I'd just filled up on gas and beef jerky at the Loaf-N-Jug off the Canton exit heading south on Interstate 29 when a lady near the off-ramp caught my eye. It is pretty unusual to see female hitchhikers, so I figured she might be on her daily walk from a nearby farmhouse; but a long, slender thumb in the air and Coleman backpack resting at her feet told me otherwise.
My dad once told me: “Always take a cookie when they're passed.” So I did. I pulled onto the shoulder of the road and waited while she grabbed her bag and jogged the 20 yards to my car – the same white Galaxy 500 I'd been driving for 12 years.
It's kind of funny how things look differently up close than from a distance. As I drove up from behind her and then passed her, she looked like she could be a hottie in tight black shorts on long skinny legs, a red tanktop over bra-less sizers and long red hair under a black visor. But those trappings were the forest, and once I saw the tree close up, I almost punched the accelerator in fear and left her grasping air instead of the door handle. But I didn't, for I wasn't looking to get laid.
Yet what red-blooded male driver wouldn't want to be accompanied by a Barbie doll hitchhiker? As she leaned her head in the car, it looked like a puppy had chewed on the head of my Barbie doll. Her face was pock-marked and drawn ghost-like over obscenely jutting cheek bones that could cut glass. Her chalky look had meth-head written all over and “trouble” should have been etched on her forehead.
But I'd committed and was getting pretty good at keeping those kinds of things, so I half-heartedly muttered: “Hop in.”
“Where you going?” she chirped, setting the backpack on her lap and closing the door.
“Kansas City. You?”
“St. Louis. Going to see Mount Rushmore.”
It took a second or two for that to register in my brain and when we were on the interstate, I mentioned the obvious or what would be obvious to you and me. “Mount Rushmore isn't in St. Louis.”
“No. It's by Rapid City, five hours west of here on the other interstate.”
She turned her head and seemingly studied my reply. “So what's the big cool thing in St. Louis?”
“That would be the Arch.”
“It's tall, right?”
“Yes, I guess so,” I answered quizzically. “But there are no dead presidents on it.”
“Oh well. I don't need no stinkin' presidents.”
“You just want something tall?”
“So I can jump off it,” she answered, looking at me like I should have known that.
“You looking to kill yourself?”
“That's what'll happen if you jump off.”
“No, it won't. I can fly.”
That wasn't the answer nor the conversation I was expecting, so I simply asked the obvious: “You can fly?”
“Then why don't you fly down to St. Louis rather than hitchhike?”
“Well I can't fly horizontally yet.”
“But you are working on it?”
Then the smart-aleck kicked into overdrive within me and I asked her: “You know what they call flying vertically?”
“They call it falling.”
“Funny guy. That's okay. Nobody ever believes it until they see me do it.”
“If you say so,” I said, tiring. “What's your name?”
“Wendy. What's yours?”
“A dead president!”
“You got it. Most people call me L.A.”
“Then I'll call you Lincoln.”
“Works for me,” I said as she unzipped her backpack and began rifling through what looked to be a flea market of odds and ends.
She pulled out a black sleeping mask and put it around her forehead before asking: “Mind if I take a nap? I'm crashing down.”
“Yes and you don't want me awake while I'm doing it. I get kind of annoying.”
“Then by all means ...” and I gave her a one-handed wave to have at it.
She slid the mask over her eyes and in no time was snoring 'Z's like Zorro.
My CD changer went through four Prince CDs during which she twitched, grunted, drooled and snored along, at times in seemingly perfect tempo to the songs. I noticed the only time she slept soundly was during “Purple Rain” and then kicked back in to spasms during “Let's Go Crazy.” As my own personal experiment, and because I was bored, I replayed “Purple Rain” two more times, during which she again slept silently and soundly. I found that almost as odd as the fact that she thought she could fly. I've often said that Prince could bring sanity to the insane and insanity to the sane. I wasn't sure where I fit into that. It depended on the day or the hour.
The past few days I'd been feeling pretty sane coming up on almost 30 days of sobriety. Weeks one and two were pretty rough, often fighting the urge to pull the car into the parking lots of some of my favorite old haunted taverns. During those instances, the one-day-at-a-time mantra didn't really apply to me. It was more one hour at a time, often telling myself “just make it until noon.” Then “just until one.” Then ... well you probably know how a clock works.
Now I think I am approaching the recovering drunk's high I've read about. I hadn't done the AA thing that I probably should have been doing. But I had picked up a couple books which explained the recovery process and what to expect as you progressed down the sober highway. I was now almost cocky about it, feeling good, looking down my nose at the cars parked in front of the bars I passed. It seems a recovering alcoholic can fall into the same trap as Born Again Christians, thinking you are better than everyone else if you aren't careful.
With flying Wendy sprawled out in my passenger seat, coming down from a trip on something, I felt for her, but didn't feel like I was any better than her. I was proud of myself for that, but even pride can be a dangerous thing I'm told. Jeez, what a complicated circle this can be. Do and you're damned; don't and you're damned.
As she tossed and turned more frenetically as we approached Omaha, I couldn't help but notice one of her breasts exposed and pointing at me out the side of her tank top. So, what is a guy supposed to do about that?
I tried ignoring it. But that is like trying not to look at a car accident as you drive past and they are loading a bloody person onto a stretcher. Try as might, you gawk. So I gawked, but didn't stare, because I WAS driving after all.
But wouldn't you know it, quick like a lightning bug, she flipped up her mask, eyes wide open and caught me during one of those gawking moments. She tucked her boob back in like she was brushing away cookie crumbs and began talking away like she had never dozed off in the first place, but not quite as hyper.
“So why you going to Kansas City?” she asked.
“To see a baseball game with a buddy.”
“You're a Royals fan?” she wrinkled her nose.
“No, I'm going to see the Yankees.”
“Oh, a Yankee fan?”
“No, I hate the Yankees.”
“So why are you going to see them?”
“I'm going to see them lose, hopefully.”
“That's sure some negative motivation there,” she said, playing amateur psychiatrist.
“But motivation none-the-less.”
“So,” I had to ask, “how come you didn't know where Mount Rushmore was but you know where the Royals are from?”
“Girls can be baseball fans too.”
“So who is your team?”
“The Yankees,” she smirked.
“Ouch. That's grounds for kicking you out right here.”
“But then you wouldn't be able to stare at my boobs while I sleep.”
I said nothing, but suppose the blood rushing to my face spoke volumes.
During the awkward pause she began sifting through her backpack again and pulled out a hardcover book that looked to be a journal of some sort. She took a picture out from between the pages, unfolded it and held it up for me to see. It was an autographed eight-by-ten glossy of Derek Jeter.
“You carry that with you everywhere?”
“I carry everything I own with me everywhere,” she said.
“Well he seems like a good enough guy – for a Yankee,” I said.
“I'm gonna marry him,” she said surely.
“Does he know that?”
“Not yet, but when he reads about the woman who can fly, he's going to want to meet me and learn how I do that. Then I'll have him. I know it.”
I am probably the last guy who should criticize anyone for having insane thoughts, but it just came out: “That's crazy.”
“That is what they told the guys who invented Post-It notes,” she answered.
I couldn't argue with that so pursued her idea farther. “So when you fly, do you flap your arms really fast?”
“No, silly. I use my mind.”
“And it has worked before?”
“I haven't physically tried it yet, but I have it figured out in my mind.”
“So you've just envisioned it.”
Yes. And it works.”
“If you say so.”
Then she did something I really wish she hadn't done. Wendy dived back into that damn pack of hers and pulled out a fifth of Jim Beam and took two deep pulls of it. Her eyes didn't even water, but my taste buds did – would have made Pavlov's dog proud.
She offered me the bottle. I nodded “no” and looked away. My personal preference for poison had been Heineken and tequila shots, but when they were not handy Jim Bean ran a close second.
Over the next hour or so the whiskey scent ravaged my nostrils and sent the neurons in my brain bouncing like ping pong balls. She nursed a dozen shots out of that bottle before finally capping it and dozing off for another trip into Neverland.
She awoke near Kansas City but didn't talk, maybe sensing a little discomfort in the air, but I probably give her senses more credit than due.
As we drove past Royals stadium, she said: “Aren't you stopping?”
“First, tell me something, seriously,” I said. “You aren't really going to jump off the Arch, are you?”
“No,” she said, and I was relieved that I wouldn't have to miss my game. But she continued: “I'm going to fly off it.”
“Oh come on,” I said, getting a bit agitated at her craziness. “You know damn well you aren't going to fly. You're gonna jump, fall and splat!”
“You're wrong. My mind is very powerful. Most people only tap a tiny part of theirs. I can channel all my brain into an object and make it fly. I've done it with other objects.”
“Like bottles, a chair, a cat.”
“You don't have a cat in that backpack, do you?”
“Darn. I was going to ask him to verify your story.”
“So are you going to stop for your game?” she asked again.
“No. I'm going to take you to St. Louis and watch you fly.”
“So you believe me?” she squealed.
“No. Actually I don't. I hope to talk you out of it, because if I don't I will have to scrape you off the sidewalk.”
“You are such a negative person,” she said and took a turn staring out her window for a long, uncomfortable while.
A full hour of silence started getting on my nerves. I don't mind a talkative passenger. Heck, I don't mind a quiet one either. But a schizoid one who is alternately a motor mouth and then a mute gives a guy too much time to think during those long down times.
As such, I pondered many questions like: Why should I miss my game for this gal? If she wanted to kill herself, and even if I did stop her today, wouldn't she just do it tomorrow or next week? And why should I care? How could she be so sure of her flying ability? Was she just playing with me? Was she just downright crazy? Could there possibly be something to this mind-control levitation thing? What else was in that bag of hers? Are those boobs real?
Deep thoughts like that can keep a guy busy and make him hungry.
“Can I buy you lunch?”
“I'm not a free-loader. I have money.”
“I didn't mean to imply you were,” I said. “Just being nice.”
“That I guess you are,” she admitted. “But still a negative Nelly.”
“Maybe so. Walk a mile in my shoes and you might be too.”
“And I'm not crazy.”
“I didn't say you were.”
“But you were thinking it.”
“It crossed my mind.”
“And they are real,” she said.
“What are?” I played dumb.
“My boobs. You were thinking about that too.”
“How'd you know?”
“I told you. My mind goes places others don't.”
I wasn't about to argue that, and now was hesitant to even think to myself. Have you ever tried to purposefully not think? It is not easy.
So I pulled through a Burger King drive-thru off the next exit near Columbia.
I had a Number Four Value Meal. She had a medium drink, half iced tea and half lemonade, which I though was weird, and then ordered a Whopper “hold the meat.” The pimply-faced teenager must've called the rest of his co-workers to the pick-up window to see what odd-balls ordered that, because there were a half dozen BK employees crammed into the window area trying to peer into my car as he handed us our food.
I smiled and said: “We're from South Dakota.”
That seemed to explain everything well enough as he nodded his head and said: “Oh.”
Still an hour and a half out of St. Louis, I decided to try to talk some sense into her, which proved to be about as effective as trying to convince my dog not to eat grass. They both gave me the same look.
“How about if you started with something smaller?”
“A smaller what?” she asked.
“Something smaller to jump off, like a step ladder or even a garage.”
“I like to think big,” she replied.
“But with big risk often comes big loss – like your life. If you start small, and it works like you expect, you can gradually move up to larger buildings. Evil Knievel didn't start out by jumping the Grand Canyon.”
“Who is Evil Knievel?”
“A motorcycle stunt man. He started by jumping over a car, then a bunch of cars, then busses and then the Snake River.”
“I'm not doing it as a stunt. I'm doing it one time, big, and then moving on to more dangerous things.”
“More dangerous than jumping off the Arch? Like what?”
“Like eating a Whopper with meat.” And she smiled a normal smile for once.
I was running out of arguments as she reached into her backpack again, this time pulling out a magazine with New York Times crossword puzzles. Oh, and a small bottle of Jose Quervo.
“So you won't eat meat,” I began my sermon, “but you'll swig a bottle of whiskey and tequila in an afternoon, plus whatever you were on this morning when I picked you up?” If I could've “tisk, tisked” I would have but couldn't.
“I wasn't ON anything this morning,” she said. “And I just drink to help me relax and focus.”
“That's a new one,” I said. “To help you focus?”
“Yes. What's a three-letter word for 'annoy'?”
“Nag,” I answered.
“Figures you would know that one,” she chirped.
I saw her write down a few other words she figured out on her own as we approached St. Louis.
I finally interrupted her focus with a question with a purposefully positive spin: “On the off chance you do fly, who would be the relative you would most like to tell first?”
“You want to know who to call if I die, don't you?”
“Here I was trying to be an optimistic person and you go and ruin it,” I said sarcastically.
“I have no family to call, no friends, no pets,” she answered matter-of-factly.
“Oh,” was my one-word answer tinged with some sadness. “Well, you have one friend anyway.”
She looked at me, smiled and went back to her crossword puzzle before finally saying: “That's nice to know, Lincoln. Nobody should fly alone.”