The Girl by the Side of the Road
Route 118 was a country road, dark enough to drive by starlight. Sometimes I did that, turning off my Mustang's headlights and coasting in a silvery glow bright enough to see blades of wild grass a few feet from the asphalt on either side. When the grass rose high to my right, I knew it was one of the farmers' fields of month-old corn.
On the night it happened, I turned on my headlights, rounded a corner, and there she was: a woman with a raggedy, stained white t-shirt, cutoff jeans, and no shoes. At first, she lifted her hands to ward off the light. Then, as I slowed to round the corner near her, she stuck out her thumb to hitch a ride.
If it hadn't happened during a time of life when I picked up all hitchhikers, every time, as a rule, I might not have stopped. How could she have gotten out here in the middle of woods and corn fields? It didn't make sense. But here she was. And barefoot. No one should have to walk far at night in bare feet.
"Shit." I screeched to a halt. The Mustang steering column never liked it when I did that. The wheel fought me for a second. My right hand dragged the automatic shift into park. I heard footsteps coming up fast.
"Thanks!" she gasped as she popped open the passenger door and swung inside.
"Sure, sure." I glanced around at the dark trees and empty road while I waited for her to buckle her seatbelt. Not everybody did it. I never did. But it was polite to give riders time.
"What are you waiting for? Go." Her blonde hair was natural-looking, attractive, and a mess. There was a twig or a broken leaf fragment in it. Her left hand pounded the seat. She wasn't looking at me.
"Um, okay." Usually, hitchhikers wanted to chat but, really, not all of them. I never wanted to talk a bunch when I hitched, myself. I flipped the car back into drive.
The woman looked all around us as I rolled away. When we picked up speed, she tapped the rolled-up window.
"Did you see anybody?" she sounded out of breath. "Anyone else? Along the road?"
"No." I couldn't look at her again because I was driving. When the overhead light had been on a few seconds earlier, though, I thought I saw bruises on her left arm. "Are you all right?"
She laughed. A moment later, she started to cry.
"They might be looking for me. On this road. Don't stop. Do you pick up hitchhikers a lot? Don't stop for any more right now. Please, please don't. " She cried for a few seconds more. Then she shot me a wild-eyed, worried look. "Are you one of them?"
"What do you mean?" This was all too weird for me. She had to be in some kind of trouble. "Are you running away from home or something? I won't turn you in."
"That place where I was." She sniffled. She took a deep breath. "Have you been to that farm before?"
That was easy enough. There was only a broken down shack and a dirt drive, overgrown with a rusty chain across it. I shook my head.
"Nope," I told her. "I've passed it by for years but actually, I didn't know anyone still lived there."
She continued to lean away from me.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know." She started to cry again. "I just have to get away.”
"Oh my god," she said as we neared an intersection with a gas station. "I have to call my parents. They must be frantic. They probably think I'm dead."
"Here?" The closed Texaco station had a payphone on the side, next to the garage bay. I'd used it before. It probably still worked. But as I slowed at the stop sign, my rider started to panic.
"Not here! No!" She twisted back and forth in her seat. "This is too close."
"Okay." I flipped on my right turn signal. "But there are phones in a lot of places. Will your parents take a collect call? I mean, will they even answer? It's past midnight. How far away are they?"
She turned to me, mouth open. She looked stunned. "Where am I?"
"Um, you don't know?" We swung south down Clopper Road. I could see the woman in the passenger seat by the lights of the Texaco station. "Darnestown is the closest place to us, I guess. We're leaving it. I'm headed down to Gaithersburg."
"To do what?"
"Not much. I was going to walk around Dart Drug and look at the books." The Dart Drug building was huge. It was one of the biggest box stores I'd ever seen. It had everything and it was all cheap. When I bought books there, they were almost always half off.
"Is it open?"
"It never closes," I said. "That's why I go there in the middle of the night."
She kept talking more about her parents, who I guessed she hadn't seen in a while. She wondered if they would pick up the phone and listen. I kept paying attention to the road. Every now and then, I glanced over at my rider. Her body crouched forward in the seat. Her hands stayed active as she spoke. At a stop sign, she paused to let tears flow for a few seconds. Then she took a stutter-breath and said, "Do you have any change?"
The question made me play back in my head a bit more of what she had been saying about phones. I had told her, with confidence, that she could call her parents collect. I'd made collect calls. Plenty of folks did it. If her mother or father picked up, they would accept the charges and talk to her. But she wasn't sure. What if they were mad about the time of night? What if they didn't like her? But she said they must have worried about her, too, so that part didn't make sense.
"Sure, I have a little." I dug into my pockets. On the second try, I pulled out a lint-littered clump of change. "You'll have to tell me how much."
"Will the payphone accept it all?" Yeah, I could tell she was planning on spending my money.
"Everything except the pennies."
"You've got a dollar-forty," she announced. "Can I have it?"
"You don't trust your parents?"
"At least if I call them direct, I can ask them to come get me. The operator can't cut me off if I've paid."
It was only a buck-forty, barely enough for a discount paperback. I agreed and she talked more about the phone call. We continued south, up and down a dozen hills. Finally, streetlights appeared on either side of the road. Half a mile later, we came to our first stoplight.
By the second stoplight, we could almost see the outdoor mall. The lights of it glowed above the treeline. My rider's conversation picked up speed as she talked about clothes. When we stopped at the light before the big store, she turned to me.
"Can you see through this shirt?" she said.
"Maybe a little." It wasn't hers, I guessed.
"Can I have your jacket?"
My mouth fell open. She meant to have it permanently. This seemed like a bigger thing to ask than my spare change. I had begged money off of any number of folks in the street. It had never occurred to me to ask for their clothes. This girl didn't know I was broke, either, and would have to save up to buy another jean jacket.
It had been my best jacket for years but, I admitted to myself, it was old. It was a leftover from high school. I'd removed the cool pins from it except for the Gang of Four, RGBY, a peace sign, and Anarchy.
"I mean, just for going into the store," she added. Her voice got higher pitched and more desperate. "I don't want the store to throw me out. I need the jacket over my shirt. Just for the phone call."
"Oh, okay. Sure." In my mind, I was saying a permanent goodbye to the jacket, though.
In the parking lot, I pointed out the row of payphones I'd described to her. She nodded when she saw where they were. She would need to walk through the main doors, next to the carts. But she wouldn't need to actually pass through the next set of doors into the store unless she decided, after the call, that she felt safer there.
"Do you want me to come in with you?" I asked as I took off my jacket.
"No. It would make me nervous." She put out her hands and almost touched me. "Please don't."
"I just don't want you too close. Stay here." For a moment, she stopped trying to be polite. She knew what she wanted, now. "I need you somewhere around. That's the best thing. Please, please wait in the parking lot."
"Okay." Finally, I got the jacket off. It was kind of tight, anyway. I pulled the peace sign button off of it. I liked that one. Then I handed it over.
"Wait until my parents come. Okay?" She shrugged on the jacket and pulled it closed around her waist without buttoning it. She held it in place. "Watch. If anyone else tries to take me, don't try to interfere. Just call the police."
She had persuaded me to park at least twenty yards away from the brightest lights in the lot. Still, I could see her shiver. It wasn't cold. Her legs looked unsteady as she quick-marched toward the store. After the automatic doors opened for her and she reached the bank of three payphones, I leaned back and relaxed.
This time, I hadn't insisted on finding out more. For me, that was weird. But it felt right. Whatever was going on, I was doing what she wanted and that seemed like the best thing. I felt oddly calm. I sat motionless and let my awareness expand to everyone and everything moving in the parking lot. But I didn't stir. No squirming. I was not in my usual hurry.
Mostly in those days, I was in a rush to do things even when I had nothing to do. But for this, for when I had a job assigned to sit and wait, I felt okay.
The phone call took place at least twice. I could tell the girl hung up once, called again, and got somebody on the line during her retry. She talked for what felt like a long time to me, probably a few minutes. After she hung up the phone, she turned and walked through the main interior doors of Dart Drug.
"Hey, man, is that your girlfriend?" a black man in a button-down shirt, who I recognized as someone who had strolled out of the store, came up to the open window of my car.
"A hitchhiker," I explained. "She asked me to stay for a while."
"Okay." We both looked at the store for a minute. The girl wasn't visible. She must have said something on the phone that caught this guy's attention, though. He patted my door. "Gotta go. Good luck."
Even at peace with what I was doing, I thought vaguely about how strange it would seem to other people. If she called the police, I would have to explain. But I felt calm about it.
The next thing I knew, someone else was walking up to my car window. Practically running. It was my hitchhiker. She had my jacket under her left arm.
"Here." She thrust out the jacket I hadn't expected her to return. "My parents are coming. They'll be in a white minivan thing. Well, a white car. I don't know what it is. If anyone else drives up to take me, call the police, okay?"
"Thanks." She shivered. Her expression seemed angry and determined. As if she knew she was acting oddly, she hunched shoulders and said, "Sorry."
Then she was gone, back into the store.
After another five minutes passed, I got out to stretch. A middle-aged woman who was crossing the parking lot to her car decided to stop and talk with me. That was odd because of my age, my slightly impoverished appearance, and how the woman didn't seem to have anything to talk about. She just decided I looked friendly and wanted to chat.
In the midst of my conversation with her, I found myself reminded of a chapter in The Philosopher's Stone by Colin Wilson. Near the start of the novel, two scientists achieve a sort of artificial enlightenment and mental peace with the world. It's real enough in the sense that it lasts throughout the book. However, the scientists discover they are too friendly to be practical. They attract too much attention from passers-by. Strangers are kindly inclined to them and it starts to get in their way. They have to learn to turn off their emotional beacon of peace.
I listened to the woman until she slowed down a bit. Then we waved goodbye. She smiled. I got back into the car. I thought about Daoist books and Stoic writing. I thought about Buddhism and the act of not wanting things, not anything at all. I watched the main doors. And scanned arrivals to figure out when the parents had arrived.
Several white vehicles came and went. Finally, after fifteen minutes a white minivan pulled into the lot. It curled around the parked cars until it reached the automatic doors outside of Dart Drug. There, it stopped and waited without turning off its engine. Someone dashed out of the far door, I thought. It was hard to see. Finally, two women dashed back to the van. They were on the side away from me, but I got a glimpse. One of them, I could tell, was the girl who had been my hitchhiker.
At that point, I turned the key in my car. I'd been thinking about what to do next and it was simple. There wasn't any point in hanging around. I had no answers for the girl or her parents. There was no point in trying to buy a book, either. It was time to leave.
I turned. It was a black man, medium height, wearing jeans and a t-shirt that was somehow nicer than any I'd ever owned. He had a sophisticated air but also sense of tiredness about him. He looked friendly.
"Yeah?" I said.
"I don't want a ride or nothing. I got my own car." He was thinking faster than I was. I hadn't thought he was going to bum a ride. "But I'm lost, man. I'm trying to get to Germantown."
"Hey, you're almost there. Where in Germantown?"
For a few minutes, he and I chatted. He got me to smile. I made him laugh out loud. He'd been driving up from DC to see someone and he couldn't believe how far he'd come. He had assumed he was lost when he only needed to turn west on route 124 and keep on driving a few more miles.
"Thanks, man. You're all right."
"You too, man. Good luck tonight."
"I hear ya."
My car had been running the whole time. Giving directions hadn't taken long. The white probably-parents van was still in front of Dart Drug. But I sort of felt like I was in danger from sitting there being so peaced-out and calm. If I stayed, everyone would stop by, everyone in the whole world, one by one, and have a talk.
I didn't feel bad about it. I felt calm. Everything was completely right. I was at peace with the world and in love with the people in it. But also, I knew I should mosey along. I pulled my gearshift into drive and rolled away.
Every couple of months from when I was a teenager to when I turned thirty-one, I helped out people who had run out of gas and had to hitch. I gave lifts to drunks, too, and to bicyclists in the rain. I drove one guy whose car had caught fire. He'd been in some kind of accident that turned his vehicle on its side. I got out to make sure he was okay. A flame started in the undercarriage of his car. We stood and watched it start to burn. We shrugged. Then I took him to the nearest payphone.
Often enough, I accepted rides. I had them from born-again evangelicals, at least one couple who wanted me to get high with them, a dozen men who told me how good I looked, and one or two women who said the same. I had two men try to kidnap me, basically. One, when he tried to pull a knife, made me laugh. A gun, sure, that could have gotten bad. But a knife? Even as a blade it was sort of an insult, a penknife that he couldn't open before I chuckled and got out of his car.
"Hey, not that one," I had to shout to another hitchhiker.
Unbelievably, the guy who tried to pull the knife on me drove forty feet to the next hitchhiker. And that teenager was about to get in. But he heard me, did a double-take at the broken-down green pickup truck and the hand waving him in, still with a penknife in it, and he stopped.
"Oh, okay. Damn."
The pickup truck driver cursed us both and sped away. Or tried to speed. Even when he floored it, his truck could barely keep up with traffic.
"Damn, I guess I'm walkin." The other teenager shook his head.
"Well, as long as you don't fall for that guy, you'll be okay."