I come from a family of religious fanatics, although I never really noticed. The religion thing never quite took with me. As I grew up, though, I thought it was normal for people to have a St. Christopher’s medal hanging from the rear view mirror, and a plastic sacred heart of Jesus on the dashboard. The way my father drove, you could tell he put a lot of faith in their protective ability. Likewise, I thought nothing of the crucifix in every room, and the one in the living room with a bottle of holy water for a quickie Baptism, and holy oil and a cloth so, in a pinch, anyone could give the sacrament of Extreme Unction. Of course, if you had the good fortune to choke to death on a fishbone when a priest was visiting, all of the tools would be on hand to perform a real top-notch sacrament. In fact, some local priests of the old school could probably send Hitler himself through the Pearly Gates like a slap shot with the right crucifix and the proper holy oil. It was not up to them if he stayed there, though; they would be sure to make that point
We were told to practice the Act of Contrition just in case we were called upon in an emergency to perform one for a dying person. We also practiced the quickie version of a Baptism, just in case a baby happened to be born in the house, or a heathen – or better yet, a Protestant – had a deathbed conversion. Of course, our performance of these sacraments was a last resort. It was always preferable to have a priest do them. It was not until college that any real questions arose. It was like Descartes suddenly “discovering” that he believed in God, only in reverse.
I’m still hopeful about the God thing, but not always, and certainly not every day. This was one of those unhopeful days. I was heading for work one morning when I saw a guy on the side of the road. I never usually even notice hitch hikers, but since it was raining, I picked him up.
I immediately regretted it, as I looked in the rearview mirror, thinking, “My God, what the hell did I stop for? That guy is a bum!” He looked like he had not lived under a roof for quite some time.
When he opens the door, a gust of wind blows rain straight into the car. It sprays over my face. I wipe my face with a tissue, and clean my glasses so I can see.
“Thank you, my man.” He says it like some angel from the sixties, a left over hippy.
“Where’re you going? I’m not going too far,” I say and notice the guy looks white as a fish belly. It’s the end of summer and we are all tanned to the hilt in spite of all that stuff about skin cancer.
“Heading for Tennessee, Nashville,” he says.
“Hell, I’m just going down the turnpike about thirty miles,” I say.
“That’s fine, anything to get me out of this rain.” He pulls out a cigarette.
“Open a window, this is my wife’s car, she hates smoke.” He nods and opens the window a crack so as not to let in too much rain. The cigarette smoke hangs in the air and smells good to me, even though I quit ten years ago; they still sometimes smell good.
“Yeah,” he said, as if I asked him a question, which I didn’t. “Going to Nashville, me and some bro’s going to make an album.” He takes a long pull on his cigarette.
“You a musician?”
“Yeah, write songs too; got a lot in here.” He pats the dirty blue knapsack he has sitting in his lap. “Bro’s were supposed to send me some money, but they didn’t get around to it, been in Nashville too long, place has gone to shit, they’ve gone to shit.” He stops talking and looks around at the car, leather interior, cruise, A/C, power windows, a real yuppie-mobile. I tell him we got a deal on a demo, don’t know why I’m embarrassed. He nods.
“Old lady took my wheels.”
“She in Nashville, too?”
“No.” He pauses, and rolls down the window a little more, flicks out the cigarette, and puts the window all the way up. “I got a kid, too. She’s with her old lady. Want to see a picture?” I nod; he opens the knapsack; I see bundles of notebooks, the type with the black and white flecked cardboard cover, where you can’t rip the pages out without the whole thing coming apart. He digs out an old leather-bound case and shows me a picture of a real cute little girl. It’s stuck in a plastic envelope and looks maybe like it was cut from a magazine. I nod.
“She’s real cute.” Then he shows me a picture of a very pretty woman.
“My wife.” He says. But this picture too looks like it was cut out of a magazine, too slick for a real portrait.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“Been upstate a few years.”
“Leaving before the winter?”
Even though he didn’t look the criminal type, I am suddenly nervous and push the car up to seventy-five, eighty.
“Slept last night at a campground, back is sore as hell.” He reaches behind and rubs his lower back.
“The KOA off route 212?”
“I live near there.” Then, with a hint of paranoia, I add, “Actually a few miles away.” He is not listening, but turns up the radio. It’s an old country hit.
“Groovy song,” he says.
I haven’t heard that expression in years but he says it and coming from him, it sounds OK. I have the feeling it would sound pretty stupid if I had said it.
“Yeah. Tired of the northern winters.” He begins again as if I’d just asked him a question. “Too damn cold for me.”
“Got to start getting firewood, saves on fuel oil.”
“I cut a lot of wood up north. They had us do a lot of that. Liked to keep us busy.”
“It’s a lot of work cutting firewood,” I say.
“No one knows how to work anymore. They just know how to steal from someone else. Steal and get away with it. Selfish, conceited snobs.”
“Some people work.”
“A few. The rest are along for a free ride. They don’t know how to do it themselves, so they steal, only it’s legal. They are so screwed up that they don’t even know they are stealing.”
This guy is really out there, I think to myself and check the speedometer.
“There are a lot of scumbags in the world. Most people are scum, can’t think for themselves, or do anything new or creative, so they hang around people who can, so they can steal from them.”
“Oh, I don’t know if that’s true.” I realize I shouldn’t have said this; he starts to shout, his voice booming around the plush interior of the car. I am amazed, flabbergasted, an angry young man; wow.
“When Vietnam was on, they were all afraid of getting their asses shot off so everybody marched, and got involved. After ‘Nam was over though nobody gave a shit anymore, everybody went to law school and got a license to steal.”
“Now wait a minute! I marched in those demonstrations because I was against the war, not to save my ass.”
“Really.” He looks at me; I know I sound stupid, but I can’t stop. I say how I marched on Washington, and how I still give money to Oxfam and half a dozen wilderness societies, and how my wife, Sherry, marches against the pro life demonstrations and volunteers her time at planned parenthood. But he just looks at me, and it all sounds so stupid.
“Yeah.” He waves his hand, reaches for his cigarettes, decides against it, and leaves them in his pocket. “My bro’s really screwed up this time; they were supposed to send me bus fare. Knew I would be needin’ it too. I wrote them a letter. I’ve been writing a lot of letters the past few years. No one answers them though.”
“Well, maybe they just didn’t have the cash.”
“They have it. Believe me they have it; like I said, they’ve been in Nashville too long. They are past caring about me, or anyone. Greed is a bad thing.” He looks out the window. “Why should they be any different,” he says to the outside.
I wanted to ask him some more about where he’d been, where he’d written his ”bro’s” from, but he seemed content to mumble at the passing landscape.
“You know, like Woodstock?” he says all of the sudden, answering a question that hasn’t been asked. Talking to him is sort of like Jeopardy in reverse; only he is the only one hearing the answers. “All those people putting out music for free, people dancing and singing, getting stoned. Then it all went to shit. All you see now are nude pictures of people in a pond. It was free love, not a perverted orgy. True love, for a moment.”
“The Who got paid twelve thousand dollars to play,” I say, showing that I know about Woodstock, too, maybe more than he does. “Yeah, I think everyone who performed got paid.”
“Fuck The Who,” he says. “Bunch of British snobs, not real music anyway. Only real music nowadays is country; that’s why I’m going to Nashville. Country and blues.”
“Think so?” I say, not really wanting to continue this conversation, looking for my exit.
“Yeah, real music has guts, balls. It’s art; anything else is garbage.”
“Art? You mean, like Hendrix?”
“Yeah.” He lights up. “Hendrix was there, he was in tune like God almost. He imitated God. You can’t do better than that.”
I feel satisfied finally proving I’m still hip, pleased that there is something this guy isn’t upset with.
“But those bastards killed him.”
”The record companies, wanted too much from him, burnt him out just like Janis and Jim Morrison.”
“Some people think that they did it to themselves – self-destructive.”
“No way!” he shouts, voice ringing in the car. “They were full of life. They had arrived. They had gone though that wall that separates, and been on the other side.” He sat back in the seat and sighed. “Either you understand or you don’t, I guess.” Then he lunged forward straining against the shoulder harness. “They were there; why would they kill themselves? Doesn’t make sense. It was the damn producers, the record companies, maybe even the government. They knew too much, knew the deal; government doesn’t like that, so they had them killed, just like they killed Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. They knew, they understood. The whole thing is about love. The government doesn’t like that, doesn’t understand that. We live in evil times.”
He wound down again, looking out the window, mumbling at the guardrail. He was suddenly quiet, his shoulders slumped, stringy hair hung down and rested on his shoulders.
Tiny beads of sweat broke out on his forehead, and then began rolling down from his temples, like drops of blood; he’s suddenly resigned. “You’re OK, man,” he says abruptly. “You’re in the right place. Gave me a ride, didn’t you?” We reach the exit. I pull over and put on the flashers. He tucks the notebooks back into his knapsack.
The rain has let up. He gets out of the car, but before he goes, I give him a twenty-dollar bill. He looks embarrassed, but takes it after I insist. I want him gone; you bet I want him gone. I want to buy my freedom-forgiveness. I want to buy my freedom from him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Zeppetello is the author of the forthcoming title, Daring to Eat a Peach, a novel to be published by Atticus Books in November of 2010. He is the Director of Writing at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and lives in the Catskill Mountains.
[Flash Fiction Editor Note]