My paternal grandmother is a ghost. I never knew her in life; she died of tuberculosis in her late twenties. I do know she married my grandfather, Julian, and they lived in Paducah, Kentucky. They had three towheaded boys. But from the stories I’ve heard, her dearly beloved was not the best husband. Some say she died in order to leave him. I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know her name is Ara. And that she visits me.
The first time I felt her eyes upon me, I was fifteen years old and hitchhiking to Portland, Oregon from my home in South Louisiana. Standing on the shoulder of Interstate 10, I stretched out my arm, stuck out my thumb, and immediately heard the hiss of air brakes. And just as pregnant storm clouds gave birth to hard rain, I climbed into the cab of an eighteen-wheel truck.
Beside me sat my childhood pal, Susie Frazier. For days we slipped in and out of cars and trucks and met an array of kind and generous strangers. And each time, I’d feel my grandmother’s eyes on me and hear the silent whisper that told me I was safe. So late one night, somewhere in Utah, we thumbed another ride and climbed into another cab of another truck on another interstate.
But something felt different this time. As the large and grisly truck driver with tobacco-stained teeth up-shifted to build speed, I again felt invisible eyes and heard a silent voice. This time my grandmother did not foretell safety. Instead she said, “Flee!” Uncomfortable, I looked at Susie and she’d felt it too. But what could we do? It was dark outside, we were somewhere in Utah, and this trucker was flying.
An hour later, the eerie driver downshifted and exited onto a highway. Not the way we were supposed to be going. Susie and I threw a fit and told him to drop us off. “Now!” we screamed. So he stopped, and we shoved open the door and jumped out in the middle of nowhere. No town, no lights, no houses, no nothing. Only a cool breeze, countless stars, and a waxing crescent moon.
My companion and I made our way through a stubbly field, cleared a few rocks, and spread out our sleeping bags. We used water from a canteen to brush our teeth. Susie’s dark brown hair was cropped short, so she combed the tangles from my long, blond ponytail. Then we stretched out in our sleeping bags and marveled at the sky. And fell into the deep sleep of youth.
Until the ground started shaking. Roaring and shaking. Awakened, I shimmied out of my bag and pulled Susie from hers. And then I spotted a single clear light racing towards me. The roaring grew louder, the shaking grew harder, and the light grew brighter as it moved closer and closer. And no, it wasn’t the trucker. It was a train! In the dark, we’d thrown our sleeping bags two feet from the tracks.
Laughing, Susie and I rolled up our belongings and headed back to the highway. We had no idea where we were. But the sun had begun to color the sky. We’d been on the road for three days and three nights. I wore Keds canvas sneakers, my only pair of jeans, and a faded, green t-shirt. I did not have a jacket. But I did have seventy-two dollars in my pocket, a friend by my side. And the ghost of my grandmother who worked overtime.