All characters have attained majority.
Sometimes it comes on slow. Sometimes it just seems to appear out of nowhere. This was one of those out of nowhere times.
"Git on up here," I said to the pathetic creature dressed not nearly warm enough for the light snow falling. "Git on up now, I said."
The girl climbed into the cab, shivering like a struck tuning fork.
"God girl, what you doin' out here in the middle of nowhere?"
"Do you have a cigarette?" she asked.
"Nobody smokes in my rig. Nobody."
"I need to get warm."
"Reach behind you. There's a blanket folded on the bench behind your seat."
She reached behind her grabbing the blanket and immediately wrapped herself head-to-toe in the large, wool covering. "Thanks."
I glanced over to see a pair of big, scared, eyes peeking out from the dark blue cloth. "No problem."
I pulled out onto the highway and started heading west. I thought I could make it over the pass and down to lower elevation before the real snow fell. I didn't want to be driving two empty trailers across mountains with wind and snow fighting against me every step of the way.
"There's coffee in the thermos back of my seat if it will help."
"Where you headed?" she asked as she reached back to get the thermos.
"California. I got to take these two trailers out to a guy that bought 'em."
"What's in the trailers?" she asked as she poured coffee in to the thermos' cup.
"Yeah, air. I mean nothing really. They're empty."
"Why didn't you just say that? Why'd you say air?"
"I don't know. I thought I'd be cute."
"You're too old to be cute," she said.
"Hey. Is that any way to talk to a guy that just saved your life?"
"I wasn't dyin'. I was just cold."
"Another hour and you'd a been dead."
"Maybe. Anyway, thanks for pickin' me up."
"I'm goin' to California too. We can ride together, huh?"
"How old are you?"
"I'll be eighteen on April 22nd."
"Hey, that's Earth Day."
"I know. That's why I'm goin' to California."
"I can't take you."
"Cause you're under age and I'd get in trouble for transportin' a minor across state lines."
"I'm still a virgin."
"Whoa girl. I don't even want to talk about that kind of thing with a minor."
"Think about it mister. If the cops or the feds or the navy chase us down, I can show them my hymen and they'd know you didn't molest me."
"Yeah, well that's just one way of gettin' in trouble. There's other ways too."
"You mean like blow-jobs and stuff."
"Hey. I told you not to talk about sex stuff with me."
"Oh yeah. Sorry. But if not sex stuff, how can you get in trouble?"
"Well let's start with kidnapping."
"But you didn't kidnap me and believe me, if you knew where I came from; ransom is completely out of the question. Even the cops could figure that one out."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm trailer trash. My Ma does other peoples laundry just to be able to stay in her little trailer."
"Where's your Pa?"
"His liver gave out."
"Don't be. He died with a smile on his face, drunk as a skunk and that's exactly how he wanted to go. So don't be sorry. He was one of the lucky ones."
"But he left you and your Ma high and dry."
"Nah. I don't see it that way. See, he wasn't my real Pa. Ma just shacked up with him so's she could get enough from his paycheck to buy some food."
"How'd you guys eat after he died?"
"Ma blows the grocery store guy two, three times a month."
"How do you know that?"
"See. Got ya talkin' 'bout sex, huh?"
"Well yeah. Sorry."
"Don't be. I've seen more in my seventeen years, eleven months and twenty-five days, then most see by the time they're forty."
"What do you mean?"
"Mister, where I'm from, all my friends started havin' sex when they were young. Too young."
"What kept you celibate?"
"Oh good. A man who knows words."
"Celibate? Everybody knows celibate."
"Not where I come from. Most folks have trouble spellin' Wal-Mart."
"Well anyway. I'm gonna drop you off when I get fuel in about an hour."
"NO!" She practically started cryin'. "Please mister. I got to get to California by the twenty-second."
"I ain't no child. I'm old enough to join up and go shoot people. I ain't no child. Please," she pleaded. "Please. I got to get there. You're my only hope."
"Look. I don't know you. I don't owe you. I could get in serious trouble. I'm sellin' these trailers, and then I'm drivin' up to Oregon to sell my rig. After that, I'm headin' to Canada. I don't want no trouble in what few weeks I got left to work. I just want out."
"Wow. And I thought I was runnin' away."
"You might be, but I'm not. I'm retirin'. I'm retirin' with no marks against me. Especially one that involves an underage runaway."
"Jeez. You make this accidental meeting seem like some sinister Republican plot against, I don't know, somethin'. Look. Would it help if we call my Ma and tell her I'm okay?"
"Oh, we're gonna' call your Ma all right. We'll call as soon as we get to the fuel-stop."
"Okay. In the meantime, I caught her twice."
"You asked me how I know Ma does the grocery guy. I caught her twice. She don't know I caught her, but I saw her through the window of the trailer when I came home from the library early."
"Yeah. I had a job there until last week. They had to let all but two of us go and the two they kept had kids to feed, so I don't feel too bad, but now I got no job and no way to get information from the internet."
"Don't you have cable?"
"Your not listening mister. I told you, my Ma blows the grocery guy just so's we can eat. I don't want to live with her if she has to do that just to feed me. I'd rather make it on my own. Then, if she has to do that to feed herself, at least I won't feel guilty 'bout it."
"Hah. You know what I think? I think that's your excuse to get out on your own and not feel guilty."
"Yeah. There's that too."
She was quiet for a moment. "I'll grant ya, the gettin' out part sure appeals to me."
"Sit tight a sec. I'm gonna' listen to the weather talk on the two-way."
"Okay. Can I have a bit more coffee? It sure helped."
"Sure. Help yourself. I can make more if I need some later."
I listened to the other drivers tell about the road conditions out about fifty plus miles from where I was. It seems a big storm was headin' our way fast.
"Shhh," I shushed her.
I listened a bit more and finally had heard enough to know I was gonna' have to find a place to pull over before the fuel-stop.
"Okay. What was it you were sayin'?"
"I said, you can't leave me at the fuel place if it's gonna be as cold and snowy as they say."
"I can't leave you there."
"I can't leave you there 'cause we're not even gonna make it there. Storm's comin' too fast."
"Oh. Are we in trouble?"
"Not at all. Been through worse than this many times."
"Do you have any food?"
"When was the last time you ate?"
"This mornin'. I had a banana."
"That's it? You mean that's all you ate all day?"
"Ain't no peach trees out where you found me."
"That's for sure. How you gonna make it to California without eatin'?"
"I got money."
"Yeah. How much?"
"Eleven dollars? Girl that don't buy nothin' anymore."
"I know. But I got a CD if I need more."
"Yeah. Remember, I used to work."
"Pardon my askin', but how's a trailer trash little girl like you got a CD?"
"I told you, I used to work at the library. To get out of the trailer, I'd go in when it opened and stay 'til it closed, even if I wasn't workin'."
"Jeez. I'm impressed. I'm truly impressed." I thought for a minute then added; "I thought I was done bein' surprised and all, but you little one, you take the cake. A CD. Who'd a thunk?"
"So, will you take me with you?"
"We'll call your Ma in the mornin'. If she says it's okay, I guess it's okay."
"Oh my god, I love you," she gushed. She squeezed her eyes shut and made fists of her hands and repeated over and over, "I love you, I love you, I love you."
I couldn't help but smile inside. It was only then I realized how important this bein' in California was to her.
"Listen. I'm gonna pull over now. We need to wait out the storm. It will probably last all night. We'll sleep and get an early start at first light, that's assumin' the roads will be passable."
"Where we gonna sleep?"
"In the cabin."
"In the cabin. Are you kiddin', there ain't no room up here but two chairs worth."
"Not up here. Behind you where you got the coffee."
"There ain't nothin' back there."
I pulled over at a turnout and shut the rig down. Then, I turned on the cabin's light.
"Oh my god," she exclaimed. "It's as big as my trailer."
"I doubt that," I offered.
"No seriously, you could live in this cab for years."
"I have been. Well at least while I was on the road."
"Where do you pee and poop?"
"In the commode."
"Well don't that beat all? Speakin' a which, I gotta get rid of some of this coffee soon or I'll wet the bed."
"Sit tight for just a minute and I'll set it up for you."
"Are you gonna be back there with me when I pee?"
"No, I'll stay up here, just like you'll do when I pee."
"Okay. That sounds polite and all."
I set everything up for her and then moved back to the driver's seat. When she peed I tried not to listen, but in the close quarters it was hard not to hear the stream hitting the commode. I felt a bit flustered that she knew I could hear, but there was not much I could do about it.
"Your turn," she said as she climbed back into her seat. "Oh," she added, "do you have a shirt or something a bit warmer I could wear? I want to get out of my clothes or I'll start to smell in a day or two."
"Sure enough," I answered as I reached into my traveler's chest and got her a flannel shirt to wear. "Here, wear this. It will keep you warm and the sleeping bag will do the rest."
I unzipped and let go with an overdue pee straight into the commode.
"Damn," she said. "Sounds like a fire hose lettin' loose."
"Very funny," I said. "You should a heard your stream."
"Yeah, maybe. But I doubt I made any more noise than a garden hose. You sound like a rushing river, overflowing its banks."
"Now get back here," I said zipping up. "This," I continued, pointing at the sleeping bag on the ledge is where you'll sleep. I'll sleep here."
"Can't we sleep side by side? What if it gets really cold?"
"I doubt it will get so cold the shirt and the bag won't be enough to keep you warm. But, if you get cold just wake me and we'll figure somethin' out."
"Okay," she said, crawlin' into her bag. "Nighty night."
"Pleasant dreams," I said, as I turned out the lights, undressed and crawled into my own bag.
I don't know why, but I felt a sense of peace come over me. I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be at this moment and place in time. An hour later and well into my sleep, I felt her roll off the ledge and lodge herself up against my bag. I didn't say anything and went back to sleep.
FOR PURPLE MOUNTAIN'S MAJESTY
I woke first.
The snow had stopped falling, but it covered the highway as far as I could see and was deep. I'd be safer if I waited for the plow to come by. So, I turned on the engine, the heater and the defroster. I made coffee and got some hardboiled eggs, fruit and croissants out. I was ravenous and I knew when, hey, it dawned on me I didn't know the hitcher's name but I knew she too would be ravenous when she woke. Well I'd ask her name when she got up.
I had to take a wicked pee, but with her back there, I figured I'd just step outside and let go.
I walked to the side of the highway and looked down the several hundred feet over the side of the cliff. Everything was covered in snow and so quiet, I though I was standing in a picture.
I peed and climbed back into the rig. What's her name was sitting in the passenger seat when I got back up.
"I woke up when the cold air came into the cab."
"Oh. Couldn't be helped. I had to go outside for a minute."
"I saw you."
"I know. Ain't no biggie."
"No silly. I didn't mean I saw your thing. I meant I saw you pee over the side of the road over there."
"I didn't want to wake you."
"Ever body's got to go. I went while you were lookin' off down the highway. What's the verdict?"
"I figure we'll be here 'bout an hour for they get the road cleared. May as well have a bite to eat."
"Thanks. I'm ravenous. Can I give you some money?"
"No. You keep it so when we get to the fuel-stop; you'll have somethin' to get you back home."
She scrunched her whole body up into the seat when I mentioned home. Sort of like she was trying to hide from the whole idea. But I still didn't fancy takin' her to California.
I poured two cups of coffee and made plates for her and me. She just looked at the food and coffee like it was some kinda' last meal or something. I started to feel a bit bad, but I wasn't convinced I should even call her Ma to straighten things out.
"Eat," I said.
"I'm not hungry."
"You were ravenous a moment ago."
"Yeah? Well you killed my appetite."
"Listen. I don't want to argue. If it makes you feel better, I'll call yer Ma. But I ain't makin' no promises."
She smiled, and then grabbed the plate and cup of coffee while turning her whole body away from me to look out the passenger's window. I thought I heard her whimper softly.
"Thank you," she whispered.
Now I wouldn't be tellin' this story if I called her Ma and then dropped her off, would I? Huh-uh. I called her Ma, got a go-ahead (frankly, I think her Ma was a bit relieved, both that I called and that her daughter was going on a trip) and gave her the news.
She jumped up on me, hugged me with more strength then I thought her little body could possibly muster, and cried for about six or seven minutes. Finally she got too heavy for me to hold onto and I set her gently back on the ground.
"Let's go," I said. "We got a lot a ground to make up 'fore the day is over."
"Oh my god," she shouted. "I'm goin' to California. Earth Day, here I come."
I stocked up on food and water, fueled up, bought a jacket for my co-pilot (she now said she was gonna be my co-pilot) and off we went.
From Massachusetts to Chicago took three days. The late snow kept us movin' slow 'til we hit Iowa. There, the skies cleared and I was off to the races. I had two days to make San Francisco so we could be there on Earth Day. I decided to take I-80 West the whole way as that would be the straightest line with the fewest mountain passes.
As we passed through Western Nebraska and approached the Colorado Wyoming border, the purple mountains of Katherine Bates immortal "America the Beautiful" began to appear on the horizon.
"Oh my god," my co-pilot whispered. "Will you look at that? I hadn't a clue what the song meant until this very moment." She turned to see I had moisture at the edges of my eyes. "You're cryin'?"
"Yes you are. You're cryin."
"Listen little miss know it all, I'm not cryin'. I'm always this way when I cross the plains and come to the mountains. It moves me. Here," I said as I switched on the CD player. "Listen."
Ray Charles rendition of America the Beautiful began to play. As the song progressed she joined in and amazed me, as she had the most beautiful controlled voice I'd ever heard live. I was stunned.
"Where'd you learn to sing like that?"
"At the library. When I was little..."
"You're still little."
"Very funny. As I was sayin', when I was little, I sang with the grown ups in the church choir. I loved it. So one day, at the library, I was puttin' some old records away when I came across some recordings of Puccini and Biset. From then on, anytime I read or surfed the net, I'd put my earphones on and listen to these great singers and then I'd try to mimic them later."
"I have Carmen."
"Nope, open the box under your feet and you'll see I have quite an eclectic mix of music."
"Number two what?"
"That's the second word you've surprised me with in the last three days."
"Yup. You see, out where I lived people just don't talk like that."
"How do they communicate?"
"Ha-ha. Very funny. I'm sure you had educated people where you lived."
"Not many. Most of those were older like you. Some were probably old enough to be your mother or father. I liked them the best."
"They had great stories to tell about the depression, the Second World War, the rapid development of our interstate highway system..."
"Now hold on. I doubt they talked about the highway system."
"Nah. I just through that in to see if you were payin' attention."
"Well I am and I was. So please, cut me some slack."
"Let's listen to the news. I want to see how the cleanup is goin' in the Dakotas and Oklahoma."
"Yeah. Huh. That's what Earth Day is all about."
"Well, if you won't feel insulted, I'd say it's about a whole lot more than that."
"Well for one thing, I think it's about recognizing the connection we all have to the planet. For another, I'm sure, for me at least, it's a reminder of how much of our planet's resources we consume in our everyday lives."
"I knew when you didn't want to talk about sex stuff, that you were a good man."
"What's that got to do with Earth Day?"
"Only good people celebrate and pay tribute to their host. Mother Earth is our host and she should be celebrated everyday."
"What are you, a tree hugger?"
"Might be. Just might be."
"But you're so young to think like this."
"Don't you mean so young to think?"
"No. A lot of young people think. But you seem to think about important things."
"You mean I think about things that are important to you."
"Well yeah. Usually when someone says something is important, they are referring to their subjective view of existence."
"Hey. Guess what?"
"You and I are very much alike."
"I doubt that."
"No, listen. You like opera, I like opera. You like trees, I like trees."
"Wait a minute, how do you know I like trees?"
"I just know. Anyway, as I was sayin', I get this vibe, like I'm where I should be at this place in time."
"Oh my god."
"I had that exact same thought the first morning you were with me, when I woke up and saw the snow on the highway. I thought, even if it was just for that little bit of time, all was right with my world."
"That's 'cause you chose to pick me up and not pass me by."
"I couldn't leave someone stranded by the roadside during a snow fall, especially with as little as you were wearing."
"See. That's exactly why I said you were a good man. Do you know how many cars and trucks passed me before you stopped?"
"I don't know, a couple."
"A couple? More like a couple hundred."
"Nope. And what's sadder is, I almost gave up hope, but I knew, if I could just hold out for another hour, the universe would send me a white knight. And you know what?"
"That's the exact moment I saw your rig come round the bend."
"That's number three."
"Number three? Oh yeah. I forgot. Where you come from people can't even spell lactobacillus."
"Damn. I can't even spell that. Lacto what?"
"You know, bacterium. The stuff that sours milk."
"Yup. That's me. A dyed-in-the-wool showoff."
"Hey. Guess what."
"Look at the time," she said pointing to the dash clock.