Its that hitchhiker. Has to be the one I passed last night. Jeezus, he looks strange, standing there in the middle of nowhere. I cant just breeze on by again, pretend he doesnt exist.
Brandy, slowing down, came to a stop just beyond where Simon stood. As he closed the ground between them, she leaned across the passenger seat and rolled down the window.
"Need a ride?"
"Dumb question, huh? Hold on; Ill put your pack in the trunk."
She got out.
"Where ya headed?"
He pointed to a sign tied onto his backpack. TUCSON was written in Magic Marker on an old piece of dusty cardboard.
"Thank God! I guess that means Im pointed in the right direction."
Simon smiled again.
"Well, hop in."
Jeezus, he looks like Jesus, with that long hair, scraggly beard, and those sad brown eyes.
"Cat got your tongue?"
His response was another friendly, if noncommittal, smile.
The highway changed quickly from eroded asphalt to corrugated dirt. Brandy would have welcomed a little conversationcurious, mainly, about how much worse the road might get. But there was such a deliberate air of silence encircling her passenger, she felt inhibited. He was pleasant enough, in his taciturnity. His presence simply curbed her natural impulse to chat. Glancing sideways at himthis calm, rather poetic-looking strangerBrandy wondered (in retrospect) what had possessed her to be so bold; she never picked up hitchhikers. Not under ordinary circumstances. Yet theseas she looked at the emptiness all around themseemed far from ordinary.
Her heartbeat thumped! The realization that this must be the person who had stood outside her Volkswagen watching her sleep (having rolled down the drivers side window, whats more) reverberated. Brandys body stiffened as she stifled an inner shriek.
Simon, with a gesture unpremeditated, reached out his hand.
Upon contact with her shoulder, his touch sufficed to localize Brandys fear. She turned to confront her assailant; but the kindness in his eyes was so reassuring it served instead to strum the length of Brandys spine.
She relaxed, then smiled.
Simon withdrew his hand.
"What are you doing out here all alone?"
He hesitated, weighing his answer, then responded by covering his mouth and shaking his head no.
"You cant talk?"
He nodded (the distinction between 'cant' and 'wouldnt' being difficult to convey). Besides, during his now two-year-long silence, Simon had found it more expedient to allow his interrogators their usual assumption; namely that he was mute not by choice, but rather by flawed design.
"Oh, how awful! For you, I mean."
Hers was a mixture of sympathy and artless credulity.
For Simons part (despite a slightly troubled conscience), his deception was less dishonest than it was discreet. People believed what they wanted to believe; once learning he 'did not' speak, they presumed he 'could not' speak. Pity, embarrassment, and so forth, then rendered the subject closed; usually.
Brandy, however, reached over, opened the glove compartment, and felt around for a pen and a pad of paper. She settled for half a pencil and a map of San Francisco, handing over both.
"Here; my names Brandy. Whats yours?"
Simon wrote SIMON over a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge.
"Happy to meet you, Simon. Boy, oh, boy, could I use a cup of coffee. First place we see, okay? My treat."
Had Brandy been less elated (mostly from relief), the absurdity of her suggestion might have dawned on her sooner. Instead, it was Simons expression that made her rethink.
"Right. Fat chance, huh? Do you have any idea where, on earth, we might be? Everyone told me, Stay on I-10 all the way; you cant go wrong. That was too easy, of coursenot to mention boring. So I thought Id take a little extra time and break up the freeways monotony. I got on a two-lane highway that seemed to go along in the right direction. But the pavement ran out. For the next hour, I must have hit every rock and rut in that goddamn roadtrail, I should call it. I ended up in a town called, of all things, 'Hope,' where I stopped for gas and a Cola. I had two beers instead. And the guy behind the bar let me see a map. It looked like I had to backtrack thirty miles, or keep driving north-northeast until I hit the main road south, where I could turn toward Phoenix. Either way, it was sixty long miles in the wrong direction. But then the bartender showed me that, if I drove just a wee bit farther and turned right, I could angle back and eventually run into 10. The road was a little rough, he told me. Ha(!); a little rough’? Anyway, I found the turnoff okay, but the beer started to kick in and I got really woozy. That was about the time I zipped past you."
Damn-it! I wasnt going to mention that. His never putting a word in edgewise keeps me blathering like an idiot.
"Im sorry I didnt stop for you, but all I wanted at the time was to get some sleep. Before too long I pulled over and spent the night in this none-too-comfy seat. So, thats my story. Whats yours?"
He wrote on the map, TOO LONG TO TELL.
"Oh, come on, thats not fair. Tell me. Please?"
Ordinarily people left him alone. That was one of the blessings of being dumb; he was spared having to listen to his own idle chatter, and even long-winded benefactors eventually spared him theirs. Brandy, it appeared, was determined to prove an exception. By way of obliging, Simon began to inscribe. Brandy interrupted him.
"No, no; dont write it. Show it. Like charades. Itll be fun."
Simon, having traveled so long with his feigned impairment, had logged a comprehensive catalog of the general publics reactions. Brandys, he decided, was of the tactless variety except that it expressed such infectious verve, he found himself complying, even enjoying it.
"You were hitchhiking and someone stopped for you. A man?"
Simon indicated a hat, then suspenders, then 'hoed' the air.
"A hockey player?"
He shook his head. Brandy giggled. He planted imaginary seeds along the dashboard.
He nodded. He pantomimed sleep.
"You fell asleep."
He held a pretend steering wheel. He pulled a long make-believe string. He looked at his wrist.
"Drive Long Watch Time. You drove a long time."
Brandy had to swerve to regain the road. She laughed.
"Go ahead. Ill be more careful; I promise."
He closed his eyes, then opened them, as if perplexed.
"You woke up. Didnt know where you were. Right?"
"Why didnt he tell you?"
He pointed to the distance between his little finger and his thumb.
He moved his finger back and forth between.
"Oh, span. Span?"
He held up an imaginary cup and saucer, sipped from the cup, then indicated the saucer.
"Dish? Dishes? Dish-pan hands?"
Her laughter was spontaneous.
He flip-flopped his hands.
"The other way around. Pan, dish. Span-dish. Spanish! The farmer was Mexican and spoke only Spanish," she yelled out in triumph!
And thus the game went on, Brandy garnering details from Simons gesticulationsshe, exhausted from laughing, he, from trying not to, neither paying much attention to the rough-and-tumble road; which had been appreciably better, for a couple of miles, the driver thereby less and less on guard.
Straight ahead there was a slight rise that descended sharply into an arroyo then up againthe typical Arizona "DIP," usually dangerous only during flash flood season. Into this one, however, winter rains had gouged a canyon-like ditch. And, into that, like a suicidal ladybug, the Volkswagen headlong plunged. It happened so abruptly, the couples smiles remained after lurching to an instantaneous haltsmiles not inappropriate, considering no one appeared to be badly hurt. Simons head had banged against the roof. Brandy had bitten her lower lip. But momentum, mostly, had been arrested by the slammed-on brakes. And impact (against the opposite bank) had been somewhat countered by their vertical drop. When driver and passenger clambered out to assess the overall damages, however, minor injuries were dwarfed by the major fix they were in.
The gully was three feet deep and just wide enough to accommodate, bumper to bumper, the wedged in cara snug and seemingly inauspicious fit. To make matters worse, the Springtime sun had fired both banks as hard as bisque. And the nearest facsimile to a pickax was a four-armed tire iron. Simons head began to throb. He sat on the running board, feeling nauseous. Brandy, using the drivers-side mirror, examined her bloody lip. Not serious, she determined, then turned her full attention to her groggy companion.
"Are you all right?"
He nodded, albeit shakily.
"Youre hurt, arent you!"
She scrambled up and over the embankment, then squatted in front of Simon to have a closer look.
He rubbed his head.
She parted the hair where he indicated, her anxious fingers uncovering a sizable bump the skin unbroken. Exploring his scalp a little further, she detected no other wounds.
"Are you dizzy? Sick to your stomach?"
Fearful Simon had suffered a concussion, Brandy examined his eyes which appeared to be clear vibrantly clear compelling her to look more deeply and, for an introspective moment, she saw herself mirrored déjà vu her reflection growing, looming out of focus (as Simon leaned forward) until (lashes fluttering against lashes) he kissed her wounded lip.
Flinching, she drew back. But, like before, his touch seemed benign.
"Oh To make it better?"
She probed the area with her tongue.
"Feels healed already."
For Simon, these two past years had brought him into physical contact with few people, intimate contact with nobody; seldom had he veered from his solitary path. Yet Brandys guileless proximity had made him deviate (twice) already, causing him to wonder at this womans lush allure.
For Brandy, Simons innocent kiss tugged a sentimental chordthough often such a response had led her astray. Still, she trusted it. Besides, her record of failed relationships was not entirely her fault. She tried to be selective. Her body simply attracted men en masse (women, too, for that matter), resulting in an endless scrimmage of aggressive competitionwhich acted to exclude less predatory types. Simons shy passivity held promise for a welcome deviation once matters more immediate had been resolved. She looked at her car.
"Do you think we can dig it out?"
Simon got up and tried to pry a rock from the forward bank. It wouldnt budge. He got a better grip on another one. At length, it broke free. The earth beneath was slightly damp. He loosened it further with the dislodged stone, then nodded in the affirmative, but qualified his optimism by signaling it would no doubt take some time.
Together they climbed from the gully, then walked up an adjacent rise. The freeway was nowhere in sight. All that could be seen were numerous distant rises, each branded down the middle by the same scrawny scar (the one they had been following). With the days hottest hours still ahead, walking looked no better than did hunkering down to dig. The town (where Brandy had asked directions) was at least twenty miles behind. Route 10 (where 'immediate' help was less assured) might be just as far ahead. Chances of another car coming along looked slim (they had long since passed the turnoff that diverted two earlier vehicles). And the only tire tracks leading into the trench, alas, were theirs. Assuming they could move enough dirt and rock and gravel, theirs would be the only tracks leading out.
A wind ambled out of the West, nudging forward some clouds (which were scattered), their attending shadows widely spaced, offering stingy respites from the escalating heat. At least the air was moving. A pair of dust-devils sprang up southward, chasing rousted tumbleweed, whirling in turn like dervishes.
Brandy and Simon began their excavation. The plan was to cut a ramp down to the front wheels. First, they cleared away the surface stones. Then, using the tire iron, Simon started hammering at the rock-hard bank. Ground gave way easily near the edges but got stubborn from there on out. Brandy unearthed a suitably-flat stone, and, after Simon pulverized a section, she scraped away the rubble. Despite a breeze, the work was hot tedious and, before very long, exhausting. Simon paused to take off his shirt, then watched as Brandy cleared the area he had just loosenedher raking motions rough, vibrations from them registering throughout her upper arms and torso throughout her breasts most conspicuously though Simon appreciated more his partner's stoic pace. There had been no question about the division of labor. They had simply begun, falling into an equitable sort of teamwork. As Brandy finished, Simon set in again, thumping the indurate soil with dogged persistence.
Brandy inspected her hands, her fingernails in ruins. Dirt had collected in all the lines on either palm. Where, she wondered, might this days incidents be represented? Again her thoughts returned to the previous night's dream clues too insubstantial its mystery left unsolved.
How does he figure in, with his boyish nut-brown body? Could he really be as innocent as he appears? And whats he have on his shoulders? Birthmarks? Tattoos? No, theyre butterfly wings. Stuck there? Jeezus, he's an angelmy guardian angel come to deliver me from Hell.
Thus preoccupied, Brandy recommenced her turn in the pit.
Simon was thirsty. The thought of his canteen (trapped in the trunk) came to mind dejectedly. There would be very little water between them, if Brandy had none herself. (Brandy; meaning 'burnt wine.' Apt name considering her hair color.)
"Your turn," she announced.
They continued to work in shifts.
Time passed hours leaking like sweat through wide open pores (they would regret its loss) shadows grew foreshortened disappeared then gradually took on length.
Finally they both took a breather.
"Do you think well finish before dark?"
Cloud reinforcements had assembled on the western horizon. With the wind having flagged, however, it was doubtful they would overtake afternoon predecessors. Instead, they seemed content to linger, providing a bed for the sun and its two-hours-away setting when the air would cool and make their task less punishing.
Brandy, reaching into the car, took out her purse and rummaged for some Vaseline. Her lips (licked clean of blood) felt dry and cracked. The cut, now barely visible, lent a pout to her fleshy mouth. She scooped a gob of salve onto her finger and spread it over the skin.
She took another finger-full and walked over to where he sat.
"Here, let me."
She applied the soothing gel
"Hows your noggin?"
guilt and natural inclination prompting Brandy to play-act the nurse
He shook his head.
until reality, of a sudden, intervened: night was approaching; she was lost; her car was immobilized; she had neither food nor water; she was sweaty, dirty, dehydrated, and suddenly more than a little apprehensive about this close-mouthed stranger. Retreating to a creosote bush, Brandy sat down alone, whereupon a shadow darkened the ground; she looked up saw Simon, back to the sun, thus framed by a corona, or a halo, as he reached, as she accepted his outstretched hand, complying with its tug, allowing him to lead her to their unfinished work.
The job went better. The soil, beneath its upper layers, held enough moisture to be less like cement. Before long, they had sufficient room to open the trunk. Simon retrieved his pack, took out the canteen, and offered Brandy 'first swig.' She, upon realizing how little water there was, took only a modest swallow.
Just before sundown a crude imitation of a ramp, at last, had been carved. It was still too steepand needed to be surfaced with a layer of gravel and stonebut it was substantial enough to warrant their joint satisfaction. They would be on their way, they speculated, well before midnight.
Simon then produced his meager rations; which Brandy greeted with a wholehearted round of applause. Having reconciled herself to eating nothing at all, food of any description was a welcome sight. She plunged her broken thumbnails into the tangerines leathery hide, peeling it off , then split the fragrant sections into roughly equal clusters. Simon, in exchange, shook half of the raisins into Brandy's grubby mitts. So famished were they both that the food was gone in gulps. Simon uncapped the canteen; two glug-glugs a piece and the water, likewise, was consumed.
"Well, so much for wining and dining Lets go watch the sunset, eh?"
Together, they climbed from the wash in search of an unobstructed view. They were just in time.
The cactus was aglow with golden auras that stretched as far as the horizon, where clouds, like soft-shore islands, gently diffused the magical light, the sky transformed into a sea of multi-dimensional fathoms immense beneath which glimmered life forms seeming both fragile and inconsequential. They sat close to one another. The sun turned orange then red then slowly, majestically, took its leave. The ground beneath their bodies surrendered its borrowed heat. They moved closer still. The colors left behind performed a fleeting, albeit grandiose, transition.
Simon put his arm around Brandys shoulders, feeling the midday fever exiting her skin. They watched in silence they watched until bruised purple and iron-gray usurped the warmer tones until clouds became mere ghosts in the cold, cerulean night.
Brandy shivered; it reverberated through Simon. He gave her a squeeze; she felt his pulse through the fabric of her blouse or, perhaps, that was her own coordinated heartbeat. Their breathing, too, had fallen strangely into sync.
Then, in a rarefied moment that felt outside Space and Time, there came to each a sense wherein identities blurred his soul, her soul growing less detached, more mutually defined communally.
His name sounded alien merely a noise a peculiar expulsion of air. Brandy had spoken (without knowing why), yanking them by accident back into themselves. Embarrassed, she converted her gaff into a sensible suggestion
"I think wed better be getting back?"
aware, as Simon's arm withdrew, that she had shattered a delicate moment. They stood, stretched the cramps from their weary limbs, and walked toward the carSimon gathering bits and pieces of wood along the way for a fire, Brandy ruing her outburst and vowing herself to silence (an oath that she, of course, would disregard).
"Listen, Simon. I mean, that was all very nice: the sunset, your sharing your food and water, putting your arm around me to keep me warm, but, hey, you know; dont get any ideas."
Simon simply stopped, stared a moment, then turned away.
Id give anything to take that back! Why, oh why, do I always have to spoil things by saying something dumb? Jeezus, Brandy, can't you tell the good eggs from the rotten ones?
Simon dropped the wood scraps near the ramps upper edge, then built a ring around them with dislodged stones. Brandy came up behind him.
"Im really sorry I said that."
She wanted to say more, to articulate what, at heart, she had really, truly meant; if only Simon had turned he might have read it in her expression. Instead, he scarcely nodded before walking off to get a book of matches from his pack.
Brandy worked alone in utter darkness, until campfire flames produced a crackling flurry of sparks like fugitive fireflies. Simon rejoined her. Together, yet not together, they sustained the dull routine the steady jarring the methodical thud and scrape of their makeshift tools delivering them into individual realms of preoccupation.
Sparks flew, as the license plate Brandy now used as a spade chafed over a large eye-shaped stone. Simon loosened the dirt around it; Brandy clawed away the rubble; together they slowly pried it from its grudging socket. Simon stared down into the hole, a tiny grave, dark as anti-matter. He reached in with his hand, all the way to the bottom, where the earth was warm and fetid. He felt insects scurry in a panic through his outspread fingers.
Simon unclenched his fists, then filled in the depression as if to bury some unwelcome memory, its remnants watched by Brandy as they quit his somber gaze. What, she wondered, could have triggered so haunted an expression? Simon, catching her stare, averted his face.
Brandy trembled. The cold night, the oblong hole, the digging and scraping sounds, the flickering campfire elongating shadows, made her conjure up cemetery scenes and stories by Edgar Allan Poe.
Then, as if on cue, a coyote howled.
Simon leaped from the pit, responding less to the coyote than to Brandy's panicked reactionwhich caused her to erupt with a second shriek, this one of laughter, tittering at herself and at Simon's slapstick chivalry. The tension thereby broken, they enjoyed (again) each others company.
Slowly, the fire burned down, its embers lighting dimly the nearly-finished excavators, who now gathered handfuls of small stones to scatter over the ramp-bed, stamping them into place to lend support and traction. Simon moved to the cars rear bumper; Brandy dusted off her jeans then hustled behind the wheel.
"Well, here goes."
She started the motor, then leaned out the window.
"Are you going to push?"
She edged the car forward to make enough room for him to squeeze in behind. He braced his feet against the bank, then signaled he was ready. Brandy stomped the accelerator. Wheels spinning, engine groaning, dirt and stones shooting back on either side, the car lunged up and out of its earth-bound entrenchment.
"Hooray! We did it! Were free!"
Brandy leaped from the idling car, grabbing hold of Simon in the process, forcing him to join her as she danced an exuberant jig that ended with them hugging, overjoyed, like a pair of grubby urchins. Fatigue then settled into their overtaxed bodies. They leaned against each othercounterweights jointly balancedand exhaled with a mutual job-well-done sigh.
"Simon, Im too tired to drive anywhere tonight. Lets try to get some sleep; we can start off fresh tomorrow morning."
He agreed. They parted. She turned off the motor. He found some more wood and built up the fire. Then, spreading out his ground-cloth, Simon unroll his sleeping bag, stepped from his moccasins, and crept his way inside, holding open the flap in expectation of Brandy joining him.
He cant be serious. Does he really expect me to crawl in there with him? We hardly know each other. And I sure as hell dont trust him. I mean Jeezus, this could get way out of hand.