Sunday, August 16, 2015

Hopeful Roads Converge

Over the course of my last eight months in Baltimore, I wrote a novel about a man hitchhiking across the country.

I first conceived of the project when one of my summer employees reached Santa Cruz, California from upstate NY by hitching rides from a series strangers, before finally getting stuck in Colorado and buying a bus ticket to get him the rest of the way. He arrived a day later than his contract dictated, but I found it difficult to blame him. After all, as I half-joked to my colleagues, he did have a plan to get to work on time. It’s just that it was a really, really bad plan.

The ideas for my story built upon one another over a period of years. That the protagonist, Jackson, would take the journey to attend his estranged sister’s wedding. That he would stop off to visit an old girlfriend in Chicago. That the novel would compartmentalize based on the characters he met along different legs of the journey--a serviceman turned trucker, a runaway housewife and her son, his ex-girlfriend’s roommate, a lonely widow.

I set to work in earnest shortly after Christmas time, thinking it the perfect project to work on while I awaited word back from graduate programs and contemplated moves to every different corner of the country; also while things got busy at work I had to snatch at scraps of time to string together a few hundred words a day to cobble together a novel.

For each novel I’ve written, I’ve gone through stages, from the brash beginnings of confidence and knowing I was working on a masterpiece, to doldrums of manuscript fatigue and questioning everything about the project, to a period when the finish seemed impossibly far off, to the moment when I was sure I would finish, and that as imperfect as the manuscript might be I would have a draft to show for my effort, and something to come back to and polish, and perhaps one day call finished in earnest.

I reached that late stage of modest certainty around the start of the CTY summer. I arrived in Santa Cruz again, and pulled up the rental minivan to a Safeway. A man in his mid-twenties, scruffy, unbathed, in a black and blue wool-knit parka approached me. I head my earbuds in and couldn’t hear him at first, but assumed he was asking for money, and told him I didn’t have any cash.

“I don’t need money. I need food.”

By an arbitrary code of ethics, I’ve always favored people who ask for food rather than money. And he looked harmless. So I took out my earbuds and listened.

“Me and my girl are on our way to Oregon.” He smiled when he first mentioned his girl his eyes went a little wider when he went on. “She only has a couple months to live and she wants to see everything she can before she goes.”

“What do you want to eat?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Anything.”

I told him I’d pick him up something. I don’t know that believed me, and I wasn’t altogether sure myself as I stepped through the automatic doors. I reviewed the pieces of what the guys had told me. The story was vague enough that it could have all been lies--the biggest hole, perhaps, that his girlfriend was nowhere to be seen. But then I thought of the unlikelihood of the situation. That this bleary eyed, disheveled dreamer would tell me he was looking for sustenance enough to get to Oregon, just as I started my last summer before my own move to Oregon, before my own cross country trip to chase an inexact dream of being a writer and to move in with my until-then long distance girlfriend. A journey both alike and totally divergent from the hitchhiker I was writing about and from the beggar in the parking lot.

The Nature Valley maple walnut bars I settled on were selling at a deal of buy two boxes, get one free. More granola than any one man needed at a time.

I checked out, fumbling between my case of Red Bull, a gallon of water, bananas and the granola bars, all balanced in my arms in compliance with California’s still-new green initiative against giving customers plastic bags. I kept one box of granola bars especially loose, clutched by my fingertips, van keys pinned between my ring finger, pinky, and palm.

The man in the parking lot was hitting up a woman loading a station wagon with her own groceries. She didn’t say a word to him and brushed past, into her car. He didn’t make a move to stop her.

He saw me but didn’t approach. I supposed a lot of people said they’d come back to him and flaked.

So I came to him.

“This box is yours.” I did my best to wave that spare cardboard box toward him.

He took it slowly and studied the front of the box once it was in hands. “Thank you, man.”

I got a better grip on the van keys. “Where are you going in Oregon?”

He shrugged and smiled a little easier then. “I don’t really know, I’ve never been.”

Me neither, I thought. “How long have you been with your girlfriend?”

“That’s the crazy thing. I only met her last week. But she’s the most amazing person.” He swallowed hard. “I love her. She’s dying and it’s so hard, but I love her. She picked me up in Vegas, and all she wants to do is go from place to place and try to make other people happy. She said I could help her.”

How did she make people happy? Was this girl a singer? A motivational speaker? A pot dealer with some especially exquisite herb?

“She’s resting in the car if you want to meet her.”

A rusted out Chevrolet waited, parked alone a couple aisles over. A part of me did want to meet her. Another part of me thought it would ruin my sense of having done a good deed were the car actually empty, and my inner child, still scarred from watching The Silence of the Lambs far too young was still wary of getting clobbered and thrown into the trunk, as thanks for being a good Samaritan.“Let her rest. And tell her I said good look,” I said, and for reasons lost on me now, threw in a “God bless” for good measure.

He reached as if to shake my hand, but seeing my arms were still full and starting to tremble slightly from the awkward distribution of weight, settled for bumping elbows with me instead. I watched him head back to his car where he opened the front passenger door and, at the least, made a show of talking to someone inside.

I retreated to my minivan and hoped for the best.

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