Nowhere to Go, No Way to Get There
The Creative Process
I mentioned a few days back that while on a recent trip to Oregon I encountered a young woman hitchhiking at a rest stop. This short story is the result of that brief encounter. No, the story is not true. In reality I gave the young woman a few dollars and wished her well. What we have here is my over-active imagination. Enjoy!
Somewhere Between Here and There
I pulled into the Baldock Rest Area, just south of Portland, two hours into my trip to Ashland with five to go. The heat was already gathering strength for the day, eight a.m., heading for the nineties, and the reason for my journey had me swimming in melancholy as I got out of the car to stretch my legs.
She was there to greet me, sitting on the pavement, leaning against the rest room wall, a sign in her hands which said “Stranded, need a ride to California.” Her long, auburn hair hung tangled over her shoulders. She was young, late teens my guess, attractive despite the smudged dirt across her face, her face sleepy, and weary, but her eyes alert. A t-shirt hung loosely upon her, “Love Not Hate” its message, her jeans ragged and torn, Nikes adorned with holes.
Thoughts of Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgeway, and Edmund Kemper raced through my mind as I passed her on my way to the mens room. She looked at me, no reaction, another pilgrim passing her by, another missed opportunity, nothing more, part of the ever-shifting landscape of an I-5 rest stop on a Friday morning.
I had already passed by, at seventy mph, two female hitchhikers, blots on the roadside, playing a dangerous game born from necessity. Were they naïve or simply desperate? Did they not know the dangers, or did they not care? I wanted to pull over, get out of my car, scream at them about the risks . . but I chose not to, what would be the point, you can’t change the world, Bill, just keep on keeping on south, towards your destination. But the young woman at Baldock broke through my defenses. She just looked so damned helpless and frail. I found myself wanting to protect her as I came out of the rest room and descended the steps.
“Need a ride?” was all I could muster in greeting.
The head slowly rose to meet my words.
“I don’t give head,” was her weary reply.
“I didn’t ask for one. How about you give me a name as payment? My name’s Bill. I’m headed for Ashland, which will put you a few hundred miles closer to your destination. If you’re interested, follow me. If not, good luck!”
A Deal Struck
By the time I had unlocked my car she was standing by the passenger door.
“I don’t give head,” she said again, more defiance this time.
“We already established that fact. Toss your backpack in the back. I already told you what this ride was going to cost you. Pay up or try your luck with someone else. Either way, I want to get back on the road.”
She looked behind her, back at her former resting place, looked around her at the other early travelers. She tossed it around some, weighing pros and cons, calling on some primal sense to determine for her, and finally opened the passenger door.
“Natalie! My name is Natalie!”
Heading South in Silence
No words were spoken for a good twenty minutes. I’m not much for forcing conversation, never have been, preferring to let it flow of its own accord, but I finally pointed to the glove compartment.
“There’s pepperoni and string cheese in there if you’re hungry. It’s not a gourmet breakfast, but it’s better than nothing.” She gave that some thought, tossed it around as another mile fell behind us, finally opting for common sense and a free meal. A tiny “thanks” was whispered.
NPR kept us company for the next hour, a segment on Afghanistan, then one on sex trafficking.
No preamble . . .
“My step-father raped me two years ago. I’ve been on the road ever since. What do you think of that shit?”
“I’m sorry, that’s what I think, and your step-father should be castrated on prime time television.”
What Do You Say to Make It All Better?
More miles passed. I pulled off to fill up, got us both a corn dog and a bottle of water, another whispered “thanks” as the tires hissed on the heated blacktop, southward, the Oregon landscape slowly rising in elevation, farm lands giving way to pine trees and high desert.
“What’s in California?” I asked.
“Probably the same shit, you know, but it’s warmer than Seattle and winter is coming.”
More miles, more pine trees, exits going nowhere that the eye could see.
“Why Ashland? What’s there?”
“My best friend is dying. I’m going there to say goodbye to him.”
“I’m sorry for you!”
More miles . . . tiny farms . . . abandoned cars . . . the occasional cow, standing sentry on a river bank . . .
“What’s it like, do you suppose? Dying I mean?”
It was a good question, one I’ve found myself pondering from time to time, seventy seeming like a good age for such thoughts.
“I figure it’s one of two things: Either the religious got it right, and there is some glorious afterlife, or there is absolutely nothing. Neither one sounds all that bad to me. I’m not afraid of dying, but I sure as shit don’t want to suffer before I finally fade out, like my friend in Ashland. No cancer, none of that prolonged suffering, thank you very much.”
Getting to the Painful Real of It All
Warehouses, billboards, a small city, two exits worth, and then unspoiled countryside again. The sky was a brilliant blue, almost too blue, more the product of an artist’s pallet than natural. She took a last bite of her corn dogs, probably cold by that point, not showing any sign of caring.
“I’ve thought about it, you know. Killing myself. Sometimes it seems the smart way to do it, pick the way, no more suffering, just pull a trigger and put an end to my miserable existence. What do you think of that? Like you said, afterlife or nothing, either one sounds pretty good to me.”
I thought about that some, thought about man’s inhumanity towards man, thought about unhealthy thoughts of retribution, all manner of painful penalties for men who do such things to young girls.
“It’s hard to argue against it, Natalie, especially since I’m not walking around inside your skin. I can only muster up one good point against suicide, and that’s the fact that you would be cancelling any chance of good times ahead, any chance at all of finding love and living a good life. Death is permanent; suffering can be temporary. Other than that I’ve got nothing for you, but I will add one other fact for you to consider: your death would sadden me. There’s not a damned thing I can do to change your life. I don’t have profound words which will instantly make your distorted, painful memories disappear. I want to fix you but I can’t. All I can tell you is I’m a human being, one who knows his way around the Suffering Tree, and your death would sadden me.”
A rise in elevation, Grant’s Pass passes by at sixty-five, more buildings, more houses, more people. Morning sunshine has turned to afternoon heat, ninety predicted in the Land of Shakespeare as Ashland comes into view, take the downtown exit, follow E. Main St. as it turns into Siskiyou Boulevard, depositing us in the downtown area, tourists milling around in the early afternoon, looking for shade, looking for souvenirs, looking for instant gratification. I pulled into a parking space, turned, and looked at her.
“This is the end of the line for me, Natalie. It shouldn’t be hard for you to find a ride from here. Take my card, in case you ever want to talk, and here’s twenty for essentials along the way.”
She looked around us, hard to say what she saw, what she was thinking, her face a mask, taking it all in, perhaps gauging the safety factor, perhaps planning her next move, and her next, certainly not going in reverse, not about to open that door to the past, not on that late summer afternoon while the leaves were still green and the air still clear.
She took what I was offering. Looked me in the eyes. Tried for a smile, but it died halfway to completion.
“See ya around, Bill! Thanks for the ride. I’ll think about what you said. I don’t want to make you sad, at least not today.”
And she was gone.
A Final Note
There are so many of them out there, the Natalie’s of this world, people who consider hope to be a pipe dream reserved for someone else and yes, they all sadden me.
© 2019 Bill Holland