for them."

The driver looked Samantha over quickly, then looked at his watch, and finally nodded. "Okay," he said. "I always do like to help out country people." He smiled a fat, broad smile.

Samantha followed the driver to his truck. Clement and I walked back to the car.

"Take these towels," Clement told me, "and start polishing the hubcaps on the tractor. Whistle if the driver gets out of the cab."

He headed for the back of the truck with a pair of bolt-cutters.

I started polishing like Clement told me to.

Country music played inside the cab. I heard Samantha laughing. I ran a towel over the right hub, slowly. The buzz from the joint was wearing off, and I was sleepy. I was worried about Clement. It was hard to open up a truck without making noise.

Then—Crack!—back where Clement was.

I jumped up and ran to the back of the truck. "You gotta keep it quieter than that," I said.

"Gotta get this thing open," Clement said. He hopped up onto the truck bed and loudly rattled the sliding door open.

"Oh, shit," I said, but Clement wasn't paying any attention to me.

Box beef was stacked four boxes high, all the way to the back. Clement threw the first row of boxes off onto the ground.

"Be right back," he said, and ran to get the car.

I started after him but was scared to be out in the open. So I worked my way in tight alongside the edge of the truck.

Then a voice called to me from the front of the truck.

"What do you think you're doing, boy?" the driver said.

I turned towards his voice.

"I'm shining your hubcaps, Mister, like the deal we had," I said. "The ones back here need some work."

"Like hell you're shining hubcaps," he said. "You boys are breaking into my truck."

"No, Mister, that isn't what's going on. I'm just doing what Clement told me to do. I'm new at this, and..."

I saw he was pointing a gun at my chest.

Then I heard a shot, and I wondered if it could really hurt so little to die. But it wasn't me. Instead, the truck driver lost his balance, then fell forward onto his face, as though somebody had pushed him from behind.

Samantha was halfway out of the truck cab, holding a small pistol. Her shirt was off, and her breasts hung down like water balloons in the orange streetlight.

"Shit," she said softly.

I pounded my chest because my heart was beating so fast. Then I ran around the side of the truck to be away from Samantha, away from the gun.

Clement was already at the back of the truck. He didn't appear to have heard the shot or know about the dead driver.

"Help me get this beef in the car," he said.

We got three boxes into the back before Samantha appeared and stumbled into the front seat of the car. We left the rest of the beef on the ground and drove away.

Samantha started to cry. Her shoulders shook. Clement put his arm around her.

We drove to a river and pushed the car in.

Clement built a small fire, and we roasted the beef. Blood and grease dripped onto the coals. The smoke smelled like victory over another tribe.

We fell asleep together, in a pile, against the chill of the night. Later, when the fire died down, I woke up and asked Samantha to make love to me. Clement pretended he didn't hear. Samantha slipped her pants down and slapped the mosquitoes off the side of her ass cheeks for me. It was quick, and it made Clement happy.