Neal looked out at the tan, dusty ground and began walking. He walked to the highway and stuck out his thumb. It was early in the morning and the sun was not yet up. Next to his bag, on the ground, was a piece of cardboard he'd scrounged from a dumpster, with San Francisco written on it in black marker which he'd swiped from a convenience store, along with some candy and a package of hot dogs. All he had was the $22.52 left from his last paycheck at the Century Theater.
Neal kicked the ground, producing a plume of dust that settled on his pant leg and shoe. Twinges of doubt nagged at him as he paced along the side of the road with his sign. Across the road a ways, he saw the Del Taco he worked at when he was a freshman in high school -- further on down, he imagined his neighborhood, and his old school, where he went before dropping out in his junior year -- and he remembered hanging out with his friends, skating the nearby curbs, smoking weed, selling it to the hockey players and the football players. (They would sell to the jocks at school, at first to avoid getting beaten up, but later it helped form a bond of sorts.) The misfits and quiet artsy kids all hung out in the vacant lot behind the school, riding their bikes or skateboards, playing Black Flag way too loud from their sticker-covered stereos ... anything to avoid going home. Neal and his friends would hang around the Anti-Media shop reading the newest issue of Maximum Rock N' Roll, arguing about music, or watching army autopsy videos and petting the shop owner's big black mutt. Neal lay down on his backpack, on the side of the highway, and let his mind drift.
Out on the edge of town, Neal lay, arms folded under his head, looked up at the stars, and wondered if San Francisco would be any better. Would he feel any more of a connection to the world around him? Neal dug into the depths of his mind for an answer. Whatever hope he'd had for a moment of clarity was soon trampled. He went back to his aimless staring, sorry that he'd stopped to think about his situation in the first place. It only fortified his confusion and gave him a knot in his stomach. He heard a low rumbling like a large truck in the distance. He saw headlights for the first time in an hour and threw his sign out yet again, half expecting to choke on the truck's dust as it flew past. The large old, blue Ford pickup slowed, and chugged to a halt. The old man inside opened the door from the inside and pushed it open.
"Where ya goin'?" the old man asked.
"San Francisco, or as far as you can take me," Neal said.
"Im going as far as San Jose," the old man replied.
"Sure," Neal said as he got in the cab.
Neal noticed the yellow lab claiming the entire seat. "Oh, don't mind her, she's just being ornery," the old man said. "Bonnie Lass, up!" the man said, and the dog rose to attention. Neal saw that the dog had only three legs. A back leg was missing, and the hair had grown back in patches around the dog's back end.
"What happened to your dog?" Neal asked.
"Well, about five or six years ago, I was living up in the mountains," the old man began. "I come out to take a piss one night, and I heard a rustling behind the cabin. By God, it was a motherfuckin' bear, come down to gnaw on my garbage." On the word "bear," the old man suddenly became animated, and his eyes got wider as he told the rest of the story -- which he clearly enjoyed telling, and one which Neal imagined he had told many times before. "I musta spooked it or something when I ran in to get my gun, 'cause the thing reared up, then ran at me," the old man continued. "I ducked into the cabin, and it missed me," the man said, lunging, and making clawing gestures with his free hand. "Bonnie Lass here came running out, she'd heard the commotion, and the damn fool dog jumped on the thing! Scared the shit out of it so bad that it swung and caught her in the back leg. We had to go in and get it taken off. That dog is loyal, let me tell you."
"No shit," Neal said.
"God damn, how rude of me," the old man said, now rolling a cigarette with one hand and steering with the other. "Name's Whitey."
"Good to meet ya, Neal. I gotta tell ya, I was a little nervous about picking you up at first, with your blue hair and painted-up leather jacket and all, but you seem like a pretty good kid." Neal chuckled to himself, welcoming the compliment.
"Hey Neal, you want a hand-rolled smoke?" Neal nodded, and Whitey handed him the cigarette. Neal lit it, and was startled, then pleased by the familiar smell. Whitey grinned. "It's vanilla pipe tobacco, with a little something extra," he said, cackling. "It's pretty damn smooth, ain't it?"
Neal held his breath, and nodded. As Neal and the old man shared the smoke, they rolled on in near total darkness, and the utter stillness of the desert enveloped them. Neal stared out the window, watching the scenery go by, recounting the events of the day before.
Neal's stepfather grunted as he swallowed a forkful of peas. "Neal, have you given any more thought to getting your GED?" he asked, mouth full.
"Maybe," Neal replied halfheartedly, not wanting to give his stepfather the satisfaction of knowing that he had.
The burly older man huffed and shook his head, taking another mouthful. Neal ate his tomato soup and buttered bread like a man possessed, racing through his dinner to be free of Bill's glare and questions.
Neal's mother furrowed her brow, and said, "You know, Neal, you can't get into college like you were talking, if you don't get your GED."
Here we go. He was comforted by his mother's concern, but half resentful that she had leaked this personal information to Bill, who would doubtless use it against him. To Bill, college -- or anything other than back-busting labor -- was getting above your raising, a luxury.
"What are you going to do in college, Neal?" he muttered disdainfully. "Save the world?" His stepfather snorted a laugh, and wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. Neal went about his business, not bothering to respond to the idiocy of the question, or who asked it.
"Now Bill ... " Neal's mother started to say.
Bill turned and barked, "This is between me and Neal. Just butt out!"
To this, Neal responded from the gut. "I'm going to make something of myself, you fucking moron!" he said, louder than he had intended, but ran with it anyway. "But you wouldn't know anything about that, rotting away in this shithole town your whole life." Neal got up abruptly, walked to his room, and stared dumbly at the wall. He retreated into his headphones, and pumped the volume up as far as it would go.
The voice between his ears was shouting: DAMAGED! DAMAGED! DAMAGED IN MY HEAD!
"Hey, son," he heard a voice say. "We're almost to San Jose," Whitey said as Neal ran his fingers through his hair, and across his eyes, wincing when he touched his left eye, which was swollen, and blackening. "I figured we'd stop and get something to eat, before I head across town to my daughter's house," Whitey said.
"I don't have a lot of money," Neal said. "I'll just have coffee or something."
Whitey stuck out his tongue, and made a sort of raspberry sound with his mouth, and a dismissive gesture with his hands. "It's on me."
A look of incredulity, then warmth, went across Neal's face. "Damn. Thanks!"
Whitey said nothing, but nodded his head downward. He pulled the rickety truck into the diner parking lot, and shut it off. As the truck finally shuddered to a full stop, the yellow dog whined and barked, and the old man cracked a window before he and Neal went inside.
At the table, Whitey lit up a Camel, and offered the pack to Neal. "I've told you a little bit about myself," Whitey said, puffing the smoke out of his mouth with each syllable. "What's your story, Neal? Why are you going to San Francisco?"
Taken aback by the question, Neal readied himself, trying to think of a quick response to end the conversation painlessly. He looked at the old man, searching his face for a trace of reproach, but found none. Neal's face relaxed at the old man's silent acceptance, and he dragged on his cigarette.
Neal blew out the smoke, slowly -- almost making a blowing sound with his lips -- and the smoke wafted toward the ceiling, and was sucked up by the yellowed air vent. "I don't know," Neal said. "It's my mom's boyfriend, er, my stepfather," he continued. "We just don't get along."
The old man puffed on his smoke. "I'm sorry to hear that," he said. "I noticed your face, and your eye."
"You should see him!" Neal said, laughing. Whitey grinned, and shook his head.
Neal sat silently, letting the cigarette burn down nearly halfway, trying to articulate the millions of strands of thought going through his brain. He began to feel somewhat ridiculous, and embarrassed for spilling his guts to a stranger. Across the table, the old man looked neither expectant of an answer, nor piteous. His eyes were knowing and calm, and somehow calmed Neal as well, who said in a moment of clarity, "He and I just have different ideas of success."
Whitey smiled and leaned back comfortably in the booth, nodding his head and laughing softly. "Well, there you go," he said. "There you go."
The food came, and the two ate. They talked about the merits of bicycles versus cars, the pros and cons of country music, and other pressing issues, and Whitey regaled Neal with tales from his youth -- like when he'd take his lady friends out to the middle of the desert on his motorcycle to take peyote and stare at the lizards and cacti, or the time he met Johnny Cash at the 1957 Arkansas State Fair and got drunk with him after the show -- and the two continued through the once-full pack of Camels, and three-quarters of a second.
As they were walking back to the truck, Whitey gave Neal his phone number on a scrap of paper. "You ever get into any trouble, you call," the old man said.
"Thanks," Neal said. "Thanks a lot."
"That sign over there is for the train," Whitey said, pointing across the parking lot. "That'll take you right into San Francisco."
"Sounds good," Neal said plaintively.
"I gotta go," Whitey said, opening the truck door, and reviving the sleeping dog. "You take care."
"You too, old man," Neal said with a half-grin. The truck started, and lurched out of the parking spot, out onto the street, then the main road, with Neal still watching as it became another set of tail lights on the highway.