Ride to the Rat Holeby Richard Diedrichs
Ride to the Rat Hole
It was the closest I had come to having my clothes torn off. I stood by the side of the road, outside Mesquite, Nevada, feet planted, head down, with my thumb cocked. A semi wooshed by, headed west: Las Vegas, Lake Mead, Boulder City, Los Angeles. I don’t know if the driver blinked his eyes as he barreled by, but I closed mine, to the gritty desert sand that he laced in my face. He could well have thought twice about picking up me and my friend, Earl, standing against the Highway 15 sign, in our stiff, stinky t-shirts and shorts, sporting two weeks’ growth of sun-bleached beard and hideous mounds of matted hair. Coming out of Zion the day before, Earl and I waited eight hours for a ride. Too many cars and trucks came out of Mesquite to worry about that.
A black 1955 Chevy, with blue and white license plates, approached. I could see two figures in front. I knew from fifty yards that they would stop. After fourteen days on the road and forty-three rides, I had the sense. I looked at Earl, who stared back at me with a scowl. We hadn’t said much to each other since our car’s engine exploded on the Yellowhead Highway in Jasper National Park, up in Alberta, Canada. Earl seemed to think it was my fault that we had to junk his car, load up our backpacks, and hitchhike back home to L.A. I allegedly had checked the oil level last, and failed to notice that it was below the line. I copped to his theory, although I didn’t really remember. I had known Earl since seventh grade. He was a friend, but I watched my back with him. A week before, he glanced a sucker punch off my jaw in a dark restaurant parking lot in Butte, Montana.
“What the hell,” I yelled after he cold-cocked me. “We’re even,” he said.
He strode out of the shadows, walking slow enough for me to catch up. All of it was on the road behind us. We were where we were, and another chance to get closer to home was coming our way.
I stepped on the shoulder of the road, my crusty Vasque boot on the white line, and shook my thumb at the Chevy’s windshield. I locked eyes with a young blonde woman in the passenger window, as the car passed. A few yards down, brakes lights lit, and they slid off in a cloud of dust. “Knew it. Let’s go,” I called to Earl. “Got a ride.”
I grabbed my pack and ran toward the car. Earl ran beside me, then past. He sprinted toward the driver’s side. I veered to the other side, as the driver opened his door and stepped out of the car. I arrived at the trunk at the same moment as the driver. Earl joined us with his backpack. “Where you guys headed?” the driver said, looking at me with squinty brown eyes. His thinning dark hair clashed with his thick reddish beard. An open jeans vest laid out his pale concave hairless chest. Stripes of black grease marked the front of his levis. His belt loop was connected to his back pocket by a silver large-link chain. His motorcycle boots were polished black.
“L.A.,” I said.
“Well, well. Hop in.” The guy’s smile showed small yellow teeth, with crooked canines.
I watched his face, and his narrow, slightly crossed dark eyes, and then thought about declining the ride. He watched me, pressing his lips into a sneer and drumming his fingertips on the roof of the car, his long face swaying slightly. It was one of those feelings, following my inner compass, but Earl already lifted his pack into the trunk of the Chevy. I figured he wasn’t any more interested than I was in spending more of the day in the moonscape desert. I threw my pack in, and followed Earl around to the passenger side door. The driver got in on his side, and pulled the passenger’s seat forward, as the woman leaned toward the dash board. “One of you will have to sit in the back and one in front here, next to Labelle. We’re getting crowded,” he said.
I reached in my pocket and lifted out a quarter. I slipped it between my fingers and let it drop on the ground. “Damn!” I bent over to pick it up, as Earl stepped around me, and crawled in the back seat. He shoved aside cloth bags, paper sacks and cardboard boxes to make space. He pulled the seat back toward him, and I slid in next to Labelle. I took in the smell. Leather, wet animal and floral perfume. A tiny orange tabby kitten lay between Labelle’s bare legs. The driver swung back on to the highway, accelerating, dust billowing and tires screeching.
“Nice ride you got here,” I called, over the roar of the pipes.
“Restored it myself,” the driver said. “Less than twenty thousand miles on the new motor.”
“It’s a classic. Love this leather tuck and roll upholstery,” Earl added from the back.
“Yeah, thanks. Not bad for a twenty-year-old buggy.” He leaned forward and opened the wind wing window. “So, where you girls from? I see you have all the fancy gear. The JanSport and the North Face and the Abercrappie. You guys rich?”
“Tryg,” Labelle whispered.
“I’m just playing around, Sweetie,” Tryg said.
“We’re from L.A.,” Earl shouted, leaning forward over the back of the seat.
“No shit. Hear that, Labelle, they’re going to L.A.” Tryg threw back his head and laughed. A small tarnished silver cross earring dangled from his earlobe.
Labelle glanced at me with silver blue eyes. “That’s where we’re going,” she said, in a soft voice. Above her cut-off jeans, she wore a royal blue bathing suit top. Her chest and the tops of her legs, where the kitten lay, were pink with sunburn.
“Labelle’s got a cousin in Hollywood. North Hollywood. Know where that’s at?” Tryg said, in a flat, nasal East Coast accent.
“Those are two different places, but yes.”
“It’s not that far from where we are,” I said.
“Good place for a fresh start. Right, Baby?” Tryg slapped Labelle’s left thigh.
“Trygve, my sunburn,” she squealed.
I looked down at Tryg’s hand print on Labelle’s upper leg. I imagined placing mine on top of it, just to see whose was bigger. I shifted my weight on the hot leather seat, and my leg pressed against hers. She glanced at me with her flashing eyes. The kitten didn’t move. Labelle raised her hand, brushed it through her short blonde hair, and shook her head. She stroked the kitten’s small haunches.
"What kind of name is Trig-Vuh?" Earl said.
"It's Norwegian," Tryg said, looking at Earl in his rearview mirror. "You got a problem with it?"
"What? No. I didn't say that. I'm just curious."
"What's your name?" Tryg said.
"Earl. And that's Ferris."
Earl kept quiet.
“Ferris? Wasn’t there a movie with that name?”
I thought I'd keep out of it. I didn't say anything.
“What a pair. Squirrel and Ferris Wheel from La La Land.”
“Tryg, enough,” Labelle said.
“Okay, okay. I'm just having a little fun. I thought that's why we picked them up.”
No one talked for a few minutes. Cliffs of sand rose along both sides of the highway. We passed the semi that blew by me in Mesquite. I thought about putting my arm out the window to flag down the driver. Make a quick switch, on the side of the road.
“You guys can show us all around L.A.” Tryg said. “Help us get orientated.”
I looked at Earl over my shoulder. He cinched his lips and blinked his eyes for a long moment.
“Problem?” Tryg said.
I looked at him, looking at Earl in the mirror.
“No, it’s just that we’re not going straight home. We’re going to Vegas, first,” I said. “That’s as far as we need to go. Sorry.”
Tryg drove on in silence. Highway Fifteen ran in a straight shot in front of us. Nothing but cars, trucks, scrub desert and low hills, with hazy gray mountains towering at the horizon.
“I see you have Massachusetts license plates. You from there?” I said.
“You been back East?” Tryg said.
“I’ve been to Boston.”
“Labelle’s Boston born and bred. Aren’t you, Baby?”
“Norwood, Mass.,” Labelle said.
Tryg pulled in his wind wing window. “I’ve been living a little farther out in Walpole, past few years.”
“Isn’t there a state prison in Walpole?” Earl said. “I think that’s where the Boston Strangler was murdered, like just a few months ago.”
“Yeah. Heard something about that,” Tryg said.
The kitten lifted and dropped its head. I looked down at it and at Labelle’s bare legs, which were covered with freckles and small moles. Her thigh rested against mine. I felt the perspiration build between our legs. She stroked the crown of the cat’s head with her fingers.
“Is it okay?” I said.
"I think she has some kind of heat stroke,” Labelle said. “We found her in a park in Mesquite, just before we picked you guys up. She was lying flat, like this, on a bench. I’m trying to keep her cool and hydrated.”
Labelle leaned forward, reached down to the floor, between my legs, and pulled up a water bottle that was rolling around at my feet. Her breast brushed my knee. She poured water