The traffic wasn’t bad on Interstate 35. This is a rare sentence which makes it a good first one. On this rare Saturday I found myself driving north daydreaming of a girl from further north and farther east. I was scarcely aware of the radio or my surroundings, utterly consumed by one of those intense and forgettable thoughts we all have. As I sped through Georgetown in the far left lane something snapped me out of my masturbatory reverie.
A hitchhiker! And a dog! Maybe they’ll provide me with cause for going to Kansas. Perhaps they’ll kill me or give me a story that can make me famous. There’s a particular name for the blink reaction that I have when entering these situations. Nihilistic ennui with a hint of suicidal altruism. Seeking a cure for a crisis of subjectivity in conversation or throat-cutting. Plus, humans have a habit of acting in a way that might please the objects of their affection, even if that object may never know of their actions. Then again, we always find a way to tell them.
I swooped to the right, across four lanes of traffic and onto the shoulder. By the time I’d made my maneuver and come to a halt, I was half a mile down the roaring freeway from where my merciful saviors were thumbing. In my rearview they appeared unhurried, the way only veterans of the world or slasher flick serial killers can. I watched them march through broken glass and tire shards with an unlikely dignity. They were confident that I’d wait for them, or comfortable with the fact that I might not. Typically hitchhikers run towards my car when I pull over, an endearing gesture that I always wish they’d shelf. Formalities are extra insufferable when one party is wheezing.
When they approached I exited the car to assure them that I was for real and to take the man’s gigantic rucksack. He had sliced a pool noodle in half then wrapped it around the straps to create some foamy cushioning between the weight of his world and his skinny shoulders. I found a place for the bag among my own belongings and looked down at the enormous black pitbull with him. We made eye contact in our reflections in her eyes and I answered the unasked question.
“She rides up front.”
“Are you sure? She can sit quietly back here.”
I shut the trunk to prove my point. Whatever faith I lack in humans I still have in their pets. We walked around the car to our respective sides and the dog greedily lapped up some very brackish water from a roadside ditch. The man yanked her into the car with him.
“I sure appreciate it man. We’ve been out here all day trying to get a ride.”
This is a stock line from every hitchhiker on earth.
Soon enough I learned that his name was James, the dog was Myra—a fourteen year old pitbull who was wheezing from all the walking—and they had started in Corpus Christi four days ago. It didn’t take much mental math for me to know their progress was abysmal. Four days to cover a four hour drive’s ground.
“Yeah, the cops tell us to keep walking through a lot of the cities. Can’t hitchhike inside the city limits. We walked all of San Antonio and all of Austin. She’s a trooper.”
I could feel my accent strengthen and my sentences shorten as we passed the time and the miles. Perhaps the best editor for my flowing soliloquies is a wizened audience that doesn’t care for bullshit. When the literate offer advice on concision it has the suspicious flavor of Hemingwayism. When the thoughtful and wordless offer their ears it is more credible.
“We spent some time in the Gulf, working on boats. She was actually a sea dog for six years.”
“When you say boats…”
“Supply chain. There’s the rigs, then there’s us. We bring the guys food, take back oil, repair lines, everything you can think of. That’s how we ended up in Corpus. After the hurricane I couldn’t do it anymore. We were trapped in the bayous for two weeks and I promised Myra we were done with that shit. Soon as we got to dry land I raised my middle finger and told ‘em I quit. ‘Course that was better than how my son did it.”
“You know, I actually put in some time down on the Gulf myself.”
“It’s the best place. Not like it used to be, but it’s the best place. Back in the day, when I was working rigs up here in Waco, I used to go down about once a month and blow all my money partying with the college kids. You’d get drunker than a dead mule, fall asleep on the warm sand, all the cops’d do is make sure nobody stole your shit from you in your sleep. Now they don’t let you drink on the beach or sleep there. But it’s still the best place.”
In debauchery, veritas. I have never resented the privatization of public spaces for partying purposes, but the inability to sleep on the sand has long been a concern of mine.
“I’ve been everywhere, man, but there’s something special about the Gulf.” James had found his beach. Among the budget spring breakers and weekend immigrant shoppers and the deep sea fishing oil men, he and Myra had a home. “This is the longest I think I’ve ever stayed in one place. There’s not as much work down there but it’s a good life.
‘Course I got me one of them good Mexican girls down there. She’s crazy as hell but she’s a cutie. We love to fight. Man, one time we were driving, I was on my way to cash my paycheck and she took it out of my hands and threw it out the window down there on Shoreline. Goddamn, lady! I got out the car to find it and a cop rolls by. I told him what I was doin’ and he asked me if I ever got her any professional help. I told him it wasn’t like that.”
It rarely is like that. My mind chewed on the particulars of James’ situation in Corpus Christi, on driving with an uncashed check and his Mexican mistress and who paid him in checks.
“So, you’ve lived a lot of places,” I asked, “anywhere outside of Texas?”
“Oh, hell yeah, Victorville, Florida, Kansas City, Oakland, Bakersfield, Connecticut. I loved Florida.”
“What was your favorite place?”
“Minnesota. They know how to live up there man. Even in the cold, they just have a good time. Great people in Minnesota.”
“Where were you up there?”
“Out in the woods near the lakes up at the top of the state.”
Ah, yes, of course.
He told me of bonfire parties, of a particular one where his boss—who was also his best friend—and his boss’ daughter—who he viewed as his surrogate daughter since he was not around his kids during their high school and college years—were present. Many Milwaukee’s Bests were drunk and at some point in the night the daughter asked him for “the weed”.
“I told her ‘Hell no’. She said her daddy wouldn’t care, which was true, but Lord Almighty her mom would’ve given me a lickin’ if she found out. Her mom was the damn strongest woman I ever met. I loved her.”
Myra made her presence known by ceasing the hellacious panting that had filled the pauses in conversation for the last half hour. I had switched the AC to blow on our feet and thusly her face.
“So anyway, that devilish girl told me ‘if you don’t get it for me someone else will and then I’ll be taking drugs from strangers.’ Goddamnit, she had a point. So I say, ‘Stay here, I’ll be back’ and I got her the weed and said ‘ You go smoke in that truck over there and don’t tell anyone you did it or who got it for you.’ ‘Course she got high as a fuckin’ kite and went gigglin’ all over the place and walked straight up to her daddy said ‘James gave me the weed’ and just laughed and laughed. Her daddy’d been smoking too so he laughed too but then he got real serious and said, ‘You talk like that to mama and we’re all done for. You hear me?’ then they laughed some more. ‘Course the next time I seen that woman she damn near strangled me with her own hair, but we exchanged looks and that was that. Say, I’d better call my daughter and tell her we’ll be there soon.”
He pulled out a flip phone and the cognitive dissonance of the situation struck me. Nowadays even men on the road can make calls and send texts from anywhere. Calling does you little good if there’s nobody to answer, but the ability means a lot. He poked at the phone before grumbling, “Ahh, must be outside of my pay zone. These damn go phones.”
“You can use mine.” I pulled out my generic smartphone and he looked at it with trepidation.
“Can you dial this number for me?”
I handed the phone to him but the ringing came clanging out of the car stereo. I thought I’d turned Bluetooth off but had obviously failed.
“Say, Sandra. It’s daddy. Yeah, I got me a ride outside of Georgetown. We’re almost to Temple now. Should be there in half an hour.”
“Well Jason and Bill are already on their way down looking for you. We couldn’t wait any longer.”
“Well, dammit, I’ll hop out soon. Tell them to look for me in Temple instead.”
“Just call them yourself.”
The call ended and we repeated the dialing process with a different number and a new area code. I got to hear Jason’s voicemail drawling in Dolby Surround Sound.
“He prob’ly ain’t gonna pick up a number he don’t know. Damn. Well just drop me somewhere obvious up in Temple and I’m sure he’ll find me. The other phone in my bag back there should still work.”
“Oh come on, I can get you to where you need to be.”
“Dial that other number again, then.”
Through a convoluted set of arrangements, Sandra was told to tell Jason to return home, James had a ride all the way. The idea of owning two cell phones and needing four days to get from Corpus to Waco was new to me. The idea of truckers living in a communal Sybaris in Tijuana was, too.
“That was the best arrangement I ever had. A week of seeing the sights and taking speed, two weeks of partyin’ in TJ, another week of work. We lived like kings. That was back in the Eighties, so it was about three hundred dollars a month for a four bedroom palace, fifty bucks for the two girls to stick around and spoil us, life was good. Usually it was only two, maybe three, of us home at any given time, so there was lots of space and usually enough girls. We’d party until an hour before our shift started, then the girls would bring us this little potion that could sober you up in a second. The bars wouldn’t sell it to the gringos but we’d give ‘em ten bucks and they’d bring back about two shots’ worth and walk with you to the border crossing. That was ten bucks of Eighties money so it wasn’t cheap, but it was always worth it. The trucks were right there in Chula Vista so we’d just walk across around seven AM and hit the road. That stuff was magic, man. It looked like water and barely tasted like anything but you drank it and it was like you’d slept for a week.”
I sat in silence and pondered the story. You didn’t have to say much. There wasn’t much to say.
“Wish I could get ahold of some of that stuff.”
“You know, I’m on my way up here to see my baby granddaughter. Still ain’t met her. That’s a goddamned shame. Tomorrow is her third birthday party.”
“Well, life gets in the way,” I offered, the way one might place a single dollar bill in a tithe basket.
“It does, but this is bad. I ain’t seen Waco in over three years. I’m the reason my kids grew up here.”
I looked at Myra wondering if she could tell me what to say. She had that particular look of someone who is happy because they know that they can kill you at any second. Perhaps living without fear is the secret to a sunny disposition. I was envious of all the things she didn’t know.
“She’s my girl,” James said, snapping me out of another channel-surfing thought exercise.
“You said she’s fifteen?”
“Thirteen. She’s a trooper. She’s sure good to me. My son had her for a while and I took care of her while he was out on a rig and when he came back and I left her with him she was heartbroken. She’d wait at the window for me and one day when she heard my truck pull up she got so damn excited she tore down the screen on his front porch. She’s been mine ever since.”
“That’s a hell of a story. She’s a sweetie.”
“Well, she behaves well when she’s with me. The guy that gave us our first ride was a mobile mechanic for Mac-Donald’s and he pulled off somewhere out there near Floresville and I let her out to get a drink and he tried to pet her—she damn near tore his hand off. He was a hell of a guy, said she was good at her job and actually meant it.”
Myra’s head poked up between James’ oil-stained work khakis. She could tell we were talking about her. Her tongue was dangling like damp linens on a line through the teeth of her characteristic pitbull smile. As long as she was with James, she was happy. Even on the floor of a stranger’s car, flying down the freeway at eighty miles an hour, she’d sit and smile.
“She just had her second litter about a year ago. Sold ‘em all. One pitbull is quite enough. It was a real joy to watch her raise those pups. Hell of a mom.”
“Say, James, what exit should we take? I’m getting you there, bud.”
“Oh, hell, any of the downtown ones. Maybe Eighteenth Street? Just a big one, my daughter’ll get me from there.”
“You sure? I don’t mind.”
“Yeahhhh, just somewhere that’s easy for her to find.”
The City Limit sign appeared and before long the downtown exits were approaching at ¼ mile intervals, the way they always do. I pulled off at 18th St. as instructed.
“Just right over there’d be great.”
“You sure? I can get you all the way.”
“This is perfect.”
I pulled into the gas station and walked to the trunk to grab James’ bag from the trunk. He and Myra were tromping around in the grass on the other side of the car. I joined them and set the bag in a patch of grass the mower had missed.
“Listen, I sure do appreciate it. Good travels to you, sir.”
“Same to you, James. The pleasure’s all mine.” I got back into the car and checked to the left before merging on the service road that led to the freeway. As I stopped at a red light I pulled up my smartphone notepad and jotted down something to look up—Baylor student murders two freshman girls—James had mentioned it and I had never heard about that mundane horror in the city famous for David Koresh’s Branch Davidians. I’d get the grim details later, if the story was true at all. At least I wasn’t going to Wikipedia-and-drive.