At some point I’ll have to hitch a ride into the unknown. I can’t walk all the way to Acapulco, or even to Louisville, after all. But I continue to amble southward alone, comforted by sunbeams warming me to the bones. I kick a stone forward along the highway’s shoulder, wishing with each step I knew where to go next while traffic whizzes by on my left and prairie stretches to the horizon on my right. When I tire of walking, I turn around to squint at oncoming traffic and stick out my thumb. My first attempt at hitchhiking. Almost immediately, a big rig slows and screeches to halt in the lane beside me. It smells like all of Chicago is baking under the hood as I grab hold of a steel handle and hoist myself up a few wobbly steps to reach the opening cab door.
“Where you headed?” a paunchy, middle-aged man asks as I climb inside. His skin is a lighter shade of the taupe shirt and pants he wears.
“South,” I reply.
“I’m goin’ down to New Orleans, could take you all the way there.” He eases the truck back into gear. His droopy jowls jiggle, and his grin reveals a set of browning teeth.
New Orleans. I’ve fantasized about escaping to Mardi Gras since I was seven or eight. I like the idea of being in costume, a mask on my face, strings of beads dangling around my neck, a dress full of sequins and lace. I imagine dancing in the streets, meeting fortunetellers and southern belles, mavericks and voodoo priests. Mardi Gras has already come and gone this year, but still, the thought of going to a place where people celebrate like that intrigues me.
The truck picks up speed, but our attempts at conversation sputter and die. The truck roars along. I like being so far above the surrounding traffic. But I don’t like the way the driver leers at me. He’s old enough to be my father. To my way of thinking, even kissing him would be like kissing a rotten hardboiled egg. I think he ought to know that. He says his name is James Roberts. I don’t’ believe him. It’s like he’s trying the name on, letting it linger on his tongue, listening to the sound of it.
He exits the highway and pulls into a truck stop for gas. “A gal can’t go cross country in a dress. I’ll get you a pair of jeans and some food later if things—” He clears his throat. “If things work out.” He winks before climbing out of the cab.
“I don’t need a pair of jeans,” I call after him, even though I could use a change of clothes.
He fills the gas tank, goes inside to pay and comes back with Juicy Fruit gum. “Want some?” He throws the yellow pack in my lap as he settles in behind the wheel. I’d love to chew a stick right now, but I’m afraid to take anything from him besides the ride. I brush the gum off my dress. It lands on the frayed, brown seat between us.
The journey continues in silence. With each mile the cab grows hotter, stuffier, and overcome with a grotey smell coming from an area behind the seats where a dirty yellow blanket and pillow are rumpled up. Hours later, the sun sets across the prairie to the west. The sky darkens gradually and turns into a midnight blue. He slows the truck down as we roll into Cairo, Illinois.
“I’ll need to stop soon,” he says. “Most times I pull over and sleep right here, but I know of a little place where we can get a room. Then we can get you those jeans and some food. How ‘bout it?”
“Did you know I’m 16 years old and running away from home?”
“You could get in trouble, couldn’t you, for being with me?”
“How do I know you’re not really 18? Do you have any ID?”
“No, do you have any ID, Mr. Roberts?”
“Yeah, I got plenty. Stupid girl. What? You think you can just ride for free?”
I edge to the right, grab the door handle. “Uh, I just, I can’t imagine—”
“You think you’re too good for me? Lotsa women would be glad to be with me.” He sneers, eyes bulging.
“I’ll get out,” I say.
“In Cairo? At this hour? You’ve gotta be nuts.”
“I’ll get out here. Just slow down, Okay? I’ll jump.”
“Bullshit you will.”
The truck halts at a red light. I open the door and leap out, sliding on the pebbles of the shoulder as I land. The signal turns green. The truck idles. A car inches up behind it. The truck continues to idle. The car’s horn toots. My heart pounds. The car honks twice. The truck idles. The horn blares long and loud. The truck sputters and finally chugs away.
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