What Am I, and What Are They?—Clark Humphrey
It’s tomorrow. Just barely, but tomorrow still.
And already, things are getting better for me. Just barely, but better still.
My first solid food in more than 12 hours is in my right hand. It’s a large hot beef burrito, straight from the convenience-store microwave. Before I eat it, I let its warmth touch both sides of both my hands and the lower half of my face. My new Fred Meyer jacket isn’t keeping all of the wee-hours January coldness away from me.
Above me, I can see a lot of stars that I normally don’t get to see in the heart of suburbia. But they’re shining clearly down on this lonely rural highway.
Below me, the rest of my very late dinner sits waiting in a white paper bag on this little moat of sidewalk in front of the store. A bag of Flaming Cheetos, a bottled Frappucino, a Slim Jim jerky stick, and a lidded cup of coffee with non dairy creamer.
My mother would kill me if she saw me consuming all of this. Hell, she’d kill me if she knew any of what I’ve done yesterday and the night before, and what I very well might do today—even though I don’t know what that will be.
My mother’s always repeating whatever she hears from the TV doctors and reads on the parenting blogs. Every item in this “meal,” and probably every ingredient in every item in it, falls well within any of those sources’ lists of things to never feed to a growing boy ever.
But it tastes so good right now, as I bite into it. The white tortilla wrap. The melted cheese product just inside the wrap, just outside the main filling of textured, seasoned beef with who-knows-what-else as filler. It’s filling. It’s satisfying. It even smells welcoming.
Can something this supposedly disgusting also be so delicious, so just-what-I-needed-right-now?
In front of me is the girl who came with me in the car, from the alley behind the bus station a couple of towns back. I swear I’ve heard her voice before, maybe from somebody who used to be in my youth group at the church. But she doesn’t look like any girl I knew or ever would have known. She’s talking with a woman, one of the two people who were in the car when they picked me up in the alley.
It’s the same car I’d driven down in, carrying who-knows-what in the trunk across state lines. As far as I know, it could have been anything from drugs to a dead body.
The girl and the woman are talking almost too fast for me to make out al of what they’re saying. But I “fine tune” my hearing in my head, and then I can hear them, though not necessarily understand them.
The girl apparently used to be involved in some sort of work with the woman, who’s inviting her back into whatever it is. The woman asks if the girl remembers how much money she’d made, how much fun she’d had.
The woman’s asking the girl to remember when she was buying the best clothes and the best weed, working just a few hours a day, with the woman to keep her safe. The woman asks if the girl remembered that she’d even gotten to go to that big outdoor music festival.
The girl turns away from the woman, then back toward her. The girl looks to the woman’s side, then at her. The girl says she’d loved having all that money to spend, sure, but she now wishes she’d have saved some of it. The girl then says that yes, her time working for the woman was fun, and profitable, and exciting, and taught her a lot about herself. But she wants a different “life” than “the life.”
About 20 feet away from me, the man who’s been driving the car is opening the trunk now, just in front of the gas pumps. I lean forward to try to get a look. All I can see in there now is some clear plastic tarp and one small, old-fashioned satchel bag. The driver, whose name I haven’t learned yet, is taking the bag out and closing the trunk.
Now he’s trying to grab the nozzle from the gas pump. But he can’t. It’s locked somehow. The clerk from the store runs out. Now the driver and the clerk are arguing. “What do you mean there’s no pumping your own gas in this state?” This means the driver’s probably a Washingtonian, like me. And like me, he’s stuck down here in Nowhere, Oregon on some fool’s errand or another. And unlike me, he probably at least knows why he’s here.
But why is the driver acting so belligerent with this clerk (a guy who can’t be that much older than me; probably just old enough to legally sell beer)? Over some silly state law that this clerk’s not allowed to break, no matter how loudly the clerk gets yelled at? What’s the point? There isn’t any. So why’s the driver yelling? Is he on something? If he is, or even if he isn’t, do I dare get back into the car with him? And if I don’t, then what do I do?
His voice, while he’s arguing, sounds a little like the voice from inside the country house where that other man, the one I’d originally turned the car over to, went in. Come to think of it, I could only hear that voice because they were arguing so loudly.
This man had been quiet during the 15 minute drive from the alley to wherever this is. I was too tired to keep my eyes open to see any road signs.
Now that I’ve got a little food in me (though my mother would call it something other than “food”), I feel a little more awake. The coffee and the Frappucino will surely help this a little more.
As my brain gets back into gear, at least a little, I try to remember how I got into this situation in the first place.
I’d turned her down at first. No, even before “at first.” I’d said I had things to do and couldn’t join her for coffee. Then I’d said I didn’t want to hear her sad tales of woe about some dear friend of hers who needed a simple act of Christian charity. Then I’d said I didn’t want to go to her house. Then I’d said I didn’t want to dance with her to the music of that techno-pop diva on Spotify.
I’d told her how my former pastor listed “dancing” pretty high up on his list of things all good Christian “teens” were supposed to never do. Right along with drinking, smoking, “necking,” disobeying the church, disobeying your parents, wearing pants (for girls), and a lot of other things.
Then she (the particular “she” who got me into all this) said the former pastor’s idea of a good Christian sounded like he’d have thought a coma patient would be the greatest saint there ever was.
She said being a good Christian, or a good person in general, wasn’t about what you didn’t do. It was about what you DID do. It was about helping people, caring about people, making a difference in this world.
She said I was using the idea of “good” as an excuse to be passive, to stay in my own “comfort zone,” to avoid doing anything that a truly good person dares to do.
My brain isn’t quite back up to speed yet, so I can’t quite remember how that train of logic led to me being in her arms, then being in her bed, then being in her car, then being here now. But, somehow, it did.
The man at the car, meanwhile, is still arguing with the clerk about a state law here that the clerk can’t do anything about, and also about a few other things that didn’t even happen at this store, just somewhere in this state.
The woman from the car sees me staring at the man. She says there are reasons she stays with him; reasons a nice Mormon boy wouldn’t understand. I don’t bother to tell her that I’m not Mormon, I’m Calvary Fellowship.
The girl, still standing to one side of the woman, says nothing, but looks as though she seems to know what at least some of those reasons the woman stays with the man are. As I’ve been doing all night so far, I don’t ask.
The store clerk finally finishes pumping the gas, re-locking the pump, and taking cash from the man in wadded-up bills.
Before the man can get into the car, the woman runs up and gets into the driver’s seat. I get in the back, with the girl. The woman promises to help me get home. But we pull off back in the direction we’d come from.