You're not supposed to pick up hitchhikers. Everyone knows that.
But I'm not everyone, and she was cute in a northern Californian moonbeamish sort of way: tie-dyed shirt, long blonde hair over turquoise eyes, a necklace of tiny white-brown shells and a steel peace sign medallion on a rawhide string around her neck. It took her a few seconds to pick up her backpack when I pulled onto the gravel ahead of her, as if she was surprised I'd stopped.
While the world is full of middle-aged guys driving house-priced Turbo Carreras, the ones driving through the desert don't have their tops down except in the movies. Skin cancer, would be the issue.
Then there's me. My life is a movie so I drive from LA to Vegas exposed to harmful ultraviolet, any one photon of which can dislodge an electron from an atom of carbon in my DNA, converting one telomere that changes the protein generated, so becoming my body's self-destruct mechanism. Melanoma.
She walks up to the side of the Porsche, standing in the exhaust fumes and heat, looking the car up and down as if it's about to burst into flames in front of her.
"It's cooler at ninety, honey," I say, wondering what makes a man want to procreate irrespective of circumstances. There was a poll taken once where most people said that if they knew a big meteor was coming and the world was about to end, they'd all be in bed screwing when the blast vaporized them.
Not praying. Fucking. Exchanging body juices instead of making peace with some god or recollecting life's dramas. Either endorphins are that powerful, or life is that trivial.
Now she's looking at herself in my mirrored seventies-vintage aviator glasses and I know she's thinking it could be dangerous to be with me. I know she's wondering what kind of idiot drives around with the top down when it's one-hundred thirteen in the shade, an open bottle of Jim Beam between his legs, tempting the total destruction of his liver through formation of fibrous nodules, alcohol-driven scar tissues.
"I don't bite," I say, baring my peroxide-bleached incisors.
She sighs, tosses her dusty backpack onto my immaculate suicide seat, and gets in next to me.
When the car is up to speed and the wind is in our ears like a million bedsheets drying on the devil's clothes line I shout, "Where you headed, darlin'?"
"Just to tomorrow, I hope," she says with a voice that squeaks over the road noise.
I offer her some Jimmy B. and she takes it, slugs down two mouthfuls, then climbs over the back seat and pulls a plastic bottle out of her backpack. She squirts some white stuff onto her hand and slathers it over her face and arms. Then she offers it to me.
I decline. No need for SPF 55 when you're on the road to Vegas.
"You're pretty burned," she shouts to me.
I poke myself in the arm with a fingertip. "If I was dinner, I'd be sushi," I say, and she looks back at me, confused. I can't tell if she didn't hear me over the wind or she doesn't get the allusion.
Her long hair is chaos in the slipstream. She finds an elastic from some pocket somewhere and quickly ties it up. Now I can see her face.
Sunshine. I bet her parents named her that. Now I see her as a baby in someone's arms. A little girl running after a soccer ball. A teenager taking her first hit. First kiss. First sex with a kid who doesn't know what he's doing.
Something about her screams life to me, and that's not what I need to hear now. Now my body's cells are splitting in fours instead of twos because something nobody knows got in me and made me start to die. Second-hand smoke from when my parents lit-up on family vacation trips with the windows rolled up. Whatever. I'm beyond caring why. It's just happening.
I suck on the bourbon bottle, and the sun is making my head ache. When the bottle's empty I toss it aside. In the rearview I see it splatter like ice on the black griddle of a road behind us.
She says, "I know what you're doing. This is sort of like that book you read when you were in college."
"Huh?" is the only thing I can imagine to say to this woman who presumes to know me and my motives.
"Let's go here," she says, pointing to the only road sign I've seen for the past hour. Gas, food, and souvenirs, the traveler's ambrosia.
I'm going to complain or ignore her as my time is limited, but I can't shake that something about the way she bounces on the seat--as if so energized by life she's rattling like an electron in a potential well, ruled by Heisenberg, if you know where she is you can't know when, if you know when, you don't know where.
What I wouldn't do to be loved by someone like her.
We slide into a booth beside the unshowered, overweight truck drivers sporting two-day cross-country beards. They're eyeing her like free money and she's oblivious. Doesn't she know there's danger everywhere? I could be a serial killer. What's she doing out in the middle of the desert alone with no hat? No water?
"Things always work out, Phil," she says.
"How'd you know my name?"
"Don't you remember me?"
I shake my head to answer because I can't speak for surprise. Maybe I'm the one who should be worrying about danger.
That's my game now. Samurai. The most dangerous man is the one who has no future except a box in the ground.
"But isn't that everyone?" she says when her pie and cola show up. "We're all gonna die."
I'm pushing fries around on my plate. Blue-cheese burger, rare. Cholesterol caking as plaque on my arteries is no longer my concern. Twenty-eight zocor on the road outside Barstow prove it.
"Why do you wanna kill yourself?" she says, looking right into my eyes so I can't look away.
"Yes you are. You think you can make it happen by accident if you do enough stupid things. But it's still suicide."
I toss ten bucks on the table and get up. Someone can drive her the rest of the way to wherever she was going. I'm not doing this to be judged. Why the hell can't a man be allowed peace? Fill him full of day labor and cancer, never let him free with his thoughts.
I'm starting the Porsche when she runs up to the car and pulls her backpack out.
"You almost left with my stuff," she says.
"Sorry. Bye, now," I say, putting the car in gear.
I wonder if I heard that right.
She says it again. So loud and clear a few truck drivers going to their rigs stop and cheer.
Then we're miles east, off the road in her tent, she naked atop her bedroll in the clear-sky heat. Me kneeling beside her. Lacy shadows of the creosote and tumbleweed on the flapping walls.
And I can't. I can't because I won't. I ask her, "Do you think there's a God? Why do you think he can kill me, but I can't?"
"You're trying to turn your life into a story you like," she answers. "You don't like the ending to the one you got, but it's the one you got."
It's tearing me up and making me want to cry when she says, "It's why we're here. Every one of us deserves to be saved. Each by someone who loves him. And if you disappear, what happens to the one who's supposed to save you?"
When I leave the tent I wander down the road. The sun burns blood orange on the razor of a horizon. She comes up behind me like a ghost.
"I don't really have any way else to pay you back for lunch," she says.
"Is okay," I say, and for a moment wonder how many guys she's slept with for food. Then I go back to thinking about my own problems.
She says, "There's a story you read when you were young. It was about summer and new sneakers. I think it was 'All Summer in a Day'. And you wanted your life to be like that story every day, remember?"
She's making me pissed and confused. I just want to be away from her to be alone with myself and how afraid all the needles and monitors have made me. For God's sake, I'm shrinking. I'm an inch shorter than I used to be. It's killing me. Can't she see that?
When I turn to say it to her she puts a finger to my lips and I can't speak. She puts a hand to my eyes, and I close them. She kisses me and I'm on the street again, twelve years old, my feet cushioned in the marshmallow clouds of my new shoes and a whole summer with nothing to do but be.
Now I know who she is.
When I open my eyes she says, "That's so you don't forget the story, next time. So for now, do us both a favor and stop being such a scientist and don't look so hard."
When I blink and start to ask her what she thinks I'm looking for she's gone. She's so gone it's like she's evaporated, because except for a couple of mountains breaking the horizon behind me, there's nothing taller than a sage bush for as far as I can see.
Then I start shaking. Then I get into the Porsche and head toward Nevada with my foot shaking on the accelerator pedal. She's so gone her backpack dust is cleaned from my suicide seat as if the car's just been detailed. She's so gone it's like I'm Schrodinger's cat burst into a new reality where she never existed.
I cruise into Vegas at midnight with my head swimming. I toss my hat and let the air caress my scalp amid scraps of hair the chemo didn't kill. The metallic taste is almost gone from my mouth. I haven't felt sick in days, though I guess it's going to come back. Next time will be forever, they say.
When I was young I read a story about a cockroach with the soul of a poet who lived under the streets of New York with his true love, a cat descended from Cleopatra. And so I typed on a manual typewriter, my cockroach fingers not able to hold down the shift and press the letters at the same time while I made up stories of great things to be.
All the endings were mine.
It's a beautiful day.
Next: Jennifer screams
Parallel: Dani lost in little things