On a Clear Day
Some momentous experiences can seem much less impressive with the passing of time. Others, not so much.
We were flying across Ohio from east to west, heading for Oshkosh. It was a hot, bright day in late summer. Airspeed, 220 knots. Moderate headwind. We were at 5,100 feet. I was at the controls, and Sam Cross sat in the co-pilot's seat, telling stories. Below us was I-90, like a black ribbon across the green of Ohio. I was using the highway as a convenient directional. My flight plan: follow the interstate to Chicago and make a right. I had just passed a friendly word with the tower at Akron Airport when Sam spoke up.
"I hitchhiked on that road once--did I ever tell you?"
"No," I said.
"It was Thanksgiving, years ago. God, it was cold, so cold. We were going the other way. We stood under one of those bridges down there, with Akron just a few miles away and New York City 500 miles ahead. On the east side of the bridge the sun was shining, casting hard-edged black shadows; and on the west side it was snowing. It was like we were on some sort of meteorological margin. I was with a friend of mine, Rob. We were having a great time, even though we were frozen and tired and grungy. We were just 18, freshmen up at college. I had just fallen in love for the first time, just gone away from home for the first time, just started thinking for myself for the first time, taking care of myself for the first time..."
"Tell me about the falling in love part," I said. "I love those stories. Was she pretty?"
"I thought so. She was the first girl I ever..."
I interrupted. "Do I have to hear this part?"
"...the first girl I had ever kissed, I was going to say," said Sam. "I know, that's hard to believe in these days, but it was true nonetheless. Her name was Kristen Daily, and I swear I thought I'd marry her."
"What happened to her?"
Sam shrugged. "I was madly in love with her then, but I was such a baby. The tortures that woman inflicted on me--or rather, that I suffered for her. Almost from the very first. We met at dinner one night, when she sat down with Rob. She was so blond, so slender, so blue-eyed, and I was just so shy, so removed, and so, so jealous of Rob. I suffered immediately."
"You stole your friend's girlfriend? You're a louse!"
"I did not. It became obvious pretty quick that they were only friends. Rob had a girl back home in New Haven. No, I never stole her from anyone. She was unattached, but somehow we got attached. I walked her back to her dorm. We talked. You know... how does someone fall in love, anyhow?"
"Don't ask me," I answered, scanning over the controls.
"Anyhow, we were soon in love, or at least I thought we were, and everything was perfect."
"Oh, really? Perfect?"
Sam smiled. "No, you're right. Kristen was not perfect. I found that out later. She was capricious, at times cruel, a flirt, and very middle class. But that was a good lesson, because I'm not perfect. My faults are different from hers--no better, no worse--and I can be cruel, too. But learning that perfection and love have nothing to do with each other were lessons I needed."
Cross stopped suddenly. "Is all this boring you? I'm just remembering a lot of it for the first time in years. My wayward youth. Stop me if I bore you--I'm just blathering on like Marlowe in a Joseph Conrad story."
"I like Conrad," I answered, and told him to continue.
"Anyway, I was telling you about my hitchhiking adventure. That happened about a month after Kristen and I met. By then we were a campus fixture, Kristen and I. We'd sit anywhere, everywhere, the science building (she was a geology major, for God's sakes), the library, the lakefront, the dining hall, wherever. And we'd talk. That's all I really remember doing in college was talking. I have no idea where all those words came from, and, now, honestly, I hardly remember any of the words themselves.
"One night we all took the train down into Chicago to see some show or concert, and on the way back we talked about hitchhiking. I remember that Rags Wheeler was there. He told how he ran away from his home in Macon, Georgia, and hitchhiked to New Orleans when he was 15. Chad Tower told how he hitchhiked from New York to Washington. Judy Ng said she used to hitchhike in Taiwan all the time--it was accepted. It became a general bull session about hitching and bumming around. Remember, I had been nowhere and seen nothing then. Even when I had traveled at all, I went with my family or with a group. I felt like I had never done anything."
"Well, that's changed, yes?"
He smiled. "Some, sure. The one thing that I remember clearest in that talk was that nobody had hitched anywhere during the winter. Only the summer. Winter was somehow too dangerous, too forbidding."
"So, of course, you had to, right?"
"Well, I'm a sucker for a dare, especially a dare I dare to myself. And Rob, I discovered, felt the same. After we got back to Lake Forest, Rob and I wound up in the laundry room with a road map of the eastern United States."
"The laundry room?" I asked.
"It was two in the morning. We didn't want to disturb roommates and all."
"Oh, of course. So you made a laundry room pact, eh?"
Sam smiled again. "Yep. We decided to hitchhike to New York over Thanksgiving week. You understand," Sam said, "there was absolutely no reason to do this. Our parents were definitely sending us airfare. We just wanted to. And to make sure we would, we very quickly told everybody we were going to do it.
"Naturally, Kristen didn't think much of our planned adventure. She knew Rob and liked him, but she worried about us. That was great, to have a woman who wasn't my mother worrying about me! That was fine with me. To leave a young woman with a kiss and go off to face some unknown, some darkness, maybe some danger. That was very fine indeed, and Kristen, though worried, was good enough not to try to dissuade us.
"So Kristen and I talked constantly, and Rob and I looked at maps and made our plans, and our friends bet each other that we wouldn't do it, and the days went by. The week of Thanksgiving was midterms week. It was cold and blustery, not snowing yet, but the north wind was sharp. On Monday I breezed through my chem exam and struggled through philosophy. I had a paper to finish for my sociology class instead of an exam.
"Kristen's exams were all completed on Monday and that night she took the six o'clock train down to Chicago, where she would switch to a train for St. Paul, Minnesota, where her family lived. I went to the station with her. I carried her bags to the platform while she bought herself a ticket. Down the tracks I could see the bright light of the train approaching. Kristen came over to me and we kissed and I said goodbye. She knew how I felt. I didn't really want to see her get onto the train, didn't want to watch her pull away north. So we kissed and I walked away. I could feel her eyes burning the back of my head, boring into my back. The bells of the train crossing were ringing, and the red lights were flashing as the barrier came down, and suddenly I turned around and called her name."
Sam laughed at himself. "Kristen looked at me with such surprise. I had told her when we first started going together that I believed in clean goodbyes, that once I had said goodbye--for the evening, for the weekend, or for whatever--I would never turn back to wave or anything. Clean goodbyes. And yet, there I was, turning. Kristen was stunned. She looked pathetically happy that I had broken my rule for her. I called to her and she ran up to me. The train was screeching to a halt, already the big double doors in the center of each car were opening and the conductors were swinging gracefully down onto the platform like dancers.
" `Give me something of yours,' I said, `something I can take with me to New York.' She unwrapped this long blue-and-white scarf and threw it around my neck. `Here, I hope you'll stay warm,' she said. Almost everyone was on the train by then. We scooted over to the doors and I tossed her bags up after her and then the doors closed and she was gone. I yelled `I love you!' but she could not hear me over the clatter and crash of the train gathering speed, and then she was gone. I walked back to the dorm feeling like a tremendous hypocrite, but a very happy one. It was all just crap that I'd read in a book somewhere, about clean goodbyes and not looking back."
"Hemingway, probably," I said. "The man has a lot to answer for."
Sam laughed. "Too true. Anyway, the next day was Tuesday and we were getting a ride out to the interstate to begin our adventure."
"About time," I said.
Sam laughed again. "Well, maybe. But all that preface is necessary, I think. Everything has a context, even just getting from Chicago to New York to celebrate Turkey Day. And that was the context. Kristen, college, youth. And the weather, I suppose. It was cold. We didn't get out to the interstate until late in the afternoon, about three. The sky was obscured without any rain or snow falling, but the threat was there. I had Kristen's scarf wrapped around my neck. It was getting dark already. Rob carried a small bag, like a gym bag. I took nothing with me. Rob had made a sign that said NEW YORK printed in bright red capital letters.
"We each had some money. I think I had $30. We were let off onto the side of the interstate out near O'Hare. The wind whistled across the wide roadway and we jumped up and down with excitement, two stupid 18-year-old kids out on a lark on a cold November afternoon. Neither of us wore gloves. I don't think either of us owned gloves. We took turns holding the sign up to oncoming traffic and finally an old man in an orange Pontiac stopped and picked us up and we were off. He was heading into Indiana, he told us.
"This was great. We were on our way. The old guy stopped at the tollbooth and the toll collector leaned out and told us it was illegal to solicit rides on the United States interstates. He sounded so disapproving. Rob and I looked at each other and laughed inside. This was better and better. We were on our own, between our two homes, with school and our futures behind us, and our parents and our pasts in front of us in a great inversion... And a woman was sitting in a stone house in Minnesota worrying about me and the authorities already disapproved. Rob and I were very happy where we were.
"We drove past Gary with that old man and it was dark then. I saw the small flames atop the smokestacks for the first time from that old man's car. He was a sour, grumpy old guy, a salesman, who talked incessantly, but he only had one topic."
"Sex?" I asked.
"Absolutely, but sex with a twist, with a twisted anger to it. He talked about the waitresses who would put out in the diners along the roadway, about hitchhiking girls he had propositioned and how he'd made it with some of them, about farmer's daughters and college girls and women of all colors, weights, and levels of attractiveness. Well, what with his incredibly long catalog of women who had been blessed with his sexual skills, it seemed to take days before Rob and I were let out by the side of the road a hundred yards from the La Porte, Indiana, exit. We were profoundly embarrassed, but still we both felt this was an adventure, a real adventure, and that he had been a character in an adventure, almost a stock character."
Sam laughed. "La Porte! La Porte! Hardly a name of magic, eh? A little known rural burg somewhere down below us where farmers buy tractors and Ford pickup trucks and seed. There's a movie house and a `home cooking' restaurant and a corner bar and the county high school. I think it might be the county seat. I don't know for sure, though. It has a substation of the Indiana State Police, however. The station is painted white and blue and it's very clean inside. That I know.
"The night was as black as burnt coffee, which we would have gladly accepted at that point. We were cold, just out of that old guy's overheated car. Rob wasn't dressed for winter. He wore a thin corduroy jacket. I took Kristen's scarf off and lent it to him. Cars passed us by scornfully. We kept our thumbs out when there were headlights coming at us, then plunged our hands into our pockets as the cars passed. We had had such luck already--one ride! That was our luck--that it shocked us when we were still standing by the side of the road a half-hour after the old man let us out.
"Finally a car pulled onto the shoulder in front of us. I screamed in delight and Rob grabbed his bag and we trotted to the car. A red light suddenly whirled on the car's roof and a siren moaned softly. A large, a very large State Trooper climbed out of the car. `You boys don't understand,' he said. `You're not allowed to hitch on the tollway. Come on, fellows, get in.'
"We climbed into the back seat of the cruiser, feeling abashed and foolish. `Cold out there, isn't it?' the trooper asked. We didn't answer. He didn't care. `Heading for New York, boys?' We nodded. `Well, good luck, but you're going to La Porte first.' We rode into La Porte. The cop was a human guy. His car was warm. He told us we could not hitch on I-90, but we could on route 20, which was parallel. But first we went to the stationhouse. Cops took our fingerprints and asked our names and checked to make sure we weren't runaways or wanted men. We sat on a long, hard, wooden pew, like a church pew in a state police station in middle Indiana somewhere. Time was passing. It was almost 11.
"The shifts changed. A sergeant came in and looked us over. Then he and the desk officer went into the back room somewhere, probably to get coffee. We were left alone. The door was six feet to our left. I grabbed Rob and his bag. Rob started to say something but I shook my head at him. We ran out the door and ran as far as we could in the dark. It had begun to rain lightly, a cold mist. Rob ran loosely, easily, a track man. I kept just behind him, urging him on, adrenaline pumping furiously through my veins.
"I can't tell you what that meant to me. It was Robin Hood and Zorro, Jesse James and Cole Younger, Harrison Ford movies and all the remakes of "Beau Geste" and "The Prisoner of Zenda!" Even as I ran I laughed at my pretending, at my pretensions. It was preposterous. We had been caught hitchhiking, for heaven's sakes. But it all fit in with the adventure. It was all part of it, running from the cops in the rain in mid-America, and me in love for the first time. Our breath spouted in front of us hot and steamy and we tore through it as we ran. We were running past a feed grain store in La Porte, Indiana--the stuff of romance, yes?"
Sam looked down at Indiana and smiled. The engine hummed softly. The radio crackled and popped, but no one interrupted his story.
"We ran until we hurt and then we slowed down and tried to figure out where we were. I had tried to remember which road lead up toward the Interstate and I guess I was right, because up ahead of us we saw the glow of traffic. We trudged up toward the highway, watching warily behind us for the State Troopers.
"That was when we actually had some luck. A bright yellow Mustang pulled over and a young guy rolled down the window and asked if we needed a lift. `Yes!' we cried and we piled in as quick as we could. He was a teenager, like us, and he was going into South Bend for some reason or another. We told him about the cops and he said, `I hate pigs!'
"We rode together until South Bend, where, it turned out, Rob had a friend at Notre Dame. We debated calling the guy and staying with him, but we decided to keep going. The kid in the Mustang suggested we go to the truck stop by the interstate and try to bum a ride with a trucker. We thought that would work, and, sure enough, it did. The third or fourth trucker we asked was heading for Toledo, Ohio, and he said he'd give us a ride. So we rode high and dry and warm across the rest of Indiana and into Ohio. It was late when we got down from that trucker's cab, and we were achy from the bouncing and giddy from being awake.
"We had no idea where we really were--somewhere in western Ohio, that's all. Not many cars were going by at that hour. Rob and I waited under a highway bridge, out of the freezing rain, sleet, snow, whatever it was then. We were actually happy. I wrapped Kristen's scarf a bit tighter around my neck and stamped my numb feet on the concrete. Although I was cold and bored and tired, I still quivered with excitement. Every bit of me knew that this was an adventure, that every car or truck that picked us up was part of the adventure. Even the cars that whooshed by and ignored us were part of it. I walked deeper into the shadows of the bridge and peed against a pillar, my back to the road. Rob yelled my name.
"A van was slowing down, a white van with a luggage rack on top. We ran over and climbed in. The driver was a guy in his twenties, going back to Akron where he worked in the Goodyear factory, he said. He gave us a ride. I fell asleep on the dirty floor of his van, my head on Rob's bag. Rob snored in the passenger seat. The radio played country music.
Sam stopped. "Well, nothing much else happened. That guy let us out near Akron, and we waited out the dawn on that meteorological margin I told you about. The snow behind us, sunshine ahead. A guy picked us up there after a longish wait, and gave us the best ride we had had, all the way across Pennsylvania to Philadelphia, Willow Grove, to be exact. The driver was a silent kind of guy, not unfriendly, just not talkative. I tried to figure out what he did, but he was just someone going home for Thanksgiving, like us.
"The Pennsylvania Turnpike looked very beautiful to me. The rain and snow hadn't fallen this far east, and it was an autumn land, all browns and yellows. There was an old barn near Somerset and I imagined rebuilding it into a home for Kristen and me. Rob was asleep again. I was no longer tired. The guy listened to talk radio and muttered at some of the callers. He seemed faintly right-wing, but not a jerk. I stared around me from the back seat.
"We got our last ride near Philadelphia. A man and a woman in their late 40s picked us up and drove us into New York City. They said we reminded them of their twin boys, who were at NYU. They had Maryland license plates. They were going to have Thanksgiving with Danny and Davy in `Greenwich Village, imagine that!' We thanked them for the ride and got out of their Ford just under the Washington Square arch. I was on more-or-less home turf, then. My folks lived out on Long Island, but friends and I had often come into the Village for shows and to buy albums and books. It was just about five. The city glimmered and gleamed in the dusk. With the change in time zones, it had taken almost exactly 24 hours to get to New York from Chicago.
"We still had most of our money left, so we splurged on a cab. I got out at Penn Station. Rob got out of the cab for a minute, too, and hugged me. We didn't have to say we had made it. We had, and that was that. We were dirty and stupid with fatigue and cold. We were unshaven and splashed with the mud of five states. We had come so far, through wet and cold and dark. We had been arrested and had escaped. People passing by heading into Penn Station looked well dressed and clean. They smelled fresh. They were smiling and carrying packages and briefcases.
"I said goodbye to Rob and laughed. He laughed back. He continued on to Grand Central, I went into Penn Station and ate a slice of pizza. I bought a ticket for the train and a paperback book. On the train I looked at the people around me with surprise, somehow. They looked so normal. I started to read the book and almost fell asleep. I stood in the vestibule near the door so I wouldn't sleep past my stop.
"I listened to the other passengers talk, and their New York accents were thick and relentless. I had never noticed how we spoke before; I had grown up there, talking like that. But I was growing away from them. Kristen made fun of my accent and I know I was trying to change, to soften my speech, to slow it down."
"You don't have much of an accent now," I said.
"She kept working on me, I guess." Sam smiled. "Even years after she was gone.
"At 6:30 I was home. My folks were in an uproar to see me. My mother had been telephoning me every hour to find out when I'd be home. My father glared at me for making my mother upset. But they were both happy to see me. My mother screamed even louder when she learned I had hitchhiked home. Dad just smiled."
Sam shrugged. "That felt fine, too. Everyone asked where I had gotten the scarf and I just said `College.' I hadn't told anyone about Kristen yet, and I wouldn't for a while. I went upstairs and showered and shaved and changed and called my old high school friends. We said we'd meet at the local diner, around the corner from my family's house. I got there early and called Kristen from a phone booth. Then I waited for my friends.
"The next day was Turkey Day. I ate enormous quantities of turkey and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. Then I went for a walk. It was cool, but not cold. I saw my reflection in storefront windows and didn't think I had changed that much on the outside. But I was different. The place seemed smaller. I saw my high school girlfriend and I was embarrassed, somehow. So was she. She had been dating other people, too, and neither of us knew how to say that. But eventually we did, and we stayed friends.
"Well, that was that. Kristen and I broke up long, long ago, before the next term was even half over. If I felt pain at the time, it's long since passed. God knows where that scarf is now. I haven't hitchhiked in, oh, who knows how long? I can't stay up all night these days. No matter."
For a while we flew on in silence. Sam looked out his window. On the horizon we could see Chicago spreading itself out in front of us, stretched along the deep green water of the lake. I began a gentle bank to the right, to the north. The sun gleamed off the wings. The sky was a bright blue, endless and wide.
Brian Quinn (email@example.com) is the chief writer and a professor of writing at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, New York. He has been a public relations writer, a speechwriter, an advertising copywriter, and a television commercial scriptwriter. He has ghostwritten two books, is a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and is a consultant to the National Hockey League, the American Lung Association, and the Congressional Glaucoma Caucus. Besides writing short stories, he has written a novel of the Civil War to be published next year. He is currently at work on a comedy about Watergate.
InterText stories written by Brian Quinn: "Prospero's Rock" (v9n3), "On a Clear Day" (v10n2).
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 10, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2000 Brian Quinn.