The other morning I picked up a hitchhiker and it turned out to be Walt Whitman. The beard should’ve been a dead giveaway, but I didn’t put it together at first. Most tramps wear beards like that, honestly: long, scraggly things all yellowed around the mouth with nicotine. You’d think it’d be easy to tell a poet from a bum, but it ain’t.
I was at a standstill on the Limehouse Bridge, the Stono River shimmering below. A few other vehicles were waiting to cross, but most folks had already evacuated. Walt Whitman was walking all lazy down the median, his grimy thumb stuck up in the air, looking pitifully into car windows as he passed. He had a battered guitar tied to his back with a piece of rope. When he got to my truck, he mashed his face against my window and just stayed there, leering at me until I finally surrendered and said, “Alright, come on then.”
He went around to the passenger side and climbed in, arranging his guitar between his legs. I was waiting for him to thank me for taking him on or something, but he never did. He just sat there, sliding his fingers over the neck of his guitar for what felt like a very long time. The backs of my knees began to sweat. Our breath made fog on the windshield.
So I decided to forgive the impoliteness. I stuck my hand out to him. “I’m Jasper,” I said.
He giggled from behind his beard, took my hand real gently, and tickled my palm with his forefinger. “I’m Walt Whitman,” he said. “I hear America singing.”
I lived alone on Etiwan Island because the rent was cheap. I worked in North Charleston, at a factory that made rubber fishing worms. The Limehouse Bridge was the sole passage from Etiwan to the mainland, but the river had swollen since the bridge was first built, so it was only crossable at dead low tide. Sometimes I had to leave for work six or eight hours early, depending on the tide schedule. That’s why the rent was so cheap.
The morning before I picked up Walt Whitman, I was lying on my living room floor, looking at boats for sale in the classifieds, when someone knocked on the door. I got up and answered. It was a soldier in a camouflage getup. “Ain’t you heard?” he said. “There’s a hurricane coming.”
“What?” I looked past him. A Humvee was parked in my driveway. “No, sir,” I said. “I got no television.” My last girlfriend had taken ours with her when we broke up, even though I’d paid for it. I didn’t care to look at it much anyway.
The man removed his hat and shook his head. “It’s not safe here.”
“I had no idea,” I said. “I’m sorry. What should I do?”
Someone yelled from the Humvee and the soldier held up his hand. “Get off the island,” he said to me. “Go west.”
My boots were sitting beside the door and I pulled them on, started lacing them. “Right. Thank you, sir. That’s just what I’ll do.”
The soldier nodded sharply and set off for the Humvee. I went inside and gathered up all my valuables: cellphone, billfold, Granddad’s penknife, lucky buckeye. I put it all in my pockets, packed a plastic grocery bag with a change of clothes, and went straight for my truck.
The tide ebbed after an hour and Walt Whitman and I were able to get over the bridge. We took backroads twenty miles to the interstate. The houses along the way all had their windows covered with plywood. Some of the boards had numbers spray-painted on them in red or blue and it gave me a tangled feeling, scared and excited at the same time, like peeping on a naked woman. The tree branches were already beginning to shake with wind.
When we started onto the interstate, Walt Whitman said, “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.”
“Where you think we ought to go?” I asked.
Walt Whitman opened the beer window, sniffed the air, and cupped his hand to his ear. “Far,” he said. “This is going to be one mother of a storm.”
We stopped in northeast Georgia for gas and cigarettes. The black dirt of the coast had turned to clay. I found a Flying J right off the exit and eased into the parking lot. A tall man stood in front of the store, leaning against an icebox. He was wearing a suit and a fancy looking hat, talking on a cellphone. I parked at the number two gas pump and Walt Whitman jumped out of the truck. He walked straight up to the man and stared at him like he’d done me on the bridge. I stayed sitting in the cab with the windows down, watching.
Finally, the man put his phone to his shoulder. “Can I help you?” he asked Walt Whitman.
“The negro that drives the huge dray of the stone-yard, steady and tall, stands poised on one leg on the string-piece. His blue shirt exposes his ample neck and breast and loosens over his hip-band.”
The man put the phone back to his ear. “I’ve got to go,” he said. He slid the phone into his breast pocket. “Now what did you just say to me?” he asked Walt Whitman.
“His glance is calm and commanding. He tosses the slouch of his hat away from his forehead. The sun falls on his crispy hair and moustache, falls on the black of his polished and perfect limbs.”
“Crispy?” the man said.
Walt Whitman stood up tall and clasped his hands together over his chest. “I behold the picturesque giant and love him,” he said. “And I do not stop there.”
The man reared back and punched Walt Whitman in the jaw. The poet grunted like a catfish and fell straight to the pavement.
“Crazy son-of-a-bitch,” the man said, walking toward his car.
I got out of the truck and went over to Walt Whitman. “Jesus,” I said. “Are you okay?”
He dusted the gravel from his elbows and cautiously worked his jaw. “The armies of those I love engirth me,” he said. “And I engirth them. They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them, and discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.”
“I reckon that means yes,” I said. I helped him up and we went inside the station. I got some beef jerky and a Coke and went to the counter.
Walt Whitman came up behind me with a bag of gummy worms. “Can you get these for me?” he asked. “I’m a vegetarian and I’m a little short on cash.”
I took a deep breath. “Why not?” I said. “Go ahead and put ‘em up there.”
He laid the candy on the counter and the cashier added it to my ticket. She was a skinny woman with green eyeshadow and red hair tied up in pigtails. She was smacking on gum. I asked for a hard-pack of Parliaments and forty dollars’ worth of gas.
“Make it two boxes of smokes, honey,” Walt Whitman said. He stared at her ass while she bent over to get the cigarettes. He was fiddling with something in his pocket.
I paid and we went to leave, but Walt Whitman stopped at the door. “Copulation,” he said to the cashier. “Is no more rank to me than death is.”
I grabbed him by the nap of his shirt and pushed him out into the parking lot. “I’m sorry,” I said to the woman. “He didn’t mean nothing.”
“Oh, that’s alright,” the woman said, grinning. “No offense at all.” She blew a big, pink bubble that burst over her lips.
“What the hell?” I asked Walt Whitman as we walked back to the gas pump.
He looked at me quizzically.
“You can’t just go around saying whatever you want.”
I took the gas nozzle from its holster and started filling up the truck. “Because that just ain’t how it works.”
Walt Whitman shook his head sadly and looked to the sky, still cloudy and gray. “We have to keep moving,” he said.
Alabama was a wasteland, nothing but pine tree after pine tree after pine tree. Empty beer cans and fast-food bags littered the edges of the interstate. I’d been putting off calling my boss—my nerves were completely shot—but it was becoming obvious I was going to miss a few days of work. I drew out my cellphone, gave my lucky buckeye a rub through my pocket, and dialed him up.
“Are you shitting me?” he yelled. “You’re running away from this little frog strangler we got coming?”
I pulled the phone back from my face to protect my ear. Walt Whitman could hear everything. “A soldier showed up at my house,” I shouted at the mouthpiece. “In full camouflage. He told me I wasn’t safe.”
“You could’ve stayed here if you were so worried,” my boss said. “Pulled a double to keep your mind off the storm. We’re up and running. I’ve got orders to fill.”
“The soldier told me to go west.”
“You should’ve called me first. You know we’re in the middle of prime bass fishing season.”
I squeezed the steering wheel tight. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I guess you’re right. I’ll call you when I get back in town.”
“Don’t bother,” he said. “I can’t hold a vacant position. I’ve got orders to fill.”
“Right. Okay. Thanks.”
My boss hung up and I threw my phone to the floorboard. For a while, there was no sound but rubber rolling over asphalt.
“Here is realization,” Walt Whitman said, breaking the silence. “Here is man tallied—he realizes here what he has in him. The past, the future, majesty, love—if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.” He took a cigarette from his pack and stuck it in his mouth. “Only the kernel of every object nourishes; where is he who tears off the husks for you and me? Where is he that undoes stratagems and envelopes for you and me?”
I rubbed my hand over my face. “What does that even mean?” I asked.
He lit the cigarette and took a long drag from it. Smoke billowed out of the window. “It means fuck that guy,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, then, thanks, Walt.”
“No problem, Jasper.”
I smiled and flicked on the radio. “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”came across the speakers, and Walt Whitman sang along.
By two a.m. we were in Oklahoma. The highway was dead. Every now and then we’d run up on a big-rig, but that was all. I’d wanted to stop for the night in Memphis, and again in Little Rock, but Walt Whitman wouldn’t allow it.
Fifteen miles out of Fort Smith, an armadillo scuttled across the road. Walt Whitman reached across the cab and snatched the wheel hard to the right. The truck rolled. I was slung out of my seat and hit my head hard on the roof.
When I came to, I was lying in the grass beside the truck. Walt Whitman was standing over me, the end of his beard tickling my chin. His forehead was scratched and his shirt was dirty. He was crying. A tear ran down his beard and dribbled on my lips.
I spat and wiped my mouth. “What were you thinking?” I asked. I felt in my pocket for my buckeye and Granddad’s penknife. They were still there.
“A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,” Walt Whitman said.
“You nearly killed us.”
“I know.” He wiped his face dry. “I’m sorry.”
We picked our belongings out of the mess: my bag of clothes, my cellphone, Walt Whitman’s guitar. I called for a wrecker and we sat cross-legged at the edge of the woods, side by side, watching the occasional pair of headlights burn through the black.
The tow-truck arrived a half-hour later. It had eagle wings painted on both doors, and a headdress across the hood. A fat man stepped out wearing one of those tall orange hunting hats. He had a Colt single-action revolver strapped to his belt. The name Big Dave was stitched on his left breast.
“I see swarms of stalwart chieftains, medicine-men, and warriors,” Walt Whitman said. “As flitting by like clouds of ghosts, they pass and are gone in the twilight.”
Big Dave stared blankly at us. “Excuse me?” he asked.
I punched Walt Whitman in the arm. “Nothing,” I said. “He’s crazy.”
“Right.” Big Dave walked to the truck and looked it over. When he got to the rear, he said, “South Carolina? You boys are a long way from home.”
“We were running from a storm,” I said.
“Is that right?”
“It’s large,” Walt Whitman said. “It contains multitudes, I swear.”
Big Dave loaded my truck onto the back of his wrecker, then we all three got in the cab and he drove us to his tow-yard. Walt Whitman rode bitch.
“That’s an impressive beard,” Big Dave said. “It might scare the little Choctaw boys.”
Walt Whitman squinted his eyes. “Washes and razors for foofoos,” he said. “For me, freckles and a bristling beard.”
Big Dave shook his head. “Alright then,” he said.
When we got to the tow-yard, Big Dave dropped my truck in the scrap heap before pulling around to the office. Inside, he poured three Styrofoam cups of Folgers. The floor was covered in pink receipt paper and feathers.
We went outside and Big Dave built a fire in a skidder wheel. We all stood around it, drinking the coffee. After a while, Walt Whitman went to the tow truck and fetched his guitar. He came back and sat on the ground beside the fire, put the guitar to his knee, and made like to play.
Big Dave looked at me, rocking back and forth on his heels. “I’ve always found it a bit saccharine when men play guitar beside fires,” he said.
I tried to smile. Walt Whitman saw me and shook his head. He cleared his throat, strummed a G-chord, and the fire suddenly grew. The wheel began to glow.
Big Dave stepped back quickly from the flames and shaded his face from the heat. I couldn’t move. It was as if my feet were nailed to the ground.
“O spirituality of things,” Walt Whitman warbled. “O strain musical flowing through ages and continents, now reaching me in America. I take your strong chords, intersperse them, and cheerfully pass them forward.”
He strummed a C-chord. The fire grew bigger, the wheel white hot. I closed my eyes. My lucky buckeye trembled in my pocket.
“I sing to the last, the equalities, modern or old. I sing the endless finales of things. I say nature continues, glory continues. I praise with electric voice. For I do not see one imperfection in the universe, and I do not see one cause or result lamentable at last in the universe.”
Walt Whitman strummed a D-chord. The fire went out and the skidder wheel fell into a smoking pile of cinders. The world was quiet for a moment. Then a coyote howled and I felt the cold creep back into the tips of my fingers. I opened my eyes and turned to look at Big Dave. He was standing very still with his hat in his hands. “Chokfi,” he said. “It is him.”
“Beats the hell out of me,” I said.
Walt Whitman chuckled. He stood up and slung his guitar across his back. “How much you reckon it’s going to cost us to get clear of all this?”
Big Dave waived our bill and gave us an old Ford Taurus from the tow-yard on the condition that we left Choctaw Nation immediately. We put Walt Whitman’s guitar and my grocery bag of clothes in the backseat and hauled onto the hardtop. We drove aimlessly through Oklahoma until eventually we came into a town. It was near six a.m. and the sun was beginning to come up strong over the plains.
A Red Roof Inn cast a shadow over the road. We stopped and got a room. The lobby was bright and smelled like bleach. They were already serving breakfast, so we sat down at a round table with a wobbly leg and ate boiled eggs and toast with butter.
Two men in wrinkled dress shirts sat across from each other at a table near us, drinking orange juice. The TV in the corner was tuned to the Weather Channel. A broadcaster came on and started talking about the hurricane back home. He showed a helicopter video of Etiwan Island, swamped over by the Stono. I could see a couple of church steeples and the tip of the McDonald’s sign poking out of the water, but nothing else. The Limehouse Bridge was washed out completely.
“How the whirl, the contest, the wrestle of evil with good, the sounding and resounding, keep on and on,” Walt Whitman said.
One of the men looked over at us and whispered something to his friend. They both laughed.
I felt something burning in my cheeks. I turned to them. “What?” I asked. “Y’all got a problem?” I set down my fork. One of them smiled behind his cup of juice. “Look, just fuck off, alright? There was a hurricane. We’re trying to talk.”
Neither of the men responded, so I went back to eating. Walt Whitman smiled.
After breakfast, we went up to our room. A welded cross made of horseshoes hung on the wall over the beds and a clock radio sat on a small table below it. Walt Whitman turned the radio on. Static blared. I took off my boots and laid on the bed closest to the door. Walt Whitman fiddled with the radio dial until he finally found a clear station. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” came across the speakers and we both sang along.
When I woke up later that evening, Walt Whitman was gone. I went around the room looking for a note, but there was none. A grease spot on his pillow was the only sign he’d been there at all.
I took a long, hot shower and thought about my life: home flooded, job lost, truck totaled. I used up a whole bar of soap, just rubbing it over my chest again and again. When I got out, I dried myself with a towel that smelled like grass and dressed in fresh clothes. I took my billfold, my cellphone, Granddad’s penknife, and my lucky buckeye from my dirty pants and slipped them into my pockets. I thought about calling someone to check in, let them know I was alive, figure out where to go next, but I couldn’t think of anyone. So I laid a dollar bill on the bed for the maid, packed up the laundry in my grocery bag, and made for the door, but something made me stop. I went back to the bed, pulled the buckeye from my pocket, gave it one last rub, and laid it on top of the money.
Outside, the Taurus was right where I’d left it. I put my things in the passenger seat and fell in behind the wheel. I pulled onto the highway, drove out of town, and the vast, dry plains opened themselves to me. “Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,” I said to myself. “Healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.”
I rolled down the window and hummed a little tune.