Hurrying, stumbling, trying to get our packs and jackets out of the car as fast as we could, we knew our Ride would drive off without even waiting for us to close his precious bright turquoise 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air’s thick, heavy doors.
And he did, the doors swinging shut with a clomph as his momentum drew them closed.
Shaking, still watching him slowly merge with traffic, we unbent, stood up, sighed together in relief, and looked around to see where the heck we were. We had demanded our Ride “stop! Stop NOW,” and he had. We shook with relief.
We thought we were in Ventura, but weren’t sure. We’d both been trembling with unrelieved nerves ever since San Luis Obispo, and could hardly put one thought after the other, now that we were free.
“Did you get his license plate?” T asked me.
“No, didn’t even think of it.”
“That guy oughta be put away.”
“Yeah, in a dungeon deeper than hell.”
“Let’s go,” he said, picking up his pack. “Let’s find a diner.”
Just happened there was one right in front of our eyes. Faces plastered to the windows, as if we were on exhibit in a zoo. I thought, “that’s odd,” but went on in.
All heads turned in our direction, only swiveling away once we were seated and stowed.
A waitress came over with the requisite coffee, asking, “you kids alright?”
I replied, “yes, but why do you look so worried?”
She cak-cakked a bit, and finally blurted, “That guy! He comes by here all the time. You got a ride with him?”
Yeah, we both nodded.
They weren’t looking right at us, but everyone in that diner had both ears straining with acute listening. I could see their heads shaking. Locals. They must have seen the guy before.
“That guys’ nuts!” she said. “He comes in here and orders stuff and runs out like someone’s chasing him.”
“Not surprised,” I said. “He told us his radio was an FBI secret communicator, and we couldn’t talk because they might hear us. We couldn’t say a word between here and San Luis.”
She shook her head. “That guy’s head ain’t glued on right. What’ll ya have?”
Eating a hot dinner helped us feel more relaxed. We sat back and sighed.
“That was some trip,” T said.
I raised my hand to ring the invisible You Are So Right bell.
“Understatement of the century!”
“Well, we got out of San Luis, anyway. We could have been stuck there forever!”
We had been standing on the hot pavement with our thumbs stuck out for two hours before he came along in his fancy shiny old car. We couldn’t afford the bus, so we welcomed about any ride.
Reaching across the front seat, he’d opened the passenger side door, motioned me in, saying, “You gerlies wownt a rahhhd?”
[I’ll add right now — whenever you see his dialogue, envision him speaking the slowest, thickest southern accent you can possibly imagine. I’ll only intimate it here, but make it as thick as you can in your mind as you read.]
It was plain to me he wasn’t from the south. Been there, had plenty of conversations with plenty of southern folks. No one talks like he did. I guess he thought he was being clever, playing like he was a dumb hill-billy. Surprise, mister, most hill-billies aren’t dumb.
But he was on a roll. He thought T with his shoulder-length hair was a ‘gerl’.
“Y’all git in the back,” he ordered T, “and you, git in front here.”
T climbed in back; I slid in front, my now-small pack set firmly between my knees.
We didn’t care, just get us outta here.
“You wanta git that thing in the back?” he motioned to my pack.
“No thanks, I’m fine.”
He drove off.
At 30 miles an hour.
Got on I-5 heading for LA. Still at 30 miles an hour. Back then the speed limit was 55.
He held his short spindly arms as rigidly straight as 2x4s, gnarled hands gripping the wheel like it would decide to jerk him up and fly away with him any moment.
His barrel chest was jammed almost to the skin into the steering wheel, his skinny little legs barely reached the pedals. He had on roping boots. I didn’t dare ask why, when it seemed evident he couldn’t have ridden a toy-store horsie with legs like that. But you never know.
My uncle raised horses. He was the one who told me about cowboy boots.
See, there are cowboy boots with flat heels. Those are just walking-around boots. Then there are cowboy boots for riding — all different, between ankle high and knee-high — with the angled heels. Then there are roping boots, with extreme angles on the heels, to help said roper keep the boot in the stirrup.
This guy had knee-highs, which strangely enough actually looked worn in all the right places. I shook my head and made myself stop thinking about it.
I turned in my seat to look at T, rolled my eyes.
“Eyes front, missy!” Ride ordered.
Shocked, I opened my mouth to say something, and he flapped his hands wildly in the air.
“Shush! The FBI’s listening thru that there radio! Don’t say a word! No talking!”
Thirty miles an hour. You know how long it seems to take when you go half the speed limit, cars flashing by you, horns honking?
When we reached Ventura, we’d had enough. He hadn’t done anything overt, but when you get stuck in a car with someone who is plainly a nut case, you know you’re in danger. It crawls up your spine and closes your mouth tight in case you say something to set them off, stills your hands in case you make the wrong movement.
“I feel like I can breathe again,” I said to T.
“Yah. I know, me too. Let’s call my mom and ask her to come pick us up.”
We did, and she did.
We stayed with her a week, picked up his beautiful little tow-headed 2 and 4 year old boys, and flew off to Maui.