I caught a couple of quick rides after Frank dropped me off (just north of Cincinnati) and I was standing on an on-ramp on a busy road of shopping centers and super-markets. Once you are in or near a city it’s very hard to get out because most people are only driving a short distance, going to pick up a gallon of milk or buy a pair of dress shoes for dinner; nobody picks up hitchhikers while running errands. The trick in these situations is to find a ride of considerable distance, to wait until someone offers to drive you out of the city. The morning had brightened considerably and though the sky was still cloudy there were curtains of sunlight that would come down and make me warm. I took off my coat and strapped it to the top of my knapsack. I had a long piece of cardboard that said Louisville on one side and I would flip it over sometimes and it said South on the other side. This way, if no one was stopping for Louisville, I could hope someone would stop for South.
I stood in the mushy grass below an overpass and whenever the traffic light changed a wall of cars and trucks slowly turned onto the on-ramp. There was a wide shoulder here. Mostly I was given apologetic shrugs or a finger pointing off to the side, meaning the driver was quickly turning off . The first car to stop was an economy sedan and the driver said he was only going a couple of exits. I said No, Thank you, I’ll wait for a longer ride. I was still on the north side of the city and I was tired of short rides. I knew I could take short rides all day and not get twenty miles out of Cincinnati. Waiting for the long ride was the right thing to do and I knew that, that’s how I was going to get out of here.
Forty, long minutes later a pick-up truck pulled over. I threw my knapsack over my shoulder and ran up to the passenger side.
‘Hey bud, I’m only going a couple of exits but you can ride in the back if you want.’ The driver was wearing jeans and boots. The bed of the truck was clean, mostly empty and a fine way to travel. The bottom of the on-ramp looked muddy and lonely. I needed to move, something in me too restless for idle waiting. Impatience won out and then I regretted this.
* * *
The pick-up stopped at the bottom of the off-ramp for me to hop out. There was an old gas station across the street, a junk yard at the corner and a few overgrown car lots: I was in the empty-lot side of town where people stare at you like you’re an outsider to be rid of. On top of that there wasn’t any traffic. On top of that, the on-ramp was a very tight, twenty-yard-long curve with nothing of a shoulder to pull over, just curb and concrete walls. A concrete fjord. This was literally the worst place to try and catch a ride.
Somehow, seven minutes later….
An old, maroon Grand Marquis drove down the on-ramp and came to a stop. Red brake lights turned to white and the Grand Marquis began reversing, swerving widely to the left and right as it backed up. The back tires went up over the curb and the car jolted to a stop, the back bumper inches from the wall. I ran over to the passenger side.
‘Hey, where are you going?’ came a high-pitched, excited voice.
‘I’m trying to get to Louisville.’
‘Okay, I can take you a little ways, at least out of the city. Hop in.’ The man collected some papers and a leather book from the passenger seat and placed them in the back. I climbed in and stuffed my knapsack between my knees. The gear-shifter was behind the steering wheel and the man struggled to put the car in drive.
‘I’m Nick by the way.’ Nick smiled and we shook hands. He seemed very kind. Nick was wearing a black suit and he had neatly parted, blond hair that was greasy and the strands stuck together in clumps. He was thin, and he had a youthful, clean face covered in a scruffy three-day beard. Nick had a black collar on, an odd collar with a white tab at the throat.
‘You’re a pastor?’
‘Oh yes. Well, priest, technically. I’m Father Cherobyi from the Church of Ruptured Spirit. But don’t let the title fool you. I’ve been hitchhiking myself, you know. That’s why I stopped. I know how much it stinks to be standing there and nobody is stopping.’
‘Well thank you. It was very kind of you.’
‘I have to make a stop first but I’ll only be a couple of minutes. Then, if you’d like, I know just across the border in Kentucky there’s a few truck stops across the street from each other. I figure you won’t have a problem finding a ride from there. I’ll take ya’ if you like.’
‘Okay, cool,’ I nodded appreciatively. ‘Thanks a lot.’
There was much traffic on the highway and men in hard-hats and orange vests were working on one of the lanes. The traffic was condensed and would stop and go frequently. Nick’s eyes were squinting in the sunlight.
‘So what’s in Louisville?’
‘Well, really I’m going to Los Angeles. But I’m going south to Nashville first to get out of the cold.’
‘There’s a storm coming up from the south, I hear. It’s supposed to rain all over. Did you bring a raincoat?’
‘I have a couple of ponchos.’ We were both silent for a moment and Nick had a quaint, peaceful smile that rested askew on his face, his head a little back and to the side. ‘How long have you been a priest?’
‘This is my sixteenth year in the ministry. But I’ll tell you, I never in a million years imagined myself as becoming a priest. I adore it very much, having the sort of order that comes with serving the church. I lived a very hard life – ’ The tractor-trailer in front of us came to a stop and Nick waited for the last moment to use the brakes. We both went forward with the momentum and were pushed back into our seats when we stopped.
‘I love God dearly, we have a very close relationship, Him and I, and we talk throughout the day. Right now even, right now I’m getting to better know God. All you have to do is focus your heart. Yes, I love God more than I ever have, but that doesn’t mean I am without pain. Priests are human too. I hope you know that. The first time I saw Heaven, and I remember this as though it were verse, was when I was in a coma for three days. I saw everyone that I ever knew and this tremendously bright, white, gold light was shining through all of us. Then I was in the Garden of Eden and lush fruits and trees and all of the gorgeous green was all around me.’ The priest was beginning to bore me now. His eyes were still squinting though the sun had gone in. A cellphone began to ring and the priest felt his pockets.
‘Hello? Yes. I’m giving a friend of mine a ride, though. I thought you wanted to meet at the CVS? Okay, I’m on my way there. I’m good to go. Should only take me fifteen minutes. Okay, see you there.’ The priest put his phone away. The cars in front of us were stopped and he waited for the last moment again, braking hard.
‘You see, God isn’t just all around us, but he’s within all of us as well. The best way to get to know God and be close with him is by getting to know your fellow man. Honestly, the best way to connect with God is to open yourself and connect with people. Treat everyone like your best friend. Love everyone like a brother. Then you’ll know God. I’m closer than I ever have been to God, that’s true. But it’s not to say I am without needs. God is within all of us but we also have urges, certain urges that are so difficult to ignore because they are so much a part of us as is God: the need to eat outside of hunger; the need to love only physically and not for your heart; the need to find serenity in the openness through things not naturally within us – urges as such.’ The priest curled his forefinger behind his collar and wiggled it.
‘Before I ever joined the ministry, and this was years ago, but I used to hate God. I would stand in my bedroom, my head turned up and I would – take his name in vain!’ He shouted this last part, his hand hitting the steering wheel on each word. He took a deep breath and settled himself, itched at an open pimple on his cheek. There were many of these, large and red beneath his scratchy beard.
‘I was angry then. This was a difficult time for me. I was angry at God because I couldn’t understand the things He did. I would curse at Him and yell at Him for taking my brother at such a young age. My brother, you see, he’d fallen in with the wrong crowd after his marriage. His wife gave him two caps of methadone and it killed him. She even showed up at the funeral, whispered in my ear that she’d done it on purpose. She wanted his house and car. I made her leave but I’m not vengeful. I know God will punish her in ways I never could. We’ll be getting off here in a few minutes. I just have to get something real quick, and then I’ll take you into Kentucky. I used to hate God but I’m at peace now. I know he has plans bigger than I can ever understand. It’s true that I love Him more than ever but I still have a lot of pain. I don’t touch things as much as I used to, because I know it’s not completely right, but, well, when I was in that coma I was there because I’d tried to kill myself. I thought it was possible to take the pain and the urges out of me and I took enough Oxycodones to kill five men. Then, as soon as they released me I went home and crushed up fifteen more so that I had a three foot line of white powder on my coffee table. Did it all at once.’ We turned off the highway here and onto a main drag in downtown Cincinnati. The sidewalks were dirty and lined with shady corner marts, liquor stores and the sorts of places that sell prepaid cellphones and bail-bonds over caged-in counters. The priest made a phone call.
‘Are you on 14th still? 26 and Main? Man, you guys sure move around a lot. Huh? Oh, he’s fine, just passing through on his way down south. Yes, five minutes.’ The priest hung up. He was noticeably excited now, tugging at his collar and picking at the open sores beneath his beard.
‘I try not to touch things, I swear. I won’t even bother with people my age. The young ones, they have the sweeeet stuff.’
I was becoming nervous now and I asked the priest if I could smoke in his car. He said Okay.
‘And I certainly don’t touch things like I used to but I still have a lot of pain in me and I have to be able to take care of my needs or I’ll wind up in the hospital again.’ With a finger he tugged at his collar. He eyes opened like curtains being raised and he looked me straight in the eye while he said this, while drifting through oncoming honking traffic and drifting back to the right side. ‘I still have these urges and it’s fine and normal we all have them. We wouldn’t be human without them. If we could only ever act good and right and moral we would not be free.’ Cars began honking, we had drifted into oncoming traffic and the priest nonchalantly and without looking turned back into the right lane. ‘In the Bible it is stated that He wants us to be free. He gave us these urges for a reason. Do you get it? God put the Devil in us!’ The priest broke eye-contact and made a hard right-turn, came to a hard stop along the curb. Hurriedly he pulled a New Jersey Devils’ jacket from the backseat and put it on, stashed his collar in the center consol. He quickly reversed back down the street, turned left going backwards onto the main road, slammed the brakes and put the car in drive. The priest drove down another two blocks before pulling over in front of a fire-hydrant.
A high-school aged black kid came up to my window. ‘Yo yo you lookin’ fo TJ?’
‘Yes sir – ’
‘Pull in front of these two cars here. This spot’s hot.’ The priest did what he said and the kid came back over to my window. ‘How much’u lookin’ fo?’
‘Just a twenty,’ said the priest. ‘And if it’s good you can tell TJ he’s got a new customer.’ The kid, standing on the sidewalk in the middle of the city in the afternoon pulled out a small cellophane bag and dug around in it with two fingers. The priest extended his palm out across my chest, in the direction of the sidewalk. The kid dropped two, small, tan crumbles into the priest’s palm. ‘That’s not twenty,’ said the priest.
‘Yeah it is. That shit’s fi’a yo.’
‘Nah, don’t do me like that, brother. I know what twenty looks like, I ain’t new.’ Reluctantly, the kid dug around again and placed a few, smaller crumbles in the priest’s palm.
‘That still ain’t twenty!’
‘Man I ain’t given you n’mo. I’m tellin you that shit fi’a yo. You be good straight with that.’
The priest placed the tan crumbs into a receipt, folded it up and tucked it in the sun-visor. The kid began walking away. ‘Hey hey hey!’ called the priest, quickly getting out of the car. He stopped abruptly standing dead-stiff in front of the car.
‘That ain’t the fuck we do things, motha’fucka!’ The kid had turned around when the priest got out of the car and he was standing tall on the sidewalk with his arm straight out, pointing at the priest. There was a small, silver revolver in his hand. ‘Get the fuck back in the car you stupid motha’fucka!’
‘Alright alright, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ The priest slipped back into his seat. Hands sweaty and white on the steering wheel. ‘I just wanted another twenty. That’s all.’ Slowly, the priest took a twenty dollar bill from the center consol. The kid was standing next to my window now, the bottom of his hand resting on the window sill, leveling the small revolver at the priest. I was still smoking a cigarette and I wasn’t sure where to ash. The kid took the twenty, stuffed it in his pocket. He gave the priest less than he had the first time.
‘You fucked up motha-fucka. Best try a dif’rent approach next time.’ The kid put the cellophane back in his pocket, the revolver in the back of his jeans, pulling his shirt out over it before walked away.
‘Sorry about all of that. I’ll take you to Kentucky now.’ The priest silently started the car, slowly pulled out into the street. He smiled crookedly at me. ‘It’s all true what I said, and if you listened than personal needs affect no other than the person.’