free ride

I got a call from her an hour into my shift. She was irate about a couple of girls I’d been with. I had never heard her so pissed. She clocked me with a whiskey bottle as I walked in my door full of apologies and remors….”


by laine perry



We were registering for emergency aid. We were standing in Welfare lines. We were in Hollywood. True, we screwed daily but it was like doing battle. We hung together out of necessity, thinking the odds would be better that way, thinking something had to break soon. We hadn’t eaten a real meal in a week, and a week isn’t funny to anyone.

After we had fucked, masturbated together, separately, grifted a porn mag, hoarded those images, shared them, recreated them, scoured mini-mart ashtrays for butts, and swindled wine from the landlord, the truth came down like a swift kick in the nuts: a person could die or go mad like this. It could happen tonight instead of the customary bickering over a phone bill we could not begin to pay.

Sydney had once dared me to leave and I had done it. She kept telling me I should head to Portland, that I didn’t belong in the red-neck wonderland that was Redmond, Oregon, that I didn’t belong with her. She liked to tell me this as I was heading out the door to my construction job, as if that manual job wasn’t bad enough. I wasn’t full of friends up there. I would read during the lunch hour instead of shooting the shit with those guys.

Syd had drifted. She was spending most of her time with her 8-year-old friend Tony. He was the son of her Uncle’s girlfriend, a Mexican Indian with a brutal temper.

You’d never met another kid like Tony. He was so full of energy it made people around him nervous except Syd. It’d be two in the morning and Tony would come flying out of his bedroom, announcing he wanted to make a pot of coffee, and did anybody else plan to drink some because he had to know how much to make. We all laughed except Sydney, who was grateful, and quick to smile at this kid. “Sure,” She would tell him, as if nothing out of the ordinary was taking place.

Tony was a wiry kid, with arms that reached down past his knees. His caramel skin glowed like a furnace. It lit the room with his palpable, kinetic life. “I like this song.” he’d tell us, scooting across the floor in his wombat pajamas, and doing a 180 in front of Syd. Tony might come to a pause but his eyes did not miss a thing, ever, and his mouth was always working.

It was something about his constant motion that made me feel that life with Sydney was both history, and happening, at once. Tony saw things the way they were apt to pan out, and resisted that future with motion, constant, fluid, irrepressible motion. ” Now there’s a real good guy,” my girl would say. I was being compared to an 8-year-old. She measured me against her alcoholic Uncle Roy, she weighed my talent against grocery baggers at the local market, against waiters in breakfast spots, against every man or boy she’d happen across.

“You really should head to the city.” Syd told me one morning, her decision made. “I’ve talked to Kraft, he’s willing to put you up long enough to get you going.”

I was speechless. “Really?” I asked. Her friend Mick Kraft, was a fairly cool guy. He smoked a lot of pot, and spent his days drawing female nudes. The nudes he drew carried serious weapons. It sounded good as long as I didn’t have to sleep in the room with those drawings.

I headed out on a Greyhound the following evening. It just happened that it was Christmas eve. Syd drove me to the station. I wanted to give her a squeeze good-bye. She had set things up pretty nicely for me. She was holding out her brittle, blonde locks, looking in the rearview.

“Hey,” I said, ducking my head in through the driver’s side window of her Pontiac, “Aren’t you going to give me a hug good-bye?” She looked back to her reflection. “I’m beautiful!” She said, “And you are an idiot! Good luck!” She screamed, still caught up with her reflection. She rolled her window shut.

“All right.” I said, too quietly, and headed to my bus.

A few weeks later, Sydney had had a change of heart. She regretted my departure. She had left this ridiculous message on my machine, “Hey Sean. I’m just letting you know I’m moving to L.A. in the morning. Good luck to you. I’m really sorry about the way things turned out.”

Yeah. Right. I knew what she meant. She was frustrated. She hadn’t been able to get to me after the last ugly scene in the rooming house. She had come up to visit me, and expected to find me pining for her. I had moved into a by-the-week motel, and had left Syd there alone while I went to work for a few hours. She had planned to do a little writing, and had done a little drinking instead. I got a call from her an hour into my shift. She was irate about a couple of girls I’d been with. I had never heard her so pissed. She clocked me with a whiskey bottle as I walked in my door full of apologies and remorse.

I didn’t like the idea of her escape. It seemed too easy. She didn’t deserve easy. I smoked the remains of a pack of American Spirits, read over a few of my poems, and packed my duffel. What the fuck? I decided. Why not? I called a girl I knew and gave her a sob story about a sick friend in Bend. She pulled up in front of my motel a few hours later. She had brought her older sister along for the ride. The sister had my attention. We stopped by Coffee People for a couple of Black Tigers. The girls were buying.

I wasn’t sorry to leave North Portland. Sandy Boulevard was as seedy and depressing a neighborhood as they come. Once into the mountains the snow began to fall and soon there were warnings of white out conditions on the pass. I offered to let the girls turn back. “Hey, we don’t have to go,” I told them. “I didn’t know it was going to be like this,” I said. All I had to do was offer that little bit of concern and their resolve erupted into a maniacal race to my old lady’s place on the other side of the mountains.

The only radio station with a strong signal was playing Native American music. There was a lot of chanting, and one drum. The speedometer hovered steadily around 80, and the tires on their Pontiac weren’t much. All of that had me a little concerned. The older sister moved close to the back of my seat. I could feel her brain working on me. I didn’t appreciate all of that energy aimed my way. I had enough to think about. She kept her forearms on either side of the my head rest, draping my shoulders without really touching me. Her bracelets dangled from her wrists, the thin metal catching a street lamp every ten or so miles. It broke my concentration.

Her long, dark hair had fallen over the seat. It adorned my left shoulder like some exotic bird. “Hey Sean, can I have a little of that coffee?” Big Sis asked, “I’ve finished mine,” she said. Oh, I had something dark in mind for her all right, but it wasn’t my coffee. I needed that.

It was around two in the morning when we pulled up in front of Syd’s rental. The girls were hungry, cold and possessed. They told me they were heading back over the mountains. The older one was acting jilted. Another time, I thought. I walked to the door.

It was Sydney’s fat, laconic roommate who answered. She took one look at me and padded back to her twin bed. “Sydney!” she shrieked just before she closed the door to her room. Syd was not happy to see me.

“What the hell?” She yelled, though her eyes softened right away.

“I’m moving tomorrow. Are you out of your mind? I need my sleep.” Syd told me. She was peering past my shoulder to where the girls waited anxiously for a wave from me. “Who did you con into bringing you here Sean? Christ, it’s a white out on the pass. Do you even care about those girls?” I stepped past her with my bag.

“I’m moving to L.A.” I told her, touching my hand to the dark gully beneath my left eye. I was glad to see she was uneasy with it. “Well can they come in for some coffee?” She asked, an awkward concern showing on her angular face.

“Christ, you’re not going to just send them back on the road are you?” She was squinting to get a good look. “How old are those girls? Sixteen? Christ Sean, do you ever give a shit about any one other than yourself?” I thought about this, “Uh, no.” I answered. I had made her smile. The truth did that. The truth about me anyway.

She closed the door before I could give my ride the wave they were waiting for. “Look, you can’t do this kind of stuff,” Sydney said, fluffing her long, brown hair, and wiping the sleep from her deep green eyes. “Sure, I can,” I disagreed.

I kissed her. It was strange. It was a kiss like the first one, when you are unsure for a moment, what it is supposed to feel like.

“Hey, sorry I hit you.” She said, pulling back from me, her brow furrowed. “Yeah, whatever. You had no right to do that Syd. You sent me away. I didn’t even live with you.” I told her, the anger a fiery heat in my gut.

“Yeah, but I asked you. I asked you to tell me if you had done it, and you said no.” She said, justifying her hideous violence. “I didn’t think you really wanted the answer.” I told her. I felt like wringing her neck. I wanted to put my hands around her tanned little throat and squeeze until the love ran back into the bottle from which it had obviously come.

“Fuck you.” I told her.

“Uh, No. I don’t think so.” She said, turning away and heading toward the back of the house with a tumbler full of Jack Daniel’s.

I followed. She had strung up Christmas lights though the holidays were long over.

“I’m making it up to myself.” She said with a smirk, as if reading my mind.

“Listen,” She said, sitting down at the foot of her bed, “I am sorry.” She was wearing a shirt she had stolen from me.

I wanted that warm little body of hers despite the truth that everything about this woman was wrong. Her body was familiar to me, like some beloved article from my uneasy childhood. The curve of her breasts and ass, the indentation at her collarbone, a spot I had touched with my tongue a hundred times…

Her eyes glimmered as if she might actually be pleased that I had come. It was what her message had told me she wanted. “Well, come on.” She said, rolling on to her stomach. I wanted to do bad things to that ass of hers. “Let’s go to sleep.” She said.

Once Syd, had been a girl I could say anything to. Then she told me she was coming to meet me in person, moving from New York, leaving her husband for me, the words, and Arizona. I cleared off one half of my long desk, making ample room for her typewriter.

Several cities ago, Sydney and I had known a love as prescient as undone novels, our bellies empty of regret. Now we knew North Hollywood. I was grateful for the free ride.


Originally published:
Issue Thirty-One
June 2004


Laine Perry grew up on the road with her mom, making music and telling stories. Many more of these stories from Laine can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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