This story is dedicated to my daughter Kaetlyn Nicole–one of the strongest women I know. Thank you for always listening when I read my stories out loud.
Off The Road
by Matt Ellis
They’re gonna try to tell you that hitchhiking is dangerous. Mostly men. They’ll throw ‘girl’ in there, possibly lumped in with ‘pretty young thang’ and close out the topic with a crooked wink smile. I get this a lot. I guess the days of Kerouac inspired hippies with a heavy wanderlust and a light wallet willing to extend the thumb to see the open road was somehow overshadowed by the endless list of inevitable horrors lying behind the thin facade of strangerly kindness.
I blame it on Hollywood—back-lot bungalows full of coked-up Weinsteins ruining the simple things in life by stoking paranoia and creating a fear of everything for a box office money grab. Who are those studio types to tell me what to fear while they’re unzipping for the next pre-production casting couch diddle? What happened to my Meemaw’s generation? The one that climbed trees or drank out of sun-hot garden hoses? I say fuck it. You only live once. And I know better than others that life can be mighty short. You’re lucky if you even see it coming.
It was Jackie K’s On the Road and his lesser-known poem, Hitchhiker, that sparked my desire to play it real old-school and hit the pavement the hard way – “You found his blue corpse in a greenshade edition, with axe blots.” Okay, he’s not exactly the Bard, but every girl’s got her passions and sometimes it mixes with her poisons. I’d been teetering for a long time and the slathering of danger atop adventure pulled me right over the edge.
I went straight to my Papa Bear. I said, “Papa Bear, my bindle’s packed and I’m off to see what’s what. Gonna thumb it across the country, beatnik style. Say hey to Momma for me when you see her.”
Call it my honey badger attitude, but I draw more than my fair share of joy out of the small surprises in life and this one did not disappoint in the least. I don’t know what did it. Maybe the Momma comment—she’s been in the ground more than a year now—but damn if that Sasquatch didn’t blow a fuse as he’s prone to do when he’s a sixer into his liquid dinner.
I can’t recall all of the obscenities that came flying out of his mouth, but you’d think he was Lil Wayne with all the B’s he dropped. It all ended kinda abruptly with, “If you walk out that door Maybelline Anacostia, you’re dead to me.” This caught me by surprise since he’s the one who introduced me to the counter-culture classics. Maybe he just liked the reefer part. But joke’s on him, I guess, cause now he’s dead to me too…dead to us all, depending on your personal philosophies. Funny how an eight-pound skillet, expertly handled, can make up for a hundred and fifty-pound difference in weight class. The single-wide went up like a whole summer of drought dry kindling. Happens more often than you’d like to think. Police don’t even put on the lights for something like that anymore.
I’ve been on the road over a year now and I don’t reckon I know how I lived any other way. For anyone with a curiosity for the unconventional and a fire burning so hot inside they might explode like trailer park propane, I can’t recommend it highly enough. There is just no better way to see the world and eat new people.
I’m just joshing. I ain’t no campsite cannibal. I can’t say I haven’t tried it—I mean, how else are you supposed to know what quiets the skull-fracturing voices that scream out to you from deep down inside your chitlins besides experimentation? Unholy hankering for human flesh? Well, consider that item crossed off my most dangerous games bucket list. So is keeping mementos. It does have its nostalgic appeal for those nights you’re waylaid and can’t get your stalk on, but it ain’t practical. Think about how many years Ed Gein spent on his stitching craft, ten thousand hours, I reckon. He had a steady sewing hand, but he never made one flesh accessory that wouldn’t clash with my look. Besides, when you’re hitchin’, you gotta travel light.
Now that we’re on that topic and I still have your interest, logistics are everything. Any spider could tell you, if they could speak—they don’t talk to me, but I’m not one to judge if you have consultations with bugs—presentation is everything. You have to bait the hook for the catch you want. While my personal fashion tastes lean toward black and baggy, that ensemble is more likely to earn a puddle splash than a stopped car. It should come as no surprise that short and/or skimpy is the honey for my preferred bees. In the backwoods, where I like to lurk, they’re as thick as skeeters at a swamp picnic. (By the way, swamp picnics are perfect for going home minus one, if you catch my drift. Call it my gift to gators.)
You know the type I’m looking for, ladies. The ‘Cletus’ who ocularly bangs you for an hour from the other side of the bar after only incidental eye contact. The ‘Bobby’ who slides your halter top aside so he can get a better look at your butterfly wing ink. The ‘Tom’ at the hardware store who feels the compulsion to say, “Ain’t that ax a little too big for a tiny girl like you?” The ‘Billy’ who stalks you aisle to aisle, working up the courage to approach. Take it from a girl who’s stuffed her fair share of men into their own trunk; it’s best not to telegraph intentions before reaching the parking lot.
The list of men creeping around country roads looking to give a girl a lift is a long one and most expect an appreciative detour between there and where I said I wanted to go. They always seem to have something special to show me. They just don’t know what I like to see.
This is in no way an all-encompassing instructional, nor is it my manifesto. I haven’t found myself quite yet. Isn’t that what the twenties are all about? The more I’m out there slicing through life’s lesser-traveled arteries, the more I learn about myself and the world.
Take last week, for example. I never once thought I could find love and then he just coasted in behind me in a 1970 Coupe de Ville and honked. He had a momma-says-I’m-cute look about him—a Berkowitz brow drawn rigid over a boyish Gacy smile. A look that might take you years to love if you just gave it a chance. I waved him off, but he was insistent about the impossible walking distance from here to there on my little legs, the darkening clouds and impending storm, and the predators that stalk the night. And then it happened, the downpour that pushed me inside the ride. I was soaked before I hit the seat. Lucky for him, they were covered in plastic. “Don’t mind that, none. I just got her outta the shop,” he said. “My rod is clean, darling.”
The rain came down in sheets and the wiper blades couldn’t seem to keep up. He suggested the only safe thing would be to pull off the main road. I told him to do whatever he thought was best. He seemed a bit shy, poking around in the darkness for small talk. “Do you live around here?” “You always travel alone?” “Anyone expecting you where you’re headed?” Nice, good, and perfect were his reactions to my answers.
As he blathered on, I gotta be honest: I lost the urge. It was cold. I was wet. And the thirst just wasn’t there anymore. But I thought back to Papa Bear, lying there on the linoleum, my reflection in the expanding pool of blood. On a good, sober day, he had real nuggets of wisdom like, “Real character lies in how you handle the bad days, not the good ones.” We were here. We were parked and there was no one else around. I came out here to do something.
“Wanna fuck?” I asked him. “I got a condom right here in my bag.”
He seemed a little shaken by my forwardness. The macho usually are when tables are turned. He considered it and then nodded his head. “Sure would pass the time.”
I slid my left hand up his thigh, real nice like, while I reached forward into my bag with my right, wrapping my fingers around Zeus, my one-million-volt wand of wonder. I know he was getting in the mood because he leaned over my shoulder and moaned into my ear. I slipped my pink bedazzled stun gun up to his twigs and berries. I hit the switch and he started twitching and then something sharp drew tight around my neck, cutting into my skin and closing off my pipes. I grabbed him up by the biscuits and twisted until the wire went slack, then threw the door open and tumbled out to get some distance on the situation. He got out of the car on the other side, stooped still from the groin grab, a garrote line threaded between his fingers.
I drew my knife from its thigh sheath and slashed at him to force him back a step. “You tried to kill me,” I croaked.
“Yeah, but I stopped.” He said. He pursed his lips toward my knife-hand. “Is that a Ka-Bar TDI?”
“Yessum. Come closer and I’ll show you where it goes.”
“You’re not what I expected.” He straightened up and smiled. “You hungry?”
“Depends what you’re cooking.”
He squinted at me. “You’re not vegan, are you?”
“No. But I don’t dine with Dahmer, neither.”
“I don’t generally eat what I catch, myself. But you never know what you’re gonna like.”
“I know, right?”
“How about just plain ol’ beef? I make a mean tar-tar.”
His fighting for my affections right there in the rain sparked something in me I’d never felt before. He made me all gushy on the inside like I make them feel on the outside. It was just like a scene outta The Notebook. For the first time in my life, I wanted to finish what my backwoods suitors always thought was at the end of this road.
He took me to his cabin deep in the woods. We opened up, sharing stories of our separate journeys of metamorphosis. His might not have been as far-flung, but he was quite prodigious nonetheless. I confided how I wanted to pen a sequel to the book that inspired my travels. A memoir— call it Off the Road: Burying the Hatchet. It was the first time I’d said it out loud and it sounded foolish, even to me. He smiled and said it was just perfect. He took my hand and gave me a tour of the place, finishing with his trophy room where he kept his album of hair locks and the painted toenail collage. It was beyond perfection. I took him right there on the floor. It didn’t take but a few seconds. He may have picked up a busload of women, but he’d never driven them down this route before, either.
I fell asleep in his arms, letting the heat of afterglow fill the balloons that carried me off to a land of imagination. We could ride off into the sunset together with his-and-hers drop cloths and a trunk full of sharpened possibilities. We could spike chains in the root cellar and keep our catch for a while to see if there really was something to all that putting the lotion on the skin business. Life had been fine enough alone, but could there be more in our union? After all, what was Anthony without Cleopatra, Bonnie without Clyde, Rosemary without her baby, or Donald without Ivanka? Maybe I’d finally found the place I could leave some DNA behind.
My dreamy smile drooped as morning light cast doubts upon what now seemed like delusions. Could he leave this all behind to follow me into a nomadic life of vivid memories, not keepsakes? Would I be happy working from home? How would we define our roles? Would I be the bait and he the trap? Would we draw in couples or stay with the isolated singles? Did he have a jealous streak? Maybe he’d imagine my eyes lingering a little too long at necrophilic falic as we break one down for compost. There was a certain unavoidable gyration to quartering a man even with the best of bone saws. Movements that could be easily mistaken as carnal rather than consequence. Would knitting our lives together mean carving off a piece of what I’ve worked so hard to become?
He found me in the bathroom, staring into the mirror, and smiled at my distress-curled lips. “What’s eating you?” he asked.
“Just taking it all in,” I said.
“Best not to ponder so deeply on an empty stomach.” He slapped me on the ass and nudged me toward the kitchen. “The pit in the root cellar could use a scrubbing, but that can wait until after breakfast.”
The sizzle and pop of the bacon grease brought me back to Papa Bear and the miles I’d put between me and the trailer. Had I wandered this long to find myself in another man’s kitchen?
The answer once again was in the handle of an eight-pound iron skillet.
In the heat of the flames licking the stacked logs of the cabin, I felt reborn. I’d been drawn from the forest by Hansel’s crumbs and almost lost a piece of myself. I spun his Caddy keyring on my finger and stepped back as the roof caved in on itself, burying my latest temptation.
All was not lost. Gretel got herself a hot ride with a trunk that could fit six and a wide-open road. Why not head down Ol’ Mexico way? Alone but never lonely.
About the Author
Matt Ellis is a reformed Army intelligence officer and diplomat paying his dues with freelance interviews and literary criticism while grinding it out as a crime and thriller writer. He’s a 2021/2022 National Book Critics Circle Emerging Critic Fellow and holds an MFA in Fiction at the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. His work has been featured in Publishers Weekly, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Coachella Review, Thought Catalog, and Sein und Werden. He and his wife recently abandoned their newly emptied nest for a life of wandering as digital nomads. If you see them out in the world, flag them down and invite them for a drink.
About the Narrator
Kara Grace is a green witch who lives in Michigan but is always dreaming of running away to New Zealand and opening a crystal shop in the side of a mountain. She adores the Escape Artists, and has been honored to read for them many times over the last decade. She hopes to branch out in the near future and is always open to new adventures or projects.
You are most likely to find her deep in the woods admiring and making friends with bugs and other wildlife, or underwater watching the sunlight filter through the surface. She is an avid gardener and is enamored with herbs and datura (moon flowers) in particular. She also enjoys moon rituals, creating herbal medicine, and hula hooping. She looks forward to a future where she can make a living using her voice to bring the written word to life, or alternately perfect a spell to turn herself into a fox and sneak away into the woods forever.