Beyond a joke

The audio for “Beyond a joke” is featured in this episode ☝️ of the Without a hitch podcast

The third episode of a trilogy of hitchhiking stories

Before we started dancing for rides, we just stood there holding a big cardboard sign with SOUTH, PLEASE sketched on it. We were hitchhiking from Ruakaka, which is already pretty far north. South was the only direction we had.

We didn’t have jobs and uni was out for the summer. George, my friend and hitchhiking comrade, knew that to stand beside the highway with SOUTH as our only concern was to be freer than we’d ever be. I didn’t.

It was 7:00 am. The car that pulled up was one of those old Japanese numbers so thrashable it would probably never die. It looked like it had known not only the well-tended tarmac of the highway, but also bush tracks and unsealed farm roads. The windscreen had been casually wiped from the outside, forming a jagged portal through the grime.

We opened the passenger door and the driver smiled broadly. He said his name was Anthony.

Anthony's Dirty Dog sunglasses perched on a long, pointed nose. He wore an old brown bomber jacket a bit short in the arms, blue jeans and faded white sneakers. Thin hair slipped partway down his back.

I was in the front – the hot seat, where you have to do all the talking. George produced some glasses and a book, and set to some serious reading. I wasn’t aware he had glasses. Or a book.

Anthony talked fast, using phrases so riddled with slang I could barely follow. He had the kind of brilliant, crackling laugh that you can only develop by smoking several hundred thousand cigarettes. He was afire with a mad spark – in a good way, I thought.

He was fond of the word fuck. “Fucken good day for it!” he remarked on the sunshine. “We’re not fuckin’ around – places to be!” he said, as he compressed the accelerator all the way to the floor. “FUCK YEAH BOY.”

Anthony wove us through curling, wooded roads. He barely slowed to corner – it was majestic and terrifying. I felt like his rally co-driver, except, unlike a real co-driver, I never knew what was coming around the corner. I wondered if this was a metaphor for my life.

We sent some gravel spraying over the edge of a cliff on a particularly tight bend. I tried to rationalise that Anthony would keep us on the road because he, too, had a vested interest in not dying; but then, I didn’t really know Anthony that well.

When a truck laden with building junk swerved round the corner and hurled a thick, two-metre-long plank at our windscreen, I wasted what might have been my final seconds tutting about the insecure load. My life didn’t flash before my eyes; I mentally drafted a letter of complaint.

Without so much as a FUCK, Anthony swerved left, drifted the car sideways and took the full impact of the plank on the driver’s side panel; he then swerved right as the plank ricocheted away – leaving a substantial dent – and straightened up the car.

When it was over Anthony just muttered “Pwhoar!” and continued gunning the corners, like someone who’d faced death before and wasn’t all that fazed by it. George didn’t even look up from his book. I couldn’t tell whether I was a hopeless worrywart or the only sane one in the car.

Auckland was a blur – literally – and then we were in Hamilton. Anthony said no one bothered him in Hamilton, that he had connections. He sprinted through the heart of town at 100kph, rearing up on two wheels as he glanced off roundabouts.

We advanced deep into suburbia and pulled up at a house with high fences and a grassy driveway. All we could see was a backyard at the end of the drive, with a greenhouse that extended beyond our view.

Anthony got out and said he’d be right back, sounding like a dad talking to his kids at the petrol station. He was gone an hour and a half. I’m pretty sure if I’d looked in that greenhouse I wouldn’t have found tomatoes. George was content with the pages of his book. I sat there wondering what might become of us.

When Anthony got back, he threw a big sack in the boot then bounced into the car. He had a huge goofy smile on his face. He reversed out faster than some people drive forwards.

We hadn’t quite left Hamilton when Anthony caught sight of a woman crossing a bridge up ahead. He made an act of staring at her bum. Before we pulled level with her, he turned to me and said, “Whadya say we knock her off the road, go down the bank and fuck ‘er while she’s still warm?”

I’m guessing – hoping – that he was attempting a joke. But the grin on his face collapsed instantly when he saw my reaction, which was one of deep, instinctive horror. He could see he’d made a miscalculation of humour; one so deep that not only would I fail to appreciate this joke, I would never laugh at a joke of his again. He had destroyed humour.

An expansive silence followed. George turned another page. Anthony hunched over the wheel and just drove.

Sure, maybe he still sold the odd sack of marijuana on the side. And occasionally he suggested murder and necrophilia to strangers, for a laugh. But Anthony may have been trying to play it straight, and I felt like I’d sabotaged his efforts. He was now sharing a ride with someone who disapproved of him, so he just sulked. Heavily.

We pulled to the side of some country road in the badlands. Anthony gave us a grim nod as we hopped out, then he pulled away. I watched the car turn into a side road off in the distance.

George quietly inserted a bookmark and popped down his book. “Right. Where are we, then?”

This article was originally published on The Wireless.