It’s a circuitous route via thumb from my home in the old Borsch Belt in upstate New York to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. And when I’ve decided it was time to move on, I bummed rides through rural Southern towns trusting the unspoken agreement, the rules of the road. I made my way to the interstate — a flip of a coin, a wet finger held high in the sweet tarry air. I made a fist of my right hand, extended the thumb, and rode it all the way to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, pitching my backpacking tent near Pequea Creek.
A week after my arrival, I thumbed a ride into town and decided to visit the local tavern. I sat at the bar, ordered a draft beer, and was looking over the plasticized menu. Three young ladies sat at the end of the bar. They were conducting a mock trial and solicited me to be the sole member of their jury.
“Your Honor,” the girl wearing a ball cap announced loudly. “The defendant here sitting between us is charged with the crime of giving head.” The judge, a girl with wavy red hair looked at the defendant and asked, “How do you plead?”
“Not guilty!” The defendant, a surly blonde slurred.
“Your Honor, this lady is no lady. She apprised me of her exploits the morning of September the 8th, the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and seventy-seven,” the ball cap girl said. The bartender shook his head and chuckled.
“I’ve taken all this into consideration and concluded that there’s enough evidence to proceed with the complaint,” the good-looking redhead said. “Member of the jury,” she pointed in my direction.
“Yes, your honor,” I answered.
“You are to determine a verdict of guilty or not guilty. Do you enter into this without any foregone conclusions?” Asked the redhead.
“Yes, your honor,” I said uncomfortably, but I got some reassurance from the bartender’s face that it would be okay to play along.
“The member of the jury has been so instructed. Does the defendant have counsel present?” The ginger asked the defendant.
“Hell no! Does it look like it?” the surly blonde asked.
The judge was having none of it. “One more outburst and I’ll hold you in contempt! Frankly, I’m confounded. I believed you couldn’t get a man even if you were covered in vanilla pudding.”
The bartender bent forward and let out a belly laugh, his sweaty bald head looked like a honeydew melon in the smoky light.
“What additional proof do we need? How many more men must continue to be abused and debased? Your honor, the state rests its case,” the ball cap girl announced.
“Member of the jury, have you reached a verdict?” The ginger asked. The bartender lined up three shot glasses on the polished redwood bar and looked back at me. I took a gulp of beer and tried to look serious. “Your honor, may I ask a question?”
“This is highly irregular,” the ball cap girl protested.
“I’ll allow it,” the ginger judge said magnanimously. “Proceed.”
“Is there any evidence?” I asked no one in particular.
“The defendant’s own words — enough evidence for this court,” ball cap girl said, and then thrust her tongue repeatedly into her cheek.
“I’ve reached a verdict in this troubling case,” I said.
“You’re to hand the bartender your verdict,” the beautiful ginger judge instructed. I asked the bartender for a pencil and wrote my decision on a napkin. I carefully folded it in half and handed it over to the bartender who gave me a reassuring wink. The ginger judge unfolded the napkin, squinted, and read the judgment, “guilty as to the charge of third-degree malicious head. You are hereby sentenced to buying a round of drinks and to attend counseling. And brush your goddamn teeth! Court adjourned!”
After five hours I finally left the place with the redhead. We drove awhile and then parked beside a green wall of corn. “Name’s Lilly,” the ginger judge said, extending her hand in my direction. “Just wanted to get formal for a minute. I got a 12 gauge at home and a 9mm,” she said and pulled out a Glock from her boot. I wasn’t surprised or frightened. I’ve seen my share of handguns while hitchhiking — part of the understanding of the rules of the road. Don’t even think about fucking with me. I’ll give you a ride and we can have a pleasant conversation — just so we understand the rules. She drove me to her mother’s farm.
I explained my situation to Lilly and her mother, Mag. I was running low on money and I needed to find another place to stay. I showed them scratched black and white photos of my family that I pulled from my wallet. I made the case that I was an honest, hardworking individual and a college graduate, experiencing my freedom before I started in on adult life. I asked Mag if I could use her phone to call my mother in upstate New York. Perhaps if Mag talked to her, it would ease her mind about me. I called collect. It seemed like she and my mother were on the phone for an hour. Finally, I could hear Mag laughing and she called me to the phone.
“Mag seems like a nice person. Your father said that you can come home anytime — to get your things. The two of you are so alike — both bullheaded. Behave yourself and call me before you come home,” my mother said and hung up. I offered to work for free as a handyman in exchange for a piece of Mag’s land not much bigger than a cemetery plot for my tent. She agreed to hire me but insisted I got paid, with deductions for dinners and a nominal lease payment on the plot. I was given access to her powder room in the dirt floor basement of the farmhouse, a farm in name only with more than half the acreage and all the animals sold to neighbors after her husband’s death.
During my first evening with Mag, we sat on the back porch and talked, mostly about her dead husband. “You never saw a stranger drunk in your life. My husband would have three beers and be staggering and slurring his words. Two shots of whiskey and he’d be singing. He started off drinking after supper, had to have a food foundation to build the drunk on. Got earlier and earlier in the day when he’d commence.” Mag chain-smoked while we talked. “He never laid a hand on me. I’d a knocked him out if he did. He got so weak toward the end our cat could a took him out. Kidneys went bad.” She stared out over the overgrown field, a full moon rising over idle expanses. There was a fire pit about fifty yards from the porch. “We spent many a night out there with a fire going and the stars all up there,” she waved her cigarette in the air, the smoke curled over the rain gutter on the porch roof. She liked to roll her own cigarettes while we talked. “I keep orange rinds in the can, keeps the tobacco moist and aromatic,” she said. She pinched just the right amount between the fingers of her right hand and spread the tobacco evenly along the paper, slowly turned the plastic roller with her nicotine-stained thumbs, removed the cigarette, and moistened the length of it with her yellow-stained tongue. “A perfect cancer stick!” Mag announced.
Mag would shuffle around the farm in her house dress and shit-kicker boots, an unfiltered cigarette hanging out the side of her mouth. She liked flavored bourbon and would drink it over shaved ice in a plastic fountain drink container. She smelled of rose water and cigarette smoke so I always knew where she had been. She favored me like a mother hen after I’d been there just a couple weeks and asked me every day how’d I sleep. I was beginning to think she was feeling guilty about my housing arrangement. She’d remind me daily about sleeping on the couch if I got too cold out in my tent, but I preferred sleeping outdoors with the night sounds under the cover of an unpredictable sky. I saw Mag as an old woman even though she was just in her forties. I never thought about her in the way that I would think about her only child Lilly.
Lilly’s father died when she was eight years old, his liver and kidneys ravaged by alcohol. She became a collector: stray dogs and cats, obituary pages from the local newspaper, rosary beads cut free from their chained prayer circle, holy cards, Barbie dolls, fossils, neckties, and sewing thimbles, started drinking beer at age fourteen, got pregnant at fifteen, miscarried at five months. “I’m progressing at a remarkably unimpressive rate,” she’d respond when questioned about her health or prospects. Despite her issues, she was a loyal friend, a hard worker, and a devoted daughter. When she wasn’t drinking beer with her friends by the fire pit, she’d be smoking grass on the low roof of the side porch just below her bedroom window, lying under a dome of stars.
The evenings were getting cooler as the sun moved into the low path of autumn. We liked to sit out in the field and drink beer and make fires. Mag never stayed out long — she worked in the early mornings. This one night it was just Lilly and me at the fire pit. She lit up a joint and offered it to me. “I’ll stick to what I know,” I said with an edge.
“You’re so uptight,” she said.
“I just prefer beer,” I said slowly, tensely.
“Makes you angry. Makes you act like a boy,” she accused.
I opened another beer and leaned back on the chaise lounge. I looked up at the stars and was happy. I’m happy to be anywhere with Lilly.
She took a long drag on the glowing joint. A seed burst like a tiny firework. I moved my hand slowly and touched her shoulder. She looked at me and shook her head no.
The next day I was mowing grass between the house and barn. Mag was in town at her part-time job cleaning homes. After an hour of mowing, I went to the farmhouse for a drink. Lilly was sitting at the kitchen table sipping a mug of coffee and clipping obits from the local newspaper. “People dying today that never died before,” I muttered. She looked above her paper and frowned. “You can do better,” she said.
“Why are they all smiling?” I asked.
“I’m ignoring you,” she said without looking up as the scissors chewed the flimsy paper.
“What are you looking for?” I asked, turning my back to her, waiting for the well water to run cold over my hands.
“I want to read something twisted, out of kilter, something with the rhythm of a heart murmur. I’m stealing ideas for my own obituary — plagiarizing the dead,” she said.
“Didion and Bukowski work for me.”
“This works for me,” she said, waving a freshly clipped obit like a Fourth of July flag.
“I just made a pot of coffee,” Lilly offered. She wrapped her hands around the coffee mug and bowed her head. She released her hands from the mug and looked up at me. “I don’t have feelings for you,” she stated matter-of-factly.
“You keep me well informed.” I tried to sound sarcastic.
“You’re a man but act like a boy,” she said sweetly, so sweetly I wanted to kiss her.
“So why should I stick around?” I asked and put on a smirk to prove I could be confident, be a man.
“Same reason I stick around, it’s easy, the path of least resistance.” She smiled and I’m a boy again. “Would it make any difference to you if I left?” She asked.
“No.” I lied and walked out of the kitchen.
There wasn’t much work left for me around the farm. I finished the exterior painting, cleared brush, rebuilt a retaining wall, pruned apple and pear trees, and pulled what seemed like a million weeds from the garden. I didn’t want to take advantage of Mag’s hospitality. No one had ever been kinder to me, but I had to get back on the road and just couldn’t face her to say good-bye. The annoying pit in my stomach returned and that had always been my cue to move on. I knew that I’d miss Lilly, but it hurt to be around her. I allowed myself to fall in love — a distraction not meant for a road bum. I left a note for Mag under her pillow saying that I’d pay her back someday for the hospitality. I asked her to look after Lilly. I slung my duffel bag over my shoulder and walked down the farm’s dirt road.
It was the pleasant half of November. The wind kicked up and blew through trees and sounded like a rush of water. The cool air was sweetened with the sour smell of leaf mold. I made my way to the interstate — a flip of a coin, a wet finger held high in the autumn air. I made a fist of my right hand and extended the thumb. My first ride was in a rusty pick-up truck, a shotgun displayed prominently against the rear window. Ball cap girl was the driver and the surly blonde defendant the passenger. They drove me to the tavern where we first met. I had to trust their compliance with the rules of the road and ball cap girl’s claim that weighty matters had to be settled. The surly blonde had once again crossed the line and justice had to be served. Who was I to disappoint these local ne’er-do-wells, these lovers of justice? I decided that I’d return to the farm and hope that Mag would welcome me back. I’d have a second chance with Lilly — Lilly with her red wavy hair and a face kissed by the sun in its soft, low path, her long shadow stretching before me like the road finally home.
Image: Wikicommons – Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.