Recently there was a family emergency and we spent a week at a motel beside Interstate-70 in Salina, KS. The motel was nice enough. The desk clerk said musician turned geezer-rocker Kenny Loggins once stayed there, ordered out for food from IHOP (he explained it was a hassle for a star like him to be recognized in places like IHOP) then stiffed the delivery guy; she said the funny part was the next morning when Loggins became angry because no one recognized him at the motel's complimentary breakfast buffet and stormed back up to his room. Kenny Loggins slept here. So what. But it was an okay room. We had a suite with two rooms, a wet bar, a microwave and a refrigerator. There was also a large hot tub in the living room and we used it at night to soak away some of the stresses of hospitals and heart surgery and its tentative and increasingly troubling aftermath. The motel was near one of those freeway interchanges devoted to the care and feeding of trucks and truck drivers. Big rigs rolled off and on I-70 day and night; some refueled and moved on; others parked and idled in the lots nearby. The smell of diesel fuel was in the air 24 hours a day. A couple of times we crossed the highway to eat fried food at a diner called Grandma Max's. The portions were huge, the service friendly, the salad bar a little limp, the smell of diesel and hot grease pervasive. I felt right at home.
Once upon a time I was a graduate student at a famous fiction writing workshop. Actually I was at the MOST FAMOUS FICTION WRITING WORKSHOP. It was a place where the language-gifted and the word-cursed - at least those of us who were chosen to be there - gathered as they had for decades to take each other seriously and eye each other warily. We were happy to be there. But we were not particularly comfortable because it was also a place where the truly gifted and the truly cursed separated themselves from the merely talented and the not-quite cursed enough. We were hungry, predatory and stalked the classrooms, the parties and the visiting authors' hotel rooms seeking sex (well, if we had to), money (everybody needed some), an agent (everybody wanted one of those) and, best of all, publication (better than sex and money combined). It didn't pay to get comfortable. Jayne Anne Phillips loomed, Michael Cunningham demured, Bill Kinsella posed, Sandra Cisneros was still a girl from Chicago not a Latina from San Antonio, T.C Boyle and Jane Smiley were leaving and Louise Erdrich hadn't arrived yet. I flourished. I published. I once angrily threatened to throw the director of the program out of his office window when the money was handed out and I felt I didn't get my fair share. It was that kind of place. Eventually I received what I figured I deserved (good), then I had a Michener Fellowship when I graduated (even better). The director was glad to see me go. He congratulated me on my Michener Fellowship, shook my hand and said he hoped never to have to read anything I wrote again - ever. But that is how it was supposed to be. It was a heady time, a fairytale time.
But the rest of the time the money was tight because that's how it is for graduate students no matter how many fellowships they win. So there were odd jobs, summer jobs, part-time jobs. I ended up as a cook at the Hawkeye Truck Stop out on Interstate 80 in Coralville, IA. Back then it was the largest truck stop in Iowa.
Officially I was a breakfast cook - eggs over easy (over hard, scrambled, poached) with bacon or sausage (or both) and hashbrowns, perhaps an omelet (for someone to ruin with ketchup), French toast, pancakes - but truckers live and eat on highway time. Sometimes they really need a Reuben sandwich at 6 a.m. (do you know what dripping sauerkraut does to a sizzling grill top in the middle of the breakfast rush?) or a roast beef sandwich with instant mashed potatoes and gravy. Or a pork chop. Or fried chicken. Whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, I cooked it. The whole menu all the time. Trucker time.
The jukebox played.
Crystal Gayle, Eddie Rabbit, The Oakridge Boys, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers, Conway Twitty, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, even The Eagles ("New Kid in Town," "Lyin' Eyes" and "Tequila Sunrise" were big favorites). There were some "trucker" hits by Red Sovine: "Teddy Bear" with its maudlin lyrics, do-gooder truckers, crippled kid and CB radios; "Phantom 309" with its equally maudlin lyrics and heroic trucker named Big Joe who "lost control, went into a skid/ and gave his life to save that buncha kids." C.W. McCall's "Convoy," CB radios and truckers bullying their way across the U.S.A. ("Well we shot the line/and we went for broke/with a thousand screamin' trucks/and eleven long haired friends of Jesus/in a chartreuse microbus"). Cheating women, tequila sunrises, heroic truckers, kids and CB radios. They loved 'em all.
And they had a particular soft spot for one by Tanya Tucker called "Delta Dawn." I don't know what the truckers liked about it (romance? misery? mystery? insanity? the fact that a 14-year-old girl sang it?) but my favorite verse is: "She's forty-one and her daddy still calls her 'baby'/All the folks around Brownsville say she's crazy/'Cause she walks around town with a suitcase in her hand/Looking for a mysterious dark-haired man." I've seen overgrown truck-driving men pause and grow misty-eyed over a plate of eggs and hashbrowns while listening to Tanya sing that song. I never really understood why. But why does any song bring anyone to tears? I cooked. I listened. I watched. I inhaled the smell of diesel fuel and the greasy stink of the kitchen, and ingested a jukebox full of bad country music laced with mysteriously magical words that could reduce a grown man to tears.
Over at the Most Famous Fiction Writing Workshop people kept trying to make words do magical things too. And most of us would have given just about anything to write something good enough to make a grown man almost cry. But we weren't very successful at it most of the time. Looking back, we could have learned something from Delta Dawn.
Delta Dawn was a truckstop regular. She wasn't 41 and it's unlikely anyone ever called her baby. But she loved country music and she knew things. That was clear when she pushed through the front door, waddled through the restaurant and wriggled into a booth by the window. I could see her out there from my spot in the kitchen.
Delta Dawn was her CB "handle." It wasn't her real name. But CB handles were part of trucker reality and folklore so Delta Dawn had one. "Teddy Bear" is the crippled kid's CB handle in the Red Sovine weeper ("The old CB was blaring away on channel one-nine/When there came a little boy's voice on the radio line./And he said, 'Breaker, one-nine, is anyone there?/ Come on back, truckers, and talk to Teddy Bear./Well, I keyed the mike and I said, 'Well, you got it,Teddy Bear.'/And the little boy's voice came back on the air./'Preciate the break. Who we got on that end?'/I told him my handle, and then he began"). And "Convoy" begins with CB talk ("Yeah, breaker one nine/This here's the Rubber Duck/You got a copy on me Pig Pen, c'mon/Uh, yeah, Ten-Four Pig Pen, fer sure, fer sure/By golly it's clean clear to Flag Town, c'mon/Yeah, its a big Ten-Four there Pig Pen/Yeah, we definitely got the front door, good buddy/Mercy sakes alive, looks like we've got us a convoy"). In a world of Pig Pens, Rubber Ducks and Teddy Bears, she was Delta Dawn. Real names weren't necessary.
Delta Dawn wasn't going to win any beauty contests. She was plain and fat. She had a round face, plump cheeks and short, curly hair, too-blue eye shadow and too-red (or too-pink or too-whatever) lipstick. She was short, thick-thighed, wore tight jeans. It was the late 1970s and she favored tube tops with her jeans. Tube tops made skinny girls look gift wrapped. Delta Dawn wasn't one of those. Her tube tops rode low across her breasts, cut into the flab under her arms and stretched tightly across her back. Looking at Delta Dawn's bare shouldners and back was like gazing across several acres of pale, drought-stricken ground in the harshest light of day; from the front she looked like all of those acres had gathered themselves into a shivering heap that might collapse at any moment. None of that seemed to bother her in the slightest.
And it didn't bother the truckers either. Maybe they didn't know it when they heard her voice on the CB radio. Or maybe they didn't care. "Breaker, breaker. Delta Dawn here. Any truckers out there? Come on." They knew she was talking to them. They responded. They negotiated. They met her at the rest areas east or west of town. Then they paid Delta Dawn to do what she did, did it, and drove away. Her full-time job was cleaning motel rooms, but truckers were her business and business was steady along that stretch of I-80. Out there she was Delta Dawn - all mystery, misery, romance and country music - and nothing else mattered. She took breaks at the truckstop.
Delta Dawn understood the magic of language, the power of country music, the romance of the road, the loneliness that could make a truck driver weep - and how to use a CB radio. She knew what her customers liked and she understood how to sell it. It was the story of her life.
Meanwhile, over at the Most Famous Fiction Writing Workshop, we were all trying to figure out how to do the same thing. We stumbled and mumbled, raged and ranted, courted and seduced and stirred up a huge cloud of words, but mostly there was no magic in them. No response. No negotiation. No money. We desperately wanted someone to pay us to do what we did, just like Delta Dawn. We couldn't admit it, but we were whores without a clue, a clientele or a CB radio.
We should have hired Delta Dawn to come over to the university and teach us how it was done. But we didn't. Instead, we pretended not to care. It was a heady time, a fairytale time. We were chosen. And we knew that was how it was supposed to be. We all believed the Most Famous Fiction Writing Workshop was the true story of our lives. And Delta Dawn wasn't part of it.