People have this funny habit of asking me where I’m going. I’m not really sure what it is about me that causes them to ask, but my answer’s always the same. “In circles” I tell them.
Sometimes I wonder why they ask. I’m sure I’ve considered every angle. Perhaps it’s the over-size backpack I am always carrying. Maybe it’s because I’m always glancing over my shoulder mid-conversation, to see if anyone’s watching. I like to think that it’s the lost look in my eyes. Every time I catch my reflection in the mirror, I am surprised at how restless I look, how anxious I seem.
At 22 years old, I’ve lived thirty-seven different places, and counting. If you do the math, that’s almost twice a year, not including all the places my mother brought me when I was too young to understand that she liked to run away. I suppose it might be genetic. I mean, running’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, isn’t it? All I can say is, whenever I’ve been somewhere too long, my legs begin to ache. It’s like growing pains past twenty.
For once, I’m a sunny place. I didn’t look at the token “Welcome to…” sign on the way in, so all I know is that I am somewhere in the middle of British Columbia. It makes me sad to think that even the unique beauty of this province can’t hold me here for very long, though the isolation sometimes can. So I hitchhike annually, whenever that feeling strikes, out onto the Trans-Canada Highway toward BC. I ask the driver to drop me off near Kamloops, and they watch me stomp off into the forest. I never look back, but I like to imagine their looks of confusion as I disappear into the trees.
I think it’s the mountains that always bring me back. I like standing at their base, so I can experience some of their strength. They always give me comfort, to know some things never move. I remember, long ago, the first time I saw the mountains. I’ll never forget that moment, deciding each peak signaled the upturned faces of a lost people who, when the world began, looked to the stars and forgot to look down again. Even remembering those times brings the familiar tingle. Then my choice is easy; I take one step away from civilization and, thumb flagging, toward the nearest highway. Someone is always nice enough to offer me a lift.
This time, a kindly fellow asks where I am headed and I tell him. For some reason, I trust this stranger. I think it’s his eyes. I put my bag into the backseat of the old soft-top and let myself into the front of the car. We watch each other for a moment. He’s elderly, with keen watery eyes and a crooked nose. His flannel shirt is untucked, his tan trousers slightly wrinkled and his feet, bare.
I take off my shoes.
We drive in silence for a while, and every minute or two he glances in my direction. I can usually tell right away whether I’m being picked up by a pervert, I’ve had a lot of experience with that sort of thing, but he isn’t like that. This guy is only gently curious, I think, like all other people of the transient kind who are only searching for an answer. For a story.
I know that look.
“Come out this way often?” he asks.
“You could say that.”
“Got a name, kiddo?”
“Kiddo’ll do me just fine.” He smiles and adjusts the radio dial before giving up hope of getting any good reception.
“I s’ppose it’s just conversation from here on out then,” he grins, watery eyes twinkling.
I’m curious. I want to know more about him. I want to add him to my collection of interesting encounters. There aren’t many that make it into my book, but I have a feeling that his story is worth it. I take out my old journal and – pen poised – I ask him to tell me a story. His story.
“Well I can’t right well tell you all that!” he laughs. I tell him I only need one. He changes lanes, glancing at me through the rear-view mirror.
“I s’ppose that’s not too much to ask. Come to think of it, I have one that’ll suit you just fine. It’s about a girl I met, some years ago. She would have been a bit younger than you, maybe ten.” He looks at me again through the mirror, waiting for a reaction.
“I’m twenty-two.” I sit up taller. His mouth twitches and I can’t help but smile.
“All grown up now, aren’t we?” I like his familiar air. It’s refreshing in the face of so many strangers.
“Well then! Maybe Kiddo ain’t so appropriate after all! You can call me Cal, if you like.”
“Is that short for something?”
“Nope. That’s the name my poor mama gave me,” he laughs again, “Bless her heart.” We pass a semi-truck and a mini-van before he continues.
“I guess it would have been about twelve years ago now, if my memory serves me. I was driving along Interstate Highway 5 and I saw this young thing walking on the side of the road with a huge backpack, not unlike yours you got back there. I pulled up alongside her and asked where she was going. She hopped in my car just like that an’ chirped ‘I’m going wherever you’re going, please. As long as it’s gone.’”
“I told her I was headed up the coast to Vancouver. I knew she might not know where that was so young, but she didn’t seem concerned. In them days anyone could have got hold of a little thing like that, so I thought I would take care of her until I could get a hold of her parents.”
“At first, I was surprised. She wasn’t like some little girls, all ready to call you Grandpa. No, this one was already an adult, trapped in a child’s body. I talked to her for a while, and she stayed quiet, listening, but as the road wore on, she became more and more comfortable with me. We became like old friends. She turned to me and smiled, once, with that huge grin and bright green eyes. Would have been about the time we neared a town called Everett, I think. Might have been the first time she ever saw the mountains.”
“I don’t know how long we drove for, but as the sky darkened she fell clean asleep on the passenger side. In the morning, I took her for breakfast at this little diner off the highway. While the waitress took our order, she began rummaging through the front pockets of her dress and, after a minute, pulled out a reporter’s notebook and asked if I wanted to hear a story.”
“What was the story about?” I ask, cutting him off.
“I’m getting there, Kiddo.”
“I thought you said I was too old for Kiddo?”
“An’ here I thought you said Kiddo was just fine?” He laughs and goes on.
“The little thing flipped through that notebook for a minute before she found a stained page with an old photo attached. I never did get to see that photo, she took good care to hide it from me. Eventually, she glanced up to see if I was listening. I told her to go ahead, that I was ready.”
“‘This is the story of a man,’ she began dramatically, ‘who picked me up a real long time ago. That was the time I was still livin’ with my Mama in Dakota. I ran away ‘cause I didn’t like my new Daddy ‘cause he was so mean. He yelled a whole lot and one time he broke my Mama’s favourite mug. She always drank her coffee from that mug so she was very mad at him. After her mug broke, we didn’t really see that man no more. We moved to a new place after that but I didn’t like it at all.’
‘The man drove a blue car with no roof on it. It had real nice seats in there made of leather. Even though his car was nice I knew he was a sad man because his eyes were always watering. I asked him what was wrong and he said that it was because an angel gave him those tears when she left him to go to heaven.’”
“His wife?” I interrupt, curious.
“Maybe. It could have been anyone.” We sit in silence for a moment.
“Well, where was I? Oh yes. The waitress brought us our food and, toast in one hand, the girl continued, ‘The man was on his way north. He said that he was going until he couldn’t go no more. He didn’t talk too much but I sure liked him a lot. He answered all of the questions that Mama never did.’
‘My favourite part of the trip was when we stopped at a park and he bought me a peach snow cone. He laughed at me because I got orange all over my dress, but I said I didn’t care ‘cause Mama wasn’t around to yell at me about it. Then he asked if I wanted to see a surprise. I got so excited that I jumped up and banged my darn knee on the picnic table!’
‘I wanted to know what his surprise was very badly. We walked away from the playground toward a little woman with a big fancy camera around her neck. There was a sign beside her but I couldn’t understand all the words. She seemed like a real nice lady, so I asked if I could have one of the balloons she was holding. She said I could have one if I stood real still for a minute. The man lifted me up on his shoulder and told me to smile. I stayed real still ‘cause I wanted that balloon. The lady took our picture two times, and she said because I was so good, I got to have two balloons!’
‘When we walked away from the lady, he let me pick out which picture – he called them pole-roids – I liked best. I picked out the second one ‘cause the lady had told us to make silly faces. He said I could have it, even though he liked that one best, I think.’
‘After that, he went to get us some water from the store. When he came back he was real sad again. He said that he thought I had to go home. I told him that Mama didn’t care, but he said that she really did and that I should love her always. Then an ugly, old police officer came over to me and talked a lot on his radio. He asked me my name and when I told him, he said that I had to go home because my Mama was worryin’ about me. I didn’t really think she was, but I promised that I would go back as soon as I said goodbye to my friend. I gave him a big hug and didn’t want to let go, but he said I had to leave with the policeman. I only went because he said so. And the rest is history.’
“I remember the look on her face when she finished; she was so proud of what she’d done, she was beaming. Unfortunately for me, I chuckled at the wrong moment. You see, she had gotten marmalade on her shirt and it made me laugh for some reason. She thought I was laughing at her story, but not in a nice way – I could see the hurt in her eyes. I told her I was sorry for hurtin’ her feelings and that I really liked her story, especially the part about the peach snow cone. She closed her notebook and looked out the diner window as I continued to eat my breakfast. I remember not really knowing what to say, though I think I know what I’d say now.
Then, without looking back at me, she asked whether it was okay that she leave me at the diner. Her eyes were far away, so I knew she wasn’t really asking. I nodded. I’ll admit I was sad to see her go. Such a sweet little girl, and so alone. I figured I could at least help her get where she was going, wherever that was, but I guess an old codger like me can’t keep a young girl occupied too long. She crawled out of her booth and into mine, warming my heart with a quick hug and a quiet goodbye. I watched her walk out of the diner and pet a dog tied to a lamp post outside. She looked back at me and waved, then went on her way. I remember thinking that maybe I would miss her more than she would miss me.”
He stops talking, eyes fixed on the road. I wonder what else he remembers about her. I wonder where she was going, why she left. But now is not the time to ask. He looks too far away. I review my notes, making sure I haven’t missed anything. The radio signal finally steadies and we’re surrounded by the deep swoon of a small-town jazz station. My eyelids are heavy. He tells me I have time for a nap before we hit Kamloops, and I allow myself to drift off. I dream of a small girl, of smashing china. I dream of the past.
I wake up, still in the passenger seat, the mid-morning sun glaring through the windshield of the stationary vehicle. I look behind me to see if Cal is still sleeping there, but the backseat is empty, save for my bag. A car passes on my left and I realize that we must be parked on the side of the highway. A green sign nearby tells me I am thirty-four kilometres from Kamloops. I wait fifteen minutes, thinking Cal may have gone for a morning stroll to stretch his legs. Then I let myself worry about him. I realize how alone I have become, to be worrying about a man I’ve known for less than a day. Unfamiliar thoughts shoot through my mind: What if he’s lost? What if he’s hurt? He’s an old man, after all. He’s got no one to take care of him. I pace around the car a couple of times before realizing the keys are still in the ignition. There’s a crumpled piece of paper taped to the steering wheel. The paper is marked “Kiddo.”
I get out of the car and enter through the driver’s side door, settling into the sun-warmed leather bucket seat. Peeling tape from the letter as I open it, a photo falls into my lap. The photo is of a little girl with strawberry curls. She has a broad, toothy grin and playful green eyes. She is perched on the shoulder of a younger, hairier Cal, whose own grin covers the bottom half of his face. Teardrops stain the photograph, and it’s a while before I realize they’re mine. I turn to the passenger seat, where my notebook still sits, and flip to one of the earliest pages. The page is stained with orange and smells faintly of peaches. Attached to the page is a picture of the same strawberry blonde with the same green eyes. I’m sticking my tongue out in the picture.
It’s another minute before I pick up the letter waiting patiently on my lap, hoping for an inkling of where he had gone, an idea of where we would meet again. I am not disappointed:
We’re trading places,
You and I.
It’s my turn to hitchhike,
And your turn to drive.
Story Published at The Wanderer Online