On the way home from picking up my brother at the airport, I stopped for a hitchhiker. I’d never picked up a hitchhiker before. I think I did it because my brother was with me, Julian. It was the kind of thing Julian would do.
We were in the no-man’s land between Atlanta sprawl and the outskirts of Athens, miles from any exit—an odd place to be hitchhiking. The guy didn’t look like a hitchhiker. He was clean cut and he wasn’t carrying a bag. As he walked toward our car, I noticed something funny about his hair, like he’d plastered it down with gel. It wasn’t until Julian opened the door that I saw he was soaking wet. This was weird because it hadn’t rained today.
“What happened to you?” Julian asked.
“Do either of you have a cell phone?” He wasn’t up for any nonsense.
“Sorry,” I said. “I guess we’re the only two people left who don’t have cell phones.”
“Could you give me a ride?” the man said.
“Of course.” I leaned over and shoved Julian’s bags out of the way to clear a spot for him in the back seat. It’s a habit of mine, trying to appease people who don’t want to be appeased. I wish I could say this is because I’m a selfless person, but the truth is it just makes me anxious to be around unhappy people. I always end up feeling like it’s my fault.
I merged back onto the highway. “Just to the next exit?”
“Wherever there’s a phone.”
“What happened to your phone?” Julian asked over his shoulder.
The hitchhiker flipped open his phone and held it between Julian and me. The face was dark. You could see where water had worked its way behind the screen. “Out of order,” he said.
“So what happened?” Julian asked.
“Why is this your concern?”
“You’re giving off dark energy,” Julian said.
“He’s from California,” I said, forcing a laugh. No one else laughed.
“You really want to know?” the hitchhiker asked.
“Absolutely,” Julian said.
The hitchhiker leaned forward. “No,” he said. “I don’t think you do.”
The temperature in the car seemed to rise a few degrees. I had this flash of him drowning somebody in a river. Probably, though, he just got in a fight with his girlfriend and she pushed him in the pool or whatever.
“There’s a BP at the next exit,” I said. “Although, I don’t know, last time I looked for a payphone I had to go about four places. Ever since cell phones—”
“You can leave me at the BP,” the hitchhiker said.
I took the exit and pulled up to the BP. Our passenger got out before the car stopped moving.
“Good luck,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, giving me a look. “You, too.”
As soon as he’d closed the door, Julian said, “People are so hostile here. How do you stand it?”
“Why did you have to start shit with him?”
“Me?” Julian said. “He was the one that—Hey, Waffle House! I haven’t been to Waffle House in forever.”
“Only if you can be real quick.”
I’d agreed to pick him up from the airport on the condition that we go straight back to Athens. I wanted to get home in time for a party where I hoped this girl was going to be, though it was nothing definite and I already had the feeling it wouldn’t work out, that I was destined to be alone for an even longer period of time.
I drove across the street to the Waffle House. We found seats at the far end of the counter. The place was pretty empty—just us and two waitresses and a grim-looking man with a mustache sitting by the register.
One of the waitresses walked over. “What can I get y’all tonight?”
She had a droopy face, like someone took hold of her cheeks and pulled down. It made her look sad.
“I could go for some waffles,” Julian said.
“One order of waffles?”
“How many come in an order?” Julian asked.
“Okay,” Julian said. “One order.”
She gave Julian a sarcastic smile.
“What bout you, hon?”
“Just a coffee,” I said. It felt good to be called hon. I smiled at her in a way that I hoped she would take as genuine.
As she walked off, I saw she was limping. She wore a pink flip-flop on her right foot. Her pinkie toe stuck out at a forty-five degree angle and there was a purple bruise that made the whole side of her foot look like it had been stained with ink.
Julian called after her: “What happened to your foot?”
“Her boyfriend stomped on it,” said the other waitress.
“Not my boyfriend,” the broken-toe waitress said. “Not’ny more.”
“Damn straight,” the other waitress said. She had this weird thing on her right cheek that looked like a tiny extra mouth. I think it was a mole, or a series of moles. “What does he think, you’re one of those things you wipe your feet on?”
“A welcome mat?” I said.
“Hey,” Julian said. “This isn’t the place where they saw the UFO, is it?”
The extra-mouth waitress’s eyes lit up. “Sure is.”
“I thought it was around here somewhere,” Julian said.
“I saw it,” extra-mouth said. “With my own two eyes. New Year’s Eve. It looked kinda like an airplane, except it didn’t have no wings. It hovered over thata way.” She pointed in the direction of the bathrooms. “Then it took off all of a sudden. Almost like it disappeared.” She put her elbows on the counter and stared off in the direction where the UFO had vanished. “Just, there one second, then... pshoow.” She made a poofing gesture with her hand. “Things hadn’t been the same around her since.”
The man by the register spoke up: “With all the news people around.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about, George.”
“Well, what are you talking about?” George said.
Our waitress brought our coffees.
“I don’t know,” said extra-mouth. “It feels like, like when you’re practicing a play but nobody’s watching.”
“A dress rehearsal?” I said.
“Kinda like that.”
“Two thousand,” Julian said. “If you think about it....” He traced a two in the air, followed by three zeroes. “Two thousand is made up mostly of holes. Empty space.”
“It’s just an arbitrary number,” I offered.
I’d known nothing would come of Y2K and all that end-of-the-millennium shit. Even still, when 2000 arrived without a hitch, I admit I was disappointed.
“Just don’t seem like 2000,” our waitress said, setting the plate of waffles in front of Julian. “Not like I thought it would be.”
“Like time stopped, almost,” extra-mouth said.
“All I’m saying is I still have fifty gallons of water and a month’s worth of canned food in my basement,” said our waitress.
“If time stopped,” said Julian, “would we still need to eat?”
“Come to think of it,” extra-mouth said, “I ain’t been hungry in a while. I’ve eaten. But I ain’t been hungry.”
“Just going through the motions,” our waitress said.
“What happens if we stop?” Julian said.
George made a hmpf sound.
“Do what?” extra-mouth said.
“Honey,” our waitress said. “This is one ride you can’t get off. Not unless....” She made a gun with her finger and pointed it at her head. “Pow.”
“Don’t do that, it’s bad luck,” said extra-mouth.
“Bad luck?” our waitress said. “Who needs bad luck? They say every five minutes there’s a new disease.”
“Who says that? Kenny?”
“Are you gonna eat your waffle?” I asked Julian.
He looked at his plate like he’d forgotten it was there. “Help yourself.”
I ate a bite of waffle. It was hard to swallow. Just thinking about that girl I was supposed to meet, my stomach tied itself in knots. Why is it that when you really want something, you always end up ruining it?
“Did I tell you Kenny’s taking karate now?” our waitress said.
“That what he used on your foot?”
“His teacher’s from Japan. Pronounces it kah-dah-tay.”
“Hey Julian,” I said. “Eat up.”
Julian slid the plate over to me. “The smell is kind of making me nauseous,” he said.
I forced down a few more bites of the waffle, then went to the register to pay. While our waitress was ringing me up, I saw a green minivan pull up to the BP. Our hitchhiker got in, and the van drove away.
When we got back in the car, I noticed a sour, chemical smell. I associated the smell with the hitchhiker, although I don’t remember noticing it before.
“That’s where they saw it, right over that hill.” Julian pointed in the direction the waitress had pointed earlier. There was a low hill with some kind of structure on top, a radio or cell phone tower.
“What was all that about?” I said.
“Oh, just the end of the world. And karate.”
“You think she’ll go back to Kenny?”
“Man, probably. Girls always go for guys who treat them like shit.”
“Why is that?” I said.
“Every woman adores a fascist.”
“What’s that from?”
“I think I saw it on a bathroom wall.”
I got back on the highway and headed for Athens. Every woman adores a fascist? I don’t know, I’m starting to think it isn’t so much what guys like Kenny have as it is something guys like me lack. A kind of instinct for getting what you want.
We got to the party at eleven thirty. There were cops everywhere. People up and down the block were getting in their cars and driving away.
“Busted,” Julian said.
I was a little bit relieved, actually.
I drove slowly past the house. Two cops were talking to some guy in the front yard.
“Hey look.” Julian grabbed something out of the back seat. “Dude left his phone.” He opened the phone. The face lit up. “1 missed call,” it said.
“Should we try to get it back to him?”
“Great idea,” Julian said. He rolled his window down and chucked the phone across the street. It bounced off the grass and came to rest at the base of a tree.
Then I saw the girl I was supposed to meet. She was walking alone, her back to me, holding herself like it was cold out. But it wasn’t cold.
As I drove past her, I turned around. She didn’t see me. Her eyes were on the ground.
“Was that her?” Julian asked.
“She’s cute. Why didn’t you stop?”
“I don’t know.”
At the end of the block, there was a stop sign. I put the car in park.
“Are you going back?” Julian asked.
“Maybe.” I watched for the girl in my rear-view mirror, remembering how I’d stopped for the hitchhiker, how easy it was, how I didn’t think twice.
A car pulled up behind me.
“Do something,” Julian said.
“Do you think I should go back?”
“Do you wana go back?”
I thought about how nice it would be to just go home and have a beer and not to have to worry about anything.
“I guess not,” I said.
“But I want to see her.” I kept my eye in the rear-view, watching for her huddled figure. “I’m just... afraid, or something.”
The car behind me beeped its horn. It was time to move.
“Afraid?” Julian said. “Then you’re already fucked.”
“I know,” I said. “I know I am.”