A Dry and Level Space
They gazed across the highway’s gravel shoulder at the gas station, a beacon of light in the howling darkness. A November storm spattered their faces; its bitter wind cut through them. The kid inside the station smoked a cigarette and watched a flickering black-and-white TV, his feet propped up on the desk, the pump island empty.
“What do ya think?” Elliot asked.
Rudy shrugged. “It’d be easy. But the heat’ll catch us if we try stealing anything.”
“Yeah. It’s not worth it, and there’s nowhere to run.” Elliot stared up Highway 101 at the cloud-shrouded forest that surrounded the town of Willits. “We gotta find a place to crash, and soon.”
“Why? We could catch a ride to Portland, Seattle, or even Vancouver and be done with it.”
“You’re dreaming. Not tonight we won’t.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Look at us. I wouldn’t give us a ride, would you?”
Rudy grinned. “Nah, probably not.” The rain made his brown face look slippery silver in the blue station light.
The hitchhikers watched the oncoming headlights, their arms and thumbs extended, their ponchos flapping in the wind and barely covering their backpacks. A logging truck roared past. The spray from its tires drenched them. They cowered near the ditch, cursing. The kid inside the station clicked off most of the neon then padlocked the front door. He walked around the building. His flashlight beam danced in the blackness. It swept the highway and stopped on the two young men. Rudy and Elliot pulled the poncho hoods off their heads and moved toward him. The kid took a couple steps backward then stood his ground.
“He’s big, probably plays football,” Elliot whispered.
“Ah, we can take him,” Rudy replied.
“Let’s not and say we did.”
“What do you guys want?” the kid called as they approached.
Rudy muttered, “Jeez, his Mama musta ironed that uniform.”
“We haven’t looked that good in months.”
The two stopped and slipped out of their packs, groaning. The kid’s flashlight beam moved between their bearded faces. He grinned nervously. “It’s a little late for you hippies to be hitchhiking through.”
“Yeah. Does it always rain like this?” Rudy asked.
“Pretty much, until April or May.”
“Remind me to fire our travel agent,” Elliot said.
The kid laughed but his smile faded quickly. “So what do ya want?”
“Lots of things,” Rudy said. “But we’ll settle for someplace dry to sleep.”
The wind picked up and blew the rain sideways, wetting the concrete under the pump island cover. The kid pulled his yellow slicker closed and buttoned it, never taking his eyes off them. “There’s nothin’ much around here. You’ll get wet if you stay under the canopy…and the sheriff will run ya in.”
“What about north?” Elliot asked, dragging a hand through his long tangled hair.
“Nothin’ but trees and more rain.” The kid shifted from foot to foot. “So why are ya going north this time of year? Most of you…you guys passed through this summer.”
“It’s a long story,” Rudy said.
“How far north are you going?”
“Far enough,” Elliot said.
“Yeah, I figured. Ya know, it’s raining just as hard in Canada.”
The hitchhikers stayed quiet. The kid continued to bounce from foot to foot. “Me, I’m gonna go west.”
“Where, Hawaii?” Elliot asked.
“No, Vietnam. I’m enlisting in two weeks.”
The gale hammered them. They ducked their heads and pulled on the hoods of their rain gear. The hitchhikers gripped their backpacks to their bodies, bent over, rivulets of rain pouring onto the asphalt. A coughing fit shook Elliot. He staggered, went down on one knee, gasping for breath.
“You okay?” the kid asked. He bent and helped the hitchhiker to his feet. Elliot swayed on spindly legs and smiled weakly.
“My friend’s got the flu or somethin’,” Rudy said. “We really need a place to crash.”
“Sorry, but I can’t help ya.”
Elliot shook his head and clamped his arms around his shuddering body. Rudy grumbled something before asking, “So why the hell are you joining up?”
“It’s just my time, ya know.”
“Good luck with that,” Elliot croaked.
“Yeah, thanks. But how much worse could joining the Army be than being sick and hitchhiking in this storm?”
“They have more than rain in Vietnam,” Rudy shot back.
The kid nodded. “Yeah, but I try not to think about it.”
“How can you not think about it?” Elliot asked.
“I just, ya know, focus on what I’m doing right now. The rest will play itself out without me worryin’.”
The hitchhikers stared at each other and laughed. “Man, you’d make a great hippie,” Rudy said. “But we gotta get outta this rain.”
They pulled on their packs and moved toward the highway. With so little traffic, they heard the rain rattle on the slick blacktop that stretched south to their homes and north toward something else. Elliot took a deep breath, beat his chest with clenched fists, then coughed – a throaty gurgling sound soaked up by the sodden landscape.
“Hey, wait a minute guys. I got an idea,” the kid called. “Come on back.”
They joined him at the station office where he retrieved a ring of keys, then followed him to a row of U-Haul trailers lined up against the side fence. The kid groped around in the dark until he found some concrete blocks and propped them under each end of a 10-footer. He keyed the padlock and opened its rear door.
“What do ya think?” he asked, breathing hard and grinning.
“It looks like the fuckin’ Taj Mahal,” Rudy said.
“Yeah, this is great.” Elliot said.
“Now look, you guys gotta get out of here early. The owner shows up around six and will call the cops if he finds you.”
“We’ll split before then,” Rudy said.
“Lock the door when you leave…and good luck.” The kid walked away.
“Yeah, you too,” Rudy called after him.
The fully-enclosed trailer smelled like it had been used as a kennel. After taking a leak, they climbed in, peeled off their wet clothes, and unrolled their sleeping bags. In the darkness, they shared a soft banana and crackers. Elliot popped some aspirin, washing them down with metallic-tasting water from his canteen. He lay back and pulled the sleeping bag under his chin, shivering.
They didn’t talk, had done that all day and had come away with few answers. Sweat dripped into Elliot’s eyes. The inside of the trailer felt stifling and he unzipped his bag and folded back its top cover. The cold air chilled him quickly and in a few moments he shivered and bundled up again.
“Hey Rude, I think I got a fever, man.”
“I know ya do, your face was all red. Did ya take some of those aspirin I gave ya?”
“Good. Just lay back and keep wrapped up. Maybe it’ll break tonight and you’ll feel better in the morning.”
“Yeah…in the morning….” Elliot’s teeth chattered. He wiped his eyes and stared into the blackness. A downpour pounded the trailer’s metal roof, sounding like a row of snare drummers doing a fast roll, like the military bands that paraded up Main Street in Huntington Beach on the Fourth of July.
He thought about past summers spent in Huntington as a boy – the hot sand, the bodacious girls, the surfers, that life before all the chaos closed in around them. He couldn’t keep the confusion out of his head. Thoughts came and went at light speed. Like an undertow, they grabbed him and pulled him down toward crazy delirium. But he remembered what the kid had said, “I just focus on what I’m doin’ right now….”
Elliot rolled onto his side, drew his knees to his chest, and thought about where they lay: the dry level floor, the chilling air, the drum of the rain, the wind slamming the trailer, the sound of Rudy snoring, the smell of dog, the taste of banana, the hiss of each breath he took. Over and over he savored each of those things. After a while he stopped shivering, his muscles relaxed, and he slept.
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one plump cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, an occasional play, and novels. Since 2005, his poetry and short stories have been accepted by more than 160 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including the Picayune Literary Review, Birmingham Arts Journal and Boston Literary Magazine. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his short story “The Sweeper.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.