I was dropped off along 275, the main highway circling around Louisville, Kentucky. Just ahead the highway split, three lanes to the left, two to the right, and on the far right, one lane going into an exit ramp. There was an overpass up ahead and a number of large green signs stood above the highway. I stood there before all this, a man in a concrete channel, no-man’s-land with cars and tractor-trailers bowling forth. A deer with a flattened mid-section lay dead next to the guardrail. I waited for a pause in the traffic and ran across the exit lane, stopping when I got to the part of the shoulder that formed a wedge on the asphalt between the exit and the rest of the highway. Directly above me three green signs spanned the highway, the one on the right with an arrow saying 65 South. This was the road would take me into Nashville, Tennessee. Traffic howled past, the eeerrooo eeerrooo eeerrooo of tires streaking down the pavement filling my head with this drone of vibrations. The two lanes in front of me ran beneath the overpass before curving around into 65. Before the overpass and to the right was a long stretch of grass sandwiched between the exit and the highway. The grass looked sickly, I could smell the stale fumes of exhaust pipes, and a man in an orange vest was going around in the grass picking up trash, placing it in his trash bag. Anyway, this is where I stood, in the grass along the highway, walking backwards with my thumb out because I didn’t have a sign. Although there was a shoulder here people would be hard-pressed to stop, given the steady stream of speeding traffic. My arm was sore from being held out.
Eventually (it took about 45 minutes) a tan sedan circa 1990’s pulled over beneath the overpass, its bumper loose and tailpipe coughing. I grabbed my knapsack and ran over, climbed in the front seat without bothering to ask the driver where he was going.
‘Nashville, huh?’ he said. The driver, Drake Muldoon, had a very deep, hollow voice, not loud or booming, but thick and low. The car backfired plumes of smoke as we gained speed and pulled back on.
Drake was a large man in a solid color t-shirt, the neck of which had been cut. He also wore sweat-shorts that rose above his tree-stump knees. His face jiggled when he talked, his jowls loose and hanging above a neck that sloped down from a hidden jaw-line. He was a massive man whose seatbelt didn’t fit and you can guess correctly that he did not fly on planes because of this. His shoulders and arms were massive; elbows, wrists and knuckles hidden under thick, soft pudge. The center console was inaccessible for a reason you’ve probably just assumed. His chest looked like something small children would sleigh-ride down and his stomach, the top half at least, rested on the steering wheel so that one time, when Drake sneezed, the driver next to us held down his horn in return and forcibly extended his middle finger.
‘I get that a lot,’ rumbled Drake.
‘From honking at people?’
‘That’s usually not why.’
This took me a moment to realize and I uttered ‘Oh’ without looking at him. The conversation here stopped in the fashion of someone mentioning a recently dead dog: both people are awkwardly saddened.
‘So what’s in Elizabethtown?’ This was the wrong question for me to restart the conversation with.
‘I do my food shopping there. The Wal-Mart there gives me extra good discounts.’ I noticed then, curiously, that the back seats of the car had been removed, thereby tripling the trunk space.
‘You know, I’ve been hitchhiking once,’ he said. ‘Well, sort of. You see what happened was, a few years back I blew out a tire.’
‘Shit, you didn’t have a spare?’
‘ – Oh, no, I had a spare. I just wasn’t able to fix it though, and I couldn’t find anyone else to fix it on account of my dead cellphone. I was two miles outside of town still and I had to walk the whole way back. I couldn’t catch a single fruggin’ ride.’ He paused and glanced over at the glove compartment. ‘Hey would you open that up and pass me the Fatty Cakes?’ I told myself this wasn’t true. But as I passed the box there was the label. Undeniable. Fatty Cakes, a picture of four pink, hand-sized cakes with glazed icing, one of them cut in half to reveal a cross-section of what appeared to be a pink, meat-like substance, albeit more gelatinous, and a center filled with some sort of flesh-colored icing.
‘I’d offer you some but this is my only lunch till I get there.’
I felt like being sick but I couldn’t stop watching, the way this fleshy cave smacked and smucked up and down, clumps of processed gum and fat globbing up and down saturated with sweet saliva, I could see the pink gooey strands of chemical-laden spit every time the open hole mushed up and down, pink slime on flat wet smucking lips.
Transfixed by disgust.
‘Where was I? Oh, yes. It took me seven hours and not one person would stop. I haven’t a clue why.’ The serving size of Fatty Cakes was one half. There were four cakes in each individual package. A second package of cakes was making its way towards the soggy hole. ‘I thought I was going to drop. I mean, I was really huffin’ n’ puffin’. I stopped for a few breaks, you know, grab a couple sodas and some snacks for energy. But, man, there ain’t nothing harder than walking in the heat. Seven hours, seven hours and I had my thumb out the whole time. Not one person stopped. I don’t know why. Does that ever happen to you?’
‘All the time,’ I lied. Drake Muldoon continued to talk with his mouth open and I watched as bits of chemicalized gelatinous fat sprayed from his mouth. By the time the Fatty Cakes were gone a layer of pink goop like soggy crumbs was slowly slipping down the windshield. Drake, vexed, turned on his windshield wipers, waited twenty seconds and turned them back off. I watched a fly land in the goop, feel around with its proboscis and, uninterested, fly away.
* * *
Drake let me out at the top of the exit before driving on. Here, to the left was an overpass, across the street was the on-ramp and to the right of that was a small shopping center. In front of the shopping center was one large Old Country Buffet and along the street were nine signs standing tall and bright, one for each of the nine fast-food stores that occupied the whole of the shopping center. The parking lots were full. It was very cloudy here and I wanted to get a good hour at the on-ramp before the rain came. First I needed a sign.
I was kneeling in the grass next to the Buffet’s parking lot scrawling NASH in big bold letters on a piece of cardboard. I was taking my time, making sure the letters were even and filled in because I assumed people would be less inclined to pick up a stranger with a sign that looked like the product of a four-year-old. Next to me was a blue dumpster full of cardboard. Fortunately there had been a slot on the side so all I had to do was reach my arm in, instead of climbing in, to retrieve a piece of cardboard.
While I was filling in NASH with the permanent marker, a large chartered bus pulled into the parking lot. The windows were tinted and the exhaust smelled especially foul. The bus doors swung open. Streaming out came a line of large rotund women throwing their chubby arms up singing praises, these women in their Eucharist-receiving bests with their arms raised and faces at the sky shouting allelujahs streaming out of the bus and into the Old Country Buffet. The last chubby church-goer in line stopped at the door and flipped the Open sign over to Closed.
There was a traffic light down the road so that I could see most of the vehicles before they reached the on-ramp. This gave everyone plenty of time to see my friendly smiling face and the cardboard sign I was holding over my head. I would stand along the road and as traffic came I’d backpedal along with it, holding the sign and jutting my thumb. I’d backpedal till I got to the on-ramp then backpedal some more, waving at people who never waved back.
This was taking a while. People were seemingly unaware I was standing on the corner and this all gets discouraging, running around and waving and not so much as a curt wave ‘No!’. But that just adds to the feeling, because when a big sleek white pick-up pulled over after ninety minutes I was thrilled as if my faith in humanity had instantly been restored.
‘I’m going to Bowling Green. You want a ride?’ The driver was an older man with a powerful and rusty voice. When I said Hell Yes he asked if I liked cats because as I climbed in a half-breed pit jumped on my face and slopped up my nose.
‘Down Sarge! I said down, damnit!’ The driver hit the dog on the head and the dog went over to his side. ‘I know he looks big, but he’s still just a pup. He’s friendly as all hell, really, but watch out ‘cus he’ll bite ya’.’ Rex, the driver, was towing a twenty foot fishing boat to a lake outside of Bowling Green. He tried to get down there once week – not that he was any good at fishing but because it helped him clear his head. He was hoping the rain would hold.
Sarge kept jumping on me and Rex told me to hit him over the head. I did, and Sarge took to chewing my hand instead. Rex would then curse at the fifty-pound dog and, grabbing Sarge by the scruff of his neck, pull him over. Rex told me he wouldn’t have picked me up if I wasn’t running backwards with traffic, waving ‘like a lunatic’, because he doesn’t ever stop for hitchhikers who just stand around passively waiting. I told him Thanks. He told me people don’t help those who don’t care enough to help themselves. Then Sarge got a plastic cap stuck in his mouth and Rex asked me to retrieve it, which I did, afterwards wiping my hands on my jeans.
‘Thanks, that damn dog eats anything. Really, even shit that’s clearly inedible and toxic. I don’t know if it’s just the way he is, or maybe something with the way we’re raising him – the other day he was eating a hunk of rubber! But either way, he’s just a dog. They don’t got the intelligence we do, obviously, they lack our freedom of choice. So I can’t get mad. Of course, who the fuck knows! Maybe he does. In which case it’s a good thing he’s a pet ‘cus he wouldn’t survive too long without someone paying his medical bills and telling him what he ain’t allowed to eat. But that’s fine for them, dogs fit fine in a tyrannical social domineering. Fortunately it don’t work for humans ‘cus we have freewill. Dogs do seem to learn though. You don’t see habitually drunk dogs or dogs – besides pups – eating shit they ain’t supposed to. It makes honest sense though, ‘cus what family would empty their fortune on a dog that can’t learn? Or, worse, one that refuses to learn? It ain’t easy, and if pets had freewill there wouldn’t be a way in hell the richest nations could make it work.’ Rex leaned forward, peering up at the sky through the windshield. ‘I sure hope this rain holds out. But, well I suppose it’s got to pour sooner or later.’