“This is it: the county line.” The police officer pulls the patrol car over on I-20.
“Here?” I look out at the flat gray woods, their stunted trees, thin, endless white birch in the early January evening.
“Yep. Gotta get out here.” He points with his right index finger towards the woods. “I can’t go any further than this.”
I look at him knowing that he picked me up in the last town, a seventeen-year-old-kid, so that he could dump me just before nightfall on the bare shoulder of this godforsaken, East Texas highway. And I’m thinking, “You heartless, fuckin’ asshole,” but that’s not what I say. Instead, I mutter, “Thanks for the ride,” the courtesy conditioning stuck so deep inside me that I couldn’t pull it out with tongs and surgical instruments.
He smiles as I shut the door, nods, then drives straight on past the county line he said he couldn’t cross just a minute before, and his red taillights disappear in the distance.
It’s between 35 and 40 degrees, and dropping. I’m cold in my cotton, hooded sweatshirt.
Thumb up, I start walking. Every car passes at about 80 miles an hour and I walk until my left shoulder is tired from holding that thumb up, about an hour maybe.
I stop, putting my right thumb up now, and face the oncoming cars. Some of them have their headlights on now, a feature that makes them all seem harder, colder, a little less likely to stop, and they keep hurtling past me as I stare them down.
I look at the woods to my left, no leaves or pine needles or anything, just cold white stalks, 30 or 40 feet high, and bare. I think about crawling into those woods and burying myself to keep from freezing, but I don’t see anything to bury myself with. The floor of the woods looks as uninviting as the bare, cold highway under my feet.
So I finally turn my back to the traffic once again, and return to walking with my left hand extended and that thumb pushed up into a stupid salute. No one’s picking me up. No one’s gonna break Texas law and let me hitchhike. No one cares about some teenage boy on the side of the dark road.
I tire and put my arm down. Then I walk, head down, along the road for a good long time, past the point of hope, and I know for sure that no one and nothing is going to give me a ride this night. That’s what it takes.
A long, sleek, 1974 Cadillac pulls over in front of me. As I walk up along the rear end, I see that it’s either a blue or dark green car and the paint job is unmarred, unnicked, perfect.
The passenger-side window is rolled down, and a well-dressed, middle-aged man is leaning across the seat. He has a kind, soft face, and longish sideburns. “Need a ride?”
“Uh….” I look at him, mid-forties, clean-cut in a polo shirt and figure it’s all right. It’s not as sure of a thing as that Mexican family with kids that I rode with earlier, but it still seems fine. “Yeah. Thanks a lot.” I finger the knife folded securely in the pocket of my jeans.
I pop open the large door, roll my backpack off my shoulders and into the huge space for my feet, and slide in. The leather crinkles under my weight, and I try to be gentle considering that right away I know this car has been meticulously taken care of.
“My name’s Daniel.” He extends his hand.
I take it. “Pete.”
“Nice to meet you, Pete.”
“Yeah, thanks again for the ride.”
The car eases off the shoulder and Daniel’s heavy foot quickly gets it above 70.
It’s warm and comfortable and such a change from my former deal with the cop, the woods, and the side of the road that I almost think that I’ve fallen asleep back there and am dreaming. And it’s a good dream: The thick tan leather is like a fine recliner, the dash is visibly oiled, the roof has been recently redone, there’s not one scrap of garbage anywhere in sight, the heater’s blasting warm, not too hot, air, and there’s a faint smell of cigar smoke.
“What do you like to listen to, Pete?”
“Oh, I’ll listen to anything.”
Daniel is scanning through the channels, allowing a five or ten seconds pause on each one to see what it is. The third channel is a Rush Limbaugh highlight show where an adoring Texan fan replays Rush’s greatest moments from the morning show.
“Ooh! I don’t like him,” Daniel mutters.
“Yeah,” I agree. “He’s a total asshole.”
We settle on oldies, listen to the music for a long time, and the big smooth car rolls on into the night towards Dallas, away from the Louisiana-Texas border.
“I smoke, Pete, do you smoke?”
Daniel laughs. “Do you like cigars? Do you like good cigars?”
“Yeah, but you don’t have to...”
“No, no. I’ve got plenty. Pop open that glove compartment and get out a couple, Pete.”
I lean forward, the fine leather crinkling and squeaking, and open the compartment. By the small light I can see a wide, wooden box with the word “Havana” written on top.
“A box of Cubans?” I know this is all too perfect and I must be asleep on the road back there.
“You ever had one, Pete?”
“Well there’s a first time for everything, Pete,” and Daniel smiles at me, showing well-kept, straight teeth.
It’s annoying how he says my name so much, like he might forget it if he doesn’t say it every time he opens his mouth. But compared to the comfortable warm ride, the music, how nice he is, and now the cigars, one idiosyncrasy can be overlooked. I make a conscious effort not to notice that he does it.
I’m attentive with my cigar: light it carefully, smoke it slowly, ease into my first Cuban. But Daniel puffs away, and I know he smokes Cubans, lives the good life every single day. Some people have everything.
“What d’ya do for a living?”
“Well, Pete, I’m a lawyer.”
“Oh…that’s a good job.” I don’t ask what kind because I don’t want to know if he’s some kind of district attorney.
“What are you going to do, Pete, when you get a little older?”
“Uh….” I think about my letters, my dream journal, and my stories. “Think I’ll be a writer maybe.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s what I want to do.”
“Well, Pete, traveling is a good start…and trying knew things.”
Traveling and trying new things. I guess that’s what I’m doing right now, I just didn’t think of it that way.
We drive along and just smoke for a while. That big smooth car, the fine cigar, the leather, and the simple old music are like codeine to me and I lull into a sort of half-sleep, a semi-consciousness in which nothing registers out of the ordinary. I am completely comfortable, calm and mellow with this stranger, in his car. I guess when you have nothing, anything good can be yours. I think I know this is true, and the car and the smoke and the warmth are at least as much mine as Daniel’s.
Daniel blows smoke out of his mouth and coolly says, “So, Pete, have you ever had a homosexual experience?” He asks me like a person might ask if someone likes pumpkin pie. It’s that simple, like people ask each other that all the time.
At first I don’t believe he says it, but then I just want it to go away. I don’t even want to answer him, but I don’t want him to keep talking, so I say, “No.” I say it flatly, like it’s made of sheet metal, hard and sharp at the edges. And I think he recognizes the unsaid words hidden in the tone because he says nothing more for a long time.
We drive on for another half-hour or so, and the cigar has turned bitter in my mouth, and I put it out, blunt it and bend the remaining piece in the flat ashtray.
Again he breaks the silence, “Pete, you might enjoy it if you try it. I could rent a hotel room for us, take care of everything.”
I almost say, ‘Listen, mother-fucker! You better shut the fuck up!’ But I don’t. Something in me, something thankful for his kindness, something sorry for him, for what must be a pathetic desperateness, something I understand, something I don’t understand, stops me from saying what I want to. I just say, “No,” again, and I say it in a way that means so much more. But that’s all I say.
We’re driving through some outskirt of Dallas. It’s a shit-hole, a ghetto, with an ugliness to match everything I’ve seen and heard just now.
“I’ll make you feel good you can just lie there it won’t hurt.”
He says those things so quickly, so run together, that they couldn’t have been separate sentences, separate ideas, just all the same, one logic from his twisted, pedophile mind.
And then, with that, I hate him. I can’t look at him. It is very simple. I say, “Get off on the next exit. Pull the car over.” I don’t cuss at him or threaten him or anything because he has turned me and there is nothing. Sometimes there is desperation in a person that will drive him to a place he would not normally go. And sometimes that person is right there, just on the border of that place for such a long time that the coming and the going take very little. I have ridden that border for days, afraid and cold and lonely, and now it is nothing to cross over.
I know now that I may have to kill him, take his pretty green Cadillac and drive, drive with his slit-throat body in the trunk, drive all the way to Oregon on his lawyer money, and dump his car.
I touch the knife in my pocket, and, in the silence, carefully plan how I will overwhelm Daniel, quickly puncture his throat, pull the car over and switch seats. I can already hear him sucking air through his trachea, sucking his last breaths while he is stuffed in the passenger seat, my seat, as I drive along and wait for him to go quiet beside me.
My heart is turned.
It is an odd thing to know that you will kill another human being. An awareness, a vision, like looking into a well lit house at night, everything clear and bright against the outlining black. I know now that I will kill Daniel if I have to. He’s as good as dead as I caress the knife in my pocket.
I guess humans mostly speak without words: They say that ninety percent of communication is non-verbal, and when I say, “Pull the car over,” everything in my body, in the air, everything crawling around my words finishes the sentence with “or I will kill you.” My eyes and my body say, “I will end you. I’ll slit your fucking throat with a knife, you pervert!”
And Daniel knows.
He doesn’t say anything more as we drive through the industrial neighborhoods, the bad neighborhoods, the Dallas that no one likes to look at or think about.
The car seems to be going seven rather than 70 as we come up upon the next exit. I wonder a long time whether he will turn off or not. And I know if he doesn’t turn, I must do it quickly. Right after we pass the exit, right after he makes the wrong choice, I’ll do it quickly.
No signal or anything. Then he swerves his big green car onto the exit ramp, stops at the light, turns left, drives a block and stops at a gas station.
“I’ll buy you a map.” Daniel gets out and walks into the store.
I get out and put on my backpack.
Daniel returns and hands me a Texas State map, and I wonder to myself what he thinks I’ll be able to do with it.
I say, “Thanks,” and shove the map to the bottom of my bag, pack it away like an ugly family secret. It’s down there, folded and hidden, but every memory to scale.