I want excitement and magic in my life. So I pick up hitchhikers.
Hitchhikers make me feel like I’m having an adventure. Anything could happen. These mysterious walkabout souls might teach me how to locate hobbits. Or they might start a knife fight that results in a cool scar. Or maybe they’ll tell me a wonderful story, and I will write it and become rich and mighty, then spend the rest of my life searching for the hitchhiker, so I can gratefully give him the chance to tell me another story.
What I want is for one of my passengers to tell me what the old man told Garfield in Garfield’s Halloween Adventure way back in 1985, a story of hidden treasure and pirate ghosts returning from hell to seek their gold.
What I desperately want is for a hitchhiker to talk about a housefire that happened nearby a long time ago, and I’ll tell a friend the story and the friend will say, “That was Housefire Francis! He died in a housefire 30 years ago!” and I’ll shout, “That’s why Francis smelled like housefire and ruined my seat the whole time! I met a ghost! I have excitement and magic in my life!”
What I passionately want, what I need, is for the hitchhiker’s eyes to roll back into his head and for him to start mumbling in Latin. Then he will translate, because Latin happens to be one of the dead languages I don’t speak. The hiker will tell of a secret door in my basement, a little door in the old field-stone foundation, a door revealing a stairwell leading down and down to a sea fed by a fountain of wisdom, youth, and grape-flavored IQ juice. These waters will also give me a fuller beard, the ability to digest cheese, and Willem Dafoe’s cheeks (both fore and aft).
So far, though, hitchhikers haven’t really given me my excitement and magic.
Though they have told a few stories.
One hiker told me this one: “Once upon a time, I need fifteen dollars and twelve cents for gas so I can see my mother.” Her mother was in a nearby hospital. You see, her mother needed a transplant because her torso stopped working, and the only one with a matching torso-type was her daughter. I gave her a twenty and asked if she wanted a lift all the way to the hospital, but she declined, saying her ride to the hospital was supposed to meet her at the nearby gas station. That’s where we went, and I said, “Bye! Good luck with your mother!” and she said, “Who?”
As I was driving away, I kicked myself, because I thought of what I should have said: “With a heart as big as yours, who needs a torso!”
Another hitchhiker heard music playing on my radio and told me he was at a bar in Nashville one time, performing an Alan Jackson song. While he was playing, wouldn’t you know it, Alan Jackson himself moseyed in and said, “Young man, you’re going places.” The hiker then transitioned us from talking about Alan Jackson and the various places the hiker would have gone if it hadn’t been for his cold-blooded wife and the divorce, to talking about bone marrow. Turns out he’d given all his marrow away to people who needed it more than he did, mostly the marrow-less children of local philanthropists (“I wouldn’t take their money”), and if he only had $15.37, he could buy a bus ticket to get the dog he’d won in a custody battle after the divorce. At the gas station, I said, “Bye. Say hi to your dog,” and he said, “Who?”
As I was driving away, I kicked myself, because I thought of what I should have said: “What you’re doing right now is a country song! Write it. You’d be rich!” Then I started trying to write it so I could be rich:
Hey mister, could you spare a lift
and maybe just a little gift
of fifteen thirty-seven for my way?
I’m lost and lonely as a sparrow,
a humble man without his marrow,
just a Nashville Alan Jackson lovin’ fool.
I’m trying to head up north
to get the dog from my divorce,
the only pooch who knew the way
into my heart.
He’s all that’s left of my lady-love,
just a mongrel mix of romantic stuff,
he’s a furry, waggin’ window
to my soul.
Please, mister, take these hollow bones
The song is entitled, “The Furry, Waggin’ Window.”
Another time, in Louisiana, I picked up a guy who was walking his bike beside the road. He was limping, so I helped him toss his bike into the back of my truck.
“Where to?” I said.
“The HOSPITAL!” he shouted.
We headed for the hospital. On the way, he said, “Wanna see my foot?”
“Of course,” I said.
He took off his boot. He wasn’t wearing a sock. Not a real one. He’d made a sock out of bandages. He unwound them, which took him a long time. I dreamed of him unwinding down to a foot made of solid gold. “Touch it,” he would say, “and you will see the future!”
Instead, the foot wasn’t made of gold.
“Check out my toe!” he shouted. As you now know, he shouted everything.
I checked out his toe, his big toe, which was only formerly big. It was half a toe.
“Wow,” I said.
“Don’t mention it!”
I thought the foot would be the last of his gifts, but at the hospital, after I pulled his bike from the back of my truck, he said, “You hungry?!”
I’m glad I was, because he reached into his pocket and pulled out a sock that had a lump inside. He held the sock by the toe and shook it over his open hand, and the lump worked its way down and down, making the sock look like an upside-down snake disgorging a big toe.
please be a toe, please be a toe, please be a toe
It wasn’t a toe. It was a small orange. I thanked him and he thanked me, then he walked his bike into the hospital.
This hitchhiker came the closest to giving me the life I seek.
But I want more. I want a hitchhiker story like the one my friend told me, a story that changes my life forever.
This friend lives with my other friend, her sister, in an assisted living home called Providence Care Facility. Back before pandemic times, I went to Providence to talk to people. I wanted the oldest of the old, the people stretching their feet down as deep as possible into the past. Back in the old days, the Devil didn’t have the internet as his invisibility cloak, so he would periodically step out of abandoned houses and talk to people face to face. I went to Providence to hear about Devil sightings and the sightings of anything fantastical. Again, long ago, before the world was so world-wide, there were more quiet spots, doldrum zones beyond the steady noise of connection. Leviathan was easier to spot. He felt freer in the relative quiet to walk abroad. And the old folks know it.
My friend told me a story about two farmers: “They got in a fight outside the filling station.”
“Awesome,” I said.
“Then one went inside and got an axe…”
Oh, this is wonderful. Please, please, please do something horrible.
“and he came out and cut the other’s head off!”
I fell on the floor.
My other friend told the story of why their grandfather stopped gambling.
One night, he went down to the railroad tracks to play cards. A stranger was there. No one had ever seen him before, and soon they all wished they’d never seen him at all, because this guy knew how to play. He bankrupted everyone. Taking their money and taking their money.
My friend’s grandfather at one point happened to glance under the table. He saw the man’s legs. They were normal legs. He had knees. He had shins. But that’s where the normal stopped. The man’s pant legs did not lead to bare feet or boots or shoes. The man’s feet were not the feet of a man at all.
He had the feet of a pig.
“That’s the last pappy ever gambled,” she said. “That’s the God’s honest truth.”
Her sister confirmed: “Amen.”
Every time I visited, I asked to hear this story. “Would you tell about your grandfather’s gambling?” And she would. And I would become a caveman child sitting at the fiery feet of magic.
Also, she told me the hitchhiker story.
The Hitchhiker Story
Her husband, Mr. Mike Martin, was a truckdriver. He drove a Pepsi truck up and down the Pennsylvania highways. He was the perfect man for this job because he loved Pepsi above all things, to the point that his blood was carbonated, brownish, and almost as good as Coke.
My friend told me PepsiCo had a strict rule for its drivers: “No hitchhikers. Ever,” and her husband, being a good Pepsi man, obeyed this rule.
Until one night.
Mr. Martin was driving along and a man stepped out of the woods, not in a hurry, but walking slowly, strolling toward the side of the road, where he stopped. He didn’t put out his thumb or wave his arms. He just stood there. And out of nowhere, it occurred to Mr. Martin that he wanted to give this guy a lift. More than wanted to.
“He said he needed to,” my friend explained. “Said he had to.”
So he slowed the big truck down and stopped, and the man hopped in. Mr. Martin was a little nervous because he was breaking the rules, but as soon as the stranger buckled himself in and they were rolling down the road, he forgot his concern.
“What’d he look like?” I said.
My friend started describing her husband.
“No, I mean the hitchhiker?”
“Just normal,” she said. “Nothing special. But Mike said something about that man was different. He kept saying, ‘Deb, he was good. That man was a good man.’”
I tried to find out what Mr. Martin and the hitchhiker talked about, but my friend only said, “Just nothing. Normal stuff.”
But her husband claimed that while he drove down the highway with this stranger, a feeling of great peace came over him, peace and quiet and calm, and joy, a feeling so deep and wonderful that everything in the world felt right and everything inside him felt steady for the first time in his life. All his questions were answered. He had no questions. His entire life fit with heavenly comfort inside that cab, in the company of a man from the woods.
They got to the nearest town and Mr. Martin said goodbye to the mystery man. Later, he said to his wife, “I never felt that feeling before, never that peaceful. And I was breaking the rules! Who do you think he was?”
“Who knows?” his wife said, “maybe God,” and the idea immediately sounded right to Mr. Martin.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Maybe he was.”
I asked my friend to tell me the story again and again (along with the pig feet and the small-town decapitation), and every time she did, or her sister did, I felt the special happiness that comes from receiving magic.
But like I said, I want a lifechanging story to happen to me. Where are my pig feet? Where’s my axe-murderer? When will I meet face to face my hitchhiking God?
So, I break my wife’s rule, which is, “Don’t pick up hitchhikers.” I pick them up.
I’m on the hunt for someone who looks normal, nothing special, someone happy to talk with me about nothing, the normal stuff, and when this is happening, and I begin to suspect that goodness and love itself, God in the flesh, is in the car with me, and my suspicion is confirmed by a wonderfully deep feeling of calm and quiet, I will say, “Tell me a wonderful story. Tell me a story the whole world will love.”
He will do this. I will write it, earning riches and might, then I’ll spend the rest of my life searching for the hitchhiker, so I can say, “Please, tell me another one.”