Taking way too long, going over all this old stuff. Not even important old stuff.
You end up making something out of this, you can cut out the useless garbage. Fix it up to make it like a real thing. Or trash it. I don’t care. I just need to get it out. So it’s part of the record. The Akashic record. No, that sounds silly. Like something cosmic Wesley would say. Petra would make fun of. Though I still feel telling it makes it more real and even if you do trash it, you know, it goes on somehow.
But at this rate I’ll never finish in time. Kind of a big deadline coming up. Deadline, ha.
Back to Toronto. Speeding up now. Next image:
Backpack hanging from Gus’s shoulders, map sticking out of hip pocket over the waist of his army surplus jacket. Me staring at his back as we walked. Shifting the weight on my own back. The big duffle bag that used to hold my hockey equipment. The cord already burning my shoulder and not even outa Toronto yet.
Shoulda got a proper pack like Gus. He’d insisted on taking a couple days to get ready, to trade in his old garbage for the jacket, backpack and a warm sleeping bag. I spent a few bucks on stuff too: sleeping bag, good hiking boots.
Walking along, turning to face traffic with our thumbs out. Cars didn’t even slow down.
Gus asking, “Are we doing this right?”
I said, “They won’t pick us up in the city. Better when we reach the highway.”
“Hope I didn’t shave for nothing.”
His wimpy beard was gone. I noticed for the first time he had an older person’s jaw line, soft, not a double chin or nothing, but it might be some day. I guess girls would think he was cute. In an old kinda way.
Anyhow, we were both cleaned up. Though we drew the line at cutting our hair.
We came to a gas station and Gus said, “Gotta try something else.” He went up to the drivers of cars that were filling up. They musta all said no cause he came back real fast.
I said I had to use the can and carried my bag to the washroom at the back of the station.
The back of the building had graffiti on it, like some slogans across the back, but inside the junky little washroom the walls were just covered with messages in ink and marker. I sat there reading them. I got the idea a lot of freaks and kids like me had come through here, along with the usual dirty old men. The usual swearing and penis jokes and stuff about women who were sluts — but that was old garbage. I picked up on a lot of new stuff, funny and heavy stuff made me think of that song about words of wisdom written on subway walls.
And there down in one corner of the little room on the wall, there were the words i’m free. In small letters, not like caps for most of the graffiti. Just a little scrawl with space around it like no one else wanted to crowd it.
And I got an idea and pulled the notebook out of my bag.
I never told you about the notebook, but that was from my mom. The night before we took off I was up about three in the morning, the usual time when I’m having trouble sleeping. And I was wandering the house and and I was draped across the living room furniture when she came to me in her pyjamas.
I’d already been through days of fighting with my parents over me leaving, the tears and the threats and the anger. You don’t have to know all that. Except she was the one most upset.
“You can’t sleep too,” she said that night in the dark house. “Are you so confident you know what you’re doing, Mark?”
“I’m not arguing it all over again, Mom.”
“I just worry for you, Mark.” When I didn’t answer anything else she said, “I was going to give you this in the morning before you leave but I might as well do it now.”
She handed me a black-covered notebook with a pen built into it. Like business people have.
“Take this and everyday as you’re going where you’re going or doing what you’re doing, you can write it down, or what you’re thinking or what you’re feeling. Like a diary of your adventure.”
That was Mom. The big reader in our family, trying to get me to read books when I was little and it worked some. I did read some, but not like her. And now she was after me to write stuff.
“The pages come out, so if you want to pull them out when you’ve filled each one, you can mail them to me if you like. I tucked some stamps in the back there. I’d be so … I’d love to read what you’re up to. Know you’re all right. Do you think I’m being crazy, Mark? Like a crazy mother?”
Which I kinda did. Why would I do what she was saying? She didn’t get it, the whole thing. I said, “I dunno, Mom.”
“Just take it, Mark, and you might find it helps. And it will help me.”
So in the morning I threw it in my bag just to make my nutty Mom happier about something for a change. I wasn’t gonna write a diary for her or mail her pages or anything.
But now I got an idea to use the notebook for something else. Just for fun.
I wrote at the top of the first page Gas station, north Toronto, underlined it and below it printed i’m free and then some of the other cool and weird and funny things caught my attention on the wall.
Outside Gus was still trying to get people at the pumps to give us a ride, still without any luck. We gave up and were going back to the road when a car that just got gas pulled up beside us and a young guy, like us, at the wheel waved us inside.
We jumped in and Gus shouted over music, “How far you going?”
“Four-oh-one, then east to Pickering. You?”
The kid laughed when we said we were going out west. “Shoulda guessed.”
He left us by the west ramp.
We dropped our bags on the gravel shoulder and looked down on the highway.
The cars were going too fast to stop for hitchhikers. So Gus studied his map and it turned out we could stay on the road we were on and it’d take us all the way north, like to Sudbury, where we could turn left around the Great Lakes.
A few minutes later we caught a ride from a car coming off the highway. This time we were dropped in a town that was supposedly outside of Toronto. We walked through it. The highway narrowed and became the town’s main drag. Stores spruced up with fake wood and those brand-new antique signs you see. I began to imagine our whole trip like this, one long corridor of Toronto suburbs, or whatever you called these towns, stretching right across Canada. After a few blocks the road became a residential street with big shady homes on both sides and then it turned back into the highway. And then we were finally looking out over empty farmland.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” I said.
Most cars stopped or turned off before reaching the north end of this town. At a garage near the city limits some of them filled up with gas and turned back into town. Any that did come our way didn’t seem interested in us.
Gus said, “While it’s still light we should look for somewhere to hole up.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. “It’s only six o’clock.”
Tell the truth, I didn’t see us holing up anywhere any time. I just figured we’d go till we got out west, sleeping in cars if we could.
The sky was turning purple. Gus said, “We won’t catch rides now.”
“We shoulda left earlier. We’re hardly outa Toronto.”
“Them’s the breaks.”
“How come we have to stop for night? We’re on our own now. Whatever we want.”
But when the street lights flickered on in the town we were still standing by the road waiting. Around us the sky and fields melded into black blobs. A chill was creeping up my legs. We edged back towards town to stand under the last street light, so drivers could see us.
We wandered back and forth along the road or threw stones against a speed limit sign on the other side. Headlights would shoot our way and we’d jump back into position with our thumbs out. Usually the lights would swing away before the car reached us. If they kept coming, we’d freeze these friendly expressions on our faces.
After a while we didn’t bother jumping into place so quick. We took turns holding out thumbs, so one of us could keep both hands warm in his pockets. We pulled some pathetic expressions, so drivers would feel sorry for us. When the few cars that came along still didn’t pick us up, we tried sarcastic looks, almost daring them. We swore at their red lights disappearing into the dark. Finally we lost the energy for putting up any front. We waited for rejection like panhandlers I’d seen in downtown Toronto.
Gus sat on his bag and let half another hour pass without getting up. Then he announced, “Well, that’s it.”
“Nothing we can do but bed down for the night. Try our luck in the morning.”
“In this cold?”
“That’s why we got sleeping bags that are good for forty below.”
“Why don’t we walk a bit?” I said. “Maybe there’s a better spot farther along.”
“There ain’t nothing. No one wants to pick up two guys this time of night.”
“But we haven’t gone anywhere yet.”
“Anyways. The morning will be better.”
“I didn’t set out just to go a few miles and go to sleep,” I told him. “We took so long before taking off and now we’re supposed to stop before we even get anywhere? I don’t care if it’s not the most sensible thing to do, we’re getting away from all that. We can do what we wanna now.”
Gus took a breath to speak, then seemed to change his mind.
A large truck came towards us out of the town, changing gears as it approached the open highway. It blasted us with its horn as it passed, like making fun of us.
“Asshole,” I shouted at it.
“Look, Mark, I don’t wanna fight with you all the way. All I’m suggesting, we get some shut-eye while it’s too damn cold and too damn dark to hitch.” He hefted his pack.
“You just don’t see,” I said.
“I’m gonna sack out in that field over there. You wanna carry on, I don’t think it’s a good idea but suit yourself, guy.” He walked out from the street light towards the dark fields.
I threw the duffle bag across my shoulders and marched forward on the highway. My toes were frozen from standing still so long. They cracked with each step till they heated up from walking.
Fifteen minutes later, the road curved. When I looked back, the lights from town were completely cut off. I began to see more in the dark by the light of stars. First just trees outlined in a huddle against the sky. Then individual trees and fence posts. A shed of some kind, maybe a barn, a few hundred feet from the road.
Damn Gus. I should go back right then and find him and have it out with him. Whatever it was. We were like best friends and next minute we were from different planets. Wasn’t my fault this time though. Let him stew over it. He stewed over things. He never even told me what got him fired at Cruikshanks. Just stewed over it.
But all that was past. He was in the past. In the dark back there.
I had a moment of feeling guilty cause we were supposed to be sharing the two hundred and fifty dollars I had left. He had no money and he’d agreed to hitch with me cause I said I’d share it with him. Hey, not my fault he didn’t stick with me.
I kept walking and tried to make out more objects around me.
Maybe I shoulda left him a few bucks.
Light glanced off the trees ahead, coming from headlights turning the bend behind me. The first vehicle since I’d started walking. I turned with my arm out and a pickup truck bounced by.
I started forward again before I realized the truck was braking. It reversed until it was even with me. Two shadows in the cab.
All the stories about hitchhikers coming to bad ends, stories my parents told…. Would Gus hear a shout from here?
The window rolled down and a grey head stuck out. “No room up front, lad, but you can hop in the back if you don’t mind fresh air. There’s a tarp you can pull around yourself.”
“How far you going?”
“Long way. Sudbury. Just past Sudbury.”
“I’ll go all the way.”
“Right, lad. Then you’ll need the beer in the back there too. Keep you warm.”
I looked back down the road in case Gus was coming with me after all. But past the red glow from the pickup’s rear lights the road was totally dark and still.
I heaved my bag into the back and climbed in. Tools and boxes filled most of it but I made space behind the cab. Through the window I signalled thumbs up and the truck took off.
Towards Sudbury. Hundreds of miles in the right direction.
The case of beer was right beside me. I opened a bottle against a metal railing, pulled the tarp over my legs, sat back against the cab and raised the beer in a toast. “Good luck, man,” I said to Gus. Gus who was stuck in the dark back there.
Sudbury. All right.
[From the notebook:]
Gas station, north Toronto
Under my clothes I’m stark naked
On the road again
Drop acid not bombs
Are you experienced?
Beam me up!
God loves all his children but I’m his favourite
Michael, wait for me in Winnipeg
All you need is love and daddy's MasterCard
Down with the fashion state
Buddy can you spare a dime bag
Buddy can you spare a dime bag?
Goo goo gajoob