I found Johnny and Ellis on the ride home from WALMART that blistering hot summer afternoon.
Or maybe Johnny found me.
Any other day I would never have stopped. I wouldn’t have given them more than half a look. I’m not that stupid. I don’t need trouble from strangers pacing the side of the road even if plainly wrestling with a crippled engine or out of gas, emergency blinkers flashing. Someone else would throw them a rope. A woman driving with a child pulling over to pick up two hitchhikers? Two men? Hell no!
Except that was not just any other day for me. They could have been crooks or jailbirds; I didn’t care as long as they could help me get the job done.
It seems long ago, but I guess not much time has passed as I remember everything clearly. I sweltered inside the truck cab while Mitchell’s head flopped back and forth with every bump in the asphalt as he snoozed, the rest of his body held snug by the seat belt straps.
The two figures shimmered in the distance like a mirage. Rootless. Drifters. No ties to a community.
I can still picture them to this day. Standing near some weeds along the highway, they had raised their fists when they saw my pickup in the distance. I didn’t know their names at the time; they told me later on.
Johnny stood straight and tall as a walnut tree someone would chop down for a fancy veneer cabinet. Ellis, the skinny redhead, stuck out his thumb while he shoved his other hand underneath his T-shirt to scratch his belly. Johnny’s light brown arm extended level with the pavement as his thumb pointed toward the cloudless sky.
By the time I drove near enough that they could peg me as a single woman, they gave up. Johnny’s arm lowered the slowest. A measured decline, one inch per second. Ellis kicked the gravel as he fiddled with the hem of his T-shirt.
Maybe they’ll do.
I swallowed and the baseball lodged in my throat since the night before started to roll away.
Maybe they’ll help me fix this. Maybe I will end up living happily ever after.
I eased my foot off the gas pedal as I blew by. I steered onto the shoulder several hundred feet farther south. Mitchell stayed asleep. Ellis skipped toward us in the rearview mirror. Then came Johnny.
Johnny’s swift strides matched the rhythmic swing of his arms as he aimed for my truck. He reached the closed tailgate and hurdled over it. While jumping, he grasped the tailgate with both hands and launched himself in a sideways sort of leap so his feet would clear it. He was big: more tall and lean than stout, but he looked as if he harnessed the power of a steam engine. Quite a sight, seeing a man that size move like that. The pickup bed rolled when his boots hit the metal surface. The cab shook but didn’t wake Mitchell. His head just lolled in the opposite direction.
Johnny squatted after landing, resting on his haunches but at the ready to hurl himself back the way he came if necessary. Only his eyes moved as they scanned the tops of the pin oaks scattered along the deserted fields of over-grazed fescue creeping up to the highway. He didn’t peer into the cab at Mitchell or me. His unwavering gaze seemed to possess a purpose as if collecting vistas to file away for some future use. I latched onto Johnny, tucking him up my sleeve like an ace.
Ellis scurried toward the passenger side of the truck bed, climbing on the rear tire and crawling over the side into the back. He flung one scrawny leg at a time over the edge, then tripped and fell on his butt. He grimaced as he glared at the palms of his hands before flailing them in the air then patting them lightly against his T-shirt. The sun-baked metal of the truck bed must of scorched his hands some.
After he stopped fussing with his hands, Ellis struggled onto his feet and scampered across the ribbed truck bed to poke his scraggy face into my window. Blackish red bristles erupted around his chin and along his jawline. Patches of freckles streaked across his skin, leading a wild trail from his face down his chest, then under his shirt sleeves to run up and down his arms. My Mitchell calls people with freckles “spotted.”
Ellis panted and wheezed through his gaping mouth. A sour milk odor coursed through my nose and I winced.
He would have babbled on for another ten minutes or so if I hadn’t cut him off. “Where you wanting to go?” I tossed my words at him over my left shoulder like salt for good luck.
“Could you drop us off near Carlton? Well, we’re shooting for Milesdale by tomorrow,” he paused to gulp a lungful of air. “If you could get us to Carlton, I’m sure we could hitch from there to Milesdale real easy. And we would sure appreciate it, ma’am.” He finished by flinging his head as if for emphasis, his fingers
floundering between his pockets and his empty belt loops to his greasy bangs, which he swept off his sweaty forehead with a jolt.
He probably thought it a polite gesture to call me “ma’am.” That always makes me feel old, someone addressing me as “ma’am.” I’m only thirty-six, almost thirty-seven. I’m not a ma’am yet, am I? My grays don’t show too badly, and I still wear my dirty blond hair long, same as when I was a teenager. And I figured he was about my age. You couldn’t ignore the crow’s feet stretching from the corners of his eyes and some gray strands of his own. So I didn’t appreciate it all the more.
“I’ll take you all the way, but first I need help with moving …” My voice lost its footing and ended in a whisper. I cranked myself around as much as possible for a better view of Johnny. I scoured his eyes, praying for a ledge or a limb I could hang onto without slipping. For a second, the bricks on my chest shifted and my heart quit racing.
Ellis’ reddish-blonde eyebrows skyrocketed and his mouth sagged open as he gloated at Johnny.
Johnny’s face registered a blank. Not dumb. Just nothing. No happiness, no sadness. No anger, no forgiveness. No niceness, no emotion.
Ellis jerked his hands to his face, stuffing his hair behind his ears, and then plunged them toward his waist to smooth his T-shirt over his slight potbelly as he turned to me. He responded for the two of them as if he’d received some sign, some secret signal from Johnny issued by the tiny creases leading from his eyes or a twitch of his lips. If so, I’d missed it.
“You mean you’d drive us all the way to Milesdale? That would be great. Awesome! Indeed!” His eyes widened, his head pumping up and down as if I’d handed him a winning lottery ticket.
“Sure.” I didn’t share his enthusiasm.
“We can help you move whatever you got to move. And you’ll take us to Milesdale. We just gotta be there by tomorrow at the latest, well, by tomorrow lunchtime would be OK. Tomorrow morning? My, my that would be very good. Yes, yes, very good indeed.” Ellis went to town on the jumble of tangled shoulder-length hair he rearranged with both hands.
No way would I put them up for the night. “Tonight. I’ll take you there as soon as we’re done. It’s only two o’clock,” I said. Hauling them to Milesdale meant at least four hours of driving. Each way.
Will my ancient truck make it? I can leave Mitchell with Sadie. Have to anyway to break free of this mess, no matter how many miles I gotta travel.
I eyeballed Johnny, crouched in the back of my fifteenyear-old Ford, the gooseneck hitch rusted out and the paint so sunburnt you could call it black or you could call it dark blue.
They made an odd pair. A tall, silent black man with no expression and a thin, bent, scrap of a man who needed to shower, shave, and brush his teeth or at least chew on something sweet-scented.
Once they sat in my truck bed within arm’s reach of Mitchell and me, I shuddered.
What have I done?
The truck cab separated us and provided some protection. Sure they could have smashed through the glass window behind my shoulders. But if I gunned the engine, then slammed my foot on the brake and swerved the steering wheel left then right, the rocking motion could fling both of them away and just maybe catapult them out of the pickup bed into a crumpled, bloody mess on the side of the road.
I took a deep breath that cut through my chest like a sharp blade.
Calm yourself girl! Stop freaking out. These two mean no harm.
I wanted to believe that these strangers did not pose a threat. I had to. I was in danger all right, but not from Johnny or Ellis. And right then, they were all I had to protect me from worse.
Ellis plopped cross-legged, his back pressed against the rear window of the cab. He rapped his knuckles on the steel floor as if to say, “let’s go.” We sped off, steering away from the shoulder to the tune of tires crunching gravel and shattered shards of plastic and glass. The movement chucked Ellis sideways until he steadied himself with one hand clutching the edge of the pickup bed as he wedged his body into the corner. The tattered black straps of a dull kelly green backpack hung from his bony, rounded shoulder blades. A wad of clothes and a sorry collection of odds and ends tried to escape through an opening in the broken zipper.
Johnny carried nothing I could see. Maybe he had stashed something out of sight in the pockets of his jeans. Hunks of forearm busted out of his denim shirt below the rolled-up sleeves. His kinky hair close-cropped. His jeans and buttoned work shirt frayed and faded, yet he tucked his shirt into his pants and laced his boots all the way to the top through each eyelet, no cheating. Solid, that Johnny, like a huge boulder a raging river couldn’t budge. A soothing sensation hinted I could count on Johnny. Between the three of us, we would muddle through. I seized this lifeline, maybe my last, my only chance to keep from sinking.
The sun scorched the air and my throat burned with every breath. A hotter than hot June. Hotter than June’s supposed to be. Johnny didn’t break a sweat. Maybe slightly near his hairline, although I couldn’t detect it. The truck rumbled over the pavement, and the vibration shook the mirror so I could barely focus on him. He wasn’t even gripping anything. He balanced himself in the middle of the truck bed, resting on his tailbone with his legs bent in front of him and feet planted firm, his elbows propped on his knees, his palms fused as if in prayer. The vehicle lurched, but he held fast as if carved in stone. He leaned into every bend in the road. He appeared quite at home in the back of a pickup.
Ellis clambered onto his knees, clung to the side of the bed with both fists, and stuck his head out past the cab. The wind peeled back his eyelids and whipped his hair about his face. A flea-bitten hound dog thrilled to tag along in his master’s vehicle. I could not get my fill of studying the two of them, but I had to keep my eyes on the road or we would have wound up in the ditch. I settled for sneaking a peek through the rearview mirror now and then. A gust of the burnt-rubber stink of skunk poured through the windows; I sucked in a lungful through my mouth instead of my nose.
We coasted until I reached the gas station at the turnoff to Englewood. Then another four or so twisting miles to Willisburg where we live. Mitchell and I that is. A town of fewer than five hundred souls. I grew up here, but I won’t be here much longer.