(This is a piece that I wrote last year, a story about some adventures I had hitchhiking, a lifetime ago.)
It is cold, and the wind fans the dry patches of grass in the ditch where I am laying. I am still and quiet, trying to keep myself warm by thinking of the Thanksgiving dinner that I would have had if I had stayed home, and not gone off to try and shed my skin again. The stars above me are brilliant and bright, I welcome their company. I am trying to stay awake, although there is nothing more that I want in this world than sleep. I hear the occasional hum of tires on asphalt in the distance, and every so often, the rustling of some creature of the night. I hope it is not the man who is out there, looking for me. By now, the fear has bled out, and I am spent. If I am found, I wonder if there is enough strength left in my limbs to strike out in my own defense, because until I felt my legs give way, I ran.
I ran and did not look back until I could no longer hear his cursing, as he fumbled around for a flashlight and pursued me through the red dirt somewhere in Western Oklahoma. If I am killed, I will disappear into the landscape, my ghost cut loose to roam these lonely roads that are the guts of America. In the long hours that pass, from the dark of midnight until the sun begins to lighten the Eastern sky, I dream my death. It is not at all what I expected when I set out from Fayetteville, a few short weeks ago.
I did not hesitate when Poppy asked me to walk away from my job, It was warm, for November, and we were out back sharing a joint while Carolyn, my co-worker covered the register. Poppy said that if we left in the morning, we could make Albuquerque by the weekend. He told me that Albuquerque is a good place to spend the winter, and he knew a few people out there that wouldn’t mind if we crashed on the couch. When we walked back inside, I told Carolyn that I was leaving.
I left her with my uniform shirt, and told her to hang on to my last paycheck. We pilfered some snacks and cigarettes from the shelves and went to collect my things from the place where I had stashed them. That night we had a party in the way that kids do, as if we were setting out on an expedition to Mars, and that we would never see our friends gathered in a room like this one again.
In the morning we untangled ourselves from the bodies splayed out amongst flooded ashtrays and crushed cans. We tossed our packs on our backs and marched like soldiers off to fight a war. By noon we had made it as far as Van Buren, and feeling the wind in our sails, we decided to find a place to have a cup of coffee and sit down to eat. We made it to the parking lot of a convenience store before we encountered our first sign of trouble, a police cruiser that followed slowly behind us and flashed lights.
We sat on the hood of his squad car while townspeople slowed down and leered at me, a Manson family reject, and Poppy, a punk rock version of Jimi Hendrix. When the cop felt satisfied, that we had been made to feel unwelcome in this small place that he protected from those whose only threat was their disregard for the things he held sacred, he drove us out past the limits of his control, and set us free. We pieced together one short ride after the next until we crossed the border and it was the evening of the first day. We spent that night under an overpass outside of Oklahoma City, as the wind came roaring in from the north and we struggled to sleep in our thin Army surplus jackets and quilted blankets.
Another day passed and the grass thinned and the land looked empty as we drifted in a sea of dirt. We felt the first pangs of hunger and our lips chapped and bled from the grit that constantly whipped our faces.
A lifetime of experience was compressed into the span of five days as we watched one car after another drive by and told each other truths and fictions, to pass the time. Every so often, a pickup truck would slow down and we would hop in the back as we inched our way a little further down the road. We crossed into Texas, our heads hung low and our bellies empty, but we talked about Albuquerque like it was the promised land and there was no turning back.
In the afternoon of our last day in the wilderness, we saw the familiar silhouette of a Volkswagen van crest a hill and gear down, throwing up a cloud of debris as we ran to meet it. The smiling face of asaint with eyes bloodshot, beamed down on us and we knew that we were delivered. As the miles ticked by on the odometer, we filled the cabin up with a thick heavy smoke and watched it drift out the windows, until we spilled out onto the sidewalks of Albuquerque at long last.
We beat a path towards the University, picking up a bottle on our way to find a cozy spot on the flat roof of a building on campus, where our driver told us no one would bother us, if we kept to ourselves.
The two weeks that I spent in that fabled city was a tale not worth telling. True, the weather was mild, and we found spaces in the corners where we could crash. But, for me, there was a point when things began to turn. The easy life got to be just as monotonous as standing behind a register collecting someone else’s money, and when Poppy told me he was taking off with a girl to California, I knew I’d better go home while I still had a few dollars in my pocket.
I don’t remember saying goodbye, I just remember walking away and sitting on my backpack looking to the West at the painted sky, and the sun glinting off the chrome on the cab of a Peterbilt. I climbed in and looked across at the driver, a great beast of a man, his face hidden behind a cloud of cigarette smoke.
The first words the trucker said as we took on speed were, “You ain’t one of them goddamn queers, are you? Because I will kill a faggot.” I considered the circumstances, and knew that there was no right answer. I felt the pressure of the folding knife so far out of reach in my pocket. I answered, “No.”, and saw him glare at me. He began to rant, and the hate that was covered by pale, scabby flesh made my stomach churn and I began to feel sick. He would pause, and wait, playing a game to see if I would crack, if he would find his reason, his excuse. For hours the game continued and the tension made me tired. I leaned on the door, pretending to drift off to sleep, with one hand searching for the handle. Through slitted eyes I watched him, wondering what the end of all of this would be. By the time we crossed into Oklahoma, it was late, and the world was dark. He didn’t slow down when he hit the off ramp and it wasn’t until we were well out of sight that he began to brake.
I waited for my chance and I pulled the handle and launched myself out the cab, tumbling ass over elbows as the truck lurched to a stop in the gravel. I fell face first over a barbed wire fence, and felt it pull at me. I let it take my flesh, but I did not stop.
That night in my fitful sleep, I dreamed my death, and I flew up and over the spiteful land until I reached the shore of a distant sea. When I woke to the dawn of a new day, I was hungry and alone, but it didn’t matter. I got a ride from a kind man who had been a traveler too. He said that he picked up everyone that he passed on the side of the road, because he’d been there. He let me make a call to Carolyn’s mom who lived in Norman. He bought me eggs and hash browns, and we talked until she arrived. Carolyn’s mom took me as far as she could, but when I saw the look on her face as the gas gauge slipped over into the red, I gave her the last of my money and waved goodbye.
When the rain started to fall, cold and hard I began to walk, and I let the cars pass by me without a gesture. I walked back into town, bedeviled by the wind and the water. I went straight over to Carolyn’s, took the key from under the mat and let myself in. I peeled away the clothing so heavy and wet, and lay down on the warm rug to take my rest.