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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2003 02:20 pm

The highway side

The next installment of our central Illinois detective novel. Part fourteen: “Lonnie the lumper”

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SIXTEEN

Lonnie's voice came up the stairs ahead of him. "Bruce, you have any idea what time I gotta be up in the morning?"

"Lonnie, this man came all the way from Chicago."

"Is that so?"

He was a big black guy, six-four or so, and muscular. But he walked a bit sideways, one leg trailing slightly behind. He was wearing work boots, blue jeans, and a gray Allied Van Lines T-shirt.

"That's a fact," I said as we shook hands.

"Now there's a real town," he said. I handed him the flyer. He took a quick glance. "Still ain't found Billy, huh?"

"You remember him?"

"Oh, sure. He worked with me some."

"Lonnie's pretty much king lumper at this truck stop," Bruce Wilson said.

"I'm really just a loader now," said Lonnie. "Can't hump no more so I need lumpers to bring it to me. And let me tell you, half of 'em ain't worth a nickel. Just stand around and wait to be told. But Billy could hump. And he could figure it out on his own. And he listened. He'd bring you what you needed. I tried to talk him into hanging around, but he wanted to see the world. Can't blame him. Look where I ended up, living in a truck stop."

"Best thing that ever happened to you," Wilson said.

"Turn that around, you'll be speaking the truth," said Lonnie.

They bantered back and forth--you could tell they'd been doing it forever--then I asked Lonnie how he'd known Billy was missing.

"Hell, that poster was always up at the Quick Pumper. I used to go over there every morning for coffee. Good coffee." He winked at Bruce Wilson. "That's how I met Billy. He was trying to catch a truck. I told him that wasn't the place."

"What do you mean 'catch a truck?' "

He shrugged. "Catch a truck, you know, find a driver needs some help. But I told Billy most of them were over here. Everybody knows, you want lumpers in East LA, this is where you come."

Wilson stood up and stretched. "Well, now that I'm awake, maybe I'll actually do some work. I hope you fellows don't mind."

"Thanks for your help," I said. "Lonnie, how about I buy you a cup of coffee?"

"We could do that."

Lonnie said the best bad coffee was in the restaurant up front and he offered me a ride in his pick-up truck. But first he had to toss a bunch of moving supplies into the back. He had pads and burlap straps, plastic wrap and plastic tape, a four-wheel dolly and even a hand truck all crammed into the passenger seat. There was a collection of shirts hanging in the back of the cab. "Drivers like it when you're in uniform," Willie explained. "I got Bekins, Allied, Atlas, United, Mayflower, Global, North American, National, All-World, Wheaton--you name 'em, I got 'em. Dress shirts and Ts."

There was a big plastic coffee mug sitting in the dashboard cup holder. "Quick Pumper," it said in red letters. "Burns, California." I picked it up. Smaller blue letters read: "Your fast friend on Interstate 10." A speeding truck raced across the bottom.

"Yeah, that was the best dang coffee," Lonnie said. "And they'd let you fill that whole mug for 75 cents."

When we finally settled into a booth at the restaurant, Lonnie decided to skip the coffee. "I think I'll have a chocolate sundae instead," he said.

"He's been saying that every night for 30 years," the waitress let me know. She looked like she'd been there the entire time.

"You really been here that long?" I asked Lonnie.

"Hell, I was here before this place even opened. Helped 'em move down from the old highway." He pointed north.

"Route 66?"

"Yeah, that was the old place: Two pumps, one shower, about eight stools and a counter. But, you know, before that, way back when, I lived in Chicago."

"Really?"

"California and Lake Street, you know where that's at?"

"Sure," I said. "West Side."

"My old stomping ground," he said. "I used to love to hear that elevated train going by in my dreams. But then I started moving furniture and before I knew it I was on the road. Greyhound Van Lines, remember them? No, I guess you wouldn't--they've been gone a long time now. But I drove the first White Freightliner they ever put on the highway, back when that was the king of the road."

"How'd you end up here?"

"I brought a load out one winter and they were supposed to wire me money to get back. Weren't none of these ATMs. But the wire never came, some kind of difficulty, I don't even remember anymore. So I'm stranded here. No money for fuel. I had to lump to eat. And every day I'm on the phone calling collect, jumping up and down and screaming, and then I thought, what the hell's wrong with you? As soon as that money comes, you'll have to go back and freeze your butt through another Chicago winter. So I told 'em, that money's not here in two hours, you're gonna have to find yourselves a new driver. And then, just to be safe, I never even checked to see if the wire came. I've been lumping ever since and I ain't never regretted it. I found myself a nice California girl, got a house, a swimming pool for the grandkids. And I love this desert air; of course, back then you could actually breath it."

"I thought you lived right here, the way you guys were talking."

"I keep a bunk upstairs for nights like this. We just got in two hours ago. And we're going right back out in the morning."

"You work for the truck stop?"

"No, no, no, I work direct for the drivers and it's all cash. But I pay my taxes. Every dime. And I pay for that bunk too. Yeah, lumping's been good to me."

"Shouldn't it be humping instead?"

"Or lugging, 'cause that's what we do. People say it's an old sailor word. But a long time ago somebody told me it comes from coal mining. Makes more sense, right? Lumps of coal."

"So tell me about Billy."

"I don't know much. I'll tell you this--he was my kind of lumper. Young, fresh, he liked the work, but, you know, he wasn't planning to make a career of it, which means he was smart. The best lumpers usually are."

"You have any idea where he went from here?"

"You know, ever since I saw that poster I've been trying to remember. He came in to say goodbye. I know he left with a line driver, but for the life of me I can't remember which one. You wouldn't believe the number of trucks I see."

"A line driver?"

"Van line, you know, a furniture mover."

"Where did he sleep when he was here?"

"That I don't know. He had a backpack, might a had a sleeping bag. Some drivers will let you sleep in the trailer if there's room. I know he was always reading some paperback book or writing in his notebook.

"He told me he was gonna spend a year on the road taking notes, and then he was gonna go home and write a book about it. Maybe he's taking the long way around."

"Hope so," I said. "Hey, did the police ever come by looking for him?"

"You're the first."

"Would you be willing to talk to his mother. I mean, just on the phone."

"Sure. She's a schoolteacher, right?"

"That's her. You here tomorrow?"

"No, we're back out to Topanga to finish loading. Where you staying?"

"Santa Monica."

"You're right around the corner. You come up the coast highway and you'll see a big Allied Van rig in the parking lot by the beach. I'll be inside loading up this actor nobody ever heard of."

"Joey Whalen?"

"Crazy Uncle Moe? Hell, how you know him?"

"He was on the plane on the way out."

"Man, the end of that movie, I like fell out of my chair. Most of the audience was on the floor. I'm not kidding you."

"I didn't know it was a comedy," I said.

"Wasn't supposed to be," he said.

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

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