(Chapter 4 of Novel: Road Trip)
Dillon slid himself casually into the front seat like he’d done this a thousand times before after putting his duffle bag and guitar in the back. He put his hat in his lap and reached up and slid his hand over his pony tail, pulling a yellow rubber band off, then pulling his hair together close to the back of his head. With one hand he replaced the rubber band with the other, twisting it on as he pulled his hair through. He wore cut off jeans and a faded black button-up shirt that fit loose, like he had lost weight. It was old, but not dirty. In fact, I was caught by how clean he was, opposite of my typical image of a hitchhiker. I’d given a lift to people before, but usually for a few miles from one end of the town to the other. One time I’d picked this guy up when I was running across town. He said he’d give me five dollars to drive him to the mall, so I figured since I was going that way I might as well make some cash. He had reeked so unbelievably I about puked. I stopped and told him to get out, making an excuse like I had somewhere else to be. Dillon seemed pretty clean-cut really, even though he was certainly unconventional in dress and hairstyle. The only dirty part seemed to be his feet.
“No shoes?” I pointed to his feet.
“Oh.” He seemed surprised as if he’d forgotten he wasn’t wearing any. “Back there, “ he thumbed to the back. On hot days like this, I’d just rather not wear ‘em.” I wondered how he didn’t sear the bottoms of his feet on the pavement. I just nodded as if I understood.
“Going to California, huh?”
How did he know that? I must of looked surprised because he said, “Relax, I just overheard you on the phone back there.” He laughed casually.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I suppose about as far as you’ll have me. I’ve been out there a couple times. Beautiful state, man. Just beautiful.” He smiled and gazed off like he was momentarily making a mental visit there. He turned to me, “You?”
“Nope. Actually, I’m really headed to Colorado.”
“Oh, yeah!” He exclaimed like it was a hot chick or something. He looked sideways at me with one eyebrow turned up. “Been there?”
“Nope. First time.” I felt a bit embarrassed. The furthest I’ve been in my twenty years was right here on this stretch of highway.
“Colorado’s a beautiful, old & mean lady. You can settle in for a while, she’ll take care of ya, but she can beat you down too.” He told me as if he was talking about his old landlady. I didn’t quite know what to make of him.
“I’m from Ohio. This is really my first trip out here, and let me tell you I’m glad to be gone.”
“Don’t knock, Ohio. She ain’t no Colorado, but she’s gotta gentle charm to her.” I was starting to see a theme here. Every state’s been a she for this dude.
“Oh, yeah, how’s that?” I had to ask, curious. I never noticed, charm, gentle or otherwise.
“Most people think fields of corn, Cleveland, steel industry. But she was also the ‘ol stomping grounds of the mound-builder indians. They had whole civilizations before Cleveland ever thought of being a city. Plus, you’ve got your Appalacian hills. And beautiful trees, lots of ‘em, like here.”
“Damn, you been to every state?”
“Never been to Georgia. Or Florida.”
“I’ve been there,” I said proudly, not sure why.
“What’she’like?” he slurred into one word.
“She? Never noticed her breasts!” I laughed to myself. I thought it was clever. Dillon didn’t laugh.
“No, man, it’s not the body, but the soul. Every place’s gotta soul.”
“And states are female?” I looked at him credulously.
“Some are, some aren’t”
“Well, how do you know which? There a big sign or something I’ve been missing all these years?” Attempting another joke. His face didn’t change and with all seriousness he said, “You feel the soul. You sit back, watch, listen, and feel.” And as he said each word slowly, he clasped his hand together behind his head and slid down the seat. He turned and grinned my way.
“Now Florida’s male as far as I can tell.”
“Why’s that?” I said.
“You’ve got lots o’ sun, lot’s of sky, plenty of…” he paused, then looked at me to see if I was buying this. “Well, plus the panhandle juts out like a giant penis right!” he was grinning ferociously. We both laughed.
“Hey, like I said, you gotta be there to feel it.”
By now it was pitch black out but for the headlights looming ahead. This stretch of Kentucky was quite a bit flatter than where I’d just come from.
“So who is she?” Dillon asked.
“Who? Oh, on the phone? Just a girl I grew up with.”
“She have a name?” Man, this guy asked a lot of questions.
“Pretty name. What’s her story?”
“Don’t know. I mean, I haven’t seen her in 5 years or so.”
“Whew! She must be burning a hole in your heart to be driving 1000 miles to see here.”
I shot a nasty look. “Look, man, we’re just friends. We were, I mean. We never went out or anything. I told you, we grew up together.” Dillon didn’t say anything after that for a while, which was all right with me. I began to wonder why I was traveling so far to see her. I just wanted to see her, that’s all. A link with the past. When we were younger we’d talk about everything. Angela was cool and I can’t imagine her being any different now. She’d sent her senior photos with a short letter complaining about her boyfriend at the time and saying she wished she could just start college immediately and not put up with the whole high school thing for another year. I have to admit, she looked great in that picture. Short brown hair, straight, real naturally and healthy looking. She smiled like she meant it, something rare in those school pictures.
I looked at Dillon, “How come you’re out here hitching? At least I’ve got somewhere to go.”
“You sound defensive.”
“What the hell? What’s your problem man?”
“Nothing. I’m just saying you sound defensive. I ain’t attackin’ ya, just trying to converse.”
“Well, I’m done conversing.” I flipped on the radio. This guy’s really getting under my skin. “Country. Shit.”
“Hey country’s cool. Sometimes.”
I shot him a warning look and hit the search button. “…this’ll be the day, eh, eh, that I die.”
“Oldies, Damn it. I swear to God this state’s got the worst music.”
“Oldies are cool.”
“Everything is cool with you. What’s your problem?” I realized as soon as it came out I sounded like a jackass. “I mean, you’ve gotta have taste, standards, ya know.”
“Sure. I just try to be flexible. Try to find the soul in each song.”
“Soul, again. I might as well be listening to Mr. Evangelist again.”
“Never mind.” I said. Actually I was rather glad it wasn’t all church and sermons on tonight.
“Every song is what it is.” Dillon offered.
“What’s that supposed to mean? Of course, it’s what it is. Everything is what it is. Doesn’t mean I’ve gotta like it.”
“Absolutely. Everything is.”
“Everything is what?”
“What it is. That’s what you said.”
This is ridiculous. “You must have smoked a lot of shit in your day, man. I also said, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.” I couldn’t believe this guy. “You think you’re really deep with all that Zen crap or whatever you call it, don’t you.”
“It is what it is.” He grinned.
“Screw it! No wonder you’re not out to see a girl. I don’t know a whole hella of a lot, but I know a girl will put up with that shit for about 60 seconds, then she’s out of there.” I saw the sign for the bridge crossing the Ohio River over into Illinois and was relieved. One state down, three to go.
“My wife died,” Dillon said calmly, matter-of-factly. I didn’t say anything. What was I supposed to say?
“She was my girl. You’re right, though. Women don’t put up with shit for very long. Katrina was her name. I’ve never seen a girl like her since.” He fiddled with his hat in his lap, pressing the rim together with his fingertips. “Cancer ate her up. Then it ate me up, you know. That was 4 years ago. He turned to look at me. His eyes were warm, steel blue-grey. I hadn’t really noticed them before now.
He continued. “Metaphorically I mean. That’s when I started traveling. We had been places before, Kat and I. Had good times. But after she died I just went and soaked up places.”
I looked at him briefly, trying to not show I was uncomfortable with his talking about his wife dying. “Hit all the states, huh?”
“States, Mexico, Europe, Japan.” He rattled off like he was making a grocery list.
“Damn, how’d you afford all that?”
“But it was India that spun my head and kicked my ass.” He didn’t seem to register my question.
“India? Why India?”
“I took what I had in savings and sold my car and headed to Europe. I’d been to London, Amsterdam, Stonehenge, Madrid, Venice, killer time in Zurich, all over. Last stop was Germany and that was it, I was coming home. Then, Bam! I met this Australian guy named Kelly!” Dillon lit up and slammed his two hands together, then continued. “This guy, quite a character, had been traveling for 4 years straight. He said he’d worked for six months then travel for months, wherever he wanted to go. The guy would carry a pack on his back and on his chest. Crazy. He’d been all over and seemed a carefree as can be. The thought had never occurred to me before then. I figured my trip to Europe was it, a once-in-life-time opportunity. Kelly had just been through N. Africa and Israel and before that Sri Lanka, Thailand, and then…” he paused dramatically and looked straight at me, “India!”
“He told me about the Himalayas and monkeys and peacocks and cows. But he wasn’t bullshitting me either. He told me about the poverty and crowds and scams. He was very cool and honest. I knew then I wasn’t done. But what was I supposed to do?” He looked at me as if I knew the answer. “I was supposed to fly out of Zurich in a week and I was down to $100 or so. He suggested I stay with a family and work a bit. He’d done it in Ireland a few years ago. But Irish is one thing, German’s another. I didn’t know Deutsch from Douche. He said it shouldn’t matter, I’d get on somewhere. So to make a long story short I got set up with a local family in Bonn via the hostel manager. Nicest family ever…dad was a state representative, mother was a housewife, with a couple typical grade schulers. I scrubbed dishes and cleaned at a bakery right down town for two months and learned a little German in the process. Transferred my plane tickets and whammo! Headed to Delhi.”
After telling me about Delhi traffic, wild-eyed sadhus, temples, monkeys, and holy cows, he said, “…but it wasn’t until I was on that little boat watching the countless bodies burn on the cremation ghats that I understood death, or at least as much as man can. I can’t explain it, but everything I’d held onto, everything negative, every guilty bone, every sad bone, I just dumped right there, on the banks of the Ganges.” He sighed a pensive sigh.
“Heavy stuff,” I managed to say.
“That’s the whole thing though. I could move on. Sure I miss her like hell, but I’ve made peace with it.”
Dillon couldn’t tell, but my eyes were already tearing up. Don’t ask why. I’m glad it was dark in there. My body felt heavy and my heart large in my chest, like it was expanding. My thoughts raced with a thousand images and questions, stumbling over one another. Olivia with that chump, laughing and eating home-made tortillas. Danny falling over the table with that goofy, surprised look on his face. Olivia’s voice screaming at me like she did a thousand times before that night. Grandma’s limp head and old grey shoes. My boss’s idiot expression when I told him he could fuck my dog. I don’t know why I did it, I just couldn’t help it. Did I take her for granted? Did I force her into it? Fuck it, it doesn’t matter now, I won’t ever see her again.
Then the past flooded in. My sisters’ expression of horror and betrayal when I told them about dad turning the car around to go get my skateboard. The front end of the rig that smashed into us. The nurse in the hospital when I woke up. I thought about the accident. I knew I hadn’t made peace with it. But how do you make peace with something like that. I can’t change it. I’m the one who made us turn around and nobody can change that.
I didn’t tell Dillon any of this.
“Hey, man, at least your girl didn’t cheat on you.” As if it was some sort of consolation. I didn’t know where that came from. “Sorry, man, I didn’t mean anything.” I added immediately.
“You have a girlfriend?” he asked.
“Had.” I could barely believe the words out of my own mouth.
Dillon must have sensed my nervousness about it and didn’t press. We didn’t say anything for miles. The dependable, steady purr of the engine put us both in a road-trip trance.
Then suddenly he blurted out, “I cheated on Kat.” He said it plainly. He tugged at his ponytail. I didn’t get this guy. Why is he telling me all this stuff? I wasn’t sitting her pouring my past all over him. I didn’t even look at him.
“Worst thing I ever did. I’d give everything not to have done it. It’s funny. You’d do things in the past, some distant foolish version of yourself. You have a future self too that will be saying the same things.”
“What did she do?”
“Nothing. Never knew. Never knew the whole time we were engaged, the whole time she was dying.” His face crinkled up, like he’d just bit something sour. “I’m not sayin’ this to justify it, so don’t take this the wrong way, but we just found out we were pregnant a few weeks after we were engaged. I felt like the whole world was like sand being poured on me.”
I listened intently. I knew that feeling. I lived that feeling, like I was treading in sand, trying to escape some invisible oppressive burden. I heard Olivia’s voice again, figment of my imagination. Only I wasn’t afraid of commitment. I can’t say what I’d feel if I knew Olivia had a kid growing inside of her, but it was something else. It had been with me a long time.
“I guess I just freaked out and I had been drinking. Not a lot, but a beer or two, just feeling a-o-k, and in walks Samantha. Now I had known Samantha since high school and we sort of flirted with each other from time to time. She looked amazing, wearing tight white jeans and a pink t-shirt. She had her black hair pulled back. I can’t say I wasn’t attracted to her, but never gave a thought to anything else before that night. Kat and Samantha didn’t know each other and Kat was in Minnesota visiting her grandparents. Those things went through my mind the minute Samantha sat down next to me. Man, she smelled so good. We drank a couple and talked. I felt alive, free, electric. You know.” He shot a strange smile my way.
Maybe I knew. The few times I did meth I’d roll into this sublime roller-coaster body trip that felt electric and alive, like every cell in my body was shaking hands with each other, smiling. It would lift me out of the whatever heavy I was feeling. That and when I’d met Olivia in the driveway and she made fun of my hat. A bolt hit the back of my head just as it did a couple days ago in her room, but then it was shocking in a good way.
“So we wound up at my place, feeling good, and we knew what we were doing.” He continued with a serious voice this time. “You know what she says to me? ‘What about your honey, Katherine,?’ she said.” Dillon snorted and shook his head in disbelief. “Samantha was hot on me like an Indian summer, but she even gave me an out. You know what I said?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“We broke up,” he emphasized each word deliberately. “We broke up. I lied to her. Can you believe that? She gave me an out to the very end and I lied to her and said Kat and I had broken up.” Then he turned to me. “My fiance who was pregnant with our baby.” He said it almost as a question, like someone doubting in disbelief that a man lifted a car over his head.
I wondered if Olivia had said the same thing to Danny. If she did, no wonder. It wasn’t his fault. For all I knew, every girl I’d been with could have said the same thing. Does that mean they deserve to get their nose busted for it?
“Next thing you know I get a page from VFD. I was a volunteer fireman. I had to go. I told Samantha to leave and I’d call her the next day.”
“Well, what happened? You just left?” I demanded.
“I just left. That’s it.” He answered.
I guffawed. “But you said you cheated.”
“I would have.”
“But you didn’t.” I insisted.
“But I would have and I know it. What’s the difference?” he was adamant. “I never called Samantha and I never told Kat. We got married 2 months later. A week after the wedding she was diagnosed with liver cancer. Five months after that she died.”
“Damn.” I said in shock, but trying to be consoling.
“I can tell you one thing. That night with Samantha ate away at me everyday sitting at Kat’s side.” He took a deep breath and switched topics. “Your girl. Were you guys planning on getting married?”
I wasn’t comfortable with the spotlight turned on me. “I don’t know, never really thought about it.” Which was true, never really crossed my mind and we certainly never talked about it.
“Maybe it’s all to be then. Get you out on this road, away from a dead end. Find a new path.” As he slapped his hand on the dash.
“It wasn’t a dead end.” I snapped. But then I wondered if there wasn’t truth to that. Olivia and said we loved each other, but we seemed more like buddies. We’d hang out, drink beer, play pool at Sharky’s, go to the movies.
“Sorry, man. Just trying to find the silver lining,” he responded.
“Silver lining? Where’s the silver lining in that?” I asked. Where’s the silver lining in a logging truck crushing your parents and your childhood? Where’s the silver lining to a dead grandma on your porch? I thought to myself. “Some clouds are just dark and heavy. They ain’t got no silver.” I said ominously, sure I’d stumbled onto something profound and hoping this would end the conversation. He didn’t say anything. I saw drops of rain sprinkle sporadically on the windshield.
“Shit.” I said.
“Nothing. Just it’s starting to rain. I don’t like driving in the rain.” I knew it sounded dumb. I just can’t stand it. Whenever it began to rain I pulled over or didn’t go out at all. Ever since I got my license I remember getting into fights with grandma about it. She’d ask me to go to the store for whatever and if it was raining or looked like it was about to I said I’d do it later. She didn’t ever drive and I suppose it’s just what I should do, but it loathed it.
“I can drive. I mean, if you don’t mind me taking the controls. But I’ve never driven with a floor-shifter before.”
“Listen! I don’t drive in the rain! I just don’t, got it!” I blurted. I knew he thought I was nuts now and he was just trying to help. I pulled off at the next exit. The drops were coming heavy and faster. My heart followed suit.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” I hoped there was a hotel this exit. I saw a pink star lit up past the gas station and underneath, Brier Motel. I headed in that direction and pulled in. Vacancy. I turned to Dillon. “Hey, man, sorry I snapped. I need to stay here for tonight. I don’t know how much…”
“I’ll split a room, 50/50,” he interrupted.
I pulled in the lot and got out and paid the manager who came to the window groggy-eyed and slow. I must have woken him up. Dillon gave me half plus gas money for filling up in the morning. I got back in the car.
“Room 17.” I turned around and went to park. Dozen or more cars lined the lot. I couldn’t believe this hotel in the middle of nowhere could fill up with so many people.
“What do you suppose their stories are?” I speculated out loud, nodding to the cars.
“Same story as all of us, I suppose.” Dillon offered.
We grabbed just a change of clothes and his guitar and settled in to Room 17.