The last one was still there, still steaming on the trucker’s passenger seat, wrapped in a corn husk and aluminum foil. This one was pork and spiced cheese, she’d said as she slid it into his hands, a recipe that she’d learned from her grandmother.
He’d tried to pay her, of course. Pressed the last bill in his pocket into her hands. Given it to her youngest child, a smiling bucktoothed lad of four, and told him to hide it until they got to wherever they were going. And then, after he’d waved them off and got in his truck, he’d found it, back in the same pocket it had started out in.
The trucker couldn’t hold the tears back even at thinking about it. They’d found him on the side of a back road with a blown out tire and no spare and instead of leaving him to freeze or wash away in the rain, they’d pulled over. Gotten out of their car, wrapped him in a blanket, and helped him. As he warmed up, the man of the little family had gone two hours out of his way to buy a tire and jack capable of lifting even his rig. And then he’d come back and they’d worked together to replace the tire—and then, unthinkably, he hadn’t demanded payment. He’d refused it.
No matter how the trucker had begged, no matter how he’d pleaded, the man and the woman and the children had all simply shook their heads. They barely spoke a word of his language—the man least of all—but he did manage four words. Four words that still rang in the trucker’s ears.
“Today you,” he’d said, “tomorrow me.”
And then he had hopped in his car. His wife had joined him, after giving the trucker the last bit of food in her cooler, and then the children had pulled one another from where they had been hugging the trucker’s shins and piled in as well.
And then he had cried. All the way to the main road, all the way through the next city and the next and the next, he had cried.
The trucker was still crying. But now it was because his truck was ablaze off the side of the road. It had been far, far too rainy, and the minimum speed limit on the road must have been set by the clan that owned the land around the curve. Go too slow and they’d pull you over, pull you out and beat you until you coughed up your last penny; go too quickly and you’d end up like the trucker, roasting to death in the cabin your employer had locked you in for not making the last journey in time.
The smoke choked out his sight and his sobs, and so he felt around in what remained of his cabin for the tamale. He couldn’t find it, but he kept searching. Even if it wasn’t there because it had never been there, he had to believe that it had been, once upon a time.