Creative Nonfiction by Sam DeLeo
Our plan, if it could be called that, had been to catch a few long rides all the way to Los Angeles. Once there, we’d lounge poolside for the holiday weekend at the home of Will’s wealthy family, who were, according to him, direct heirs to the Hilton Hotel fortune. Even at 19, I was not so naïve as to overlook the fact that homeless folk could spin tales of grandeur like this. Maybe a sliver of them were true. And entertaining Will’s story beat dwelling on our present situation.
We had been sleeping in a park near the Animas River in Durango, Colorado, and were out of food. We’d boiled the last of our black-eyed peas in the morning on one of the public barbecues as a bright November sun chased thin clouds from the sky. We were leaving behind our camp of tarps and torn blankets, as we had no room to fit them with the belongings we carried in a daypack and laundry bag. The camp had served us well after our construction work at a hospital addition ended and we were no longer able to afford the fees to stay at the town’s youth hostel. Someone else could enjoy the tattered bedding, at least until the teeth of winter bared themselves.
It was growing into an unseasonably warm late November day. We shed our light jackets and let the shirtsleeve temperature lift our moods for the big hitchhike ahead of us. With the warmth reviving our bones and joints, it was not long before we began to ask ourselves, why not spend the last of our few dollars on a 12-pack and make the most of the sunshine before hitting the road? People could be homeless for a variety of reasons. Our circumstances weren’t driven by a fireside, Rockwell-esque reserve of common sense. As fuck-ups, we were who we said we were.
Will and I met on a construction job in Boulder. I’d hitchhiked there from Dayton, Ohio; he had left from L.A., which happened to be my intended destination, though Will was never clear if this particular orbit from his home state had been a lengthy one.
Fresh paychecks in hand one Friday, we both agreed on heading to the liquor store immediately and went in on some vodka together. From then on, alcohol became a constant bond and objective for us.
At 32, Will had groomed his talents for speaking and storytelling, which were especially at play when he drank. His voice carried a soft, high-pitched tone that made him sound younger than he was. His light brown hair was cropped the same short length on his scalp and face, as if he had stuck his whole head into a Flowbee-styled electrical trimmer dialed to the closest setting.
Though I never saw much evidence of it, Will often claimed women were checking him out. Whenever he believed this to be occurring or was trying to make an impression on a woman, he would steel his lips and nose into a kind of European-style, Sean Connery-esque grimace. In Indian lands or places near reservations like Durango, he maintained that native tribal leaders would grow mystically aware of his presence and send an emissary to meet him. He rolled his own cigarettes, “Old World-style,” he said. Sometimes he would tilt his knit cap like a beret and try to speak French while he smoked.
But he never talked about the details of his life. I never knew why he told the same stories repeatedly. Only that he didn’t believe them.
When it came to jobs, Will had perfected the art of working just enough to avoid getting fired. I can see in retrospect, at least, that this was indeed an art. It required knowing the psychology of the workplace but having the heart of a gambler. If he could carry two pieces of lumber to a work area, Will’s perspective was, why not bring one? But we both showed up and worked every morning, even when hungover or still drunk.
We had finished three construction projects in different parts of the state by the time we decided to leave for L.A. I had never been to Los Angeles, while Will would be making another reunion with the Hiltons, which was too interesting not to sign up for — it was my original destination, anyway, not Colorado, and if I some of what Will said was true, I could debut in the City of Angels poolside on a multimillionaire’s property. And I would eat and drink until I dropped.
The storm caught us by surprise as we reached the highway 30 miles or so west of the Colorado border in the high Utah desert. A latticework of rolling pinkish buttes ribbed the barren countryside for miles in all directions. We’d made the highway from our southern route too late. Cars between the semis dwindled well before midnight, the trucks falling off after that, until nothing came for what felt like an hour in either direction of the slanting snow disappearing into the black horizons.
The rapid change in weather likely meant the road had not been plowed. We worried they had closed the highway back at the state border.
Over time, cars that don’t stop to pick you up shift their treble. When cottony snow fills the navy-blue sky in the late afternoon and early evening, they speak to you with a simple “No thanks,” or “Just going up the road a bit.” As deeper night settles, they snarl and hiss as they pass.
As another bad choice in a long line of them tracing our zigzag path across the state of Colorado, I had purchased second-hand, steel-toed Double H cowboy boots that conducted the cold like guard rails. We tried several defenses against the wind and our lack of winter clothing to no avail: pacing back and forth, standing on our toes, jogging in place. I jumped up and down on the side of the highway until the cold began to pierce my lungs.
We decided to walk the 30 miles back to Colorado more to generate consistent body temperature than from any belief we’d reach it. At least our corpses will be well preserved, I recall thinking. By 1 a.m. or so, it no longer seemed the greater risk to walk out in the middle of the highway and attempt to stop the next car we saw.
A pair of headlights approached. I don’t remember how I convinced myself I could emerge from the shoulder of the berm onto the lanes of highway, entering the car’s field of illumination during the middle of a snowstorm, while not looking crazed to the driver — just somebody out for an evening stroll through the eastern Utah desert who had gotten himself turned around a bit, maybe a family member left behind during a pee break, a fellow driver battling an overheated radiator whose car was hidden somewhere. None seemed believable scenarios.
But the bad road conditions favored us, as the car couldn’t have been traveling much over 45 mph when its headlights flashed on me waving my arms over my head. If the car decreased its pace, if its driver saw how ill-clothed we were for the storm, we both believed he or she would stop and give us a ride, mainly because we had no other choice, we didn’t discuss what to do otherwise. For my part, I decided I was not going to let the car leave us, even if I had no idea how I would accomplish this.
Fortunately, the surprised man behind the steering wheel offered to take us back to Grand Junction, Colorado. Coveting the warmth of the car, I waited for the driver to grow more comfortable with our silence before asking a hinting question about where we might stay at this hour in Grand Junction. It went answered. Will, on the other hand, said nothing except to mutter thanks as we were dropped on the west edge of town.
The warmth of the car helped bend our toes again as we walked through the empty lightless streets, even if we had stopped feeling digit extremities long ago. We were out of money, but it would not have mattered at this early hour in the morning. Any shelters or hostels in the town of would have been long closed, it was Thanksgiving.
The car we hoped would rescue us sat on wooden blocks in front of a shuttered mechanic’s shop. It was covered in several inches of fresh snow that would continue to pile up, though much less furiously than when the storm caught us several hours ago in Utah. Loose powder slid from the car’s doors as we cracked them open on either side. I climbed in front. Will took the back.
Thinking we might have already suffered some frostbite, we were thankful to be out of the wind. What worried us, after a few minutes passed, was that it didn’t feel much warmer inside the car than it did outside. Either we were more hypothermic than we knew or the car was too porously sealed to trap any body heat, or both.
Before long, we began shivering, the kind of shivers that force you into a constant muscle-twitching shake. If the cold doesn’t prevent you from sleep, this spasmodic shaking will. It’s your body fighting off the strange, calm warmth of hypothermia. People who freeze to death are sometimes found stripped naked because the rush of heat they feel just before dying convinces them to disrobe, causing some law enforcement unfamiliar with this process to suspect criminal foul play. Liquor can help. But if you don’t have it, you won’t get any kind of rest. We would’ve set our homoerotic fears aside and spooned together for warmth if we had been able to get the front bench seat to recline.
I pulled out the few pieces of clothing I had left from the Army-issue laundry bag I carried my belongings in; Will emptied everything from his daypack that could be used to keep warm.
We would fight over these pieces of clothing for hours.
Whoever inched toward rest, relaxing his grip, lost a patch of his makeshift blanket to the other, who later had the same thing happen to him if he relaxed. It was a battle fought with adrenalin that repeatedly jolted us from weak to wakeful.
“Fuck you!” Will said once, tearing back some clothes to his half of the car.
“Fuck you, this was your idea!” I replied, snatching them back.
The details of those hours until a gold sun finally rose and temperatures climbed, of the constant pulling of clothes from each other and the worry induced by the cold, can paint a desperate tug of war. But they can’t confuse that we both knew winning it might be fatal to the loser. I imagine this is a kind of admission most people want to forget. I think probably few succeed in doing so, since recounting this night still makes me wince, and not primarily from the phantom of the cold.
The corners of the past don’t always fold neatly, and while occupied with the messy overlaps, we don’t notice our resolutions escaping.
My shame over the incident eventually dissolved into the ongoing indigence of my youth. I would not feel it again as I did then until many years later. It vanished into the same struggles that gave it birth. But, so would my pride also rise and fade into thin air, along with my joys and sorrows, hates and loves, every feeling I believed wasn’t just along for a ride. In the blazing starkness of those days, I never noticed the wounds that could scar later.
Will and I exited out the same doors we entered. The streets around us were still empty, absent of witnesses to our crawling from our frozen cocoon. With the car between us, we both looked uneasily toward the ground as we fixed our travel bags over our shoulders. There was a long pause before we headed in opposite directions. Neither of us said anything.
I don’t know about Will, but I did look back once. Sunbeams lit his breath like steam as he walked away.
Sam DeLeo’s writing has appeared in Glass Mountain, Hobart, Paste Magazine, Storyhouse, Anti-Heroin Chic, Culture Matters, and Talking Soup, among others. He currently lives in Denver.