“He asked why I wasn’t going to work. I told him I walked off. I didn’t want to tell him about how that guy acted, how I couldn’t keep up, how pissed I was that I couldn’t do it. I just told him it didn’t work.”
“You can’t quit a job until you’ve got another one. It’s going to be hard enough…” Judah’s dad didn’t finish the sentence. “You have to get another job. Your stepmom and I can’t deal with you camped out in the living room not talking, not doing. You have to make your life. Hard work will fix you up.”
Judah nodded in agreement. The pain between them felt like a connection and a breaking point in one long look. His dad didn’t know what to do and neither did Judah. There are no guidebooks or places where all amputees go and live happily ever after.
“I didn’t know how to tell him that I couldn’t keep up at the gas station. How could I tell him that? I was supposed to go into construction or farming and I can’t even pump gas? I didn’t say nothin.’ I guess I just couldn’t get off the couch. My dad sided with my stepmom, he didn’t want me around anymore. He kicked me out. He told me to get a job. He didn’t understand what he was asking.”
Judah looked around his parents house, the back yard, the road ahead. It all looked bare. There were no hints of possibilities. He thought maybe it was for the best somehow, a fresh start.
No long conversations nor loving good-byes. Everyone was tired. His dad was tired of feeling helpless. Judah was tired of that feeling too.
He set off on another summer’s day. His dad was at work and his stepmom went to the store. “They knew I was leaving that day but no one stuck around. It was just over, I guess.”
Judah took his school back pack with the clothes he could fit, a new toothbrush from the dentist still in it’s package and a bottle of aspirin. He wanted to strip his room bare, throw everything away as if he’d never been there but there wasn’t time and his dad said often enough that everything in the house belonged to him and to his wife. The decision about what clothes to bring had no deliberation. He took what he could fit.
He started off walking. He would go as far as he could on crutches.
“I had this thought that maybe bein’ a guy missin’ my leg and walkin’ across the country could be inspiring somehow. Maybe someone would see me. I didn’t want to hope and be disappointed but I kept thinkin’ if I could do something big and maybe help somebody else who’s lost a leg, maybe it could all make sense.”
But a few miles out of town and the long road ahead killed that hope too. His armpits were raw and red, his arms throbbed and his remaining foot rebelled against every step where he swung down hard on the ball of it. His arms weren’t free to wipe the sweat from his eyes so it stung. His hair had not grown back from losing it in the hospital due to all the drugs he had been given, so his scalp burned. He needed a hat or something to cover his head but he didn’t think to bring one. He strapped a water bottle to his belt and it bounced around clashing against his thighs. He had to stop often and take a drink. “I didn’t want to get dehydrated again and pass out.”
He put his thumb out.
Five miles from home on a residential street with the temperature hitting 80 degrees, cars passed by him. It took 40 minutes for the first person to stop.
A woman who smoked with the window rolled down driving a Honda pulled over and leaned toward him opening the door.
“Get in hon. How long you been out here?”
“I don’t know, maybe half an hour.”
“It’s hot, you’ll have a stroke. I’m going through Ohio to Kentucky. I can drop you anywhere in between or take you all the way. You okay with that?”
“Yea, that’d be great.”
“Where you headed?”
“I guess to Kentucky now.”
“Well, alright. You need any help getting in?”
“No, I got it. I’m used to it.”
In her sixties with grey hair dyed but losing color she asked about how he lost his leg. Judah knew he’d have to tell this story often so he made it short:
”I was in a tractor accident at my uncle’s farm. They couldn’t save it. That’s about it.”
“Well, you’re a hard working young man. I’m sure something will turn up.”
Judah wasn’t sure what she meant by “turn up” but he kept it to himself. He didn’t want another long discussion about all the things he could do when no one really understood what that meant. People dispense advice without a clue, he thought.
She couldn’t leave the silence alone.
“Where you headed?”
“Portland, I guess. My mom lives there.”
“That seems like a good choice. It’ll be nice to have mom around I bet.”
“I suppose,” Judah said slumped in his seat.
He wasn’t really sure he was going to Oregon but it sounded like it made sense so he’d say it for now. It’d be a long 500 miles if he had to talk the whole way. The seats were comfortable and he had plenty of leg room so he could stretch out and let his crutches lean between him and the driver. Leaving home on his own for the first time made him reticent. He needed a small barrier of privacy.
By the time they reached Kentucky it was night. He had slept off and on the entire way. He felt a little guilty for not being better company. He’d try harder with the next one.
“This is it for me. I’ll drop you off here so you can get a room for the night and start fresh in the morning. You need money or are you covered?” She surprised him with her generosity so casually offered.
“I don’t really have any money. That’d be cool but I don’t think I can pay you back.”
She smiled. “Don’t worry about it. It’ll come back to me somehow, or maybe it already has. Here’s sixty bucks.” She had it ready like she was expecting to give it to him.
“Thank you. Thank you so much. Oh, my name is Judah, by the way. I guess I should have introduced myself hours ago. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. You were tired and you have a long road ahead of you, Judah. Nice, strong name. I’ll remember that.” He closed the door and she drove off slowly waving as she moved away.
The night manager of a roadside motel with red doors and clean walkways let him stay that night without asking him to pay. Judah wasn’t sure if he should use the bit of money he had for a room or save it for food. These were the choices he’d have to make from now on. The manager saw Judah standing out front looking at the three twenty dollar bills in his hand trying to decide what to do. But before he could make up his mind the guy came out and put a key in his hand.
“He must have known I didn’t have a lot of money. He asked if I was hungry and I told him no, even though I was. I didn’t want to be pushy like that. He said he’d get some fruit from the lobby and maybe a beer if I wanted. He kept it behind the desk in a mini fridge. I couldn’t say no.”
They smoked a few cigarettes and drank on the curb outside the room. The manager didn’t ask him about his leg, where he was going or anything about his plans. He told Judah he’d been managing the place for about a year and in that time he’d seen more and more people coming through with packs.
“It’s gotta be exciting and kinda crazy at the same time. Just taking off with a single backpack. Hey, I admire it.”
“Thanks,” Judah spoke with relief. “I’m just wandering, I suppose. I couldn’t stay home and I didn’t know where else to be so I took off. I’m sorta working my way to Oregon where my mom lives but I’m not in a hurry. I really don’t know.”
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
“It’s from a book.”
The two men blew smoke through their noses and watched the road.
“It sounds kinda like what I’m doing. I don’t really know but I’m doing it anyway,” Judah chuckled. “I don’t know how that sounds but it’s true. It’s why I’m kinda quiet most of the time because I feel like I won’t make sense to people. They get frustrated.”
“Those who know, do not speak,” the manager puffed his cigarette and looked like it was the best smoke he’d ever had.
“Is that from the same book? Seems like I should check it out.”
“81 verses. It’s short and paradoxical. It doesn’t make sense at first but you get it eventually.”
“Oh. Is it religious? ‘cause I’ve kinda had enough of that for right now. No offense or nothin’ but I’m not waiting around for God anymore.” Judah looked down at his leg.
The night manager considered for a second. “It’s more like specifically not religious. It’s not against anything but it’s not for it either. It’s called the Tao Te Ching, the Art of the Way, they don’t even know who wrote it. The author’s name means old man.”
“That’s cool. I’ll totally check it out.”
The manager who never bothered to give his name put out his cigarette, grabbed the empty and walked back in the motel without a word. Everything about him was quiet. Even walking away Judah couldn’t hear his feet on the pavement.
Judah woke to the book on his doormat with a note: “The master observes the world but trusts his inner vision.” He looked around but saw a young woman behind the desk. He was gone.
Optimistic and eager to keep moving, he went across the street and ordered breakfast. A Denny’s type place with truckers and travelers ordering pancakes and sausage, he watched the servers filling coffee cups and the customers ripping open sugar packets. He sat at the counter and waited to order. Hungry, Judah wanted something big but got one egg, fruit, toast and a glass of milk. He needed to keep the hunger. Plus that 60 dollars had to last.
A guy two seats down with a huge plate of food and chugging his third cup of coffee loaded with cream and sugar smiled at him through his crutches leaned between them. Judah went back to his breakfast. He wasn’t used to talking to strangers. That’s not how they did things growing up. The guy, an older man with a pot belly and wandering eye sizing people up as they came in took the hint and didn’t start a conversation. But when Judah asked for the check he had already paid it.
Judah grabbed his stuff and went outside looking for the guy and found him checking his truck’s tires and making sure the door on the back of his trailer was secured.
“Hey thanks for buyin’ my breakfast but I can pay for it,” Judah told him breathlessly after walking quickly toward him and dodging potholes in the parking lot.
“Nah. It’s okay. I just wanted to support a veteran. I do that whenever I can.”
“Oh, well I’m not a veteran. I lost my leg in a farm accident. Look, let me pay you back.”
“See how I made that assumption? Sorry. Really, keep it. It was just a couple bucks. Where you headed?”
“Portland, I guess. West anyway.”
“You need a ride. I’m dumping this load in Oklahoma.”
He seemed normal enough and he bought Judah breakfast so he felt some loyalty.
“Yea, that’d be cool.”
“Hop in. We’re leaving in a couple minutes. You got it okay?”
“Yea. I’m used to doin’ stuff on my own.”
They rolled down the highway for ten minutes without talking before the driver spoke up. “You don’t have to do things on your own. God is there for you. You give your troubles to him and he’ll take care of you.”
Judah understood now why the guy picked up strangers. He figured him for a Christian Soldier. No matter how much Judah said or didn’t say he persisted. It went on like that for 800 miles with one exception.
They stopped in Memphis for BBQ and neither one of them could shut up about how good it was. Memphis was nothing much to look at, Judah noticed the houses off the highway with their sagging roofs and crooked foundations. They looked tired. All of Memphis looked like it needed a nap. Even the river slowed down with its sludge churning labored and thick.
The sweaty heat, low skies and high bridges, brick storefronts and Memphis’ general run down appearance reminded Judah of history class. He thought Memphis would be bigger and more colorful but it was kind of like every other city, except for the river and the food and Beale Street.
Judah chuckled at BBQ spaghetti and Tony, the driver, ordered it.
Music poured out of Memphis at night like water from a cracked jug. Tony said they were making good time so he’d drive the eight miles out of his way so Judah could say he saw Beale Street. Neon signs, brick everywhere and crowds in every conceivable place bumping happily against each other jockeying for doorways and patio tables made the small city look bigger.
The streets were dark, cast in a neon glow. Judah wanted to get dropped off there but Tony recommended against it.
“You might struggle to get a ride outta here. Believe me in a couple hours you don’t want to be here.”
Memphis, once the hub of the civil rights movement and now an economically devastated footnote along the Mississippi, suffers from an opiod epidemic, a declining population and is home to the worst schools in Tennessee. 69 out of the bottom 83 schools are in Memphis. It’s a different place from night to the next morning.
Back in the truck, he fell asleep and missed the scenery until Tony woke him up in Oklahoma.
“Okay buddy. Our adventure is over. I gotta drop this stuff off and get some sleep before heading backhome. In a day I’ll start this all over again. It aint easy but it’s a job so I feel lucky to have it.”
“Listen, it’s been nice to have your company and wether you want it or not, I’ll pray for you.”
“Thanks. I’ll take it if it comes from you.” Judah clasped his hands in a kind of prayer but added a slight bow he’d seen the motel manager do.
Just a few days ago Judah had no way of knowing any of this would happen.