Passing Trains

Short Stories... All Aboard!


Buddha's Bridge

I met him hitchhiking.  He was sitting under the 101 overpass in Ventura, California, leaning on a backpack rolling a cigarette.  The rain had stopped, yet he sat as if he had all the time in world. 

A few days earlier I had been in Oklahoma riding with a devout racist trucker.  “Niggers ain’t no fuckin’ good” he said with veins popping from his thick red neck.  I didn’t agree one way t’other, not even with my best shit-kicker accent.  “Every chance I git, I git me a nigger, see;” he yelled over the engine while unzipping his sleeper curtain, exposing the substantial one-man arsenal loaded behind the seats.  “You know how many niggers I kilt?”  I guessed – a lot --  as he forced his tractor-trailer down the Oklahoma road.   “Every time I go up to D’troit, I git me one.”  I hesitated to ask this species of tattoo in coveralls how many times he’d been to Detroit, but I guessed -- a lot.

“You’ve got to learn” the Buddha advised as we sat under the rumble of 101, “ Lot’a crazy people drive’n around out here.  You just don’t get into any truck or car that stops.”  I wish I’d known that the night before, when a drunk previewed my maker as we careened off a desert mountain pass.  Odd but common thing about drunks, when they turn the steering wheel 50 years after a hairpin turn.  I hadn’t known until I closed the door and inhaled the interior of his seen-better-days, beer-barrel pick-up.  By then, it was too Daytona late.

“Now, see what I mean?  You’ve got to take a few seconds, look’em over, make’em say a complete phrase, trip’em up, especially at night in the middle of no-damn-where.  Any fool can get behind the wheel, and believe me, every fool does.”          

I walked out of that crash by a blessing of soft sand.  A nice couple in a jalopy took me from the skid marks to Bakersfield.  They offered by near insistence that I spend the cold desert night on their couch.  That’s the odd thing about people, that is, people who are nearly as poor as poor gets.  They share what little they have.  American migrants, shack on the farm, it’s morning and six amazed kids in underwear whispering near a hitchhiker sleeping on the couch.  Mom frying eggs, a ride to the main road, a fared well good-bye.

“Now, you could’ve been buried in your sleep, and think, who would know?  Never put your life in someone else’s hands.  You can get out just like you got in, by the door.  Just tell tell’em to pull over, like you left something behind, or you’re gett’n the runs – they’ll let you off, and quick.”    

The Buddha was right.  I wasn’t, however, a total fool.  Not when that black haired  Armenian girl propositioned me by a hard-scrabble shoulder outside St. Louis.  “You come, you work for us, you make money” she said in her bare feet and unbuttoned red peasant blouse.  “We like you!”  The “we” were her brothers, her almost brothers, and her suspected brothers.  From the roadside I counted nine of’em outside their house trailer.  Nine, and her,  the erotic fortune telling sister who’s apparent life goal was home improvements.  I would work in “sales”, and as an instant bonus, lie in the sales department bed with the brother’s dark eyed sister. 

A man named Orville pulled over.  He was going to San Diego, lock, box, and tools.  I waved to the peasant girl.  I could see that her half-brothers weren’t too happy about the failed recruitment.  Blame yourselves, brothers, because if not for all of you, I would have married your sister on the spot.  For her I would’ve run your flimflam home improvement business into the nationwide millions.

“Out here, there’s coal under the rose”  Buddha observed.

Orville had left his family waiting in Cleveland.  He figured to get settled in San Diego, find a good paying sheet metal job, and then send for them.  Anyone could see that Orville was a sincere, hard working man still trying to keep life and family together.  He wasn’t desperate, but old enough to know the hard side of every lesson.  For two days he reviewed Orville’s life out loud as his workman’s hands kept the wheel straight and true.  I really liked Orville.  I really liked his family.  He wanted me to call him in San Diego, come down to meet his 18-year-old daughter – propose marriage, learn the sheet metal trade, and be the good son-in-law he saw riding in the passenger seat. 

Buddha had a real name too.  I believe it was Clay.  Yes, no doubt, Clay.  Yet, he was at least thirty years and a million rides my senior, so I speak of him mostly as Buddha.  He’d been hitchhiking since before I was born.  He may have hitchhiked through Bethlehem two thousand years ago.  I thought about this, how he survived the Huns, the armed, the mad, the dangerous.  On the road, even the best of mystical luck can’t hold forever. 

“Forget luck, son, it’s up to you, and your wits.”

We’d been under 101 for an hour.  I felt no rush, no need to walk up the 101 on-ramp, to put my thumb out and move on.  I was with a man of uncommon existence, and I wanted to stay for as long as it took my curious mind to dry out.  I’d done most of the talking, but felt more anxious to listen.  I couldn’t imagine the life that was his.

“Oh, I used to take a job here and there.  People are always offering me work.  Some even put me up in a hotel, rent me a room.  One guy in Florida took me to his dentist when I had an abscess.  He did a ton of work right there and then.  There are some nice people out here.  Yet, it’s often a blessing leading to a curse.  You take the job, read the Sunday paper, put cans in the cabinet, read the Sunday paper, and you’re just about ready to go insane.”

Clay certainly didn’t look like a hitchhiking bum.  As a matter of simple observation, you’d guess he had bathed and shaved that very morning.  You’d assume his blue button-down shirt and khaki slacks were pressed at a hotel, that his backpack had never touched the  ground.   Yes, his car had probably broken down.  On a lark, he stuck his thumb out to reach the nearest phone.  Extraordinary.  Chances are you picked him up yourself.  Maybe in Baltimore, or Albuquerque, or outside Miami. 

“Clay, I’m curious, what kind of jobs do the rides offer you?”

“Everything from caretaker to currency broker.  Can you believe that?  This guy in Charlotte puts me up in a Holiday Inn, cable TV and all, a mile away from his office.  Says he’ll pick me up in the morning with his Mercedes, teach me how to sell money over the phone.  He was convinced that I could make $100,000 a year, minimum.   I hadn’t told him that I’m dyslectic with numbers.  I’d sell fifty cents on his dollar.  Lucky for him I checked out early.”

I offered to buy coffee at the nearby Denny’s.  I thought his manner of acceptance was significant.  How else does a man, even the Buddha survive living on the road for 30 or 3,000 years.

“I let a building manager talk me into a porter’s job in San Francisco about a year ago.  He was desperate for help.  It was easy because I like cleaning.  When I have a hotel room, I clean it.  I clean the bathroom.  I clean the air conditioner.  I detest stale air, or the residue from perfume.  Everything in my backpack is clean.   Many a day I wash it all in a McDonald’s sink.”

At this point we were sitting at a table in Denny’s.  Buddha was looking for something.  He opened his backpack and carefully removed the contents until everything was stacked on the bench-seat between us.  I never witnessed anything quite like it, the precise folds, the absolute and utter neatness.   All his worldly goods, laid out before us; needle, thread, scissors, shampoo, pH-balanced soap, toothpaste, disposable razor, shaving cream, hair brush, white polish, aspirin, ten white socks, three shirts, three slacks, one jacket, one sweater, telescoping umbrella  -- a can opener, a Farmer’s Almanac, and several colorful travel brochures wrapped in a broad blue rubber band.  Also a low candle, matches, and a magnifying glass.  I’m describing the possessions of a real person, a man who daily carries his entire world on his shoulders.  Yet, not a single item suggesting family, a remembered wife, a dreaming child, or a token from the forgotten past. 

“I’d been at the building for about a month. One afternoon I was vacuuming the halls on the sixth floor. They had beautiful ornate, maroon Oriental carpets. Very expensive.  Gold framed mirrors, antique furniture, very high class.  I wore a navy blue uniform, with a name plate; “B. Clay”, he said with a smile.   “So, I get on the elevator to work my way down, but after the door closes and the elevator begins its descent, I suddenly realize the vacuum is still plugged into the sixth floor.  Jesus!  By the time I find the stop button, sparks are flying, some old lady is screaming FIRE, and the vacuum is up against the elevator ceiling – still running on high.” 

I take these incidents as omens.  They tell me it’s time to move on, hit the road, to go sleep under a bridge.  Within the hour I’m packed.   Everything extra I leave behind.  Staying in one place would dig my grave.  Out here, breathing the air, hearing the birds, there’s nothing like it.  If you want to be free, stay out of rooms.”   

“Any close calls, bad rides, Clay?”

“Just last year, I was riding with a Baptist minister going through North Carolina.  Everything was fine.  He was telling me about his church, and right in the middle of a  sentence he passed out, and I mean completely out, his hands in a death-grip around the god-damn steering wheel.  Well, what else could I do –  I grabbed the wheel, hit the brakes, wrestled him and the car over to the shoulder and stopped.  Man, that  preacher was dead.  By nightfall I was in Virginia sitting in a Burger King.”    

An hour ago I had asked myself; how did Buddha pass thirty years riding up and down endless roads and highways?  How does a Buddha manage when constantly in motion, always moving, always alone?  Yet, now I was beginning to get it.  For one, he lived entirely in the moment.  No past, no future, only now.  The way he drank his coffee.  The way he packed his pack.  The way he rolled a cigarette.  Always in the moment.  Sitting was all his attention, all life’s acquisitions.

“I scold young girls for picking me up.  Their mother’s too.  Everyday one or the other pulls over to give me a ride, so I go along to give’em advice.  Too many crazies riding their thumbs out here.”

© 2001 David M. Molloy


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