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“I’m not trustworthy,” Cindy said. “Every number’s half of what I say, and every story’s half as good.”

She cackled, then twisted so she could wink at me, crammed in the backseat. She rode shotgun and fidgeted constantly. Cindy was fifty-five, but small enough to find unending ways to fit in her seat; legs curled beneath her, then braced against the glovebox, then shaking along with her laughter.

Her boyfriend, Len, drove. Shaggy hair, gray stubble, and a calm voice. His last drunk was 22 years ago; his last drink, seven years ago. “I’m allergic to alcohol,” he explained. “Every time I drink, I break out in handcuffs.”

Cindy slapped Len’s thigh and cackled some more. “Break out in handcuffs!” She twisted in her seat again and offered me a drink from a half-full squeeze water bottle. “Want some wine?”

I passed.

“You a pretty straight-laced kid?”

“Not really. I just like keeping a clear head when I’m on the road.”

The Wisconsin side of Duluth, just before I met Cindy and Len.

The Wisconsin side of Duluth, just before I met Cindy and Len.

“That’s smart,” she nodded soberly. “You’re a smart kid. Don’t give that up! I wish I was smart, but my only gift is the gift of gab.” Len nodded vigorously and Cindy laughed. “Only problem is, I don’t like people. That’s why we’re driving out here–Len found me a house in Brule. Saw it in the newspaper and now we’re gonna check it out. Get away from the city!” She winked again.

Len and Cindy found me in the outskirt of Duluth. “I saw you with your sign,” Cindy said, “and I told Len, ‘We’ve gotta turn around–give that kid a lift!'” I had squeezed into their clunky, ramshackle car. Clothes and clutter filled the backseat and trunk, but Len and I managed to clear just enough space for me to fit with my backpack on my lap, smashed between my body and the back of Len’s seat.

“How far you goin’, sweetheart?” Cindy asked.

I explained my trip.

“And you’re from Seattle?”

“Pretty near there.”

“I’ve got a Seattle ballcap in the trunk I’ll give you. You can smoke weed there, can’t you? Len, let’s move to Washington!”
Cindy turned back to me. “What you’re doin’ is really cool, hon. I mean, really cool. You know how some people collect cats or dogs?

That’s how I collect sons. You’re gonna be my new son. So you better stay safe out there!” She lit a cigarette. “You don’t have to worry about this ride, at least. We won’t kill you.” Cindy looked back at me and winked. “Or maybe we will!” she cackled. “I’m just kidding, sweetie. …or am I?” She winked again.

Quiet in the driver’s seat, Len shook his head. I glimpsed his exasperated smile in the mirror.

Cindy knocked cigarette ash out the window. “I’ve raised two boys. They’re thirty-eight and thirty-one, now. Got pregnant with the first at seventeen, and I paid my dues raising ’em. Now I’m livin’ how I want. I started smoking in my fifties. You don’t mind if I smoke, do you?”

“Go ahead.”

“Want one?”

“No thanks. I try to keep away from cigarettes.”

“That’s good. I do, too. I’m just bad at it!” She giggled. “I smoke weed, too. I already said that. And I’ve tried LSD and mushrooms, but I don’t do those too much. She named another drug, but Len changed gears and I missed the name. “But I’ve only been to court once!”

“For a drug charge?” I asked.

“For violating leash law. I almost got a DUI once, though. I was comin’ home from the bar with a joint in one hand and the music blaring–speeding, of course–and I saw red and blue in the mirror. I threw out the joint and pulled over, and I just knew I was screwed.

“The cop asked if I’d been drinking, and I said, ‘Yes, officer. I had a few long islands at the bar.’

“‘Those are pretty strong,’ he said.

“I played innocent: ‘Oh, are they?'”

“‘I’m afraid so, ma’am.’

“Well, I failed the breathalizer, of course, and then I had to walk the line, say the alphabet backwards, count down from three hundred by threes. But I aced it. This cop’s nice, and he says, ‘Now, ma’am, this won’t happen again, will it?’

“I say, ‘Oh, never, officer,’ and he lets me go. No charge!”

We reached Brule, a town so small it doesn’t even have a four-way stop, and Len pulled over so Cindy could find the address of the house for sale.

“You want to come with us and see this place?” Cindy asked me.

“Sure. My days are pretty flexible.”

But the address wasn’t in Cindy’s purse. Or the glovebox. She scoured the front seat, picking up receipts and paper scraps and scattering them again. I checked the back, and Len checked his side.

“I wrote it down somewhere! I’ll call Kelly–she can check the paper.”

But Len didn’t have service, and Cindy didn’t have a phone. I volunteered mine. No answer. No answer from two other people, either.

“Let’s go down to the bar,” Cindy suggested. “Someone there must know.”
But no one did, and Cindy couldn’t find the address in the trunk, either.

“I’m sorry, Len.” she sounded heart-broken. “I’m always doing things like this! I can never keep track of anything.”

“If you weren’t wasting my time, I’d be wasting my time,” he consoled. “It’s fine.”

On that note, we exchanged goodbyes. Cindy scrawled her address and home phone number on a scrap of paper, then turned it over and wrote some more. “Don’t read it until I leave, otherwise I’ll cry!”

The Seattle ballcap

The Seattle ballcap

I got out of the car, and Len started the engine.

“Wait!” Cindy shouted. She got out and ran back to the trunk. “I almost forgot!” She found the Seattle baseball cap and gave it to me

Cindy's note

Cindy’s note

After their car rounded the curve and disappeared, I read Cindy’s note: “We will be thinking about you, sweetheart,” it read. “You will be in our thoughts and prayers. XXOO.”