Long and Winding Road
Excerpt from the diary of Daniel Bruback, 1978
I promised Liz to keep track of the journey, not just the destination. She’s dead set against my plan, to skip one week of haying so I can show support for workers’ rights at the conference in the city. She’s always pulling rank on me. Fourteen months older but two grades ahead in school. Dad will have to show her how to drive the tractor while I’m gone.
I hugged her and Lucky and then walked to Highway 11. I got a ride from Greenstone to Geraldton within ten minutes of sticking out my thumb, proving her prediction wrong. Okay, it was Coach who recognized me and gave a lift. He assumed I was off to a game since I had my duffel bag with me. We listened to some baseball and barely spoke.
Next ride, from Geraldton to Nipigon, where Highway 11 meets Highway 17, was some roofer in his putt-putt truck. I saw loads of shingles in the back. The roofer was pretty deaf, kept yelling at me to speak up. To get myself in the mood for the Young Socialists conference, I asked him about the troubles of the working man, but he kicked me out for being a Commie. He left me on a downhill spot, where most drivers don’t want to stop, and I waited four hours.
Then I got a whole string of nice vehicles, mainly cars, lights shining although the sky was not so overcast. At the end was a plumber’s truck. He lowered the window and said, “Boy, don’t you know they’re all headed to the cemetery?” He laughed. “Climb aboard, ya idjit, I’ll drop you at the next town.” I asked about his work but this time did not mention the YS conference. He gave me a half-pack of cigarettes; said he was trying to quit. Free matches from AJ Plumbing Inc. “Call the best, ﬂush the rest.”
My last ride today was a car of six. I had to sit on the hump. My ass still hurts. They were on their way to a party outside Schreiber. Actually, the party started early. Two beers were passed up to the front and a joint was getting passed around. I partook—I mean, why not?—but held my duffel bag in front of me for extra padding.
The party people offered me a place to crash but they lived in the bush, too far from the highway and I wasn’t sure I could get a ride back. I spent the night in a ditch. I was awakened by a random dog licking my face.
I walked into Schreiber and splurged on a breakfast special while I warmed up in Zecco’s Diner. I caught a ride soon after from a sweet old couple in a Pontiac Parisienne. Apparently I reminded them of their son Ricky. I got a big lecture about the dangers of hitchhiking, but I just nodded and enjoyed the scenery. They turned on the opera channel full blast. So I pretended I’d reached my destination for the day. I left like a bat outta hell. No wonder Ricky vamoosed.
I spent the rest of the day regretting my falsehood. No ride.
I had Das Kapital to read while waiting but could not get past page 5. Nobody wants to pick up a bookworm, right? I had to keep raising my head, standing up, putting out the thumb… and eating dust.
The cops stopped. I quickly stashed Karl Marx in my bag, remembering Mr. Anti-Commie yesterday. I guess I looked guilty already. They gave me the third degree. Said they had reports of vandalism at some school last night. I spent two hours in a holding cell while they checked out my story. Bless her dried-up heart, Liz answered the phone and vouched for me.
They reminded me I could not solicit rides within “city limits.”
Mid-morning, I got a ride with a vacuum cleaner repairman. In the dusty van, the ribbed hoses rubbed against each other, making a spooky sound. He dropped me in Wawa, right near the big goose, where a dozen other hitchhikers had their thumbs up. Oh no! As the day wore on, more joined us. Hopeless…
Am getting psyched out by all this waiting. The conference starts tonight yet here I am, stuck in Wawa.
I was outside the Minimart munching trail mix when a big ugly bruiser approached, asking for a smoke. I was scared it was a shakedown but kept my nerve. I had the A.J. Plumbing half-pack so we each had a smoke as we walked back to our spots “outside city limits.” Jeff was right friendly, said he’s been trying to leave Wawa for five days. He joked about being “too intimidating” for most folk. He’s tired of working as a bouncer and wants get diving work on the East Coast.
I told him I’d noticed a hierarchy among the hitching queue. The solo girl gets a ride, pronto. Next is two girls—maybe an hour. Next is a guy and a girl—maximum, four hours. Then ordinary guys like me. Worst chances are two guys.
He agreed with my hitchhiking hierarchy and said, “also, a guy with a dog is not popular.”
Suddenly I felt a wave of dog-yearning. I’d feel a lot safer if I’d brought Lucky. She could also keep me warm at night, when it’s hard to figure out a safe place to crash.
Jeff showed me the shelter in Wawa. “Thank God for churches, eh!” He warned me not to get stiffed—sleep with my boots as my pillow.
He said long ago his “dream ride” offered to give him “more leg room” by putting his knapsack in the trunk—that’s how he’d been robbed.
I was learning a lot from Jeff, but I ran out of cigarettes.
The day was overcast and soon it started to sprinkle. Then it rained in earnest. Jeff said he was going to “try for the sympathy vote” but the rest of us travellers headed to the nearest coffee shop. We took over the biggest table—and wow, the stories. One guy said his ride had a breakdown: the wheel came off while they were going at highway speed. Another guy said his ride picked an argument and screamed at him, at gunpoint, to get out. “As if I wanted to stay!”
I haven’t given up on getting to the conference in Toronto. As I looked around the table, we seemed like a rough bunch. It occurred to me that a clean-shaven face would help my chances, so I ducked into the restroom. When I came out, the guy Pete razzed me for trying to outdo them but then took pity on me when my cut pimple kept bleeding.
They were joking about bad drivers. “It’s like your ride’s decided to die—and take you into the afterlife with him,” Pete said. Turning left into oncoming traffic was the worst.
When the rain let up, we left the coffee shop. The sun was streaming through the clouds like a giant disco ball in a smoky club. I looked at Jeff’s spot—he was gone. I felt that, somehow, my luck had changed, too.
Everyone took up their same spot but being head of the line is not a guarantee that you’ll get the first ride. It’s not fair. It doesn’t work like the line-up at the bank. Despite my shave, I couldn’t get a ride. Stayed at the shelter again. Could not sleep a wink.
At mid-morning a shiny new little Ford stopped for me. “Hi, I’m Tom,” the guy called out over the radio. Finally some decent music—the latest tunes by Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Stones.… Tom was about my age—and he’s got wheels already! A two-tone two-door Maverick, even. It’s not fair.
Maybe it was his dad’s car. Even still, Tom was lucky. My dad never shared his car, not even with my mom, not even when she needed it for all the shopping, and taking us kids swimming. Not to mention her trips to the clinic.
Tom looked downright gleeful. He asked me why I was squeezing my temples. I said, “Trying not to think of my old man.”
“Why? Did he beat you?” Tom stepped harder on the gas.
“Nah, just a cheapskate.”
He sped up more. “Well, you’re lucky. My old man used to lay into me—”
I waited for him to notice he was over the speed limit, but he didn’t. “Uh, could you, uh—slow down?” I said.
“Why, does this scare you, Dan? Danny? Do they call you Danny-boy? Scaredy-Danny?” Tom was veering back and forth on the highway. I could feel the pull of centrifugal force when we took a curve.
How did he suss that out, the fact they called me cruel nicknames at school? How did he know I was one to be picked on? If I survived this ride from hell, I had to figure this out.
“Nope, they don’t call me anything,” I forced myself to speak through my fear. “It’s like I don’t exist.” Which wasn’t exactly true—the mean guys did have a name for me. It was my former friends that I had become invisible to. Like they didn’t want to take this wimp back into their circle, especially not after I was caught crying in the music room.
“Like you don’t exist?” Tom said. “How would you like that—not to exist?”
At that moment I heard the siren. I felt relief, thinking this maniac will finally slow down. My relief turned to terror when Tom speeded up. I braced myself for the worst. Just like the party ride, with a drunk at the wheel, I held my duffel bag in front of me and debated the best position to survive a crash.
I thought of big bruiser Jeff standing in the downpour, whose case seemed hopeless until he realized he could turn a disadvantage to his favor. Mom had a saying: “Where there’s life there’s hope.” She usually said it about her plants. She was always killing them. Overwatering cactus, drying out ferns. Liz thought Mom secretly wanted a challenge, so was always driving things to ruin. Said she handled Dad the same way, but he took off whereas her plants could not.
Why was I thinking of Mom now when I had to figure out how to exit the death-defying Indy 500 right now?
“Okay, I’m scared,” I said between clenched teeth. “You’re really scaring me. I give up.” I was babbling shamelessly.
Self-loathing swelled within me: again, I was failing in the test the universe had put before me. What could I do or say now? How could I reach this guy hell-bent on suicide? I turned in my seat to look out the back window. The flashing light was receding into the distance—yes, receding!—because this little Maverick was outrunning the cop car. Then my eye caught sight of the baby bassinet in the back seat. With something in it.
“Let the baby go, Tom,” I shouted. “Whatever else, let the kid go. I’ll stay with you, you can crash us both, but the baby doesn’t deserve—”
He turned to me with the weirdest look. As if to say, “Are you out of your mind?” At that moment we heard a ripping sound. He braked too late. We lurched forward. He’d hit the spike strips. The Maverick fishtailed, squealing and groaning. We swayed violently and thumped away. All four tires were flat—we were driving on the rims.
* * *
The cops put us in the back seat of a cruiser and warned us to stay silent. They assumed we were buddies. I got the shakes and then the chills. Tom kept grinning away, face like a mask. I turned to face the wall. I knew the tears were coming so I had to keep them hidden and quiet, as I’ve learned. One side of me said, “This jerk just tried to kill you,” and the other side said, “I get where he’s coming from.” And of course I was trying to memorize everything so I’d have a real adventure to tell Liz about.
The questioning at the cop shop was a blur. It’s only been over the last few hours, as I’ve been listening to them book Amadeus Termijian a.k.a. “Tom” that I’ve sorted out what happened. He had stolen the Ford Maverick for a joy ride. Already had a suspended licence for drag racing. There was no baby in the bassinet—just a bundled-up towel that looked pretty convincing to me, when scared out of my wits.
Amadeus called me “Liar” and “Bullshitter” through his cell door. Then he shouted “Crybaby!”
I was stunned: this was my name at school. The thing I most wanted to get away from. And here it was—being yelled in my face. It reminded me of that saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.”
Here I was, finding out my true self. From a complete stranger.
Most people are told their true selves but they pretend they’re the opposite. Like Dad is always saying how generous he is. Mom was always saying she had a green thumb. How healthy she was, even at the end, when her eyeballs turned yellow. Even Liz believes she is insanely attractive, despite her alopecia and braces.
I could pretend Amadeus was talking trash about me but maybe I should accept it. Let me choose the path of radical honesty. Yes. I am a crybaby. And now I have to move on.
Move on tomorrow, that is. As soon as I can get my duffel bag from the Ford. And buy a bus ticket back home.