The Hitchhiker

It’s a lonely drive from Briggs Junction to San Francisco and making the trek in the dead of night makes the drudgery even worse. I can’t believe I nearly missed my turnoff just then, swerving across two lanes to make it. Unbelievable. I’ve made this trip so many times and can’t figure out why I got so turned around. What was I thinking? I got Mother’s funeral tomorrow morning…that’s upsetting. Just like her to make it as inconvenient as possible. I know. I should be feeling something else here, but this just isn’t a good time for me. Perhaps being stuck behind an eighteen-wheeler got me disoriented, or the glare on the windshield from oncoming headlights, or maybe that gangling derelict hitchhiking at the Y distracted me for a moment. Whatever! I’m off the freeway now and set and on my way.

All the blurring glare of the freeway disappears leaving just a faint, pale gleam from some unobservable moon. Across the way is a blacken ridge with skeleton-like forms of dwellings scattered in its darkness. The structures seem flimsy and unearthly in the night. Some of them have ghastly wafts of smoke that linger above their chimneys and others have their paltry yards aglow from security light beams. It’s a cold and barren space this late at night. The black firmament overhead with its array of flickering, white specks lodged in it still remain far from reach. The terrain beneath it is just as boding and desolate. The black pavement of the roadway winds alongside a riverbank down through a craggy and precipitous ravine to the backcountry of Oregon.

The highway is deserted so I race along making up for some lost time. Work had set me back some. I was to leave work at nine, but the boss had his son work the forklift again and the idiot dumped a load of lumber that needed to be re-stacked. The boss is an idiot. They’re all idiots. I’m tired of working for idiots and all their idiotic demands that are making it harder and harder to just get through the day. It’s depressing. Mother wanted me to be successful—she’s an idiot too.

I glance down at the speedometer that reads 90 miles per hour and yank my foot off of the gas pedal to slow down some.

I shouldn’t have stormed out of the apartment the way I did tonight. That was stupid. I don’t know why she gets my goat so though it doesn’t take much lately. There was no way I could have gotten back in time for her party. I didn’t plan my Mother’s death! She puts way to much importance on her the petty social agendas. Doesn’t she know that all this doesn’t matter and her outbursts are useless? She just doesn’t want me to dally too long and look up some of my old girlfriends. Her accusations are getting old. She doesn’t know what I’m doing. I might see Debbie if she is still around. I liked Debbie. She was just so…so free and easy. Nothing fazed her, the booze, the parties, the fisticuffs; she’d just sat there on my lap and laughed at it all. Those were great times back then. We’d end up at her place late at night to kick back. She had a small, funky pad above a garage owned by a kooky, divorcee socialite. That landlady was a real hoot and kinky as they come and would join us at times for the night. It was like making love to my mother, but Debbie was amazing. I’m not sure why I broke it off. Mother hated her.

I’m racing again along the roadway and my headlights sweep over a furry critter that darts across the road in front of me. I swerve out into the other lane to miss hitting it and then swerve back on my way. I tighten my grip on the steering wheel and try to shake off my drowsiness, but that stern flash of animosity in that critter’s eyes lingers in my mind. I saw it. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. I’m tired that’s all and my imagination is running wild. But there was some sort of animosity there. Fortunately there wasn’t another car coming. One day I’m going to smash into a huge blank wall and that would be the end of it. I wouldn’t even know what hit me. I better slow down some, try to follow those flickering yellow strips there in the center the road.

Mother was always afraid of critters and monsters and forbade them from her house. She’d call me late at night to remind of the terrible creatures out there and how I should be careful and should come home to live. Most of her monsters would have long fingernails and neon-colored hair and were always possessed by some sort of demonic disease. I’d tell her there’s nothing to worry about and go back to sleep. Some nights I wouldn’t answer her calls.

An emergency vehicle with warning lights twirling atop its roof streaks pass me and disappears up ahead. It startled me, as I didn’t even see it coming up behind me. I’m must be really out of it.

I rocket along a high ridge as though I’m piloting a spacecraft through deep space. Off in the horizon an inky blotch formed by a large cloud hovers over a mountain ridge. The cloud resembles a reposed head of someone vaguely familiar. The road then precipitously dips down and run alongside the river. I follow a white streak of moonlight that rolls along the evanescent surface of the water. I can hear the soft soughing of the river and the plashing of trout and quickly open my eyes and shake off the drowsiness again. It’s late and I caution myself to stay alert and keep my eyes on the road.

Ahead in the distance is a fleet of emergency vehicles flanking the roadway. There are white floodlights on portable towers and reddish-orange flares on the ground that light up the scene. I slow and come to a stop at the insistence of a police officer waving a flashlight in front of me. There is a car off the road in a ditch with its rear-end sticking up in the air and on the shoulder of the road is a gurney with a bagged body on it. All the emergency folks and officers there seem to be just milling around waiting on something, smoking, and murmuring among themselves. A shadowy figure totters up toward the passenger side of my car. The flickering flares lights up his ghoulish face. It’s the hitchhiker I saw at the Y. He approaches my passenger window and leans over to peer in at me. He has a sallow face and a wryly, goblin-like grin and has greasy, black hair combed straight back on his head. He taps his knuckle on my window to request a lift. I shake him off and shoo him away from my car just as the police officer waves me on. I drive through the pathway of waning flares and resume my lonely trek south through the remote quietude and emptiness of the backcountry, streaked now by a eerie gleam of moonlight that illuminates the whole woody landscape into an odd x-ray-like tapestry.

Last thing I want is to be cooped up with a vagrant like that. How did that bum get ahead of me anyhow? He must have gotten a lift with one of those emergency vehicles. Probably knew one of the medics or they felt sorrow for him. All I know is he shouldn’t be here. What about that poor soul that went off the road? Did he fall asleep…driving too fast…or just got distracted? Who knows? I guess it doesn’t matter much now. I hate driving late at night—there’re no landmarks to go by—no reference points. It’s tough to get one’s bearings. What’s up—what’s down? I just don’t know…except that vagrant shouldn’t have been there. I guess none of us should be here.

Two white, beady headlights emerge far off in the distance.

A fine mist speckles the windshield. Not enough yet to switch the wipers on, but it could start raining soon. Perhaps I should turn the radio on to occupy my time, but I’m bored of music and probably can’t get any good reception out here. The headlights of the eighteen-wheeler grow bigger and brighter as it bear down towards me. I roll my window down to get a blast of the chilly air on my face. I glance at the rearview mirror and catch a glimpse of a ghoulish visage of that hitchhiker hovering in the back of my vehicle. It’s a frightful sight that jolts me… like hearing a doorbell ring late at night. The turbulent burst of the big rig rumbles and rattles my car as it passes by. I grip the steering wheel to keep from drifting into it. The back of the car empties and I watch through the rear window at two devilish red lights that quickly fade off into the night. It’s a figment from my weariness that’s all. I roll my window back up and turn the heater on.

I reckon that I just came within inches of plowing into that rig and exploding into a ball of flames and being hurled off into oblivion. Why kid myself? When you’re dead you’re dead and you’ll never get to experience all that euphoric relief we expect when it’s all done—death does cheat us all. It’s disheartening though to realize that it will all just end one day—that it’s all for naught. It’s must be late as I don’t feel much either way about that.

There’s a tiny chip in the windshield just off to the side that must have happened when the truck passed. It’s a star-like nick, not deep, but will need to be fixed soon before it worsens. It gripes me though, another chore to be done. I’m tired of chores.

I pull off to the side of the road and stop. I get out and head off to take a piss. It’s pitch-black and I can’t see my steps and I creep to the edge of the road to urinate. I titter as though on an edge of some imaginary cliff. There is a semblance of a trail that leads off into the dark wilderness that stretches out in front of me. The hollow vastness beckons me and for a second I see myself traipsing out among it. I finish and zip up my fly and stare out at the terra firma. I suppose I will need to shower and dress for the funeral and remember the names of those who attend…oversee the whole proceedings and say some eulogy or something. “Life was so much easier when sex was all that mattered” I mutter aloud as I head back to the car and continue on my way.

At 3a.m., Bend, Oregon is a dank and dimly lit ghost town with the main boulevard slicing through it. There is a sequence of silent, blinking yellow lights hung across the center of the road that taper off into the distance. It has rained recently and the concrete pavement is damp and my tires slosh as I slowly cruise along. The somber stores and houses along the road appear vacant and their dimly lit facades like cold slabs of marble in a cemetery. The gas needle on the gauge is near empty so I need to find a gas station and get some coffee and grub. I slow down and pass a 7-11 store that is closed, but there is a small gasoline station and mini-mart with its lights on up ahead. I pull in next to a gas pump and turn the engine off. I pause for a second and rest my head on the steering wheel then swing the door open and disembark. I’m sore and stiff and stretch some before I prim the pump and begin filling the tank.

The night air is thick and chilly and sticks to my flesh. I leave the gas nozzle unattended to go and examine the radial-shaped chip in my windshield. I scratch at it with my thumbnail to size it up. I look up across the street at a small, frosty-white church with a steeple aglow by floodlights rising above a dark and empty parking lot. Mother took me to church when I was young until I rebelled and refused to go. Mother would have the minister come visit us at home after that to try to talk some sense in me. He always left dumbfounded after hearing my views and Mother and I would get into a terrible row. I never saw all the fuss about going to church. I muse at the broad, well-lit white front of the church that seems to belie the darkness then catch sight of the shadowy figure of the hitchhiker who trudges up the sidewalk on his way out of town. He’s a wretched sort with stoop shoulders and stark features—the most morbid soul if every there was one. He vanishes beyond a building just as the gas nozzle clicks off. I remount the nozzle on the pump and go into the mini-mart.

The bright interior of the store hums from its fluorescent lighting and seems deserted. I wander through its aisles in search of the coffee machine, which I find near the back. There is only the dregs left in the pot and I pour what there is into a paper cup and then empty some packets of sugar in it. I take a sip. The coffee is stale and scolding hot, but it is late at night and I don’t have much choice. I put a lid on the cup and go to the counter. There is a wicker basket on the counter by the register with a few cellophane wrapped sandwich wedges in it and I take one and place it next to my coffee cup. A young store attendant comes rushing out from a back near the diary cooler and quickly stations himself behind the register. He rings up my items and takes the money I’d placed on the counter without looking up at me. He acts as though I wasn’t even there and then he warily watches the door as I leave.

I drive through the outskirts of town pass a few big-box stores surrounded by acres of deserted parking lots lit by a stellar array of lamp poles. I get to the onramp leading to the highway where the hitchhiker awaits. He’s a dismal and meager figure, almost pitiful. As I approach he lifts his thumb up for a lift. In my headlights I can see he’s just skin and bones wearing a soiled and worn red-plaid mackinaw jacket and green work pants. He has an emaciated face with an ashen complexion though clean-shaven. I figure I’ll need some company to stay awake so I pull over and offer him a lift. He quietly plops himself in the passenger seat, closes the door, and we head off.

I occasionally glance over at him as I drive though I can just barely make his form out in the dark interior of the car. He deferentially removes his watch cap and rests his cap and hands on his lap. He has long, matted hair pulled back tight over his knobby skull into a ponytail. He seems intent to just quietly stare straight ahead and has a somber expression on his face and a musty stench to him.

“Where’re you headed?” I ask to break the silence.

He tells me he has a job in Klamath Falls and needs to be there this morning. He answers in a mellow, fluty voice that sounds quite familiar. He then respectfully adds that he appreciates my stopping.

“This morning, huh?” I scoff. “Cutting it fairly short aren’t you?”

He seems reluctant to answer. I’m not certain if it is just out of shyness or being cautious. He finally comments that things always seem to work out, which is something Mother would say.

“It must be tough leaving your travel up in the air like that,” I comment.

The transient doesn’t answer and remains reticent and we travel without speaking for a while. The moon must be down now as the terrain is an inky weave of shadows stretching out under a vast, deep blue backdrop. We leave behind the sparse lights of Bend and barrel headlong into a thick patch of low, swirling fog.

The fellow breaks his silence and tells me how he’s been hitchhiking this stretch of highway for years with no problem and how it’s the only way he can now get to his jobs since the accident. I take it his vehicle was totaled awhile back and he can’t afford getting another one, so he needs to depend on the kindness of strangers for rides. He seems okay with that. Then he asks me why I’m on the road so late at night.

“Just getting off work,” I tell him, “and need to be in California this morning.”

The guy seems hesitant and then asks me what kind of work I do. I figure he is more comfortable if I do the talking and anything is better then an awkward silence.

“I work at a molding mill in Pasco…it’s just a temporary job until something better comes along. You know how it goes.” I look over at him to see if he’s a simpatico sort. He seems a harmless rube simply trying to mind his own business.

“Well, that’s not really correct any more,” I add with a snicker. “I’ll let you in on a little secret since it doesn’t matter much—I quit that job today. Told the boss not to expect me in tomorrow. I just couldn’t work for that idiot anymore. I always end up working for idiots, so I quit. You know how it goes?”

The guy quietly stroked his chin with his spindly fingers and nodded his head for a while before he lets me know that I got to do what I got to do.

“I almost became an attorney,” I continue after the prolonged pause and wanting to explain some more. “But for some reason after all the classes and studies I simply choose not to take the bar exam. Go figure?” I add as I strain to see ahead through the dense fog. “My Mother nearly had a nervous breakdown over it and disowned me for a year or two. She would send me nasty letters accusing me of being an ungrateful and degenerate son and then postscript how she misses me and wants me to visit her over the holidays.

“Then I did a short stint as a police officer—mostly vice—you know,” I continue, changing the subject some. “Ever had a crazed, doped up drug fiend put a cocked gun to your head?” I bluntly ask the rider to get a rise out of him. “Well, I can tell you it’s a numbing, but an invigorating experience…indescribable. The dude was going to blow me away, but what right did he have to blow me away? Right? Well, police work wasn’t cut out for me either. I got tangled up in a…well…a departmental squabble over excessive force and on the day I was to appear in front of the disciplinary committee I figured I wasn’t remorseful enough to grovel so I decided to simply walk away before they could call me into the room. Well, there are six billion people on this planet and I’m certain each one has their own hard-luck story to tell. I’m no different. I have plenty of them. You see, I’m a free spirit and I get really riled up when I feel trapped and then I just need to buck loose. I pause and think about that for a minute then add: “I’ve been riled up a lot lately.”

I’m not certain why I’m telling the guy these things, but I feel like talking. The guy seems reluctant to join in and seems fidgety and uncomfortable in his seat as though he’s grown wary of me.

The fog dissipates and there is clear sailing ahead. A car in the other lane speeds past. My headlights catch a glimpse of the other driver who has a rotund head and a frosty face with what seems to be bloody lacerations across his cheeks.

“Are you a married man?” I ask casually while I bend over to massage the cramp in my leg.

He finally looks over at me and tells me he’s a widower and that he has a grown son. He seems melancholy as he tells me that his son lives far away and he doesn’t see him much nowadays. The guy turns away and stares back out the door window. He is an obscured and shadowy presence and quite forlorn.

“A widower, huh?” I follow up as I examine the specter sitting next to me. He has one hand stuffed in the pocket of his jacket and seems to be fiddling with something in there—maybe it’s a switchblade, maybe a crucifix, who knows, the mind plays such tricks this late at night. I’m not really interested in his life, but somewhat curious how his wife died.

“My Mother wanted me to get married.” I continue looking straight ahead. “She had this one gal all picked out for me. Thought it would make me settle down and become respectable I suppose. Mother always had such marvelous expectations for me. I almost went through with it too, but got drunk the night before and ended up with a hooker. Never showed up for my own wedding. That set off a real row with her.” I sit back up straight from rubbing my leg. “Well, can’t change it now,” I grumble.

There is a carcass of a deer sprawled on the side of the road. It has that same animus in its iridescent eye that the other critter had. I figure that is a scary and disturbing thought, seeing that fine line between life and death. I take a final sip of the cold coffee and then throw the cup out the window. I roll the window back up and turn the heater up higher as there is a deathly chill in the night air.

“Do you want this sandwich?” I ask the fellow motioning to the cellophane-wrapped bread concoction resting on the armrest between our seats. “I’m not hungry.”

The guy slowly shakes his head to pass on my offer and then asks why I was heading south.

“Got some family business in California I need to go to.” I reveal after a slight pause. “My Mother died just recently,” I finally disclose feeling reluctant in offering such a fact.

The fellow offers his condolences and comments how mothers are so important in our lives and how awful it would be not to have them around. He tells me his mother is still alive and living with him. She’s an 87 year old wisp of a soul that still keeps house for him. He tells me how he calls her his ‘doppelganger’, which he enunciated very slowly as though conjuring up such a bizarre-sounding word out of thin air. He explains how she means the world to him and how life would be so empty without her.

This dude is getting spooky and annoying. I’m not certain now why I stopped and picked him up. I guess he still believes in the miracle and purpose of life that comes with being a good son. Doesn’t he realize life isn’t all it’s cranked up to be? It’s just a freakish mistake leading nowhere. I’m not certain why I’m here, but I’m certain when I die it just won’t matter any more. I’m tired—tired and worn out, I guess, and starting to sound spookier then the dude next to me. I’ve been driving for a long time and it’s starting to catch up with me. I feel the car drift onto the graveled shoulder of the road and jar me back to my senses.

“You want me to drive?” the passenger offers.

“No, I can handle it,” I answer, shrugging off his offer as unnecessary.

“Yes. Mother will be missed,” I pick up the topic again, trying to sound penitent. “She use to make happy faces in my mash potatoes with peas and kept my room tidy. She was a special person, indeed.”

I am lost for words and search desperately for something else to say. “We had our rough spots,” I confess. “You know, mother and son type of stuff. We just saw things differently. She wanted an obedient and proper son she could be proud of and I was always looking for a way out of that. I guess she just wanted the best for me though I never really understood what that all was. You would think after all this time I would have figured that out. She made her presence known though.

“I remember I use to sit in the den watching television,” I continue not really caring much about what I’m saying, “while Mother repeatedly beckoned for me to come and join her in the other room. Somehow I simply refuse to budge—I refuse to go or even answer her. I didn’t want to answer her. I suppose that was cruel of me at the time. I suppose she was just lonely and scared. I guess we all are. I guess forgiveness is out now for me. Well, anyhow, when father died, she took over the purse strings and shortly thereafter I left home for good...end of story.

“Are you a religious man?” I abruptly ask glancing over at him.

He tells me he is or at least tries to be.

“Did your mother take you to church ever Sunday?” I follow up.

He answers that they still attend church together and how you need to believe in something larger than yourself to keep a proper perspective on everything, don’t you think?

“Yeah, I believe in something larger than myself and it’s cold and empty and there’s no happy face looking back at me.”

I hear the voice in the dark answer that he’s sorry to hear that and then ask how I can ever find comfort in such a world.

“I can’t.” I tell him. “Just treading water for now until something better comes along.”

The interior of the car falls silent for quite a stretch. The highway cuts through the dense, dark forest of the backcountry. Tall, shadowy pine trees are crunched together and line the roadway like walls of a cathedral. The dude finally breaks the silence and says he prays my Mother will have a proper burial.

“They are having a funeral for her this morning. I gather it will be a splendid ceremony—Mother wouldn’t have it any other way. She has lot of friends, acquaintances…old suitors. She was well upstanding member of the community. It’s going to be awkward attending, though. You see I figured I’m sort of frowned upon by her group of friends as being the wayward son, unappreciative and unloving. I won’t be welcomed there.”

I don’t know why I’m confiding so much to this stranger, but I guess there’s no harm in it.

“Father Mathew will be there in his finest vestments to intone passages from the bible and lead in the hymns,” I continue. “There will be eulogies and remembrances offered up by the mourners. I suppose I’d need to dress for the service; I believe there is one of my old suits in her closet. Mother would expect me to be there early to greet the attendees as they arrive and receive their condolences and for me to at least mouth the many amen require for the occasion so all can see and to stay up through the burial. I suppose I will be expected to say something caring and loving about her and praise her life…but…but I have nothing to say about all that.”

“You can tell them the truth!” the voice of the itinerant rings in. “That your Mother is one of a kind—a special woman like no other. That she gave you the miracle of life and nursed you and fed you and cleaned up after you and made happy faces in your mash potatoes and took you to church and taught you right from wrong and looked out for you and taught you how to care and respect yourself and others and how to work hard and how to hope and dream and believe in things larger than yourself, so you can be part of this wonderful world and how to love and be happy, and how to find purpose and meaning in your life and she gave you….”

“Happy?” I murmur to myself as I stare out at the black, desolate forest that veils both sides of the highway. That is something Mother would insist on, I continue in silent thought. But that’s the crux of it all, I’m not happy with this life, I don’t like what I’m doing and not happy with it anymore and that is a bitter pill to swallow. I thought I was a rebel, exercising free will, paving my own way and for a while that was exciting and wonderful, but now it is all coming home to roost that I was always just a recalcitrant son of a domineering mother. I suppose we all suffer from such delusional half-baked destinies that damn us so to unhappiness. Well, so be it. I guess the saddest thing in the whole world is our own personal plight.

Four circled lights from the front of a monstrous, pug-nose tractor barrels toward me. I watch it through the crosshairs of the crack in my windshield as it nears and as the other voice in the dark continues to exhort that I must have some feelings about it all and how I need to show some decency and respect and how I must feel terrible and how God should have mercy on my soul. The tractor’s glaring headlights whiten everything in the car and its blaring air horn bears down on me. I fixate on that damn chip in the windshield as the whole world rumbles and shakes under me. Then I helplessly watch as the cracks from the chip spread out over the windshield until the glass explode and shatter its shards in at me just when the steering wheel is jerk from my control and the car careens off the road onto the dirt shoulder. I slam on the brakes and the car comes sliding to a stop in a cloud of dust.

“What the hell are you doing!” the passenger excoriates as he bails from the car and staggers off to its rear.

In a stupor, I slowly open my door and wobble out to my feet then bend over and spew out on the ground the dark fluids that are in me.

“Are you okay, man?”

“I’m okay, man, just need some time to catch my thoughts.” I stagger to the front of the car and toss myself up atop the hood. I’m exhausted and recline back against the windshield to stare up at the sky.

“Sometimes,” I confess quietly, “I feel as though I’m only half here—just going through the motion as though on auto-pilot, missing most of what is going on around me, understanding very little, but believing in almost everything…real or unreal.

“It’s funny,” I utter aloud so the hitchhiker could hear, “I’m remembering a summer when I refurbished an old jalopy. I spent weeks on it getting it shined up and running like a top—cruising the scene with my high school sweetheart the senior year with the top down and the radio blaring. It was a great car and those wonderful times back then. When I sold the car—practically gave it away—my friends couldn’t believe I sold it for so little, but I needed the money for something or other and I remember at the time I just wanted to get rid of it. I wish I had kept it, wish I had it now. I really, really like that car.”

I gaze up at the vaulted, jet-black sky and its uncountable tiny stars. “You know,” I grumble to myself, “all the fight is out of me now and for the first time I’m at peace.” I take a deep breath of the chilly evening air that is clean and fresh. I hold the breath for a second and then exhale. The tall, blacken trees are dwarfed by the expanse of the night sky that soars well beyond their reach. “All for naught,” I lament, all for naught.

“Well, shit,” I vociferously declare as I slide off the hood of the car and stand facing the stranger. “Listen man, take the key and drive yourself to Klamath. I don’t want anything anymore and I just need to have some time for myself.”

I toss the key to the hitchhiker and he catches it and then gives me a perplex look “Are you sure, man?”

“Yes, I’m as sure as I’ve ever been.”

The guy tentatively gets into the car and rolls the window down. “Are going to be okay?” he asks.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I reassure the bloke as I rest my hands on the door panel. “I’ll catch up with you in Klamath,” I add stepping back from the car.

“I’m curious, buddy,” inquiries the hitchhiker, “if only half of you is here—where’s the other half?”

“The other half?” I ponder for a second. “It’s been hurled far off into space. So far away that even the universe has disappeared from view.” I give him a wryly grin to humor him and to lighten things up some. He nods empathically and rolls the window up and drives back onto the road and heads off through the forest and disappears. I watch as the beady red taillights fade into the dark corridor that cuts through the night then I stroll across the highway toward the other side. I recall the accident scene I witnessed earlier this evening—the crews sweeping the shards of glass off the road, the sputtering of flares lining the roadway, and a tow truck hauling the smashed vehicle away. I settle on the other shoulder of the road and zip up my jacket and flip the collar up round my neck. I glance up at the sliver of night sky that arcs high above the shadowy treetops and I exhale a hoary breath. I’m chilled to the bone. In the distance, white specks of headlights appear. It’s funny, I muse to myself as I wait, it’s as though I’ve been here in this exact spot many times before. I proffer up my thumb as the headlights approach.