Diapers and Dragons

Friday, July 31, 2009


He was Josh from New Hampshire. She was Madison from South Carolina. The dog--puppy really--was Jamba, short for Jambalaya, from Tampa, Florida.

They were outside the Subway-slash-fancy gas station near the highway on ramp, Jamba sitting politely at the end of his rope leash while Josh and Madison checked the trash cans for what overfed Americans consider garbage.

I know a lot of people think it's gross, Madison told us later, but you can get really good food in there. Especially outside fancy restaurants. Sometimes they throw away perfectly good steak and stuff like that. Last night we had steak and lobster. Steak and lobster!

They looked more like siblings than friends of a few months, both reddish-brown with daily sun, their teeth flashing white in their faces. Their hair was the same tone as their skin, curly, matted a bit with dust and sweat. They were comfortable in their skins, their patched and dusty clothes, unconcerned about appearance. They both carried large backpacks, the type that only hitchhikers or serious campers ever carry. He had a battered ukulele strapped to his, and she carried a violin case. In her other hand was a small woven basket containing little odds and ends: an empty water bottle, a necklace, some Nello wafers.

I don't know who in our group noticed them first, but pretty soon Josh and Madison had fresh sandwiches from the counter and Steve was making friends with Jamba. They were headed up toward Grand Rapids, they told us. We debated among ourselves and agreed that they seemed like decent kids, and besides, we outnumbered them seven to one. We could go a tiny bit out of our way to get them as far as Kalamazoo.

They packed up quickly (We're used to that, Madison said wryly) and squeezed into the full-size van, the one with the wooden cross dangling from the rear-view mirror and the right-wing bumper sticker on the back. Those of our group in the back with them asked curious questions, not quite prying into their stories. They told us the bare bones: first names, states without towns, vague philosophies about owing nothing, owning nothing. Jamba was part of the team, not a pet. We learned more about him than his human companions.

He was nine months old, and Josh had gotten him from a farm in Tampa. They met Madison in Florida a little after that. He had been on the road for two years; she, six months. They had been travelling together for several months. She told us it was her eighteenth birthday, and our congratulations and applause elicited a delighted laugh. Josh was a few years older, but not by much.

We talk a lot, Josh said.

We've talked about everything and anything. We've run out of stories, really, Madison chimed in, laughing as she seemed to do most of the time. Her brilliant white smile told of a childhood that had included dentistry, as it had also included her mother's two divorces and subsequent boyfriends.

It's more intense than being married, really, explained Josh. We're literally around each other 24-7.

Madison looked down at Jamba, lying on the seat between them. We talk through the dog a lot, actually.

They were buskers, musicians who sat on streetcorners (Wherever it's legal, she amended) and played their music for the pleasure of passers-by, who would hopefully reward them with coin. This was all so that they could travel, which was what they really desired. They were homeless by choice, transients because they wanted to see other places, off the grid.

They had done well in Ann Arbor, a place where those left-of-center are more normal than otherwise. But they had heard Grand Rapids was friendly to buskers, and they wanted to eventually get to the Great Lakes. That was their current dream, to camp by the Great Lakes and let Jamba run on the shore.

I'm afraid to swear in front of you all, Josh confessed, laughing a bit.

Why? someone asked. He shrugged. I thought of the bumper sticker, the one that had made my stomach a little sour when I saw it. I had been relieved to find the van was on loan from someone not in the group.

We discussed the difference between religion and faith, institution and belief.

I don't like genres and categories, Josh said. Deep down we're all the same, really. It's all about being good to each other. Take care of each other. That's what it's should be about.

It's about love, Madison added.

We left them at a BP station near the on ramp to north 131, which would take them up through Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids. They were sitting on the hill eating their sandwiches as we left, two reddish-brown children with a black-and-white dog sitting between them, all they owned lying on the grass. We pulled away, having given them little more than a few sandwiches, a few miles' ride, a rolled-up twenty hidden in the little basket. We would never know what, if anything, they were running away from, what they were really running toward.

I hope you find what you're looking for, said one of the guys.

Thank you. I do too, said Madison.

3 bits of love:

Monica said...

Love this. And really curious about what the bumper sticker said.

Arby said...

Ditto Monica.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, and thank you for the story :)
- SoccerSister

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