Sometimes, the highway shoulder is not your friend. There’s a bad wind, flinging dust at you, highway cones, no shoulder, everyone’s speeding anyway.
Can’t stop. Can’t stop. Can’t stop. Sorry.
We had alot of time to think. I was having cramps, doped up on advil. Sam let me slouch against the guardrail, he even gave me one of his apples. Sam bravely held his thumb aloft for the both of us, a cardboard sign cradled in his other arm. North Carolina. We’d slept next to a graveyard and then this morning we’d been dropped here by a smiling man in a cluttered pickup. Used to go down to North Carolina. Unloaded lots of bud down there. Pounds and pounds. Smile, smile. When you hitchhike, people tell you their secrets. You exist on the edge of what is real and what is not, a sort of leaf come unstuck from an eddy. Talking to you is like stuffing a note in a bottle and tossing it into the ocean.
Dude in a pickup truck, step into my confession booth. I won’t tell anyone that you’re gay, lonely, bored, restless, ashamed. Your secrets are safe with me.
Sam and I tried to play hitchhiking games while we waited, but the only one I knew involved guessing how many cars would pass before one would stop to give you a ride. One hundred, two hundred, three hundred, everybody loses and your heart is broken. We decided a car was just a capsule of bad mojo, and it was better to be outside where we were, in the fresh air, where feelings are free to come and go with the wind. As the cars sped by a bit of air would escape through each window crack, and we could almost hear it.
Unhappy. Unhappy. Unhappy.
New theories were born. There is a travel current. It starts in the southeast and flows north to Chicago, and then west to Seattle. This explained my difficult trip east. It was like paddling a canoe upstream, as opposed to just floating with the current. I drew a sort of map of this newfound travel current, in my notebook.
Hours passed. We are going to die on this highway shoulder. Moral fell through the floor. Bad posture, aching backs, tired thumbs. Hunger. Relentless exhaust. Suddenly there was a car there. Stopped. Like ice fishing and suddenly getting a bite.
There are rules and patterns that govern hitchhiking, just like every other under-documented thing on this great earth. For example, sometimes no-one will stop. As opposed to other times, when a ride will stop within minutes. In the first instance, not-stopping is a sort of unspoken rule, a bit of bad air on the highway shoulder, or maybe you’re just in a spot that feels unsafe for stopping, and you, the hitchhiker, are unawares. In this situation, if you have the patience to wait long enough, a second rule applies- someone crazy will stop. Or maybe just reckless. Reckless will do.
Andrew drove a sleek silver SUV. He popped the back for us and we stuffed our packs inside, as cars rushed by around us. I had just opened a can of beans. Figures. I propped the can up next to my pack, and hoped it wouldn’t fall over. His bags were in the back too, camo-this and duffel-bag that. Once inside the car Andrew pulled, squealing, back into traffic, shaking a cigarette from a pack and lighting it. When I saw he wasn’t going to open his window, I cracked mine. Other people’s second-hand smoke- the second-worst part of hitchhiking. (Waiting is the first.)
Andrew was a marine, on leave in Indiana. Now he was headed back to North Carolina. I think. Or maybe he was stationed on a base in Indiana, and now he was going to North Carolina to see he family. Or something. Andrew was bleary-eyed and a bit of a mumbler. Speeding. “I have a lead foot.” Fresh crew cut and a hard, smooth face. He had a massive scar through his eyebrow that looked almost fresh. He’d been sewn together crooked, and now his eyebrow was a little wrong, a broken line, one side a little higher than the other. Andrew popped a cold can of ‘monster’ energy and pounded it, handed Sam a Mountain Dew. Sam handed the can back to me, and I took a sip. Whoah. Mountain dew. Tastes like my childhood. The yellow #5 seemed to coat the back of my tongue. Or something.
“How old are you guys?” asked Andrew, turning back to look at me, swerving towards the median.
“Whoa!” I shouted, and Andrew smiled. Sam and I told him our ages.
“Wow,” said Andrew. “I’m only nineteen. Be twenty in November!”
I laughed. This kid was a baby! Andrew drained his energy drink and tossed it in the backseat. We asked him if he’d been deployed yet.
“No. But I want to be! I might go to Afghanistan in a year. I want to.” Andrew grinned to himself, lit another cigarette. I cracked my window again. He nodded at a carton of cigarettes on the floor, two-thirds full. “See that carton? I bought that this morning.” Proud. I looked at the stereo, hoping for music. The screen was blank, shot through with black. Broken.
You punch your stereo, tough guy? Too many energy drinks?
“I have a brother who’s considering the marines,” said Sam. “would you recommend it?”
Andrew shook his head.
“No, especially if you’re like me. I go on leave, I find someone to be with, then I gotta go back. Shit!” Andrew clutched the pocket of his polo shirt, swerving into the right-hand lane. “Where’s that pink piece of paper? I need that pink piece of paper!” He lifted a stack of CDs and found it underneath. A small pink slip, obscenely bright against the gray dash. A pale pink square, sort of crumpled. Out of place, as if Andrew had pulled a My Little Pony from under the parking brake. I thought about everything that pink represented. Oh, gender. Andrew smoothed the slip clumsily, and stuffed it under the visor above his seat. “I need that slip of paper. That’s her phone number, address, everything.”
After a break in the conversation, Andrew asked,
“So, what do you guys like to do?”
Oh boy. Here we go again. A trap. Sam and I answer, and then Andrew gets to tell us what he likes to do, which is why he asked the question in the first place.
Sam says he likes to garden. I say I like trees. And then Andrew-
“I like to hunt. But not just deer. I like to hunt coyotes.”
“Oh,” I say- “my brother likes to hunt coyotes too. In Colorado. It sounds pretty hard. How do you hunt them?”
“I bait ’em. With meat. Then I wait. It’s easy!”
“You bait them?”
“And I wait for them to start a feeding frenzy. And then I just blow them to pieces. It’s not the hunt I like,” he said, watching my face in the rear view mirror, grinning, “it’s the slaughter.”
“I’ve got an anger problem,” he said, blearily watching the road, “in case you can’t tell.” Uh huh.
“It sounds like it would be fun,” I said, “to bait them and then when they show up to eat, to just watch them. I bet it would be fun, to watch coyotes eat.”
Andrew proudly held up his forearm, where a pale scar snaked halfway from elbow to wrist.
“I tried that once. And then this happened.” He shook his head. “I almost bled to death. Called my dad before I passed out. Would have died.”
What? You pick a fight with a pack of coyotes, dumbass? He probably tried to take one in hand-to hand combat. Tapped it on the shoulder when it was eating, said something about its mother. Then cried wolf when it bit him and ran away. It was the idiot hunter way- demonize the poor beasts. Helps to justify slaughter.
“Where did you grow up?” asked Sam, taking the wheel and steering the ship away from the choppy waters of Andrew’s inner psyche.
“On a military base,” said Andrew. “Both my parents were marines.”
“Do you have siblings?” I asked.
“Yep, younger ones. I was born with a briefcase in my hand,” said Andrew. “Never got to have a childhood. Both my parents went to prison when I was a kid, had to take care of my siblings. Started my own business when I was fifteen. Graduated highschool the next year. Made fifty thousand dollars a year, with my business. Then, because I’m an idiot, I sold my business and joined the marines.” He shrugged. “When I get out in a couple years, I’m going straight to fort Bragg. I want to train to be in the CIA.”
Perfect, I thought. That sounds perfect for you.
Andrew shook his head. “What I really want to do, I want to start a family.” He looked up at his visor, where a corner of crumpled pink could be seen. “And I finally found someone, too. Just when I find someone, I have to go back.”
“You better not get shot in Afghanistan,” I said. “If you want to start a family.”
Andrew frowned, trying to look tough. Then he smiled.
“She’s not even old enough yet,” he said. “She’s only seventeen!”
“Old enough for what?” I asked. “To have sex? Or to have kids?”
Andrew laughed. “To get married! My fiance! We want to get married! And the funny part is, her family, they want her to marry me too.”
Dear god, I thought. Help that poor girl.
We stopped for gas. We drove. Andrew, it turned out, was going straight through the town where we were headed. Hurrah! We would make it at last! Unless, of course, Andrew swerved off the road in a haze of over-caffeinated sleep deprivation and bravado.
Andrew asked us if we were hungry.
“I’ve got some MREs you could eat.” We pulled one open, curious. Hamburger patty meal. It wasn’t half bad. I ate the “western beans”. There was a tiny bottle of tabasco.
“Cute!” I said. “Look at the little tabasco!”
“That comes in handy,” said Andrew. “Sometimes you gotta drive 36 hour convoys, and you need to stay awake.”
So you put it on your dick, I thought.
“So you put it on your dick,” said Andrew. “That shit burns, but it keeps you awake.“
As likable as Andrew was, sometimes I had to crack the window and drowned him in the rush of air. I spaced out, leaning against the glass. Let Sam hold up the conversation, poor Sam, in the front seat.
Andrew dropped us at Sam’s house in North Carolina. Relief flooded over me. We pulled our things from the back of his car, bean-can still upright. Evening had fallen, and with it, a sort of misting rain. After he’d driven off, Sam relayed a story Andrew had told when I had been spacing out. The story had started with “I don’t believe in hitting women, but-” and had ended with a broken car stereo. Figures.