The Scent of Dust

There was no hope in Hope. Stupid name for a town, he thought, having never even been within its limits. He stood on the gravel shoulder of the black-tar highway and stared into the gloom of the night. There hadn't been so much as a pair of headlights in hours, and his only company had been the mosquitos. He'd been bitten and stung so many times that he'd grown numb, and the throbbing redness of a thousand tiny welts had become like armor, deadening him to his plight.

He stamped his feet. The nights were the worst part of the journey, as no matter how hot the days had been, the dark was always cold. His breath plumed, lit a sickly yellow by the hazy light from the lamp-post overhead. He contemplated having a cigarette, but his supplies were dire and needed to last until he found work. Besides, he was confident the next ride would have a smoke for him. It was something he'd learned in all his years of hitching up and down that long stretch of road: the only people who picked up hitchers were either drunk, stoned, or some kind of born-again religious type. Of course, there was a fourth type, the psychotic, but he did his best not to think about those. He'd only ever come across a handful in his hundreds of lifts, and the less he recalled those times, the better.

He pulled a worn bible from his overcoat's inner pocket and tried to thumb through it, but the light was lousy and the print too small and his eyes too tired to make any sense of the words. Instead, he mumbled an "Our Father" and slipped the book away, tightening his collar. Was that a raindrop?

He heard the rain before he felt it, pattering down on the asphalt and gravel and weedy grasses that choked the ditch behind him. It raised that grey dusty smell of a road long unwashed, and he savored it with a deep inhale. It reminded him of simpler times, sitting on the porch with his old man and watching the clouds burst over the prairie while sipping on iced tea and smoking American tobacco. The memory made him want a cigarette even more, and he choked the craving down with grim determination. It had become a minor war with himself, something to pass the time, a battle against his own weakness. He was winning, for now, and hoped he could hold out until that mystical smoke-bearing ride pulled up.

The rain fell in earnest, as the wet spots made by the first drops turned into splashes and then puddles proper. He reached down into the bulky canvas bag at his feet and pulled out a blue tarp, which he flung over his head like a child draping a protective blanket over itself, and he cinched it tight at his throat in one grubby fist. The sound of the raindrops hitting his tarpaulin shroud evoked other memories. Spending rainy afternoons holed up in the treehouse his father had built in the backyard of the farmstead, or years later up in the deer perch waiting for a decent-sized buck to wander by. He chided himself for being so maudlin, especially stone-cold sober as he was. He chalked it up to having spent overlong waiting for this particular ride. It didn't do him any good to be alone with himself for so long. He started to sing:

"An old man left by his wife and child,
the yard untended, now growing wild.
Who'll be there to bury the father?
I don't think none would even bother!
And oh the freedom you longed to be given,
turned out to be but a lonely prison.
If the young man you were could only see you now
he'd never grow old, no way, no how!"

He shouted the last verse into the night and cackled with glee. Freedom, he thought. This is it. He peered out into the rain, thinking he might have heard an approaching engine, and a chance to leave that wretched spot of highway just outside of Hope. The wet dark stared back at him, and he shivered under his tarp.

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