Harry lowered his sunglasses to get a clearer view and realized the girl looked like a chicken. Almost a pullet, plump and feathery, but still showing some patches of down. Her arms were folded against her body like wings that would never fly.
“Didn’t your mama ever tell you not to hitchhike?” he asked.
The girl scratched her nails through her short blonde hair. “Do I have to listen to a lecture to get a ride?”
Smiling, Harry nudged his sunglasses up and reached over to open the passenger door. He scooped up napkins and chewing gum wrappers from the front seat and dropped them on the floor. “Climb on in, then. Don’t mind the trash, there’s nothing you can hurt. Just step on it. That’s one thing I don’t like about trucks: they got no back seat. No place to put trash ‘n’ stuff. I won’t put it in the bed ‘cause I don’t want it blowin’ all over the highway. One thing I’m not is a litterbug.”
By then the girl had fastened her seatbelt and perched her fat canvas tote bag on her lap. She looked at Harry with pale brown eyes untouched by makeup. “I’m ready.”
“Harry. Name’s Harry.”
She responded with a lemony smile. “Oh. Okay. I’m Annette.”
“You runnin’ to or from, Annette?”
“Who says I’m running at all?” Annette stared out the side window.
“Ah. Well.” Harry checked the road before pulling onto the highway again. There was only one other car in sight, far behind them. Harry knew the last town was an hour or so back. “Looks like you’ve been walkin’ a ways.”
She shrugged without looking at him.
“You’re gonna hurt yourself, talkin’ so much.”
Finally Annette faced him. “I’m saving myself for the right man.”
Harry chuckled. “That’s a good one. You know, most people think all females talk an’ talk an’ talk, but I know it ain’t true. Don’t think you gotta chatter to keep me entertained. I can do enough for us both.”
Again she gave him that slightly sour smile, then she turned away to stare out the window.
“I never used to talk so much. It started the second time I went to prison. Somethin’ about bein’ sent back to that place shook my tongue loose, and I haven’t shut up since.”
Harry glanced at his passenger but the girl showed no sign of having heard him. He knew a lot of kids did that, thinking that looking bored made them look wise, but not one of them realized it was just normal behavior. Annette couldn’t freeze him out. She was just another typical teenager.
“So, you wanna guess how many times I’ve been arrested?”
“You know, I need to make a phone call,” Annette said abruptly. “So you can just drop me at the nearest phone.”
“You hitched all this way to make a phone call?” Harry asked. “Must be a real long distance call, huh? You do realize there’s not many phones in this part of Texas, don’t you? It’ll be a while ‘fore we even get to the next town.”
“Does the radio work?”
“Sure, help yourself. What kind of music you like?”
“Anything,” she said quickly. “As long as it’s loud.”
“Okay, I can take a hint. I’ll shut up then.”
When finally they came to a town, Annette seemed eager to escape, unbuckling her seatbelt the moment she caught sight of a pay phone, even before Harry could pull over and stop. She tossed him a hasty thanks-for-the-ride as she flew out of the truck.
Harry circled back through town, searching for the cheapest gas. There wasn’t much to choose from, which he’d expected. These small Panhandle towns didn’t offer a great variety. But the attendant at the station he chose was friendly and gladly helped Harry check his oil and water. Both were low. The attendant also noticed that the fan belt looked might shaky, just happened to have one for a very reasonable price, and he’d be glad to swap it out after he finished rotating another customer’s tires. Harry agreed and left the truck while he went to find some lunch. The mechanic even recommended a nice diner, not too expensive, plain but good.
As the middle-aged waitress was taking his order, the door to the diner opened and in walked Annette. Harry waved. A look resembling panic swept across her face but Harry ignored it.
“Hey, there she is! Come on over, you’re just in time. You want chili or soup or a burger?”
Annette’s eyes darted about the diner. Two other men sat at the counter; otherwise the diner was empty. Reluctantly she looked at Harry and her chicken-wing shoulders raised up. “I was just going to have some coffee.”
“You can sit over here and drink it,” Harry said. “Have a burger to go with it. I’m buyin’.”
Without waiting for Annette’s answer, the waitress put another set of flatware on the table. Annette’s shoulders drooped but she sat down. She even accepted a burger which Harry noticed she had no trouble finishing.
After lunch, Harry held the door open for Annette. “You know, I don’t know where to take you if you don’t tell me where you’re goin’.”
“Wherever you’re going is fine,” she responded. “I’m not picky.”
“I’ve got a job waitin’ for me in Colorado. I can take you that far.” Harry paused outside the diner and stretched and yawned. He swooped his gimme cap off, ran his fingers through his sweaty hair, and replaced his cap. “Wouldn’t mind stayin’ here, though. I sure do like this country.”
Annette squinted at the buildings and then at the sky. She swung her canvas bag around from her shoulder, unzipped it, and retrieved a pair of glasses. Then she looked around carefully and frowned. “What country? I don’t see much of anything.”
“This,” Harry said. “The Llano Estacado. The Staked Plains. You never been here before? Wait till we get out a ways, when you can’t see the town anymore. It’s one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen.”
Back in the truck, Annette seemed more alert. Harry purposely didn’t say anything more about the land, though, till they were well beyond the town’s limits and he stopped the truck.
“There you are, one of the scariest pieces of land you’ll ever see,” he announced.
Annette peered through her glasses. “How can it be scary? There’s nothing here.”
Harry leapt out of the truck and scurried around to open the door for Annette. “Come on out and you’ll see what I mean.”
She didn’t move. “This is where you rape and murder me, right?”
“Oh, come on, Annette. Come look at this. Smell that sunshine.”
Hesitantly she climbed out, clutching her canvas bag. Harry led her about a yard into the scruffy dry grass and inhaled deeply. “Now turn your back to the truck, and look. Turn around like this, so you can’t see the truck, you can’t see anything. Now – now, just look. Look at that grass, look at all that sky. Not one single tree insight. It’s getting’ hot now. Where would you go to find some shade?”
“Back in the truck,” she said flatly.
“You’re not even tryin’. What about a thunderstorm? You like thunderstorms?”
Annette hugged her bag closer. “Sometimes.”
“A blue norther. Imagine all those dark clouds, fillin’ up the whole sky. Rain – no, freezing rain. Sleet. Cold, cold wind. In five minutes you’re drenched and freezing. Where you gonna go? There’s not even wood to make a fire.”
One side of Annette’s lip moved up slightly in a look of disgust.
“Aha!” Harry shouted. “You’ve got it! Scary, scary place. And at night, with a clear sky, you just look out at those stars and you know there’s nothin’ between you and God. Sure makes you grateful someone invented gravity.”
Annette looked up and shrank back simultaneously, then she turned and climbed into the truck. Harry was laughing as he joined her.
“So you get my point.”
Annette looked at him with a half-sneer on her young face. “Alright, can we go now?”
Back on the road, Annette kept taking off her glasses and putting them on again. Harry teased her about being indecisive. “You wanna see but you don’t. Well, I’ll tell you what. The best way to deal with somethin’ scary is to learn how to handle it. It’s hard to get across this land, but people been doin’ it for a long time. You gotta bring food, plenty of water, and your own stakes. See, God didn’t put anything out here to tell you where you are, or to tie your horse to, or anything. Any stakes you find out here are man-made. Imagine bein’ out here with your horse run off and you don’t even know which way to look for him. Sca-ary for sure.”
“Why don’t you just drive?”
“Why don’t you just keep your glasses on?”
Annette turned the radio up. Harry stopped teasing her and sang along for several miles, till Annette suddenly gasped.
She pointed ahead and to the left. “What is that?!”
“There, up ahead. It looks like…” Annette looked distressed. Along the horizon, the flat land ended abruptly, as if a giant had taken a large bite from the earth. Beyond the ragged edge was nothing but hordes of blue sky. “What happened? The land just disappears.”
“Oh, no! We’re gonna fall off the face of the earth!” Harry laughed. “You sure don’t know the Staked Plains, do you?”
Annette did not look relieved. “But what is it?”
“The Palo Duro Canyon.”
“A canyon? Out here?”
“With rocks and bushes and grass and caves and of course a river. We’ll drive right through it so you can get a better look.”
“Oh, thank heaven. Finally we’ll be out of this flatness.”
“Don’t get your hopes up, Columbus,” Harry said. “The Plains continue on the other side. It’ll be a while before we get shed of it.”
Annette slumped in her seat.
“So how come you came this way, anyway?” Harry asked. “I mean, obviously you’re not from around here, you don’t know anything about it. So why hitchhike up here?”
Annette shrugged her shoulders.
“You a fugitive? Afraid I’m gonna call the cops?” Harry stuck two fingers in his mouth, whistled shrilly, then stuck his arm out the window and waved. “Yo, cops! I got me a fugitive in here! Come an’ get her!”
They looked at each other and Harry shrugged. “Gee, I guess they don’t want you.”
“I’m not wanted, anyway,” she admitted. “It’s just that…”
“Just what, Annette? You think I can’t stand to hear it? I’ve been in jail a couple dozen times and in prison twice. How bad can it be?”
“Oh… I was stupid.”
“Good God, woman! Stupid? Alright, that’s it.” Harry slammed on the brakes. “Get out o’ my truck.”
Annette caught the dashboard with both hands as her canvas bag slid into the trash on the floor.
“You’re such a kid.” Releasing the brakes, Harry moved his foot back to the gas pedal. “Stupid’s not a crime.”
“It is where I come from,” she muttered, retrieving her bag from the floor. “See, I’m on my way home from college for summer break. I live in Arizona. I got a scholarship to LSU but my parents didn’t want me to go so far. They couldn’t afford it. They wanted me to live at home and go to a community college. I thought we could afford it. But I kind of goofed up my budget and now I don’t have enough money to get home, unless I hitch rides. I’ve barely got enough money for food.”
“Oh, I see.”
Annette folded her arms over the canvas bag. “So now you know. My first trip away from home, on my own, and I screwed it up big time.”
“Annette, my dear little chicken, why didn’t you tell me that in the first place? Here I been draggin’ you north when you need to go west. You didn’t tell anyone where you were goin’, did you? How long you been hitchin’ rides?
She resumed staring out the window.
“No wonder you got so far off track.”
“Why do you suppose people would want to live out here?” Annette asked abruptly.
“Why? Well, ‘cause there’s nothing here. You have to do it all yourself. Bring everything you need with you. Not gonna live in a house somebody else built or pick apples off somebody else’s tree. It’s all yours.”
“Like a blank canvas.”
“Yup. And first big windstorm you get, it all blows away.”
“Sounds like a pretty stupid place to live.”
“Listen, if you want, I could drop you off at Amarillo. It’s a regular city, you know, with telephones and an airport. You can call your folks from there.”
“Oh, no! I can’t do that! They wouldn’t let me go back to Louisiana!”
“There’s nothin’ wrong with community college. Say, how much money you got on you, anyhow?”
“Huh? Oh, I don’t know. About twenty-thirty bucks, I guess.”
Harry snapped his fingers and held out his hand. “Give it to me. Then you can tell your parents you got robbed. Maybe they’ll feel sorry for you.”
“Lie to my parents? They’d never put up with that.”
“Little chicken, you been lyin’ to them a long time. And let me tell you somethin’. If you’re gonna lie, it’s better to do it deliberately that to pretend you don’t know what’s goin’ on. You give me the money, tell your folks you got robbed, and they can send you an airline ticket to get home.”
“I’d get grounded for the summer if they catch me in a lie.”
“So? You’ll get to go home. And they might not ever know.”
Annette heaved a deep, deep sigh. “Oh, alright. Might as well fly. I’m rubbing blisters on my feet anyway.”
When Harry dropped her off at the Amarillo airport, Annette unzipped her tightly-packed canvas bag and pried out her purse. She handed him all her money save for a quarter and a dime. Harry wriggled his fingers impatiently.
“All of it, now, they’d never believe I left you thirty-five cents.”
“But I’ve got to call them.”
“Call collect,” Harry said, pocketing the cash. “Now you be a good girl and next time you get in trouble, tell somebody. It’s not safe to go wanderin’ the Staked Plains by yourself. Not without bringin’ your own stakes, anyway. You can’t rely on the stakes other people might’ve brought. And even if you’re in the canyon, you better be ready to come out the other side.”
“Yeah. Alright. I thin I understand.” Annette closed her bag and opened the door. “Well, thanks again for the ride.”
She smiled wryly. “Bye, Harry.”
As Harry watched, Annette headed into the airport terminal. One of her wings sheltered the canvas bag while the other flapped with some strength this time, in rhythm with her steps.
Harry fished the money out of his pocket to count it before he put the truck in gear. “Easiest twenty-four dollars and forty-seven cents I ever made,” he said aloud. “Those young chickens sure are easy to pluck.”
© 2000 Libby Block
first published “Duck Soup”, Fall 2001