Somewhere in Illinois.
I pulled the mummy bag down so that only my face was exposed. Even having been tucked deeply into the bag, the tip of my nose was numb.
“Remember when I forgot the tent poles and ruined the trip?” I said out loud into the air inside the van. A chuckle came from deep inside the other bag. I rolled onto my back and buffed out the dent in my hip from the piece of metal I had slept on.
The sleeping bag next to me sat up. He emerged and rubbed his lower back.
I pulled myself up so that just my eyes, and crazy morning hair, were above the window frame and peeked at the car next to us. It was small and white. Or it had been white, long ago.
The night before we had pulled into this rest stop around midnight. When we arrived, there were three cars in the parking lot, all at the far end. We parked away from them and took advantage of the first night we had spent alone together, in as long as I could remember.
During which, out of nowhere, Adam shoved me to the ground.
“What the hell?” I pushed myself back up.
He pushed me back down with more force.
“There’s a guy staring at us!” he said through his teeth.
I grabbed my jacket and held it against my breasts. I shot up and peered out the window. Standing next to his car, which he had parked in the space next to us despite the hundred free spaces in the lot, was a man with a few long white, wispy hairs on his head. The street light shone orange behind him so that his front half, which undoubtedly, and unnecessarily faced us, was dark. Upon seeing me looking at him, he immediately began stretching like a cartoon character.
When I looked out that next morning, he was sleeping, slumped over and drooling on the steering wheel of his car.
I slid open the door of the van and put one bare foot on the ground. I hissed, jerked it back in and rubbed at the imprint the cold had left.
To celebrate his promotion at work, Adam had decided he wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail through the Smoky Mountains. It had been on his bucket list for a long time. Being the experiencer that I am, I quickly, enthusiasticall and naively agreed. We borrowed gear from our best friends in Minnesota, rented a van and headed for Knoxville, from where, I wrongly assumed, lots of hikers hitchhike to the trail.
After we handed off the keys for the van in Knoxville, we swung our huge, bursting packs up onto our backs for the first time. And almost buckled under the weight. I jumped up to resettle the pack more on the center of my back and cinched it tight around my waist. It felt like giving a never-ending piggyback ride to a large six-year-old.
“This is going to be hard babe,” I said as I began to walk. “Really hard.” The extra weight felt depressing and clumsy. “I might cry.”
We walked a hundred yards out of the rental car parking lot and, already sweating, I flung down my pack. It landed with a satisfying thud in the grass next to the airport terminal exit.
I stuck my thumb out and gave them a grin. It was a black SUV. The bushy black eyebrows of the dark-skinned man behind the wheel knitted together as he tried to figure out what I was doing. The SUV slowed. As he drove by, he gave me an awkward smile, and an even more awkward thumbs up.
Another car. A beat up, old, navy-blue Toyota. I pointed my thumb at the sky. The young girl with the chubby cheeks inside of it scowled at me and shook her red-haired head.
A nicely-dressed Indian man in an sleek black Town-car smiled and shrugged. A business man in a crisp white collared shirt and red tie looked angry and tried not to make eye contact. A young man with a high brown bun was sheepish and apologetic. A little old white lady, who could barely see over the steering wheel, looked sad for the fates she assumed must have befallen us to bring us to that place in our lives. A giant black man waved enthusiastically as he rolled on by. And a girl in her twenties wearing hipster glasses and suspenders gave me the finger.
We eventually flagged down a van driver to take us to a gas station on the highway we needed to be on. “You guys smoke weed?” was the first and only question he asked us.
Borrowing cardboard from the station garbage out back, I wrote HOT SPRINGS NC, in thick black marker on one, and THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL on the other.
I should have just wrote HIKING, NOT HOMELESS, as that is what I hoped people would read.
We stood there for an hour holding our signs. The traffic was fast. We barely had time to observe the people in the cars before they flew by. No one noticed us. The sun burned our skin.
My arm got tired.
And then, a beat up gold van quickly braked and turned around after seeing us. We got our things ready. A black woman in her mid-twenties, with a black velvet jump suit over a white T-shirt and a heavy mound of pitch-black curls on the top of her head, got out and sauntered over to us. We met her halfway, dragging our awkward packs behind us.
“What do y’all’s signs say? I couldn’t read ’em,” she said.
We pointed them at her.
“Oh…” she hesitated. “Well, I’m not going that way and I have my kid in the car.” She hooked her thumb at the van. “But here’s twenty bucks to get you on your way.” She unrolled a crumpled twenty she had clasped in her hand and began smoothing it out with cute, stubby fingers.
“Oh no!” I said, touching her hand to stop her. “We have money, we just need a ride. No buses go to the trail where we need to get to.” I closed her fingers, with their long, blood-red nails, around the bills, squeezed her hand and looked into her beautiful black eyes. “But that is very, very kind of you.”
“Oh,” her eyebrows knit together and she looked at her closed hand.
“Maybe we should hold up a sign that says FREE FINANCIAL ADVICE,” Adam said, as we watched her velveteen-encased butt amble back to her van.
This wasn’t working.
We walked down the street to an intersection.
After only a few cars, an over-sized white truck stopped at the stop-sign to turn left.
“Hi,” I said as nonchalantly as I could to the driver through his open widows. “You headed east?”
He turned and looked at me across the cab, through dark glasses. “Yea, where you guys headin’?”
“We need to get to Hot Springs.” I casually leaned on his passenger door to trap him.
He looked from me, to Adam, to me, and back to Adam. “I kin take ya’s a ways,” h said, as he began to move things from his passenger seat.
We tossed our packs in the bed and jumped in. His name was Jake. He was bald, short, calm and comfortable with silence. A crisp white shirt hanging above the back door fluttered in the wind. He was headed to work or he would take us the whole extra hour to the mountains, he said.
We thanked him but told him we’d be fine.
We would not be.
Suddenly Jake was getting off of the freeway we needed to stay on. Everything happened so quickly and we didn’t want to burden him by making him exit to let us off, and somehow we ended up standing on the side of a freeway watching his tail lights recede into the distance. A huge double semi rocketed by and we almost fell over from the wind it dragged behind. We scramble on our hands and knees up the hill to get to the on ramp.
Suddenly we were under a freeway over pass, with our packs and our cardboard.
“Huh,” he said. “Looks like we are homeless after all.”
We walked up the on-ramp for the freeway we needed to travel on. I held my thumb out for every car. It was more of the same. People either didn’t understand what we were doing and smiled, waved or gave us a thumbs up “in return,” or they flashed us their best disgusted face, taking care to make sure that we saw it. Or, as in the case with most of the semi drivers, they would shrug, make apologetic faces and say with their bodies, ‘I totally would pick you up, but alas, my boss has put an end to this age-old tradition.’
I tried everything. I smiled as big as I could. I stood casually, as if I couldn’t care less. I laughed as they went by and tried to look more fun then I have ever been in my life, which probably just made me look insane. I cocked my head and held my hands, palm up, as if to say, “come on man, you know you want to.” And for a brief, shameful couple of minutes I even waved my hands wildly at cars in a distressed way. Nothing worked. I stood in the sun for hours. My skinned turned pink, then red, then slightly purple.
He googled, ‘How To Hitchhike.’ The internet said: put the girl in front and make sure the packs are visible so people know you’re hiking, not begging for money.
We decided to walk to a gas station nearby to get some shade and some water.
He stood outside and I went in to get water and use the restroom. When I came out, I looked at him. His hair was longer than usual and erratic. His knee was bent with his foot against the wall and his cardboard sign propped up next to him on his massive, hunter green pack. He was casually reading something. He didn’t look homeless. He looked relaxed, interesting and sexy.
Soon, a charming, wiry -aired woman with her mascara askew, named Liz, took pity on us and picked us up. She was only going ten minutes down the road, but it was in the right direction.
As soon as we propped our signs up at the new gas station, a woman came over and told us we couldn’t be there. She had sharp features and her hair was dyed jet black, but her roots were light so it looked like she was balding. She had ripped all her eyebrows out and drawn tiny black lines back in.
“No, no, we aren’t homeless,” I said cheerfully. “We’re hikers!”
I pointed my sign at her.
She rolled her eyes. “Get outta here!” she sneered. She swept a cigarette butt aggressively into her dustpan to punctuate her order.
“Whatchu two up to?” someone asked. We turned to the man walking up to us from the other side.
“We’re just trying to get a ride., I replied, and showed him my sign.
“Where’s that?” he asked, and stood casually with one hand in his pocket. He had a blue-stripped mechanics shirt on. His name tag said Bob. He had a slightly dirty white hat on his head and a short, red beard. He was calm.
“It’s east about forty-five minutes,” I said. “Are you going that way?”
He evaded the question, but I was too grateful for a ride finally that I didn’t notice.
“Toss your stuff in that ugly car over there,” he pointed to an old maroon Toyota Camry. The paint was rusting off and there was a white peeling film over the middle of each panel of the car. But it was a ride, it was getting to be late afternoon already, and I was so sunburned.
We dragged our huge packs across the parking lot and stood faithfully by the car while he shopped.
He poked his head out of the store, “Yo, you guys want anything? Sodas? Food?”
“No, thank you; that’s very nice,” we replied.
“You sure? Anything, really! I’m buying!” he yelled. Just his head hung out the door, his body laid horizontal against the back of the glass.
“We’re sure, we just ate,” I lied.
He came back out, moved things around, and we got in.
“What’s your name?” I asked, holding my hand out.
“Chris, but they call me Curtis.”
We thanked him for picking us up. He told us he had gotten extra sodas in case we wanted any.
“Put this in there,” he said to me in the passenger seat. He held out a receipt and pointed at the glove box.
“Careful,” he said, leaning close to my face. “You might find a hand in there.”
My hand paused over the paper and then I made a weird puff of air that was supposed to sound like a casual laugh at what I hoped to be a [bad] joke, and took it.
I reached in front of me and turned the knob on the glove box with as much nonchalance as I could.
We were in the turn lane to the ramp to 40E, the road we needed. The turn signal ticked. We were next in line to turn onto the ramp.
We were so close…
“Mind if we stop at my house first?” he asked casually.
My mind raced. We can’t let this guy take us to his house. Warning signs flashed red all over my brain.
I have never been in a quieter car.
I waited a beat longer…
Think! Think! I shouted in my head.
It had been too long…
The words “of course not” ejected from my head.
I laughed nervously.
As he whipped a U-turn, he asked us what we were doing there. As I watched the highway we needed recede into the distance, I told him we were celebrating Adam’s promotion. He had gotten a job the week prior, Curtis told us. He didn’t know how long the job would last, though, because he didn’t usually hold jobs very long. “I’m a nigger,” he said, sitting beside me in his almost translucently white skin. “I’m a nigger,” he repeated for emphasis and, then again in a last-ditch effort to create a response from me.
I stared straight ahead. A sinking feeling in my stomach.
After that he talked about himself. So much and so rapidly that a lot of it was lost in the ether. As he talked, he became agitated. He drove faster and faster and his turns became more and more erratic. He told us about his wife. He said she had cheated on him, and then he had cheated on her, and then they decided to ditch those people because it was harder than just being together.
“You guys fight?” he asked.
“I mean, everyone fights.” I shrugged, as I tried to leave mental bread crumbs at every turn. He screeched around a corner with all four wheels in the on coming traffic lane. I gripped the handle above the door harder, my knuckles white. “But, we don’t tend to fight a lot, no.”
“Yea, us too. We used to fight. Whoo WEE, we used to fight; domestics all the time, but not no more!”
As he talked, I noticed his teeth were brown and rotting.
We drove through the back country, farther and farther from our destination.
“Where is your place?” I asked after twenty minutes in the wrong direction.
“Just a stone’s throw away,” he said, as he lit his fourth cigarette from his third one.
We drove for ten more minutes.
As we pulled into the apartment complex where he lived he said, “you guys have to come meet my dog!”
Then he said slowly, “tell you what… I’m not goin’ take ya where y’all goin’, les’ you come meet my dog.”
We screeched to a halt in a parking space and he got out.
“I’m going to get the knife out of my pack,” Adam whispered.
Curtis locked the car doors on our packs, our phones and our expensive equipment and we trudged along, all our nerves vibrating on edge, behind him.
When we got inside he called hello.
No dog ran to greet him.
He walked down a long hall and into a back room.
“Honey,” I whispered. “When people say not to hitchhike… this is what they mean.” I slumped against him.
The apartment smelled like one hundred people had smoked one hundred cigarettes.
It was packed with stuff. Stuff hung on other stuff. An old broken TV acted as a stand for a working one. There were fast food wrappers, half filled garbage bags and overflowing ashtrays everywhere.
We could see him, but not her. “I met some nice people who need a ride somewhere. I’m gonna take ’em,” he said and awkwardly gestured that we were at the front of the house.
Being an extrovert, I call a greeting to her. Being an introvert, Adam does not. She immediately assumes her husband is driving around a single girl.
She gets pissed.
They began to fight. Adam and I looked at each other. His eyes were panicky.
A beautiful, fawn-colored pit bull came out of the bedroom when the wife started throwing things. When the dog saw us, she sprinted so fast the rug piled up behind her. She was small, but she had more muscles than I have ever seen on any dog in my whole life. She had chocolate eyes that were endlessly kind. She jumped up lightly, looked into my eyes and wagged her tail. She did not bark. I leaned down and put my forehead to hers.
I thought, ‘nothing bad can happen in a situation that this dog is also in.’
As the couple fought in the back room, Curtis kept coming out and going back in. They kept their voices too low for us to hear what they were saying. She never came out of the room. We never saw her. He had told us that she was “very overweight and balding,” so in my head it was all very What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
I needed air.
“We’re going to wait outside,” I said the next time he came out of the room. “Can the dog come?”
He gave me a leash and went back into the room and slammed the door. We left.
The dog was happy and small and so powerful I could barely control her. We came around a corner and terrified an old black lady with huge moles on her face. She recoiled before recognizing the dog.
We got to the car and leaned against it, waiting for what would happen next.
He finally came out and I squeezed in the back with the dog. Adam sat up front.
Once we were back on the road his driving became even more volatile. I watched from behind him as the speedometer went well above a hundred. It was about then that he stopped paying attention to the fact that he was driving at all.
He would throw his body forward and slam it back into the seat to punctuate what he was saying. He would take his right leg off the gas, lift it above the middle seat, and shake it like a dog that got water on its paw. He played with the radio. He played with his phone. He yelled. The car careened from side to side.
Every mile or so he would hit the grooves in the side of the road.
At which point he would over-correct and yank the steering wheel to throw us first out the other side of our lane and into the traffic we found over there and then back into the correct lane until the whole thing would happen again.
The dog leaned hard against me, trembling and drooling on my leg.
“Do you think you could slow down?” I asked quietly, a wave of nausea overtaking me. “I get very sick in cars.”
“Does this help?” he asked, and swerved wildly between two lanes of traffic for at least half a minute. Which is a very long time in this particular instance.
At one point, I smacked my head on the window and then pressed the side of my face hard against it, needing the coolness.
“Just kidding,” he said as he came back in his own lane temporarily. When we didn’t respond he said, “Yea… sometimes people don’t get my humor.”
The phone rang. He answered it and I tuned him out completely. His driving calmed and slowed while he talked. The CD began to skip. Adam looked back at me with big round eyes. I shook my head and tried to smile reassuringly. I put my hand on the dogs head.
“That was my ex,” He said as he threw his body over the steering wheel, after the phone call ended. “She says I’m the father of some baby she had and she wants me to sign over my rights ‘Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrp’ but that bitch is ALWAYS in jail. How would I even do something like that?” he asked. We didn’t know how to advise upon this particular situation so we didn’t speak.
“Guess I’m just white trash, doing white trash things,” he said as he ashed his Marlboro Red. The ash flew back into his window and broke apart against my face, between my eyes. I wiped at it. It stuck to my sweat.
As he went on and on about things that have never touched my life before, I stared at the back of his head and wondered what life would have been like to have grown up with, what I could only imagine is, so little. So little love. So little education. So little common sense. So little guidance. So little money.
A homemade tattoo, freckles, and coarse red neck hair poked out of his dirty white T-shirt. Each hair ended in a tiny curl. His hair looked thick, and itchy. His skin flaked in places. It was sweltering inside the car, but I had to keep my window up to avoid as much of the ash from his cigarette as possible. His arm rested upon the open window and curled back in at the wrist, when he wasn’t punching the air to punctuate a specific point. He held his cigarette in his left hand. It burned down past the filter. His fingers were stained a sick-looking yellow color where he held it. Like the skin there had died long ago.
He started telling us about his kids. Twin girls his mom was raising and some randoms he didn’t trust were actually his anyway. “It’s funny,” he said, immeasurably happy to have a captive audience. “The one that looks like me loves her mama, and the one that looks like my wife is a daddy’s girl.”
I pressed my face harder against the window. My chest felt heavy.
“How you doin’ back ‘ere?” He asked. I told him I was ok. “Wouldn’t matter if you weren’t.” He informed me. The wind from his open window whipped me in the face. The dog panted hotly on my leg.
Every time he wrenched the car from side to side I could taste the fear in my back teeth.
Adam turned around and looked at me for a long couple seconds. He turned back around. I watched him take a breath. “Oh look, here is that gas station we were going to. You can just drop us right here.” We were still twenty-five minutes from where we would meet the trail.
Chris Curtis sat straight up, alarmed. “I thought you guys were going to Hot Springs??”
“Eventually, but this is where we are going now,” he answered, unable to come up with any more explanation than that for why we needed to be dropped off at a gas station in the middle of nowhere.
He looked at Adam. He looked at me in the rear-view mirror. I smiled. He wanted to argue, but he couldn’t think of any reason to. He whipped the wheel and brought us to a screeching halt in front of a pump. Everyone at the gas station stopped what they were doing to stare open-mouthed. I patted the dog on her gorgeous head. I put my hands on her cheeks and kissed her sadly.
Not wanting to let us go, he got out with us. He took the dog out and walked around with her. He started talking to other people at the gas station. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have any reason to be there. We all stood around awkwardly. I think he understood all of this. He tried to wait us out. But eventually he started to say goodbye.
“HEY,” he yelled on his way back to the car. “This is why they call me Curtis.” He whipped off his shirt and jumped around maniacally. His skin was so white it looked slightly blue. He had angry pink open sores all over his back. Across his shoulders the homemade tattoo said Curtis. The first couple letters were pretty uniform and then, as though the artist got bored, ended smaller and fell slightly down his back.
Then he got in his car and drove away.
We sat down on a concrete bench in front of the store.
And immediately began talking at once.