Fiction: Hitchhiking with Tom

By Colin Gee

Imagine my surprise when the lonely hitchhiker I picked up outside of Oaxaca City turned out to be one of my childhood idols, superstar actor and stuntman Tom Cruise, in Groucho Marx glasses and stash to cover that famous boyish grin, and only a skanky bedroll to his name. Tom was going to Ixtlán de Juárez, following the peyote and magic mushroom trail blazed fifty years before him by his gonzo hero Carlos Castaneda, and I told him to hop right in, because I have lived and worked in Ixtlán since 2017.

What a coincidence, were my actual now immortal words, I am going all the way. Of course the eponymous Ixtlán of Castaneda’s work was not exactly the Ixtlán where I lived, that anyone could say for sure, but what was I going to do, tell Tom Cruise to turn around and hike the length of Mexico back to Sonora and speak to Don Juan about it? Castaneda died in 1998, and this was our trip.

Ixtlán is ninety minutes from Oaxaca City by car on switchback roads that climb one kilometer in thirty, that I do in fifty minutes with our six-speed Renault, passing dozens of dumbass tourists and smoking, brokedown logging trucks on the hairpin turns, knowing the highway like the back of my hand. Tom was impressed, thrown back in his bucket seat, and asked me where I had learned to drive like such a maniac.

Crazy fast, were his exact words, yet smooth as a baby's bottom. Where did you learn to drive like this, Gee?

I flashed my own famous grin and told him that I was nearly almost always late was all. We talked about his racing movie Days of Thunder, in which Tom played the NASCAR driver Cole Trickle, on the set of which he met his future wife Nicole Kidman, and the thousands of miles of crosstraining laps he had done to prepare for the Gees on those turns, and as we rolled through Ixtepeji Tom asked if he could take a turn at the wheel.

It was doubly strange to be chauffeured by Tom Cruise to my own home, especially in his patently altered state, and clearly jonesing to show off his driving skills for a stranger on the Ixtlán-Tuxtepec switchbacks. You know about topes, don’t you, I asked my boyhood hero, the speedbumps of non-standard size, shape and material thrown up by the communities through which the Ixtlán two-laner races? Tom replied that he thought topo meant mole, and talked about his fascination with Jodorowsky since that infamous weekend in Miscavige’s Berthing Room.

I said, How could you ever see the screen through all the cigar smoke, but Tom just laughed and said it was not just cigar smoke, it was always a highly spiritual experience in Miscavige’s man cave.

I said, Wow, so you were deeply spiritual even before your training with Don Juan in Sonora, I should have guessed it from the way you have barely aged since I have been out of diapers, or is your secret time travel? I asked Tom Cruise.

Tom said, It’s the time travel.

I have to drop off a package in El Punto before you take over, hope you don’t mind a little detour, I remonstrated, as Tom tried to jump into my lap, so anxious was he to get behind the wheel of a car that could respond to touch in the way I had already demonstrated, as I held him off with one hand, skidding the Renault around a construction site and fourteen toddler-to-sixes with moms that were crossing the road to school. We bumped off the main highway, through a hedge of cactuses, and negotiated six throttling pickups on the dirt track behind the church, a game of chicken you only get one shot at, before pulling triumphantly up at Doña Hansi’s, a four-cornered sheet metal hut raised on a clay and cement foundation, in a scree of gravel and dust thrown from my wheels.

Whew! exhaled Tom Cruise, truly impressed.

Hard fruits in gigantic pods hung from several trees in the yard, and there were main sections of three old VWs placed like furniture around a central spot in the drive. Thick smoke poured from a tinhat stovepipe that jutted from one seussian corner of the residence. Dogs yipped and wrestled, not sure what our arrival portended for the balance of their ecosystem.

Doña Hansi bustled immediately from the door (it was a flowerprint bedsheet) with an exultant hola, five foot nothing in her apron and huaraches, as her husband Don Julio slipped frantically, stumblingly out of the house and dodged between a pile of trash and recycling at the church fence, fleeing down into the jungle.

This is my old friend, Tom Cruise, I told Doña Hansi. He is a Hollywood actor. You can call him Tomás, or just Cole Trickle.

Yes, yes, said Doña Hansi, welcome Tomás, welcome Gee, please come in, but Holy Virgin of Guadalupe you guys must be hungry after a long drive like that, fucking hell.

We sat on wobbly plastic stools around a small peeling linoleum table in the dark of the humble chocita, as Doña Hansi talked about her nephew Mocoso who was also an actor. She said, He acted in his third grade school play, all the moms with tears in their eyes the end cuz they crucify little Mocoso.

Someday he will be a great actor, she said.

Against one wall of the boxcar was a large cabinet that included in the upper glassless shelves kitchen items such as plates and stained, chipped mugs. The bottom or dresser half served as prep counter and drawer vault for all of Doña Hansi and Don Julio’s earthly effects, one presumed, looking around. Against the opposite wall was the bed, lumpy and low, tidily made up. Against a third wall was the altar with dried-out cempasuchitl, fruit, and hunks of sweet bread from Muertos two weeks gone by, guttered candles of all sizes, magically evaporated beer and Coke bottles the ghosts had got to, knocked-over shot glasses, shabby little pine cones sprinkled with glitter, and photographs of about half a dozen of the most recently departed.

Tomás crossed himself vigorously before he sat down, at which Doña Hansi laughed hard.

Muy religioso tu amigo, Gee, she said, before serving us four kinds of tamal, beans, rice, fresh sweet bread, sweet coffee, and two kinds of salsa fresca, one from each blender, a red and a green.

Tom said, Whoa, you have a blender for each kind of salsa? but Doña Hansi said no it just had worked out that way this time, but we compared notes later and both thought she was lying, that she actually had a separate blender for each color salsa.

Tom had literally cleared his plate by the time I got my fork to my first bean tamal, he was snorting like a piglet, just loving himself some home cooking, fuck the diet!

Delicioso, Doña Hansi, Tom beamed, from behind his Groucho Marx disguise, absolutamente rico! His Spanish was perfect but somehow you still knew it was Tom Cruise talking.

Doña Hansi said, Tomás, why not take off that silly moose stache? We all friends here, but Tom explained that he just was not comfortable doing so, he felt naked with all the paparazzi jumping out at a person from all directions. Tomás, cajoled Doña Hansi, this not Hollywood no more, or where you come from, New York? You in the Sierra now, no one gift a fat go-damn who you are.

I brought your smokes from the big smoke, I interjected, pushing the care package from Doña Hansi’s son Snubs across the yellowed linoleum of the table, as Doña Hansi piled more bean, chili in vinegar, mole, and green chili tamales onto a plate for Tom Cruise.

He send me cigarros now? Doña Hansi demanded, grabbing and ripping at the package, but I protested that I actually did not know, Snubs just asked me to drop it off, it felt like clothes or something, and when the paper came off the package Doña Hansi snorted because it was just clothes. It was a man’s shirt and pants that she put over on the bed.

Now this here is shroom country, I have been told, Tom said to Doña Hansi, who agreed and asked Tom if this was going to be his first trip on the shroom-shroom train.

I have been following the psychotropic trail down from California through Baja and Sonora, confided Tom Cruise, leaning in close to Doña Hansi, and I have completed several trips as first hunter, then warrior, moving towards total freedom of conscious thought achieved through ingestion of humitos and yerbas, both flying as the blackbird and blinking as the lizard, though my benefactor Don Juan warns me I am not yet ready for the final test, of the psilocybe oaxacana. 

Don Juan is one a big assfart of a damn fool, snorted Doña Hansi, pushing away from the table, going to the stove, and finally settling herself back next to Tom Cruise with a plate of tamales for herself. How old you are, Tomás, twenny, twenny four?

Tom and I exchanged glances and shrugged. Closer to thirty, let’s say, he told her.

I said, We are both in our early thirties.

So you ready, ready as any juan, Doña Hansi sniffed, placing delicate forkfuls of tamal, bean, rice, and salsa into her satisfied mouth – never making a mistake with the fork. She said, Don Juan no know nuttin, but seen is your first time you bet, take her slow.

When I was a psychotropic hunter, the famous actor explained to me, slamming my little four-banger into second to jimmy around a gaggling Chevy Aveo, this was way before [The Color of Money], Dave [Miscavige] arranged the first meeting with Don J—

–When the drivers here turn onto the right shoulder, I interrupted, and put on the emergency flashers it means they are about to turn LEFT across both lanes.

–Holy fuck, why do they do that, shouted Tom Cruise, just missing the rear bumper of a 1995 Ford F-150 as it shuddered off the shoulder in front of us. Two heads stuck out of windows and the guy in back shouted, Hey look, that is Tom Cruise! except he was pointing at me.

Tom smiled grimly as he put the pedal of my little Renault to the metal, knowing his most recent disguise was one of his best ever. It was Mission Impossible good, as we burned rubber up that mountain.

–Anyway, but this Don J, he continued, would not just take me on as his apprentice, not for money or reputation.

Tope! I screamed, as we flashed into Las Ánimas and three cars swerved with their emergency blinkers on onto the hardscrabble dirt shoulder as we flew over a rounded speed bump at well over sixty.

Aaaaaaaugh, we both screamed, sure we would never again touch pavement, but the little Renault stuck the landing and we zoomed around the corner as the people in the three vehicles cried out, and cheered.

Do you have life insurance, I asked Tom Cruise, but he looked at me like I was crazy.

He said, It took a lot of work, a lot of perseverance to obtain the apprenticeship in Sonora. I am humbled to have had the opportunity to work with a benefactor like Don Juan, a true Yaqui shaman.

He said, It’s not about me, it’s about the journey.

That was when we punched a hole in the front passenger tire on the long straightaway heading down into the Río Grande canyon, which Tom was taking at a good 160 kph. That’s 99 miles an hour, and it said a lot about Tom’s reflexes behind the wheel that he didn’t roll my little car, though we were up on two wheels for what seemed like a lifetime, before jerking and skidding off the highway and bumping down the guardrail for about twenty yards, finally shuddering to a halt with the driver’s side wheels not quite off the edge of the canyon, thanks to the railing, grill and engine compartment of the six-speed completely crumpled up to the front tires.

Getting out on my side we surveyed the wreckage, the engine dismounted from its bracket and transmission tilted sideways, and knew we would have to leg it the rest of the way.

Sorry about totaling your vehicle, said Tom Cruise, I did not see that rock, though I normally see as with eyes of eagles.

I told Tom not to worry about it, that we had a great insurance policy, I was just impressed that he had gotten the thing back on four wheels, and not crashed us off the edge of the road into the Rio Grande 400 feet below, and killed us both.

I almost said, You are my hero, Tom Cruise, but held back for some reason.

Tom said he thought the Rio Grande was in Texas or someplace borderland US up north, but I said No no no, that is the Rio Bravo, only the gringos say Rio Grande about that one. The real Rio Grande is this one, it flows past Ixtlán de Juárez, north towards Tuxtepec past Huautla, where it cuts northeast and eventually gets into Mil Islas.

We had left the car in a smoldering heap high above and by now were getting down into the heat and mosquito of the river basin, my sneakers and Tom’s traditional Sonoran huaraches flip-flopping along the hot blacktop. No cars had passed in either direction.

How about an ablution, I asked Tom half joking, as we finally rounded the curve past Rio Seco, this was like fifty minutes later, and no cars at all would slow down for a couple of gringo bums, and Tom immediately took off his shirt and jogged towards the river, where it gurgled past a group of picnickers who had set up their plastic tables and chairs right in the water under some jacaranda trees by the Puente Xia. The river at that time of year ran only about six inches or a foot deep by the banks, running over nice sand and pebbles that felt good on your feet, and the moms and dads cousins and kids were sitting with their feet in the cool water in the shade.

Hey man, you suppose be Cantinflas or somefin? one of the guys shouted as we waded into the water nearby with a laugh, motioning to Tom Cruise’s Groucho Marx disguise. Yo you guys want some beer?

So we stood and drank with the picnickers who were half from Chicomezúchil, this gorgeous ridgeline built town about forty minutes in the other direction, a windy spot, and half relatives on vacation from the States, and I tried to tell them about our crash but Tom Cruise didn’t want to dwell on that incident. He had a paper with handwriting on it he said was a short story a friend of his had written, explained that this buddy had lived in New Orleans working as an off-site welder for years and just wrote down his experiences there in the hood as short stories, and this one was really good.

Let me see it, said one of the chicano ladies, and Tom was really pleased, turning beet red, that she was interested in reading “his friend’s” story. Everyone there knew in fact it was Tom Cruise’s own writing, and pure fiction, not asking for a friend! I stood and read over the lady’s shoulder, laughing several times, while Tom got into a splashing game with some of the kiddos.

You know that people can breathe underwater? Tom told a group of boys. It just takes willpower and concentration, but the older picnickers didn’t like Tom’s kind of metaphysical talk and we weren’t offered any more beers after that.

It is a good story, said the lady primly, handing back Tom’s paper, but I do not like the way “your friend” tries to write people’s accents from the south.

Tom was a bit crestfallen, but we just thanked them for the beers, no they would not take our money, they had been very nice to us. Got our shoes back on and walked on down the road, Tom Cruise getting out Doña Hansi’s pouch of shrooms at last, dipping in his hand, sniffing at the musky fungus and root, and saying that the time had come.

He said, You know this story really was written by a friend of mine. Those people back there thought I was too shy to admit it was mine for the reading test (here we both giggled because Tom Cruise was not shy), but my friend’s name is Ken Hawkins, he really writes these stories, and he knows the accents from down there. He is a good friend, said Tom Cruise.

We chewed and walked, eyes like eagles, and parted shortly thereafter where the highway splits towards Tuxtepec, me to call the insurance company, my old friend to follow his meandering way: perhaps into the next town, past Las Gaviotas up the other side of the canyon into Guelatao and beyond, into known spaces, the mesophilic cloud forest they have there, or possibly walking right into the promised, shimmering Ixtlán of Castaneda’s book.

That was the time I hitchhiked with Tom Cruise, even though it did not look a bit like the famous actor and stuntman, and people now probably think I made it all up. No one even slowed down for us a single time.

Colin Gee is founder and editor of The Gorko Gazette, teacher and writer. Stories and novellas in The Penult from LEFTOVER Books. His novel Lips is available now from Anxiety Press.


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