Ted held a key attached to a silvery label, it glinted in the sun. “Got it from a girl I travelled with,” he said. “She trusted me to keep it safe.”
I looked at the label. “Is that a Vancouver address?”
“You bet, man.”
We met on the road, heading west at Sault Ste. Marie. After a couple of days of short rides we spent our last money on the Greyhound and dozed on the comfy seats. At Kenora the driver noticed us sleeping past our ticket destination. He kicked us off.
“You’ve got to take advantage of every situation,” Ted told me. “Or the world will stomp you.”
He was a long haired Mohawk from Rhode Island who’d served two years in the U. S. navy. A day after my 18th birthday I’d been kicked out of my foster home, “you’re an adult now,” my so-called Mom smiled. I’d been arrested three times, twice for shoplifting and once for stealing and using my foster Dad’s chequebook. They were glad to see the back of me.
“That’s a nice key,” I said. “Hope it fits.”
“Why shouldn’t it? That chick’s place, it’s right by the sea,” Ted grinned. “She won’t be back til the end of August.”
I nodded and grinned back.
I wanted to be with people. I wanted them to like me. The best time I had since leaving my foster life was when a teacher picked me up outside Ottawa and played Neil Young all the way across the Canadian Shield to the Sault. She said she was 23. I kept both ears on the music and one eye on her all the way. Then she let me drive the car, and pulled out photos of her family. “Do you think I’m better looking than my sister?” she asked.
“Yes,” I totally agreed, and pulled out to pass another vehicle.
At the Sault, I walked across a field and sat under a tree for hours thinking about the way the teacher pushed her hair back from her sunburned face. When I stepped onto the highway again, I met Ted. His hair fell as long as hers.
After the Greyhound ride, we slept in a wrecked car lot overnight. Ted picked a Cadillac, I chose a Buick. These were long cars, easy for a full stretch out back seat sleep. In the early morning, my door opened and a grimacing old man told me “You get out of there!”
I rolled over. “O. K., O. K.,” I said.
“Are there any more goddamn hippies in any of the other cars?” he yelled.
I pointed at Ted’s car. “That one.”
The old man kicked the Cadillac’s door. “Get the hell out!”
“Why did you tell on me?” Ted asked as we panhandled for spare change outside the grocery store.
“The guy was scary,” I held out my shaking hand to show him. Old guys like that reminded me of my foster parents.
“Even if you’re scared,” said Ted. “You can’t rat.” He shook his head and stood about two inches from my face. “Don’t cater to assholes,” I saw his mouth moving, and the teeth behind it. “You never betray your friends. That’s one thing the Navy taught me. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said, looking over my shoulder to see if there was a place to run. That was instinct, because I didn’t go anywhere. I needed a friend.
“Okay,” Ted turned away.
We started hitchhiking. After an hour a skinny bearded university professor in a Volvo picked us up, drove us all the way to a gas station outside Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. We talked music and he talked politics. He played The Beatles on his car stereo, and bought us lunch. “Don’t think you’re taking advantage,” he said. “I know you guys get hungry.”
At Portage, we stood at the side of the road hitching til the sun went down. A pickup truck swerved towards the curb, kicking up gravel. Some guys in baseball caps yelled “get a job, hippies!” We leaped into the ditch. “They’re just trying to scare us,” I told him, but Ted shook his head. “Rednecks. They’ll be back,” he frowned. “They took a good look at me.”
He sat on an upturned garbage can and brushed his waist length hair as the traffic passed. A semi truck pulling a box trailer full of scrap metal pulled in along the road in front. The driver stepped out, glanced sideways at us, and limped across to the gas station diner.
“Let’s jump in there,” I pointed at the trailer.
Ted stood up and carefully placed his hairbrush in the top of his packsack.
“We don’t know where he’s headed.”
“It’s dark,” I said. “You told me you were worried about rednecks.”
Ted nodded. “Don’t you care where it’s going?”
“I don’t,” I said. “I just want to ride.”
We shouldered our packs, crept along the ditch towards the setting sun. We arrived between the truck and the highway. I scrambled up the box trailer ladder and gazed down into the truck. “There’s a big hole down here, man.”
I couldn’t see much but black shapes and darkness. I fumbled my way in; Ted clambered behind me. We found a place on the truck floor, tamped our rolled sleeping bags down and sat in the dark, backs against some old tarps, and waited as the truck idled. After a while, I heard the driver slam his door.
Ted held up the key. “This is why I’m here,” he told me. “My girl says she’s got all leather furniture.” He grinned. “A better place to sit than this.”
The truck moved out, pulled onto the highway, I stood up, holding onto the tarps “born to be wild!.” I yelled. The truck slowed.
“Get down!” Ted hissed. “They’ll beat the crap out of us .”
I lay back against the tarp.
“It’ll be just another beating,” I said. The truck sped up again and we both chuckled.
“How many times you been beat up?” Ted asked. The truck engine made it hard to hear. I got closer.
“A few times,” I said. I saw the shadow of his face, a black cowl in the dark. “How about you?” His lips moved, I watched them over the engine’s roar.
“I beat up a few guys,” was all I heard.
I looked away and up to the sky. “Wow, check out at all the stars,”
The Manitoba night moved above, the moon gleaming ivory, the stars twinkling, a hot wind blowing. I stood and glimpsed clouds in the distance, and rows of lightning across the horizon.
Ted stayed scrunched between two heavy pieces of equipment held down by the tarps and ropes. I kept my arms flexing and stood marching in place. We shivered, our bodies vibrating as the truck shook under the engine power.
“I shouldn’t have drank all that water,” Ted said after a while.
“Yeah, I know,” I told him. “It doesn’t help it’s starting to rain.”
Ted couldn’t hold it any more. He stood up, stumbled a ways over, then leaned against the covered machine and relieved himself. It took a long time. He zipped up and crept back to his corner.
I looked over to where he leaned, and saw a glint.
“I’m gonna go too,” I told him.
I stood up, lurched as the truck bumped some potholes, sure enough, there was the girl’s key shimmering under the moonlight, revealed just for me on a piece of silver tarp. I reached down and picked it up. I remembered what Ted said. “You’ve got to take advantage of every situation.” I squatted down and stuck it in my shoe.
We rode the truck for hours. Every once in a while I’d move to the back and watch the headlights behind us. I saw light rising in the eastern distance as the truck pulled off a side road. I craned my neck ahead to the West to see lifting darkness over billowing smokestacks.
The truck slowed down “Looks like an oil refinery. We better get ready to jump.”
The truck bumped its way over some potholes, then stopped completely. The truck door slammed; I peered over the trailer and saw the driver limping over to a gate. I clambered up the box trailer and threw my pack over the edge. It landed in the wet mud. I slid down the ladder, grabbed my stuff, and took off loping behind some bushes. Then I stopped to wait for Ted. He practically flew down the side of the trailer.
“I’ve always been good at escapes,” he came up and shouted in my ear. “That place was like a jail, man.”
“Come on!” I led us along the ditch and out onto the road. We started walking, trying to be nonchalant, knocking the mud off our running shoes as we went. After a few minutes a pickup truck stopped. A native guy wearing dark sunglasses sat singing a CCR song behind the wheel. He raised his glasses. “Wanna get in the back?” he said to Ted.
“Where are we?” Ted asked the guy.
“Regina,” he lifted up his ball cap. “Hop in.”
We clambered up, and the driver took off singing, towards the city.
Ted reached into his back pocket. “Shit!”
“What is it?”
“I think I lost my key in that truck trailer!”
“Really? Maybe it’s in one of your other pockets.”
Ted frantically felt around. “No, no it’s not there.”
“Maybe it fell out when you took a piss.”
He nodded. “Yeah. I had to go, man. Those vibrations were killing me.”
I waited a little while as he searched around some more.
“Will you still go on to Vancouver?”
“I don’t know.” His eyes looked over my head. “Without that key, there’s no reason.”
The pickup driver dropped us off by the Salvation Army.
The officers opened the doors and we ate a free breakfast, surrounded by old guys munching toast. I felt the key sitting in my sock.
“I’m going to keep going West,” I said.
Ted nodded. “Yeah.” He rubbed his face, and looked around. “Looks like some old soldiers here. The best time I had was with the Navy.” he said. “Over in Nam.. My job was loading shells into the big guns. I don’t know if we ever hit anything. Somebody else aimed. I just loaded. That’s how I got these arm muscles.” He flexed his arm and drank his coffee. “The best time was the shore leave man. You wouldn’t believe the drugs, and the girls.” He looked at me. “What was most important was sticking together,” he said. “Not leaving your brothers.”
Ted kept talking about his time in Nam. I drifted, making plans in my head, trying to avoid his intensity by moving off into my own thoughts. I’d go to Vancouver and stay in the girl’s apartment, look for a job. Then I’d make enough money to find my own place. Or else I’d just party til the girl returned.
“Having a place to stay,” I blurted out. “That’s very cool.”
Ted put his coffee down, very slowly.
“You didn’t pick up that key, did you?” he asked.
“If I did I’d tell you for sure,” I said.
“You would, eh?,” Ted stood up, stretched, looked away. “Time to get some travelling cash,” he stated and walked out the door.
We stood on the corner by a supermarket and panhandled for a few hours. A man in a felt hat gave me a couple of dollars. “You remind me of my son,” he said.
“That was lucky,” I told Ted. “Let’s go have some real coffee.”
“Okay,” Ted nodded. “But that wasn’t lucky.”
We went in to a doughnut shop, ordered coffees and muffins, sat down in high backed wooden chairs.
“You look like a fresh faced boy.” Ted told me. “You look like an innocent boy but you’re not.”
“How do you know that?”
“You don’t flinch. You ask for the money like it’s asking for the time.”
“I’ve gotta look out for number one,” I grinned.
Ted frowned. “Who are you without someone else?” he asked. “I have a spare key, my friend.”
“You’re making that up.”
“Why do you say that?” He leaned forward, his big serious face inches from mine. “Why do you say that, man?”
“You looked so worried when you lost yours,” I said. “That was a real bummer.”
“Yeah,” Ted replied. I smelled his coffee breath. “You think you can read people, David. But I was fakin in the truck. Just to see what you’d do. You picked up that key. Where is it, in your socks?”
“I don’t have it!” I said. “I told you already!” I put my coffee down. “I never knew you were faking.”
“You know.” Ted raised the palm of his hand, then pointed. “You’re a scam artist.” I saw tears at the corner of his eyes.
“I’m not a scam artist.” I said.
Ted stood up. “You can get this bill,” he said. “I think you’ve got plenty of money.” He took a dime from his pocket and rolled it across the table. “If I see you round that girl’s place I’ll know you, man. I’ll give you a poke or two.” He put his face close again. “Drink your coffee.” He paused. “Drink your fucking coffee.”
He grabbed his small pack of possessions and loped out the door.
“Where are you going?” I yelled after him, but he didn’t turn back.
I sat in the cafe for over an hour, ordered a couple of refills. Then I walked along a river trail.
I sat on a bench and removed the key from my shoe, took a long look at it and the address label attached. I didn’t think there was a spare. If there was a spare, would the address be on it?
I knew Ted wasn’t faking when he dropped his key, but he possessed a good instinct for lies.
A hardware store clerk made me ten more spare keys from the original. I paid for them with most of the money I never let Ted know about. I kept the original address label.
In the early evening, I crossed a pedestrian bridge across a small creek. Poplar trees waved along the water’s edge, the land already dried out after last night’s storm. I hiked down through some bush to the edge of the river, to sit and watch the water. I heard someone playing a guitar. On the other side of some rocks sat a short skinny man in a big cowboy hat, buttoned up shirt and blue jeans playing a small but loud acoustic. I sat behind him and listened awhile, remembered the teacher who let me drive her car, and the Neil Young songs playing on her stereo.
Then I thought of Ted, how we travelled in the bottom of that truck, hearing nothing but engine noise, not knowing our destination. Ted, who left his future shining under the moon. Why would a girl give him all her keys? He seemed trustworthy, I guessed. Just like me. “You’ve got to take advantage of every situation,” echoed in my mind.
I wanted to get closer to the music, to drown out the echo. I emerged from behind the poplars, showed myself to the guitar player. “That’s good sounding stuff,” I said.
He looked up. “Yeah. I like Young and I like Hank Williams,” he said. “They’re two sides of the same coin.”
His name was Will Lardie, he moved across the country doing casual labour, he camped in the park out under the stars, and he didn’t know his destination. “You gonna sing some more?” I asked, and he played and we both sang as the moon came up over the creek.
“I have a key.” I said. I pulled it out of my pocket. “It’s to a girl’s apartment in Vancouver. The address is on this label.”
He nodded and continued playing. “I can give you a spare,” I said. “If you want to hang out there and play music.”
“Wow!” Will took the key and lifted it up to the light of the moon. “A place to stay! That sounds like an interesting proposition. I’ve got my van parked here. We could travel West tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” I said. “The girl’s place is supposed to have great leather furniture.”
“Far out” Will expressed again. He paused. “I think I’ve got enough gas money to get there.’
Things were working out. I fingered the other spare keys. I knew that by the time I reached Vancouver, I could make plenty more friends. “That’s what it’s all about,” I told myself.
On the way, we passed Ted hitchhiking by the side of the road, staring off into the distance. I didn’t feel sorry for him. I never knew what it was to trust others and to have someone’s back for them. All I had were the keys.
Harrison Kim lives and writes in Victoria, Canada with his spouse and editor Sera T. This year he’s had stories published in Storgy, Hobart Pulp, Horror Zine, Piker Press and others. He hitch hiked across Canada several times, and the story is based on true life experiences.
Blogspot to all story links: https://harrisonkim1.blogspot.com
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