I don’t usually pick up hitchhikers, but this was an extra rainy Vegas morning. There she was, a little old lady standing in a puddle, bundled up in a poncho and one gloved hand jutting straight through the rain with an outstretched thumb. It was five a.m., and nobody else was on the road. What could I have done? My damned Jiminy Cricket conscience forced me to stop there, so she wouldn’t get hypothermia.
“Much obliged,” she said when I pulled over to the curb and popped the convertible’s side door open. “Such a nice young lady.”
My shoulders relaxed when she settled into the passenger seat next to me. She was a few inches shorter than I am sitting down, and I could smell the same old California girl perfume my grandma always liked, damp with the scent of rain, on her poncho. Her reddish hair was cut in that short, granny kind of hairstyle. Unless she was about to pull a pistol on me, I could probably count her as a safe passenger. Never mind that her boot prints would stain the footwell for at least another afternoon– it was really my dad’s convertible, anyway.
“Where to?” I asked, pulling back onto the road. “I’m headed northwest.”
I didn’t tell her just where I was going. I was on my way to see my sister in Beatty, but I was smart enough not to blab that, not even to little old ladies.
“Oh, northwest,” the old lady said. “I’ve not been to Reno yet. Drop me off wherever you get tired of me, and I’ll find my way up there.”
“Alright,” I said, thankful that she wasn’t expecting a chauffeur. (Beggars can’t be choosers, after all.) When I looked over at her, she smiled and stuck out a gloved hand for me to shake.
“The name’s Venus,” she said, “pleased to meet you.”
Venus, to me, conjured up the image of an eternally young vixen in the Roman pantheon, or a scalding hot planet drenched in lava. Neither particularly put me in mind of this old lady. She laughed when I hesitated on shaking.
“I picked it out myself, in summer camp. I was stargazing in the summer of ‘62. My birth name is a mystery,” she said, and gave a little wink.
“Hm, okay,” I said, “I’m Brandy.”
“Much obliged, Brandy!”
I didn’t say anything else for a while, and instead concentrated on driving along the flat, grassy highway stretching for miles ahead. Las Vegas, the Spaniards called this place, the valleys. The flatlands. But steering was too easy, so my mind got to worrying about whether this Venus woman expected any conversation from me. I turned, ever so slightly, to check in on her, only to find that she was rummaging through a big old lady handbag and pulling out what looked like little round bottles with stamps on their white caps. Some sort of clear fluid sloshed around inside each bottle, and on each cap was a postcard stamp from a different city: Manhattan, Seattle, Philadelphia. But no Reno.
“Yep,” Venus said, turning to smile at me, “I don’t have Reno yet!”
Without a ready response, I flicked my eyes back up to the road and continued my silence. A fleshy heat rose along my cheeks and forehead, as it always tends to when I’m nervous. The highway was still aggravatingly easy to navigate, though, which made it hard to steer my attention away from my hitchhiker’s big grin from where she sat next to me. Finally, I broke my concentration and met her gaze again.
“It’s rainwater,” Venus said, though I hadn’t ever asked. “Rainwater from different cities in every state. Been at this for three years, and when I’m done with America, it’ll be the world’s capitals next!”
I gave a polite hum of admiration. I’d drop her off near Corn Creek, I decided.
“We all drink the same water,” she continued, “All are made of the same stuff. I think this’ll help remind the world what we are– we’re all one.”
“Mhmm,” I said, “that’s cool.”
“It’s a shame,” she said, looking off at the valleys ahead of us, “that we’re all divided. There’s no peace on this planet, not the kind we used to think we could bring back when I was your age.”
The “when I was your age” is the last thing she said that sticks with me. Other than that, we kept quiet, or I pretended to listen to her rambling on, but didn’t, and hoped she wouldn’t notice. I let her off when we got to Corn Creek, where the rainclouds hadn’t come rolling in yet, and she waved goodbye and walked off with all her rainwater sloshing around in her bag. Her boot prints in the footwell bugged me all the way to Beatty.
Before I reached my sister’s place, I took some time to pull over again and search “old lady venus hitchhiker rainwater america” and other word salads to see if she’d come up– inspiration porn, a social media post, a ghost story. I still do sometimes, if it’s raining out here in the valleys. But nothing’s ever happened, and her mission hasn’t exactly been accomplished either. Nobody better tell me I’m one with the neighbors who play EDM music next to my bedroom at two a.m., and nobody better tell me I’m one with the asshole who tried to follow me home last month, or that I’m one with casino owners down the street who keep those creepy bums coming from all the cities of the world to suck on their opium. I say this, obviously, with all due respect to itinerant old rainwater collectors hitchhiking around the country.
I guess I was just hoping she’d bea somebody. A notorious phantom, or a famous visionary, or an infamous narcissist who wanted to be a visionary. That way, I’d have a story to tell my sister over dinner. I guess she was trying to be a somebody. Even if it didn’t work out, at least she got her boots wet trying. And she does pop into my head when it rains. Maybe, wherever she is, she’d like to hear me say that.