Panting and slobber filled the air early morning. As Pam stretched her hind legs and limbered up, the rest of the crew tried to squeeze out a few last minutes of sleep, before giving into the blistering heat. I lay there half-zonked pulling my sleeping bag over my head to savor my last minutes of comfort while the others started to pack up. Todd pulled his tent stakes out of the ground, and broke down his tent poles, while Doug knelt on the ground cocooning his bedroll. His grunting forced his bottom lip to curl out as he wrestled to quickly bungee it to his pack. I shook my head holding back laughter, squinting into the sinister sky, rubbing my eyes one last time. I did not know who looked goofier, him working over an inanimate object like an oaf or his dog drooling with her red, fruit roll-up tongue that dangled between her toothless canal.
“How’d you hold up last night Todd,” I muttered tilting my head back towards him.
“Meh…not too shabby…was fuckin’ cold last night though bro, but thanks for the tent. It helped a lot since I only got this one blanket…still pissed those fuckers stranded me and took everythin’,” ranted Todd in a heated voice.
“Eh…don’t thank me bud…Doug gave me the tent yesterday outside the Love’s. Figured I could use it, but you needed it more…so it’s all good.”
“Well, thanks bro…preciate it.”
Doug waddled off on the roadway with Pam trotting off behind him. He always walked awkwardly like he needed to shit pulling up his worn baggy cargo pants after every few scuffs, from his shoes gripping the pavement. The road swallowed him up, spit him out, chewed him a bit and slurped any leftovers off of the ground. He looked old for a middle-aged man and judging from his stories the road warped his mind a bit, but he maintained his heart and principals, sharing amongst the group, much like the rest of us. For that, I respected him, despite really despising his annoying presence and wanting to gouge my ears out every time he uttered the words, “Kicked in the face by a moose…” None of us wanted to loiter out front of the gas station 19 miles from Van Horn, TX, but we all ended up there for various reasons, so we dealt with it.
Shortly after Doug crossed the overpass and slumped up against the front of the store, flying his Eastbound sign, we all shacked up outside, looking like a bunch of bums. I sat there as the youngest in my late twenties, Brian in his early thirties and the other two in their late 40’s and early 50’s. We epitomized the word misfit to every mannerism. But, each one of us maintained our own uniqueness in how we presented ourselves and held our cardboard signs.
For instance, Todd gripped his sign firmly in his hands and moved it in the direction of approaching customers, like they did not read it the first time they lay their eyes on it. With a smug face, he always said, “Hellllo there…how ya guys doin’ today…fine day outside today isn’t it…have a good one.” Sometimes he stood up and slowly paced the sidewalk, walking towards them, wiping the sweat from his brow. Other times he sat down crouched, his back against the wall, his gray t-shirt drenched in a pool of sweat under his armpits and near the collar. He usually winced in pain, either due to the steamrolling heat, or his thirst for any food beyond a condiments packet. On his sign scrawled verbatim what Brian’s sign read the day previous, but a more simplified version. It read, “EAST” in bold black letters, with a small caption of, “Anything helps…GOD BLESS.”
Most of the people in Texas scorned, rolling their eyes, and shuffling past all of us without the slightest feeling of empathy. But, with limited choices, we kept our spirits as high as possible, and some of us at least tried to maintain our dignity.
Then, there sat Doug by the far end of the store. He huddled up by the only trashcan in walking distance to the front entrance, hoping to stir up a quick conversation with any passerby. He hunched over with his back curved against the wall in a scoliosis-manner, smiling through jagged pits of decayed teeth. His glasses gave him a googly-eyed look making him rather unapproachable and scary-looking, but his dog always eased him into conversation with his typical ice-breaker. Pam lay there sprawled out along the cool concrete sidewalk, her tongue slung out of her mouth like a red carpet, drooling profusely. Doug leaned his sign against the wall which simply read, “EAST” and just waited to interact with any person within eye-contact. He twiddled his thumbs and at the soonest glance he always stuttered, “Hiii…” Sometimes people sped by with a slight head-nod and muttered nothing. Other times they stopped, completely exasperated by the dog and her sunglasses and as soon as a word rolled off their tongue of any vernacular, English, Spanish, it did not matter. Off Doug yammered onto his story.
“Ohhh how cute…she has glasses,” they’d say with a slight sparkle in their faces.
And there went Doug again runnin’ his mouth with his usual antics, a real raconteur.
“Well ya see…she has the glasses for a reason…see when she was young she was kicked in the face by a moose…almost lost her…I made em myself from supplies at the Home Depot. See we’re from North Pole, Alaska,” he’d mumble, fixing the bridge of his glasses with his index finger as he spoke in a grungy voice.
Then Todd would stare over at me; I’d stare back; we’d both stare at Brian, and we’d hold in bits of laughter in our core almost like holding back an unexpected cough in the pit of your chest.
Next lay Brian. He spread out along the side of the building near where the truckers parked. With his small camo tactical bag stuffed under his head, he basked in the shade away from the flood of people by the pumps and the front entrance. He took a more lackadaisical approach to flyin’ a sign, the patient, nonchalant route. He did not mollify people with his words or swindle them. Nope. Brian pulled the hood to his jacket over his face and yanked it shut over his eyes, taking a snooze as the shadows slowly crept away with the passing day. He tilted his sign against the wall, placing it underneath his elevated concrete stoop, and merely waited for people to come to him. Most of the time truckers drifted over, maybe to see if he was alive, but the conversations never lasted too long. He never asked for a ride or money, just simply smooth-talked them, collecting their full attention, until they asked if he needed anything.
“Heya there bud…you ok? Lookin’ er pretty rough lyin’ there n shit. Fuck u doin’ out here anyways…you need anythin,” said a trucker heading westbound.
“Got stuck here a few days ago…lost my ride at the checkpoint. Just tryin’ to make it east, hopin’ to hitch a ride with someone goin’ that way. That’s all really,” shrugged Brian.
“Sorry bud, I’d help ya out, but been haulin’ ass west all mornin’. You must be fuckin’ hungry or thirsty or somethin’ layin’ out here in this heat for fucks sake. Why you in a fuckin’ hoody and pants? Lemme get ya somethin’ bud.”
“Thanks dude, anything helps…appreciate it…you have no idea.”
Last, there was I, who sat Indian-style between Todd and Doug with my sign stuck to the window of the store. It read, “EAST,” in as big of letters as I could fit on my piece of cardboard. I did not crack spange as Todd started to do, harassing the customers for spare change to buy food. I also did not embark on fairy-tales of magical moose stories where little dogs survived the thrust of their hooves. Instead I sat there making eye-contact with the customers I thought might extend their sympathies to my situation. Often I kept strong posture, maintaining a bit of sadness in my eyes to look desperate, but not too desperate, and with a slight head-nod I sounded off a, “Hello there sir or ma’am,” in a friendly voice. People remained courteous, but rarely extended any offers for rides, except a few select hippies, but they all drove westbound for a festival.
“Man…dooooood…no waaaayyyy…all you guys are hitchin’ outta here? Doooood…you guys know where we can get any buds at maaaaan? We’re goin’ to this festival in Cali and all eight of us ran outta ganja bro. We’re fuckin’ desperate…how am I gonna make the drive there sober maaannn? Shit dooood…if we were headin’ east, we’d grab all of ya…sorry doood.”
“Uhhh…there’s a border patrol checkpoint like 20ish miles down the road dude. Probably don’t wanna be drivin’ with any type of fuckin’ drugs on you unless ya wanna end up in jail. So, I’d say hold off on the weed til you pass it,” I pontificated in a gruff tone.
“Thaaanks dooood…kinda forgot how close we were to the border ya know…bein stoned and all. Safe travels brothers.”
Our heads all shifted back-and-forth blinking furiously at each other in stupefaction.
“Did they really think they’d make it past the border without getting searched,” I chuckled?
“Dunno…aside from the dirty dreads, stench o weed, and tye-dyed Grateful Dead T-shirts…they may of had a chance…hahahah,” guffawed Todd.
The rest of the day felt like a time-lapse of the same mannerisms and rejections. Not one person headed eastbound and if they did they never offered one of us a ride. But, as the sun whimpered off behind the clouds and the wind gusted, unstinting individuals began to enter and exit the gas station. A certain shade of green began to filter the air, exchanging the hands of Texans and entering our pockets for food, smokes and beer. We all chipped in a bit and helped out the group, treating it like an anarchist commune. Doug’s profligacy left him broke again, spending his $200 in one-day. He bought wads of beef jerky, dog food, multiple cans of Mountain Dew, an uncanny surplus of cigarettes and other oddball items, like truck-stop t-shirts, and hats. But, he did extend his food, smokes and beverages to the rest of us, along with buying Todd a blanket for the chilly nights that lay ahead. We divvied up our bills amongst the group and each bought smokes and steelies.
As the sky turned to lavender we all sipped our Black Berry steelies mesmerized by her imminent splendor sifting through the colors of the rainbow. A pickup truck pulled up to the gas pump and eight Mexican men jumped out, dropping empty Corona cans and limes out of the side door of the vehicle. They laughed and spoke quickly in Spanglish fumbling to pick up the empties and throw them in the garbage bin. A select few stared into our glazed eyes as we lounged out front of the store in a drunken stupor. They stumbled back to their vehicle and the one held a “Hot n’ Ready” pizza from Grotto’s. A solemn look of understanding pierced their eyes. They understood.
“Hola, te gusta la pizza,” the man said tipping his sombrero with a hand out towards us, gifting us a box of nearly full pepperoni pizza?
“Graciaaas hombre, graciaaaas,” I cheered in a chipper slurring voice of gratitude.
We cheered our malt beverages and passed around the box, biting into the freshly cooked pizza, gulping it down as it singed the tips of our tongues with melted cheese. Each morsel tasted stupendous, like the best pie ever made, but only because of our hunger. Living on gas station food for multiple days did not really give us fuel, not that pizza was any more nutritious, but it sure felt filling, piling into our empty stomachs. Every last crumb, piece of crust, bits of cheese and pepperoni crunched in our mouths leaving the box empty with a circle of only pizza grease left behind.
I finished my steelie, and even with a plump gut, I felt a little woozy from the alcohol, but I stopped at the last drop. Overindulgence in a new group of people never appealed to me. Besides I overheard Doug rambling on about catchin’ out on a train…
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You are purchasing the Part I series of short stories from The Misfit 4, which includes the following titles, “The Sunset Line Meets Border Patrol,“ “Kicked in the Face By a Moose,“ “8 Thumbs and a Dog Goin’ East,“ and “Bippin’ It with the Misfit 4,“ . It consists of a 46-page PDF of my wanderings in Van Horn, TX with four other misfit travelers in the winter of 2017 where we all got stuck hitchhiking out of the same gas station all going east.