1. Cab driver in Austin, Texas
He’s still on the phone when he picks you up at the airport, coughing and sniffling into a white handkerchief. You sit silently in the back of his rust-speckled van. Your seat is covered in a faded quilt. You can feel that it’s damp. He puts his hand over the receiver and tells you that he has allergies; it’s not the flu. He drops you in front of a seedy motel off the highway. It’s 11 o’ clock at night.
2. The Avis rental salesman
He welcomes you, comments on the sunny morning, and points to your rental in the parking lot behind him. The keys are on the counter. You hand him your debit card. Three hesitant swipes later he tells you that there is “something” in your credit. You won’t be able to rent a car today. He won’t take cash.
3. The man with the truck
Eric is selling his late father’s 1996 Ford F150 on craigslist. It has a cattle-pusher and a headache rack. There are 128,000 miles on the odometer. He drives the hour from San Antonio to meet you and leaves 45 minutes later in his girlfriend’s Pontiac.
4. The mechanic
You take the truck to a shop a couple blocks away. The mechanic is a toe-headed cartoon of a character with long, thinning hair. He slaps you on the back and says that you made a good choice. He loves F150s. Those girls won’t die.
5. The 24-hour waiter
The truck’s at the shop, so you sit down at a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year diner. The Star Seeds Cafe. You order huevos rancheros and your waiter tells you to linger as long as you like, he doesn’t feel like waiting tables today.
6. The elderly lady in the restroom
You’re washing your face in a rural gas station bathroom five hours later. The walls are plastered in Marilyn Monroe paint-by-numbers. An elderly lady shuffles out of the stall. She’s wearing white linen gaucho pants and those boxy side-windowed sunglasses. She greets you as if you just showed up on her doorstep. With an “Oh, Hello! It sure is a beautiful day to travel, isn’t it?”
“It really is,” you say.
7. The Bengal tiger at the gas station
You stop on the Louisiana line to fill up. There’s a cage out by the road. There are signs staked in the ground that read, “Save Tony! Tell Legislators that he belongs here!” You walk over and find 500-pound Tony sleeping on top of a box. A trucker in a John Deere hat stands next to you and yells “hey!” three times. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” before shaking his head and giving up. Tony lies there in the afternoon sun with his eyes open.
8. The gutter punk in the French Quarter
He looks like a rejected Mad Max extra with tribal tattoos inked on his forehead. He’s squatting on the sidewalk and sipping on a bottle of Magic Hat #9. There’s a tin cup on his belt loop and a purebred Great Dane by his feet. A tortured Urban Outfitters model pouts beside him. First he asks you for a dollar. No. Second he wants your sandwich. No. Third he wants to sell some weed. No thank you. Fourth he wants to fight. “Look at me, I’m poor!” he yells at you.
Are you really? You think.
9. The guy writing the novel
You walk into Molly’s and have a vodka on the rocks. It’s standing room only on a Friday night. There’s a man in the back writing in a black moleskin journal. He tells you he’s writing a novel. Without prompt he launches into a discourse on metaphysical selfhood, pausing only to reflect on what he just said. He tells you he’s also a carpenter. His hands on the table are as lily-white clean as the cotton v-neck he’s wearing. You leave feeling exhausted.
10. The neighborhood kid
There’s a 10-year-old kid that comes and sits down next to you in your friend’s garage. He tells you five yo-mama jokes in a row. You haven’t heard any of them. His gestures are as huge and confident as a businessman on the weekend. Each joke is dirtier than the last. Before he leaves he gives you a list of his favorite YouTube videos.
11. The Mississippi State Trooper
He pulls you over to give you a friendly warning. Don’t drive too close to the 18-wheelers, he says. You give him your Maine license and a Texas title. He doesn’t understand what you’re doing in Mississippi.
Eric who sold you the truck is Eric Garcia. The trooper doesn’t like that last name. He wants to know how many times you’ve crossed US-Mexican borders. He wants to know what drugs you have in the truck.
An hour later he finds nothing and you get the fuck out of Mississippi.
12. The kid at the Nashville dive
You walk into Bobby’s Idol Hour around noon on a Saturday. There’s a group of men chain smoking and playing guitar in the corner. He can’t be much older than you. He says that he wrote this next song while he was homeless in Philadelphia. It’s about Columbine. You blink back tears and finish your Corona.
You go to the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. You want to see all the motorcycles. Bernie is a little elderly man with two hearing aids. He leads you around the museum, holding your hand and patting it as he happily tells you the back-story of every vintage bike. You impulsively buy a $50 raffle ticket to win two custom-built Harleys.
14. Mike from the Asheville open-mic
He’s a longhaired, white-haired, smiley-faced North Carolina man. He plays a steel-bodied guitar with a slide and he sings about his buck-toothed Clementine. You see him loading into an old beater black van that you keep seeing around town. He yells, “I’m driving this thing all the way to Belfast, Maine!” He’s never been to Maine, he says. “Oh, you’ve gotta go,” you say.
The next morning you get up, happy to head that same way.