A Place Out of the Cold

I can’t tell you how many jackets I’ve lost to hitchhiking specters.

The first time, I was driving north on Valley Parkway between Berea and Cleveland. I was stopped at Cedar Point Road. I jumped at a tapping on my window, a young woman standing outside. It was a particularly chilly October night and she was shivering, nothing on over her Smashing Pumpkins t-shirt. She told me her “dickhole” boyfriend had driven off without her after she’d refused to go down on him. I told her, sure I could give her a lift to her mom’s place in Fairview.

“I’m not a tease,” she told me, “I just don’t like giving blow-jobs.”

She told me she has terrible taste in men. Asked me why she never meets nice guys. Asked if I had a girlfriend and told me I was a nice guy; one of those nice guys she never meets. When she reached over and placed her hand on my lap I was startled by how cold she was. but before I could gasp she’d already disappeared, along with my hoodie that I’d let her wrap over her shoulders.

She was my first.

Stephanie Smith waits where she was strangled outside the Bottoms Up on 117th . She asks men leaving the bar for a lift, always getting out by Alger’s Cemetery.

She walked off in my wool pea coat. The next morning I visited her grave to get it back and found a pile of Carhartts, overcoats, sweatshirts, and a bullet-proof vest, if you can believe it. I couldn’t find my pea coat anywhere. Cost me two-hundred bucks! I’m told the city has to send someone every month to collect the coats. They used to donate them to Catholic Charities until they were sued by the ACLU. Now they just burn them. Out of spite, I guess.

I picked up Rotting Molly on Route 2, driving past the Davis Bessy Nuclear Plant.

DO NOT STOP FOR ROTTING MOLLY!

Molly seems nice enough.

At first.

She wears a white trench coat and a broad-brimmed hat like some starlet of the silver screen. She shook rain off her coat, all over my interior, and thanked me for getting her out of the rain. Asked if I was headed to Sandusky.

I told her I was heading to Toledo and that I could drop her off wherever she needed.

“My fingers are so cold!” she gasped, pressing them against my cheek. They were icy, but by then I already figured she was one more of my phantasmal passengers.

DO NOT PICK UP ROTTING MOLLY.

But if you do, be ready for some pretty offensive language. Prepare yourself for comments that include terms like “dirty japs” and a story about how she “got jewed” by her “dirty kike brother-in-law”. Try to ignore it when she says things like that, and whatever you do, don’t mention the Black Lives Matter movement. Trust me.

Her language and style of dress made me certain she was a ghost. That and how she kept saying that the coming new year — 1947 — was finally going to be her year, “without a doubt.” But if it hadn’t been for that, I’d have known by how her face, despite the frigid December rain that never seemed to dry, kept attracting blow-flies. The way she let those flies flit around her lips and teeth, and the maggots that erupted from her nose. She didn’t think twice about the spider that crawled across her open eyeball. All those things were clues, along with how her skin began to slough off, and the wide, putrid stain that spread from her lap onto my coat that I’d put down on her seat to keep it dry.

NEVER PICK UP ROTTING MOLLY.

She didn’t take my jacket, but I had to throw it away. And I never got the smell out of that car.

I’ve lost coats and jackets to apparitions in Canton, Dayton, Akron, Warren near Youngstown, and all up and down I-71.

Weeping Carol cries the whole trip over a sob story about an abortion, before she vanishes (with your coat) outside Chagrin Falls.

Bleeding Heather is nowhere near as messy as Molly, but be sure to keep an enzyme based detergent in your trunk.

Coleen Sanders’s Hyundai burst into flames on I-480 near Garfield Heights. Before she gets out of your car she leaves behind a smoking pile of ashes with a row of gleaming zippers smiling back at you.

If you like music, there’s a ghost outside Norwalk trying to get to Memphis. She’s not too scary and before vanishing with the twang of a broken guitar string she might play you a tune on her dobro. I loved her cover of Moon River!

Before you accuse me of sexism, let me tell you that in my experience, supernatural hitchhikers are almost exclusively women. Every man I’ve ever given a ride to has been perfectly alive. One time I picked up a gentleman — friendly enough — who years later turned out to be a serial killer of some minor reputation.

Some of the men I’ve picked up have been monsters, but none have been ghosts.

I don’t know what makes these women haunt roads and highways throughout Ohio, but my heart goes out to them; alone, cold, lost. Praying for someone to rescue them from the rain or snow. You almost never find them in the summer, unless it’s in a storm. Even then they’re rare.

They wouldn’t be out there unless they were forced to be.

So, despite the stolen jackets and ruined coats; despite occasionally being jarred with sudden terror, when I see a figure on the side of the road, shivering, waving me down, I pull over. I open my door and give them a place out of the cold. A place where they can warm up before they return to their lonely wanderings.

I just wish they’d return my jackets.


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Peter J Roth is a scalawag playwright from Cleveland. Follow him on Twitter @PeterJ_Roth.