Here’s more of the true story of when I was sixteen and ran away from home and hitchhiked over a thousand miles and all sorts of things happened.
Chapter 10: Just the Four of Us
So, as I said at the end of the last chapter, we were standing just outside Bloomington, Illinois when a yellow pickup truck pulled over.
The two guys who got out to help us put our things in the back seemed to be friendly and cheerful. Okay I wrote “seemed” to try to give a sense of foreboding, but the truth is they stayed friendly and cheerful the whole time. They’re the bad guys of the story, sure, but they were also good guys, and since the (definitely bad) things that happened because of them led to me NOT ending up living in Washington state with Shadow (and probably having a couple babies before I was 20), maybe they weren’t even the bad guys.
Their names were Troy and Bill. They were big happy country boys, the kind who aren’t scared of a hard day’s work but also don’t take anything too seriously. They were around our age — late teens to early 20s. Bill was wiry with longish blond hair. Troy had broad shoulders and brown hair that looked like it had been cut into a crew cut months before and not touched since. Not long after I got home, I saw the video for George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set on You” and thought the young guy in the arcade looked just like Troy. I just found the video and it’s a very young Alexis Denisof, which is not how I remember Troy looking at all, but his face was fresher in my mind then than it is now, and at the time I thought the resemblance was striking. I feel like if I’m going to have a picture of what Troy maybe looked like, I should also have a picture of more or less how I remember Bill, so let’s go with Keifer Sutherland in Young Guns. The hair and scruffiness are right, anyway.
They asked where we were going, and we said Washington State. They said they were just driving around seeing the country and would be happy to take us to Washington. They just had to go to Arkansas first.
No, this did not seem the slightest bit odd to us. Why wouldn’t they just be driving around seeing the country? Why wouldn’t ANYONE, who was able to? Surely there were lots of people out there just driving around, seeing the country, and we’d been lucky enough to run into a couple of them.
As we got in the back of the pickup, one of them — Troy, I think — asked, “Are you guys on the run too?” and without thinking about it, I said “Yes,” because of course I was a runaway. Once we were in the truck and on the road, Shadow told me that Troy hadn’t meant on the run from parents. These guys were on the run from the police. I was sort of embarrassed I hadn’t understood. And a little scared, too, of course. Because I hadn’t really known anyone on the run from the police before, that I knew of.
It was freezing in the open bed of the truck, really impossibly cold. Shadow undid one of our sleeping bags and we huddled under it. Neither of us wanted to ask the guys giving us a ride to pull over or anything; it would be so rude and ungrateful. Finally Shadow knocked on the little window into the cab. When they opened it, he said I had to go to the bathroom, bad. We figured they’d stop somewhere, and we could go our separate ways and only take rides where we could sit inside. But once we got to the rest stop, they realized how cold we’d been and apologized for not thinking about it. After that, we all rode crammed into the front bench seat, me on Shadow’s lap, or someone else’s lap if Shadow was taking a turn driving. It was fine.
Once inside the truck I saw that instead of a key in the ignition, there was a screwdriver. It dawned on me (probably not instantly) that this was because they’d stolen the truck and hotwired it.
We learned their story. Bill and Troy had grown up together, best friends their whole lives. Troy had gone to jail for something (breaking and entering, I think?) and had been on work release. He either worked at the same place as Bill, or nearby. Troy decided he wouldn’t go back to jail one day, that instead they would hit the road, and Bill had stolen his boss’s truck. At some point later, they talked more about what had inspired it — a close friend of theirs who they’d also grown up with had died suddenly, and they were devastated. So they’d just started driving. I knew there must be pieces missing from the story — starting a car with a screwdriver doesn’t really match with “just started driving” — but it didn’t matter. I probably would have learned more about what happened eventually. Bill’s stepdad lived in Arkansas and Bill wanted to visit him; after that, we’d all head West.
I only remember flashes of the drive from Illinois to Arkansas. I think it took a couple days, but I don’t really know. The most direct route on Google Maps says it’s a ten-hour drive, but I am certain we were in Mississippi at some point, so we didn’t take the most direct route.
Here are the pieces of memories I do have:
At some point we were stopped at a truck stop, and Shadow and I were already back in the truck when Troy or Bill came out and told us there was an arcade game that we all had to try. It was one of those where you push a lever and try to make coins and things fall off the ledge. One of the (theoretically) possible prizes was a big bundle of money, and we all had a go at trying to win it. We did not win, but we had fun trying.
Bill patiently showed me exactly how he’d hotwired the truck using the screwdriver, so that if I ever needed to hotwire a vehicle and had a screwdriver, I’d be able to. I thought I got it at the time, but I’m pretty sure if you’d asked me a week later, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you a thing about it. I certainly don’t remember anything now beyond “you need a screwdriver.”
Troy and Bill showed us a little pouch they’d stolen from a car, before they met us. I don’t remember any details about why they’d broken into the car or whose car it was; I like to think they hadn’t actually interacted with the driver. In the pouch were a couple crystals of the sort that new age types (like, in fairness, me) carried around, but Troy and Bill were fairly certain they were valuable gems. I didn’t argue; they were so pleased about it I didn’t want to disappoint them.
Troy told a story about getting revenge on a guy he was in jail with, and described the guy as “the kind of guy who is so fat he has to reach between his legs to wipe his ass, because his arm won’t reach around.” I thought this was very confusing at the time, as I had no idea how any of my friends — much less my enemies — wiped. A couple days later, I was in a jail cell myself, and saw the toilet sitting right out in the open, and then I understood.
Can we just take a moment to appreciate that masterful bit of foreshadowing?
We’d brought a mix tape a friend had made for me, and we played it over and over and sang along — I think it was mostly punk and new wave but the only song I definitely remember is “Wrapped Around Your Finger” by the Police, so who knows.
Troy and Bill both kind of flirted with me; there were jokes about whether one of them would be able to steal me away from Shadow, that sort of thing. None of the flirting ever made me uncomfortable, it never crossed any lines, there was never any kind of pressure about it. I wonder now if that ever would have changed, if we’d hung out longer. The flirting increased, I think, over the days we were together, so maybe. But I definitely didn’t worry about it at the time. They were always respectful, and all the flirting was the kind that was normal among teenage friends. They did sometimes grumble at the way Shadow treated me. It was never ugly, they just didn’t like him snapping at me. Again, this is all stuff that may have come to a head at some point, but in the short time we were together it never even approached unfriendly.
My main memory is of being happy, crowded in that truck together, talking and singing. They were going to teach me to drive, and we were going to see the whole country together, and we told our stories and we laughed and we sang and it was a good time.
I don’t exactly remember arriving in De Queen, Arkansas. I think it must have been evening. Bill wasn’t going to go see his stepdad till the next day, so we got rooms at a motel. They paid for a room for themselves and a room for Shadow and me. Sitting here as an adult, I find this so confusing. I can’t think why they would do that. But at the time, we were just happy about it; it didn’t seem weird at all. They were good guys, and the four of us were a team. We’d already talked about going to a pawn shop the next day to sell my guitar and anything else we could for gas money to get across the country. So we were thinking of the money they had as being all of ours. I guess.
They really were nice guys, is what it comes down to.
It was great getting to sleep in a motel.
Looking at a map, I’m almost completely positive it was the Western Plaza Inn. There are two other motels in De Queen, and neither of them look right at all. Of course it’s possible my motel was torn down years ago, and that the Western Plaza Inn was built in the ’90s. But I think this is it.
The main thing I remember that night is that Shadow fell asleep and I watched two movies, one of them a bizarre sex comedy of the kind very popular in the ’80s, in which a guy takes his family to a resort that turns out to be a sex resort. The second was Highlander, which I hadn’t even heard of (that seemed impossible so I just looked it up, and it turns out Highlander came out right when I was about to get kicked out of boarding school. So that makes perfect sense, actually) and it of course blew my head off with its awesomeness. I kept wanting to wake Shadow up because I knew he’d love it too, but he was dead to the world.
Next Monday I’ll tell you about what happened the next day. Some of it anyway.
I’m putting the map here but I’m really not at all sure of our route. I know we were in Bloomington, then De Queen, and Mississippi somewhere in between. So this is a best guess.
Got picked up by 2 guys Troy & Bill as it turned out txhxexyx Troy had stolen a truck. We arrived in Arkansas on Sxuxnxdxaxyx Monday. We stayed at a hotel & had a good night sleep.