Highway 50

March Web Feature

Highway 50
Ahsha M. Vigil

The payphone beeps loudly, the operator’s monotone voice pours through the earpiece. “Please deposit one nickel for five more minutes. You have thirty seconds before I must disconnect the call.”

The hitchhiker looks for another nickel in his empty pockets. The phone goes silent and beeps loudly. The hitchhiker sighs and exits the telephone booth, taking a drink from his flask and lighting a cigarette. He looks to the East, over his shoulder towards the shallow grave of his companion. He decides to forget about his time on the desert as he climbs back into the rusty old Buick and turns his wheels west.

***

The man is an actor, aspiring to be the next bigshot in Hollywood. He, like most of his peers, has nothing to his name. His mother would fret over him and call him a fool if it wasn’t for her comatose state guarding her from what she was better off not knowing. It protects her from knowledge of how and where he’s been getting the money to keep her alive, from knowing that the money has run out and she doesn’t have much longer. He walks down the side of an unknown desolate stretch of highway in the middle-of-nowhere Nevada, hitchhiking back to Los Angeles. The road signs guide him, updating him on how far he is from any other human life form every twenty miles or so. The pavement radiates heat and aside from the mirage on the horizon, only dry, and dirty land stretches as far as the eyes reach. There is rarely an automobile passing, always a semi-truck traveling in the opposite direction. The hitchhiker expected more traffic, but he doesn’t completely reject the solitude. He rather prefers it for his humble reflection of life.

A billboard stands tall a little way up the road, its big red letters warn him of approaching civilization. “BETTY LOU’S DINER! GAS AND GOOD EATIN’!…3 MILES!”

He stops for a moment, looking up the road, licking his lips. He empties his flask, gulping the liquor down his throat. A new motivation to keep walking. The hitchhiker hums to himself, a tune he heard years ago. It keeps him better company than the tumbleweeds that play chase in the distance. He closes his eyes and strolls mindlessly, recklessly. The mid-day heat beats down on him. Sweat drenches the layers of clothing and drips from his face. He stumbles and opens his eyes, his vision blurs. Perhaps I was a fool to think I could go it alone. That fella back in Austin wasn’t feeding me a line. I ain’t gonna get back to Hollywood for dang near a week if I gotta keep up like this. Ma won’t last that long.

The diner comes into view. The faded, pink, stucco building stands out against the gray-brown landscape. A busted, neon, arrow sign flickers and flashes. In front of the diner stand two gas pumps. The parking lot is empty. Dull green weeds creep up the sides of the building, finding a home in the cracks and chips of the stucco. There is only a battered screen door to guard the entryway.

The hitchhiker walks in and a tiny bell rings above his head. A ceiling fan rattles and echoes throughout the empty diner, drowning out the jukebox’s melancholy tune. Everything is red and green patent leather or velvet on aluminum chrome and walnut wood. The inside of the diner is much more pleasing to the eye than the unkempt outside. The nicotine-stained air is hot and dense. The hitchhiker seats himself on a swivel stool at the bar, extinguishing the privacy of employee gossip.

The waitress and the cook draw back from each other. The waitress sets her cigarette in an ashtray and turns to the hitchhiker. She places a yellow paper menu in front of him. “Well hello, Sugar. Can I getcha some coffee?”

“Water.”

“You got it, Babe.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a bottle too, would ya?”

“Sure, we do.”

The hitchhiker holds out the empty flask. “Mind topping me off?”

She smiles and takes the flask.

“Thank ya, ma’am.”

They are silent for a moment. The waitress hands the hitchhiker his renewed flask. “So, where you headed, Mister?”

“L.A.” The hitchhiker takes a swig and places the flask in his pocket.

“Another one of those hot-shot wanna-bes, yeah?”

“I was out on loan for a minor part in one of them new movies. They called me in day before yesterday. Cut my vacation short to go speak three lines.”

“Hey, it’s better than nothing right? Tell me more about Hollywood.”

The hitchhiker shrugs. “There ain’t really much to tell ma’am.”

“Oh c’mon. Hollywood’s so glamorous.”

The waitress sets the water down in front of him and leans on the counter flirtatiously. She continues to coax him with small talk. He looks at her over the menu now and then, raising his eyebrows and nodding or shrugging slightly. Occasionally, he interjects, hoping she’ll be satisfied soon enough and return to her cigarette.

“So, why’re you walking to L.A?”

“Hitchhiking.” He corrects her before continuing. “My car broke down back in Eureka, something with the tranny. Don’t got the money or the motive to fix it.”

“Must be lonely. Can’t imagine having no company out on the road all by myself.” She pauses. “You know, I always wanted to—”

The sound of the doorbell cuts her off, saving her from the rejection of the hitchhiker. A man walks in and seats himself at the end of the bar near the window, so he can watch his Buick accumulate rust. The waitress jumps at the new opportunity for amorous toying. It must be a slow day. She abandons the hitchhiker and rushes to the drifter’s side.

“How are you today, Honey? What can I getcha? Water? Coffee?”

“Coffee, please.”

“Sure thing, Baby. Let me know if I can grab anything else alright?”

He plasters on a faux smile and nods, trying to mask his disinterest. She notices and takes leave. He has seen this waitress a million times, different places and names, but to him, they are all the same. If he would let her, she’d fall in love with him for the day, only to be left behind tomorrow when he turns his wheels in another direction. There have been so many short-lived love affairs that he’s unsure where all he’s had a lover. He never stays in one place long, has no reason to. He has no wife and no kids— at least not to his knowledge. He’s a drifter, a loner trying to make it by traveling the country selling the miscellaneous trinkets for some CEO from back East.

The hitchhiker and the drifter take notice of each other. The drifter’s curiosity eats him from the inside out. Crazy fella out here by his lonesome without a car. Wonder where he came from.

The hitchhiker plays his curiosity off as the intrigue of the unknown. The hitchhiker doesn’t want to know the drifter’s story. Wonder where he’s headed. Maybe he can help me get to Cali faster. They watch each other for the duration of the drifters stay.

The hitchhiker studies the drifter and follows him out when he departs. “Excuse me, Mister. I don’t mean to be a thorn in the side. But which way you headed?”

The drifter points west. “Need a ride?”

“If it ain’t too much trouble.”

The drifter nods towards the passenger door. “Saddle up, Cowboy. Make yourself comfortable.”

“Say! Gee thanks, Mister.”

The drifter displays himself as humble, a wall to camouflage his loneliness. The desert blurs as the car picks up speed. The hitchhiker looks out the window as they drive. The men are silent for a long while. The drifter pulls a cigarette out of his shirt pocket, offers one to the hitchhiker.

The hitchhiker nods. “Got a light?”

The drifter pulls out a card of matches, tossing them at the hitchhiker.

“Thanks.” “That gal back there sure was talking up a storm.” The drifter pokes at the man.

“Why ain’t you offer to take her with ya?”

The hitchhiker shrugs. “She’s getting paid to make a pass at every fella that comes through there. We both know that.”

“Seemed pretty stuck on you. She looked at you like you was the shiniest penny in the jar.”

“Oh, hang it up, Mister.”

The drifter puts his hands up for a moment, chuckling. The hitchhiker tosses his cigarette butt out the window. They fall quiet for some time again. In the distance, the men can see a thunderhead; the dark gray storm looks like it could be violent. They watch as the sun sinks into the desert, tired of scorching this side of the planet until tomorrow. The drifter flicks a switch, and the headlights illuminate a mile marker.

MILE 72: FALLON 40, DAYTON 91.

The hitchhiker puts his feet up on the dashboard and pulls the flask from his jacket pocket, takes a big gulp. He gestures to the drifter. “Want a sip?”

“I’ll wait.”

“Suit yourself. More for me.”

The drifter lights another cigarette, unsure what else to do with himself. The hitchhiker takes another swig, and another for good measure. “So, we stopping in Fallon or what?”

“We won’t be there for another hour—”

“That ain’t what I asked.”

“We can stop if you need to.”

“I might.” The hitchhiker takes a big gulp of liquor and burps loudly. He is silent for a moment, taking another sip before speaking. “How far are you going anyways?”

“Aw heck, Carson City maybe? I ain’t got the slightest idea if I’m being honest though. I go ’til I can’t no more.”

The drifter looks over at his intoxicated companion. The hitchhiker lifts his head and screws the lid back on the flask. “How far you taking me?”

“Far as I can. State line, maybe. Depends on how long we’re headed the same direction.” Fear rises in the hitchhiker’s chest. State line won’t be close enough. That’s three days’ worth of walking at least. He retrieves his pocketknife and begins to clean his nails. In the clouds, electric charges battle for dominance. Thunder shakes the land. The hitchhiker uncaps the flask, takes another swig, and places the flask back into his jacket pocket.

The drifter breaks the uneasy silence. “You’re quite the swigger, Cowboy.”

“What of it?”

The drifter falls quiet again.

“I said, what of it, Mister? Don’t go giving your two cents where it ain’t due.”

“Ease up, Cowboy. Don’t blow a fuse. I was just trying to make conversation. I wasn’t looking for trouble.”

“Bustin’ my chops ain’t the way to do that, Mister.”

“C’mon cool down, man.”

“Aw, shut the hell up would ya?”

The drifter’s knuckles turn white, he clenches the steering wheel, biting his tongue. The air outside stirs and a gust of wind shakes the car around a little.

The hitchhiker becomes more agitated. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to drive, Mister?”

“If you don’t like my driving, I can let you out.” The drifter’s dry voice echoes in the hitchhiker’s head. The drifter slows down to counteract the wind.

“No. No. You can’t let me out—” The hitchhiker pales and panic courses through his veins, sending him tumbling over the edge. His hands shake, his vision flashes black. The drifter notices the change in the hitchhiker and pulls over.

“Don’t spew in here now, Cowboy. You don’t look so hot.”

“You can’t kick me out here, Mister. I gotta get back to Hollywood. My Ma needs me to get that part.”

“What are you getting all cracked up about? I was just trying to let you out if—”

“I said you can’t kick me out!”

The hitchhiker lunges at the drifter, pocketknife still in hand. The drifter jumps and reaches for the hitchhiker’s wrist to stop the impending blow. The drifter’s eyes cloud over with pain as the stainless-steel point penetrates his abdomen.

***

The hitchhiker looks over his shoulder at the rusty-old Buick as he steps into the telephone booth. He picks up the phone and dials the number.

The operator comes on the line instantly. “Please insert one dime for ten minutes. Thank you.”

The hitchhiker puts a dime into the machine. He hopes the call won’t take long. The dial tone hurts his already throbbing head. There’s a click on the other end of the line.

“Hello?” A man’s sleepy voice pours through the phone.

“Hey, man. I’ve got a problem, I really screwed up—” The hitchhiker trails off, unsure.

His companion on the other end of the phone grows more alert. “What’s eating you?”

“I killed someone man. I mean I think it’s okay, not a big deal, but—”

The other end of the line is silent.

“This guy gave me a ride, started giving me some trouble. He was about to kick me out on the side of the highway. I just couldn’t take it, you know? So, I let him have it.”

The phone cuts out and beeps. The hitchhiker inserts another nickel into the machine before the operator can interject.

“I see. Where are you now?”

“I don’t know, exactly. I’ll be back in L.A. tomorrow.”

“Why don’t you disappear for a little while?”

“Just call and tell my manager I’ll be there tomorrow evening.”

“How do you know they ain’t gonna be looking for you?”

“He was a loner. Nobody will miss him for a long time. I was out on the desert when I ditched him. I don’t think anyone will find out.”

“You better hope not, son. They’ll send you to the big house for this one.”

“How’s Ma?”

“Same as yesterday.”

“I’ll come up with the money soon.”

“Don’t fret none about her. Don’t you go stirring up no mor—”

There is silence on the other end of the phone. The silence begs for another deposit. The hitchhiker sighs and rubs his temples. The payphone beeps loudly, and the operator’s monotone voice pours through the earpiece. “Please deposit one nickel for five more minutes. You have thirty seconds before I must disconnect the call.”

The hitchhiker has run out of time, and his pockets are empty. He can only hope that there’s enough gas to get him off of Highway 50.