Where did we leave off? Ah yes. I’m eating soup behind an auto-parts store. The cold is setting in and I’m crouched on the grass, holding the Styrofoam cup with fingerless wool gloves. The soup is good, if a little stale, and with subtle notes of battered plastic bag. I toss the cup away and face the wind, hiking the matted grass shoulder back to Barnes & Noble, where I plan on camping out until eleven- closing time. I’m outside Nashville, but in a sprawl that could be anywhere. In the morning I’ll hitch the rest of the way to Memphis, where I mean to catch a freight train to LA. I shiver a bit and pull my hat down around my head. The projected low for the night is seventeen degrees.
At the sprawling bookstore I wander, dazed, under the stark fluorescents, overwhelmed by the world’s glossy paperbacks. Why write anything? Why read any single thing? Why not just be awash in everything, confused… I pause at a display in the young adult section and finger the first book in the “Twilight” series, a story of teenaged vampires and star-crossed love. A trashy romance. A well marketed trashy romance, that many, many people are reading. Curious, I open the hefty book and read the first few pages. It’s awkwardly written, mildly unbelievable, and incredibly escapist. Just what I need to pass the time. I take the book and park in a corner of the store, in one of those chairs that aren’t as comfortable as they look.
The main character moves from phoenix to the Olympic peninsula of Washington. It’s rainy there and she hates it. She does all her homework early and cooks dinner every night for her dad. She’s a bit of a square. She’s also prone to panic attacks and low blood sugar, sleepless nights and mysterious fainting spells. At school she meets an unusually handsome young man who turns out, of course, to be a vampire. He falls in love with her but must constantly fight the urge to drink her blood. She falls somewhat destructively in love with him, constantly fainting and forgetting to eat when he’s around. Her heart stops when they kiss, which is as far as they ever get, sexually. His favorite hobbies include picking her up with one hand, grabbing her by the wrists, ordering her to “get in the car!” and holding her down on the couch when she’s dizzy, which is all the time. Her pastimes include obsessing over him, sleep-talking about him, and falling into piles of broken glass. When she’s not fainting or hyperventilating, she likes to spend time thinking about how worthless she is or cleaning the bathroom twice in a row. When he’s away from her he spends his time hunting deer in the Olympic mountains (to cure his blood-thirst) and driving his Volvo well over the speed limit. He also plays piano.
While I’m lost in this wonderfully unbelievable, remarkably shallow tale, two men strike up a conversation in the chairs across from mine, one young, one old. They’re talking, somewhat passionately, about right-wing Christianity and its many merits. The older man laments the loss of his teaching job, for “not being politically correct” (aka he doesn’t believe in evolution and thinks the earth is only 6,000 years old) and the younger one nods enthusiastically, leaning forward in his chair. He’s got thin blond hair and small dark eyes. The older one has glasses and a slow way of speaking. On the table in front of him are a paperback book and a leather document case.
“You sound like an intelligent guy,” says the younger. “what do you do now? You come here and read?”
“Oh,” says the older. “Oh. I come here, I read sometimes fourteen hours a day.”
“Bet you write a lot, huh?” says the younger.
“I’ve written some things,” says the older, straightening up. “I used to write a lot more. I always wanted to write a book. I’ve written a lot of things.”
The pair swap tales from the bible, shake their heads with resignation, drop a homophobic comment or two. Just before closing the younger man invites the older to a sort of philosophy club of his invention, for right-wing Christians and other sensible folk.
“You seem like a real intelligent guy,” he says again, respectful. “I like to talk with philosophical, thinking types like yourself.”
The night has gotten late. I put down my vampire novel with a sigh, and button up the letterman jacket Gabo lent me. Outside, all the world is cold sparkling frost. The sky is empty and black. A wind blows. I feel sufficiently bundled up for walking (two wool sweaters and a wool jacket, wool long underwear, wool gloves, scarf, fake-fur lined hat) but I worry about the my sleep. Will I be warm enough, in my flattened down bag? Even with my new bivy sack? Will the cold creep in like a hand, turning my layers to newspaper? As I walk past the burger king, the Chinese buffet, the shuttered bank, I have a stroke of inspiration- I’ll make a nest out of cardboard! Cardboard, to keep off the deathly condensation! Cardboard, to keep in the heat! I turn off the sidewalk and head for the back of a strip mall, ducking behind a concrete wall and flinging open the lid of a vitamin store dumpster.
And I find, not cardboard, but- vitamins. Lots, and lots, and lots of vitamins. And energy bars, ankle deep. And whey protein powder, in all of its various incarnations and packaging. And a full spectrum of caffeinated beverages. I hop into the dumpster, laughing, the plastic bottles rattling at the impact. It’s a regular cornucopia of expired supplements, shining in the bright lights of the parking lot. I paw through the bars, tossing them to the side. It’s warm in here, and entertaining. And it’s fascinating to see what’s been thrown away. A little bit of everything, like Noah’s arc. I even find this bottle of Acai berry juice, the familiar bane of myspace popup ads, and I have to laugh:
The energy bars, tho, are the most amusing of all. So many of them, and every one utterly stomach-turning. I decid, for my own entertainment, to do a sort of survey, there in the dumpster, of the bars. It is only my duty, after all, as your roving hobo journalist, to collect this sort of random information. I review a good handful of the bars, rejecting many of them prior to the trial for containing wheat. I give allowances for the inevitable rancidity of the ‘natural’ bars (for they are all expired), as opposed to the ‘techy’ bars, whose expiration dates are but a nod to the past, when all food was made of materials that could, at some point, be broken down by microorganisms, and for the fact that all of the bars are frozen solid. And here, for you, are my scientific findings-
Eventual I tire of the dumpster and climb out, taking with me only this bottle of elderberry syrup and this steel water bottle, which has nothing wrong with it whatsoever, and was still in its packaging when I found it.
I am almost warm enough. I fall asleep. I wake, halfway through the frosty night, to pee, and my sleeping bag is of course matted and wet. I shiver back down inside it. It feels so cold outside, I can’t even believe it. It feels colder, even, than the forecasted seventeen degrees. But then, I’m no judge of cold. I’ve lived in Portland for too long, and 40 degrees and raining seems like winter to me. I shut my eyes and roll into a ball on my side, waiting for morning.
Did you know that the coldest part of the night comes in the hour before dawn? If you have ever ridden trains, if you have ever slept outside without a tent, you know this. It’s the hour you wake, the hour to pull your feet up closer to you, the hour you realize, with relief, that you can un-button the flap of fur on your bucket hat and fold it down over your face. You fall back asleep, you fall back asleep to wait. Dawn comes, and eventually, the sun, and late morning, and you can finally stretch, unzip your bag(s) (it’s stuck! It’s stuck!) and emerge into a much less hostile world, a world for those whose gloves have no fingers, for those who must handle zippers, and for those who drink from metal water bottles. A world for mortals, for awkward, furless mortals, naked mole rats with stiff fingers and red noses like canvas sails, and feet that cannot, somehow, warm themselves.
We are at his exit. The man pulls off.
“Where do you sleep? You stay in a hotel?” he asks, sweeping his arm at a string of hotels along the highway.
“No, I just sleep in the bushes.” I say. And besides, it’s only two in the afternoon.
He looks at me, puzzled, and pulls into a gas station.
“Ok lady,” he says, putting his hand on my leg. I pick it up and shake it. He looks confused.
“Thanks for the ride,” I say. “Good luck. Good bye.”
Another onramp, another chance to watch the cars go by, to collect stares like rejection letters from magazines you’d never even sent stories to.
No. No. No.
Thanks. Thanks. Thanks. I. Wasn’t. Asking. Anyway.
I’m not so much asking as waiting. Two kinds of people, two kinds of people… those who pick up hitchhikers, and those who don’t.
A cop, lights flashing, pulls onto the onramp. The car in front of it pulls onto the shoulder, and the cop follows. Oh great, I think, dropping my thumb. There’s a cop car on my onramp. Now no-one will stop for sure. I turn to watch, defeated. The minutes tick by, as the cop walks to the window, gets the driver’s ID, walks back to run it. Back out of the car, he’s got the driver out now, hands in the air, and he’s patting him down-
A semi pulls off the road just past me, between me and the cop. No way that truck’s stopping for me, I think. And now there is no room for anyone to pull over, even if they saw me and really, really wanted to stop. Two kinds of people, two kinds of people. I see the small figure of the man stoop down and get in the back of the cop car, the cop holding his head so it won’t hit. The cop gets back in his car and sits there, lights flashing. The semi goes nowhere.
Oh hell, I think, jogging towards the semi.
The passenger window is down. I look up at a bearded man, and shout over the roar of the idling truck.
“Did you stop for me?”
“No,” he says, shaking his head. I turn and plod back towards the intersection. “Hey!” he shouts after me. “Hey!” I turn around and plod back. “Do you need a ride?”
“Yeah.” I say. “ To Memphis. Where are you headed?” The face of a woman appears, younger than him. A lit cigarette in her mouth. No makeup.
“We can get you to Memphis,” says the woman, smiling. The door pops open. Heat rushes out. “Hop in.” The man moves to the bed in back to make room for me, and I climb the huge metal steps, pushing my pack with some effort onto the seat above of me. The woman pulls it off the seat and arranges it on the floor. She’s got jeans on and huge white sneakers. The man is wearing pajama pants and house slippers.
“Thanks for stopping,” I say, grateful for the blowing heat.
“We were just switching drivers.” says the man. “I’ve got to get some rest. Going all the way to Dallas, take you there if you want. Take you to Memphis, too.”
“Hey- what size feet do you have?” he adds, as an afterthought. I look down at my leather boots.
“A ten in women’s.” The two of them laugh.
“I got big feet too,” says the woman, pulling out into traffic.
“Yeah,” I say. “I like my feet. Didn’t used to like them when I was a kid, but now I do.” I don’t tell her that lesbians are allowed to have big feet. And hands.
“I’m cool with mine, too,” she says. The man makes a snarky comment I can’t hear. “Aren’t you supposed to be sleeping?” she barks. He grunts and pulls shut the grey curtain that separates cab and bunk. The woman pulls a fresh pack from a carton above my head and lights up another cigarette.
“Mind if I smoke?” she asks.
“No,” I say, rolling down the window an inch. The cold air roars inside the cab. The woman keeps hers up.
“So you just travel around?” she says, looking at me frankly. I wince at the familiar words, the same five words that have come from the mouth of quite nearly every hitch-hiking ride I have ever had, read verbatim like script from a teleprompter. On planet hitch-hike, a world of zero constants, adrift in an solar system of variables, it’s almost eerie how predictable some things can be. Or at least, this one thing. You could set your watch by these five words.
“No.” I say. “I was just in North Carolina, and now I’m going home to Portland, Oregon. I’m catching a freight train in Memphis.”
So. You. Just. Travel. Around. I dissect each word in my head, looking for some sort of hidden meaning. Is the universe trying to tell me something? So- that indicates understanding, as if I’ve already communicated something. By standing on the side of the road? By having a big pack? You- that would be me. Just- as in ‘only’, as in ‘merely’, as if to say that one cannot travel and be stationary all in the same lifetime, as if you have to choose one or the other. A plausible assumption. Travel- that means be homeless, have no purpose, do nothing. Around- in no particular direction. To sum up- you’re homeless, jobless, directionless, your life has no meaning, and you don’t care. Sometimes, yes, no, no, and yes.
Evening falls outside the window, and the woman tunes to blue-collar comedy on the satellite radio. Every now and then she yells something back at the man.
“You asleep?” she says.
“No, no,” he answers, house slippers peeking under the plastic curtain as he sits up on the bunk.
“What highway do I take at the split in Memphis?” He mumbles instructions. “I’m not gonna remember that,” she barks.
“You can wake me up when we get to the split,” says the man, tired.
“You want me to write that down?” I ask, taking out my little notebook.
“Yeah, yeah.” says the woman. The curtain closes again.
“You been driving all day?” I ask.
“Yeah, we been driving since this morning.” The woman has an incredible georgia accent, one of my favorite southern accents. Her “I” sounds come out like “ah”, and her “oh” sounds come out like “ale.” “Right now” sounds like “rot nail”. She’s from somewhere south of Atlanta, someplace I don’t recognize, but then, I don’t know georgia.
“He’s tired.” she says, jerking her thumb towards the back. “Me, I don’t sleep. I can drive. At least for a while.” She pauses, staring out at the road. “I got insomnia. I take medication for it, have ever since I was a kid. Anxiety medication, too. The stuff stops working after a while, tho. Right now, I’m getting about three hours a night. Maybe four.
“That right?” She yells back at the curtain. “Three hours?” There’s no response. “Hey!” she shouts. “Hey! You asleep?”
The man pushes aside the curtain.
“Now I thought we agreed to be nice to each other.” He says, short.
“Well, see how long that lasted!” She says. The curtain whips shut again. The woman laughs. She’s tall, with straight blonde hair and a grey sweatshirt pushed up on her fore-arms, which seem strangely muscled for a truck-driver. A cellphone rings on the dash, vibrating in a pile of nickels. “It’s your wife!” she shouts back at the man. The curtain is silent, and the cellphone falls still.
“I used to hitch around,” says the woman, “long time ago. Lived on the streets for a while. Slept in the back of parked cars.”
“You slept in the back of parked cars?” I ask, impressed.
“Oh yeah. You just find one that’s unlocked, curl up in the backseat. Hope you can get out of there before they get up for work, or whatever.”
“Did they ever try to drive to work before you could get out of there?” I ask.
“No.” She says. “I had a plan. I’d roll down onto the floorboards, hide while they drove and hope they didn’t notice me.” She shrugs. I laugh.
“Some plan!” I say. She lights up another cigarette.
“Now I drive a truck.” She says. “Truck driving is in my family. My dad was a truck driver, my grandpa was a truck driver. I grew up with it, with the CB. It feels comfortable to me.” The road in front of us is dark. I pull out my cellphone and check the weather forecast, which is one of the things I can do on my phone for free, and will soon prove to be entertaining in times of extreme boredom and despair. I check the low in Memphis- 25 degrees. And in Dallas- fifty-five. I pull out my rail atlas, and look to see if they train goes through Dallas, or Fort Worth. It does. Sort of. Screw the train.
“Hey, if y’all don’t mind, I’ll ride with you to Dallas.”
I can’t tell, but I think she looks a little annoyed.
“Not my truck.” She says. “Gotta ask the boss. YOU AWAKE?” she yells in the back. I wince.
“I’m awake!” He says. “Just layin’ here.”
“Girl here says if we don’t mind, she’ll ride with us to Dallas.”
“I don’t care,” says the man. “fine by me.”
The woman shakes out another cigarette, and lights it. She isn’t annoyed, I decide- just exhausted. I’ve been an insomniac before, for periods of time, so I know first hand how it slowly scrapes away the barrier between your nervous system and the outside world, like someone started peeling the outside off a potato and got distracted. Next thing you know, you look down and there’s just a little piece of the potato left, raw. Like not having any skin. Like not having any skin. I crack my window and watch the cigarette smoke shoot out, sucked into the night. I’m exhausted from my cold-night’s sleep and a long day of standing in the wind with my thumb out. My eyes close and my head rolls back on the seat. It feels good to rest like this. I cannot, actually, fall asleep while sitting upright- but the woman doesn’t know that. A period of time passes, just quiet radio and the rushing window.
The woman’s ringtone goes off. Apple bottom jeans, boots with the fur…
“Hey sexy.” the woman laughs. “Yeah? I’m just drivin’. Uh-huh. Picked up a hitch-hiker.” Pause. “A girl. Yeah. Pretty brave. She just travels around.” Pause. “Oh yeah?” She mumbles another sentence, quiet, and hangs up the phone. Turns the radio back up. Time passes.
Baggy sweatpants and the Reeboks with the strap…
“Hey baby.” She says. “You what?” Laughter. “Yeah, I like those ones alright. What I really like, though, is the wand.” I startle a bit in my chair. I’m glad it’s dark. “You know which one? Yeah. I paid fifty bucks for that thing!”
I know that wand! Suddenly the pieces of the puzzle click together in my head. Riding with a married man, driving a truck, and something much more subtle- this woman is a lesbian! A bonafied, truck-driving lesbian! Well, I never!
“Yeah,” she says into the phone. “I AM a lesbian, after all.” A bit sarcastically, as if it’s a joke. I smile to myself.
After a while, she hangs up the phone. It gets later. We won’t be in Dallas until dawn. Finally I muster the courage to ask if I can abandon my post up front and go crash out on the top bunk in the back.
“Yeah, sure.” says the woman, gruff. I feel bad for leaving her up here, sleep deprived and bored- but I am tired and my back hurts and I can never in a million years fall asleep sitting upright. The man is asleep on the bottom bunk, and when I pull back the curtain he wakes, startled.
“Sorry,” I say.
“Alright,” he says, irritated. I wonder if these two ever manage to sleep at all. I climb up top and he moves forward to take my position in the passenger seat. The two bicker back and forth, light cigarettes. I curl in a ball against the back wall, try to steel myself against the rocking truck. The cigarette smoke rises and collects around my head, burning my eyes and itching my nose. I sleep like that, in a fog, half-awake, and my dreams are made of radio comedy and the woman’s whispered phone conversations, the constant thrumming of wheels on tarmac. When we stop it is dawn, a gentle sun rising in a washed-out sky. We have somehow passed through Arkansas and the warm Texas desert is all around us, at a truck stop on the outskirts of Dallas. I climb down from the bunk, stiff, and stumble into the truckstop, rubbing the smoke from my itchy eyes. I hear someone gasp as I enter the restroom and a woman looks up from washing her hands, startled. I give her my favorite hostile stare. I am used to this by now. I suppose, as long as I didn’t open my mouth, I could just use the men’s bathroom and be done with all the drama, but the women’s bathroom is just so much cleaner…
The pair take me to breakfast at cracker barrel. I get some eggs and potatoes and veggies, and the food comes out in a tiny, absurdly hot skillet. I drain my water glass, and the pair push theirs my way.
“I got water in my coffee,” says the woman. She is surprisingly rude to the waitress. I try to be extra nice to make up for it, but I know it’s not the same. The man grumbles and the two hardly even tip, so I throw down some extra dollars after they walk away. I point out on the atlas where it is in Fort Worth I’m trying to go, and the man takes me to another truckstop, off some lonesome stretch of freeway. There is a sign for a bus-stop there, faded and cracked.
“This is fine,” I say. “I can take the bus into town and get to the trainyard that way.” I climb out of the truck and look at the sign. Weekday service only. It’s Sunday.
“Well good luck,” they say, waving from up in the cab. The truck pulls away, rumbling, the trailer gone, dropped off before dawn. I wave goodbye. I have forgotten their names.
That’s all for tonight, friends. But stay tuned for the next installment- Texas- the Bermuda Triangle of Everything