The taillights of the black Cadillac disappeared and the sudden quiet gave way to an ambient, deafening screeeee. Treefrogs or cicadas in the dark trees resumed a clattering conversation interrupted when the now vanished car pulled off onto the gravel so the driver could, yet again, get out to open his pants.
I bailed out at the driveway of an old country school, a long-abandoned classic—red brick, two rooms, big windows, nearly matching brick restrooms added on out back—becoming visible as my eyes adjusted to the light of a slim moon. I looked back down the narrow highway where, even from the hill, no approaching headlights offered hope for another ride.
“Hell, I’d rather walk,” I told the treefrogs, adjusting the sling of the duffel on my shoulder. “I’d rather walk all the way to Maysville than wrestle a drunken pervert undertaker.”
I’d been heading from Houston up into East Texas for an old friend’s birthday party and had gotten a late start. I wasn’t able to get off work early like I’d planned, or even get a friend to drop me off toward the edge of town. So it was after seven by the time I got to Cleveland, which is the last town that can be rightly termed a suburb of Houston before the highway winds off into the Big Thicket. I still had a hundred-thirty miles to go.
As I stood on the shoulder, ignored by the Friday evening traffic through Cleveland, I noticed a train moving very slowly north a couple hundred yards east of the highway. Thinking why the hell not, I climbed through a fence and went for it, the duffel bumping behind my knee with every step as I ran.
Most of the train had passed by the time I reached it. I matched its pace, stumbling along the gravel of the roadbed, too close to the grinding steel wheels. I grabbed the step-rail of an empty flatcar and swung the bag up, using its weight to help pull me aboard. Standing on the moving platform, absurdly proud of myself and exhilarated by the triumph, I looked back across the field at the passing cars I no longer needed, thank you.
Picking up my bag again I moved to the front of the swaying car and, carefully stepping across the coupling, reached to grab the ladder of the ore car the flatcar followed. I climbed in and sat down on a load of crushed granite, out of the wind and concealed, I imagined, from any railroad bulls that might want to throw me off the train. I settled back, lit a cigarette, and … the train slowed, and slowed, and stopped completely. And then it began to move backward! The train wasn’t heading out, it was still making up at some rail yard back in town.
I climbed back over the side and jumped off the train, nearly tumbling into the ditch by the roadbed. Disgusted by my failed attempt at hopping a freight and worried someone might have witnessed my humiliation, I looked back toward the highway. But it was now almost a half mile away, so at least my shame was private. On the other hand, I had three overgrown fields to cross and four separate barbed wire fences to crawl through to resume my role as hitchhiker.
By the time I got back to the road I was sweating and itchy from the weeds. Plus, I still felt stupid, and and was concerned that I no longer looked clean and fresh — I always believed that looking well-kempt was an important part of successful hitchhiking and never failed to wear a clean white shirt on the road. But I needn’t have worried: successful hitchhiking was already a fading dream.
Things looked good at first. Almost as soon as I stuck my thumb out a nearly new pickup pulled over. And when I climbed in the driver, a guy maybe mid-fifties, didn’t even say hello-where’re-ya-headed. Instead, “Want a beer?”
He had a can of Schlitz on the seat between his legs and an empty rolled around on my side of the floorboard. He reached into the grocery bag on the seat and pulled out another Schlitz. I took it. “Still cold,” he said, half saluting with his own beer, “Just bought it.”
“Hey, thanks. You bet.” I popped the top and, after looking over my shoulder for any law enforcement threat, took a big swallow. “Where you headed?” I said.
“Home.” He checked the rearview mirror, then upended the can. He gulped down what must have been half a beer, paused, tipped it up again then tossed the empty at my feet. “Hope I didn’t splash ya,” he said, reaching back into the bag. “Work outside all day and it saps me dry.” He held the can against the bottom of the steering wheel and opened it. After looking at the rearview again, he took another long pull.
“That’s my turn up there,” he said, nodding toward the dashboard. “Sorry I ain’t goin’ farther but you looked thirsty.” He pulled onto the shoulder and stopped. “Take that with you, you want.”
“Hey, every little bit helps. And thanks for the beer!” I had to holler because he turned straight across the highway, almost before I could slam the door, onto a dirt road heading off into the pines.
What was that, I wondered, three miles?
Feeling furtive, I hid the can in a clump of weeds, then walked about twenty yards fast, so no one would associate me with the litter and refuse, on principle, to give me a ride.
Maybe I should have buried it.
Car after car roared past me, till finally I gave up, turned around and started walking, just sticking my thumb out when I heard vehicles approaching behind me. I walked I don’t know how far before it started getting dark. Becoming desperate, I started whirling around to face cars, with my thumb out, whenever I heard one coming. Each one drove right by.
I walked a long ways, until it was well after dark. That’s when the black Cadillac slowed, then stopped just past me, and the driver leaned over to pop the passenger door open.
I ran up and leaned down to look in the car: middle-aged guy, white shirt, red tie, leaning his head forward to look back at me.
“Where you headed?” I asked.
“Longview. Hop in.”
I did, setting the duffel on the floorboard in front of me, and closed the door, polite like. “That’s perfect,” I said. “I’m going to Maysville.”
“So, you live in Maysville?” The driver was a plumpish fellow with dark brown, blow-dried looking hair. He had a large plastic cup resting on the seat between thighs that matched the pinstripe jacket draped across the seat back. Does everybody drink and drive, I wondered.
“No, I live in Houston, the Montrose, actually.”
“Ah, Montrose,” he said, like it meant something. Which made me wonder, since the neighborhood has a longstanding reputation as a haven for dopers and gays. I felt suddenly defensive.
“But I grew up in Maysville. I’m just going up for the weekend for a friend’s birthday party.” I wondered if it was OK to smoke. “How about you, do you live in Longview?”
“Since I was born.” He lifted the cup in a little toasting motion before taking a sip. He smiled in my direction, almost a leer.
“Coming from Houston?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I was in the city for a few days. For a convention.”
“Oh. What kind of convention?”
“Really. Is that what you do?”
“That’s right. I’m an undertaker.” This time it was definitely a leer.
“I’m gonna pull over here,” he said, steering onto the shoulder. “Gotta take a leak.”
He set his drink on the dashboard and got out, leaving the driver’s side door open. Lights came on under the dash along with a warning bell that sounded like elevator chimes. “Ding. Ding. Ding.”
Bizarrely, he stood in the open door, unzipping his pants facing the car, then practically pissing into the front seat. I tried to ignore him, looking out my window, but it was like a mirror, and I saw him waggling his cock at me when he was finished.
He zipped up and got back in. He took the cup off the dash and closed the door. The ding, ding stopped. He accelerated back onto the road, the Caddy spitting gravel. He drove awhile without speaking. I was speechless, myself. But now the silence was heavy, freighted.
“So,” I said, after a few minutes, “What kind of stuff happens at a funeral directors convention, what kind of sessions do you guys have? The latest embalming techniques, industry trends …?”
“That’s about it. Nothing much. I really just go to party, have a little fun in the big city.” Leer.
I tried to manufacture a response, but I couldn’t come up with anything, and the oppressive silence resumed. I really wanted a cigarette.
Suddenly, “Jesus! I gotta piss again.” He pulled back off the road. “All those rum and Cokes.” He winked.
He repeated the ritual: Drink on the dashboard. Standing in the door pissing. “Ding. Ding. Ding.”
I noticed he didn’t piss much this time, but again I saw him reflected in the window, waggling himself in my direction. He got back in and pulled back onto the highway.
“Yeah, I checked out of the hotel, spent the afternoon visiting the bars.” He looked at me pointedly.
“In your neighborhood.”
Okay, I think, he’s definitely not talking about the hippies. I worked up a little Chamber of Commerce spiel on the pleasures of life in the Montrose — quiet streets, cultural opportunities, close to downtown, diverse population … He abruptly changed the subject.
“Do you do this often?” He waved the drink in my direction. “Hitchhike, I mean.”
Glad to change the subject, I answered.
“Few times a year. You know, when I leave town, usually. At home I walk or ride the bus.”
“Anybody ever give you a hard time?”
“Well, when I hitch in town, the cops like to hassle me, tear up my cigarette pack, then drive away.
Beats getting a ticket, I guess.”
“No, I mean, like, on the road, people that pick you up. Doesn’t anybody ever, like, come on to you?” Leer.
“No. Never.” I thought about it. “Well, I did have a guy try to shake me down for gas money once. And one time a guy drove all the way from Palestine to Austin trying to convert me. When we got to Austin, instead of dropping me where I asked he drove to a used car lot where some minister friend of his tried to get me to join his church.
“But usually, folks who pick up hitchhikers tend to be pretty good people.”
“No,” he said, taking another sip from the cup, “I mean, doesn’t anybody ever come on to you, like, you know, sexually?”
What? “Well, once a woman invited me to spend the night at her house,” I said. “But she lived with her brother, and I ended up sleeping on the living room floor.”
“I mean guys,” he said.
“Oh. No, no. Nothing like that.” I paused a moment, groping for just the right words. “I guess I’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve never had to defend myself, you know?”
We traveled in silence for quite a ways. It was an uneasy silence, but it sure beat talking about sex.
“Yeah, I like getting out of town,” he said, after a while, just like that’s what we were already discussing. “Home, everybody knows me.” He leered at me again, this time arching a conspiratorial eyebrow. “You fart, two hours later everybody in town knows what you had for breakfast.
“I want to have a good time, I have to go to Dallas. Or Houston …” He looked at me again, working that eyebrow. “How about you? You like to party?” He draped his arm across the seat back, his hand nearly touching my shoulder.
“Well, sure. I guess.” I was picturing an orgy of gay, drunk undertakers cavorting in a Dallas hotel room. I wished the car was wider. “You know, well, yeah. I hang out with friends, drink beer, go see bands, you know. But I don’t actually go to a lot of parties.”
“Whoa,” he said, “got to piss again,” pulling off the road. “All those rum-and-Cokes,” he repeated. He set the cup on the dashboard again and got out. “Ding. Ding. Ding.” He stood right in the door again, even closer this time, and unzipped. But this time, he didn’t piss. He just pulled himself out of his pants and started waggling it at me. “Ding. Ding. Ding.” I took hold of the strap on my duffel and waited.
Finally, he zipped up and got back in. “Guess I didn’t have to piss as bad as I thought.” Leer.
The moment he put his hand on the gearshift, I opened my door and jumped out, dragging the bag. “I’ll get out here,” I said, fast. “Thanks for the ride.” I slammed the door. He sat there for a moment, then stomped the gas and the Caddy took off, pelting me with dust and gravel.
Alone in the dark, I took a leak, myself — “All that half beer,” I muttered — then lit a cigarette. After all, there were no potential rides to discourage. I smoked the whole thing, looking around, considering whether to give up and spend the night behind the school, or maybe break in and sleep there. “Nah,” I said aloud. “Start walking.”
I walked a long ways. But at least I didn’t have to walk in the ditch, late as it was. With no traffic, I could walk right down the highway. It was pleasant enough—silent, moon-lit fields alternated with silent, shadowy forests, and the temperature was just right for hiking—but it sure was a slow way to travel.
In two hours, maybe twenty cars passed me headed south, but only eight times did I hear cars approaching from behind. Each time I turned around and posed in my most non-threatening manner, thumb out, nearly clean white shirt, friendly half smile, no smoking. No ride.
I was about ten miles older, with my feet thinking it’s fifty, when a semi slowed past me and stopped. And I hadn’t even bothered to turn and look harmless.
It was a high load of three-inch pipe, with illegal looking running lights festooned along the load. They looked like Christmas lights. I ran up and opened a door that said Hilliard Oil Supply, Kilgore,Texas. I climbed in.
“Ain’t supposed to pick up riders.” The driver, a small guy for such a big truck, started working through the gears. “But I ain’t supposed to drive at night either. Spent the whole day fucking sittin’ on my ass at the Ship Channel watching a bunch of goddamn Liberians fuck around with a broken derrick.”
He got to eighth gear and finally looked over my way. “How do you like them running lights? You notice? Rigged ‘em myself. I don’t think they’re Dee Oh Tee approved.” He barely paused. “Been walking long?”
“All my life,” I said. “Or ten miles, anyway. Where you headed?”
“Kilgore. Just like it says on the door. How about you?”
“Maysville, I hope.”
“Well, if the Highway Patrol don’t have a better idea, I’m your ride.”
Pete was his name, he told me, and he was an easy talker. We covered the ups and downs of the oil business, Ship Channel bars, life in dry counties, driving trucks and hitchhiking. After a while we ran out of conversation and I jounced off to sleep. I didn’t wake up till he braked at the red light in Rusk. “I could use a nap, myself,” he said.
Pete worked back up through the gears and neither of us said a word the next twelve miles, till we got under streetlights again. “Where you want off?”
“Pitt Grill, I guess. This time of night.” He pulled to a stop at the café, the only place open. Two cop cars sat out front. “Can I buy you an early breakfast?”
“Not unless you plan to drive me the rest of the way. I’m headed for the barn.”
“Thought I’d ask.” I climbed down. “I thank you, my feet thank you,” I said, and pushed the door closed.
A little bell over the door tinkled when I went into the café, and the cop in the booth facing the door gave me a long look. The one with his back to me swiveled to stare until I was settled at the counter, the duffel on the floor beside the stool. They turned back to their coffee and muttered something to each other. Probably about me.
From the wiry old guy in a white tee shirt who came out of the kitchen wiping his hands on a dirty apron I ordered four eggs over medium, hashbrowns scattered and crisp, bacon, wheat toast, coffee. I bought the local paper to read while I ate. It was the same town, all right. And the Pitt Grill food was still just fine.
I figured the cops weren’t going to leave until I did, but I was wrong. They each laid a quarter beside their coffee cups and walked out while I was eating. I finished my meal in peace, dawdling over three refills, thinking what to do with the fifteen or so hours between sun-up and JoRae’s annual birthday bash.
I got out on the highway early Sunday when my friend Dwayne dropped me off just west of town. It was right at noon and a beautiful day to travel. I was freshly showered and wearing another clean, if wrinkled, white shirt.
It was good to be leaving Maysville. Whether it was because I was just tired or because my old friends were depressingly unchanged from childhood, the party, held at a cabin at what was still called Club Lake, had not been fun for me.
The lake had been formed in the ‘40s, when a second generation of the town’s timber barons, agriculture kings and merchant princes had fashioned an exclusive hide-away in the woods for family and friends. Perfectly emblematic of the third generation’s negligent degeneracy, the dam had been allowed to decay, and one week in 1975 the lake simply disappeared through it. The dam was never restored, and Johnson grass and scrub brush grew as high as the old waterline while the old lodges slowly rotted away and were sold off or rented to outsiders.
The only structure still in use by the original family was the Van Cleave cabin, and it was JoRae Van Cleave whose birthday I had come to celebrate. Her family’s fortune had been built on a basket factory and what was left of it rested on a pallet mill, but most of it had been snorted by JoRae or misinvested by her brothers. This decline was evident in the old lodge—the logs were sagging onto the foundation and the porch rail was rotted half away; inside, the dust on the deer head mounted over the fireplace and on the stuffed owl facing it across the room looked old enough to vote. Maybe this neglect affected my mood.
Whatever the cause, I made an unamused and unamusing guest. When the party began to thin out and the serious partyers started to break out the good stuff, I retreated to a back bedroom and went to sleep. When I woke up Sunday morning, JoRae’s very best friends were still there, including Ellen Wolfe, whom I remembered from fifth grade, and who had come in to pass out beside me sometime during the night. Dwayne, who had crashed on a sofa in the big front room, offered to drive me back through town.
A green Firebird pulled over the first time I put my thumb out. I ran up and opened the door but stopped, confused. The passenger seat was already occupied and the back seat was completely full. It was piled almost to the roof liner with clothes and boxes and a big TV. Even the floorboard was jammed. The driver leaned forward and said, “Can you roll?” I must have looked puzzled because he said, “Joints?”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “I can roll. Sure there’s room?”
“Get in,” he said. “Honey, scoot over. You’re gonna have to ride on the hump.”
The girl, who didn’t even look twenty, scooted up onto the console without comment, and I stuffed the duffel behind the seat and slid in, carefully placing my feet on either side of a purse and an overnight case.
“Give him the dope, baby,” he said, and spun out, back onto the highway. She reached across me to open the glove compartment and pulled out a bag of pot. “I got a toothache, and it’s killing me,” he said, gesturing toward his jaw. “Dope’s the only thing that helps and she can’t roll and I hate this fucking pipe.” He held up one of those little novelty corncob pipes. “Roll a fat one.”
I opened the baggie in my lap and took the rolling papers she handed me. I started rolling, but it was difficult. The girl was almost in my lap, and I had to keep my left elbow jammed right up against my ribs. While I worked, I asked them where they were coming from and learned they’d been visiting the girl’s parents, who lived in Maysville. I didn’t know the family, it turned out; they’d moved there after I left.
I finished rolling the reefer and passed it along to the driver. He fired it up and I started to put the baggie back in the glove compartment, but he stopped me. “Don’t quit now, dude. Roll another one. Keep rolling until I tell you to quit.” Taking a huge hit, he stomped on the gas and veered around a station wagon with a back seat full of staring kids. I would have slunk down in the seat, but there just wasn’t room. “Honey” had slid off the low console, half onto my seat, with her hand braced against the seat between our butts. And there hadn’t really been room enough for all four of our legs to start with.
Sharing the bucket seat with her didn’t help me with the rolling, either. And it wasn’t only because of the cramped space. I was having trouble ignoring Honey’s body, which was damned close to naked.
She had on a tiny pair of shorts that weren’t much more than panties. And instead of a blouse she was wearing this little red thing with about one button, tied off just under her breasts. It was made out of thin, very thin, cotton—almost transparent. When I raised my hands to lick the cigarette paper, she had to half turn toward me to make room, and my arm pressed against her breast. I shot a look at the driver, but if he’d noticed anything, he gave no sign. She and I sure noticed, though, and we both tried to wriggle farther apart.
“How’s that joint coming?” He showed me the roach in his hand. “This one’s getting short. I’m David, by the way.”
“My name’s Mary,” Honey said.
“Here you go,” I said. ”My name’s Bill. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice one.” He lit that joint off the roach, cracked the window and threw out the roach. He took another big hit. “Keep ‘em coming,” he wheezed.
I reached back into the baggie and started rolling another. I was just thinking this guy was kind of selfish, when he passed the reefer to Mary. She took a little hit then passed it to me. I took one and handed it back.
“Pretty good bud, huh?” He blew a plume of smoke at the speedometer. “Marijuana’s the best thing for a toothache, you know” He took another hit. “This thing’s killing me. Started yesterday. Sure hope I can get in to see a dentist tomorrow. Till then, I’m gonna smoke myself silly.”
He passed the reefer to us, with me holding the half-rolled joint in one hand and taking the burning one in the other. When he got it back he said, “Roll this one for you guys, then roll the next one for me.”
And that’s the way it went. Gradually, Mary and I worked out a little close-quarters choreography so I could roll and she could pass the joints back and forth without actually moving into foreplay. Still, her nipples stiffened under the thin fabric against my arm, and I tried hard not to look at her breasts. Or at those thighs. It was a strain on me and must have been worse for her.
It was about eighty miles from Maysville to I-45, and in that distance David burned five joints by himself, plus the one he shared with us. And the one we smoked by ourselves. On top of that, to get the full benefit of his medicinal pot binge, David kept the windows up and the A/C on recycle. By the time we got to I-45 I was ripped. I could only wonder how stoned he must be. But it did answer my question from the trip up: No, not everybody drinks and drives.
Neither David nor Mary was the talkative type. Stoned into catatonia, at any rate, they didn’t seem to have much to say. I didn’t either, so it was a quiet ride.
When we got to the freeway, David lit the afterburners. I got paranoid, thinking about getting pulled over for speeding and going to jail on a dope charge. I could just imagine the fragrant cloud of smoke rolling out when a cop said, “Step out of the car, please.”
“Hey, Bill!” I’d spaced out, forgot I was even in the car. “Keep ‘em coming. I’ve driven eight miles without a hit.” David giggled. He was seriously stoned. I started rolling another one. Then David must have spaced out, because I noticed our speed had dropped way off. Two cars sped past us on my side, and then I learned that reefer madness and a toothache weren’t Ol’ Dave’s only problems. He also just hated being passed by another car.
He punched the Firebird up to about ninety-five, and maintained the speed until he’d passed every car in sight. Then he must have spaced out again, because our speed had drifted back down to around forty-five by the time I finished rolling the joint. Suddenly he noticed cars were passing us and stomped on the accelerator again. “He’s always like this,” Mary said quietly, turning toward me as she took the joint. “He can’t stand to have other cars pass him.” She passed him the new one and turned back to me, half in my lap, almost whispering in my ear, “It scares me sometimes.”
I could dig it.
He fell into the pattern. Space out and slow down, then stomp it and pass everybody that had just passed him, cutting back in front of them too close, to show who was boss, I guessed. And he must have picked the Firebird with the big engine, because when he stomped it, that car just took off. It was scary; I soon feared a fiery death and figured jail might be the better deal.
And the whole time, I just kept rolling the joints and passing them over. And Mary and I kept doing out little seat-share wiggle. We’d both gotten used to it, though, and no longer even tried to avoid close contact. We were almost comfortable with each other, intimate. Still, it was a very long drive, through a dense fog.
Around Huntsville, David insisted I roll another one just for Mary and me. By that time, I figured why the hell not. Die smiling. I don’t know what Mary thought, but she smoked it with me.
On Sundays, traffic into Houston always backs up twenty or thirty miles, and when we hit that stop-and go-traffic David’s euphoria turned to road rage. He cussed every car he got behind and courted collision all the way into town. His cycle of speed-up-and-slow-down became shorter and more violent. On the up-side, though, he got so distracted he forgot to smoke dope, so I finally got a break from rolling. I was ready for that. And way past ready to get out of that car.
David and Mary lived in southwest Houston, which meant that we turned west onto Loop 610. He was still in a hurry, but was kind enough to pull onto the frontage road at Westheimer to let me off. I got out with my duffel, leaving Mary to her seat and David to his toothache. “Hell of a ride, David,” I said. “Thanks, and good luck.”
Mary said, “Bye, nice to meet you, Bill,” and waved. David said, “No problem.”
I was forty blocks from home. I though about waiting for a bus. I thought about walking. I thought about hitching a ride.
I walked under the freeway to the Cap’n Benny’s Seafood and I called a cab.
copyright 2009 James H. "Bert" Woodall -- All Rights Reserved