False Negatives

by R Gregg Miller

Chapter 1

January, 1972

Seal Beach, California

The work lights on the catwalks of the American Oil refinery waver ghostlike in the fog. It is always murky on the graveyard shift, but the soup pouring ashore tonight is especially thick. The roiling mist even mutes the floodlights at the main gate, turning the normally penetrating white lights astride the guard shack into milky pools of ecru radiance.

Inside the sparse aluminum enclosure, an ebony twig of a man in a security guard’s uniform shivers against the cold as he struggles to stay awake. Startled by the roar of a V-8 engine, the great-grandfather’s eyes open wide to the sight of a full-size sedan charging toward the gate. The thumping inside the old man’s chest abates when he recognizes the two-tone Buick Electra 225 as Jake “Cannonball” Kramer’s sled.

The deuce and a quarter’s front bumper stops just inches short of crashing into the gate. The big Buick is still bobbing on its suspension as Jake cranks down the driver’s window. But before the fox-haired, forty-year-old Texas transplant with an off-center face of porous concrete can speak, the guard’s mottled lips stutter, “What cha doing here…this early, Jake? Lose another fight wit’ da…old lady?”

The haltingly uttered queries make their way around the toothpick in the guard’s mouth, but not around Jake’s sensitivities. “Fuck you, Lamont! Hit the button to raise the damn gate. With this fog, if I wait till the regular time, I’ll never get to Bakersfield.”

The guard hits the button and watches as Jake’s eight-cylinder behemoth accelerates into the yard, leaving only exhaust in the damp night air. The security guard shakes his head and says to himself, “Poor bastard. He ought’a dee-vorrzz the bitch.”


Parked in the employee lot, Jake gathers his lunch box and portable cassette player off the floorboard. Long hauling in his own rig for a decade, he resents needing to drag his tunes to a company rig every morning. It’s more than an inconvenience; it’s a reminder that American Oil Company owns the trucks. They just rent drivers like Jake.

Though he hated to admit it, his wife had been right every time she nagged, “You can’t be a husband and a father when you’re never here.” Long hauling had left him home only a couple of days a month. During those few days, he felt like a stranger in his own house. The final straw came when he realized his next-door neighbor knew more about his son’s exploits on the baseball diamond than he did.

So Jake sold his rig and took a job with American, hoping to make a fresh start with his wife, Brenda. There wasn’t much left over after paying off the loan. Before they even got the check, it was already spent on a new dinette set and floral print drapes for the living room. But more time at home only brought more of Brenda’s whining, more arguments, and more nights on the couch. Jake pines for the refuge of his own rig. He has to settle for the temporary shelter of a company truck.

After signing the dispatcher’s paperwork, Jake struts to his assigned rig. He stuffs one of his prized snakeskin boots into the bottom rung of the cab ladder and propels himself into his domain. His gnarled finger presses play on his portable cassette player. Firing up the diesel, he grabs the thermos from his gray metal lunch box and pours himself a cup.

Jake lectures the empty passenger seat as he maneuvers the eighteen-wheeler through the yard. “They give me a ration of shit for leave’n early but bitch whenever I’m late deliver’n. Fuck’m!” The feel of the steering wheel on his calloused hands, the throb of the engine beneath his seat, and the hot black coffee soothe him. Working the gears to the rhythm of the country tune, Jakes releases a sigh. Just like the load of one hundred thousand gallons of unleaded premium gasoline, Brenda’s bitching is behind him—out of sight and out of mind.

They don’t call him “Cannonball” for nothing. Despite the limited visibility, Jake is making time as he sings along with his favorite country star.

I’m ride’n the white line

Put’n my troubles behind

Gonna forget the past

To find love that’ll last…


Jaime is passed out on the bench seat of his ancient pickup truck parked on a fog-shrouded East LA side street. An eruption from his sour stomach rousts the middle-aged, fat-faced Sinaloa native to semiconsciousness. Too much tequila—too much chili. His thick tongue scrapes the unfamiliar rough edge of a broken tooth as he works his jaw. The bile in his mouth only adds to his misery. Somehow these maladies must all relate to last night, but a wall of alcohol still obstructs the details. Then it comes to him. “Si, requerdo.” Somebody had objected when he tried to walk out on a side bet at the cockfights.

Pulling heavily on the steering wheel, Jaime draws his bloated torso into an upright position. Instinctively he reaches for the ignition and grinds the flathead V-8 to a hesitant start. The groans of the tired engine reluctantly coming to life are instantly joined by overamplified mariachi music from the ill-fitting speakers in the kick panels. With the engine running, gasoline fumes add to the assault on Jaime’s senses. His truck gathers speed as the moist chill swirls through the missing wind-wing. Although the cold air makes the cab feel like a freezer, it helps dissipate the gasoline smell.

Color fades. The forest-green sign at the entrance to the Golden State Freeway is only a patchwork of gray floating unnoticed past Jaime as he accelerates northbound into the fog. Normally it only takes about thirty minutes to get back to Pacoima. “Pero, con la neblina?” Contemplating how long before he can pass out in his bed, Jaime’s bleary eyes don’t notice the white dashes as he drifts across three lanes. Awareness strikes suddenly at the sight of the double yellows. Instinctively he jerks the wheel to the right, just in time to avoid colliding with the center divider, but not in time to avoid the unseen debris from an earlier highway catastrophe. With a metallic clang, an angular piece of steel wedges itself into the engine compartment, shorting the electrical system.

Dios mio!” Disbelief suspends time. Everything electrical is dead. No headlights. No dash lights. Adios, mariachis! Jaime pumps on the gas pedal while profanely exhorting his pickup to keep going. “Chinga tu madre! Andele pendejo!” His shouts, his mashing on the gas pedal, and shaking of the steering wheel do not alter the pace of deceleration. He cranks the wheel farther to the right in an attempt to reach the relative safety of the shoulder. Its energy spent, the dark balky contraption comes to a dead stop straddling the right two lanes.


Despite the limited visibility, Jake “Cannonball” Kramer is true to his motto, “Haul’n ass—Haul’n gas.” The beads of moisture running across the red, white, and blue American Oil emblem don’t penetrate the cab where Jake’s raspy voice accompanies the singer on the cassette tape…

Hard-hearted man on a melancholy highway

Forlorn and forgotten, resigned to his fate

Lost control of his soul so long ago…

As if conjured by a demon, the dark outline of Jaime’s stalled pickup materializes out of the fog. “Shit!” No time to maneuver. Stomp the brakes. The screeching of tires is overwhelmed by the brutal din of steel crushing steel. There is a blinding flash, a radiating shockwave, followed by the roar of the explosion. Silhouetted by the inferno, the twisted wreckage wavers in the heat. Giant flames flail skyward, their tremendous energy being silently absorbed by the limitless cold and dark of the night.