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Thursday, Sept. 18, 2003 02:20 pm

The highway side

art493

EIGHTEEN

I dialed the McKinley Truck Stop and asked for Maddy Miller.

"Who?"

"Sorry. Peggy Miller."

I was in the trailer of an Allied Van Line rig, parked just off the shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway--all six doors open to the ocean breeze--about a quarter mile from where Topanga Canyon Road curved down to the beach.

Behind me, Lonnie the lumper was high on a ladder. His helper, a quiet kid about Billy Miller's age, was wrapping cartons in burlap and stuffing them inside the legs of dining-room chairs, which he then wrapped in heavy furniture pads and handed up to Lonnie, who fit them snugly into the load.

"Loading a road truck is the art of the moving business," Lonnie told me. "Any fool can put 20,000 pounds of household goods on one of these trailers. But if you do it right--don't waste an inch, fill every hole--you might get 25,000 pounds instead. And if you're going to the East Coast, like my friend Pete here, well, that's a couple thousand dollars straight into his pocket. And most of the drivers be very appreciative. Ain't that right, Pete?"

"Yeah, Lonnie's worth every penny," Pete said.

Pete was a muscular guy with a long, sad face and a droopy mustache. He was out of Missoula, Montana, but he wouldn't be home for a while. He'd be dropping this load in New York City. "And only God and dispatch knows from there."

"It's Nick," I said when Maddy came on the line.

"I thought you forgot all about me," she said.

"Not gonna happen."

"Good."

"I'm out in California, believe it or not."

"Really?"

"For my grapefruit trucker. But look, I found a lumper out here, Lonnie. He worked with Billy a few times. I thought you might like to talk to him."

There was nothing but silence on the other end.

"Maddy?"

"I'm sorry. You took me by surprise. Is he there now?"

"Yeah, but take your time. He's working."

"Just give me a few seconds." She was back in about a minute. "OK," she said.

I waved and Lonnie came down the ladder. "Grab a smoke," he said to his lumper and I handed him the phone.

"Hello, Mrs. Miller," he said. "My name's Lonnie Rourke. Some people call me Lonnie the lumper." He paused briefly. "Well, thank you ma'am. I appreciate that. I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed working with Billy. . . . And you're a schoolteacher, right. . . . Billy told me." He waved me away with the back of his hand. "Oh, yeah, you spend days working together, you end up talking quite a bit. Let's see, what else? He told me about the time you went for a ride on his bicycle."

I climbed down to the ground and walked across the parking lot to the beach. I found a wooden post to sit on, and watched the waves rolling in. I felt like patting myself on the back. I knew this might be as close as Maddy would ever get to her son again. But I had to kick myself at the same time. All my big talk about finding out why the sheriff had come out here--was that all it was? It was beginning to look that way.

Lonnie's lumper came by. "Watch my stuff," he said, as he slipped out of his jeans, T-shirt, and running shoes. He ran to the water in his briefs, dove in, and started climbing the waves.

He went straight out, a couple hundred feet, fighting all the way, then spread his arms wide and rode the waves back in. "How's the water?" I asked when he returned.

"Wet," he said and splattered me with some.

Twenty minutes must have passed before Lonnie called me back. "Beautiful lady," he whispered as he handed me the phone.

I nodded and said, "Hey."

"Nick, thank you so much. He's just wonderful. I can't begin to tell you."

"Yeah, he's been the high point of my trip too. Everything else has been a bust. I'm home tomorrow. Why don't you come up to Chicago on your day off, I'll show you the town."

"That might be nice," she said.

"I'll call you when I get in."

"Bring me a souvenir," she said.

Lonnie was back at work. The driver and the lumper were unloading furniture from a U-Haul truck, while Lonnie slid it down toward the load. "Can't get these big rigs anywhere near a lot of these canyon houses," Lonnie had explained earlier. "We shuttle it out. Small jobs we use my pickup, but on big ones like this we rent a truck."

I waited until the U-Haul headed back for the canyon. "Thanks for talking to her," I said and reached for my bankroll.

"Don't make me slap your hand," Lonnie said.

"Wait, I got something you'll take," I said and went out to the car, returning with what was left of the strawberries.

"Man, we just got off break," Lonnie said when I handed them up. He held the tray out to the guy who'd gone for a swim.

"Isn't this the life?" Lonnie asked. "Fresh strawberries, an ocean breeze . . . what more could a lumper want?"

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER NINETEEN

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