A man with a creepy Will Rogers smile and eyes like a snake ready to eat the eggs from the nest of some absent mother duck stared at me from the opposite bank of seats. His hair could have been finger-painted on his scalp by a slow-learning kindergartner. His broad torso was draped in a Steelers jersey.
A moment passed before I registered the awkward rising and lowering of his shoulder. Yet another moment before I saw that the hand at the other end of that arm was buried beneath the fly of his Levi’s. This was something like a first date in the eighteen-wheel-iverse—what I’d taken to calling the world I’d been living in for the past couple of months.
I stood, feigned disinterest with a wide yawn, grabbed Miles’s leash, and walked away from the rest stop. I think I was outside of Shreveport, Louisiana. Or, I know I was, because I had asked her to marry me the night before and woken up alone with Miles the beagle. At least I think that’s how it happened.
In the woods behind the truck stop, counting on the cowardly Miles to keep us safe, I’d said something like, “If we get married we can get loans and go to school.” We were still too young to get loans on our own, but being married solved that problem. Or so we’d been told.
Neither of us spoke for a while.
“You don’t mean like married-married?”
“Married is married, no?”
“No. Married-married is getting love-forever-married, which is different than getting married-for-loans-married.”
“Both a little, I guess.” I was thinking married-married, but afraid of saying something ridiculous.
“Hmmm… I don’t think I want to be married-married, but, maybe for the loans.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted a loan-wife, but I’d have settled for anything that ended in ‘yes’. Plus, there was a part of me that thought that the fire-breathing demon who had been close on our tail since we left Chicago could be deferred, like student loans, during the course of an education, so starting school had become a priority born of paranoia.
It didn’t really matter, though, because in the morning it was just me, Miles the beagle, and that uncomfortable presence, like an encroaching humidity, that stayed perfectly outside the edge of my peripheral vision, making me swing my gaze unpredictably in efforts to catch him laughing.
We headed for the parking lot breathing in the familiar stench that lingers near highways. There was a little bridge along the way. Miles was afraid of bridges, so I picked him up and carried him. The parking lot was full of those strange squiggles that distort the view around gas pumps.
I looked around the lot for someone that might give me a ride. The man that had been touching himself passed by. I averted my gaze as he locked his on me with no sign of shame. I walked up to a trucker, a small man in a Cubs hat, which would always make me feel safer than a bulky body in a Steelers jersey—because for whatever reason psychopaths can’t love losers—and began to ask, but he shook his head before I said a word. I headed back across the lot.
The attendant was about my age. He came outside and offered me a cigarette.
“No, thanks,” I said.
“You cain’t beg rides out here, y’know.”
Beg. It was the right word, which is why it hit so hard.
He handed me a piece of cardboard and a marker.
“Jus’ write down which way yer head’n and sit out front here. I can ‘gnore you if y’ain’t hassl’n cus’mers.”
“Thanks,” I said. I wrote East on the cardboard and sat on the curb.
I wanna say he spit a wad of tobacco out as he put the cigarette in, but maybe not.
It wasn’t long before a woman in an open flannel, jean shorts, and unlaced Doc Martins approached. “How far are you going?” she asked.
“Georgia, eventually,” I answered.
“I can get you a little ways,” she responded in an unrefined Southern.
She drove a Wagoneer. The old Jeep with wooden side paneling. It was clear from the inside that she loved Sam’s Club, and hated to throw things away. Tanya Tucker was on the radio. She didn’t sing along, but mouthed all the words.
“I sure as hell hope he don’t catch up with us,” she said to me as if I might have some idea who he was. Did she know the Demon? Was she running from him too?
“Who?” I asked, but then thought it better to express solidarity. “Me too.” It did matter in point of fact. Was he a violent retiree who wanted to exact vengeance on some social security phone bank worker? A renegade lotto employee who was tracking down a recent winner to Robin Hood her booty? Her father, a wealthy Hollywood deadbeat, who wanted to make good with his estranged daughter? A jilted lover? It was probably a jilted lover. “Who is he?”
“My ex. A marine. Been in San Diego near a year and he comes back all ‘you cain’t jus’ up’n decide it’s over without discuss’n it some.’ And I’m like, ‘yes I cain. I have every right in the world to end this here relationship when and where I damn well choose.’ Then he’s all like ‘where the hell’s my baby’, and he got piiiiiisssssed when I wouldn’t tell ’em.”
It’s always a jilted lover.
So began my long vigil over the rearview mirror where clouds like dirty cotton endlessly faded into disappearing countryside. I thought, briefly, that I caught a glimpse of the demon surfing the grim sky, tail flapping in his wake.
“That’s why I picked you up. Thought a man might help keep me safe.”
No one had ever called me a man before. I wished she hadn’t chosen just then to start.
“I love the rain,” she said. It tinned against the Wagoneer’s hood like God had spilled a bowl of BBs. “You do mushrooms?” she asked.
“Not all the time.”
“Course not all the time, dummy, no one does ’em all the time.”
“They pop up after it rains. When morning comes if we see a field with cows we ought to stop an’ find some.” She smiled, proud. “The purple ones with the little white circles.” Pride melted into confusion. “Or is it the white ones with purple circles? I cain’t never remember which of ’ems poisnous, but I’m still here, so I must figure it out.”
I glanced back into the mirror again. Every car was suspect. For the first time in a few hours I was glad I wouldn’t be getting married… going to college… even if that meant the beast was getting closer.