Russell, Ceasar, and Me

by Dan Martin

As a last resort, I decided to hitchhike from Butte to Missoula. I’d waited just five minutes on Interstate 90, my sign and my thumb out, when Russell showed up, his shabby white car slowing to a stop about a hundred feet ahead, slumping heavily in the rear. I hurried to the car. Opening the door, I saw that the backseat was loaded with a suitcase and lots of loose junk; on the front seat was a cooler; on the floor sat several twelve packs of Cherry Coke and a fishing rod. Nodding at the rod, he said, “Just pull the line; the hook’s stuck.”  He snapped the monofilament so I could move the rod and the other things to the back to make some room to sit up front.

“Be careful,” he said in a voice that rattled like rocks in a coffee can, “My turtle’s back there somewhere. Don’t smash my turtle.”  I saw only an old blanket and bags, but I was careful with the Cherry Coke. I stuffed my pack in the backseat and slid my canvas briefcase on top. Russell was quick to smile and laughed easily. He was overweight but not fat, and his hair was brown, thinning, and swept back, a couple days of growth on his face. He was dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt. He seemed jolly, a man with few cares.

“I’m Dan,” I said and stuck out my hand.

“Russell,” he said, putting his thick paw in mine. He would take me all the way to Missoula. He was headed for Seattle. He picked me up because I was an old guy, clean, and took the trouble to make a sign. His car, The 87, was weighed in the back so that the front tires didn’t have confident contact with the road, causing it to weave.

We got to talking about what each of us did for a living. I had just finished graduate school and was still mainly a stay-at-home dad. Russell sold frozen steaks and lobster tails, mainly from a truck, I gathered, but he was moving from Connecticut to Seattle, continuing with his same company. He liked to refer to himself in the third person. “Russell,” he said more than once, “is one killer salesman.”

A flat-shelled turtle the size of a salad plate crawled out from underneath Russell’s seat; I had forgotten his earlier warning. The turtle had no fear, crawling over Russell’s leg, then across the floor over my feet.

Russell said, “Don’t be afraid of him.”   The turtle climbed onto his lap and then over the back of the seat.

Russell had named him Caesar. “Caesar!” I asked, “Why’d you name him Caesar?”

“Caesar conquered the world, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, I guess he did.” The turtle had a lot to live up to. Russell had an endearing sense of the grand. Russell had found Caesar in Ohio. Maybe he picked him up for companionship, same reason he picked up me.

I liked Russell, notwithstanding his kidnapping of an Ohio turtle. Caesar was a pond slider or common slider, he or she could have been either of the sub species called red-eared slider, Emydinae Trachemys scripta elegans, or a yellow bellied slider, Emydinae Trachemys scripta. Common sliders are all over the eastern half of United States, but as far as I can tell, they don’t really belong in Seattle, where Russell and Caesar were both bound.

*  *  *  *  * 

“You got any weed?”

“Any weed?”

“Yeah, some pot. I thought we could smoke a joint.”

“No, I don’t have any weed.”

“Do you smoke?”

“No, never have, actually.”

Russell laughed, not believing. “You don’t smoke, really?”

“Nope.”

“Guys like you out hitchhiking almost always have some weed.”  We went back and forth like this for a while until Russell was convinced that I neither had any pot nor cared to smoke any of his. “I have some,” he said, “You can roll me a cigarette.”

I said, “It looks like you already have two cartons of Marlboros.”

He laughed real big and gravelly at that.

I said that I would try. Russell produced a bag out of his glove compartment, the car swerving madly as he leaned over to pull it out. The inconveniences were starting to add up.

“Here, just get the seeds out for me.”  I shook the flakes out onto the sheet in my lap and began gleaning seeds from the leaves, putting the little peppercorns onto some kind of jar lid. I worried that I might spill Russell’s stash and cut short our budding friendship. Although I was now officially breaking the law for him, I still felt bound, as with most tasks, to do my best. Dutifully I cleaned up his pot.

Russell chose a place to pull off. He managed to roll himself two joints, one for now, one for later. He described the steps as he demonstrated his technique. After he put the joints in safe place, he took the seeds from the ashtray, spilled them into the palm of his right hand, leaned past me, and threw them out my window, off to the side of the road. “Come back here in a couple of years, Dan, and there’ll be a nice patch of weed growing right there.”

·      *  *  *  *

Truth is, we did not know what would happen to those seeds. And I would never know what would come of Westbound Caesar either. He had already adapted his personality from the wary and shy turtle to a car-crawling, no-fear-of-humans turtle. Would Russell keep him to have another being to talk to?  In the third person of course. Or maybe he would turn Caesar loose to wonder around some river in Washington, looking for another red-eared slider.

*  *  *  *  *

After we pulled back onto the road, Russell got a joint out and lit up, enjoying his relaxation immensely, oblivious to the growing danger to him, me, and Caesar as The 87 hurtled down the road at 85 miles per hour, swaying back and forth like a tire swing. Russell periodically admired the sun reflecting off the Clark Fork and the mountains in the background. Sitting in the passenger seat, I chattered nervously about my travel plans, my hope of arriving safe and on time in Missoula. I was yammering on, trying to talk over an AM signal that sounded more like sizzling bacon than a radio, when Russell, eyebrows raised, saying nothing, pointed to the radio dial and put his finger to his lips to shush me, as if the National Anthem was starting up. I went silent. After the opening bars of the song I heard, “We don’t need no education. / We don’t need no thought control.”   As the song played, Russell pointed out the window at the sun reflecting off water, the low mountains behind. “Look at that,” he said in a kind of revelry, “Fucking beautiful. And this song.”

We were caught for a moment in a crease in the magnificent universe: The 87 careening madly down I-90, the glittering Clark Fork rolling toward Missoula, the mountains brooding behind, Caesar under the seat biding his time, Russell taking another hit off the joint, descending into full impairment, and Pink Floyd pushing through the AM crackle, “All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall.”

About Dan Martin

Photo by “Ciao Chow Linda”

Daniel J. Martin lives in Kansas City, Missouri and writes essays, often focused on nature and the environment.  His work has appeared in various journals, including North Dakota QuarterlyKairos, and Ascent.  He teaches literature and nonfiction writing at Rockhurst University.  Recently he adopted Natty the dog who arrived with Dan’s son but did not leave with him.  If you throw the Frisbee right, she’ll run like a stroke of black ink and catch it every time.

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