Advances up the line

The audio for “Advances up the line” is featured in this episode ☝️ of the Without a hitch podcast

The first episode of a trilogy of hitchhiking stories

To ride, or not to ride? That was always the question when I went hitchhiking, which I did a lot as a student. I needed to get places, and it was free. When someone pulled over, I’d survey the driver and their vehicle as the dust settled, and consider: Might I die?

Unless the answer was clearly yes, which only happened a handful of times, my choice was not so much based on personal risk as the potential gain in kilometres. I worried about preserving momentum, not life. Beggars can’t be choosers, I figured.

I was hitchhiking out of Whanganui one day and a dusty, throttled stationwagon made to pull over. The guy drove remarkably slow. Maybe he was the meticulous type, or a bit blind. Or maybe he wanted more time to check me out – after all, drivers have but an instant to evaluate how trustworthy you appear. It’s highway speed dating; first impressions are everything.

He stopped, pulled a pile of tatty magazines out of the boot, then hopped back in without a word. “Where ya heading?” I asked through the open passenger window.

“Up the line.”

“Um, where up the line?”

Up the line.”

I glanced at the pile of magazines in between the two seats. He’d placed them face down. It was a bit odd he wouldn’t state a destination, but then I thought, did it really matter how far he was willing to go?

He pulled onto the highway and accelerated to his max speed of 65 kph. Other cars cracked past us like a whip. “My friend up the line, he’s got a real eye,” he started. “Makes these great compilations. Chops them up and puts them into clearfiles and sells them. Makes real cash. They’re fantastic.”

“Um, great.” I felt like I’d walked in ten minutes after the movie had started.

“My friend, he’s in the force.”

Was this the same friend? I was confused already; tales with multiple characters tend to lose me.

“You wouldn't know it, but they’re a bunch of fuckers, cops. Always fucking. Fucking all the time.”

Somehow his friends were mostly cops. He said all they ever did was have sex: with each other, with criminals, with suspects in the holding cells, with his friends at parties, but, notably – and this is where the tone turned bitter – not with him.

Each lurid tale had the same shape. His cop friends congregated to party, piling in with boxes of drinks. Some time later, at the party’s climax, he would come across two friends in some compromising position, one taking the other from behind over a bench, in a garden shed, inside a walk-in pantry. He would watch for a while, burning with rage at the betrayal (one of them was the man he loved, and had been meant for him). Then he would slip away, unseen, into the night.

Way back in the dirty threads of time he’d been romantically slighted, and now he was reliving it as a porno fantasy on loop. Maybe it helped him cope. But now the memory had the grainy, jerky quality of an old VHS tape that had been watched in slo-mo, paused and rewound, ad infinitum.

Up until now, I’d assumed I was merely the one-man audience for this monologue of sexual woe. But then he opened the glove box and pulled out a clearfile, which he slid into my lap and flipped open. My eyes watered with the effort of not looking. When I did look I saw a cutting of a naked man sitting on a rug holding his erection.

He waved his hand over the pile of magazines and raised his eyebrows, as if to say, “And there’s more where that came from”. Clearly, this was the moment intended to spark a porny back-road hitchhiker liaison.

He smiled. I think he felt things were going pretty well.

It seemed terribly sad. Not so much because I wasn’t gay and his sexual radar was askew, but because this was his grand overture. Did this ever work? Or was my reaction – muted horror – unusual? It was possible he could no longer perceive the boundary between porn and real life.

At that point we were pulling into Bulls, which isn’t a huge distance from Whanganui. I’d decided that was far enough. “I need to visit my grandparents. My grandparents live here,” I said, unconvincingly.

“I thought you were heading to Wellington.”

“I was. Now I’m heading here."

“Okay. Where do you want me to drop you?”

“Right here pull over here here’s good.”

He bowed his head, experiencing the sadness of irrecoverably missing the mark.

I never knew his name, but when I related this experience to friends, I referred to him as Porn King, or PK for short.

This is where the story should have ended.

* * *

A few years later I was stuck in Bulls, hitchhiking back to Whanganui.

A stationwagon pulled over, crawled forward and crunched to a stop. It was PK.

I knew that to ride with PK once more would be a terrible decision. Yet I had survived a great many poor choices until this point and not died, which only emboldened me to make more. Plus it was getting dark, so I had to get moving. I didn’t want to hitch in the dark; that would be dangerous. I got in the car.

I was anticipating some form of unwanted come-on so I was on edge, but mostly I was just embarrassed with myself to be sitting in the car with this guy. Again. It was time, I decided, to quit rebelling against the skerrick of common sense hidden deep within me.

He didn’t say anything as we drove. There were no porno tales or cutouts. Maybe the clearfiles were sold out. When we pulled over on the main street of Whanganui, he said, “I remember you,” just before I hopped out. It was obvious that things between PK and me had soured.

The sunset was turning the Whanganui River a deep purple as PK drove away. Off to dream his porny dreams and just ride, ride, ride, up the line and back again.

This article was originally published on The Wireless.