meet a man on the road out of Kansas City. The man says his name is Cert, like the breath mints, only singular. Cert says he is a correspondent for a news magazine and that he is en route to Minnesota to produce an exposé about a village wherein teenagers are disappearing at an alarming rate. There are rumors of occultism, underground heroin colonies, sex slavery, alien abduction, rabid wolves and various other scenarios involving malfeasance. But I’ll bet they’re just hauling ass out of that godforsaken tundra, Cert says, and laughs vigorously at his own statement, a behavior my older brother Leonard used to exhibit when he would label me cumweed or pencil dick and subsequently karate chop me in the adam’s apple and/or place me in a wrestling hold that involved stretching my legs apart in such a fashion that caused severe groin discomfort and possibly even contributed to a hernia later in life.
After several moments Cert takes in my haggard appearance and says, Quiet for a hitchhiker. You gonna slice me up and eat my gall bladder? More hearty laughter follows.
I say, Hah, and explain that I am on my way to my mother in law’s home in Dubuque and since that particular municipality is out of his way, could he be so kind as to drop me in Des Moines?
Yikes, says Cert. In-laws in Iowa. Isn’t that another way to say Hell?
Cert chortles and I try to smile but the truth is I am in no condition to participate in such mirth. Recently I have experienced trying times and these times have sapped my strength and whatever good cheer I may have possessed beforehand. As a result I have taken to folding my hands in my lap and conjuring faceless agents and skeletal farm animals.
Cert pulls out a miniature tape recorder from a black bag between us and wags it at me and says, Payment for the ride, my dour friend, is your story. Little side project I’m calling Hitchhiker Tales. You wouldn’t believe the great shit I get out here. My publisher will eat it up. You cool with that?
I am not, in fact, cool with that, but I do not want to jeopardize guaranteed transportation to Iowa so I agree to tell Cert my story.
It all started, I say, in a straw hut in Danang. My father was a grunt with movie star looks who had been shelled into a bloody hysteria and found himself wandering the rice paddies. My mother, a French-Vietnamese teenager who had lost her parents two weeks prior, took him in and nursed him back to health. They fell in love and fled to Argentina where I spent the first four years of my life on a coffee plantation. (This account is not altogether accurate. My father was a short, balding dental supplies salesman who avoided the war due to an irregular heartbeat and was prone to calling my mother a whore and belt-whipping her vigorously on the thighs and calves. My mother was a platinum-haired waitress from Scranton who would shake household cleansing powder on my father’s lasagna and call it parmesan.)
In middle school I was diagnosed a child prodigy and sent to a secret government school in Colorado Springs where I subsequently discovered the mathematical equations used to determine quarterback ratings and federal subsidies for farmers above the forty fifth parallel. (In reality, I attended Allen Street Intermediate and received a D+ in algebra.)
The autumn I won the national swimming championship in the hundred meter butterfly, my parents perished in an airplane crash after the left wing snapped off over Schenectady. An only child, I received a lump sum settlement from the airline totaling one-point-four million dollars and promptly donated the windfall to charity except for sixty thousand dollars for my post secondary education and twelve dollars for new swimming goggles. (Not quite. I believe I am an excellent butterflyer, although my high school was too small to have a swim team. My father is still drawing breath and selling pyramid schemes in Tucson where he lives with an obese woman named Della. My sadistic brother Leonard is serving fifteen to life in a Midwestern correctional facility. My mother remarried three more times and, if you believe the bitter postcards from my father, is whoring again on the streets of Scranton.)
My collegiate years brought a cliff diving accident in Acapulco that left a titanium plate in my skull and a penchant for pickled meats and the exhaustive study of existentialism. (I am fearful of both heights and ocean water. I am unclear on the meaning of existentialism.)
After my first wife was abducted by a pack of gang members I joined the police force and went on to clear more violent felony cases in one three-year period—
Cert switches off the tape recorder and says, Fucking cops. I did a story on that fella they call the Home Movie Killer? The one who videotaped his handiwork? From Texas? Anyway, the pigs couldn’t find him. He had them stumped, the brilliant bastard. Stumped! Cert laughs forcefully and I look down and notice his knuckles are white around the tape recorder and his arms are quivering, and I begin to think that maybe Cert is wound rather tightly, but then he turns the tape recorder back on and says, Sorry, man, your show.
Sure, I say. So. Yeah. Anyway, I am clearing felony cases at a record rate and I get put in charge of the K-9 unit but the department is short of money so we have to use mixed breeds from the pound—
Fuckin’ dogs, says Cert, switching off the tape recorder again. Did this story in New Mexico, the dogs basically took over the town. Roaming the streets in packs, attacking anything that moved, bleeding from the eyes. From the eyes!
Cert’s own eyes are bulging and a line of spittle is hanging his bottom lip. I say, Which magazine do you work for again? And he says, Freelance, mostly. And I say, But where can I read one of your stories? And he says, How about Militia Today or Fresh and Pink, you can find those bad boys in the children’s section, and Cert proceeds to laugh so hard he works up a glob of phlegm and spits it out the window, and as he does so I notice what appears to be a tiny red devil’s head and horns tattooed on the spot where his neck comes out of his shirt collar.
We pass a sign for a rest area one mile ahead and I say, I really must urinate if you could be so kind. Cert falls silent at my request. He taps a finger on his thigh. He exposes his teeth and sucks air through the gaps, quite loudly and with significant emphasis. I keep my hand on the door handle and simultaneously wonder how much damage can be done to the human body from jumping from a vehicle at eighty miles per hour.
Cert says, C’mon man, another fifty miles, we’re making good time, and I say, I am sorry, but doctors had to remove forty six percent of my bladder after the cliff diving incident and now I must urinate every half hour or risk infection.
Cert pulls out a hand-held video recorder from the black bag between us and says, Got some nasty shit to show you, my brother, and I force myself to nod excitedly and say, Can’t wait, but first let me take a leak. Just two minutes, my brother, and we’re back on the highway.
Cert exhales as if irritated and guides the vehicle into the rest area and I experience a significant amount of relief. I exit the vehicle at a rapid pace and head for the restrooms in hopes of locating a rear egress. Cert catches up to me, however, and places a powerful hand around the back of my neck. He says, The things I will show you. I try to break free but am unsuccessful due to the potency of Cert’s grip. I drop to the sidewalk and feign a heart attack and/or a diabetic seizure in front of an elderly couple with I Love Wisconsin buttons affixed to their pastel windbreakers. At this point I render myself completely limp and the elderly woman says, Oh my, and the elderly man says, Call nine-one-one, and I watch with a slit eye as Cert hesitates a moment and then shoots me a wink before making his way back to his vehicle amid the commotion.
A man breaks free from the gathering crowd and crouches over my supine figure. He says, I’m a medic, and proceeds to pinch my nostrils together and blow into my mouth with breath that smells of cod and mayonnaise. I retch a bit and attempt to pass this off as a dramatic coming-to. Several members of the crowd groan as if they are disappointed with my survival and subsequently continue on to their vehicles. As I gather myself the man sits on the cement walk adjacent to me and says, It’s that godforsaken reality TV that’s got everyone pinin’ for death, and I nod even though I have never personally witnessed a reality program in which a participant perishes.
The man stands and holds out his hand and says, I’m the Reverend Jed Buldeen, Temple on the Lake, Missouri Chapter. I shake his hand and remember to thank him for providing mouth to mouth resuscitation in such an expedient manner, and he says, Darn, son, I ain’t saved nobody since Korea, and consequently laughs and slaps me on the upper back.
The Reverend Buldeen turns toward the row of parked vehicles and inquires about my destination. I tell him I am on my way to my mother in law’s home in Dubuque, Iowa, but that my car broke down forcing me to hitchhike. The Reverend Buldeen says, I’m only goin’ up the road a piece, but you’re welcome to ride along. He slaps me on the back again and says, Always room in God’s chariot.
God’s chariot turns out to be a rusty Ford pickup with a black cross hanging from the rearview and a photograph of either Jesus Christ or Charles Manson taped to the dash. The Reverend Buldeen engages the manual transmission and proceeds down the interstate at approximately fifty-two miles per hour, humming an unidentifiable hymn. After several miles of troubled thought I ask him if he has ever heard of the Home Movie Killer and he makes a tsk tsk tsk sound and says, Troubled soul, that one. Butchered eight or nine young women and still roamin’ the countryside. Why you ask, son?
Up ahead I spot two cars stopped alongside the road. A man appears to be leaning into the window of the first vehicle as if he knows the occupant.
No matter, says the Reverend Buldeen. I have somethin’ more important to discuss. He places his hand on my shoulder, gently, but I am too absorbed with the roadside scene to provide him my undivided attention. There is something oddly familiar about the man, or the car, or both.
Son, says the Reverend Buldeen, has the Lord Jesus come into your heart?
Without looking at the good reverend I respond that He may have stopped in for a brief spell in middle school. On the roadside the man seems to be jostling a bit with the occupant of the vehicle.
This is no jokin’ manner, says the Reverend Buldeen. Son, are you aware the Devil is walkin’ the earth as we speak? Out there spreadin’ his evil?
We pass the cars and Cert turns, grinning, with what could be a fistful of hair. I open my mouth and sit paralyzed in God’s chariot for several moments. Then I turn to the Reverend Buldeen and say, I have seen him, Reverend. And he is near.