Just outside Bellingham the hitchhiker stood in the shadow of the mileage sign: Seattle 80, Tacoma 111. 111 — like bars. Jail. My wife.
Wind blew up my pant leg from the rust hole in the floor. I brought the car to a stop fifty yards past the man, wheels moaning over the rumble strips. I didn’t even consider driving off again, or backing toward him. I just sat and waited, like he was a sentence I was about to be handed. Don’t pick this guy up, I thought, about to shit my pants. But I couldn’t leave. He lifted his paper grocery bag and blanket roll, and walked stiffly in my direction, swinging one leg out to the side. I thought of bedsheets, cool and clean, the sort you find at someone else’s house, or the hospital, or maybe the morgue. I wanted rest, surrender.
Pine and Douglas fir crowded the freeway on both sides. Even with the windows closed I could smell them. He’d been standing with his thumb out when I came around the bend. I hadn’t thought about stopping — the car had just pulled itself over, like this was an exit I took all the time.
Looking at him, I knew he would stink: the matted beard and hair, the clothes stiff and stained like the cardboard I stuck under the car to catch oil drips. Wind from passing trucks rocked the car hard. He opened the door and got in without speaking, wedged the bag and blankets under his feet. The smell rolled across to me, far worse than I’d imagined: creosote, vomit, rot. For a moment I considered getting out — just stepping out. But what would I do after that?
“Where are you going?” I asked, fighting down the slippery instincts of my body. The skin of his face was blackened and creased from sun and wind, the hide of an animal. His head jerked in a random orbit. Something was badly wrong with him. I sped back onto the freeway, cranking down my window.
“Where . . . where,” he said, confused. “Where are you going?” I couldn’t tell if he was repeating my words back or asking me the same question.
“I’m going down to Tacoma.”
“Tacoma,” he said, staring at the cracked dash and picking at a callus on his left hand. “Where’s Chicago?”
I tried not to breathe. His arms and chest seemed thin under his stiff flannel shirt. I tried to imagine him hitting me. I didn’t think he could hurt me. “Chicago’s a long way east. Probably three days’ drive.”
“Oh. Yeah. You going there?”
“No,” I said. “Are you going to Chicago?”
“Don’t know,” he said.
“You going home?’’
“Goin’ome,” he mumbled. “Goin’ome.” He looked over at me suddenly. One eye seemed unfocused. “I wouldn’t mind getting shot.”
My neck prickled. He’s playing with me. “Not in my car,” I said.
The right rear wheel made a grinding noise — the sound of its outer bearing dying — and I eased off the gas until it stopped.
“I’ll drop you near a freeway headed east, OK?”
He swiveled his head in an approximation of assent. The smell hurt my sinuses. I considered the possibility of driving him to Chicago, just wheeling off east. He was so lost I felt found compared to him. It was exhilarating. This is what I wanted.
“You want some music?” I asked.
He didn’t answer, just stared at the callus.
“I’ve got some tapes back there.”
“I like hard acid rock,” he said. Only one of his eyes peered past his ropy hair. “ ‘You better keep ’em separated, uh-uh-uh-uh,’ ” he half sang in his gravel parking lot of a voice. Under all that neglect, he wasn’t much older than me. Early thirties, I thought.
“I don’t know if I can help you there,” I said. I flipped on the radio and scanned to the first station — smooth soul — to drown out a little of his fierceness. I concentrated on the road, breathing through my teeth to filter the smell. He crawled back into his thin-walled head, his mouth hanging open slightly. Signs fled from the steaming front of my car. I pushed the motor too hard, and it whined like a cat tied to the bottom of my boot. My wife, I thought. My wife. Small fits of sweat passed over me like thundershowers. Then I saw a sign — Seattle 26 — and suddenly remembered where I was headed. The need came over me to explain my whole miserable tale. He was an empty bag for me to fill. I looked at him a long moment as he gazed, blank, at the dash, misfiring synapses no doubt sparking a tiny puppet show in his brain. Only his eyes and lips moved. He was reptilian, like a big lizard, a Komodo dragon, waiting in the grass. I veered onto an offramp, heading for a gas station. The tires chirped and stuttered — anything but talk.
“Is this it?” he said.
“I’m just stopping to piss.”
“Chicago,” he said wistfully.
I pulled up next to the minimart. “We’re just outside Seattle.” I didn’t want to leave him in the car alone. “Come on,” I said. “Piss stop.”
He found the door latch and cranked his broken body up out of the seat.
“Are you hungry?” I asked.
“Hung—” he said.
“Let me buy you some food,” I said, swelling pathetically with my power: the power to give this man — a grown man, a stranger — things he couldn’t provide for himself. The tiny store looked like magic, filled with things to satisfy his obscure needs, all palm-sized, in colorful packaging. I headed for the restroom. “Grab what you want,” I called to him, somehow knowing that his choices wouldn’t overwhelm me.
I sat with my wastes dropping and pouring free, and thought, Jail. Broken. My own smell mingled dangerously with his. Outside, some commotion started; voices were raised. I hurried, the horrible paper ripping off in three-inch sections.
He stood at the counter, chewing, an opened package of potato chips in his hand and something white in his beard.
“My God, this man smells!” the woman behind the counter said in my direction. “You’re going to have to leave.”
He was working the potato chips in his stained teeth and clutching a container of dip — the white in his beard. The woman had a snaky dye job and bruised middle-aged eyes that whispered of clumsy self-medication. She probably owned the place. Suddenly I felt a powerful kinship with the hitcher. His smell took me back to my childhood — freedom from the troubles this plastic tub of a store was all about.
“You don’t need to be rude,” I said to the woman.
She looked momentarily chastened; then anger flashed in her cheeks. “Get him outside,” she said, chopping the words off like even carrot slices.
I had my wallet out. “He’s worked a long time on that smell,” I said. “We’re quite proud of it.” I handed her a Canadian five.
She savagely fingered the cash register. What a performance! In Canada, the same woman would have frowned once, maybe. I felt I was playing some absurd video game.
“He won an award in Bellingham for that smell. Show her the ribbon,” I said to him.
He blinked slowly.
“Please,” she said, holding the change out to me.
I felt foolish, bad. How powerless she was, and how her spirit had been broken. “I’m sorry,” I said, and took the American bills from her yellowed fingers. Chain smoker — slave to grinding habit. Maybe I knew this woman better than I knew the hitcher.
“Come on,” I said to him as I leafed the green bills between the red, blue, and purple Canadian ones in my wallet. America is all one color, I thought.
Outside, he kept pushing the chips into his mouth. Dip from his hand smeared the car door. I wanted to leave him there. He was past the edge of caring, deeper into the murk of neglect than I’d ever gone. How easy it would be to jump back in, I saw then, and I was tempted by the prospect for the first time in two years. But the big fishing lines jerked me back: a jailhouse in Tacoma, my job in Vancouver, my daughter. In my wallet I had the home and work numbers of my NA sponsor and a list of meetings in the Tacoma area.
“I’m going to drop you off up here, OK?” I said when we were back on the road. “I’ll set you at the ramp to 90 east, toward Chicago.”
“Hah,” he said, which I heard as Great, perfect.
“Let me tell you something,” I said. I wanted to scrape some of my pain onto his rough shape, like I might clean my boots on a curb.
“Hah,” he said, staring into the silver bag of chips. He crumpled the empty bag and dropped it on the floor, then stuck his thumb into the container of dip and licked it with his notched tongue.
“My wife is in jail in Tacoma,” I said.
“Last night I was working for Luther,” he said around the mouthful of dip.
I puzzled silently over this.
“Lutherfer,” he said.
“Lucifer?” I said. My spine trembled.
“That’s the last time. I quit now.”
I had an idea of what he might be talking about, but I didn’t want to know. He kept fingering the onion dip into his mouth. The thick onion smell spun into the dizzying solar system of his reek. We rode in silence until I saw the sign for 90 east.
“This is it.” I pulled onto the shoulder next to the offramp. “You can hike up there.” I pointed. He sat motionless. “Hey!” I yelled.
He looked over at me, and I could see something inside him, a spooky little man crouched down behind his eyes. “I’d be fine if there was someone else,” he said. “You know — someone.” His voice terrible with knowledge.
“Shit,” I said under my breath. His teeth were sharp now.
“Protect yourself,” he said, his hand reaching for the grocery bag. I flinched so hard I knocked my wrist against the steering wheel. He popped the door handle, stepped out onto the shoulder, slammed the door shut, and was gone. On the seat a wet stain glistened, a terrible intimacy. That oozed from his body. He staggered up the grass bank like a spider.
I raced down the shoulder, the rumble strips playing deep minor chords. He was going to kill me. Sweat trickled down my chest. Cars filled both lanes, but I sped up, veered in and out, let the horns blare around me. Death had visited me with a fogged mind and shaking onion-dip hands, like a shape that slides past your leg in murky water. I kept seeing the little man crouched inside that burned-out framework of a human being — the sharp eyes and starved fingers. I wanted a turkey dinner, with stuffing and Brussels sprouts. I wanted a home, a mother. I wanted to blast off the fucking planet. “My wife runs away with a gas-station robber!” I yelled, drooling. “My wife!”
I veered into the fast lane, and suddenly no one was in front of me. All tension gave way, and I floated free. I wasn’t going to Tacoma, wasn’t going to the jail to see her. Where was I going? My baby daughter was staying with my aunt and uncle. They knew I’d be gone a couple of days. Maybe they knew they might be raising her forever. Not that I wanted that, but everyone suspected I might break. Everyone was scrutinizing me with great pity, waiting to see the first stain on my white shirt sleeves. Secretly, they all thought I’d end up like that hitcher. I might as well have picked up dirty works and a bag of drugs and gotten it over with. I’d done some abrasive living, but up until that moment I’d thought I could put it all behind me. When I’d left Vancouver that morning with a nice hot cup of McDonald’s coffee, I’d thought I was going to fix things, a farmer heading out to repair fences. Now I was the cattle rustler, the ill-recovered drug addict whose wife had started using again, run away, and ended up in jail, leaving me clean and alive, but with a pain I’d never imagined.
I wound the engine past the point of no return, past the grind of the wheel bearing, past a new, angry transmission wheeze. The wheels wobbled under the strain. I cared for nothing but speed. My reptile brain cashed in long-forgotten reserves of courage — endorphins, dopamine, junk. I flew past the exits to Tacoma and headed out Highway 12 toward the coast, smelling the smoke of Mexico somewhere ahead. I pulled off my uncle’s tie and let it go whipping out the window, watched in my mirrors as it pinwheeled across the pavement.
I imagined a small taste of junk, just a smoke, to give me some perspective. The thought sent my leg muscles into spasms so bad I had to take my foot off the pedal. The engine stopped its whine. My grip on the wheel loosened. I drifted to a stop on the shoulder. I could hear myself laughing: nervous, snorting, scared as shit. My legs stopped jerking, and for a long time I watched the grass blowing in the wind, the trees waving. I’m scared, I thought. I let myself feel that, found the balled-up pictures of my fears and smoothed them out so I could look at them: There was a picture of the hitcher who could have killed me. Bigger than that were pictures of Sarah, crazed on meth, robbing a store with Gary, and of her in jail, sick and broken. Biggest of all was a picture of me alone in the apartment with Natasia, my baby. Christ, they were hard to look at. I cried a little. I had to crumple most of them back up.
I needed a drive, a trip away before I could go back. “I could buy drugs,” I said out loud. But it had no urgency, no weight to bury my unhappiness. I didn’t want to join Sarah. I need a vacation, I thought. A vacation. I tried to laugh, but it wasn’t funny; it was beautiful. The smell was mostly gone from the car. I’m on vacation, I thought. My heart did some strange, acrobatic twitch. I started the car again, checked the mirrors carefully, and pulled back onto the road.
I felt huge and beautiful, better than ever. The road rippled out before me, almost white in the sunlight. I wiped the passenger seat with a torn page from my road atlas — South Dakota/Ohio; two places I didn’t care to go — then threw the page out the window. The wind carried a swollen plastic bag across the road. I threw the empty chip bag out to join it. The car swerved. I rolled down both front windows and let the inside fill with cool fists of air. And I saw it: the hair-thin ledge I was standing on. It felt crazy to be balancing there — like first sex, or first real high. But I saw now that I’d been frozen there for years; I’d just been too numb to notice. I punched on the radio and let it scan through all the music and voices.
Twenty miles later, the ocean bit into the land and surged green-white on a rocky beach. I turned south and followed the coast. All my life I’d wanted to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway. My parents had always promised to take me. They’d told me about the sea-lion caves and the dunes in Oregon, and the huge bridge across the Columbia River Gorge. But they were both drunks, and every year there was some reason: no money, no car. Then my dad left, and a year later I was living in a squat, selling pot to fifteen-year-old girls. Now I thought, I’m going to the sea-lion caves. I screamed out the window, honked the horn. Then the curves in the road turned sharper. For hours I held the wheel firmly and leaned with the car through sweeping corners, each one a tiny drama of fear giving way to confidence and elation, the guardrail flashing past and a vague sense of the vast ocean beyond.
The road wound up, and then I was on it: the Astoria-Megler Bridge across the mighty Columbia River Gorge. It was OK. Pretty big, but not as great as I’d expected. Maybe I was lonely. I wanted someone to show it to. No, I wanted someone to show it to me. Someone to point and say, “Thirty men died building this bridge,” or, “Up there you can see the rapids where Captain James Vancouver fell in and lost his hat.” Anything, even made-up bullshit like that. I thought of Natasia, but then I stopped.
The surface of the bridge made the tires sing like an open-throated choir. No one was behind me. I slowed until the song wound down into the tiny individual bumps under each tire. Sun collected in the folds of the river way below. The speedometer said six miles an hour. I could see every crack in the concrete. This is the speed of a covered wagon, I thought, and felt a little better, imagining a pioneer hitching up the team to go get his junkie wife out of jail. They ate each other, those pioneers, right around here, in Oregon or California. I thought about the enormous fuck-up that had landed some pioneer in the mountains, devouring his family and friends. For a moment, my own mistakes seemed small and reparable. Then they just seemed insignificant bumps in the historical panorama of fuck-ups.
I accelerated back into the twentieth century, and the tires sang briefly until the bridge deck thumped to a finish and I was in Oregon.
They stood just past the last gas station in a little town called Seaside, both dressed in a manner that caused the word cult to snap into my head. That’s not a word that appears frequently in my vocabulary, so I knew it had to be a warning. I pulled over anyway. This pulling over was a hunger. I couldn’t stop stopping, it seemed.
They were college students, probably. He was tall and thin, with a wide-lapeled red jacket and a cream-colored suitcase, like a young Sonny Bono. She had on tight jeans and a gauzy blue blouse, and had long brown hair. The way she corralled him with one hand on his suitcase, her body holding all the charge, made me think of Sarah. This is stupidity, I thought, but I didn’t move.
She leaned in the open window. “How far you going?” Her voice was lower than Sarah’s.
I couldn’t think of any place other than the sea-lion caves, but I didn’t want them in the car that long. What I wanted from them was beyond me. “I don’t know,” I said, which I realized right away was the worst thing I could have said, an open invitation to the wildest abuse.
“Would you consider going to Portland?” She leaned down so that a hint of cleavage played on my mind.
I hesitated. “Nope,” I said.
“How about Eugene?”
The clock on my dash read 12:43 P.M.
“Why don’t you just get in and I’ll give you both a little ride, OK?” I said, surprising myself completely. What did I mean? The confident impatience in my voice sounded like my father.
“OK,” she said, and smiled.
I thought about putting something down on the wet seat, but then didn’t. I liked the idea of her absorbing a little of my first passenger. The guy got in the back silently. I eased into the gas pedal, starting the car’s symphony of mechanical problems.
“I don’t know why I picked you up,” I said, the anger still in my voice.
“I could guess,” she said.
“Too easy,” I said. The wind whipped her hair between us.
“You want drugs?” She turned in the seat and smiled at the guy. I looked in the mirror and saw him raise and lower his eyebrows without moving the rest of his face.
“No,” I said with some assurance.
“You want sex?”
“Not really,” I said, feeling uncomfortable with the direction things seemed to be heading. It all reminded me of Sarah. Who had this woman left to go on the road with this anorexic Sonny Bono clown? “I don’t want any shit.”
“Whoa, OK,” she said. “I was just trying to be nice.”
“I’ve had enough of that kind of nice for one life.”
“Maybe you picked us up so you could be rude,” the guy said. His voice was low and straight, like a long ruler, measuring, poking at things.
“Are you two in some kind of cult?” I asked.
“What makes you say that?” the woman said.
“Experience,” I lied.
“You’re Canadian,” the guy said.
“You’re supposed to be polite.”
“Fuck you,” I said.
And he laughed, a barking, horsy cough. I laughed myself, and then the woman laughed, a wild, flowing sound. It was like we’d all agreed that laughing was the least scary response to whatever was happening.
We all stopped at about the same time. The metallic squeaking of the car frame stood out among the blur of sounds around us — the structure was wearing thin. Even though they were younger, I felt at a disadvantage. They seemed so good at their wandering, better than I ever was. And definitely better than I was at whatever I was trying to do just then: be responsible, have a regular life, choose a purpose and be good at it. Even the murderous vagrant had played his role with more confidence than I did mine.
“I’m on vacation,” I said, then immediately regretted it — vacation sounded trite, wealthy.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I was supposed to go to Tacoma.”
“Vacation in Tacoma?” the man said.
“My wife is in jail there.”
The woman laughed, then stopped abruptly. “Really?” she said. “I’m sorry.”
I felt like an idiot. This was the last thing I wanted. Fuck them, I thought. Fuck whatever they think of me.
“You didn’t go to Tacoma,” the man said.
The woman was staring at me openly, either impressed or disbelieving, her eyebrows pulled together, her mouth slightly ajar.
The words jumped out of me: “My wife and I met at an NA meeting.”
I looked around at both of them, keeping my eyes away from the road as long as I dared. When I turned back, my right wheels were over the white line. I eased them back.
“Everything was beautiful,” I said. “God. We were clean together. After about a year she got pregnant, and we decided to get married. Both our families came. We have a little girl, ten months old.” My eyes were wet. I didn’t care. “Have either of you ever been in NA?”
They both shook their heads.
“Have you ever been out of control with drugs?”
The woman just opened her eyes wider, but the man half nodded.
They seemed embarrassed, but I kept going. “You know that feeling when you get things back under control? Each time you choose not to get high, you get that little jolt of well-being.”
The guy nodded slowly, leaning forward, his arms on the back of her seat.
“When we were clean, every day was like a fucking TV show. All those little jolts of well-being added up and kept getting bigger. Man, it’s like dragging yourself out of the surf and up onto a beautiful sandy beach. We thought we were so happy. Our little girl was perfect — is perfect. We had a nice place. My job was pretty good. But one day we woke up and all the little jolts had stopped. We were both out of the surf, but we were standing on the same lousy beach as before. Maybe worse this time: no cash, crying baby, broken TV, arguments.”
She glanced back at him. I didn’t care what they thought.
“So Sarah just turned around and jumped back in. And I’m not big enough to go back in there and get her.” I was on the verge of crying. “I’m a coward, but I know my fucking limits, and she’s way past them.”
“Shit,” the man said. “That’s tough.”
“ ‘Tough’? What do you mean, ‘tough’?”
He sat up. “You know, hard. I mean, I can sympathize. Fuck, I don’t know.”
“What am I doing here?” I yelled. “Where’s my little girl? Where’s my wife?”
I pulled the car over, skidding hard, tires squealing.
They had their doors open so fast I didn’t see it happen. She got out and slammed the door behind her, but he leaned his head back inside: “That’s a sad story, man. I feel for you. But you need some help. Go see a good therapist or something. It’s not the sort of shit hitchhikers will be able to help you with.”
He shut the door, and they walked back along the shoulder. She was shaking her head. He had one hand on the small of her back. I could imagine what they were saying. They were right.
They stopped a few hundred yards away and put out their thumbs to the thin stream of cars. I shut off my engine. The wind played over the quivering heads of the ice plants along the road. The idea of help loomed over me. Help: the opposite of vacation; someone more reliable than a hitchhiker.
A black sedan stopped, and they got in. As it drove past, they stared at me. The guy waved: a small, sad wave, his eyes half closed.
At the bottom of the cliff, green ocean water surged back and forth as the waves hit the rocks just out of view. The clouds moved by fast, faster than I’d ever seen them move, I thought. I imagined bringing Natasia here when she got older. I thought of the sea-lion caves: Sea lions swimming like huge brown clowns, catching fish, running from the law. Floating in their cathedrals of green water, tongues of pale light reaching down from the heavens. I wanted to see the sea lions in person. I wanted to sit down with a sea lion and explain my troubles, have him bark and slap his meaty, awkward flippers together. I wanted a big fish dinner and clean sheets. I wanted it all. Now.