At one time I had two Ford Mustangs, a 1972 which was nothing special and a 1966 convertible, which was the best car I have ever owned. I lost them both on the same day Betsy and I were packing to move out of our apartment in Bolton Hill. The former was repossessed because I was behind in payments. The convertible was towed for an accumulation of unpaid parking citations, which was ironic because I did not personally accrue any of those tickets. There was also a bench warrant out for my arrest because of that which was rescinded because, when I went to the Baltimore impound lot to bail my car out, the city had “lost” it. For the first time since I was fifteen I was without a car.
Some friends helped us out with a place to store our belongings and a temporary place to live. We had a little money, but not enough at that time for a deposit and lease on another apartment. I was still doing a few handyman odd jobs around Bolton Hill, which was difficult without transportation. Times were tough, but it could have been worse. It was summer, which meant if I could solve the car problem I could work, and we could afford another apartment before long.
A friend recommended us to a woman who was going moving to take a job in New York while going through a divorce. She needed a house sitter until her house could be sold and she didn’t have time to interview a lot of applicants. Part of the job involved keeping her ex-husband-to-be out of the house and letting the realtor and prospective buyers into the house. We were to occupy it until it was sold; there was no telling how long that would take. We chatted for an hour or so and she said we would do just fine. We arranged to move in before she moved out and helped her pack her personal belongings into her station wagon. Movers would later take from the house what she would need in New York. On the second day she left.
It was a very attractive ranch house, nearly new, on about an acre of land, half wooded, half lawn. It was located in Ruxton, a moneyed though relatively unpretentious looking northern suburb, not too far outside the city limits. It was immaculate and very tastefully furnished. We made best use of its chef’s kitchen out of Williams Sonoma and giant screen TV screen out of heaven. We watched at least one movie every night. There was also a hi fi and a voluminous library of records. The bookshelves were full of tantalizing books and best sellers. We hoped the house would never sell.
It was easy enough to get in and out of town. The walk to I-83 was less than half a mile and, although it was illegal to hitchhike on the interstate I did all right with my thumb up on the southbound Ruxton Road ramp. I’d get off at North Avenue and I was right there in Bolton Hill where my work was. Coming back was much the same, fairly simple, fairly easy, a round trip of less than fifteen miles.
There was some food, but mostly dry staples and canned goods. She had let her stock of frozen go way down and probably thrown away most of her fresh food. I would have to do some serious shopping soon. There was an outdoor produce market right at the Ruxton Road Bridge so vegetables and fruit were not a problem. In the other direction there was a mini-mall when Ruxton Road dead ended at Bellona Avenue; it was also an easy walk to the convenience store there for milk and bread and desserts.
It was meat that we would be needing. We were used to getting that at the butcher shop at Maryland Line, up at the Pennsylvania border. In this situation, that still seemed to be the most direct source since I would have to hitchhike. The problem was that Ruxton Road has no northbound ramp onto I-83 so I would run some risk with the County Mounties thumbing a ride on the interstate shoulder, which is very much against the law. Going would be the problem; coming back all I would have to do is scramble up a steep bank or walk back up the southbound ramp.
On a very, very hot day in July, Betsy kissed me goodbye and I set off on my manly mission to provide meat for us, my backpack on my back. It was orange, easier for the state troopers to see from miles away. I walked to the turnpike, through some bushes and slid down the hill. No cops in sight, but I was immediately nervous; I am a chickenshit about breaking the law and its possible consequences. I would take any northbound ride and not hold out for a single hitch all the way. I got semi-lucky within ten minutes. A man picked me up and drove me to Hereford. We chatted and I told him my mission; he shopped also at the same butcher shop and said he was sorry that he wasn’t going there today. There, Mt. Carmel Road has both a northbound and a southbound ramp which meant I could hold my thumb out with relative impunity off the interstate. It took me half an hour to catch a ride all the way, after turning down two shorter rides. This man was driving to York; he dropped me off on the shoulder directly opposite the butcher shop. I climbed up the bank to Freeland Road, walked across the overpass to York Road, then took a right. A short walk later and I was there.
The place was cool and uncrowded. I was sweaty from the walk even though my last ride had air-conditioning. I shopped from a list to make sure I didn’t forget anything, but also improvisationally. Things tend to be clearer to the eye- and stomach- than they are to the memory. For instance, I got some pickled watermelon rind and some strawberry rhubarb jam, not meat, I grant you, but very tasty with meat. I also got lamb and pork chops, hamburger, some steaks that were on special, a small ham, a beef heart, kidneys for steak and kidney pie, a rump roast and a few other things. What is it Miss Piggy says, “Don’t eat more than you can carry.”? Or in this case, don’t buy more than you can fit in your backpack. It took some doing, but I finally got it right with the help of a very obliging butcher.
I got so comfortable in the shop that I forgot how hot it was outside. Very. And I had a problem. I was on York Road which ran parallel alongside I-83. The Freeland Road ramps were to and from the north, with no southbound ramps. I could either clamber down to the shoulder here with a very heavy backpack full of meat and risk an encounter with the law under not the best of circumstances, or walk a country mile to the York Road southbound ramp toward Baltimore. Considering my paranoia, that seemed the most sensible. Considering the heat, it seemed the most brave. I chose the latter wilting all the way. I tried to get a ride, but there were no takers. I’ve learned not to hitchhike women, and the few men on this road today were passing me by so far.
By the time I got to the ramp, I felt like I was melting in the blistering heat, under the awkward weight of the back pack. There was no shade; the road ahead looked like it had mirages. I have a lot of experience hitchhiking; I have learned you can drive yourself crazy counting the cars that pass you by or looking at your watch every two or three minutes; the best thing you can do is be calm and mindless. Seventeen cars drove past me in three quarters of an hour before an old man in an old Chevy pick pulled over on the shoulder to give me a lift. With difficulty I threw my backpack on the floor between us and climbed in on the verge of, I felt like, a heat stroke. He was very kind and spoke softly. On the seat between us was a cooler. He opened it and offered me an ice cold beer.
“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“Welcome. Where you going?”
“Baltimore. Ruxton Road.”
“Going right by there. Into the city.”
“You live there? In Ruxton?”
“Just temporarily. Housesitting for a friend.”
“Rich folks live there. In Ruxton.”
“Yeah. I’m not one of them.”
“Ready for another one?”, he asked as he opened another beer for himself.
“Please.” I had chugged mine almost in one gulp.
“Just throw the dead soldier on the floor.” He handed me another one. There was quite a massacre down there.
When I looked down I got quite a start. My back pack had started to bleed onto the floor, enough so that it was dripping what could not possibly be anything else but blood. How could I explain this? Hoping he hadn’t seen it I nonetheless knew he had. His downward glance of an instant told me that. But he was cool. He didn’t give a sign, didn’t say a word, didn’t give me a cockeyed glance. “How about them Orioles. They’re sure on a streak right now.”
“They sure are.” I didn’t know anything about baseball, but he seemed to. He was a devout Orioles fan and once he got talking about them he didn’t stop. All I had to do from time was add a little punctuation and an exclamation here and there and he kept both sides of the conversation going.
I was preoccupied with the blood flowing out of my back pack. It was a goddamned reverse IV by now in the heat. There was a puddle of blood on the floor amid the beer cans. He had to be aware of it, but he gave no sign, none whatever. Surely he must have wondered whether I was a serial killer with a dismembered body in there, but just placidly rambled on and on about the Orioles as we fraternally drank beer after beer. This went on for twenty miles or so. With the heat I got a little woozy, not drunk, just mellow, good mellow. He was, from all signs, just sober, a sober man refreshing himself on what was perhaps a record hot day, just going about his business, minding his own business.
If he had asked me, is that blood dripping out of your backpack? I would have answered, not what blood?, but yes, that is blood dripping out of my backpack and told him how that came to be. In retrospect, it would not have been all that difficult to tell that rational tale.
The curious thing is not the blood, but the fact that he completely ignored it right up to the time he pulled over on the shoulder at Ruxton Road. He gave me a friendly goodbye and a beer for the road as I got out of his pickup, careful not to bleed on the seat cover. As he pulled away he gave me a friendly wave of the hand through his rear window.
Even more curious would be how, if he got pulled over by a cop, he would explain a front floor with all those beer cans on it and a big puddle of blood all over it.
®Copyright 2014 Jack Scott. All rights reserved.