by Bill Tope
As I drove my ’62 Thunderbird south across the flat plains of Illinois, in October of 1968, the sun was ascending to my left, causing no mischief as far as my vision of the highway was concerned. There was no other car in sight as I cruised down Highway 57; that wouldn’t last long, I knew.
Off to the west side of the road, I spotted a solitary figure, a girl, out hitchhiking. I peered at her intently and was startled by what I found: she was absolutely stunning, in a sort of unkempt, half-starving way. She was garbed in faded bell bottom jeans—skin-tight, of course—and an old brown leather jacket that had seen better days. As I pulled to the side of the road just ahead of her, I saw that her hair looked dusty from the road and her eyes looked huge—and frightened. The first thing that came to mind was that she was the punch line to a dirty joke. I grinned lecherously. But then I thought, “She needs help, in the same way that my female cousins might need a stranger’s help under similar circumstances.” So I held myself at bay.
I stopped the car and opened the passenger-side door. “Can I give you a lift?” I asked in as non-threatening a voice as I could muster. I didn’t want to terrify the girl. She looked to be about my age—twenty. Cautiously, she approached the car and laid her slender hand upon the door. She looked at me uncertainly.
“Thank you,” was all she said, and she slid onto the seat. She sat there for a moment, then, as if remembering, pulled the door shut.
I put the Thunderbird in gear and pushed it back down the highway. After she seemed settled, I asked, “Where are you headed?”
She stared straight ahead. “New Orleans,” she replied.
I smiled. “Me, too,” I told her. “We’re only eight hundred miles away,” I said brightly, but she remained unresponsive. After a few more attempts at small talk, I gave up trying to engage her and concentrated on my driving; the traffic had picked up considerably.
Suddenly she turned to me, her eyes bigger and surreally brighter than ever, and asked, “What is it?”
I furrowed my brow and asked, “What’s what?”
“What do I have to do to ride to New Orleans with you?” I looked over at her, and she seemed deadly serious.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Her mouth formed a tight, unsmiling line. “The last man I got a ride with told me, “Ass, grass, or cash.”
I was a little shocked, though, frankly, not surprised. She was a lovely young lady who would make ideal prey for the interstate’s predators. But, I had no designs on extorting anything from her, and I told her so.
“That’s what he said too, at first,” she said. “Then, when we were outside of Urbana, in the middle of nowhere, when there was nothing around, he made his demands.”
“What did you do?” I said, curious but hating myself for asking.
“I sucked his dick,” she replied wretchedly. Then she waited for my reaction. I gave it to her.
“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I’m not like that, I promise you.” “You can ride all the way to Bourbon Street at no charge—no demands,” I told her sincerely. All at once, her anger and her hurt seemed to rise from her body and drift out the window. She relaxed, slumping back in the bucket seat. In moments, she was fast asleep. And I hadn’t even gotten her name.
Four hours later, in northern Arkansas, after the mystery lady had slept the sleep of the dead, she awakened with a start, looked around her, then at me. Her memory seemed to return to her. “Hey!” I said to her. She looked over at me. “My name is Phil” I said. “What’s your name?”
She seemed to turn this over in her mind for a few moments, then replied, “Ellison.”
“Like Yvonne Ellison?” I asked with a grin. Jesus Christ Superstar was very big at the moment, and the singer was a star.
She shook her head. “Ellison Draper.”
I came back giddily. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Draper.” Now I had her talking. Yay! “Could I interest you in some food, Ellison?” I inquired.
“I’m not hungry,” she said.
“You’ve been asleep for nearly five hours,” I pointed out. “And when’s the last time you ate before I picked you up?”
“Look, I don’t have any money, okay? You stop and get something, and I’ll sit in the car. I never eat much,” she lied to me.
I pulled into a Holiday Inn parking lot, parked, and killed the engine. “C’mon, Ellison,” I coaxed. “I won’t attack you in the dining room.” She dropped her purse onto the floor of the car, we exited the Thunderbird, and I locked up. We drifted into the restaurant. After some more persuasion, she agreed to have dinner with me. I thought wistfully about the two ships passing in the night. I realized again that she really was a beautiful girl. Once our food was served, she ate voraciously. I laughed at her for eating so fast. She blushed but didn’t slow down.
“Now, tell me why you’re bound and determined to get to New Orleans,” I asked her. Little by little, she began to open up; her anxiety eased with the introduction of sustenance.
“I’m going to visit family that I’ve never met,” she said. She went on to say that she had been married but that her husband, Sean, had been a Marine and was killed in January in Khe Sanh. I’d had no idea she was even married; she seemed so young.
“Were you just married?” I asked gently.
“We were married five years ago,” she replied. A child bride? I wondered.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” I asked her.
“You’ve been getting personal,” she said, but the little smile robbed her words of any offense.
“How old are you, Ellison?” She hesitated for just an instant.
“Twenty-seven.” I expelled a breath.
“You look so young,” I marveled.
“On the inside, I’m old, Phil. And I’ve aged two lifetimes in the past six months.” Without further prodding, Ellison went on: “We were married in Urbana, where the university is. We were both students, but his deferment expired, and rather than wait to be drafted, he joined the Marines. He’d only been in-country for two months when he… bought it, as they say. He was the first one in his unit to be killed.” She grew quiet; I spotted a single tear slide down one of her lovely cheeks, and I wanted more than anything to just hug her and tell her everything would be alright. But anything I could say would just ring hollow.
“Did you serve?” she asked unexpectedly. The guilt was instant and nearly suffocating. I’d got my first deferment and, so far, had escaped the hell that was the Viet Nam War. I shook my head. “Good,” she said, surprising me. “Sean’s letters got darker and darker. I kept getting them for two months after he died.” She took a deep, shuddering breath, remembering. We talked far into the night, through dinner and dessert and coffee and after-dinner drinks. We practically closed out the place. “I’m glad I met you, Phil Fulgham,” she said, a little tipsy.
“I’m glad I met you too,” I said happily, and we both giggled stupidly. “What are you feeling now, Ellison?” I asked her. I wanted so badly just to touch her.
She considered this for a moment, then replied carefully, “I’m feeling…good. I’m feeling relaxed and optimistic for the first time in nearly a year. I think I owe it to you.”
I batted the compliment away self-effacingly. “No. I didn’t do anything. I just gave you a ride. bought you a little dinner.”
“You did more than that,” she told me. “You restored my faith that there are still good people out there who won’t victimize the first person they see. You know what I mean?” I smiled, a little tipsy myself. “Do you know what I’d really like to do right now?” I shook my head, wondering if my luck was finally changing.
“I’d like to sleep with you and take you in my arms and make love to you, Phil.” I held my breath. Was this a dream? I wondered. Maybe there was such a thing as a good deed being returned tenfold like they tell you in bible school. I was speechless for a moment as I stared at her. “It’s been so long,” she said thoughtfully.
Finally, I found my voice. “It just so happens, Ellison, that I think there are rooms available in this motel.” She smiled seductively.
“Shall we?” she invited. I signaled for the check.
“Oh!” she said. “I forgot…”
“What is it?” I cried, unwilling for this night to end.
“My pills,” she said. At my blank stare, she explained, “My birth control pills. They’re in my purse, in the car.”
Thank God she was prepared, I thought gratefully. “I’ll get the room,” I told her. “You get your purse.” I handed her my keys. She touched my hand and gently squeezed.
“I’ll be right back.”
I waited for almost thirty minutes before it finally dawned on me that Ellison had stolen my car, the trusty T-Bird. As I sat in the bar, drinking Tequila shots to drown my sorrow, I wondered how much of Ellison’s story was true. Had she really been married? Was she a grieving widow? Was she actually twenty-seven years old, as she’d said? Could I believe anything she’d told me? Probably not, I told myself. That’s the way of highway predators. Perhaps the worst aspect of this tragedy was that there would be no retribution for Ellison’s bad faith. I would not report her to the authorities; I could not, for I knew where she was coming from. After all, hadn’t I stolen the T-Bird from another beautiful woman only an hour before I met Ellison?