The Brick: 7. WWJD
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A hitchhiker wearing a soaked sleeping bag like a cape, mumbling about people he'd died with on the road from St. Louis. . . Topher pouring me the life of John Steinbeck in frenetic shots. . . a Chinese restaurant in every town we pass through.
Topher names the owners as we go by. He knows them all.
"When he was our age, brah. He got drunk and hung a date out the hayloft door by her ankles. Three stories up. She about got him thrown in jail."
Rain. I'm tempted by soft valleys of sleep.
Gray threads of rain streaming into the windshield, the pause before some Science Fiction leap into a hyperspace that smears the mottled sky. Mile markers shred the clouds and wobbling raindrops on the windshield become white stars. We've completed the leap.
"Tom Joad was a real dude. We're all Oakies, brah."
He brays laughter.
Asleep at the wheel. I blink. Shake my head.
Applause sparkles from the stereo and Pavement is playing the Smashing Pumpkin's "1979" live somewhere. Topher's precious bootleg CD held like a grail by his fingertips.
Word-volleys -- Brah! Dude! -- as he lays bare for me the song's significance: the marriage of the Northwest and Northern California, approximated anthem made meaningful by Malkmus' Stockton smirk.
Married three times. Steinbeck's fuckup pursuit of the real.
People keep running across the road. I keep running them over.
I dream that I'm asleep.
Oncoming headlights like pulsing neurons. Tires scraping clean the veins of America. Arizona Highway 93, somewhere north of Phoenix two lanes wide.
I brake and the X5 hydroplanes in a rain-made lake blacking out the road. We're facing the siderail.
I'm drunk on fatigue. I overcompensate with Speedracer steering. The nose of the SUV jerks back into the lane. The wheels grip and squeal on the wet asphalt.
"What?" I demand as we sit halted. The sound of rain on the roof fills pauses in the music.
"A hitchhiker back there. We gotta pick him up."
He opens his door and disappears in the rain. Red and white lights make tracers on the highway. I rub my eyes.
"I just left the ER," the hitchhiker is saying. "They wanted to check me. There's nothing wrong with me."
He smiles suddenly. "I convinced them."
At some point we cross Hoover Dam, so much smaller than I expected. Art Deco Ayn Rand architecture reflecting in the black water. We crawl across the rim at 15 miles an hour. Weave through mountains until Las Vegas spreads out on either side of the rolling highway. Emerald City. The lights reflect in Topher's brown eyes.
"It's like a black box," the hitchhiker says slowly.
"Be careful with that," I tell him. He turns the brick in his hands. He holds it up to an ear.
"It's recording us. I can hear it."
"Steinbeck was our great moral arbiter, brah," Topher says.
"It likes you," the hitchhiker says.
We're sitting in a casino, bathed in light. We're drowning in neon. Electricity and lust. A woman with twelve inches of cleavage puts a drink in my hand. The ice cubes glow like lightbulbs.
The valet whistled low at the X5.
The hitchhiker's eyes are incandescent. He yanks a slot machine's arm and watches the wheels roll. Quarters pour in his lap.
He looks up at me. "It told me what to do," he says.
We sleep in the home of Jim and Rhonda Chu, owners of the Las Vegas Beijing Garden. Remove our shoes at the door.
Tiny Rhonda hugs me like a son.
James Stegall keeps on trucking