A Memoir by Leah Mueller
Mike and I had been thumbing for an hour when a decrepit car pulled over to the shoulder and ground to a shuddering halt. The driver was a clean-shaven, thirty-something man with mirrored sunglasses and an open-necked shirt. He looked harmless enough.
“I’m only going ninety miles. It’ll get you closer, anyway. There’s stuff in the back seat. Just toss it anywhere.”
Mike and I pushed an assortment of tools, boots, and newspapers to the floor. The car merged into traffic. Our driver gazed at the road with a thoughtful expression, like he was trying to figure out why we were hitchhiking on a Louisiana freeway during the hottest month of the year. Finally, he turned his head and smiled. “I’m Joe. Where are you two headed?”
“Illinois,” I said. “It’s a long story.”
“I’m a good listener.”
Lots of people claimed to be good listeners before shifting the conversation to themselves. I usually avoided self-disclosure, preferring to internalize my problems. Still, I felt an inexplicable urge to tell the driver everything. I’d never see him again. My words couldn’t possibly be used against me later. “Stepdad killed himself last month. My boyfriend and I are hitching to Mom’s house. She’s distraught and needs our help.”
Joe studied me in the rearview mirror. He raised both eyebrows and shook his head. “I’m sorry. That’s rough. She’s lucky to have you as her daughter.”
The engine emitted a sudden belch of steam. Joe swerved onto the shoulder and pulled a plastic jug from the passenger seat. He lunged from his car, popped the hood, and began pouring water into the radiator. I heard a furious hissing sound, like somebody had thrown grease on a broiler.
After the noise subsided, Joe returned. “Damn thing’s been leaking. I need to fill it every fifty miles or so. My apologies. Do the two of you live in New Orleans?”
“We’re from downstate Illinois,” Mike said. “Moved to New Orleans last year. Weird place. Lots of drinking. I think the heat makes people crazy. We’ve seen violent cops attacking innocent citizens. I was scared to hitchhike.”
“Police brutality is terrible.” Joe paused for effect. “Which is why I’m a cop. I want to change department policy. I can’t stand to watch folks suffer.”
I gaped at him with amazement. “Really? You don’t…”
“Fit the profile? That’s right. Bringing humanity to the force is a tough process. But I’m up for the challenge. It’s my life’s work.”
At nineteen, I was still learning how much I didn’t know. My devout Christian stepfather beat his kids and drank his liver into oblivion. Then he set himself on fire. Hardly a pious sort. People didn’t always adhere to stereotypes.
My mother wasn’t much better. She’d enabled her husband’s violence for years, egging him on when he removed his belt. Mom didn’t have the energy for discipline, so she delegated the task to my stepfather. He was more than happy to comply, often counting his strikes aloud until the victim had received enough punishment.
Still, when Mom phoned me in tears, asking for help, I didn’t hesitate. Why did I feel obligated to comfort her? I’d read somewhere that abused children felt responsible for their parents’ violence. They tried to do anything to avoid disapproval, even from a safe distance. I was afraid of my mother, even though she lived three states away.
I’d learned to tiptoe around authority figures. You could never tell what they might do. But Joe was easy to trust. He didn’t even seem like a cop. Why did he own such a shitty vehicle? Perhaps the NOPD didn’t pay their officers well. Or maybe he’d made up the entire story.
Mike and I stared out the rear windows, deep in thought. An hour later, Joe pulled over. “This is my exit.” His voice sounded apologetic. “Let me give you something.” He extracted two twenties from his pocket and thrust them into my hand. A silver police badge slid down the front of his shirt and tumbled into the passenger seat. “Officer 1840” was stamped on its surface in bold, no-nonsense font.
“Sorry I can’t offer more. Take care of your mother. I hope things work out for you.”
“Wow.” I slid the cash in my wallet. “Thanks so much.”
Mike and I couldn’t afford a motel, but we’d have something to eat. Perhaps we’d get continuous rides and avoid the need for shelter. My mother’s mattress was 600 miles away. Clouds of exhaust rose from the hot asphalt, stinging my eyeballs. Dirty beads of sweat coursed down my cheeks.
At least I was still alive. Which was more than I could say for my stepdad. Despite myself, I felt a tiny stab of pity. The poor man had been brutalized as a child, forced to listen to religious radio programs while sitting in a straight-backed chair. If he slumped involuntarily, his father threw him to the floor and kicked him.
I didn’t ever want to have children. How could I give love if my own parents had failed to offer it? I glanced over at Mike. He stood at my side, thumb in the air, eyes glued to the road. My boyfriend obviously loved me, or he wouldn’t have agreed to participate in such a bizarre excursion. Perhaps there was hope for me after all.
A school bus merged towards the shoulder and screeched to a halt. Someone had painted its surface with cheery hues of orange and turquoise. Bright red lettering emblazoned the side panels. “Our Blessed Church of Christ the Redeemer.” The characters looked shaky, like they’d been drawn by a child.
Our new driver blasted his horn. Mike stared at the bus and burst into laughter. “Unbelievable,” he said. “First a cop, then a bunch of Christians. You never know who is going to save your ass. C’mon, let’s go.” We scooped up our tattered backpacks and broke into a run.
* * *
Leah Mueller’s work appears in Rattle, NonBinary Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Citron Review, The Spectacle, New Flash Fiction Review, Atticus Review, Your Impossible Voice, etc. She is a 2022 nominee for both Pushcart and Best of the Net. Leah’s flash piece, “Land of Eternal Thirst” appears in the 2022 edition of Best Small Fictions. Her two newest books are “The Failure of Photography” (Garden Party Press, 2023) and “Widow’s Fire” (Alien Buddha Press, 2023). Website: http://www.leahmueller.org.