When you’re college age and don’t have wheels but want to get around, pretty much the only way to do it is to stick out your thumb and catch a ride.
I had a friend in college named Brad who used to go all over the Northeast that way during breaks, despite the risk. Brad was from California, so when spring and fall break rolled around, he’d hitch a ride to see friends going to school in Cambridge or upstate New York, or once even in Toronto.
The trip that put a stop to it was the trip he took to Baltimore his junior year. Funny part is, I don’t think he even knew anyone there. He just wanted to go see it because he could. Even when he didn’t have friends he was going to visit, Brad had an uncanny knack for meeting people and finding places to stay on the cheap, that would have made the rest of us anxious.
He left campus around four o’clock with his backpack in tow, and walked along William Penn Highway and other roads that kept parallel with Route 22 until he finally got a lift that was headed his way, about an hour or two later. The ride picked up the interchange before 78, and took him down I-476, past Swarthmore, before dropping him off at Ridley Park, Pa.
Brad hadn’t been able to get a ride on Route 22 until around six o’clock, he said; and by the time they dropped him off at Ridley Park it was easily 8:30. He thought about getting a room somewhere, but that’s not a cheap option, and usually if you find a truck stop, you can find someone who’s willing to give you a ride just so they have someone to talk to as they drive through the night and into the early morning.
The truck stop was open, but there weren’t many people in it, and none of the drivers was interested in giving a lift to him. Baltimore was too close, and a stop there just wasn’t in the cards.
Brad was starting to wonder if he was going to be stuck in Ridley park overnight, when he noticed someone watching him.
He cut a colorful figure. He was short, dressed in black tails and wearing a high hat like he was going to a formal ball. There was the core of an apple he had been eating on his table, and he sat there puffing a cigar. When he noticed Brad looking, he grinned widely, raised his right hand and crooked his finger at Brad to call him over.
“Looking for a ride to Baltimore?” he asked, as he shuffled a deck of cards on the table in front of him. “I can give you a ride.”
Brad told us that the man seemed little off to him, the way people sometimes do, but he also seemed friendly and Brad hated the idea of being stranded overnight or having to use a large chunk of his money on a hotel, so he agreed.
“Excellent!” the driver said. “Want to play a game of cads before we go?” He spread out the deck across the table. The cards were vulgar and pornographic. Brad made a face and the man full-out laughed at him. “Frightened by a woman’s boobies?” he said, and laughed again. That was the least graphic part of the cards.
Brad was having second thoughts, but the driver grabbed his hand and practically dragged him out of the truck stop and toward the parking lot where his car was parked. It was a sedan as black as the man’s coat tails, with tinted windows. He opened the trunk and threw Brad’s pack in before opening the front door and shoving Brad in just as unceremoniously.
The seats of the car were covered with leather, and every surface on the inside of the car was spotless, but the air was smoky and it smelled like used bedsheets. Brad was starting to second-guess his decision to take this ride when the driver got in the car and gave his top hat to Brad, to hold in his lap; and then they were gone.
“Papa, who’s with you in the front seat?” came a voice from the back seat, and Brad suddenly realized that there were two other passengers in the car. A pair of women were lounging in the back seat, either drunk or high, in their late 20s.
“He’s a friend of mine I am taking to Baltimore,” the driver said, and the car tore down the road so fast that Brad instinctively grabbed the arm of the door for support and pushed his right foot against the floor of the car in front of him. The driver noticed and laughed again, his bright white teeth showing in the darkness. “There’s no brake over there,” he said. “Don’t worry, you’ll be there in no time!”
Worrying was something Brad couldn’t help but do. The road in front of him held his eyes captive, and he stared unblinking and open-mouthed as they would zip up to the rear of one car after another and then weave into the other lane to pass them at a dizzying speed. He stole a glance at the speedometer and saw that it was already past 80.
“Can you — can you slow down?” he finally managed.
“What’s that?” his driver asked, and he pressed the accelerator further to the floor. “I couldn’t hear you.”
There was a flash of red and blue behind them, and the driver laughed again. Brad was beginning to hate that sound.
“Hey look, my friend,” the driver said, “boss police wants to chase me. Do you think he can catch me?” And impossibly, the car sped up again, and the police car disappeared behind them.
The driver was laughing again. If a demon in hell laughed at the souls in its clutches, it would laugh like that. The laughter, the heady smell, and the dizzying speed were a terrible concoction, and Brad felt himself getting sick.
The driver noticed.
“Hey girls,” he said. “Papa’s little friend isn’t feeling well. Think you can make him feel better?”
Hands reached out from behind the car seat and started to touch Brad on the arms, on his chest and the sides of his head, while soft voices whispered to him to relax. At one point, he told us, somebody actually passed him a cup with a fruity drink in it that he later realized was rum. He wondered if it was drugged, because at some point he became convinced that he was dead. He had died back at the truck stop, and the rider was taking him into the afterlife. The driver had taken Brad out of his body, put him in a small clay jar and was lowering the jar into a dark pool of water that had gathered in a crypt from the rains that had fallen on the cemetery.
“Just stay here for a year, my friend, and we’ll be back,” he said. His voice echoed off the walls of the stone mausoleum where he had tossed Brad’s bones with a jumble of others. There was a heavy grating noise as the lid was being closed, and then Brad had enough.
“For the love of Christ!” he shouted. “This isn’t funny. Stop it. Let me out!”
The driver turned and glared at him, smiles all gone. He pulled over to the side of the interstate, opened the back of the car to get Brad’s pack, and threw him out right there. They were on I-95, with signs for the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine coming up.
As Brad watched, the driver got back into his car, pulled back out onto the road and drove off. In a moment, the car had vanished.
The highway patrol found him sitting there on the side of the highway about 20 minutes later, out of his mind and violently ill, still holding the top hat. They took him to the University of Maryland Medical Center, where they treated him for shock, although toxicology couldn’t find anything wrong with him.
There was one doctor, he said, who took an interest in his story, a doctor whose accent made it sound like she might be from Martinique or one of the other islands in the Caribbean. She had him tell the story again and again, and after he had told it to her to her satisfaction, she crossed herself and told him he had been lucky.
When they discharged him on Sunday, this doctor was supposed to be the one to sign him out, but then she saw the top hat among his personal things, and left the room immediately. She wouldn’t come back in, and somebody else had to sign him out instead.
To the best of my knowledge, Brad never hitchhiked again.
Copyright © 2018 by David Learn. Used with permission.