Chapter One: Anywhere But Here

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Kind of scared, kind of excited 

Journal entry, Monday morning,

March 27th, 1978

 

That morning when waking up I had no special plans for the day. But when I stopped pacing in my basement bedroom, I dumped the binders from my college backpack and filled it with clothes, a Buck knife, and two harmonicas. After cinching a red flannel sleeping bag underneath the pack, it was time to leave.

I took confident strides—until reaching the bedroom door. Its threshold became a one-way passage, that once crossed, would make my commitment final. Looking around: the pale walls and a faded blue rug; my semi-made bed below a poster from the movie Easy Rider with Peter Fonda cruising on his stars and stripes chopper while giving the finger; the dark craftsmen desk made shortly after the Civil War; books heaped on a nightstand. I stood in silence. My breath drew in deep an d smooth, filling my nose with that basement smell of unwashed clothes and damp concrete, but when exhaling a wheeze sputtered out. I knew that I’d never view this room the same again.

I walked upstairs and interrupted one of my mother’s perpetual rounds of solitaire. “Can you drive me to the I-5 onramp?”

“Why do you need to go there?” she asked, drawing on a Pall Mall, longshoremen’s’ cigarettes she liked to call them.

“I’m going to head out.”

Her attention broke from the cards. “Head out?”

“I’m going on the road. You know,” I hesitated, “to explore some more.”

Her face dropped slack for a moment. “Where?” Smoke drifted weary from her mouth.

“I don’t know.”

A sheen crept over her eyes.

“But I’m going to start by heading south.”

She took a deeper pull on her cigarette, and pondered a moment. “How are you going to do that?”

Now I needed to steel myself, like the moment before removing a deep splinter from a child’s arm. But I couldn’t tell if I was the adult or child. “I’m going to hitchhike.”

Her gaze dropped to the table.

There were no teary farewells or bon voyages. She and I simply loaded into the family station wagon without speaking.

Once we started driving, she asked, “What are you going to do for money?”

“I’ve got a couple hundred bucks, and when I need to work, I’ll work.”

Her words quickened. “Where on earth are you going to sleep?”

“Not sure, but I’ll find places.”

“What about food? That little pack doesn’t hold anything.”

“The pack’s got to be light, otherwise it’s too awkward.”

She nodded, seeming to accept that this one answer made some sense.

“There’s a lot of weirdoes out there.” She turned to face me. “What if—”

“—I’ve got my knife.”

She inhaled slowly, locking in words, then sighed; years of regrets seemed to lace the air.

The drive to the onramp was mercifully short. Once we pulled to the shoulder I swung open the door and stepped out. Closing the door, I stared south down the highway before giving a quick wave goodbye to the back of my mother’s head as she drove off. The splinter now pried free.

***

Waiting at the 45th Street on-ramp in North Seattle, and wondering how long it would take to get my first ride, I became acutely aware of my appearance: a curly scruff of long blond hair, worn denim overalls, a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, and brown leather boots covered with white paint splatters. I stood lean and muscular, but felt I wasn’t much to look at. Would anyone even want to pick-up this baggage?

Holding my arm out with my thumb pointing to an empty sky felt awkward. I couldn’t shake the thought that I was running away from myself, my life, my emotions; a child taking his ball and leaving the game. That alternated with feeling I’d taken a bold move to clean out my attitude, with hopes of regaining the ability to respect myself, and others. Opposing emotions, but both very real. I could already tell any answers waited a long way off.

Across the freeway I could see the campus of the University of Washington, my alma mater for the past two quarters. At school I felt surrounded by stale white bread. Too many classmates squealed about parties and cars. As they strolled through their rarified lives I couldn’t stop viewing them as pampered pets. After classes I worked as a night janitor, mopping, filling dumpsters, scrubbing toilets and cleaning the special containers for used tampons. I’d started working 40 hours a week every summer beginning when I was thirteen years-old, and could feel that history filling me with a self-righteousness resentment. It didn’t take long for me to develop an unhealthy justification to despise everyone around me—spoiled brat fucks.

I had taken to smoking pot all day: in campus bathrooms, behind trees, before/during/after work, driving, alone. Stealing malt liquor became a hobby. By the time I’d decided to leave I couldn’t tell who I despised more, the fucks or me.

My entire plan consisted of one promise to myself—no panhandling. I wouldn’t spend time in the big cities as one of those sponging kids asking for money: I never respected people who had the ability to work but not the will.

As I stared across the freeway I focused on the vaulted roof of the Suzzallo Library at the UW, and thought of the graduate reading room, my refuge: rows of dark oak desks, each station containing its own table lamp with a green glass shade; a soundless expanse except for the wisp of turning pages and the scratch of pencils. Benevolent oversight shone down from the impossibly large stained glass windows.

Now, standing on the side of the road, nicotine stained cigarette butts surrounded me. The I-5 traffic roared loud enough to blot out all other sound, and it kicked up incessant flying particles of grit.

“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” my younger sister Carolyn had asked, just before I walked out of the door at home. I was eight years older than her. Behind her stood my other sister, Julie. I was two years older than her. They looked scared. I didn’t know how to answer Carolyn’s question, but my gut dropped and I felt like I was abandoning both of them. Many times I’d redirected my father’s rage away from them, sometimes on purpose, sometimes because of the ease with which I pissed him off. But at least with me gone, I knew a lot of the homebound volatility would cool. “Are you going to come back?”

“Yeah, I’ll be back.” I gave them both a weak smile, hoping I was right. “Not sure when though.”

“Sometimes you do things and we don’t know why,” Carolyn said, just before I turned to leave.

The previous spring I’d earned enough credits to graduate early from high school. Three days after winter quarter finished I left for Alaska, where I ended up working as a salmon fisherman in Kodiak. One quiet afternoon, while repairing a net, I realized that years of hiding my mother’s drunken days and father’s fists had scarred my psyche, but I knew I was too close to the gauge how deep the wound ran. When I returned to Seattle that fall my parents let me live at home while I paid for tuition and books. I wanted to be a writer—but enrolled in the College of Engineering. There was no room in my father’s house for artsy-fartsies. I appreciated my parents for letting me live in their house, but even though they weren’t charging rent, I couldn’t pay the price any longer.

What the hell am I doing? —standing on the roadside, hoping random strangers might stop, so I could get into their cars, with no idea of their destinations, or intentions. My emotional compass whirled between excitement, guilt, fear, and pride.

While still getting my bearings, a memory surfaced from my senior year at Nathan Hale High School. Academics and sports offered a good escape from home life, and I’d earned the honor as the school’s “Scholar/Athlete of the Year” as part of a district program for football players. At the awards banquet honorees from other high schools looked spiffy in jackets and ties, sitting with proud parents. Recalling the table with its linen napkins, china, silver and crystal brought me a smile; not a nostalgic smile, but the smile of an escaped convict.

Since starting college I felt like security had become a prison, and I believed satisfaction bred complacency. I didn’t want to know where I would sleep, or if there would be money, or even food. Anything that established a sense of place repelled me. My head pounded with, “Anywhere but here! Anywhere but here!” That drum started beating before the first car passed, and didn’t silence until the trip ended.

 

A car pulled over. I ran up and scrambled in the passenger’s side. A thin gent in his mid-twenties wearing a plaid shirt and thick black glasses sat with an open container of vanilla yogurt propped between his thighs. He must have noticed me staring at it.

“It’s all I eat,” he said. “I read in a magazine that if you eat only yogurt it’s good for your digestive tract.”

“I see.”

We started heading down the road and I breathed in the air of adventure. In short order I began to notice an ammonia stench. “Mind if I roll down the window?”

“No problem.” Mr. Yogurt held out his right arm, extending a drippy spoon full of vanilla goo. He twirled his hand, as if motioning to crank down the window. “I took my dog on a drive last night,” he said, “and while he stuck his head out of the window he got so excited he peed.”

“In this seat?”

“Yeah… I guess so.”

Delicious.

After several more rides, each only ten to twenty minutes, I entered into the disjointed rhythm of hitchhiking.

Outside of Olympia, about sixty miles south of Seattle, a blue sedan pulled over. A middle-aged man smiled as I got in. He wore his clothes pressed, and his hair cut with a businessman’s close crop. I didn’t think people who looked like him bothered with people who looked like me. We talked easily and I confessed I was beginning a trip with no destination. The ride lasted maybe half an hour, and as we stopped at the top of an off-ramp, he said, “Can you wait just a minute?”

“Sure.” I felt no rush to get anywhere.

He laid his hand on my knee. I didn’t expect this. Not on the first day. My naiveté scared me. Would I be confronted with this every day? People picking me up every day just hoping to have sex with me? Should I slap away his hand? Jump out? (But then he’d drive away with my pack.) Smack him in the face?

“I’d like to say a prayer for you.”

That shattered my thoughts, especially as I realized this would be the first time to my knowledge anyone had prayed for me, at least since my baptism. The day of my baptism functioned as the family’s first, and last, visit to church. I was eight years-old and my younger brother Chris, Carolyn’s twin, was about five months-old. I don’t recall anyone else there, just our family and a guy wearing a long robe. I stood stiff in a crisp white shirt, but my brother, held in my father’s arms, let out a resounding cherubic fart. My shoulders shook as I looked toward the floor and forced my lips to remain together, rather than opening to a full laugh. Afterward in the parking lot my dad smacked me to the gravel for not taking the rite seriously enough, and once home I got the rest. My sacrament of baptism, my salvation, consisted of a fart and a beating.

On that day I stopped believing any God could exist. As the years passed I wanted religion to have its own section in libraries, “Mumbo Jumbo for Morons.” Physics and chemistry ruled the universe. In their stability I found comfort—they never got drunk or enraged; never told me I don’t have the brains God gave an ant; never provided a haven for hypocrites or threatened people with eternal damnation.

“Gracious God,” the well-pressed man closed his eyes and bowed his head, “thank you for loving us so much and always being with us. Please look over this boy and rain your love down on him. Protect him as he travels and keep him safe.”

Gibberish. But not knowing what else to do, I bowed my head.

“Guide his footsteps as he grows and help him reach out to you in his times of trial. Amen.”

I quietly exhaled an “amen,” surprising myself.

He gave a firm pat to my knee. Stepping out of the car I felt somehow lighter, and oddly glad he’d said the prayer. I’d need it.

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