a short and truthy story by Patrick Kennel
I’m hitchhiking. I’m dropped off in the Smokies. A 60-something year old man in a red, top-down Jeep picks me up. I’m going to visit a friend in Florida. He asks me if I want to drive awhile. He compliments me on my capacity to drive a manual. He asks me to be his traveling companion to the Northeast on a business trip. He knows that I am headed to Florida but is willing to give me 100 dollars a day to go with him. Simply to be a traveling companion. That is all. I think about it. This is crazy, but I decide to do it anyway. After all, I am on an adventure. I can always say no. He asks me would I like to see any place along the way. He thinks I would like Asheville, North Carolina. I say that I’ve heard good things about that place and that I have wanted to see it. I’ve heard people like me like it there.
I drive to Asheville. We are talking about things along the way. It is nice to drive the Jeep. It is nice to drive at all. We get to Asheville, he finds a camping store. We go in. I love camping stores. He offers me anything I want. I think about this and I think understand how gifts work. I am a little bit scared. I am a very grateful but do not need anything, thankyou. He buys some things. A tent, some sleeping pads, I think. He talks about maybe having to camp. Seriously, anything at all, he tells me. Anything I want, it’s a true gift, no strings attached, he tells me. This is hard for me. I decline his offers.
I have my guitar with me. I would like to busk on the street for a minute. I play some songs on a bridge. No ones listens.
We leave Asheville, North Carolina. It is insisted that I continue driving. He thinks I will like driving through the National Park. We take that route. It is nice to drive through the National Park. It is getting late. It is dark. He thinks that this is a good place to stop and camp. I think that camping here with a man who does not know me but yet has asked me to be his traveling companion and furthermore has offered to buy me gifts is likely not a good idea. I tell him I don’t like this spot. We keep going. I don’t like any of the spots. We have now driven out of the National Park. He thinks we have missed out on our opportunity to camp and that this is sad. I think that such is life. He thinks we should probably look for a hotel because really it is late. I think this is a good idea. We spot a hotel and stop. He goes in to get a room. I collect all of my belongings into my duffel bag and grab my guitar and go in. I wonder if he has requested a room with two beds. I cannot contemplate a valid reaction is there is only one bed. We get to the room. There are two beds.
He wants to talk about how nice the day was… how important chance opportunities are. I want to go to sleep. It is late and it is a good idea to go to sleep. We go to sleep. I sleep lightly with my hand clutched tightly around my 4 inch gutting knife unsheathed under my pillow. I wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of him moving. I crack my eyelids just enough to see him. I tighten my grip on my knife. I see him in only his old man’s white underwear. He moves toward my bed. He passes my bed and goes on towards the bathroom. I wait. He returns to his bed. I am not sure whether or not he used the bathroom. I contemplate going to sleep. I have heard about “sleeping lightly” in the movies. I never actually believed it was something people did in real life. I sleep lightly for the rest of the night.
The next morning is awkward. I think we exchange some conversation about his waking during the night, or my not waking during the night. He is driving today. I tell him that I think I have to end our traveling arrangement and continue to Florida. He thinks I should continue with him. I think I should continue on to Florida. It’s not that I don’t want to go along with him, it’s more so that I just think I really should stick to my plan. He understands. He wants to make sure that I’m sure. I’m sure. He tells me a story. He tells me he was in the Army. He tells me he was in the Army with a very, very good friend of his. He tells me he visited his friend after they got out but that it was different then. He tells me his friend eventually died of a disease that at the time only young men were dying from. He tells me he went to his friends funeral. He tells me he was not welcome there. He tells me that he does not know which is sadder, to love someone who does not love you in return or to be loved by someone whom you do not love in return.
I do not know either. I tell him that seriously I would like to be dropped off now. He thinks that this isn’t a great spot to thumb a ride. I think it is.
He pulls over. I get out. He insists that I take the 100 dollars I have earned by being his traveling companion for one day. I do not want it. He insists I take it. I do not want it. I think I understand how gifts work. He thinks that he truly wants me to have it. He is pushing a 100 dollar bill towards me. He looks sad. I take it. I consider this my gift to him. I get out. I say goodbye. He tells me he lives in the French Quarter in New Orleans and that I should visit him. I tell him thank you for telling me that. He pulls away. It is hot and dusty on the side of the road. I feel dirty.
I hate the 100 dollars in my hand. I hate the entire last day. I hate that I believed that he just wanted to give me a ride. I hate that I went with him even though he offered to let a complete stranger drive his vehicle. I hate that he was an old wrinkled man driving a young man’s vehicle. I hate his New Orleans accent. I hate how disgusting he looked in his white underwear. I hate that he told me that story. I hate that I didn’t get out earlier. I want it to never have happened. I want to be where I would be right now if I had never stepped into that Jeep. I want a different adventure. I think that I need a new plan.
I have a friend in Raleigh. I had told him that I might be dropping in on him. I get a ride that way. I get dropped off at the city limits on the corner of Hope and Fear. I can’t seem to get a ride any further into the city. I think people don’t pick up hitchhikers in the city. I start walking.
I see a bum on a stoop. He wants to talk to me. I sit down and listen to him. He tells me a story. He says that when he was young he was scared and unhappy. He was angry a lot. That was a bad time. He says it was that way until Jesus came to him a dream. He says Jesus came to him in a dream and told him that it was all going to be OK. He says it wasn’t a dream like the way I’m thinking. He says it was real. He says it was actually Jesus. He tells me that ever since then he has been different. He tells me he is happy now. He tells me that no matter what happens he is happy now. I like this story. I give him the 100 dollar bill. He asks me if I’d like to walk to the liquor store with him to get more of what he is drinking. I do. I go to the store with him. He buys liquor. We go back to the stoop. We talk for a little. I must be off. He thanks me for the money. I tell him that I think he was supposed to have it.
I walk back to the corner of Hope and Fear. Someone stops. He tells me that he saw me earlier. He tells me that he had had things to do and that he had gone and done those things and then he had decided to come back and to see if I was still there and to see whether or not I still needed a ride. I tell him I still need a ride. He asks where I am going. I tell him I have a friend I’m visiting in Raleigh. He happens to be going toward there. I wonder what things he went and did. I ask him if he minds if I close my eyes and rest a bit while he drives. He doesn’t mind. I close my eyes and rest a bit while he drives.