Listen (31:11) Inside the Matryoshka
My one unbreakable rule was never pick up a hitchhiker. And never at night. But at the far edge of the headlights this girl showed up in the breakdown lane near mile marker 381, kind of humped over as if she didn’t even know I was bearing down on her . . . not like a hooker who’d be standing straight with her hand waving shoulder-high and her head tilted like a come-on . . . or some hidden robber’s decoy girl waving with both arms like the ship was sinking. I slowed with no thought of stopping. She stumbled into the slow lane and crumpled to the ground; I swerved left to keep from killing her. I checked the mirrors, black except the yellow glow-dots of my running lights. I pulled onto the breakdown lane, put on flashers, climbed down, and walked back to her. I didn’t see no movement in the darkness of roadside pine forest.
A pickup truck passed on the other side of the highway but didn’t even slow, its lights flickering among the trees in the wide median. There were no Good Samaritans.
She was breathing hard and raspy. I turned her over; her pale skin glowed a faint red in the taillights, increasing to a supernatural yellow hue with the pulse of a flasher. A girl close to a woman but thin as an antenna. Nose a little too big and lips too skimpy to ever be pretty. I got her up in the cab on the seat half conscious and half sitting, and I closed the door quick to keep her from falling out. We were a hundred and fifty-two miles from Memphis. Still hadn’t seen any more vehicles, or anybody. I geared up to seventy. I tried to call 911 but got no signal. Couldn’t raise anyone on the CB this far out and deep into night. She’d curled up on the seat. She moved with a jerk once, but then I thought she’d passed out.
I got the dispatcher at the state patrol when I was in range. I began to give my location. With a swipe of her hand on the toggle switch, she cut off the radio. She was awake, and she wasn’t stupid.
“Don’t you ever touch nothing on this dashboard,” I said. “Never.” Her dark eyes didn’t shift when you looked at them. “I’m calling the cops,” I said.
She opened the door, pushing it against the wind like she was strong. She climbed out on the step-up, one hand on the doorframe, the other holding the door open. She’d kill herself at this speed. I braked, but soft-braked slowly enough not to throw her off. When I was down to fifteen, she jumped.
I stopped, ran back. She was moaning. Her arm and legs bled from scrapes. Her nose was bleeding. I wasn’t sure what to do.
She raised herself on all fours, like a little dog, and looked up at me. “No police,” she said. She stood wobbling a little . . . lunged toward me and pounded my chest with her fists. I wrapped my arms around her to make her stop and I held her for a few seconds before pushing her away at arms length. She seemed more human up close. “Come on. I got some mercurochrome in the first aid kit.” She backed away shaking her head no but I picked her up and carried her to the truck.
We were rolling a few minutes later; she was on the seat fast asleep and breathing through her mouth, her nose all crusted with blood. I was thinking about where I should drop her off in Memphis without getting too far off my route.
It was the loneliest time of a trip, the hours before first light. I missed my wife, Madeline, worst during those times. God bless her. She was at home in Oregon, a good woman . . . worked as a dispatcher for a trucking firm. Parents ran a motel on the coast road near Gold Beach, now retired. She was the only woman I ever had . . . married her right out of high school . . . and I was proud too. I was probably the only faithful trucker on that Interstate for three hundred miles either way. Vile women had tempted me at truck stops a couple times, both in Texas, but with a little prayer, God helped me pass them by. Madeline and I had no kids. She was too old now, and it weighed on her in silent times.
The dark outside the cab–black as road tar–made me lonely and I called Madeline on my cell when I was in range. “It’s the middle of the night, Clarence. Where are you?” she said.
“Missing you, babe.” She went silent with that bit of sweetness. Talk like that meant a lot to her.
“I got this kid in the cab.”
Madeline was still waking up. “A kid?”
“I don’t know. Maybe seventeen. She was passed out on the road,” I said to Madeline softly to let the kid sleep. “She jumped out of the cab.”
I passed a pickup truck going about forty, the bed loaded with chairs, a stove, a refrigerator, a mattress, cardboard packing boxes with the lids flapping, and the trailer hitch sending sparks flying when it scrapped the highway.
“Is she hurt?” Madeline asked.
I shook the girl’s shoulder to wake her up. I put Madeline on the hands-free speaker.
“Where are you going?” I asked the girl. She was looking at me but said nothing. A car passed going the other way.
“Look,” I said, “You either talk or I’m putting you out on the road and calling the State Patrol.”
“Tatyana,” she said weakly.
“Ask her where she’s from,” Madeline said over the speaker.
But the girl had closed her eyes and gone limp, like she’d fainted. I wasn’t sure it was real.
“She’s bleeding,” I said to Madeline. “It’s all over the seat.”
Three blackbirds flapped into the air from a road-kill deer carcass. I swerved. “Gotta go,” I said to Madeline as I hung up. I was trying to call the state patrol again when I saw a green exit sign to this town, Parkland, and a rectangular blue hospital sign attached to the bottom.
It wasn’t no regular hospital . . . a doc-in-the-box operation. I left the girl in the cab and pushed the door buzzer. A muscular woman, close to six feet, two-hundred-and-fifty pounds, with a white lab coat over jeans and a tee shirt, opened the door. “She got insurance?” she asked me. I told her I got nothing to do with the girl. What would I know? She glared. “She’s hurt,” I said and the woman signaled with her hand for me to carry the girl from the truck. I laid the girl on a rolling exam table.
“One hundred and fifty bucks,” the woman said. “Cash . . . we don’t take charity.”
“You the doc?” I asked.
She started to cover the girl with a sheet.
“I’m leaving,” I said.
The woman shrugged. I got in my rig and called Madeline again.
“You’ve done all you can,” Madeline said. “More than most.”
Well, that wasn’t really true. I could of paid for her treatment. But the doc would take care of her. I thought she had to by law. And they’d find out where the girl came from . . . and where she was going.
I cranked the motor. The girl came running out the door, the woman in the lab coat running after her. The girl fell and the woman grabbed her, dragging her kicking back into the office. I followed, leaving the truck running with the door open.
The woman was holding the girl down in a waiting room chair leaning on her shoulders. The girl’s nose blood had clotted, but a scrape on her arm still oozed. Another woman in scrubs was on the phone behind a reception desk.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“She can’t pay. And she got no Medicaid.”
“You ain’t done nothing,” I said.
“The doc examined her,” she said. “She’ll live. She owes.”
“It ain’t been three minutes?”
“Pay up. Seventy-five dollars will do it.”
Fear topped out in the girl’s eyes.
I didn’t see no diplomas on the wall, or pictures of medical-school buildings with emergency vehicles out front. And I wasn’t paying seventy-five dollars for a three-minute exam.
“Come on,” I said to the girl.
The big woman moved to stop us; the girl kicked her and I pushed the woman so she fell to the floor on her back, struggling to get up. I grabbed the girl’s arm and we headed out the door.
The girl climbed into the truck on her own and we we’re moving by the time both women were standing in the door, one with a pen and paper, the other peering at us through the early morning dark. I turned off the lights so they couldn’t see the plates. We’d done nothing wrong, but they’d invent something if they could think of it.
We were on the up ramp to the interstate. The girl’s nose was swelling. She grinned like we’d escaped together. I gave her a high five.
“What the hell did you do?” I asked.
“I do nothing now.”
“So why you running?”
“I leave place where I work.”
“You got no home?”
She shook her head no.
“Where you trying to get to?” I asked.
“I sing good.”
“Well, just go to Memphis. Lots of singing there.”
She coughed, and I saw blood in her hand.
I got Madeline on the line. “I didn’t feel good about leaving her,” I said.
“You aren’t thinking about bringing her home, are you?”
“I got a deadline.”
“Leave her at a rest stop. Call the cops.” The girl’s face scrunched with worry listening to Madeline. I smiled at her. I wasn’t going to leave her at no rest stop. And she had no place to go. “I’ll figure something out,” I said to Madeline and hung up . . . the girl smiled.
I drove straight through, napping only two hours near Boise. I fed the kid from the cooler, and she slept in my bunk behind the cab. When she woke, she told me the family she worked for didn’t treat her good. She was an oh pear, or something.
I asked her about her family. In Russia, she said. Six brothers and sisters. Mom and dad worked on a farm.
“You got a visa?” I asked.
She threw up all over the seat. Yellow and green with flecks of blood.
“Clean it up,” I said, handing her towel from my side door panel. “I ain’t stopping till I get out of Idaho.” Eighteen hours later I dropped off the trailer on time.
Madeline was not happy about me bringing home a stranger. But she’d been waiting for me and had fixed a pizza and iced tea like she always did when I got in. “She needs a doctor,” I said to Madeline, telling her about the blood. Madeline was already fixing her ice cream with chocolate sauce.
We took her to a real doctor. Had x-rays and all. The girl had a broke nose, was anemic from her monthlies, malnourished, and her leg scrapes were infected. She had sinusitis and an ear infection. I had to shell out three hundred bucks from my cash reserve account for fuel when the price of diesel went up again.
I went straight to bed when we got home.
“Tatyana says the man whose family she took care of in Alabama molested her,” Madeline said to me at breakfast in the morning. The girl was still asleep.
“I thought it was Mississippi. That’s where I found her. She ought to have turned him in.”
“She said she tried. But the guy was mayor of the town and the police wouldn’t listen.” Madeline had found purpose. The girl told her she had been heading west for more than a month when I found her.
“Where was her stuff then?” I asked. “Her backpack? Her plastic garbage bag? It was like she’d left home twenty minutes before I saw her.”
“She doesn’t have a family in Russia except for an aunt whom she’s seen only a few times,” Madeline said.
“Not what she told me.”
“She’s sweet,” Madeline said, not willing to face up to Tatyana’s not keeping to her stories. “We can’t neglect her.”
“We can’t neglect something don’t belong to us,” I said.
“Be kind,” Madeline said.
Well, Madeline had already taken the girl as family into her mind. And I wasn’t being unkind, but I had a feeling that keeping the girl forever meant we was in for hard times.
Weeks passed. When I was home, Madeline and I almost never ate together anymore. At first the girl would go into the kitchen and paw through the pantry or move stuff in the refrigerator to see what might be on the back shelves to eat in her room. She liked sweets and cheeses, and pizza, and seemed to have no trouble using the oven or the microwave. Then Madeline began cooking for her, taking a tray of food into the girl’s room to sit with her when she was hungry. When I was on trips, Madeline spent her time trying to give the girl a good American life. She bought her magazines and comic books to help her English. But mostly the two of them watched TV . . . sitcoms, and American Idol, in the girl’s bedroom, on our big screen TV Madeline had moved special into the girl’s room and bought me a used sixteen-inch screen to watch hockey or football in the kitchen. Madeline quit her job and she took the girl to the mall almost every day. They sat at tables in the food court and watched people or walked around and stared in the display windows of the jewelry stores. And, as the girl healed up, Madeline bought her clothes that made her look pretty good. She was a lot more woman than I thought.
I got back from a trip to Galveston after a swing north with a half load to Minneapolis. I worried about my precious Madeline, like she was a woman who cared a lot and always seemed to be a set up for never-ending hurt.
Tatyana was in her room with the TV on loud. I sat Madeline down at our round metal-topped kitchen table. She wouldn’t look at me except for a passing glance.
“We got to do something,” I said. “She’s illegal . . .”
“You don’t know that!” Madeline snapped.
“I do. And you do. She can’t stay here for the rest of her life.”
“She’s alone in the world. She’s afraid. She can’t see the future.”
“She wants to go to California. Be a singer.”
“She wants to be a doctor.”
“And I want to be a ballerina,” I said.
“Don’t get smart. She told me,” Madeline said with a scowl. “She’s really a dear soul.”
“She lied about her family,” I said.
“She made a mistake.”
“Well, she goes out at night. Don’t think that goes by me.”
“She has her friends.”
“Have you seen them?”
She got up from the table; went to the girl’s room. Why was she so angry?
Two weeks later, at breakfast, before the girl would be up, Madeline sat with me at our kitchen table. . . her jaw set. “I’ve seen the way you look at Tatti now, Clarence. I don’t like it.”
I swallowed. “What does that mean, Madeline? Just what does that mean?”
“I’m going back to work. I’ve got a starting date. You’ll be here sometimes . . . between trips. That worries me.” Madeline glared.
I shook my head. “We can’t have her alone in the house,” I shot back. I never looked at Tatyana funny! “I don’t trust her,” I said. She wouldn’t tell us the truth about her past.
“I trust her more than I do you,” Madeline said. The first time I ever remember my sweet Madeline saying anything so mean. I couldn’t think of a comeback. And I was hurt.
Fall came; the leaves turned, and the temperature was mild on the Sunday Madeline, Tatyana, and me went to the Presbyterian Church together. Tatyana wore a new swirl-print, blue-dress and shoes with them heels that made her legs look like she wasn’t a kid anymore. We took a pew half-way back in church center, Tatyana between Madeline and me. Tatyana smelled fresh and clean, a mixture of strong girly soaps and shampoo. She slid next to Madeline to leave two to three inches between me and her but I still felt how near she was, enough to make me want to stare at her, see how attractive she’d become, and I had to think hard to be sure I kept staring straight ahead, looking toward the preacher, when my mind was full of her. She weren’t a kid no more. She’d slipped into being a woman. I felt Madeline’s side-glances.
When the first hymn started we had only one hymnal in the wood slot on the pew in front of us. Madeline held it cause she had sung in the choir but she held it so Tatyana and me could see. I moved closer to Tatyana, looking to the page to see the words. I could feel her breathing. I was in the breeze of her singing. Her eyes were crinkled with effort and her tone had the breathy sound of a singer in Memphis or New Orleans. She’d been listening to “Oldies.” Once, I touched her hair when I handed a prayer book to Madeline, hair soft and silky from combing. It was only an instant but the memory of the touch stayed with me.
When we got home, Tatti went to her room, keeping away from me as much as she could. And over the next few days, it got worse–her avoiding me, not looking at me.
Then I was on the road for a week weaving down the West coast to Tijuana, then to Dallas, and up through Arkansas to pick up I-40 and my thinking got jumbled about Tatti; I wanted to make her happy, make her stop ignoring me when I was home. So I bought her a kitten for two dollars from a litter some farmwoman was selling at a roadside vegetable stand just off a state route near Little Rock. Cuddly little black and white mixed-breed maybe two weeks old.
At home, I took Tatyana to the cab. She crawled into the back to find her present. When she came out, her eyes glowed with pleasure. Madeline held back near the kitchen door looking at Tatyana but not at me.
Later that evening I talked to Tatyana during a commercial break that I muted while the three of us were watching Dancing with the Stars that Madeline had on the big screen in Tatyana’s bedroom. The three of us watching together was a first, the two of them had always watched alone while I took in football and hockey on that used sixteen-inch screen in the kitchen. Tatti smiled once at me. I think it was the kitty. But it might have been the TV show.
“You still want to go to Hollywood?” I asked.
“She’s decided to stay here,” Madeline said.
“What you going to do?” I asked Tatyana.
“Be dresser of hair,” she said.
“She’s going to be a cosmetologist,” Madeline said.
“Still got to be legal.”
I leaned toward Tatyana. “How’d you get in the states?” I asked.
“That’s not a fair question,” Madeline said.
“Nothing wrong if there is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I lied my years I have. Big boobs help make them believe.” She cupped a hand under each still adolescent breast and lifted up like delivering two cinnamon buns. She was grinning, the space between her front teeth looking kind of sweet.
“Tatti,” Madeline scolded. She was not smiling. In truth, I found it a little crude for an innocent Christian girl but when I looked again at Tatti her eyes were sparkling with mischief that I had never seen before, and I had to smile. But she hadn’t answered my question about how she got into the country.
From that time on, Tatyana was at home in our house. And she was kinder to me. I helped her get a job as a waitress in truck stop a few miles away from home where they asked no questions and paid wages in cash from the till. I dropped her off and picked her up at work when I was in town. Her English was getting better and she talked about her mother and father in Russia. She was an only child. Her father was a doctor and her mother worked in a factory. I told her what she’d told me before. And what Madeline had said about her family. I asked why she lied; she got flustered and wouldn’t talk to me. In bed that night, Madeline insisted Tatti was the kindest, sweetest child she’d ever known . . . and would never lie. Just confused.
The next month I picked up a trailer from a transcontinental shipper for delivery and decided to go home early even though I’d arrive after ten. I parked my cab in the yard, backing in so my headlights wouldn’t piss off the neighbors who went to bed at seven right after the evening CNN news. The front window of our house glowed yellow behind a drawn shade; the window in the kitchen glared white from the fluorescent ceiling bulbs. I’d never seen that many lights on this late.
I went into the house through the unlocked front door. There was light under Tatti’s door. I knocked. No sound. I opened the door to Tatyana’s bedroom. She stood nude a few feet from me. Her small breasts slippery with sweat, perfectly matched with nipples the faint pink of her smeared lipstick. My heartbeat quickened. She had filled out up top with feminine curves from Madeline’s good care, but her legs–still young and slightly knock-kneed–were bent-in like willow branches. She made no attempt to hide her privates, fine hair the color brown of tree bark and looking soft. I stared. Finally she moved, her face without the slightest emotion at seeing me, and looked at herself in the cracked fragments of a shattered full-length mirror taped to the back of the bathroom door. The door opened.
A dark-haired boy walked out of the bathroom; he put on a long-sleeved white shirt but was carrying jeans and wore flip-flops with nothing else. His limp dick swayed slightly as he moved. He was grinning.
I grabbed him by the back of the neck. I had more than a hundred pounds on him and he was a foot shorter than me.
“Hey,” he said. “Fuck off, man.” But I moved him fast and shoved him and his clothes out the front door. Tatyana still stood in front of the mirror pieces. She was admiring what she saw, and smiling.
“Get dressed,” I said. I went through the room, found everything that I thought belonged to her. She turned to watch but held her ground. I stuffed all her belongings into two pillowcases. I grabbed her–still half-naked in unzipped jeans–by the arm.
“That hurt,” she whined.
I shoved her out the front door toward her stuffed pillowcases. I didn’t see the boy.
“You mean man,” she called back to me. She spat on the ground.
“You’re a whore,” I said. It wasn’t just anger. I felt betrayed.
I slammed the door locking it again, this time with the deadbolt. A few seconds later I heard her pounding on the back door; she twisted the knob. But I ignored her.
I sat in my TV recliner chair with the TV off for many minutes till my breathing slowed. I called Madeline at work, but she didn’t pick up and I hung up when the phone went to voice answering. Tatyana didn’t stop pounding. Damn, I felt sorry for her. Thought about her being afraid in the dark. Still, to teach her a lesson, I waited till just after midnight before I let her in. She brushed by me without a word and I imagined the feel of her.
“Sinner,” I said as she went back to her bedroom.
Madeline came home after midnight.
“You’re still awake?” she asked me. “Tough gig?”
I didn’t answer.
“What’s up Clarence? You look exhausted.”
“I kicked her out.”
“Tatyana? Where is she?”
I shrugged nodding toward the bedroom. “I put her and her stuff out the door.”
“My God,” Madeline said.
“She was screwing some sloppy pimply kid.”
“That’s impossible.” Madeline went to Tatyana’s room. I heard yelling and crying. I stayed in my chair but couldn’t sleep. I didn’t talk to Madeline until the next morning.
“She wasn’t screwing that kid,” Madeline said. “She told me.”
But Madeline couldn’t look me in the eye when she said it. Madeline had come to love Tatyana like a daughter. It was what she wanted in life and it blinded her to what was real in the world.
The next day Tatti told Madeline I was a dirty old man. That I was spying on her. My mind was in a pigsty, or something like that. She never wanted to see me again. The following day, Tatti spent the night out and Madeline didn’t know where.
“She won’t live where she’s not wanted,” Madeline said to me.
“She did wrong.”
“She made a mistake. Letting him in. She didn’t have sex with him.” But I knew Madeline wouldn’t believe any dirty truth about Tatyana; she couldn’t think bad about her girl.
“I thought she was better than that,” I said.
“She still doesn’t like the way you look at her.”
“That don’t make it an excuse,” I said.
“She’s afraid you might do something.”
“Aw, Maddie.” I was angry as hell. But later that day the memory of nude Tatyana touched my heart with a sweet longing coated with pain I couldn’t keep out . . . and I didn’t feel good about it.
Next morning I left before dawn to pick up a container in San Francisco. It was afternoon before I got to the pier to wait my turn . . . hours where I could only think about what had happened. I pasted a snapshot of Madeline and Tatyana I’d taken when we went to church months ago, and I cut out Madeline with a knife so I could see Tatyana standing alone. I just wish I’d never seen her with that kid. And I was even more ashamed at the excitement she still stirred in me.
I was home by the end of the week. I didn’t try to talk to Madeline while I was on the trip, and she didn’t call me. When I saw Madeline, she was passed out in my recliner, her mouth open and snorting, an almost empty bottle of Jim Beam on the floor. I’d never known her to take a drink of alcohol.
Tatyana had moved out. I thought Madeline had finally caught her in a lie . . . but no, Tatyana said she didn’t want to stay in a house with me. Madeline thought I’d made Tatyana leave, the way I looked at her, accusing her of sex she didn’t do. Tatyana was afraid, Madeline said. She’d gotten a job in a shoe store at the mall on a fake ID Madeline had paid for last month, and she was living with an immigrant family on the Southside, although I wasn’t sure Tatti wasn’t shacked up with a guy. That’s what I said to Madeline. She refused to talk to me and the air was so electric in the house I got a pickup job to Colorado so I could get back on the road and be alone for a while.
When I got back home four days later, the tension hadn’t eased.
After weeks of Madeline suffering and hearing her complain, I knew something had to be done, for both our sakes.
I finally cornered Tatti when she went out into the mall for a milkshake on her break. I asked her to consider Madeline’s feelings. Invited her to live with us until she could start her schooling for cosmetology. Told her I would never hurt her and I told her I wanted her back home to be a part of our family. She looked me straight in the eye and laughed. Cruel. I make her creepy, she said. “You make me nauseate.”
“Come back for Madeline’s sake,” I said. But her face took on a grimace and her voice was hard with scorn. “Never,” she said. “She want to be mother to me. She never be mother.”
“She loves you like a friend,” I said.
She shook her head in disbelief. “She want no friend. She like make rule to feel good.”
Tatyana didn’t give a damn about Madeline!
I left her. It was cruel to say those things after Madeline’s kindnesses. And the way Tatyana had treated me bugged me for days. I couldn’t let Tatyana get away with her lies. The next day, I reported her to authorities . . . in writing.
Madeline saw her at the mall off and on but Tatyana wouldn’t return her looks, much less talk to her. And Madeline blew up when she discovered what I’d done. Investigators came to the house. Madeline blamed me. Hated me. I was evil. I’d committed worse than murder. She wanted to move out, or me to move out. She didn’t give a damn which one and she was determined about divorce. She soon made it final. Without contest. And without any willingness to remember our past good times together. Deportation procedures against Tatyana had started.
I got some money from the house settlement and I upgraded my equipment to a top-grade Peterbilt; I have a cab with a cook-top and a sink, a bunk where I can stretch out full length, and a 30-inch screen flat screen TV with satellite hookup. I live in my rig, now. I still have that photo of Tatyana taped to the dash but most of the time I think of Madeline . . . like she was in the old days though. I carry fishing gear . . . a stationary bike for exercise. And I never broke my rule again. Tatyana did that. Oh, I give rides to friends of friends sometimes to save them bus fare, but never ride a stranger. No, sir. Never again. And how sad that is. America ain’t the same no more. Shit. You can’t trust no one. Wouldn’t mind going back to the days where you could help a stranger without getting sideswiped.
And I go to church a lot, in different towns mostly, to pray for forgiveness for the feelings I still carry for a Russian-girl alien who lied and sinned, and made Madeline and me so starry-eyed so as to mess with our feelings, and hooked my heart without a pinch of caring.
Illustration by Betty Harper