Salvation



Sam and I sat huddled in the back booth of a McDonald’s, wet. Outside the rain fell relentlessly, and small, tidy elderly people filed past us, clutching red trays of breakfast sandwiches. A familiar smell filled the air. Our clothes were damp, and I felt cold inside of mine, sort of stiff in the plastic booth. We took out a deck of cards and began to play, eyeing the rain wearily as it fell over the gray road. We were stuck, in eastern Kentucky, stuck in a McDonalds that sat facing a handful of giant steel plants that spewed smoke and fluorescent light, and we had already eating all of the fast food that we could stomach, which was not, after all, very much. We couldn’t hitchhike until the rain stopped.

It stopped. We shouldered our packs and stepped out into the whole wild world, damp and sleep deprived. The broad pavement hardly moved for us. The rushing car-wind hurt my brain. It took us hundreds or years to summit a sort of sloping hill, another hundred years to carve a cardboard sign out of the sterile landscape. How, I wondered, would we ever get anywhere, without our good friend Train? Train was a steadfast, forward moving, down-the-tracks sort of friend. What else was there?

A man picked us up. He was going five miles east. Okay… He said ‘Ironton’ ‘Arnton’, and I felt glad to be in Kentucky. Let me take you to Huntington, he said. There are free bus tickets there. Just tell them I sent you.

Bullshit, I thought. I’d heard this “free bus tickets” schpeel before. It was some sort of scam to get innocent hitchhikers stranded miles from the highway, sitting on their packs, frantically rolling cigarettes, crying. Free bus tickets nowhere.

Sure enough, dumbass dropped us off in the crumbling downtown middle of Huntington, Kentucky, some bullshit town full of zombies. When we said Free Bus Tickets, no-one had any idea what the hell we were talking about. We plodded the streets. Our packs, it seemed, had grown at least seventeen pounds heavier. There was a zombie on every corner, and they all spoke in riddle.

“Where’s the Laundromat?”

“What?”

“Where’s the Laundromat?”

“Where is the Laundromat!”

“Whatever…”

Our hearts were heavy with the curse of zombie-town. A free bus went in a circle, and left us at a Laundromat. We dried our wet, stinking sleeping bags. I bought a candy bar from a machine that said don’t shake the machine. The candy bar got stuck. I shook the machine, keeping a steady eye on the proprietor, folding laundry. A man paced the washers, shaking his head, disappointed.

“That man looks like he belongs in a civil war photograph,” I said. “Emaciated. Some sort of homesteader.”

“That man looks like a serial killer,” said Sam. For the first time in my life, I had to agree. A couple washed two blankets in a front-loading machine. The suds behind the glass were snow-white. The couple spread quarters on a laminate table and counted them carefully, fighting over how many were there.

An angel appeared a few blocks from the Laundromat. A man across the road, shouting. Do you guys need a ride to the highway?

Do we ever!

We were miles from the highway. How did he know?

Are you all coming from Ohio?

How did he know!?

The man, according to Sam, who sat in the front seat, had clear blue eyes and crooked teeth. He was a drug addiction and mental health counselor.

“That must be pretty intense,” said Sam.

“Actually, I’m pretty bored with it,” said our angel, flashing his crooked teeth. “Where do y’all sleep at night?”

“We camp,” said Sam. “In the trees.”

Ah, he nodded. Of course.

He ferried us to the highway, in his flaking ship of cat hair and car heater. It was, indeed, miles and miles of concrete. We never, ever, would have made it. An ocean of concrete. A hundred years of concrete. Twenty-five lifetimes of concrete. A civilization born, raised, and died, before we could have crossed all that concrete. Gone, is what we would have been. A tarp, blowing in the wind. Caught on a thorny bush. A crushed paper bag.

We’d hardly touched the onramp with our tired shoes when a car stopped, a little sedan. A twenty year old evangelical Christian, car stuck all over with pro-life propaganda. Stopped because god told him to.

“I’ll drive you all the way to Charleston,” he said. The boy was beautiful, tan and glowing with passion, blond hair pulled back in a small ponytail. I sat in back again, and admired his ponytail. I want a ponytail like that.

“I want to be a foreign missionary,” said the boy, his pores oozing naivety. We talked about the collapse of western civilization. “I’ve got a family farm in West Virginia,” he said. “My grandpa told me- ‘during the great depression, we shot groundhogs whether the banks were closed or not.’ I figure when the banks close, I’ll just go back there, start to raise my own vegetables.”

He asked us what we thought was real. I missed Sam’s answer in the rush of car wind. I gave the boy some bullshit answer about what was within us being real, and it being different for everyone. Another pause.

“So,” I said, “What do you think is real?”

Oh boy, here we go. Christianity, religion, passion, bullshit, naivety, privilege- pouring out of his mouth like bad TV. You can’t look away.

He dropped us at an on-ramp in Charleston, gave us a book of evangelical sermons. It’s my favorite book. Sam stuffed it in his pack. We plodded up the highway a bit and soon enough, another car- pulling to the shoulder for us in the gathering evening.

Thomas was a giant black man. A giant black man in a blue coverall, with a reflective vest, in a little sedan. Coming from the whitest major city in North America, (Portland), I grinned, excited by the opportunity hitchhiking gives me to ride in the cars of, and actually converse with, people of color.

Thomas had just gotten off work at the steel mill. He’d stayed late today, six o’clock. Usually he was up at four, drove an hour to work, out at four, home by five.

“It’s good I worked late today,” he said, nodding, “I was helping this guy out. I’m one to help somebody out, they need it. God meant me to work late, so I could give you two a ride.” Thomas talked slow, his voice low, big fingers rubbing together, making a sound like paper rustling. “I used to thumb it,” he said. “Used to thumb it all the time. Hell, I loved thumbin’! I’d thumb all over the place!”

“You got any kids?” asked Sam.

“Got ten kids. Oldest one thirty four, youngest one fifteen. Got ten grandkids, too.” Thomas looked to be in his fifties. I tried to do the math. I couldn’t. Thomas had been shot, stabbed, and nearly decapitated. He’d “fried his brain with drugs and alcohol.” And then, fresh out of prison, he’d found Christ. He’d been saved. And just in the nick of time, too. Now he was married, his second wife. He worked six days a week at the steel mill. His wife was in grad school, to be an addictions and domestic abuse counselor.

“Used to take my baby daughter thumbin,” he said. “People say, ‘Why you take that baby thumbin?’ Cuz she want to go! She says, ‘Daddy, take me thumbin! I wanna go thumbin!’ I say, ‘What you know about thumbin? Make her sit in the front, I sit in the back. That way I can keep an eye on her and the driver!”

Thomas’s phone rang. His wife.

“What you doin?”

“Picked up some people thumbin. God had me stay late so I could help them.”

“Well, I hope they stay safe. Tell them I said ‘Hi’.”

“Hi.” (Thomas, to us.)

“It’s cold. The gas ran out.”

“That’s what you get for leavin it on!”

“I’ve got homework, on the computer!”

“Take the computer under the covers!”

“I’m hungry! We ain’t got no food! I wanna go to quizno’s!”

“We got food! What I’m gonna eat- I got me a can of beans, in the cabinet. Best can of beans in the world! I’ve been thinkin about those beans all day! Put some weenies in there- I got my quizno’s! Ain’t no shame in my game!”

“I wanna go to out to eat!

His wife hung up, and Thomas put down the phone. “Ain’t no shame in my game,” he said again, chuckling. “Best can of beans in the world. Hell, I got enough hotdogs to last a month. I got thirty of ‘em. Eat two at a time, maybe three. Last maybe a week.” He chuckled again, easy and deep.

I sat in the back, mesmerized. I just wanted him to talk and talk. I was isolated, deprived, starved for people like Thomas. It seemed like pure gold, coming out of his mouth. Measured and low, pumped from the slow undercurrent of life itself.

“I was god meant for me to pick you two up,” he said. “God, he take care of you. The birds, they don’t think, ‘How we gonna make it? How we gonna live tomorrow?’ The birds, they know god will take care of them. And me picking you up, that’s god, taking care of you.”

Salvation.

“Every time a sparrow touches the ground,” said Thomas, “god know. Ain’t anything on this Earth he don’t know.”

Thomas pulled off in a bright gas station parking lot on the edge of his town, somewhere in Virginia. Before we got out of the car he had us bow our heads, and he said a prayer for us.

“Take care of these two. Watch over them. I don’t know how well they already know you, but whatever problems they have, and I know we all have them, right now, you take care of all those problems, whatever they might be. Watch out for these two, they’re you’re image, we’re all your image, I know everything on this earth is yours. It’s your property, you control it. Send your angels to watch over these two.”

Outside of the car, Thomas hugged us goodbye. He was laughing, exhausted. He had to be up at four the next morning, back to work. It was eight. As we stood there, under those lights, I thought about all of the hitchhiking rides I have had. And later, to Sam, I said-

“Sometimes I get a ride, and the ride thinks they have to warn me about hitchhiking, they think they have to convince me it’s dangerous, in order to protect me. So they tell me, over an over, about how I might someday get a shitty ride. They tell me I’ll get picked up by someone sketchy. And I think, You are that shitty ride. You are that sketchy person. I think- You, officially, are the creepiest ride I have ever had. And now Thomas, wonderful Thomas, he wishes for angels to protect us. But he is that angel. He is that good luck. Whatever god he prays too, whose love takes care of the sparrow- that god is Thomas. He is that god. He carries that god inside of him, and for a moment, that god is real.”

We wandered inside the gas station, slinging our packs off at a table in back. Sam got a slice of pizza, heat-lamp greasy. A man was mopping, and smiled at us. It felt good to be back in the south, where everyone will smile at you, say hello. You’re dirty as fuck, but they’ll talk to you, act as if they are your grandmother and you’ve just come in from the cold. Even late-night gas station clerks, mopping. Angels. I let out a sigh, and filled up my water bottle, browsed the shelves of crap food, none of it gluten free. Bruce Springsteen played on the stereo in back.

Born down in a dead man’s town

The first kick I took was when I hit the ground

You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much

‘Til you spend half your life just covering up, yeah

Born in the U.S.A.

Born in the U.S.A.

Born in the U.S.A.

Born in the U.S.A.

I got in a little hometown jam

And so they put a rifle in my hands

Sent me off to Vietnam

To go and kill the yellow man

Born in the U.S.A.

Born in the U.S.A.

Born in the U.S.A.

Born in the U.S.A.

Come back home to the refinery

Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”

I go down to see the V.A. man

He said “Son don’t you understand”

Born in the U.S.A.

Born in the U.S.A.

Born in the U.S.A.

Born in the U.S.A.

I had a buddy at Khe Sahn

Fighting off the Viet Cong

They’re still there, he’s all gone

He had a little girl in Saigon

I got a picture of him in her arms

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary

Out by the gas fires of the refinery

I’m ten years down the road

Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go

I’m a long gone Daddy in the U.S.A.

Born in the U.S.A.

I’m a cool rocking Daddy in the U.S.A.

Born in the U.S.A.

We left the gas station, crossed the highway to a patch of woods next to an old, leaning board fence. Sam peeked over- it was a graveyard on the other side, tombstones silent in the low-hanging mist, peaceful. We spread out our bedrolls under a flame-orange sassafras tree, drifted off under a clear night sky. I woke up once to pee, heard a coyote howl a little ways off while I squatted in the grass. Went back to sleep, warm bag pulled up over my face.

—————————

Next- A marine with an anger problem speeds us all the way through West Virginia, and life in beautiful North Carolina, where my heart breaks from nostalgia and the accumulation of passing time!


12 thoughts on “Salvation

  1. Karen,
    I was hoping for a more glamorous portrayal but I guess I’ll take whatever I can get. I’m glad you all made it. I’ve thought of you and Sam often. Perhaps you saw right through me but I was serious that if you do ever need anything again and are nearby, contact me. I’ll continue to read the blog. Keep it up.

    Nate

  2. Jill- Thanks so much. It means alot to me. I really admire your blog. I can’t believe you ride your bike on snow and ice. Adventures!

    Nate- Whoops. Wasn’t sure if you would actually check out my blog or not. Sam and I thought you were amazing, just a little naive, to be honest. (I have to be honest, I already wrote it in my blog.) You actually remind me of me when I was 20, sort of a budding wignut still trying to shape someone else’s dogma into something that might fit. And my name’s Carrot, not Karen, I just tell people ‘Karen’ when I hitchhike because that’s what they hear anyway. Anyway, thanks a million times for the ride to Charleston, and thanks for being a character, it makes my stories better. 😉

  3. i was having a hard morning. i read your blog, and now i feel better! you should bottle it up again, so i can keep it in my pocket.

  4. Man Carrot, that is an epic journey you’re on.

    And the way you write it is almost like reading Homer’s Iliad. Really…

  5. Carrot! I’ve been reading your blog a lot now, and it makes me so happy. I especially enjoyed this one. I’m in Bellingham going to school, and reading about your adventures makes me want to run away. Maybe once these classes I payed for are over…
    Have a great day!
    -Shea

  6. oh ms carrot quinn!
    This may well be all there is, but honestly, I’m not sure how much more there could be! You’ve captured it perfectly in your words, and it’s true, the bird doesn’t wonder how he’s going to make it, he knows. You know it too ms carrot, you know it. Do you ever wonder how things could ever be so perfect?

  7. Shea- You’re in Bellingham in school? Whoah dude! Do your homework and then run away! You can ride a train with me. Then I’ll roll you flat and upload you onto my blog. I’m glad you like this thing. It’s turned my internet addiction into a non-stop writing machine. I couldn’t ask for more!

    Everyone else- thanks so freakin much. I feel so privileged that y’all will stare at a computer screen just to read my stories. I can’t even explain to you how much that means to me.

  8. Looking at all the trains this weekend as mine pulled out of LA union I thought about all your adventures and wondered if there were any people waiting in the bushes for their ride out of there. Thanks for the glimpse into that world.

  9. what you have written is much of what i have felt standing on roadsides, waiting in bushes on trains, picking up hitchhikers–but you’ve said it so eloquently and with such an economy of words–I am excited every time i come here and there is a new entry–don’t write for the sake of writing (so far, you haven’t) but please, do keep writing when you feel to.

    praise and advice when you didnt ask for it,

    justanassembler

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