These Days

It was cool for that time of year, tolerable.  The night was hidden by a hazy mist that clung to the van’s windshield.  Larry almost didn’t see the kid until he was upon him—a ghost on the side of the road, neither coming nor going.  Larry passed him—no hitchhikers, ever.  Too dangerous these days.  Maybe once, when he himself was a kid, but not now, not after Nixon, after Oklahoma City and Osama bin Laden.  He’d spent over a decade on the road, one of the last hardy traveling salesmen, a dying breed he called himself, and he’d survived as long as he had because he didn’t pick up hitchhikers.  Common sense kept you alive.

But a habitual glance in the rearview mirror caused him to pull over.  Something about the slump of the figure’s shoulders suggested youth.  Which wasn’t enough these days—the young could kill, all you had to do was turn on your television and some six-year-old was putting a bullet hole into his classmate.  Maybe that stuff didn’t exist until you changed the channel or logged online—if you avoided the news, none of it would happen, the world would be at peace.  You made the news by wanting the news, by seeking it out.

What made Larry stop, before he even recognized it, was a suggestion of innocence.  Maybe it was the rain, the way the figure parted it, passing through an early June baptism.  Calm, uncomplaining, methodical.  Larry thought the mysterious shadow was going to pass the van by, keep on walking.  He wasn’t certain he would have a passenger until the door opened and the boy climbed in.

Funny, how the night can mask age.  If the boy had been extremely young, ten or eleven, or much older, eighteen or nineteen, Larry would’ve known.  But there is something about adolescence, that nether realm between childhood and maturity, that can only be determined up-close.  The kid had to be at the lower end of the spectrum—maybe fourteen or fifteen.  His lanky blond hair clung to his forehead; he wiped it out of the way, gave Larry a hesitant smile, waited for words to be exchanged.  Slim, too, but not in the gangly malnourished way.  Probably a soccer player, maybe lacrosse, if any of the schools in the area had a lacrosse team.

“Hey,” Larry said.  He pulled back onto the highway.  No other traffic.  According to the radio clock, it was just after ten-thirty.

“Thanks,” the kid said.  “I been walkin’ a long time.”

“It gets quiet out here,” Larry said.  “You’re miles from the nearest town.  Arcola, I think.  One of those Amish places.”

“I saw a horse and buggy yesterday.”  The kid laughed.  “They waved.  The girl’s kinda cute.”

“Well.”  Larry cleared his throat, glanced at the speedometer.  He could go faster.

He stuck out his hand, sideways, gave the kid a smile.  “I’m Larry.”

The kid shook the hand.  His palm was greasy with rain.  “Kyle.”

“Kyle the Kid,” Larry said.  “That’s a good gunslinger name.”

“Yeah.”

Fields gave way to more fields.  Larry couldn’t see them, but he could feel them—an openness during the day, an emptiness at night.  Dead and unattractive at this time of the year; not as bad as in the winter, layered in muddy snow, but bad.  Except where the ragweed grew, yellow patterned quilts that drifted in the humid breeze.  But seeing them always made Larry’s nostrils constrict, his temple throb.  You could smell them through the vents, a thick encompassing smell that clung to you long after the flowers gave way to wilderness.  Ragweed didn’t cause allergies—it merely beat the body into submission, like a dark horse boxer.

“I’m reading a western,” Larry said.  “That’s why I made the cowboy reference.  You know, there’s a kid in the book, kind of like Billy the Kid, except he’s bad.  Or maybe Billy the Kid was bad too, but this kid, he’s really bad.  Kills a lot of people.”

“What’s his name?”

“Uh.  I can’t remember.”

Kyle wrapped his knuckles on the window, leaving small smudges on the glass.  Larry noticed them, frowned.  The kid saw and used his wet t-shirt to wipe them off.  It made a bigger mess.

“Sorry,” Kyle said.

Larry laughed.  “It’s okay.  You just reminded me of something, that’s all.  Really, this car’s a mess.  I don’t mind a few smudges.  Better than what my kids have done, believe me.”

“What’d I remind you of?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe one of my kids?”

Kyle shifted in his seat.  Graceful, youthful.  Larry remembered his own childhood—overweight but inconspicuous.  No one made fun of him because no one knew he was there, which was how it should be.  He could feel his paunch now; the seatbelt made him feel heavier than he was, like he’d just eaten a big meal.

“You have kids?”

“Huh?”  Larry took his eyes from the road.  The van swerved slightly.  “Oh.  Yes, two.  Morgan and Lindsey.  About your age I guess.  Lindsey just started high school.  Morgan will graduate next year.  She’s an Honor’s Student.”

“Cool.”

“Lindsey’s thinking of trying out for golf.  They have a very good girl’s golf team.  She’s pretty good, too.  I taught her everything she knows, and then she went and learned some new stuff on me.”

“I played a couple times,” Kyle said.  He was looking out the window.  There was nothing to see but his reflection.  “I ain’t very good.  What do you call it when you keep hitting the ball to the right?”

“That’s a slice.”

“Yeah, that’s what I did.”

“You have to keep your club face closed, and make sure you hit the ball in the center of the club.”

“Really.”

“You bet.”  Larry started to say more, realized he’d reached the end of his advice.  There was no more to give—that was it.  “You want some music?  I normally listen to the radio, but not when it’s bad out like this.  You can turn it on though if you want.  Listen to whatever you like.  It’s clearing up, I think.”

The kid reached for the knob, stopped.  “You got satellite?”

“Satellite?”

“Radio.  Sirius?”

“Serious?”

“Yeah.  Bob Dylan’s got his own show, plays his favorite songs, talks about ’em.  It’s pretty cool.”

Larry nodded.  After a few seconds, he said, “Oh.  No, I don’t.  Just, you know, normal radio.  Sorry.”

“That’s cool.”  Kyle turned the radio on.  George Strait came out, low volume.  Kyle winced and changed the station.  He flipped through, not bothering to let the commercials finish to see what type of music the station played.  He stopped at a sports recast, listened to what sounded like a baseball play-by-play.  He nodded and moved on.  After a minute or so he turned the radio off and sat back in his seat.

“Guess there’s nothing on,” Larry said.  The George Strait song had been one of his favorites.

“Yeah, that’s why I like satellite.  They got everything you ever want.  No commercials, too.  You should check it out.”

“I think my wife said something about it the other day,” Larry said.  He wasn’t sure why he lied—it just came out.

“You married?”

He nodded, smiled.  “Twenty-six years last March.”

“Damn.  That’s something, I guess.”

“It’s not easy.  You have to compromise.  And, remember, no matter what—the woman’s always right.”

Kyle nodded, said nothing.

“And I mean always,” Larry said.  “She named our kids, she picked the color of our drapes, she decided to go vegan, then to go back to meat.  She chose this van.  She’s always right, and you’re always right because you always agree with her.”

“My last girlfriend thought she was always right,” Kyle said.  “That’s why I ditched her.  I’m the man, you know?  I mean, she can be right some of the time, that’s fair, but I gotta be right too.”

Something about the kid’s voice made Larry think he was lying.  That word “ditch.”  The way his shoulders swelled slightly, like a lizard puffing up in the face of a rattlesnake.  It was typical to bluster at that age, wasn’t it?  It had been when Larry was young.  Some things didn’t change—some things were biological.  That was a comforting thought, and Larry lingered on it.

They drove in silence for a while, until Larry remembered what he’d wanted to ask the kid in the first place. “Where are you heading, Kyle?”

“St. Louis.  There’s a Cards/Cubs game on Sunday.  They won today.  I think they’re gonna sweep.”

“Cards/Cubs.”  Larry made acknowledging noises in the back of his throat.  “You have tickets?  I would imagine those are hard to get around here.”

“Nope,” Kyle said.

A bird flew by outside.  Rare, to see a bird at night, and in the rain.  Something momentous about it, in a way.  Larry opened his mouth, started to ask, but didn’t get past the first word.  Kyle was looking out the passenger window again.  He hadn’t seen it, and it wasn’t the kind of thing you could describe—like a black rag fluttering through the night, except nothing like the way that sounded.

“Where are you from, Kyle?”

“Decatur.”  Kyle jabbed a thumb over his shoulder, grinned at Larry.

“You’re hitchhiking all the way to St. Louis?”

“Yeah.  My friend Michael did it.”

“At least it’s not hot.”

“It was yesterday.”

“The cold front cools thing out pretty well.  It’s supposed to be cool until Monday, when another warm front comes in.  It’s supposed to get up into the nineties, I heard.”

“Yeah.”

Another set of headlights ahead.  Larry thought what he always thought when he encountered a pair of headlights on a deserted road at night—that the driver would suddenly change lanes, that some instinctive suicidal impulse would overtake the stranger at the last second, and Larry would be unable to avoid it.  You can fight your own insanity, but you can’t fight that of others.  Not random encounters like this, the coincidental moments that slip into existence without provocation.

The car passed without incident.  Larry sighed, loosened his fingers on the steering wheel.

“Why are you hitchhiking?” he asked, when the cramp in his fingers had passed.  “I mean, don’t you have somebody to drive you?”

“No one knows I’m going,” Kyle said.  “It’s my birthday next month.  I’m treating myself.”

“Well, happy birthday.  In advance.”

“Thanks.”

Larry coughed.  There was a lump inside of him.  It felt similar to the lump that had taken his mother’s life, the malignant presence that made her life, and the lives of everyone around her, hell for three months.  You feel a lump, and whether it’s physical or metaphorical, it doesn’t just go away.  Larry tried.  He swallowed.  He coughed.  He made a guttural sound deep in his throat.  He even belched, softly.  But the lump didn’t go away.  His mother had tried remedies, herbal, medicinal.  She’d had her ten-year-old son rub lotions on her skin, waft scented smoke into her face, run errands into shadowy foreign neighborhoods tucked away in the back alleys of their small town.  It had all been in vain—a futile attempt to stave off the progress of time.

“You know,” Larry said, and then he said nothing.  Kyle glanced at him, face blank.  Maybe knowing what was going to be said, maybe unknowing or uncaring.

“You know,” Larry said again, “it’s pretty dangerous to hitchhike.  I guess you’ve heard that before.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, you know, it’s true.  I mean, it gets pretty bad out here.  I don’t pick up hitchhikers myself, because it’s just not the same.  The world, I mean.  You’ve got those crazies who, you know, are perverts.  And you can’t really trust anyone to be respectful.  You can’t trust your own safety with people anymore.  Not like you used to.  And you’re young.  You know?  I mean, you’re pretty young, and well, there are people out there who might take advantage of that.  Especially on a deserted highway at night, with no one else around.”

Kyle stared out the windshield.  Larry followed his gaze.  Nothing but the road and headlights, receding until the rain and night took over.

“I’m not one of them,” Larry said.  “Really, I’m not.”  He laughed.  “I have kids of my own.  About your age.  Morgan and Lindsey.  And I would hate to think of them out here, without protection, not knowing who will pick them up.  It’s dangerous, especially for someone so young.  And you’re going such a long ways.”

The kid’s bangs had fallen back over his face.  Larry glanced at the clock.  Almost eleven-thirty.  An hour later, and the kid was still wet.

“Used to be you could trust people,” Larry said.  “But you can’t anymore.  You can’t trust anyone.  I could hurt you—I wouldn’t, of course, but I could.  And you could hurt me.  People aren’t people these days.  People are almost like monsters, like vampires or something.  Hitchhiking has to be the most dangerous thing a boy your age could do.  You don’t know if you’ll get a ride.  I almost didn’t pick you up.  And if you do, you don’t know if the person you’re sitting next to wants to hurt you.  You know?”

“I think you should let me out,” Kyle said.  His voice was measured, but there was a hitch in it.  Larry, who had two kids, could tell.  That hesitation, that lack of self-assurance.  Almost unconscious, but something was dawning inside the kid, a realization that the world was dangerous.

“I’ll tell you what,” Larry said.  “You’re safe with me, right?  I’m not one of those perverts.  How about I drive you to St. Louis?  Just straight through.  It’s a little out of my way, but I’ll do it.  I can’t drive you back, but you could call your parents and they could come and get you.  I’m sure they’re worried, aren’t they?”

“I want you to let me out,” Kyle said.  There was a moment of silence, filled by the hum of the air conditioner, the tires against the pavement, the slow streaky thump of the windshield wipers.  Then: “Please.”

“Really,” Larry said.  “I’ll do it.  It’s no trouble, Kyle, it really isn’t.  Promise.  I might have to call the wife, tell her I won’t make it home tonight, but she’ll understand.  A salesman, he can’t always make it home on time.  Occupational hazard.”

“Please.”

“Don’t you see, though?  You’re safe here.  You’re not out there.  I won’t hurt you, but someone out there will.  Might, I mean.  Someone out there might.”

Kyle reached for the door.  It inched open, fighting the rush of the wind.  “Jesus,” Larry said.  “Christ.  Jesus.”  Kyle lunged, tried to jump out.  He’d forgotten his seatbelt; it pulled taught against his chest.  Larry hit the brakes.  The van went sliding towards the side of the road.  He whipped the wheel around, against the turn, then into it.  The van spun horizontal, a crossbeam cutting the dotted centerline.

The kid’s hands flailed.  By accident he hit the seatbelt release button.  He fell out onto the road, began running the wrong way, back the way he’d come.  Or was it?  Larry was confused; his head spun, everything blurred.  Partly it was the rain.  Partly it was the speed, the sudden stop.  Kyle must’ve hit the radio button in his panic; some heavy metal song was playing, the bass thumping despite the low volume.  Wind blew rain in through the open door.  The moisture joined the cool air from the vents.  Larry shivered.

“Kyle!” he shouted.  The figure had already retreated into the night.  He called the kid’s name again.  He wanted to straighten the van out, but he didn’t know which way to drive.  The night looked the same in both directions.

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