He stank and he knew it.
His first words, when I pulled to the side of the two-lane that ran from Lyons east through Greeley, were an apology. “I can ride in the back. I ain’t had a good wash for some time.”
I waved him in and he gently lowered his pack-like-a-tinker’s-trade into the bed of my pickup. The saddle-tone satchel had been festooned, yeah, that’s best word for it, festooned with bangles and dangles and every type of touristy kitsch you could imagine.
And, yeah, he did stink. But, not like like rotten meat or a Benghazi bath, body order as a badge of honor. This was more like camp-smoke and musk, wholesome yet pungent.
“Where ya headed?” I asked as he closed and hugged the door, trying, I imagined, to keep from fouling the vehicle.
“That way, as far as you’ll take me.”
“So, east with no particular destination. Cool.”
We both rode in silence for a time. I opened the air vents a tad and he watched my hands manipulate the controls.
“Sorry about the smell.” He cracked the window an inch which introduced an annoying whistle.
“It’s either up all the way or down all the way with pickup windows.” The whistle pinched shut when he rolled it back up. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I never did hitchhike much, but I admire your independent streak.”
“Yeah. I’m independent alright.”
I let that hang in the air, thinking he might finish the thought. But that was not the invitation he was looking for.
I asked him, “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to have any weed on you?” I pulled open the sliding ashtray to reveal a small wooden pipe and a Bic lighter. I lifted the pipe and wiggled it, empty.
“It’s May now, right?”
I nodded. What did the month of the year have to do with anything?
“I won’t be in that phase until at least July.”
Okay… “So, what phase are you in now?”
“Retro Venus Shockwave, I think.” He held up both hands, nails too long and dirty, and began to bend them—counting. “Gonna be some heavy pressure on the magnetosphere until then.” He dug into his cargo pants pocket and retrieved a compass which he flipped open and held level. “It’s already started. Yup. I recon we’re gonna see some sights tonight.”
I scratched my head and leaned an elbow on the door, shifted my ass, grown numb with the ride, and asked, “What kinda sights?”
He told me.
Speaking as if he’d practiced, he spoke of experiences I found hard to believe. Of electric and emotional connections to things and people both earthly and cosmically distant. He became impassioned with the telling, so much so, that I felt compelled to grant him a smidgen of maniacal credibility. In the end I found I’d ceased shaking my head.
He talked until I mentioned my need to head north to Sheridan at the next intersection. He thanked me a dozen times for the ride, fetched and shouldered his bedazzled pack, and gave me a salute as I eased forward, stopped at the flashing red light and turned left.
Behind me, I watched him cross the road and park himself, thumb raised, headed east.
My truck still stank of him, and I opened the windows and vents wide. After a while the smell of the prairie flushed out the smokey, earthy smell and I closed all the windows—the sun had set and the air had taken a chill.
“Will you look at that,” I said to no one, thinking I still had company. In the moonless sky I marveled at the sight of bands of pink and green lights that wavered above me. Vast, thousand-mile-long ribbons of aurora twisted and writhed their lustrous tails. I imagined I could hear them groaning as they moved.
Enraptured, I was unprepared when my truck quit, just like that. I coasted to the shoulder and nothing I could do would let me start it up again. I noticed that I seemed to be alone out in the desolation of southern Wyoming. Not a light anywhere, except for those above.
“Well, shit. I guess we’re all in Retro Venus Shockwave now.”