Yesterday, I picked Joey up hitchhiking for the first time in a couple of months. I had started to wonder if something bad had happened, which would have been quite plausible. But he was fine, in fat, he was more coherent than usual.
I met Joey, if you could call it that, on the side of the road a few years ago, but he wasn’t hitchhiking -- I thought he was dead. I was driving home on a hot summer afternoon, and saw a body next to the roadside ditch, positioned exactly like it would be if it had been pushed unconscious from of the back of a pickup truck. Face down, arms sprawled into the gravel.
I drove past, thinking, no, I didn’t just see that, there really wasn’t a body, hands over eyes singing "la la la", but I turned around anyway, and there really was a body.
I pulled over and stood near him. “Hey, you okay?” (I know. That’s the dumbest thing ever to say. Like this dead person is gonna say, “yeah, I’m doing great, just relaxing here for a bit with my face in the gravel.” But even with a dead person, you have to start somewhere.) I tried to make my voice firm but maternal, and talk to him in a “you’re gonna miss the bus” sort of way, but got no answer. I called 911, and they asked me questions. Can you tell what happened? Is there a car or a bike? Is he breathing? Is he alive? I couldn't answer any of her questions, so she said I probably had better not touch him. I was relieved to comply.
Because of the topography, I could hear the ambulance coming all the way from town, their sirens ricocheting off the forested hillside. As I stood there, a neighbor pulled up.
“Is it Doc?” she asked, almost sobbing.
“I don’t know.”
This neighbor, whom I barely knew, was always on the edge of tears. I noticed her walking a lot, around and around in a loop, with and without a dog. This was before her son, 40-ish, died of alcoholism, and her husband died of cancer. None of it had happened yet, but I think she could see this stuff on the horizon, and always looked like she had been, or was about to cry. Although we’d passed each other on walks and said hello for years, I didn’t know her. We hadn’t yet had that day, a year or so later, when I ran into her at the grocery store the day after her husband died. She was having a meltdown because the clerk wouldn’t exchange the unopened package of Depends that her husband wouldn’t need anymore, and I somehow got enlisted to assist with the transaction. The clerk was unnecessarily rigid about refunding the money for her dead beloved's unused diapers.
“I don’t know who it is,” I repeated. She ran over to the body, and peeled the face off of the side of the road, while I watched, cringing, hoping there wasn’t already a spinal injury.
“Oh my god, it’s Joey!” she cried, and dropped him, letting his face slam down on the gravel roadside.
“Is he dead?” she asked me again.
It seemed like a strange question, because she was the one who had just touched him, but I just said I didn’t know. “I think I’d better move your truck.” She had leaped out of her enormous dodge pickup, leaving it running in the middle of the curvy road, door open.
When I returned, she was still yelling. “Joey, listen to me. Get up right now. Do you know where you are, Joey? Your mother would not be proud of you.”
When I saw the face, I recognized it. It was severely disfigured to a degree that made it difficult to look at: a local man who had tried unsuccessfully, 20 years earlier, to commit suicide by shooting a gun off in his mouth. He lived through the incident, which left him with extreme facial scarring and speech that is difficult to understand.
My neighbor kept shaking him, which kind of scared me, because I thought that could be bad if he either had been pushed out of a truck, the way it looked, or if he were on a bad drug trip, which also seemed plausible.
“Joey, get up. Have you been drinking?”
“I had a little sip of vodka,” he replied. But it was hard to understand, partly because of the vodka, but partly because he has no back of his throat.
“I don’t even want to get up. I got nothing to live for, no one cares about me,” he slurred.
Judy looked back at me. “What’s your name again?”
“Betsy cares about you, Joey.”
I got a little nervous then, because I really wasn’t very sure at all how much I did care. I definitely cared in a generic way, like, I certainly wish you no harm kind of way, but I wasn’t so sure I cared in a specific, ‘sure, Joey, I’m your reason to live, we can get together for popcorn and stuff’ sort of way.
At about this point, the volunteer firemen pulled up, four of them in a jeep, and leaped out. “Joey, get up. What are you doing on the side of the road?”
I realized I was the only one around who didn’t know Joey by name, who didn’t already know that if he were lying in a ditch, it was because he was drunk. I was busy processing thoughts of sheesh, if his life was hard and depressing enough to put a gun in your mouth and pull the trigger before, just think of it now, with the inability to communicate, the extremely disfigured face, and the alcoholism. I would drink a lot too, if that were my story.
I left after the firemen arrived, and heard later that they took him home and put him to bed.
Since that time, when I see him on the side of the road hitchhiking, I pick him up. For a while, I was giving him a ride about three times a week. (For some reason, hitchhiking is still a main form of transportation on this little hill for a lot of people. I’m pretty sure that’s not true everywhere.) He doesn’t remember our first meeting, but I feel a strange responsibility for him now. 'Betsy cares', the woman had said, which was a lie that day, but is, surprisingly, true now. Yesterday, when he hopped into my car, stinking of stale cigarettes, alcohol, and something else unwashed, and slurred his greeting, I was glad to see him.
When I drive him home from town, he’s usually drunk and incoherent. But he talks nonstop, and I try to understand what he’s saying. He goes on for several minutes in this chatter that I can’t make out, and then invariably says something that I can, like, “You, friend, you understand me.” I nod as if it were true, but sadly, I not only don’t understand him at any meaningful level, but I have difficulty even making out the words he’s using. When he gets out of the car, he always pounds gently on it three times, and says, “thanks friend. If I see you on the side of the road, down on your luck, I’ll do the same for you.”
When R. is in the car, he always comments to me later, “Mom, if you’re ever so needy that Joey is in some kind of shape to help you, we’re screwed.”
But yesterday, I drove him in to town, which is always better, because he’s not drunk yet. His speech isn’t quite as garbled with alcohol, and his mind is more clear. I learn that his elderly mother has completed her chemo, and has taken the 3 grandchildren on a tribal canoe trip out on Puget Sound (Hey, how do you like that name change to the Salish Sea, btw? I think it’s pretty.) with the Tulalip tribe, although they are Snoqualmies themselves. Joey said he’d kept the house clean, and done the dishes, and fed the cats and dogs. He said he was glad that his mother got to go on a trip because she's been through a lot, and that they’d built a canoe out of a giant cedar tree. I couldn’t tell if that happened at some time in the past, or if they built a canoe just for this particular journey, which seemed to be what he was saying, but was also seemed implausible.
When he got out of the car this time, he told me that the Snoqualmie Casino has been good for him and his family, and that his mother has insurance now, so when she cracked her kneecap, she got it treated right away for free. And he said that the Snoqualmie food bank and medical center is now open to everyone in the valley, not just Native Americans. We’re all Americans, he said. We all need help. He was almost out of the car when he turned back and said, “oh! Come by the food bank on Wednesday. Gobble gobble! We have a turkey for everyone who needs it. Gobble gobble,” he repeated. I told him thanks, but fortunately, I didn’t need a turkey. He said he wants to give everyone that gives him rides a turkey, though, so if I come by, I can definitely get one. We all need help, he said, before he did his ritual of pounding on the car three times, and saying, “goodbye friend. If I see you on the side of the road, down on your luck, I’ll do the same for you.”
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
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