Riptide
by Marion Smith

Chapter 14

 [p.115]“Are you crying?” Duncan asks.

“No. Just a little.”

He pulls a clean white handkerchief from his pocket. When does he not have a clean white handkerchief?

I close my eyes for a moment.

Dozing off, I think I’m on a plane but have no idea what city I’m going to or have come from. The plane is overloaded.

We land and I step down the ladder like a little girl walking into a surreal landscape like a Dali painting. Low hills and smooth sand dunes and huge black rock outcroppings. I’m alone. The sun is warm overhead but it’s twilight. The sand’s firm under my feet. As I walk into this strange land, there’s a skeleton of a bare dead tree. From a thick finger-branch hangs a heavy rope knotted into a noose. The rope swings invitingly back and forth as if saying, “I’m ready for you. Come and use me.” I step up to the loop which is larger than my body. It hangs a few feet above the ground. I grab the sides of the rope and sit down and push off as hard as I can. The swing goes in long arcs. Suddenly my mother is in front of me. She says crossly, “Laurel, that’s not what that rope is for.” I say, “You’re not the boss of me,” and keep swinging. She walks toward me and reaches out for the rope. I wake with a jerk.

“I can do what I want!” I say.

“What?” says Duncan.

[p.116]“Nobody can control my life.”

“Everybody’s affected by everybody,” Duncan answers. “Pray you won’t lose touch.”

I wonder where we are and when it’ll start getting light.

I can tell Duncan’s fighting to stay awake.

I see the man before Duncan does. “How did he get on the freeway?”

Duncan’s starting to brake.

The man is old and stooped in baggy jeans and a windbreaker so battered and dirty it’s hard to tell the original color. His grey hair hangs long and tangled below a baseball cap. He wears a new-looking maroon backpack and by his feet is a black plastic garbage sack stuffed and tied. He isn’t raising a hand to us nor does he carry a sign. He gazes hopelessly as we approach.

“I’m going to give him a lift,” Duncan says as he continues to slow the car.

“Are you crazy?”

“I don’t care. He looks harmless.”

I’m almost speechless. “But we can’t have anyone see us driving to Palm Springs.”

Duncan is stopping. “You’ve broken all the rules. I guess I can too. I’m picking him up because I feel like it.”

I’m panicked and shocked. What have I done to Duncan that he’d take this kind of risk? “Don’t let him in yet. I’m climbing in back where he won’t look at me. I’ll lie down if I have to. I can’t believe this.”

As I struggle over the seat, I catch a glimpse of the face moving slowly towards us. It is grey and sick and old; it’s not alive. The guy probably never sees TV or reads a newspaper, I think in relief.

The hitchhiker opens the front door and heaves his belongings in. The reek of alcohol is overpowering, but his arm and voice [p.117]are steady. I huddle in the comer low in the seat behind him. He doesn’t look at me.

“Much obliged,” he says in a neutral, flat tone.

“That’s okay,” Duncan answers. “Where are you headed?”

“Far as you’ll take me probably. Actually to San Bernardino.” Duncan eyes him sideways. “We’re only going to Barstow. Someone you know in San Bernardino?”

“Got a sister there if I can find her. She’ll let me stay a while.”

“It’s pretty dark and cold on the freeway,” Duncan says. “How’d you get onto it?”

“Guy back aways gave me a lift, but he turned off at that Ranch Exit. Maybe you didn’t notice it.”

“Guess not. Where’re you from?” I can tell Duncan is going to begin a lengthy interview if he can. I can relax. Neither of them need acknowledge my existence.

“Everywhere,” the man sighs wearily. Perhaps we’re about to get a new existential perspective from him. The main trouble with picking somebody like this up is that then I start worrying about how much to give them for a motel room.

“I was a bartender in a scummy place in Vegas for a while. It closed. Rotten town.”

Duncan grunts agreement. “Before that?”

“This and that. Glad my sister got out of there when she got married.”

“You been married?” Duncan asks innocently.

“Who hasn’t? Got three kids and an ex up in the northwest somewhere. Don’t know exactly where now.”

“So what’d you do before the bartender job?” Duncan continues.

“Lots of junk. I done it all. Would you care if I catch a few winks now? You get pretty tired standing on that road.”

Before Duncan can respond, the man’s head is hanging and [p.118]he’s breathing heavily. So much for Duncan’s inquiry into the life of the other half, I snicker to myself. I’m not worried about the man now. I’m envious he can drop off to sleep that way.

The only sound is a steady soft snore from the old man. Somehow his presence is comforting. I wish I didn’t have to go to the bathroom and we could take him all the way to San Bernardino. I wonder if he’d be scared if he knew that the woman in the back seat is a murderer.

He and I are refugees.

I could stand on a freeway and wear a big sign: “Refugee. Please connect me to Social Services for Displaced Persons.” I’d tie the sign with a pink silk cord that wouldn’t chafe my skin. “Connect” is the important word. If I could only figure out who, how, why to connect.

The only connection I really want is to rocks. Granite. Cold. Sheer. Unyielding. Or black, deformed, lava, habitable only to black crabs and bare bleeding feet. Maybe smooth stream-rounded pebbles, wet and sensuous, their curvings indifferent to human fingers rubbing back and forth, back and forth in a moist cupped hand.

Rocks. Baked and sand-glued for a sun-drenched lizard. In a dark cave pungent and sweet with nature’s reekings. Stub your bare toes on rough shale, bleed. Cup the black smooth stream pebbles and rub them in your fingers back and forth until some continuity is shaped.

Connect to rocks is my advice.

I picture the man’s hands. Chapped. Dirty. Large veins protruding on the backs, finger tips rough and calloused. Not very different from my own—old with tiny wrinkles like criss-crossing threads running everywhere. Jasmine used to pull at the loose skin on my elbows as she sat in my lap in the car and tease me that she wanted to tie it in a knot. All the plastic surgery in the [p.119]world couldn’t change the skin on my arms and hands even if I wanted it to, which I don’t. It’s funny I call the man old. I think he’s younger than I.

My girls have lovely skin. Jeanne was worried about pimples on her neck when we went to New York to shop for her wedding dress, but I couldn’t see a single blemish. It turned out wedding dresses in New York have to be ordered six months ahead, and we couldn’t find one. She was trying not to cry her disappointment.

“There has to be a wedding dress somewhere in this city,” I said. “Queens, Brooklyn, 38th Street.”

We tried a discount store in Soho that advertised “Thousands of Styles to Fit your Individual Taste.”

“They’re not so bad,” I lied. “Keep an open mind. It’ll be okay.”

We went to Bergdorf Goodman. I paid too much. I would’ve paid any amount. Does she believe that now? Almost as soon as she was married, her panic attacks started. She went to the emergency room one night when she couldn’t breathe. God give me a break. Somebody give me a break.

She’s eight, watching a porcupine. I can’t see it but she tells me it’s there. She’s wearing her Mexican blouse with blue embroidery. It’s getting too little and her tummy shows above her shorts. Her hair isn’t brushed, but it falls straight on her shoulders, not’ tangled like Jasmine’s. She won’t leave the porcupine she’s watching until she decides she’s ready to go. I’m too impatient—I leave her sitting in the bushes watching.

She finally gave up her “blankie” and “pacie” when she turned four. There was a yellow bunny suit on Halloween. The cutest child that ever lived. In kindergarten I sent her to another school because her teacher was mean. How could anyone be mean to Jeanne?

[p.120]How, Clint, how could you be mean to her? Of all people in the world, to Jeanne?

Where is she now?

What’s left to us, Duncan and me?

No reparations can ever be paid her—not by anyone.

It’s beginning to get light. Soon the cactus will be silhouetted against the pale dawn. The man will be able to see me. I don’t care. There’s the sign for the Barstow exit.

“Excuse me,” Duncan says politely. “We’re turning off here. Do you want to get out here or go into Barstow?”

 “Huh?”

“This is the Barstow exit. Do you want to get out here?”

“Might as well.” He stretches a little. “Anywhere here will do.”

Duncan slows and stops. He hands the man a few bills. “Good luck!”

“’Preciate it. You too.” And he’s gone.

We take the Barstow exit.

“Was that satisfying?” I can’t resist asking.

“Yes. If you can go around killing people, I guess I can go around being a Christian for a change. Exercise my free agency.”

I snort.

“Stop at that first gas station, will you?”

Again I’m in another moderately clean restroom on this interminable journey. Again I wash my hands. Again I think of Lady Macbeth.

Duncan is at the cash register when I come out. He holds my hand tightly as we leave.