I had made it. Finally, I had crossed the border after the stressful interrogation from Canadian officials. The irony that the one ride that took me across that border had also been carrying a pot seed nestled in the seat made me chuckle. At least it would be a good story.
Finally, I was in Michigan. Sault Ste. Marie was the town, if that’s what you would call it. A beat up, light blue Oldsmobile rattled up the road and pulled over. The driver made me put my pack in the trunk, despite the empty back seat, and I climbed in.
The driver resembled a dilapidated, abandoned building. His corpulence bulged out in the oddest places, and his stained, wife-beater tank barely concealed his stomach. His face, slightly caved in, was coarse with pebble colored scruff. The greasy, messy, grayish hair was the roof over the sad looking house.
“So, what ya doing round here?” he inquired.
“ I’m hitchhiking around the country. Trying to break down barriers, you know? I wanted to get to know the people and cultures that exist in this country, cross the divide of ignorance that I have about-“
“Where the hell ya git that kind of idea?” He was perplexed.
“I was inspired by Jacob Holdt. Learned about him in college. He traveled the country too.”
“You’re crazy, ya know that?” the old man replied.
We pulled up to a grocery store, and he handed me a $20 bill.
“Go get me a steak, ok?” he asked.
I purchased a juicy steak and we continued along the road.
“How’d ya know I weren’t gonna just leave with your stuff?” he questioned.
“Well, there’s nothing valuable in my pack, and I generally have to trust the people I meet,” I replied. I could tell the adventure had just begun, but ignored the strange feeling faintly pounding against my gut, telling me to end it right then and there.
The old man picked up the steak as I pushed away the unsettling feeling, and he proceeded to tear open the plastic wrapping and take a huge bite out of the raw meat.
“Ya know, I’m devoted ta God. A true Christian. Go ta church every day. Ya know, Steve, I’m trying ta learn the names of them bible books. Straight in order. Naw, never learned ta read, but I’ll tell ya somethin’, I’m gonna learn them bible book names”, he said, all the while attacking the meat with his yellow teeth. A concoction of blood and saliva ran down his face as small bits of meat ricocheted into the air. Then, spitting in my face and brandishing the mangled steak, he said, “You wanna come home and have supper with us?”
Before we went to the old man’s house, we had to pick up his son. The son was about my age, around 20, and clearly deranged. He was that man in everyone’s nightmares, with bulging eyes and a neck that strained in an unnatural way. His laugh was unsettling, almost psychopathic and he opened the car door and climbed in next to me. I was in the middle, between the meaty father, and his crazy son while the back seat was utterly vacant.
We turned down a single lane road, and the grass that sprouted up in the middle smiled menacingly at me, murmuring, “Yes, Steve, no one comes out here. Ever.”
We came to a railroad tie, placed intentionally across the road.
“Hey, Steve, will you go move that?” he said, with a testing tone, as if he were evaluating if I would comply.
Then, the son got out of the car and waited by the door as I climbed out after him to move the railroad tie by myself. Then, the son let me get back into the middle.
The house was isolated from other people for miles. Surrounding it were endless corn fields and the front yard was covered in junk. Old metal fragments, debris from construction and scrap wood floating in swimming sea of uncut grass. I met the old man’s sickly wife and 12 year old son and was instructed that I could put my pack in the kitchen, to store it.
After dinner, I engaged in what was hopefully a life changing conversation with their younger son out on the porch. I was astonished by him. He was completely normal; normal clothes, healthy physique, socially appropriate conversation, a charismatic personality and mature social graces. He was an enigma in the family, the stroke of clarity in the sea of madness. He didn’t belong in that family. The boy was fascinated by my travels. The richness of the conversation inspired me, and a pang of sadness nudged at my gut at the thought of leaving him there.
“It really is amazing how much of a world there is sitting right at our fingertips. You could just walk away right now and you will never imagine what you will find. You’re life has so many possibilities, you know?” I said. I wanted these words to be glued in his brain.
I went back into the kitchen to get my camera to show him some pictures of the other places I had been and a frenzy of activity met me. The other three members of the family were hunched over my pack and they hurriedly scattered away like guilty puppies, their wide eyes peering at me from atop their awkward necks.
“Who was in my pack?” I asked.
Shock rippled across the old man’s facial expression. “What’re ya talkin’ bout? Ya accusin’ us of stealin’?”
Yes, I was, but the dangerous air filling the kitchen stopped me from arguing. My camera was definitely missing. I went back outside with my pack to continue my conversation with the younger son, and the old man followed.
“Steve. Right, now ya goin’ ta work. We’re goin’ ta’ church, and ya comin’ with us, but first ya goin’ ta work. Go pick up that trash over there”, he demanded.
I felt my blood go cold. What did I get myself into? the reason in me urged. The visceral fear pounded a shaky rhythm against my chest. “Well, thank you for dinner, and I really appreciate the ride, but I didn’t sign up to work,” I stated calmly.
“Ya god damned piece of crap! How DARE ya accuse us of stealin’ and then refuse to work for me!” he scoffed.
The old man had clearly lost his senses. He spit out a slur of profanities that rang sharply through the stale air, saliva spewing from his mouth. I needed to get out of there very quickly. Guilt penetrated my mind at the thought of leaving the young boy at the house.
I glanced at him, and he stared right back, as if to say, ‘it’s all right, this happens all the time’.
“I guess I have to go” I said quietly to him. I could see the road and the corn fields 20 yards away. I hoisted my pack onto my back and began to walk.
“YOU! Ya accuse us of stealin’ when we opened our home ta ya. God will damn your soul. Yes! God damn it to hell! So help me, I will come over there and git ya. I’ll make ya work!” the old man screeched.
He was absolutely insane, his voice cracking at the high syllables and his body rocking back and forth. I willed my legs to walk, to carry me steadily and appear unafraid, even though every ounce of my being ached with the tingling fear.
It was nearly crippling, and I imagined that the little boy must have gotten used to this. As I walked away, I direly hoped that some part of our conversation had given him the courage or inspiration to become whoever he wanted to be. That maybe, just maybe, he would grow up and escape this place.
“I deserve work! I deserve pay! Ya will pay for this in hell. Yes ya will, ya little pissah. I shouldn’t’ve given you nothin’. NOTHIN’!”
Breath Steve, breathe. Don’t engage in the argument. I had the sudden paralyzing image of the old man grabbing his rifle, his pistol, his machine gun, and aiming it directly at my vitals. The picture of my skin and flesh erupting from my chest clouded my eyes. I imagined myself falling down to the ground and dying without anyone around for miles to help me. I could taste the scream at the tip of my tongue, yet I gathered all my possible strength to keep my mouth shut and remain calm. All I had to do was get to the corn field, where I could be concealed and run like hell.
“Don’t walk away from me boy! Gave you a god damned ride and fed your sorry soul just to be treated like trash! You will burn in hell, you know that? YOU KNOW THAT?”
All I could do was walk, bracing myself for the blast of the bullet if it hit my back. And I just kept walking.