How To Survive Hitchhiking in America

The Hungarian had fallen asleep in the pool and his soft snores were making the water sputter. His head bobbed, and he swayed the way you do when you want to puke and forget about the world. I felt as uncomfortable as I had felt all night. The sun disappeared fast and the pool water quickly became cold and uninviting. I gazed out at the olive grove and noticed its leather green trees — once giant and magnificent — were suddenly ominous and foreboding. We were swiftly thrust into a haunted part of Tuscany, and the guests I had dined with only hours earlier appeared to me as monsters.

“It wasn’t the first time I hitchhiked in California, though,” Roman, the charismatic Londoner, said.

“Is that right?” I said absently.

The Hungarian continued to snore and short ripples ran across the water.

“Not even close, I’d hitchhiked a hundred times before then,” Roman continued, even though nobody seemed to care. “Where did you say you were from?”

“Oakland,” I said.

“San Francisco, right!” he said. “Okay, so, I was hitchhiking in San Francisco years ago. This would have been 1967. I was younger then — much better looking than I am now. If you can believe it…” He paused, waiting for me to laugh. When I didn’t, he took a quick snort of rose, forgot how bad it was, gagged, and went on. “I was in Muir Woods. You ever go up there? It’s beautiful. These giant redwood trees that stretch to the sky. Truly magnificent. Anyway, I went there for a hike one afternoon by myself and I guess time just got away from me. By that time, the trees were so large and the sky was positively camouflaged, I couldn’t see the sun disappear, on the west coast no less. When I finally got out of the woods it was very nearly dark. I started trekking toward the city and had my finger out, you know, to flag down drivers. Nobody wanted to stop at first, but then a truck — one of those old Power Wagons — finally pulled over and honked for me to get in. It was dark by this time, so I couldn’t tell the color of the truck, but thought it might have been green…I suppose it doesn’t matter now.”

I think I said something to Roman at this point, though I’m not entirely sure.

“I climbed in and the woman in the passenger seat slid over to the middle,” Roman went on. “There was a scraggly looking man driving. He had a thick beard and dark, black hair slicked back with what I thought was Brylcreen — we used a lot of Brylcreem in those days. I guess you guys call it mousse. The fella didn’t look at me as I got in, but the girl did. I noticed she was pregnant, maybe seven or eight months by the look of it, and she had this serene way about her. But it was like her smile was medicated — like her happiness wasn’t there…but it was, you know?”

A jerk of motion was issued by the sleeping Hungarian, but rather than wake, it seemed as though he were having a bad dream, and he promptly sunk back into his sleep.

“They asked where I was going and I said I was meeting some friends in North Beach. They were picking up some friends in the Haight, but said they could drop me off. They seemed really pleasant. I mean, she seemed more pleasant than he…he was a bit of a sour apple, driving like the road was taunting him, you know? Full of quiet fury, as I like to call it. I asked where they were going and they told me Los Angeles. When I asked what was in Los Angeles, the girl just looked at me and said, ‘The whole world, man.’ People talked like that in those days. The guy thought Los Angeles was the ‘groovy place’ to be.

“As we crossed over the Golden Gate Bridge I looked out at the city. It was very dark, but the fog hadn’t yet come in, so I could see the city’s lights. I could even see the spotlight of Alcatraz — operationally, the prison had closed a few years prior to this, but there were still a couple people who lived on the island — I think one of them was the former warden, but don’t quote me on that. I even asked them if they’d been out to Alcatraz — at that time The Rock didn’t do tours, but you could take a boat out around the island and see it from the water. They said they hadn’t been there, and the guy seemed especially aggravated with the question, so I dropped it altogether.

“When we got to North Beach I thanked them for the ride and the guy put the parking brake on and said, ‘Don’t mention it, we could all use a break sometime.’ I’ll never forget that. It wasn’t a terribly impressive thing to say or anything, but, later, it’d be something I’d play back in my head for years. Even now, as I’m wading in this cold, cold pool in the middle of the Tuscan valley, I can’t help but think about what he said.

“I wished the woman luck with her upcoming birth and she smiled at me with glazed eyes that were completely uncomprehending of anything. We never exchanged names — that’s usually how people did it when they hitched — but I’d recognize them a couple years later when I saw their names in the paper for the murder of Sharon Tate: it was Susan Atkins and Charles Manson.”

I blinked at Roman for a long while, frowning, but not meaning to. He was inspecting the bubbly rose again, wondering if it was safe to drink yet.

“Wait…” I said. “What was that?”

“Quite mad, huh?” he said, knowing I heard him.

The sleeping Hungarian suddenly sprung to life, thrashing in the water. He looked at us and asked, “Who is Charles Mason?” and I was surprised he’d heard a single word of Roman’s story.

“Oh…” Roman said calmly. “He’s just a…he’s something of a boogeyman, I guess.”

“Mumus,” The Hungarian said instantly.

“Mumus?” Roman and I said in unison.

“Yes,” he said. “The golem.”

“Yes. The golem,” Roman repeated. But I said nothing. Roman threw back the sparkling rose and drank, this time without gagging. By this time, it was too cold to stand it, I had to get out of the water.