When the hitchhiker got in the car, he pulled out a knife and said, ‘Get this piece of shit moving.’
‘Let me guess,’ I said and hit the gas. ‘You’re a psycho.’
I flipped on the radio, dialing through the static. The Mohave desert flew by. I turned the radio off. ‘I’m not afraid of psychos,’ I said.
‘Shut up and drive.’ He held the blade under my nose.
I was on my way to Las Vegas.
‘Why don’t you put that thing away,’ I said after a bit. ‘You got me now, right? What am I gonna do?’
He snorted phlegm into his throat. ‘All right, but don’t fuck up.’
‘Deal,’ I said.
He put the knife away.
Up ahead a dead animal was squashed on the other side of the road. I swerved to get a piece of it.
‘What’d you do that for?’ the hitcher said.
He was just a kid, maybe half my age, with long greasy blond hair and some peach fuzz over his lip. His sweat smelled like onions. Between his feet was an army surplus backpack. His jeans had holes in the knees. He fished a box of Lucky Strikes and a Zippo from the backpack and lit a smoke.
‘No smoking in this car,’ I said, looking out at the desert.
‘Tough shit.’ He dragged on the cigarette.
I whipped the car to the side of the road, dust puffing up around the windows. A tractor trailer roared past. I took off my sunglasses. ‘I said no smoking in this car.’
‘What’s your problem?’
‘Get rid of that cigarette or I’ll put it out on your tonsils,’ I screamed.
He tossed the butt out into the sand.
‘Thank you,’ I said.
‘Shit, whatever,’ he said.
‘Are we ready to roll now?’
Back on the highway we passed a sign that said Las Vegas 92. I’d never been there before.
‘So what’s the plan?’ I asked.
‘We’re paying somebody a little visit.’ He pulled a bottle of water from his pack and took a slug.
‘You don’t need to know who,’ he said.
I laughed. ‘If that’s the way you want to play it.’
He brought the knife out. ‘Remember who’s in control here.’
‘Oh, yeah, that’s right. I forgot. Sorry. You’re in control. Aye aye, captain!’
He touched the tip of the blade to my cheek bone. ‘Don’t fuck with me.’
I leaned against the sharp point, pricking my skin. There was another dead animal coming up in the road–a rabbit–which I got with the right tires. I could feel blood dribbling down my face.
‘Man, you’re out there,’ the kid said.
We didn’t talk for a little while after that. The sun was getting lower, making the desert glow like hot coals.
Finally I said, ‘You remember that saying from school, ‘It takes one to know one’? It’s pretty much true, isn’t it?’
He just cleared his throat and snorted.
‘A lot of those sayings are right on the money,’ I went on. ‘Kids are like little philosophers. Little bundles of wisdom. How about this one: ‘I’m rubber, you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.’ I mean, who can argue with that?’
‘What are you talking about, man? Why don’t you just shut up? God,’ he said. ‘I’m riding with a nutcase.’
‘’Sticks and stones’,’ I said. ‘But that one isn’t so effective,I think. That one never worked for me. It just made me see red. Names will never hurt me and all that horseshit–it just made me pound the guy, beat him fucking senseless.’
He glugged some water and put the bottle back in his bag. A cop cruiser raced by in the other direction. In the distance some low hills stood against the orange sky. Beyond the hills somewhere was Vegas. I’d heard it jumped out at you suddenly.
I tried the radio again. Nothing but static and a man shoutinga bout the flames of hell, the glories of heaven. ‘Believe what I say!’ he said. ‘Believe what I say!’
Shifting my ass in the bucket seat, I looked at the gold B hanging from the ignition key. Barbara, I thought. Barry. Bruce. Betty. Bill. I didn’t even know what kind of car it was.
‘I need to piss,’ the kid said.
I touched the cut on my cheek where the blade had stuck me.
‘Hey, man, pull over so I can take a leak.’
‘Piss your pants,’ I said.
‘Piss your pants.’
Pushing the knife into my gut, he said, ‘Stop the fucking car.’
With a sigh I drifted the car over into the dust. ‘This macho man act is really starting to bore me,’ I said.
He told me to get out and I did. The ground sizzled under my boots. I looked out across the desert stubble while the kid peed. Some white flowers bloomed in the emptiness. A red convertible sped by, the horn honking as the girls screamed out at us, their long hair whipping like banners. As I watched them disappear down the road, I tried to think back to the last time I’d been with a girl–a real girl, one that didn’t require payment. Then the kid said, ‘Let’s move,’ and we got in the car and continued on.
Another sign came up: Las Vegas 78. There was still nothing around. No stores, no lights, no houses.
‘We’re gonna be making a turn up here pretty soon,’ the kid said.
‘Just keep going.’
He pulled his oily hair into a ponytail and tied it with a rubber band. There was a long scar from his forehead to his temple. I asked him how he got it. He said he ran through a plate glass window.
‘Make a right up here,’ he said.
I wheeled the car onto a dirt road that curved through the scrub. In a little while the road dropped down through a sort of canyon and then we were in a small development–shacks and trailers scattered in the sand. There weren’t any people, like a virus had swept them away. We passed the dried carcass of a dead dog and a row of ten or fifteen mailboxes leaning way over in the weeds, reminding me of dominoes falling.
‘When was the last time you played dominoes?’
‘This place is freaky,’ the kid said.
‘Does anybody ever play dominoes the way they’re meant to be played? I mean, it’s a numbers game, right? That’s what the little dots are for. But all I ever see people do is set them up and watch them fall. All that trouble for nothing. I remember when some guys made an entire American flag out of dominoes, red,white and blue–took up a whole gymnasium–and then they knocked it down. It was finished in seconds.’
The car bounced over the pitted road.
‘It’s this one up here,’ the kid said.
‘So are you gonna tell me who we’re visiting?’
‘Dude owes me money.’
‘Enough to make me hitch a ride through the desert. Stop here.’
I stopped the car in front of a white snail-back trailer on cinderblocks. We got out and went up to the door, which had a padlock on it. I noticed the next trailer over had a lock on it,also.
‘Goddamn bastard split,’ the kid said and kicked the door.
‘If I had somebody’s money I probably wouldn’t stick around here either.’
He picked up a rock and began smashing it against the lock.
‘Hey, hey, that won’t do any good,’ I said and went over and got the crowbar from the trunk of the car. ‘This here’s your skeleton key,’ I said and worked the flat-end of the bar under the metal plate nailed to the door and pried the lock off with a few jerks. We went into the trailer.
The place was baking-hot and reeked of piss. Newspapers and old clothes were strewn about. A shriveled plant sat on the windowsill
The kid started searching around frantically. He dug in the pockets of a pair of filthy pants. He ripped a drawer out and smashed it on the floor. He tore the stained covers off the bed and flipped the mattress against the wall.
I was still holding the crowbar. I thought a few solid shots onthe head would do the trick. But I just stood there watching him.
Finally he sat and buried his face in his hands. ‘I can’t believe it.’
‘You actually expected this guy to be here with your money?’
‘How much you have on you?’ he said, getting up.
Through the dusty window the sun could be seen plunging behind the hills. The heat of the trailer made my eyes throb.
‘I think you better hand over your wallet right now,’ he said, and out came the knife. ‘And your car keys.’
I looked at him for a long moment. Then I started laughing. I laughed harder than I’d ever laughed in my whole life. It was a wild, emptying feeling that made my head spin. I had to sit down.
‘Are you, like, out of your mind?’ he said.
‘You want my money and my car. And it’s not even my car. I don’t know whose it is.’
‘You jacked that thing?’ He shook his head. ‘Man, it just gets better and better.’
‘Come here.’ I threw the crowbar down on the floor.
He inched toward me, holding the knife low. I grabbed his wrist with one hand and the blade with the other, clenching it as tight as I could, until the sweat ran into my eyes and my face shook and my breath came out in little grunts. The kid let go of the handle, looking like he’d just had a nightmare.
‘You are one screwed up mother,’ he said.
‘Damn straight,’ I said.
I pocketed the knife and tied an old rag around my hand. ‘So, are we pals now?’
By the time we were back out on the highway it was almost dark. The kid went to light a cigarette and then thought better of it. We said nothing to each other, as if some silent agreement had been reached. He eased his seat back and closed his eyes.
There were cars in front of us and behind, moving up to pass, racing by in the opposite direction–everyone in a rush to put the desert behind them, like skipping over the boring parts of a book. I was in no hurry.
The kid was sleeping now, air hissing out his nose. I found a few more stations on the radio, and I knew that it wouldn’t belong before the lights of Las Vegas came jumping up out of the night.