This interesting article was written by
Nikolaus Maack (former owner of this website)
|Bruce is over six feet tall and weighs more than three hundred pounds. When he rides in a small car, he has two options:
1) He can bend his neck so his ear rests on his shoulder. An hour in this position and he starts to get cramps.
2) He can roll down the window and stick his head out. What with his long, tangled brown hair and his messy brown beard, he can almost pass himself off as a sheepdog.
Despite these difficulties, he somehow managed to hitchhike from Ottawa to Vancouver and back. I don’t know how he did it. Maybe he got a lot of rides in spacious eighteen-wheelers.
Bruce is a friend of mine. He has a lot of great stories about himself but I can’t convince him to write them down. He just can’t see the point. Bruce writes horror and science fiction — real life doesn’t interest him. So I’ve decided to steal Bruce’s life and put it on paper. That’ll leave him more time for writing about vampires and laser pistols.
His hitchhiking adventure started because of his job. Work was killing him. Every day he had to lie to everyone he met. The lying was paying off quite well — on a good day he was making up to $150 an hour — but there were some nasty side effects. He no long understood the value of money, throwing away fistfuls of change every day. Anything less than a quarter went into the trash. People were little more than money trees — he’d walk up to them, shake them, gather up the green, and walk on to the next one. He felt guilty all the time. It had to stop. He hated it. He was going nuts. And yet he kept sinking lower and lower.
Bruce doesn’t want me to write about the specific details of his job. He’s worried he’ll get arrested for some of the things he did. All I can tell you is that he was in sales. Sometimes he cut corners. Other times he hacked the corners off with a machete.
After much thought and anguish, Bruce decided to escape. All the anchors holding him down had to be cast off. So he quit his job, went home, took his apartment door off its hinges, and invited in the entire neighbourhood.
“Take it all,” he announced. “Everything must go.”
Off to one side he put the things he wanted to keep: a backpack, a sleeping bag, a tent, a small pile of books, some food.
When the neighbours were done, everything was gone — including some things from the keeping pile. No matter. He strapped the remains to his back and headed for the highway. When he got there, he stuck out his thumb and waited to see what would happen.
I find it hard to believe people stopped to give him a lift. Bruce is huge and hairy. He’s my friend, but even to me he sort of looks like a psychotic lumberjack, or a B-movie wrestler. A kinder, gentler Charles Manson. And yet Bruce got rides all the time. Maybe those drivers zipping past could somehow sense the profound goodness in Bruce. (Despite the moral lapse of his sales job, he is one of the most upstanding guys I know.) Or maybe there are just a lot of suicidal people out there, looking to get slaughtered by a psychotic hitchhiker.
Bruce liked plaid shirts and suspenders and wore a large straw hat to keep the summer sun off his head. This outfit plus his beard made many people mistake him for an Amish man. This was an error he never corrected, because it got him more rides. Maybe that’s what got him across Canada.
Somewhere between Hamilton and Sault Ste Marie on a hot summer day, a mini-van pulled over, offering Bruce a lift. The driver was alone — a businessman in his mid forties, dressed in a somber gray suit. A tense but eager smile dominated the man’s face. Bruce instantly recognized the look: a lonely business traveler, looking for conversation.
Bruce climbed in, muttering his thanks. The van was perfectly clean and smelled new. There was nothing cluttering the dashboard, nothing on the floor. And in back there was a large, white, empty stretcher.
The driver saw Bruce eyeing the stretcher and chuckled. “You’re about to ride in a hearse. But don’t worry, you’re not dead. My name’s Glen. I’m a mortician.”
“Bruce,” Bruce said. They shook hands. Glen’s handshake was dry, bony, but reassuring — the handshake of a salesman who sells death.
“Go ahead and throw your backpack on to the stretcher. It doesn’t make a difference to me or the dead.”
Bruce threw his bag in back and settled into his seat. It was nice to be riding in a spacious van. He stretched out his legs and massaged the side of his neck. Glen eased the van back out onto the highway.
“I didn’t know they used vans as hearses,” Bruce said. He’d always believed mini-vans were driven by the dead, not for them.
“Sometimes we use the van,” Glen said, “when we have to move a body from city to city. Say somebody dies in Montreal but wants to be buried in Toronto. No reason to use the hearse. We save it for special occasions. Upkeep on a hearse… It can be kind of pricey.”
Glen started talking about how horrible his life was. This wasn’t a new thing to Bruce. People who don’t have the money or the time for a shrink spill their guts to hitchhikers.
“My partner,” Glen said. “He takes advantage of me. He doesn’t mean to. He just, does it out of habit, I think. We started the business together, the funeral parlor. Only now I’m running it, and he’s acting like a silent partner.”
Bruce made a sympathetic grunting noise. He’d learned to keep quiet with this kind of a ride. Let the guy speak his mind, and get as far a drive as possible.
“Anyway, you’ve got to work. I hate my job, but somebody’s got to do it. Peace of mind and all that jazz. Some of the stiffs I meet… Ha ha… Sorry, old joke. But a man’s got to work, got to support his family.”
Glen reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a half roll of Lifesavers, unwrapped one, and popped it into his mouth. He sucked on it thoughtfully for a little while, then crunched it to pieces with unnecessary violence.
“My family,” Glen said. “I got a wife, two kids. Boy and a girl. Just what everyone wants, right? One of each. We have a nice house. I take care of them. A man’s got to take care of his family, make sure they have what they need. But, you know, it feels like they’re using me. There’s no… No gratitude, you know? I feel like they’re using me, and… Sometimes, I just hate them. I hate their guts.”
Glen was silent for a moment, mulling over his own words, as if surprised by them. Another Lifesaver went into his mouth. He sucked, and then – crunch, crunch, crunch.
“Not really,” Glen said. “I don’t really hate my family. Of course I love them. A man’s got to love his wife and kids, right? My kids are great. No worse than anybody else’s. Boy and a girl, did I mention that? I’ve got pictures…”
Glen fumbled around for his wallet. But he must have changed his mind about the pictures, because what came out were the Lifesavers. One of the candies was about to die in his mouth when Glen turned to look slyly at Bruce. He eyed him as though he’d just remembered Bruce was there.
“I guess you, uh, noticed my Lifesavers habit,” Glen said.
“Kind of,” Bruce said tactfully.
Glen smiled. It wasn’t much of a smile — a sad smear of teeth over his chin. “It’s a habit. Lifesavers. I admit it’s a habit. But a man’s got to have a habit, and there are worse habits out there. I could be a drinker, or a smoker. Cheat on my wife — hey, that might not be too bad. Ha ha. I could go for that one. Hey, could you open the glove compartment?”
Bruce did as asked and saw ten or so rolls of Lifesavers sitting inside.
“Pass me a couple, would ya?” Glen asked. “Take one, if you’d like.”
Bruce took a roll, mumbled his thanks, and stuffed it into his pocket. He handed two rolls to Glen. The mortician tore one open immediately. It was amazing to watch — Glen could open a package of Lifesavers with one hand, while the other hand kept the wheel steady.
Suck, suck. Crunch, crunch, crunch.
That’s how it went as they drove along. Glen talked about how he hated his life, and then apologized for hating it. All the while he sucked and chewed on Lifesavers. He devoured five or six rolls while Bruce tried not to stare.
And Glen fidgeted, twisting back and forth in his seat, unable to get comfortable. When his nervous hands weren’t clutching the steering wheel they were drumming out a nervous beat. Lifesavers came out of the left jacket pocket, and scraps of wrapper were neatly tucked away on the right. Suddenly Glen must have run out of complaints because he fell silent, staring out at the open road, scowling, fake smiling, and then scowling again.
He glanced at Bruce once more. Again it was as though he were seeing Bruce for the first time, like he kept forgetting who was sitting next to him. Bruce could have been anyone.
“What about you?” Glen asked.
“What about me?” Bruce asked.
“You got family?”
“Yeah, back in Ottawa, my mom and dad,” Bruce said. He’d avoided his parents for over two years, but neglected to mention it. “No wife, no kids. Right now, I’m just wandering. I have no idea where I’ll wind up. No job, no responsibilities, nowhere I have to be.”
“I envy you,” Glen said. “That kind of freedom. Jesus! That’s the life, huh? That’d be great. You and the road.”
“It’s pretty good,” Bruce said humbly.
“No wife to worry about, no job to do. Somebody hassles you, you can just walk away. Hitchhiking is illegal, isn’t it? Do the cops give you a hard time?”
“Sometimes,” Bruce said. “When they do, I just give them a big, crazy smile, and say, ‘Well, officer, I’m just hitchhiking for Jesus!’ They don’t stick around much after that.”
“Ha, ha, that’s great. I bet you’ve had some great adventures, on the road. Man. That would be the life.”
“Why don’t you come with me?” Bruce asked.
“Wh… what? What do you mean?”
“Give it all up, come hitchhiking across Canada with me.”
The idea had popped into Bruce’s head from nowhere. Offer Glen the only thing he had to offer: freedom. Bruce was running away from his own responsibilities, his own homemade hell. Why not Glen? Why not everyone who hates their job, their life, their choices? Drop it all and run. Just get away from it. Escape.
I’m not entirely satisfied with Bruce’s explanation. I wouldn’t ask a complete stranger to come hitchhiking with me, especially not a mortician. Why did Bruce do it? Well, he is remarkably generous. I’ve seen him give his last five dollars to a street beggar. I’ve seen him buy and cook food for an entire student residence dorm, expecting nothing in return. So maybe he really did just want to help. Or maybe Bruce was trying to save himself through Glen. Or maybe he was trying to connect with a father figure.
To be honest, I have no idea why Bruce asked Glen to join him. I’ve asked Bruce about it, and he seems to have no explanation for it either. Sorry about that.
“We can go, right now,” Bruce said. “Just put out our thumbs and go. Travel together.”
“That would be… incredible!” Glen gasped. He turned from the windshield and smiled a real smile. It was the first one Bruce had seen on the mortician’s face. It looked unnatural — like a smile stapled on a corpse.
“You and me, wandering the roads,” Bruce said. “Surviving off our wits. Taking whatever rides we can get.”
“That’s… It would be beautiful. But, I can’t. I’d like to, but… I can’t.”
“My wife,” Glen said. “My job. What about the van?”
“Tell you what we’ll do,” Bruce said, warming up to the idea now. “We’ll stop in the next town, and you can leave the van there. Put your keys and your wallet in an envelope, mail them to your wife. Write her a letter. You can tell her you’ll be gone for a month. Or two months. Six months. How ever long you want. You can share my tent with me, and we’ll go wherever we want. Nowhere in particular.”
“I… I can’t. I just can’t.”
“Why not?” Bruce asked again.
“I told you already. I’ve got a wife, a house. Kids. Too many responsibilities.”
“Those responsibilities are things you took upon yourself. You chose them, and you can give them up. Just let them go, and you can come with me. Right now.”
Bruce could see Glen was tempted. His already fidgeting body got even worse, writhing in the driver’s seat. His hands clutched the steering wheel, tugging on it as if he was trying to rip it off the dashboard. His eyes scanned the empty highway ahead, as if looking for the answer out there on the road. Then it hit him — all his frustrations, all at once, right in the gut. Glen pounded his fist on the edge of the wheel and moaned.
“I can’t! I can’t! I have a wife. I have kids. I have a business. I can’t do it. I can’t just… Walk away. I can’t!”
Glen punched the steering wheel one last time, and the horn sounded a miserable bleat. The noise startled him, embarrassing him out of his momentary madness. He stopped yelling and punching, and simply clutched the wheel, his face flushed. He was trying to regain control, find some focus. His driving had been erratic during his fit, and now he noticed it — the road weaving back and forth in front of him. With a visible effort Glen swallowed all his emotions, letting out a gasp as he almost choked on them.
With his feelings under control, it was easy to imagine him greeting mourners and tending to the dead. He looked somber, apologetic, his face the colour of a mushroom. Glen drove straight ahead in silence, his face a mask of professionalism. He didn’t acknowledge Bruce at all.
Bruce looked out the window for a while. It was late afternoon. Still warm out, but cooler in the van. Nice weather. The trees lined along either side of the road looked like cheerful pallbearers.
“I’m going to drop you off at the next truck stop,” Glen said.
“Okay,” Bruce answered.
There was a stop in the distance; it appeared almost immediately. Glen pulled over, and turned to look at Bruce one last time.
“I wish to hell I’d never picked you up,” Glen said without malice. He held out his hand and Bruce shook it. Bony, dry, but not quite as reassuring — it was not the handshake of a salesman.
Muttering his thanks, Bruce grabbed his bag, and climbed out of the van.
Bruce had many other adventures on his hitchhiking trek across Canada. Confrontations with the police, sleeping in Stanley Park — stuff like that. But I think this story is the one that matters most. It’s probably the one that had the most influence on Bruce and made him what he is today.
Almost a year later, Bruce got back to Ottawa, nearly broke. He didn’t take back his old job, or any other job. He moved into a crummy apartment, and applied for welfare. And he wrote — horror, science fiction, and erotica. He wrote as much as he could. That’s what he does now. He hasn’t made it big yet, hardly makes any money at all. He has to count out each penny, each dime, stretching it for all he can.
We have no idea what happened to Glen the moritician. He probably went from Lifesavers to Twinkies to Jack Daniels. I figure he died of a heart attack years ago. Then his silent partner finally had to step forward and do some work — embalming Glen’s body. Glen’s kids — a boy and a girl — tried to comfort their crying mother. And when the funeral was over, Glen was put in the ground with the dead, with the people he envied for so long.
The dead have no jobs, no responsibilities. No one expects them to do anything. The dead are free.