When I first stepped out of the police truck my wrists pained from the shackles jamming into my bones. Red grooves indented my skin as the officer twisted the key, removing the metal bracelets. He pointed down the road.
“County line is here kid…this is as far as we can take ya…four miles down there’s a gas station…shouldn’t be too bad a walk.” He paused and hocked up a wad. Ptui! His spit ricocheted off the ground as I held back scorn and disgust.
I hoisted myself up in the bed of the truck, grabbing my pack, and shucking it over the tailgate.
“Thanks for the lift sir,” I spoke softly nodding my head unenthusiastically.
He spat one last time and slammed the door, speeding off down the I-10, as clouds of dust spawned from the screeching rubber. I walked feebly down the shoulder of the highway, dreading the thought of hitchhiking through the desert, not a cloud in the sky to provide relief from the piercing sun.
Those four miles touched eternity as I hiked through the gates of hell, sweating profusely from the blaze grinning down on me. My face and forearms shined a rosy red as I finally doddered into the Love’s gas station. The air condition blasted chilling my skin, spreading goosebumps and standing my hair on its end. People stared at my ragged clothes, dirt, grime, and sweat, but I just stood there, sipping a cold drink, silent to their judgment.
I drifted from my oasis, back to the storefront, hoping to fly a sign for a ride to Pecos. An old crusty tramp came into view, crouched in the corner next to his filthy external-frame backpack and goofy dog. His back lay against the brick wall salvaging the only shade. A Veteran’s cap covered his greasy tendrils of gray hair. He poked the frame of his glasses to keep them from sliding down the brim of his nose. Suddenly, his face danced to a smile of rotten, smashed-in front teeth, grueling yellow and pitted black. He hunched over, reaching out to shake my hand. The crevices of his fingers smeared black with grease and dirt crammed under his fingernails.
“Name’s Douglass Brown, but ya can call me Doug…this hur is mah dog…her name’s Pam…she was kicked in the face by a Moose. We’re from North Pole, Alaska…lived there mah whole life.”
The desert heat sedated my brain, delaying its thoughts slightly, as I looked over at his dog, registering how ridiculous she looked. Her fur gleaned a goldish-brown with slobber drooling out of her mouth as if she swallowed a tennis shoe with the laces dangling side-to-side. Black safety glasses covered her eyes wrapped around her skull by a DIY elastic band.
I held back laughter at the sight. “What’s with her sunglasses, Doug,” I snickered?
“I told YOU ALREADY…she was kicked in the face by a MOOSE!”
I squinted, holding back sarcasm and giggles. “Kicked in the face by a moose…pfff…yeah fuckin’ right,” I thought.
I sat down on the smoldering sidewalk, propping my pack against the wall, as I melted in the Texan sun. People walked by us, some unaware of our existence, others avoiding eye contact or the sidewalk altogether, treating us like pariahs. I did not care much. I understood as I looked down at my proletarian hands covered in tones of dirt. I just wanted to go anywhere but here, venture 70 miles north to Pecos, and catch out, but that proved harder than I expected.
I pulled out my black marker and bubbled in the letters, “PECOS” on cardboard, leaning it against the wall near my pack. Not even two minutes passed before a Love’s employee scampered outside in a hissy fit.
“Sir, you can’t beg outside of the store or we’ll call the police,” she recited the lines as if they came straight from the Love’s employee handbook.
I chuckled, “It says Pecos…I’m not begging, just merely stating where I need to go.” I fumed from the lips.
“It doesn’t matter. You can either remove your sign or we will have you arrested.”
I flipped the sign over and slid it underneath my pack, scowling at her as she shuffled away through the swing doors. Doug jabbered on with spit projecting from his mouth.
“Did the same thing to me yesterday, but I was askin’ for rides. Then I tried holdin’ my sign up there on the I-10 ramp and a police officer cuffed me on the spot. Arrested me…said hitchhiking was illegal and they don’t wan us round these parts. Brought me an my dog in the cell…cause she’s a service dog. Wasn’t so bad, got food and a bed to sleep in.”
“Well, fuck this man…how the hell are we supposed to get outta here? Never heard of a truck stop not lettin’ you hitch rides…I can understand cuz of panhandlin’ but were not doin’ that. Where’s the next truck stop?”
“Got this hur handy book o’ truck stops…looks to be 19 miles north of hur.”
“Aight, well I’m too tired to truck it up there in this heat…maybe tomorrow if we don’t get outta here. So what brings you here anyway?”
“We got stuck here comin’ from North Pole, Alaska…been hitchin’ our way down cross the country to get to the Carolinas to see my mah…she’s not doin’ too well…haven’t seen her in 10 years. Figured me an Pam would go see her before she’s gone…”
“Last year me and pam rode a bicycle cross the country from Massachusetts to Alaska raisin’ awareness for Veterans. I did 12 years in the air force as a helicopter pilot.”
“You served in Nam then?”
“Nah, not old enough to serve in Nam…only 55.”
“Oh, well your cap says Vietnam War Veteran…so I just assumed you served there.”
“Nah, just for when I’m flyin’ signs or spangin’ to get money. Been fightin’ with the government tryin’ to get back the money they owe me from my medical discharge…that’s why muh teeth er all fucked up.”
“Shit man…that sucks…so you live in Alaska?”
He pulled out a thick wallet stashed with multiple forms of identification and business cards and flashed me his Alaskan ID.
“See there…NORTH POLE, AK…that’s where I’m from…born n raised…my dad built a six bedroom cabin thinkin’ he’d have other kids, but I’m the only one…I was also on Deadliest Catch Season three…”
An extravagant line of stories echoed from his foul-smelling mouth as I listened to some truth mixed with utter bullshit. The bike tour held true, so maybe he premiered on Deadliest Catch. I had no idea, but his dog gettin’ kicked in the face by a moose? Come on, no fuckin’ way I believed that.
The sky burst into a frenzy of reds and oranges clashing with vibrant yellows, and my feelings of hopelessness vanished with the explosion of lava across the sky. I saw firsthand how the railway nearby received its name, The Sunset Line. Just before the sky dimmed her lights, another traveler set foot in our group of misfits, loitering in front of the Love’s.
He staggered onto the sidewalk drenched in perspiration holding a tiny school backpack with only water, and a change of clothes. He stretched out along the ground, his holey jeans exposing his sunburnt skin to the brisk whirs of wind. His eyes drooped from lack-of-sleep and persistent walking as sweat dribbled down his worn exhausted face meandering through the gray stubbles of beard. He looked rough even compared to Doug. His heavy breathing dissipated after several minutes and he finally spoke.
“Fuck…I just walked from fuckin’ El Paso to here…without one fuckin’ ride,” roared Todd with a disdain about his voice.
“Damn dude, why didn’t you try to hitchhike?” I exclaimed.
“I figured someone would just pick me up if they seen me walkin’ down the I-10…ya know? Seems like the decent thing to do, specially considerin’ my shit got jacked in El Paso…hit the john and my ride drove off. Paid em 300 dollahs to take me to Corpus Christi, bro. 300 fuckin’ dollahs…the last of my money. I been livin’ off ketchup and sugar packets. Fuckin’ pricks…So how long you’s guys been here?”
“Two days for him, a day for me…doesn’t look like we’re gonna get outta here especially with three people tryin’ to hitch east…I’m hittin’ up the next truck stop tomorrow…”
“Dunno if Pam and I can make that walk…19 miles is a long way…might try the gas station down the next exit instead. Least we all got a place to sleep tonight. That abandoned restaurant behind the Love’s, the officer said they won’t bother us there. Bout to head over there soon…Pam and I are tired, n’ if ya need to charge yer phone…Wendy’s in there don’t care if you use the outlets.”
Todd glanced over at Doug and smiled. “What’s with the sunglasses on your dog?”
And Doug’s mantra continued like a poem of pitiful embrace.