The Hitchhiker

The following is a true story, as true as any story we tell can be true. I wrote it down a couple days after the incident- a couple years ago now- and have only polished things up some, done a little editing, since then.

I still sometimes think about K. and wonder what became of him, if I did the right thing, if I should have called the police, etc. God knows best.


I drove along the interstate and saw him waving his arms wildly on the side of the road. Dear God I thought- and sped by, my car already up to speed, my senses tightened- late night, always alert, even if I’ve been drinking- I rush on, on, I see the arms waving, I have to turn around, so I pull off at the next exit. The gas stations are glimmering in their cold cold light. The day was warm but now it is cold outside. I swing back onto the interstate and my mind revolves what can happen when you pick up people on the side of the interstate at eleven o’clock at night. Death by shooting is the easiest, and least imaginative. We will engage in small talk, I will ask his name, he will look uncomfortable (I imagine, for whatever reason, he will be uncomfortable- shouldn’t killing another human being in cold blood make you uncomfortable but maybe it doesn’t?), will shift in the seat. When he shifts his weight against the door and looks out, his soul locked in an existential struggle (there has to be a struggle going on), he looks at my icon of Christ on the dashboard, and in that moment he almost repents of his evil. But just almost. It is dark after all so he might not see anything. He whips out his gun, his resolve returning, and points it at me, orders me to drive to the next exit above town. I also think of: my family, our cats, that Tom Cruise movie I have just seen that wasn’t very good, and a street food vendor in Fes. All of these things go through my mind. We turn off, he orders me out of the car, I make a run, he shoots, I fall over, he shoots again, gets in my car, and for good measure tears out the icon of Christ and throws it out the window. Like a damn Flannery O’Connor story. Of course.

The fingerprints on the icon are what convict him. I used that glossy wide tape to attach them. Perfect. But I am still dead.

I also go through other, briefer, and less obvious, scenarios, as I speed back southward and turn around at the next exit. There is bludgeoning, suffocation, various sorts of edged weapons, possibly even poison. At this point I am approaching, I have slowed down and am scanning the roadside. I wonder if he speaks English. Probably he is Latino, running from a drug cartel, and by picking him up I will become the new target of the gang, and they will shoot me and burn my parents’ house down. I saw that movie too. I see the person- he’s shorter than me, kind of brown skinned, yes- I pull over, roll down my window.

-What’s wrong?

Nothing. Should I try Spanish? I think Que necessite? Is that right? Probably not going to be Arabic (why the hell would it be Arabic we’re in South Mississippi but maybe?)

-Do you need help?

-Yeah, yeah, my mom- uh-

-Ok, ok, get in, get in.

He’s clearly a kid, as in my little brother’s age, twelve or so, though not his size. He climbs in, his knees pulled up (I’m getting a little weirded out at this point and don’t think to adjust the seat- also I am on the side of the interstate in the middle of the night). I ask him- well, what do you ask a kid you’ve just picked up on the side of the interstate in South Mississippi in the middle of the night?

-Ah, what happened- what’s wrong?

He replies, panting and verging on tears, that his parents left him at a gas station, he looked up and they were gone, he doesn’t know why. He seems strangely controlled in telling me this even if there are tears verging but still, and I am suspicious (if that’s the right word). It is also evident after a few moments that he has, what do you say, issues, a handicap. I suggest we call the police. I have never thought about what I would do upon finding a child wandering down the side of the road past midnight. These things just do not come up when one is contemplating possible emergency scenarios. Fire- check. Airplane crash- check. Tornado- check. Nuclear attack- check. Picking up run-away child on side of interstate- have to think about it?

He asks to call his sister. I give him my cell-phone. He dials her, she answers, he says he has walked several miles down the highway. He hands me the phone.

-Hi, yes, is this his (I don’t know his name, forgot to ask)- sister?

It is.

-Um, I found your brother, on the interstate, we’re pulling off at exit 69, uh Hattiesburg, yeah.

She is in Bay Springs, forty, fifty miles up the road. I picture driving to Bay Springs and driving up to a trailer (it has to be a trailer for whatever reasons) and delivering the kid to his sister. Why his sister? She is going to call his mom, who will call me. Ok. I pull off to a gas station. Mom calls. Yes, yes, he has Asperger’s Syndrome, has run away before, police called, etc., she is coming, I will wait here.

We go inside. I suggest we get something to drink, and also a donut. Eating donuts is always comforting. If I were going to run away from home in the dead of night I think I would want a donut afterwards. Krispy Kreme- the real thing. I briefly think- what if he’s allergic? Do people with Asperger’s- do they eat donuts? Of course they do. I glance over at him. He’s- well built. Let’s get donuts! I suggest. Ok.

His sister calls back- says his mom is coming, but don’t tell him, he’ll get upset, make him think she (sister) is coming. Ok ok I say, fumbling for my wallet. What the hell, what the hell. I put the things on the counter, assuring sister all will be ok, pay, she says bye (sister), cashier is not talking to me, does not know about Asperger’s, does not know about hitch-hiking children, does not even seem to wonder why a white twenty-something with a university accent wearing a damn scarf and corduroys is towing about an overweight partially African-American kid. I drop my pennies on the floor. There’s a hole in my wallet. It’s old.

-Eh, I say laughing, ha ha, there’s a wallet in my hole! Also I am thinking: I hope your mother’s not a child-abuser.

We go back outside and get in my car. We talk. He seems nervous, but I figure it’s just the Asperger’s. His name is K., he is twelve, has a birthday soon, his brothers are older, and one is a bully. His favorite subject is math. I tell him about myself and my family. I don’t like math I’m not very good at it. We eat our donuts and he drinks the Gatorade I bought him. I nervously drink the bottled water I bought (why am I so nervous?). I like the kid. I wonder- the woman claiming to be his mother, is she? Should I have called the police? How are you supposed to figure these things out anyway, in the so-called heat of the moment (it’s actually pretty cold outside tonight)?

His mom pulls up- he recognizes the van- I get out, he stays (I have already adjusted the seat so he’s not scrunched up against the dash). The mom is- large. I would not cross her. Not want to meet her in a dark alley. Or maybe even a well-lit one. She has a tattoo- I can’t tell of what- on her shoulder (she is wearing a tank-top, looks like she just got out of bed, which she probably did). She is not happy. She pulls K. out of the car, he does not look happy either, I am only confused, and would be unhappy if not so confused. Mom (is it mom?) is upset, I can imagine, they turn to go, she tells me thank you, I say no trouble (happens all the time you know just a day’s job).

I pull out of the gas station. I am not entirely sure what just happened. A few miles down the road I think to call the sister, and do- she tells me this has happened before, mom didn’t want to call the police because K. had a record (running away), and- that’s it. This is the end of the story, except in so far as I am telling it. The end for me- of course like everything else it keeps spinning off, the story of which I am not a part, the narratives that unfold outside me, beyond, forever beyond my knowledge. I intersect, here and there- here we are in this bizarre world of ours- and then we go on hoping none of our narratives end (or grind along) in some godawful tragedy. We hope most of our stories never make it into print, because that’s usually a bad thing. And our attempts to be present with people, the movers in these strange and difficult stories- are difficult, when the narratives, when the stories seem so divergent, our connections so tenuous. God knows it’s not easy.

And God knows best.

5 thoughts on “The Hitchhiker

  1. Colby

    “Like a damn Flannery O’Connor story. Of course.”
    She sure knew how to jump start the old imagination. I don’t think I could ever trust a bible sells man again, after reading her.

  2. A very touching vignette, elegantly told. I had a somewhat similar experience once in Virginia in a suburb of DC, though it thankfully did not end so ambiguously.

    Leaving a Target or the like one freezing winter night, I noticed an agitated elderly black woman in a rather slight jacket and weather-inappropriate shoes standing next to some large suitcases on the sidewalk. I asked her if she was alright and she answered in Spanish, clearly distraught. I don’t speak Spanish, but am fluent in French, which helps a bit. Asked her if she needed a ride and she said something in a mix of Spanish and broken English about her daughter and what sounded like the name of an apartment complex. She was obviously a bit senile, but fortunately still in high spirits. Drove around trying to find her daughter’s complex with her, to no avail. She showed me a plane ticket and her passport–she’d arrived that afternoon from the Dominican Republic.

    What must have happened was that her daughter was late (or perhaps her flight was early), so she arrived with no one to receive her and in her confusion asked a taxi to take her to this complex. I’m guessing the guy dumped her at the Target after doing what I did.

    Took her back to Washington National Airport and had her daughter paged. The woman appeared, not displaying evident gratitude for my efforts or embarrassment over what had happened (though she did not speak English, either, so it’s hard to tell).

    The scariest thing is how fragile this woman was. She was elderly, senile, unable to communicate in the local language, improperly dressed for the cold weather, unable to walk far, and was dropped *far* from the airport. The taxi driver must have been a piece of work, frankly, to dump an elderly woman in the wilderness like that.

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