The old Ford pickup with a camper on back pulled over on the on-ramp to pick me up. I had slept the night in a field across the street from a casino on the end of the strip.
“Where you headed?”
“Anywhere east. Montreal, eventually.”
The old man behind the wheel wore a John Deere baseball cap and eyed me. “Montreal, that’s a long way from Vegas.”
I pushed my backpack down between my feet and looked for a seat belt. “I’m learning that.”
The Old Man took a long sip out of a tall plastic Tupperware cup and then replaced it in the cup holder. The smell of vodka mixed with dust and mildew. He had one of those add-on center consoles with storage compartments and cup holders. The dusty dashboard on the driver’s side had wallet-sized photos taped to it. “I’ll get you pretty far along that way.”
We drove for hours turning right across the blank landscape of Interstate 80. I took over driving when he started to swerve. Comfortable in his passenger seat, he became talkative and told me how he had just got out of jail for drunk driving. The Old Man had managed somehow to run into a parked police car on his way to a liquor store. Bad move.
When we got hungry, the Old Man offered to share some packed food out of the back of his camper. He pulled out an ice chest and we sat on the rear bumper eating crackers, cheese, and sardines in thick mustard. The Old Man pulled out two tall cans of Budweiser for us to wash it down. We ate and watched the sun going down across the plain.
Back on the road we passed a hitchhiker and the Old Man asked me to pull over. The hitchhiker was in his late twenties and carried a guitar and small pack. The Old Man slid over towards me, and the three of us on the wide bench continued east on Highway 80 as the cab darkened. The hitchhiker introduced himself as Davey, a veteran from Michigan who had been in Los Angeles trying to make it in the music industry. He had left his wife at home in Detroit and was returning. The Old Man was a veteran as well, and the two struck up a long conversation about post-war trauma, and the living wounded.
I drove through the night, and they fell asleep, the Old Man wheezing in a drunken stupor. About four in the morning I stopped for gas and coffee, and Davey took over driving. Davey told me about how he and his wife had a falling out over him wanting to be a musician. How their families had worked in the auto industry, but he didn’t want to do that–especially after fighting in the war. “I told myself over there that I wasn’t going to let other people tell me what to do anymore.” Davey had been in LA for almost a year, then his wife stopped writing or calling.
We talked while the Old Man seemed to fall in and out of sleep between us. At one point I saw him look at me with a strange apprehension. “Do you want to stop?” I asked.
The Old Man pulled himself up, “Yeah. Got to piss.”
The Old Man disappeared into the rest stop rest room and after a long delay returned to the truck. He suddenly seemed much more alert.
Back on the road I closed my eyes to get some sleep. Soon I heard a siren behind us, and Davey pulled over to the side of the road. A highway patrolman came up slowly on the shoulder of the road and then pointed at me to get out of the car. “Keep your hands where I can see them.” I held my hands in front of me and move to the hood where the patrolman directed me. He then motioned for the old man to come out towards him. The Old Man pushed a pint bottle of vodka into the fold of the car bench as he got out of the truck.
“You, behind the wheel. Come out with your hands showing,” the patrolman ordered Davey. Davey did as ordered, and then stared hard at the Old Man.
“Stay here,” the patrolman led the Old Man to his car. We stood next to the hood of the car and watched as the patrolman questioned the Old Man in the car. The Old Man was defensive. The patrolman at one point looked to be yelling at the old man.
Finally, the two came out of the patrol car and towards us. “Well, it is your lucky day you two,” the patrolman says. “I pulled you over because of a complaint that you were robbing this man. But now he doesn’t want to press charges.”
“Rob him?” Davey says.
“You all be careful,” the patrolman says and goes back to his car.
Back in the car Davey is furious, “Why did you do that?”
“I heard you two talking when you thought I was asleep. Something about planning to rob me. I got scared and called the cops at that rest stop.”
We drove for some time without speaking. The Old Man bought a large coffee at the gas station and took over driving. This seemed to put him in an expansive mood. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll drive you both to where you want to go,” he says. “I was headed to my mother’s house in Vermont, but I can take a detour. No hurry.”
“Just Detroit would be great for me,” Davey says.
“Detroit is okay for me too,” I say. “I’ll go the rest of the way on my own across the border.”
“No need for that,” the Old Man says. “I can take you. I feel bad about the cops. Let me make it up to you guys.”
The Old Man turns on Country Western music on the radio and I act like I am sleeping.
The next morning Davey takes the wheel outside of Detroit. He drives more rapidly and with purpose as we make our way through the suburbs he clearly knows well. Finally, Davey pulls up in a working-class neighborhood and stops the truck. “That’s it. That’s my house.” Davey sizes up the street and the house. Everything seems quiet. He turns to us. “I’d ask you in, but…” He shakes our hands and walks with his pack and guitar case to the front door.
I slip behind the wheel and start the truck. We can see that no one answers the door, and Davey is peering in a side window. He turns and sees us waiting for him. “Go on.”
Back on the highway headed northeast into Canada it seems lonely without Davey. We stop outside Toronto and eat another impromptu meal on the truck gate. The Old Man is determined now to make up it up to me. “I get crazy thoughts sometimes. But I’m not a bad guy. Just trying to get by.”
We drive east and then back down through Buffalo, then Syracuse on Highway 90. The Old Man takes over again as we cross upstate New York into Vermont. Now surrounded by the crimson and burnt sienna fall leaves, the Old man is driving like he’s going home. As it gets dark we decide to splurge and split a motel room. A hot meal at a coffee shop, and then the Old Man blacks out as I watch local TV.
In the morning cold, we pack up and the Old Man asks me to stop at a liquor store. He comes back with a fifth in a bag and takes a swig with shaking hands. I stop to get some coffee and donuts to share. The Old Man insists on taking me to Montreal, although I wonder how he will possibly make it back to Vermont on his own. At the border the immigration official eyes us suspiciously, but then lets us pass.
“Thanks,” I say at the airport.