The Hitchhiker

  by Jacob Yaple

       The rain pounded down out of the night sky as if punishing the sodden earth. A parade of car headlights spotlighted me and drove on without slowing down. I avoided the sheets of water as each car plowed through the gutter. Then I returned to my position by the side of the road, my thumb cocked for a ride.

	I didn’t own an umbrella. They were flimsy things—a high wind could turn one inside out or jerk it out of your hands, and after five minutes of wrestling with it, you were just as wet as if you didn’t have one. My threadbare suit and tie were soaked through to the skin. I was carrying warmer—and drier—clothing in my duffel bag, but the suit was the nicest set of clothes I owned. It was perfect for hitchhiking. The suit said, “I’m not some deranged drifter who’ll slit your throat and steal your car! I have a life! I’m just a businessman whose car broke down, as you can see by my professional business suit!”

	The suit compensated for the rest of my appearance, which could be disturbing to a potential ride. I was tall and gangling, cadaver-thin with a few straggling locks of hair pasted to my otherwise bald scalp. The years on the road had not been kind to me.

	An SUV slowed down and veered toward the shoulder. It rolled past me and I hurried to catch it. The passenger’s side door opened and a voice drawled, “Pardon me, but do you have any Grey Poupon?” In a rage, I lunged at the open door, but it slammed shut in my face. The SUV accelerated away, leaving waves of moronic laughter in its wake.

	I started to walk down the road, pausing to cock my thumb at each approaching vehicle. Maybe it would be best to start thinking about a place to spend the night. This was terrible weather to hitch in, anyway. I had given myself a deadline, a place to be at a certain time, but it wasn’t written in stone. I would get there tomorrow, I told my exhausted self. I’d gotten there on time all the other years; getting there one day late this year wouldn’t matter much.

	I peered back at the long line of oncoming vehicles. I checked for the high cab of a tractor trailer looming over the roofs of the other cars, but no luck. Truckers were always in need of company for long nights on the road, and they’d seen it all. Little old ladies might hesitate to pick you up for fear of rape, but nothing ruffled the feathers of a trucker who had years of experience under his belt—and a sawed-off shotgun under his seat.

	I held out my thumb in a halfhearted gesture. I was already looking in the other direction, down the road to a hoped-for bed for the night. To my surprise I heard tires ease onto the gravelly shoulder behind me as bright headlights pinned me down. I turned to see a beat-up station wagon, its engine thrumming as it waited impatiently for me. A beep of the horn and a flash of the lights spurred me into action. I hurried to the car and opened the passenger door.

	The driver was a plump, round woman wearing round spectacles balanced on the bridge of her round little nose. Her long gray hair was braided in pigtails that hung down her ample chest. She smiled at me, revealing a mouth with more gaps than teeth. “Where to, Sonny?” she said.

	“Are you headed to Albany?” I asked. I wasn’t going to Albany, but my destination was near there, and the city of Albany was more likely to be familiar to the driver.

	The woman nodded. “That’s on my way. Hop in!”

	I got in and slammed the car door behind me. The station wagon pulled back onto the road and picked up speed. The windshield wipers swiped back and forth like metronomes as they tried to keep up with the downpour. The heater was going full blast, and I planted myself in front of the vent. My frozen thumbing hand especially appreciated the warmth. It looked like I had hit the jackpot.

	The woman spoke up. “Name’s Annie Proudfoot,” she said. “What do I call you, Stranger?”

	Caught off guard, I muttered, “David Banks.” What had made me use that name? I had been thinking about it lately, of course, and I guess it just slipped out.

	“Well, David Banks,” Annie said, peering ahead, “what’s your story, David?”

	I knew the warm, dry ride had to have a price. Annie was one of those drivers who expected conversation from their hitchers. Good thing I had a prepared speech to go with the tattered suit.

	“I don’t usually hitchhike, if that’s what you mean, Ma’am,” I said. “My car broke down and I need to get to a business convention in Albany. I—“

	“Bull shit you don’t usually hitchhike!” Annie said cheerfully. “From the look of your worn-out duffel, I’m guessing you’re no stranger to the road. I used to meet guys just like you when I used to hitchhike, back in the sixties. Those were the glory days of hitching, let me tell you.”

	“You bet, Sister,” I replied. I decided to drop the businessman persona and go with the truth, now that I knew it wouldn’t cost me a ride.

	“Of course, hitching’s a lot more dangerous these days,” Annie said. “Back then, America was still pretty innocent, and the people were friendlier. These days a gal like me takes her life in her hands picking up hitchhikers. I have a good feeling about you, though. You just looked so harmless standing there. You looked like a drowned rat, is what you looked like.”

	Hitchhiking was more dangerous these days, all right, and not just for the drivers. I’d met my share of sickos who demanded blow jobs in exchange for rides. Others just wanted to kill you and take what little money you had. That’s why I always carried a filet knife in my pocket for self-defense. Hitching had lost much of its romance since the sixties. Hitchhikers were no longer kings of the road, questing for adventure; now they were little more than homeless people in motion.

	Annie noticed my silence. “Sorry for rambling on like that,” she said. “If you want to say something, just clear your throat. I promise to at least try to listen instead of talking my damn head off.”

	“I don’t really feel like talking,” I said. “I’ve been on the road a long time, and all I want to do is rest.”

	There was an uncomfortable silence. Annie seemed disappointed to have missed out on a conversation with a real live modern hitchhiker. I reminded myself that this driver wanted conversation in return for the lift—not a bad deal, compared with some I’d met. I couldn’t afford to lose this ride. On the other hand, I was tired and the warmth from the heater was making me drowsy.

	The wail of a police siren shocked me fully awake. I looked over my shoulder at the road behind us, where the noise was coming from.

	Annie slowed down to a crawl. “Better pull over and let him pass,” she said. As she did so, I fought the urge to grab the wheel and stomp on the gas. If the cop pulled over too and walked over to check us out, I wasn’t sure how I would react.

	The siren rose to a scream. The cop car, roof lights flashing, passed Annie’s car and rocketed ahead. When it was out of sight, I slumped back in my seat, breathing a long sigh of relief.

	Annie pulled back onto the road and continued on the same course toward Albany, but it was slow going. A long trail of taillights was all we could see. We inched our way along, stopping and starting every few minutes.

	Finally we reached the source of the traffic slowdown. Two police cars and an ambulance by the side of the road, all with flashers going. Cops in yellow rain slickers stood directing traffic around the accident. As Annie’s station wagon crawled by, we saw the grisly details: a lone SUV with the passenger side bashed in and the driver’s side door hanging open. I couldn’t see any civilians talking to the cops; the scene was a mass of uniforms. The only civilian in sight seemed to be the one in the body bag being loaded into the ambulance.

	“Whew!” Annie said after we were past the scene. “I hate accidents. Some poor soul died back there. Kind of makes you appreciate your own life a bit more, doesn’t it?”

	“That isn’t the end of it,” I said. “The police have to track down the driver who killed that person.”

	“It’s a hit and run?” Annie said, surprised. “How can you tell?”

	“There’s only one vehicle present. That means that the driver of the other vehicle hit that one and scrammed, or the driver of the vehicle hit a pedestrian and fled on foot. The man in the body bag is either the driver of the vehicle or a hapless pedestrian.”

	“That’s one explanation,” Annie said. She seemed to be enjoying playing detective. “But we only saw part of it. Maybe the other vehicle was towed away before we got there. Maybe the other driver was taken away by the police.”


	“Well,” Annie said, “I think the whole idea is just terrible. Who would leave the scene of an accident like that, anyway? What motivates these people?”

	I struggled for an explanation. “Maybe the driver was drunk. Maybe he was so drunk he didn’t realize he’d hit anybody. Maybe he had prior convictions or was on the run from the police. Then, from his point of view, talking to the cops would just make matters worse for him. Or maybe he just made a split-second decision out of cowardice or apathy.”

	“But he’s not going to get away with it. Right, David?”

	“He could conceivably evade the police, at least. All he needs to do is stay under the radar until the case is cold and the cops are no longer investigating it. That could take ten years or more. Depending on how much evidence there is, he might have to abandon his former life and wander the country to avoid the cops.”

	“So someone could conceivably kill another person and get away with it.” Annie shook her head. “Doesn’t seem fair to me.”

	“I didn’t say he’d get away with it completely. The guilt would wear him down. The ghost of his victim would plague him forever. All because of a split-second impulse to flee the scene of an accident.”

	“Okay, okay, I’m tired of this subject.” Annie said. “Let’s talk about something more upbeat. Do you have any good stories about life on the road, David?”

	”Sorry, Annie,” I said, turning toward her, “with me there’s just not much to tell. But I bet you have some great stories about your own hitchhiking days.”

	“Oh yes, I’ve had some interesting times on the road,” she began. “We called it the Black River—mile after mile of it, and you never knew what was coming up around the next bend. I remember one trip to San Francisco the summer after I graduated from college…”

	I leaned my head against the window and closed my eyes. The woman’s droning voice and the constant sigh of the heater seemed to blend together until I was floating. Annie’s chatter and the swish of the windshield wipers took on a faraway quality, and I fell asleep.

	I was back by the side of the road. Again, the rain beat down and the cars ignored me. But this time the rain fell through me, not on me, and the cars didn’t stop because they couldn’t see me. I was a ghost. I heard the crackle of tires on gravel and turned to see Annie’s station wagon bearing down on me. It wasn’t slowing down to pick me up this time; it was going full tilt and had fishtailed onto the shoulder. I tried to run, but my legs were frozen. I could only stare in horror at the oncoming car. At the last moment I recognized the figure in the driver’s seat: gaunt, hairless, mouth open in a scream. It was me behind the wheel. I stared deep into my own eyes in the instant before impact.

	The car’s horn blared in my ear, making me jump. Annie said, “Damn fool doesn’t know green from red!” I looked through the windshield. The rain had stopped and we were waiting at an intersection in a small town that I almost recognized. The pickup truck in front of us slowly drove forward and turned right.

	“Good riddance, slow poke!” Annie said as we continued straight ahead. She turned back to me. “Now, where were we? Oh yes, my trip to Colorado. That was really an adventure, because I left my backpack at this truck stop right at the beginning of the trip and I had to improvise…”

	As Annie prattled away, I tried to get my bearings by looking at the landmarks we were passing. The heater called to me, but I couldn’t risk falling asleep again. For one thing, I didn’t want to miss my stop, and for another, I didn’t want to have any more nightmares. We had passed through the storm front and entered an area of patchy fog. Shadowy trees and buildings loomed out of the mist, giving me little time to recognize them before we passed by. Even so, I got the distinct impression that I was on familiar ground. I felt the bitter pang of homesickness.

	Two tall spruce trees appeared out of the mist, followed by a bright red house with a huge bay window. Next, I was sure, a barn with a caved-in roof would appear. When it did, I knew I was home. The cemetery was only a few miles down the road. This year could be the year. Every year I made the trip, and every year I was disappointed, but I never completely gave up hope. Besides, it gave me the opportunity to revisit old haunts.

	Please, let there be no flowers this time.

	“Let me out here, please,” I said a few minutes later. “You’ve been great company, Annie. Thank you so much.”

	Annie grudgingly pulled over. “But there’s nothing here but a cemetery! You’ll have a long walk ahead of you. We skipped ahead of those rain clouds, but they’re on their way here, too. It wouldn’t be any trouble for me to drive you right to the doorstep of wherever you’re going. What do you say?”

	I stared at her silently. After a moment she broke out in a toothless smile. “Don’t want me to know your business, huh?” she said. “Rule number one of hitchhiking: don’t overshare. Well, if you can’t accept my hospitality, please accept this instead.”

	She rummaged in the back seat and pulled out a huge, ancient umbrella. The folded-up canopy was decorated with pictures of tulips and daffodils. She pushed it into my arms, ignoring my protests. “From an old hitchhiker to a new hitchhiker. This is for listening to my stories.”

	I got out and closed the door gently behind me. Annie waved and beeped the horn in farewell. The station wagon pulled back onto the highway and slowly picked up speed. I watched until it was out of sight. After it disappeared, I was left alone in the mist-shrouded darkness. I heaved a heavy sigh and walked across the road to the gates of the cemetery. Of course, they were locked this time of the night. I walked along the tall iron fence until I reached a little-used side gate. This, too, was padlocked, but I had come prepared. I cut the lock off with a pair of bolt cutters from my duffel.

	I opened the gate a crack and slipped through, careful not to let the hinges squeak. I hiked through the graves until I reached one in a forgotten corner of the cemetery. “Here lies David Banks, devoted husband and father,” read the inscription on the stone. It was the same name I had given to Annie Proudfoot when she asked what to call me. It was the name of the man I had killed.

        I looked down at David Banks’s grave, searching for what I didn’t want to see. The grave was mercifully empty. No flowers, no mementos. Nothing. I was free.

	I had kept tabs on the investigation using the internet. Whenever it felt like the police were getting too close, I hitched my way to a different state. After a year, the police appeared to have given up, but I still watched over the dead man’s family. They didn’t seem so willing to give up, and still advertised a hefty reward for my capture. I decided that the litmus test for their capacity to seek justice for David was whether they left anything on his grave on the anniversary of his death.

	I always visited the cemetery on the night of the anniversary, when there weren’t any witnesses. On my first pilgrimage to David’s grave, exactly one year after his death, I found a bouquet of dandelions and a single red rose. Over the years, the flowers changed. After David’s widow remarried, the red rose disappeared from the grave and was replaced by the more traditional bouquet of lilies. By the time David’s son turned thirteen, the dandelions had disappeared as well.

	And now there was nothing. I was free. I could stop hitchhiking across the country to avoid the police. Finally I could settle down far away from here and live some semblance of a life. Still, David’s strangely naked grave called to me. I looked down at the bulky umbrella in my hand. I had no use for umbrellas. David needed it more than I did. I laid the flowery umbrella on the grave. If Annie Proudfoot ever wanted it back, she could Google the name I had given her plus the location where she had dropped me off. I hoped Annie would remember the name David Banks.

	I didn’t want to be the only one.

The End.