It was early in the evening and I had been driving all day. My butt hurt, but I didn’t mind. US Route 84 stretched out in front of me, heading northwest. The sun was getting low on the horizon, turning the sky deep red. It was all I could do to keep my eyes on the road. Luckily there wasn’t much traffic.
My sunglasses had been lost in Lubbock. I’d gotten out to fill the gas tank on the Budget moving van that contained all my worldly possessions, and found that I couldn’t read the digital instructions on the pump with my aviators on. I slipped them into my shirt pocket so I could read, and forgot about them as I wiped my windows, checked the oil, and checked the tires. I got back in the truck, put the key in the ignition, threw it into drive, fumbled for my sunglasses, couldn’t find them, and heard a small crunching sound as I began to drive slowly away. I had one of those moments when you put two and two together at precisely the instant the information is no longer useful. I put the truck in park and got out.
Sure enough, there were my brand new Serengeti aviators, earpieces skewed at bizarre angles, lenses shattered into a thousand shards, twinkling back up at me, reflecting the Texas sunlight. I glanced back at the gas station’s window display of cheap plastic shades, and shook my head. I promised myself I would buy a suitable pair in Santa Fe.
It was a poor decision. If it weren’t for the occasional March clouds I would already have gone blind. So I was happy when the road swung northward, keeping the sun on my left side. Apart from the glasses, it had been a good trip. I had been proud of myself for getting all my stuff into the smallest truck the rental company offered. After 57 years a man tends to accumulate a lot of junk, mementos, luggage, baggage, furniture, and valuables. But mostly junk. If three decades of that time was spent practicing law, the price and quantity of the junk increases. Expensive junk, however, is still junk. After week upon week of sorting through every trinket, document, book, odd and end I owned, I realized there was really very little I couldn’t live without.
The books had been the worst. I agonized for days over books I had never read. They seemed to mock my intellectual laziness from high upon my shelves.
Here we are, they scoffed, symbols of the knowledge you don’t have, each one of us an implied lie to your high-brow friends. They think you’ve read the complete works of Kierkegaard! We know you can’t even pronounce his name.
Philosophy books can be so damn smug sometimes. In the end, Kierkegaard et al sold on eBay for precisely the amount I spent on gas between Knoxville and Amarillo.
On top of whittling down a four bedroom house worth of junk into 380 cubic feet of essentials, I was impressed with my own route planning skills. Various internet sources could tell me how to get from my home in Knoxville, Tennessee to Santa Fe, New Mexico by the straightest or fastest route. When I laid a map of the United States in front of me, however, it appeared there were an infinite number of routes I could take. The roads crisscrossed, overlapped, and twisted about each other. I’d taken care choosing my way. I’d seen quite a bit of countryside, eaten at restaurants both great and godawful, and passed through countless towns with amusing names. Just today, after Lubbock, I’d been through Shallowater, Sudan, Muleshoe, Progress, and Farewell.
So as the sun sank further behind mountains whose names I did not know, and I got nearer and nearer to Santa Fe, I was in a pretty good mood. Creedence Clearwater Revival was playing on the radio, and I was tapping my fingers on the steering wheel. I had a big smile on my face made larger by the fact that I knew no one could see it. I asked myself why I hadn’t done this right out of college.
That was when I first laid eyes on Reggie.
I came over a rise in the highway and there, at the bottom of the hill, was a figure walking steadily in the same direction I was going. As I approached (at the perhaps overly cautious speed of 45 miles per hour) I could see the hitchhiker was male, with a slim build. His shaggy, streaked black hair made him look like a Japanese cartoon. He wore a baggy black collared shirt, left untucked so the bottom hung down below his rear end. His faded denim pants were severely tight, the impossibly tight jeans that have been in fashion again recently. I usually associated tight jeans with tight shirts and enough gel to keep a sasquatch’s hair firmly in place, but this kid looked like he hadn’t seen shampoo in a dog’s age, let alone gel.
He had on sturdy-looking black work boots and wore a black satchel that hung at his left hip with the strap cutting across his back from his right shoulder. I couldn’t tell whether he was carrying any water or food, and I hadn’t passed a town or a stranded car for at least twenty miles. The next truck stop was at least another twenty down the road. So as I pulled even with him, I began to slow down and pull off to the side. It was probably a dumb idea. It struck me, even at the time, that it was a stupid, naïve, boneheaded idea. It also struck me that, although I’d been thinking of this kid as a hitchhiker, he didn’t have his thumb out.
In my eyes, he really was just a kid. I’d have guessed about half my age. I watched him approach in my side-view mirror and got a look at him from another angle. Under the baggy black dress shirt he wore a tight red tee-shirt with the words “Your Ad Here” in campy faux seventies letters.
He drew nearer, and I rolled down my window. He had not shaved in several days. His beard was streaked with sandy blond like his dark hair. It was coarse and wild, grown in a haphazard way that was out of sync with the rest of his appearance. His left hand kept absently rising to his cheek to scratch and stroke the intruding whiskers. His face was tanned and dirty, but youthful. His chin jutted forward slightly, and his nose protruded in such a way that he looked canine. He smiled, and for just a moment the canine illusion was complete. He looked hungry and wild. Then his smile softened, his eyes brightened, and the impression of a junkyard dog disappeared to be replaced with a trustworthy, loyal face that inspired confidence. My shoulders relaxed. I hadn’t even noticed they were tense.
“It’s a long way to the next town,” I said. “Do you need a ride?”
“I am out of water,” he said. He scratched his face and looked up and down the road. “Promise you’re not a psycho?”
“I promise,” I said, laughing uncomfortably. “Come on around,” I motioned to the other side of the truck. “I’m going as far as Santa Rosa tonight. On my way to Santa Fe.”
He thanked me, and walked around in front of the truck to hop up into the passenger seat. He was not tall, perhaps an inch or three shorter than me, even in his big boots. He appeared thin, but wiry. He gripped the handle above the door on the passenger side. I noted that the tendons were drawn tight across his hands, and his fingernails were dirty, rather long for a man’s, and pointed slightly. I figured he picked guitar.
We drove in silence for an uncomfortable while. My mind raced through all the usual thoughts that accompany the first silence after picking up a strange hitchhiker in a desert wasteland.
Does he really think I’m a psycho? Why doesn’t he think I’m a psycho? What if he’s a psycho? God, this is stupid. He doesn’t seem like a psycho. I’ve been quiet for a long time. Oh God, he’s going to think I’m one of those creepy perverts who picks up kids on the highway. What if he has a gun? This was a really, really stupid idea. I hope he’s not a psycho. I hope he doesn’t think I’m a psycho.
“Sorry about calling you a psycho,” the kid said. “I hope it didn’t make you self conscious or anything. Sometimes my sense of humor’s a little off.”
“Oh,” I forced a chuckle. “I got it. I was just wondering how you knew I wasn’t one. I guess it was pretty weird of me to pull over. You weren’t even really hitching.”
“I’ve known enough psychos to know the difference,” he smiled.
“You can really tell by looking?”
“Well, by observing. Anyway, you haven’t reached the ‘cut off your own ear’ phase yet.”
“You’re an artist, right?”
“How’d you know?”
“When I see a single, middle aged ex-attorney moving across the country to a city that’s known around the nation for its artistic community, I think he must be an artist. That, and there’s an easel shoved behind my seat, brushes tucked into the bag next to yours, and paint on your jeans.”
“Ah” I said. I was a little shaken that this kid had been able to read my life so clearly.
“Anyway,” the kid continued, “that was supposed to be kind of a Van Gogh joke earlier, about the ear.” He pawed the side of his head.
“Oh! I see.”
“Exactly,” he said. “I’m a little off.”
“It’s no big deal. I could have been quicker on the uptake.”
We rode on in silence for a little ways.
“Wait. How did you know I was single? I’m wearing a wedding ring.”
“You’re a widower, right?”
“Now just a minute!” I felt violated. Carla’s death a year and a half ago had shaken me to my foundations. She was the smartest, most independent, most beautiful woman I’d ever known. For over three decades of marriage, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. Since her death, along with that of our daughter Robin, I had never ceased to wonder how my luck had run out all at once. This move across five states was, at least in part, meant to get me away from the old memories. The first step of that was to get away from all the neighbors, coworkers, friends, and relatives who were constantly cocking their heads to one side and asking sympathetically how I was doing. “How did you—”
“You’re in your mid fifties,” the kid said. “You’re moving across country, to Santa Fe. Your truck’s not big enough for a family-sized place, and you’re traveling alone. You’re clearly not moving a family. You’ve got your wedding ring on, like you said, so you’re not divorced. But you are cutting ties.”
“And the fact that I’m an ex-attorney?” This kid was fascinating, I’d give him that. Freaky, too.
“This box.” He gestured to one of the boxes that sat on the floor in the wide space between our seats. “It’s so full of law books it won’t close, but it’s labeled ‘For Storage,’ so you’re not going back to your old profession.”
“Wow. You the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes?”
“There’s no such thing.” He smiled. “It’s just a thing I do. There’s really no trick to it. Anyway,” he reached across the cab, over my boxes, and offered his hand to me. “I’m Reggie.”
“Sam,” I said. I looked at Reggie’s smile, and felt my own take shape. I took his hand and shook it.
“Sorry if I hit a little close to home, Sam. Thanks for the ride. I promise I’m not a psycho, either.”
I laughed a little. Soon we were comparing musical tastes. I had expected him to go on and on about bands I’d never heard of, but instead he mentioned some of my favorites: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Booker T. & the MGs, the Beatles, the Who, and Warren Zevon, a favorite from my law school days.
“I get kind of sick hearing his big hits,” Reggie admitted, “but some of the other stuff, like I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, and Veracruz? Excellent stuff.”
“Yes, I know exactly what you mean.” I found out later I was wrong on this point.