I. On The Bus
In California, hitch hiking on the freeway is illegal. In downtown Los Angeles, trying to hitch a ride on the freeway is not only illegal, it’s stupid. Cars are chaining onto the I-5 from the I-10 at 60 miles per hour, and there’s nowhere to stop.
“This is no good,” I say to Naomi. “We’ll need a fucken helicopter.”
“Or an angel,” she quips right back. She’s standing facing traffic, her weathered gaze calmly searching the alarmed faces of drivers as they whip around the curved on-ramp. Her swirly India-print skirt is pulled to a tempting angle by an invisible hand. Nearly invisible: the back-draft of nomadic Angelinos lets fly an asthma of dust, shredded leaves, and small rocks being quickly pulverized to more dust. Naomi stands immune, or as if she herself is a part of the wind. She has the slim legs of a girl.
Smack dab in the middle of one of the busiest interchanges on the planet. The oil-shortage crisis having been recently declared officially over, it seems to me that the drivers are feeling extravagant, wasteful of their Jurassic inheritance, and heedless of the two waifs standing on the banks of the raging river of speed. Naomi gives up trying to charm a ride with her mesmerizing eyes, and comes and stands beside me. She’s immediately hypnotized by the rhythm of tail lights racing away.
Naomi and I are hitching to San Francisco. We’re going to visit Uncle John, Naomi’s acid connection. For me, this trip is a regular event. Naomi’s been sending me on the acid run for a year now, always hitching, and I never, ever, go through L.A. Much better, I have found, is to stay in the middle of the state, to crawl up the spine of the desert where cars may be scarcer but almost all drivers are travelling long distances. And I always travel alone.
But not this time. Naomi hasn’t seen Uncle John in a couple years, and when I called to say I was on my way north, John asked to speak to Naomi. Next thing I know, I have a travelling companion. One who most assuredly does not want to travel through the desert. It seems our point of origin, the Mojave Desert, has recently been the favored sound stage for snuff flick productions. Just a few miles from our home on Yucca Mesa, bodies are rumored to have been found in various states of grotesque, sexual mutilation. Naomi swears she knows someone who told her someone found a ritually hacked body our near where we live. She wants out of the desert.
So we head west down the I-10 to Los Angeles and find ourselves in our current predicament. Standing on a freeway interchange in the warm winter dusk. From a stream of reflective metal, the cars are rapidly changing into a blur of rushing head-and-tail lights. I’m thinking that, at the moment, a blind cave fish would have more control over his future direction than I do now. Besides, all I really want to do is find a thick bush on a meridian strip, roll out my sleeping bag under cover of CalTrans shrubish, and curl up in the sleep of my carbon monoxide dreams.
I’m staring disconsolately back up the interchange, looking for the cop that’s going to come and give us a night in the L.A. County Hotel, when Naomi says, “Hey, com’on.” I kick dust, sullen, scared, and staring into on-coming traffic.
“Hey!” she yells, grabbing my arm. “Come on!”
I turn, and see that a car has pulled over onto the shoulder. Insanely, the driver is backing up on the shoulder, causing drivers in the slow lane to freak and veer. I snatch up our duffel bag and start running toward the car. I see a rack on the top of the car, and for a second, I think it’s a cop. Then it hits me: the vehicle is yellow, and that’s not a bubble-gum machine on the roof…
A cab? Stopping for hitchhikers? On the freeway?
We shove ourselves in the back seat of the cab, and I cram the duffel in with me on my lap. I have to: there’s already a passenger in the back seat. I’m stupefied, but then I realize that somebody must be paying this cabbie to stop illegally, and that just stupes me even more.
“We’re going to San Francisco,” I say, coughing jerkily. I’ve gone from despair to giddy, and the sudden tweak in my neurochemistry has made my voice a helium squeak.
The cabbie has launched his vehicle into the thick of traffic, doing zero to sixty in no remarkable amount of time, but clearing a hole in the flow with sheer audacity. The driver, one hand on the wheel, swivels his head and gives me a hard look. Black face, black eyes glinting steel in the dark of the cab.
“You’re going with my man here.” His voice has the resonant authority of Mosaic law, but I’m not exactly sure who the subject of his sentence is. The original passenger chuckles from over beside Naomi, who is sitting lightly in the middle.
I lean forward a little to see past Naomi. Some guy’s curled into himself in the corner of the backseat, and, for all I can tell, he appears to be sleeping. He makes no sign that he knows we’re in the cab, and that Naomi’s hip is pressed against his thigh, or that the driver is speaking. He lifts his head just a skoosh and says from behind his flannel shirt, “You tell em, bro…”, and then slumps back into semi-fetal.
“Well—” I start to say.
“No man, no ‘well’ about it” the cabbie barks, and turns around to glare at me again. “You’re going where he goes.”
Have we just been kidnapped?
“You’re an angel, aren’t you?” Naomi asks of the driver.
I roll my eyes, and lean my head back against the seat, stare at the ceiling of the cab. The lining is still intact. I consider this a good sign, but can’t help wondering: Have we just stepped into the opening scene of a snuff flick?
“That’s right, sister. I’m a big black angel. And you two are going to accompany my man here to Oakland.”
Oakland! I relax.
“You’re driving this guy clear to Oakland?” I ask, compounding stupefaction with incredulity.
The driver turns around to eye punch me. I’m beginning to feel like an errant child, the way he keeps swiveling his attention from traffic to scold me.
“No, I’m driving him to the bus station. You’re going by Greyhound.” He sounds as certain as God.
I tense up again. I rub my palms over the knees of my jeans.
“We don’t have any money,” Naomi says matter of factly. The guy pushed into the corner smiles up at Naomi, though I don’t think his eyes are actually open.
“That’s why we’re hitching,” I say. Actually, I’ve got close to two grand stashed on my person, but this is business money, earmarked, owed, inviolate.
The guy next to Naomi straightens up, apparently with difficulty. He looks at Naomi, surprised. She smiles at him—she has such a lovely smile, her smile actually means smile, is never a mask for something darker. The sleepy guy smiles back at her, and then manages to lean forward a bit and glance at me. He nods, slowly.
I’m beginning to recognize something here. This guy’s chin-on-chest posture is deeply familiar to me. His head lolls as we bounce over a bump in the freeway, and he slowly scratches his chest.
“You awake?” the driver asks, peering into the rearview mirror.
“Wasn’t asleep,” the man mumbles, and starts digging into his jacket pocket. “We there yet?” he asks, and glances out the window. I do, too, realizing I haven’t been paying attention to where we’re going. Just because the situation is unusual in the extreme does not mean I can turn of my danger radar. He pulls an envelope out of his jacket’s inner pocket. A very thick envelope. He fishes out a couple of bills, and limply dips them over the seat, roughly into the cabbie’s area of attention. Maybe this guy’s the angel.
“This cover it?” he mumbles.
“Not yet, my brother. You just put that away for now.” The driver looks into his mirror again, this time catching Naomi’s eye.
“To answer your question, this here is your angel, sister. Not me. I’m his angel, and I do mean guardian. And you two are gonna take good care of my man, you hear?”
I’m nodding. Naomi is nodding. The first passenger is nodding, shoving his envelope back into his jacket. He sits up straight, and starts to compose himself a bit. He scrubs his eyes, pushes his hair back off his forehead. Rearranging the damage.
“Angel!” the guy yells, and stares out the passenger window at the streaks of L.A. He turns and smiles at Naomi. “You’re an angel,” he says, and the suddenly slumps back into himself for a moment.
The cabbie swerves suddenly, aiming for the freeway exit. I more or less recognize the area. We slide through a few blocks of Skid Row, quiet now in the crepuscular intermezzo between afternoon and evening intoxications.
The passenger sits up again.
“I’m Dave,” he says, and offers his hand to Naomi.
“Naomi,” she says, smiling, taking his hand to shake. He flattens his grip, turns her hand over, and kisses the back of her hand.
“You’re an angel,” he says.
I’m looking right at him looking at her, but he doesn’t see me. His face is handsome; he looks like a straight working-class type. Flannel shirt, jeans, thick twill jacket that marks him as a visitor to the warm South.
“This is my friend Brian,” Naomi says, directing Dave’s attention with a tilt of her head.
Friend? Naomi is my wife, but I’m used to this plastic identity, these masks we deploy to get where we need to go, to get what we need to live. Fifteen years older than me, I’m just glad that this time she didn’t introduce me as her son. Maybe I was starting to look a little weathered, too.
“Hey!” Dave roars, suddenly leaning forward to give me a vigorous street-brother shake. “Umph,” he groans, and slouches over, his hand on his stomach. He rolls down the back window and sucks the fumes, his lungs grasping for oxygen molecules.
“If you gonna puke again, don’t get it on my cab this time!” the driver snaps. He swivels and says to the back seat in general, “I already had to wash the car once.”
Naomi puts her hand on Dave’s shoulder. “You OK?”
Dave rolls up the window smartly. I’m pretty sure I know what’s up with this guy, but am withholding opinion before I declare myself the luckiest fuck in the world.
“Yeah,” he says, and his gaze—calm, unblinking, an intelligence in those pools of brown—moves from Naomi to me, then back to Naomi.
Naomi’s fine—dark-eyed, gap-toothed, weathered, decked in madras-cotton prints that gather and swirl about her slimness even when she’s not moving. And she’s very cunning about holding still: her senses miss nothing.
Dave nods again. “L.A.,” he says, and turns silent, looking out the window.
“Where you from?” I lean forward and ask past Naomi’s shoulder. Both Naomi and the cabbie give me sharp looks. It’s so far unsaid, but we all know what’s up with this guy, and they’re both silently reprimanding my greed.
Dave lets his hand give a loose flap: down the road, he means.
“Up north,” he says. “I’m a log-truck driver,” he says to Naomi.
I can practically smell the horse on this guy, and it’s making me reckless. I want a taste.
“Down in the city for a run?” I press.
The black cabbie snaps around, smacks the back of the front passenger seat with his broad palm.
“Shut the fuck up, kid,” he snarls. His face is expressionless, but his eyes slice me up like lasers.
I turtle-up into my corner of the back seat. Naomi doesn’t even bother glancing at me, but I know what she’s thinking: My timing sucks.
“Rippin’ and runnin’,” Dave assents. He grins at Naomi, then spreads him palms before him. “But now I gotta get back to work on Tuesday.” He looks back out the window.
It’s Sunday. His run’s over. Whatever he was doing—and his posture alone told me heroin was the name of his persuasion—is likely all gone now. I clench my teeth in frustration. I envy Dave. He’s been doing whores and heroin for days, maybe even a couple weeks, and he’s still got a pouch full of cash. I, too, am holding a shit-load of cash, but none of its mine.
The CalTrain depot looms, a cross between the Taj Mahal and Grand Central Station. Knots of people are swirling and pooling, all going somewhere, except the ones who circulated, preying on travelers. The cabbie slows, pulls to the curb. He turns around, and looks at me sternly, and then speaks to Naomi.
“Go with my man as far as Oakland. Make sure nothing happens to him. Make sure nobody fucks with him.” He looks at me. Dave is looking out the window. Fucking strong and quiet type. “Make sure he gets to Oakland. He’s going to buy your bus tickets.”
Dave shoves a wad of cash in the driver’s hand. The black man doesn’t even look at it, just tucks it away.
“Thank you, my brother,” the cabbie says to Dave. They exchange a tight grip.
I don’t get it, I realize. It’s like these two know each other. There’s some kind of history between these two, but my attention’s been elsewhere, looking for something else, and I’ve completely missed it.
Dave says nothing, opens the street-side door, and without looking, slides out of the cab. A car honks. Naomi’s right behind him, feet on the ground, her hand on Dave’s arm, deftly pulling him back against the side of the cab.
The cabbie nods approvingly. He gives me a concerned look.
“You want to learn something, you study your mother.”
I nod, swallowing the insult. I’ve heard it before: it’s not that Naomi looks old, it’s that I, at 21, look like a kid. And I act like a child. I look into the black man’s stern face; I can’t begin to guess his age. He jerks his head toward the curb, the station: go on, get going, hit the road. For a second I think he’s an older brother, one I never had, or an uncle. Then I realize that, as usual, Naomi is right: this man is an angel.
Keeping a firm grip on our duffel bag, I push out of the curb-side door. I look at the driver one more time, and begin to feel something in my stomach begin to let go. I’m not sure if I’m sick or happy, but I say, “Thanks man,” and slam the door. Without a second look, the cabbie pulls away, and is gone, sucked away into the tide.
Naomi and Dave are standing on the sidewalk, speaking quietly together. I suddenly feel very nervous. Dave must be about Naomi’s age. I shoulder the duffel. The air is warm and smoky; the sky is not black, but burnt orange deepening to brown at the zenith. I can see exactly one star. I light a cigarette. Naomi, her arm on the inside of Dave’s elbow, starts toward the bright entrance to the depot. I follow, brushing my hand against the towering pillars that channel the flow of traffic into and out of this hub of comings and goings. The stone is slick from years of touch, smog, and god knows what else.
I follow slowly, keeping Naomi and Dave in view ahead of me, pulling my shell around me. I wonder what planet I’m from, what these alien sensations inside me are, what planet I’m on.
You’re just a beginner, I remind myself. I chew on that thought as we stand in line for tickets. Looking around at the vast open space of the depot, I observe those observing us. Cons and whores, dealers and thieves. I move a little closer to Naomi and Dave: we’re together, I want them to know. An impractical trio to try and hustle. Dave forks over more than a hundred bucks for three fares to downtown Oakland. He hands the tickets to Naomi for safe keeping.
“Let’s have a nice dinner,” he says, and points into the haze that blurs the far side of the depot.
Suddenly it hits me. What the fuck is going on here? An hour ago—less—we were stranded on the freeway. How did this guy find us? How did that cabbie know where we were going? I remember something my high-school principal accused me of not so long ago: Birds of a feather flock together.
II. Pictures at an Exhibition
More like a nightmare of crows than an exaltation of meadowlarks, I think now of my early 20s and shudder. “By sweet enforcement, and remembrance dear,” John Keats wrote in his “Ode to Psyche,” we remember to tell ourselves the stories which we use to make sense of our lives. I think a story I’m supposed to remember to tell is about doing something dangerous and being transformed by it.
Perhaps people don’t hitchhike anymore because it’s too dangerous. But like hitchhiking, that’s exactly the lure of “extreme” sports, performance, or travel: the exotic danger of it all, the ineluctable desire for genetic difference, for photographic memoirs of “And here’s the time…,” but most of all the sheer rush of throwing life into the hands of the sweet enforcer. Hitchhiking shoves fate, chance, and psychosis onto stage, front and center. Or, less melodramatically, hitching always puts one in an unpredictable situation. If you look to your left, you’ll see some now:
I get in a beat-up car with this black guy and he offers to sell me some needle drug or other. I only have nine dollars, says I. Get ya a dime bag, he says. Done, I say, and he jets off the freeway into some San Jose “housing project.” “Welcome to the bloody third world,” Christine Hind and her Pretenders would have been singing just about that time. My ride drops me in an alley, and I stand there for about five minutes, smoking a cigarette, before I realize what’s up. Red of face, I make myself small and start walking fast, head down by eyes out: I make a fast-trucking loser escape. That time it was only nine bucks.
Going through San Bernardino one afternoon, I get picked up by this white construction worker, just getting off work for the weekend. He fishes a jay out of his shirt pocket and sets fire to it. When he asks me to come over and play chess and drink Jack Daniels with him, I instantly agree. I figure this guy right away: a construction worker who’ll fuck anything, especially with long hair. I love a game of chess, and am feeling a little frisky myself. We play chess, but I loose game after game, prodigiously stoned and drunk. In bed, I do a little better, except I piss him off because I won’t let him fuck me. He gets rough. I drunkenly try to push him away, but he laughs and shoves me face down onto his bed.
I finally got out of there, and it took me five more days to hitch from L.A. to the Bay Area. Somewhere, lost in the suburbs of San Jose again, my bowel finally broke loose. I did what I could to clean myself, ditched my rank jeans, and then found a cab driver who, in exchange for the less-than-fare 36 dollars I had on me, took me to a friend’s bathtub in San Francisco. I forgot all about it until one day, seven years or so later, when standing on a university campus I flooded into tears. As if by some “sweet enforcement,” the memory came rushing back.
Santa Barbara was such a magnet for hitchhikers, lefties, and weirdos that the town was redesigned and relandscaped to get rid of us. There used to be a huge spreading tree where everybody gathered, all the road-dogs and homeless. It was a great center of activism, a crossroads between the students at UCSB, migrant workers (aliens!), and a marginalia of impoverished drifters, including me, itinerant dope fiend and two-bit hustler. The city tore that tree down. Trudeau, in Doonesbury, did a couple weeks worth of strips on the tree, the activists and the homeless in Santa Barbara.
I discovered that guys drive around looking for someone to fuck. “Discovered” is not the right word: the discovery I made was thrust upon me, literally. But it took me a while to realize the implications of my discovery. I could exchange sex for money with horny men. I was a commodity. I’d hitch up from the desert to Santa Barbara when I wanted to earn a little money and have an adventure.
One of my favorite rides was a dentist. He lived in Lompoc and cruised the 101 looking for boys. Plus it’s a nice drive, Dennis told me later, and that’s true. This is the coast where California turns from south to north; the mountains start to butt the sea, things start getting steep and windy. The first time I met Dennis, he immediately offered me a can of cold rum and coke. For some of us, alcohol pries everything open. A couple drinks later, the sun is going down, we’re laughing and the air is warm and salty. Dennis pulled into a motel.
He walks and I frolic into the room, flopping onto the bed.
“Take a shower!” Dennis commands, pulling me up and pointing me into the bathroom. “And don’t jack off.”
I giggle, but do as I am told. Hitchhiking is dirty work, like backpacking; to forego the daily douche makes the rare one the more steaming a pleasure. And I’m starting to get the hang of this, I think, as I rub patchouli oil into my hair.
I dive under the covers next to Dennis, and we start drinking. There’s a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert on TV, and Dennis’s hand never leaves my thigh. But before long, I’m twilighting, nodding, asleep… And then what seems an instant later, I’m jolted awake by my own orgasm. Dennis looks up at me from between my legs, and smiles. I feel great. I smile back.
“Let’s do some coke and go get some breakfast,” Dennis says, sliding off the bed and into his dentist slacks.
“What time is it?” I ask. It couldn’t be time for breakfast…
“Hmm, bout four.”
I peek through the curtain, out into the night. The morning had come over the course of a ten-hour lapse on my part. My nose and lips are numb from the coke. It takes me a minute, but I finally put it together. I turn to Dennis. He’s buttoning his shirt. He smiles at me.
“Next time,” I say, smiling back, “you don’t have to micky me.”
“Clearly,” he says. “You liked that,” and maybe I don’t get that his sass might hide a little something sinister, too.
“I just wish I’d been awake to enjoy it more,” I say, and throw my arms around his waist. He’s a short, middle-aged, buttoned-down closet case living on the edge of his world, and because I’m still alive, I am able to admire him for it. Because I know that I’m on the edge of my world, too, and that desire is a harsh mistress, and we, her tutees. Dennis slips me a twenty as we walk next door to the Denny’s. He looks up at me, and in the strange flourescence of a parking lot, I think he looks beatific.
Another afternoon a van pulled over to the side of Highway 101 as she was then. I popped in, and turned to check: a handsome, small man, about 40. I smiled back and settled in as he merged north. I felt relaxed because I was pretty sure this guy wasn’t a fag. I was always desperate for money, and love adventures, but, how shall I say, my religious scruples are offended by “casual” sex. Especially with men. But they’re so easy. However that lays, I was relieved, and let my wander out the window, when Van Guy starts calmly questioning me on precisely “that.”
“Mind if I ask you a few questions?” he asks, and risking a quick glance at my shirt front, adds, “Smoke if you want. Just roll down the window. This whole tobacco thing, it’s weird. What’s going on is obvious: you got an addictive drug, and a monopoly. And either you want to solve the problem and shut down the tobacco companies or you shut the fuck up and let people do what they want, you know what I’m saying?”
“I buy that.” Do I? I’m trying to think, but not very hard.
“So you like sex, right?”
In voluntarily, my head swivels left, to a flash on his face, and then I jerk right in a forced stare out the window.
“Yeah,” I say neutrally. Heading north and looking right, I’m seeing steep brown hills flecked with oak and pine, furry with coastal sage and scrub.
“Would you lick a woman’s pussy?” he asks, equally neutral, but letting his eyes move to make contact with mine in a controlled, friendly way.
I make small nods, as if thinking about it. “Yes,” I say. I’m trying to go slow here.
“Would you suck a man’s cock?”
I look at him sharply this time, deliberately talking stock of his face. He’s not unattractive, for a man. He looks at me again, meets my gaze evenly, a small smile on his lips.
“If” he begins.
“Yes,” I say, flip my pony tail, and turn to stare out my side of the car again.
“Would you let a man fuck you in the ass?” He persists! Now the lurking nausea makes its acid felt. I take a deep breath.
“No,” I say definitively. Too sacred, or anyway, too personal. No way would I trust a male of casual meeting in the place where angels fear to tread.
Now he looks at me. At first I meet his gaze, but as he persists I get nervous and stare ahead at the road, and then mad. The fucking road is more or less straight, and this guy’s casing me for something, one eye doing double duty between my thin frame and the road. I light a cigarette, roll down the window a crack. I take a drag, and thus steeled, I turned to meet his gaze again.
Finally he says, “You’re kinda cute,” and turns back to the road.
Dismissed, I feel a little angry and humiliated. I’m no stranger to being taken for a rube, a naïve kid. I was pretty sure I wasn’t a mark, though. Men want to dress me up, and play I’m some tall elf-girl with a tight ass. This guy shows no imagination, I think, smoking. He’s never going to get anywhere with the interview routine; he’s turning what should at least feel like play into a job of work.
He’s ignoring me too, so I roll down the window a crack and, after blowing out some smoke, breathe in a hit of fresh air. I like what I see out the windows, that’s one of the main reasons I do this. The fine unwinding coast, pulling and giving itself in the inbetweenness of water smashing earth, earth humping sea, the sky an endless prophylactic, rolling ever on. A few miles of that and I’m in my own little waking dream, this imaginal place where the Fates’ threads seem to weave the world.
“You like movies?”
“Sure,” I say, mildly annoyed at the intrusion.
“Ever want to be in one?” he asks, turning a sly shared-knowledge smile my way.
I laugh, a little too breathily, I think. “Of course,” I say, lamely attempting something like stern. The obvious has never been my forté, and I’m suddenly alarmed that maybe this bit of obvious is going to have more momentum than I can handle.
“Do you want to be in one?” he asks, and I’m surprised at his hesitation. For the first time, he has a genuine look of inquiry on his face. “This afternoon, I mean.”
“Well, maybe,” I say, quiet and earnest. “It depends. What would you have me playing?” As soon as the words are out of my mouth I realize the conclusions I’ve leapt to, and start to redden. Fool, but incapable of finding a speech-part to move the situation back to my zone of comfort, I just wait for his inertia to push ahead.
“Playing with a bunch of guys!” He laughs, and slaps the wheel, shaking his head and staring out at the ocean on our left. He turns back, and looks inquiring. “You’d look great sucking cock.” He sounds both sincere and professional.
I nod and stare straight ahead for a moment.
I turn and see the side of his face. I know he’s already lost interest. Now I’m just another rider.
“No thanks,” I say, and sigh back into the bucket. But as I say the words, they sting me, and I know I’ve just made a turn, and now I’ll always have this moment to wonder back to.
The last time I hitchhiked was in 1993, in the south of Portugal. My lover and I had traveled by train and bus to the southwest tip of Europe. We contemplated the monument that marks the birthplace of modern navigation.
“You can see the curve of the Earth,” Barbara said, rolling her hand out to the horizon.
“Evidence that not just these are round,” I said. The sun was so warm we made love on the cliffs over looking the Atlantic. Hidden by nothing but the wing of the sky, my lover’s lips were chapped, nervous, and secretly relishing this sacred naughty moment on the edge of the world.
Later, we walked down to the beach, and toward the sandbars near Tavira. Neither of us had ever seen the Atlantic before. We lost track of time. The sun started going down. Barbara suddenly gasped.
“The train,” she whispered, looking a little sheepish.
“Shit!” I jumped to my feet, pulled her up. The train back to Lisbon. We had to be on it. I looked at my watch. We had an hour, and it’d take twenty minutes to walk to the road that led eight miles back to Tavira and the bus depot. We ran to the road; even in the sand, it only took us fifteen minutes.
I stuck out my thumb, arm high in the air, backpack slung and my other hand holding Barbara’s. A car is coming. It skids to a stop five yards in front of us.
“Yay!” Barbara squealed, and as we hustled into the back seat of a Toyota sedan, I think I gave her the best grin ever. The driver turns and grins at us, and then the woman next to him turns and smiles. They’re both incredibly beautiful. It’s the lure of the unexpected, I suddenly muse-out, it never stops. I look at Barbara and know that my being here with her is the result of the same synchronous magic that is now, once again, going to get us to the station on time.
“Tavira, por favor!” Barbara says. He nods, and I know he’s saying, Great! Us too!, but we’re all just nodding and grinning at each other, and he jams it into first and snorts gears down the road.
III. Mr. Long-Time Already Gone
We board the Greyhound in L.A. and hunker down for the long ride. I grab the window seat, Naomi next to me, and Dave across the aisle, his chin already on his chest, snoring gently. I figure he’s smacked, but I’m tired of sweating the pain of wanting some. I’d rather just look out the window, and let my mind wander as the miles roll beneath us. Naomi draws small spirals and mandalas on napkins she’s collected. I wonder if she’s working magic, but then I close my eyes and fall asleep.
I wake up an hour later. Naomi’s asleep, curled into a little ball. I can’t believe she can make herself that small. Then I realize that this is why more women are contortionists, and apparently happy to be so, as it were, inclined. There’s a murmur of conversation audible above the engine of the bus. I recline my seat and relax into availability mode. Usually I read, but tonight I want to stare into the face of the universe that was able to click together the events that brought me here, on a free ride to the City, with nothing to do for hours but stare at that face.
The bus stops halfway, at Coalinga. Years from now, the town—the truckstop is the town—will be flattened by an earthquake. But nobody knows that now, and, at 4 AM, the joint is jumping. The bus avenues through acres of truck parking, mostly full. People are out wandering around, partying. I see a lot of the tell-tale driver’s hip sway as guys pull up their jeans and tuck in shirts. They’re headed for food, showers, rented rooms, and whatever else this little city state of a parking lot had to offer. I view suspicious looking activities taking place in the dark aisles between 18-wheelers. The bus pulls into the short-term parking zone.
Dave wakes up. He looks out the window. He scrubs his eyes.
“Let’s go eat,” he says, and unfolds out of his seat. The man is amazing, I think, but maybe that’s why I’ve heard that junkies live to grow old. Start listening to your body, I think, and start to feel nervous.
“Thank you,” Naomi says, and grabs his hand, pulling him down the aisle to the front of the bus. I gather our bags and trail behind. I’m tired, and a little afraid to go out there. It’s bright, and everybody is swaggering, especially the women. Coalinga is fake Western and smells like disinfectant floating on an endless flow of urine. Everything dissolves in the light here; personal identity is relinquished to the clouds of pheromones and smells of grilling beef.
We sit down in the Denny’s. The human imagination is sorely stifled in this burgh, but I order plenty of food anyway. Once again, Naomi and I are magically transformed into Dave’s hired chaperons as he picks up the check. As if he needed chaperons, or we, or anyway I, were qualified to chaperon a bingeing heroin addict.
I want to ask him the question that has been in the front of my mind since that taxi stopped on the freeway. I want to know why we’re here. I’m saved from asking him out loud.
“I’ll be right back,” Dave says, and get up from the table. He shuffles towards the heads.
And that’s it, that’s the last we see of him. We wait a while after we realize he didn’t just go to piss. We go searching in the nightmare parking lot. I think I spot him among some glittering women, but in the circling prowl of humans swaggering I lose sight. I say nothing. I think I know what happened: Dave was so amazed to see two ass-holes—one of them really cute—standing on the freeway hitchhiking that he automatically yelled, Hey! Stop! Pick those kids up! Maybe he does have to get back to work, but the smell of burning flesh under the bright lights sucked him back in. Anyway, this is how I rationalize to Naomi our breaking our charge from the cabbie. We walk back to the bus and Naomi will only glare at me.
Back on the bus, going somewhere, Naomi asleep beside me, and now Dave’s seat is empty. This bus is cruising north through the Central Valley, mostly in the fast lane. Under the cover of darkness, upon the canvass of the glass, punctuations of light transform the value of their sources. For a moment, Sirius is brighter than the reflection of a trucker’s headlamps. The moon lingers longer than the glow of a town over which shines. I’m trying to pay attention to the way my mind wanders. Something like calm begins to settle over me.
I ask the face in the window, How is that you are alive? He blinks back at me, a startled wrinkle knurls his brow, then resides, sad and thoughtful. Between us, we don’t know the answer to that question. Does anyone? I pan across the bus, up the aisle past backs of heads. I feel available, open to chance, but I see no one walking toward me, no one ready to offer answers and advice. Just the bobbing in bus rhythm, making everything nod like a drunken uncle. I turn back to the window, to my face.
I think I hear someone saying something to me. Not from “out there,” from in here. I can’t quite make out the words. I let it go. I’m content to not have to hitch all the way to San Francisco.
All the way. That’s where I’m going. I wonder where that is.