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To share a ride from San Diego to Boston

Like being trapped in a B movie. Not only was the plot ridiculous but the dialogue was bad.

Then, the bombshell: Would we mind if her mother, Babs, came too?
Then, the bombshell: Would we mind if her mother, Babs, came too?

It certainly sounded innocuous enough. Just one of many requests for riders on the bulletin board at UCSD’s student center. There was no indication that the person who placed this ad was a ghoul or mass murderer; just another transplant trying to get back East for the summer. And there was always the possibility that a beautiful girl had drawn up this 3x5 card. Maybe a girl with friends — the type of girls who would develop uncontrollable sexual urges somewhere between Albuquerque and Amarillo.

Back in the van, Steve and Henry began to question Rosie. Had she any intention of going south? “Why, yes,” she confessed, “hadn’t you known?” She had decided to go south after the phone call she had made in Las Cruces.

A woman who identified herself as Rosie answered the phone when I called. “Yes, I still have a place,” she told me. “Would you like it?” Her voice sounded almost too eager, nearly desperate. Surely there was no shortage of people willing to pay a little money to get back East. I decided to ask her a few questions. How many people would be going? What was the schedule, the route? What kind of car? What kind of price? To these I received vague but not altogether discouraging answers. I did want to get to Boston or vicinity, even though the one thing she wasn’t vague about, the 75-dollar price, sounded a trifle high. But I had been told to expect to be overcharged. It was considerably cheaper than the airfare, and I really didn’t have the time to investigate the market thoroughly. Anyway, flying is impersonal. Suddenly, you’re at your destination; there’s no transition. Hell, I told her, I’d go.

At the appointed day and time I arrived at an address somewhere in the maze of Mira Mesa. In a driveway identical to every other driveway sat the blue VW bus belonging to Rosie. Standing beside it was one of my two companion riders, a tall, thin, ascetic-looking individual who introduced himself as Steve. He told me in an irritated sort of way that Rosie would be out soon. We stood silently together, he staring balefully, I curiously, at the van which we thought would soon be transporting us to Boston.

Shortly, Rosie made her appearance. She was accompanied by a suntanned twenty-two-year-old wearing a headband and short pants. His name was Henry. Behind Henry was an extremely decrepit old woman introduced to us as Granny Babs. Henry was to be the third rider. There were no young girls, voluptuous or otherwise. Rosie herself, a short, dark woman in her mid-40s, seemed quite dynamic and on top of things; she rattled off satisfactory answers to everyone’s questions. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but notice strains of skepticism in the voices of Henry and Steve. I soon found out why. We wouldn’t be going tonight as expected. “Maybe tomorrow,” said Rosie. We were asked if we would please come back then.

This was hard news for me because the friend I had persuaded to drop me off was now undoubtedly happily back in Encinitas. He would certainly be in no mood to return and get me again. Henry asked permission to camp in Rosie’s yard. Steve, who might have been heading north for the night, appeared far too mortified to question a possible ride to Encinitas. And Granny Babs, now virtually hidden behind the lemon tree she had been skulking around, didn’t seem to have any answers either. Remembering some friends who lived in nearby Scripps Ranch, I sighed with relief. I asked Rosie if I could use her phone, and shortly found myself accommodated.

That night I explained the situation to my friends. They seemed to think it was no big deal; the woman was probably reliable. One day off on a trip all the way cross country wasn’t bad. Anyway, I was welcome to stay until my ride to Boston left. Their offer was extremely fortunate because we weren’t to leave for two more nights. The van needed new tires, then an oil change and a lube, then a valve adjustment. So I remained in Scripps Ranch, which isn’t a ranch at all, but a meandering mass of condominiums and tract homes. During the hot night I spent on the living room floor, I was plagued by mosquitoes. These, I conjectured, came from the foul-smelling artificial pond which lurked nearby. Although this lake seemed to be widely regarded as a tremendous asset to homeowners, it really functioned as little more than a place neighborhood urchins could ambush flightless ducks.

When Rosie finally assured me late one afternoon that we would definitely be leaving that night, I was elated. I was not only anxious to get on the road, but also eager to escape the Scripps Ranch bloodsuckers. Although experience had taught me not to be overly trustful of Rosie, it appeared this time she meant business. Steve, Henry, and I stood at attention like Army recruits as she laid down the ground rules for the incipient expedition. As we had expected, there would be no food or rest stops. We had with us sufficient provisions, and we were to time our bathroom needs in concert with gasoline stops. Drivers would change every four hours, with the most recent driver given preferential treatment as to sleeping space in the back of the van.

Then, the bombshell: Would we mind if her mother, Babs, came too? Rosie apparently could not bear the thought of leaving her mother like this. What if the old woman were to die? Rosie would never see her again. On and on… None of us was overjoyed by this prospect. Space was limited enough in the van. The old woman wouldn’t be able to spell drivers, she was half-blind and hard of hearing, and for all we knew, would have to go to the bathroom every 15 minutes. Rosie continued her pleas, careful to accentuate the life-and-death ramifications. To refuse would have seemed callous, if not cruel, so we grudgingly assented, sacrificing a little comfort for the greater good. Rosie took the first turn behind the wheel, with Henry riding shotgun. Steve and I lay side by side in the back, with Granny Babs tucked into the top left-hand corner, resting more or less on her side. It was 11:00 p.m., very dark, and it seemed as if we were sneaking away. The first few shifts passed uneventfully. Steve and I spent the time getting acquainted. It turned out he had graduated from a school in New England the same year I did. He had majored in Classics and seemed to have a wide variety of interests. He needed to get to Boston soon as his mother would be going abroad. In the front seat, Rosie seemed intent on getting some conversation out of the uncommunicative Henry. She wasn’t having much luck. Granny Babs, the meanwhile, was alarming us with intermittent flatulence over which she apparently had little control. Otherwise, she was silent.

When dawn finally broke, somewhere in the southwestern corner of Arizonian desert, I was behind the wheel and Steve was in the passenger seat: everyone else was asleep in the back. Steve took advantage of this opportunity to voice his concern about Granny Babs. It was his opinion she would not survive the trip. The heat was bound to be insufferable all through the so-called sunbelt; in the van it would be ten to fifteen degrees warmer. The old woman’s health appeared to be fragile. After all, hadn’t Rosie openly questioned her longevity? I had visions of digging a grave by the roadside while Rosie wailed. Steve definitely felt Rosie had been criminally negligent in insisting the old woman come along; he didn’t trust her at all.

Steve took his turn at the wheel and I moved to the back, switching places with Rosie. Despite the fact it was early and the heat not too intense, Granny Babs was beginning to look bad. Her eyes seemed a little more glassy, her skin a shade or two more pale. Every now and then she would nibble a piece of cheese or bite out of one of the tomatoes she had strategically placed around her. I figured, though, that she would live, at least through the day.

Arizona became New Mexico and New Mexico Texas without a great deal of drama. But the reality of Texas was something else. Crossing it became a Sisyphean task. Whenever I felt the border close ahead, it proved to be yet another hundred miles. Then, another hundred. The endlessness of it was little relieved by scenery. This was definitely Nabokov’s Lolita nightmare of motels, billboards, and desolation. Straight, unbending highway punctuated occasionally by a gas station or passing truck. It was at a Coke machine in one of the ubiquitous Texan gas stations that Steve volunteered information about trouble afoot. Henry had told him that Rosie had implied our route might change. Henry was not the most reliable source of information, but Steve also remembered Rosie alluding to the same subject. Something about taking the southern route, through Arkansas, Tennessee, and Virginia rather than through Ohio, Indiana, and then New York as we had originally agreed upon. Henry soon joined us. He confirmed Steve’s story and then began to carry on about Rosie’s mother. He felt Rosie had meant from the outset to take the old woman along and had only told us at the last minute to prevent any of us from dropping out. He did not share our concern that Babs would expire, but objected to the overcrowding. In any case, both Steve and Henry felt that Rosie was devious, and, if for no other reason than general principle, the two of them wanted to go the northern route.

Back in the van, Steve and Henry began to question Rosie. Had she any intention of going south? “Why, yes,” she confessed, “hadn’t you known?” She had decided to go south after the phone call she had made in Las Cruces. It seemed that her daughter would be flying in to Washington, D.C., from Switzerland in two days. Perfect timing. The girl apparently was deaf and had been participating in the Swiss Deaf Olympics. Rosie had to see her.

Discarding any notion to ask Rosie how they hear the guns to start the races, I asked her instead how this would affect our time frame? “Well,” she explained, “we may have to spend a day in D.C., but we could sleep in the van.” Since neither Steve, Henry, nor I relished the idea of lying in an old VW bus during the heat of the day in sticky Washington, we complained in unison. What, after all, had our arrangement been? We had each paid her 75 dollars to go to Boston. Now we would be delayed a day in D.C., plus the additional time involved in the less direct, southern route. But according to Rosie’s thinking, this was not a matter open to debate. It was her car and her decision. Besides, from our point of view, it was difficult. Like the issue of the old woman, this, too, was a sensitive one. A deaf girl coming back from the Deaf Olympics, whatever they were. It would be subhuman of us to refuse.

That night Steve and I passed the time discussing etymology. His contention was that Greek provided more English language roots than Latin. I argued that most Greek derivations were technical and seldom-used words. The only way we could have solved the argument would have been to count up words in a dictionary. Had we possessed a dictionary we were about bored enough to do it. Once I took over the wheel I began to enjoy myself. From 2:00 a.m. until 6:00 a.m., with the exception of trucks and drunks, the roads were free for driving. Even though the van was not particularly maneuverable, a curvy road, like the particular one I was on in Arkansas, could be fun to drive. Trucks were my chief obstacle. Whenever I could, I’d pass one. Invariably the driver would flick his high beams at me. Whether this was a friendly or hostile gesture I could never really determine.

At the morning’s first gasoline/rest stop, Rosie had a hard time getting Granny Babs to the bathroom. The old woman looked weak and Rosie seemed concerned. As we watched the two stumble away, Rosie shot us an extremely suspicious look. It was almost as if she sensed the discontent building up in her three riders. While the women were in the bathroom, Steve pointed out that Little Rock would be our Waterloo. It would be there we could branch out and head north, or stay on our present course through the south. Once past Little Rock it would be too late to change, too impractical. Steve then offered us his solution. In Little Rock he would, with our cooperation, stage a mutiny. His plan was simple. He would be at the wheel when we reached Little Rock; at that point he would simply commandeer the van and head north. “Anyway,” he reasoned, “Rosie will probably be asleep in the back.” If she wakes up and objects, that’ll just be too bad. “Hasn’t she lied enough to us already?” Steve saw this as the only alternative. If we were a day or two late, he’d be liable to miss his mother in Boston, and he didn’t have enough money to fly there from Little Rock.

This plan struck a positive chord in Henry. However, he wanted more. He confessed that he had located Rosie’s cache of gasoline money and that he had already helped himself to five dollars of it. He intended to take more. “What the hell,” he muttered in his South Carolina accent, “she’s cheated me out of 75 bucks.” This behavior did not surprise me in Henry. He had struck me from the outset as an unprincipled thug. But as for Steve, was this the same Steve I had talked with the night before? Calm, introspective, almost pacifistic Steve? Rosie was by no means an angel. She had shown herself to be manipulative and conniving. And she probably should have refunded us some money to compensate for her mother coming along. But I didn’t think she deserved all this. I tried to reason with Henry and Steve, but they were implacable; there wasn’t much I could do.

As we approached Little Rock things looked good for the mutineers. Rosie and the rapidly deteriorating Granny Babs seemed to be safely asleep in the back. Henry, sort of half sitting up, looked around furtively. Steve was staying quiet, hoping to make it through town without arousing Rosie. Suddenly, without a hint of warning, Rosie’s head popped up in the front seat. “Down to a quarter-tank,” she said, looking at the fuel gauge. “Better pull over here in Little Rock.” We would have been at the crossroads in five more miles. She must have had a sixth sense.

Steve stayed at the wheel while I pumped the gas. Rosie’s hand appeared out the window with a ten-dollar bill for the attendant, right on time. I wondered if she ever counted the gas money and how she’d react if she did. The tank filled, I closed the door, and Steve started the engine. Again, but even more abruptly, Rosie popped into the front. This time, however, she reached all the way to the ignition, shut off the switch, and pulled out the key. “We are going to Washington!” she declared.

Numerous threats, recriminations, and denials followed. There had been too little motivation for any of it to make any sense to me. It was like being trapped in a B movie. Not only was the plot ridiculous but the dialogue was bad. I couldn’t figure out how Rosie divined Steve’s mutinous intentions. She was always one step ahead of us. Rosie stayed at the wheel for a long time after the hijack attempt. In the back, Granny Babs’s food was beginning to rot. The cheese, slimy and orangey in its plastic bag, looked particularly disgusting. This did not discourage the old woman, however. She continued to nibble both cheese and rotten tomatoes, apparently oblivious to their odor and appearance. Surprisingly, though, she was alive. At this point I could barely say the same thing of myself.

At the next stop, in Knoxville, Tennessee, Steve informed me of his new plan — sabotage! Rosie was in the restroom and Steve and I were talking just outside the van. Inside, Henry was in the process of rifling Rosie’s gas fund, directly in front of the semicomatose Granny Babs I tapped on the window and indicated to Henry that the old codger was watching him. He signified to me with a shrug that this made no difference to him, and began to stuff bills in his pockets. Steve elaborated on his sabotage plans. He confessed that he and Henry had already started to wreck the van. They had assured Rosie that they would see to maintenance, but they had intentionally not added any oil since noticing it was low in New Mexico. Steve speculated that the oil would by now be almost completely depleted. Rosie didn’t have enough sense to ask the gas station attendant to check it. I pointed out that this low oil condition might also cut our trip short, but he fervently believed all difficulties would miraculously occur as soon as we split up with her. But this wasn’t to be all. Steve had other plans. Deflated tires, fouled gasoline supply, damaged spark plug wires were some of his inchoate notions. “Do you have any suggestions?”

Rosie returned before I could reply. She was now beginning to look very strained. Her eyes were bloodshot, her face flushed, her body shaky. Henry, noticing Rosie’s approach, hurriedly returned the money to its hiding place. Steve chose this moment to announce to Rosie that he would abandon ship in Washington; he wasn’t about to sit around there an entire day and he thought he could scrape together the bus fare to Boston. This news upset Rosie far more than it should have. She insisted that Steve had promised to come all the way to Boston. She had to have his help in driving. Even one person’s defection would foul her up. Steve countered by pointing out that the stopover in Washington wasn’t in the contract, Deaf Olympics or not. And what about Granny Babs? Wasn’t that subterfuge? These complaints had a profound effect on Rosie. Up until this point she had been impervious to all criticism, but now tears began to form in her eyes. Steve relented.

When we got back to the van, Granny Babs began to babble and point at Henry. Her words, the first we had heard the entire trip, didn’t make much sense to me, but I thought they might to Rosie. Apparently not. She ignored the old woman, much to the relief of Henry.

Arguments began to crop up in the van. Henry’s vicious side was starting to show. He felt cheated. Seventy-five dollars was too much, considering everything. He was enduring the exhaustion of nonstop driving only to lose a couple of days with the stopover. Steve joined in. Rosie was able to hold her own. She, too, could be nasty, and snapped back at them. Things were so intense that even Granny Babs seemed to be listening. I was too tired to care.

All through the green hills of Virginia we played country-western music on the radio. There was nothing else available. Even in Texas there had been one or two alternatives to Hank Williams and Merle Haggard, but not here. I spent the time trying to figure out how to salvage the increasingly untenable situation I found myself in. At the next gas stop I suggested to Steve that we bail out. Even hitchhiking, we were unlikely to tie up with the kind of lunatics we were now in league with. Not that Steve was completely normal; I had my doubts about him. If I’d been free to choose anyone to go hitchhiking with, it probably would have been Granny Babs, but she seemed in no condition to make the trip. We decided we would separate at the next gas stop, wherever that might be. Steve suggested that to befuddle Rosie further we invite Henry to join us. The larcenous Henry luckily declined the offer. He had decided to break free in Washington and head straight for South Carolina. “What,” he asked us, “was there to do in Boston anyway?” This news gladdened Steve because Rosie would now be faced with no relief drivers for the Boston trip.

The last 200 miles of the journey in the van were guilt-ridden ones for me. Could I abandon these two women here in Virginia? Worse, could I leave them to Henry’s devices? Was he worse than a thief? Could he be a murderer? Or a gerontophile, if such a thing existed? Looking at Rosie in the front seat, I decided I was following the best course of action. She really looked as if she were about to break. This could lead to long, involved, and potentially embarrassing confrontations with local authorities. Yes, I thought to myself, looking at the glaucoma-scarred eyes of Granny Babs, I’ve got to get out of here.

In Winchester, Virginia, Steve and I hurriedly gathered our things. Neither of us had any food remaining, so that would be one less load to worry about. We were stopped at an Amoco station. Rosie was in the garage checking over the map with one of the mechanics. Henry sat stoically behind the wheel. Granny Babs was on her side, staring blankly at a tomato. For all I knew, at this point she was dead. Rosie returned to see Steve and I outside the van, our bags in hand. “You can’t do this to me!” she wailed.

“I’d like a 20-dollar refund,” said Steve. He was serious.

Rosie let loose a long and demonic laugh. She looked at Henry, who was still sitting behind the wheel. “You’ll stay?”

Henry nodded.

That seemed to satisfy her. She jumped in the van, slammed the door, gave Henry the go signal, and they were off. Not even another look.

Sitting in Winchester’s unprepossessing Jolly Burger, about a half hour later, I asked Steve if he felt we had done the right thing. “We’ll get to Washington before her,” he snarled.

“Why’s that?” I asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

“Well,” he explained, “before we left, I pulled out all the lighting wires from under the dash. Before that, I cut through half the fan belt. Anyway, she’ll be lucky to make it another hundred miles with no oil. I checked it at the station before Winchester.”

It took us a long time to get out of Winchester. The locals eyed us with considerable suspicion. Hitching proved impossible; in fact, I ended up leaving Steve on a street corner. I took a bus to Washington, then another to Boston, where it was nearly a hundred degrees even at 10:00 p.m. People were draped over their front steps, totally enervated, snarling at passersby.

As I write these final words, safely ensconced in the city of Fenway Park, I can’t help wondering about the fate of the van. Had Rosie been able to overcome all the mechanical sabotage and reunite with her Deaf Olympics daughter? Was there really such a daughter? Had Henry stolen all their money, or simply killed them both and tossed their bodies into a swamp? We’ll never know, but I’m certainly not sorry for having left when I did. And one thing is certain. When I decide to return to San Diego, I will take a train, bus, or plane, even if it does cost a little more — anything but go near a 3x5 card on a bulletin board.

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Then, the bombshell: Would we mind if her mother, Babs, came too?
Then, the bombshell: Would we mind if her mother, Babs, came too?

It certainly sounded innocuous enough. Just one of many requests for riders on the bulletin board at UCSD’s student center. There was no indication that the person who placed this ad was a ghoul or mass murderer; just another transplant trying to get back East for the summer. And there was always the possibility that a beautiful girl had drawn up this 3x5 card. Maybe a girl with friends — the type of girls who would develop uncontrollable sexual urges somewhere between Albuquerque and Amarillo.

Back in the van, Steve and Henry began to question Rosie. Had she any intention of going south? “Why, yes,” she confessed, “hadn’t you known?” She had decided to go south after the phone call she had made in Las Cruces.

A woman who identified herself as Rosie answered the phone when I called. “Yes, I still have a place,” she told me. “Would you like it?” Her voice sounded almost too eager, nearly desperate. Surely there was no shortage of people willing to pay a little money to get back East. I decided to ask her a few questions. How many people would be going? What was the schedule, the route? What kind of car? What kind of price? To these I received vague but not altogether discouraging answers. I did want to get to Boston or vicinity, even though the one thing she wasn’t vague about, the 75-dollar price, sounded a trifle high. But I had been told to expect to be overcharged. It was considerably cheaper than the airfare, and I really didn’t have the time to investigate the market thoroughly. Anyway, flying is impersonal. Suddenly, you’re at your destination; there’s no transition. Hell, I told her, I’d go.

At the appointed day and time I arrived at an address somewhere in the maze of Mira Mesa. In a driveway identical to every other driveway sat the blue VW bus belonging to Rosie. Standing beside it was one of my two companion riders, a tall, thin, ascetic-looking individual who introduced himself as Steve. He told me in an irritated sort of way that Rosie would be out soon. We stood silently together, he staring balefully, I curiously, at the van which we thought would soon be transporting us to Boston.

Shortly, Rosie made her appearance. She was accompanied by a suntanned twenty-two-year-old wearing a headband and short pants. His name was Henry. Behind Henry was an extremely decrepit old woman introduced to us as Granny Babs. Henry was to be the third rider. There were no young girls, voluptuous or otherwise. Rosie herself, a short, dark woman in her mid-40s, seemed quite dynamic and on top of things; she rattled off satisfactory answers to everyone’s questions. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but notice strains of skepticism in the voices of Henry and Steve. I soon found out why. We wouldn’t be going tonight as expected. “Maybe tomorrow,” said Rosie. We were asked if we would please come back then.

This was hard news for me because the friend I had persuaded to drop me off was now undoubtedly happily back in Encinitas. He would certainly be in no mood to return and get me again. Henry asked permission to camp in Rosie’s yard. Steve, who might have been heading north for the night, appeared far too mortified to question a possible ride to Encinitas. And Granny Babs, now virtually hidden behind the lemon tree she had been skulking around, didn’t seem to have any answers either. Remembering some friends who lived in nearby Scripps Ranch, I sighed with relief. I asked Rosie if I could use her phone, and shortly found myself accommodated.

That night I explained the situation to my friends. They seemed to think it was no big deal; the woman was probably reliable. One day off on a trip all the way cross country wasn’t bad. Anyway, I was welcome to stay until my ride to Boston left. Their offer was extremely fortunate because we weren’t to leave for two more nights. The van needed new tires, then an oil change and a lube, then a valve adjustment. So I remained in Scripps Ranch, which isn’t a ranch at all, but a meandering mass of condominiums and tract homes. During the hot night I spent on the living room floor, I was plagued by mosquitoes. These, I conjectured, came from the foul-smelling artificial pond which lurked nearby. Although this lake seemed to be widely regarded as a tremendous asset to homeowners, it really functioned as little more than a place neighborhood urchins could ambush flightless ducks.

When Rosie finally assured me late one afternoon that we would definitely be leaving that night, I was elated. I was not only anxious to get on the road, but also eager to escape the Scripps Ranch bloodsuckers. Although experience had taught me not to be overly trustful of Rosie, it appeared this time she meant business. Steve, Henry, and I stood at attention like Army recruits as she laid down the ground rules for the incipient expedition. As we had expected, there would be no food or rest stops. We had with us sufficient provisions, and we were to time our bathroom needs in concert with gasoline stops. Drivers would change every four hours, with the most recent driver given preferential treatment as to sleeping space in the back of the van.

Then, the bombshell: Would we mind if her mother, Babs, came too? Rosie apparently could not bear the thought of leaving her mother like this. What if the old woman were to die? Rosie would never see her again. On and on… None of us was overjoyed by this prospect. Space was limited enough in the van. The old woman wouldn’t be able to spell drivers, she was half-blind and hard of hearing, and for all we knew, would have to go to the bathroom every 15 minutes. Rosie continued her pleas, careful to accentuate the life-and-death ramifications. To refuse would have seemed callous, if not cruel, so we grudgingly assented, sacrificing a little comfort for the greater good. Rosie took the first turn behind the wheel, with Henry riding shotgun. Steve and I lay side by side in the back, with Granny Babs tucked into the top left-hand corner, resting more or less on her side. It was 11:00 p.m., very dark, and it seemed as if we were sneaking away. The first few shifts passed uneventfully. Steve and I spent the time getting acquainted. It turned out he had graduated from a school in New England the same year I did. He had majored in Classics and seemed to have a wide variety of interests. He needed to get to Boston soon as his mother would be going abroad. In the front seat, Rosie seemed intent on getting some conversation out of the uncommunicative Henry. She wasn’t having much luck. Granny Babs, the meanwhile, was alarming us with intermittent flatulence over which she apparently had little control. Otherwise, she was silent.

When dawn finally broke, somewhere in the southwestern corner of Arizonian desert, I was behind the wheel and Steve was in the passenger seat: everyone else was asleep in the back. Steve took advantage of this opportunity to voice his concern about Granny Babs. It was his opinion she would not survive the trip. The heat was bound to be insufferable all through the so-called sunbelt; in the van it would be ten to fifteen degrees warmer. The old woman’s health appeared to be fragile. After all, hadn’t Rosie openly questioned her longevity? I had visions of digging a grave by the roadside while Rosie wailed. Steve definitely felt Rosie had been criminally negligent in insisting the old woman come along; he didn’t trust her at all.

Steve took his turn at the wheel and I moved to the back, switching places with Rosie. Despite the fact it was early and the heat not too intense, Granny Babs was beginning to look bad. Her eyes seemed a little more glassy, her skin a shade or two more pale. Every now and then she would nibble a piece of cheese or bite out of one of the tomatoes she had strategically placed around her. I figured, though, that she would live, at least through the day.

Arizona became New Mexico and New Mexico Texas without a great deal of drama. But the reality of Texas was something else. Crossing it became a Sisyphean task. Whenever I felt the border close ahead, it proved to be yet another hundred miles. Then, another hundred. The endlessness of it was little relieved by scenery. This was definitely Nabokov’s Lolita nightmare of motels, billboards, and desolation. Straight, unbending highway punctuated occasionally by a gas station or passing truck. It was at a Coke machine in one of the ubiquitous Texan gas stations that Steve volunteered information about trouble afoot. Henry had told him that Rosie had implied our route might change. Henry was not the most reliable source of information, but Steve also remembered Rosie alluding to the same subject. Something about taking the southern route, through Arkansas, Tennessee, and Virginia rather than through Ohio, Indiana, and then New York as we had originally agreed upon. Henry soon joined us. He confirmed Steve’s story and then began to carry on about Rosie’s mother. He felt Rosie had meant from the outset to take the old woman along and had only told us at the last minute to prevent any of us from dropping out. He did not share our concern that Babs would expire, but objected to the overcrowding. In any case, both Steve and Henry felt that Rosie was devious, and, if for no other reason than general principle, the two of them wanted to go the northern route.

Back in the van, Steve and Henry began to question Rosie. Had she any intention of going south? “Why, yes,” she confessed, “hadn’t you known?” She had decided to go south after the phone call she had made in Las Cruces. It seemed that her daughter would be flying in to Washington, D.C., from Switzerland in two days. Perfect timing. The girl apparently was deaf and had been participating in the Swiss Deaf Olympics. Rosie had to see her.

Discarding any notion to ask Rosie how they hear the guns to start the races, I asked her instead how this would affect our time frame? “Well,” she explained, “we may have to spend a day in D.C., but we could sleep in the van.” Since neither Steve, Henry, nor I relished the idea of lying in an old VW bus during the heat of the day in sticky Washington, we complained in unison. What, after all, had our arrangement been? We had each paid her 75 dollars to go to Boston. Now we would be delayed a day in D.C., plus the additional time involved in the less direct, southern route. But according to Rosie’s thinking, this was not a matter open to debate. It was her car and her decision. Besides, from our point of view, it was difficult. Like the issue of the old woman, this, too, was a sensitive one. A deaf girl coming back from the Deaf Olympics, whatever they were. It would be subhuman of us to refuse.

That night Steve and I passed the time discussing etymology. His contention was that Greek provided more English language roots than Latin. I argued that most Greek derivations were technical and seldom-used words. The only way we could have solved the argument would have been to count up words in a dictionary. Had we possessed a dictionary we were about bored enough to do it. Once I took over the wheel I began to enjoy myself. From 2:00 a.m. until 6:00 a.m., with the exception of trucks and drunks, the roads were free for driving. Even though the van was not particularly maneuverable, a curvy road, like the particular one I was on in Arkansas, could be fun to drive. Trucks were my chief obstacle. Whenever I could, I’d pass one. Invariably the driver would flick his high beams at me. Whether this was a friendly or hostile gesture I could never really determine.

At the morning’s first gasoline/rest stop, Rosie had a hard time getting Granny Babs to the bathroom. The old woman looked weak and Rosie seemed concerned. As we watched the two stumble away, Rosie shot us an extremely suspicious look. It was almost as if she sensed the discontent building up in her three riders. While the women were in the bathroom, Steve pointed out that Little Rock would be our Waterloo. It would be there we could branch out and head north, or stay on our present course through the south. Once past Little Rock it would be too late to change, too impractical. Steve then offered us his solution. In Little Rock he would, with our cooperation, stage a mutiny. His plan was simple. He would be at the wheel when we reached Little Rock; at that point he would simply commandeer the van and head north. “Anyway,” he reasoned, “Rosie will probably be asleep in the back.” If she wakes up and objects, that’ll just be too bad. “Hasn’t she lied enough to us already?” Steve saw this as the only alternative. If we were a day or two late, he’d be liable to miss his mother in Boston, and he didn’t have enough money to fly there from Little Rock.

This plan struck a positive chord in Henry. However, he wanted more. He confessed that he had located Rosie’s cache of gasoline money and that he had already helped himself to five dollars of it. He intended to take more. “What the hell,” he muttered in his South Carolina accent, “she’s cheated me out of 75 bucks.” This behavior did not surprise me in Henry. He had struck me from the outset as an unprincipled thug. But as for Steve, was this the same Steve I had talked with the night before? Calm, introspective, almost pacifistic Steve? Rosie was by no means an angel. She had shown herself to be manipulative and conniving. And she probably should have refunded us some money to compensate for her mother coming along. But I didn’t think she deserved all this. I tried to reason with Henry and Steve, but they were implacable; there wasn’t much I could do.

As we approached Little Rock things looked good for the mutineers. Rosie and the rapidly deteriorating Granny Babs seemed to be safely asleep in the back. Henry, sort of half sitting up, looked around furtively. Steve was staying quiet, hoping to make it through town without arousing Rosie. Suddenly, without a hint of warning, Rosie’s head popped up in the front seat. “Down to a quarter-tank,” she said, looking at the fuel gauge. “Better pull over here in Little Rock.” We would have been at the crossroads in five more miles. She must have had a sixth sense.

Steve stayed at the wheel while I pumped the gas. Rosie’s hand appeared out the window with a ten-dollar bill for the attendant, right on time. I wondered if she ever counted the gas money and how she’d react if she did. The tank filled, I closed the door, and Steve started the engine. Again, but even more abruptly, Rosie popped into the front. This time, however, she reached all the way to the ignition, shut off the switch, and pulled out the key. “We are going to Washington!” she declared.

Numerous threats, recriminations, and denials followed. There had been too little motivation for any of it to make any sense to me. It was like being trapped in a B movie. Not only was the plot ridiculous but the dialogue was bad. I couldn’t figure out how Rosie divined Steve’s mutinous intentions. She was always one step ahead of us. Rosie stayed at the wheel for a long time after the hijack attempt. In the back, Granny Babs’s food was beginning to rot. The cheese, slimy and orangey in its plastic bag, looked particularly disgusting. This did not discourage the old woman, however. She continued to nibble both cheese and rotten tomatoes, apparently oblivious to their odor and appearance. Surprisingly, though, she was alive. At this point I could barely say the same thing of myself.

At the next stop, in Knoxville, Tennessee, Steve informed me of his new plan — sabotage! Rosie was in the restroom and Steve and I were talking just outside the van. Inside, Henry was in the process of rifling Rosie’s gas fund, directly in front of the semicomatose Granny Babs I tapped on the window and indicated to Henry that the old codger was watching him. He signified to me with a shrug that this made no difference to him, and began to stuff bills in his pockets. Steve elaborated on his sabotage plans. He confessed that he and Henry had already started to wreck the van. They had assured Rosie that they would see to maintenance, but they had intentionally not added any oil since noticing it was low in New Mexico. Steve speculated that the oil would by now be almost completely depleted. Rosie didn’t have enough sense to ask the gas station attendant to check it. I pointed out that this low oil condition might also cut our trip short, but he fervently believed all difficulties would miraculously occur as soon as we split up with her. But this wasn’t to be all. Steve had other plans. Deflated tires, fouled gasoline supply, damaged spark plug wires were some of his inchoate notions. “Do you have any suggestions?”

Rosie returned before I could reply. She was now beginning to look very strained. Her eyes were bloodshot, her face flushed, her body shaky. Henry, noticing Rosie’s approach, hurriedly returned the money to its hiding place. Steve chose this moment to announce to Rosie that he would abandon ship in Washington; he wasn’t about to sit around there an entire day and he thought he could scrape together the bus fare to Boston. This news upset Rosie far more than it should have. She insisted that Steve had promised to come all the way to Boston. She had to have his help in driving. Even one person’s defection would foul her up. Steve countered by pointing out that the stopover in Washington wasn’t in the contract, Deaf Olympics or not. And what about Granny Babs? Wasn’t that subterfuge? These complaints had a profound effect on Rosie. Up until this point she had been impervious to all criticism, but now tears began to form in her eyes. Steve relented.

When we got back to the van, Granny Babs began to babble and point at Henry. Her words, the first we had heard the entire trip, didn’t make much sense to me, but I thought they might to Rosie. Apparently not. She ignored the old woman, much to the relief of Henry.

Arguments began to crop up in the van. Henry’s vicious side was starting to show. He felt cheated. Seventy-five dollars was too much, considering everything. He was enduring the exhaustion of nonstop driving only to lose a couple of days with the stopover. Steve joined in. Rosie was able to hold her own. She, too, could be nasty, and snapped back at them. Things were so intense that even Granny Babs seemed to be listening. I was too tired to care.

All through the green hills of Virginia we played country-western music on the radio. There was nothing else available. Even in Texas there had been one or two alternatives to Hank Williams and Merle Haggard, but not here. I spent the time trying to figure out how to salvage the increasingly untenable situation I found myself in. At the next gas stop I suggested to Steve that we bail out. Even hitchhiking, we were unlikely to tie up with the kind of lunatics we were now in league with. Not that Steve was completely normal; I had my doubts about him. If I’d been free to choose anyone to go hitchhiking with, it probably would have been Granny Babs, but she seemed in no condition to make the trip. We decided we would separate at the next gas stop, wherever that might be. Steve suggested that to befuddle Rosie further we invite Henry to join us. The larcenous Henry luckily declined the offer. He had decided to break free in Washington and head straight for South Carolina. “What,” he asked us, “was there to do in Boston anyway?” This news gladdened Steve because Rosie would now be faced with no relief drivers for the Boston trip.

The last 200 miles of the journey in the van were guilt-ridden ones for me. Could I abandon these two women here in Virginia? Worse, could I leave them to Henry’s devices? Was he worse than a thief? Could he be a murderer? Or a gerontophile, if such a thing existed? Looking at Rosie in the front seat, I decided I was following the best course of action. She really looked as if she were about to break. This could lead to long, involved, and potentially embarrassing confrontations with local authorities. Yes, I thought to myself, looking at the glaucoma-scarred eyes of Granny Babs, I’ve got to get out of here.

In Winchester, Virginia, Steve and I hurriedly gathered our things. Neither of us had any food remaining, so that would be one less load to worry about. We were stopped at an Amoco station. Rosie was in the garage checking over the map with one of the mechanics. Henry sat stoically behind the wheel. Granny Babs was on her side, staring blankly at a tomato. For all I knew, at this point she was dead. Rosie returned to see Steve and I outside the van, our bags in hand. “You can’t do this to me!” she wailed.

“I’d like a 20-dollar refund,” said Steve. He was serious.

Rosie let loose a long and demonic laugh. She looked at Henry, who was still sitting behind the wheel. “You’ll stay?”

Henry nodded.

That seemed to satisfy her. She jumped in the van, slammed the door, gave Henry the go signal, and they were off. Not even another look.

Sitting in Winchester’s unprepossessing Jolly Burger, about a half hour later, I asked Steve if he felt we had done the right thing. “We’ll get to Washington before her,” he snarled.

“Why’s that?” I asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

“Well,” he explained, “before we left, I pulled out all the lighting wires from under the dash. Before that, I cut through half the fan belt. Anyway, she’ll be lucky to make it another hundred miles with no oil. I checked it at the station before Winchester.”

It took us a long time to get out of Winchester. The locals eyed us with considerable suspicion. Hitching proved impossible; in fact, I ended up leaving Steve on a street corner. I took a bus to Washington, then another to Boston, where it was nearly a hundred degrees even at 10:00 p.m. People were draped over their front steps, totally enervated, snarling at passersby.

As I write these final words, safely ensconced in the city of Fenway Park, I can’t help wondering about the fate of the van. Had Rosie been able to overcome all the mechanical sabotage and reunite with her Deaf Olympics daughter? Was there really such a daughter? Had Henry stolen all their money, or simply killed them both and tossed their bodies into a swamp? We’ll never know, but I’m certainly not sorry for having left when I did. And one thing is certain. When I decide to return to San Diego, I will take a train, bus, or plane, even if it does cost a little more — anything but go near a 3x5 card on a bulletin board.

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