The Fortunate One
“Hello, sir. Sir!” said the woman driving a new green SUV, as she leaned out the window of the car stopped within a few feet of a scrawny man sitting on the ground. He had been dropped off at an exit off I95 by a trucker who had picked him up in Florida earlier in the day. The trucker had been generous, especially with the ride and conversation, until they reached the trucker’s destination and the hitchhiker asked for a couple of dollars for food.
“Don’t put up with begging,” he said, as he pulled the truck over to let him out. So, the hitchhiker began panhandling by the blue sign advertising the only gas station at the intersection of Hell and Back somewhere in coastal Georgia.
He stood and smiled, expecting the woman to give him a little cash. Five would be just enough for a couple of meals. When he started toward the car, his leashed hound dog jumped up to follow.
“I’d like to take you to lunch. You and the dog.” Her voice was clear and commanding as if she were used to being obeyed.
“What’cha think, Sparky? Can we trust her?”
He knew the dog’s wagging tail was a response to his voice, not an answer to his question.
“Get your belongings and hop in. Time for food and company, both of which I could use.”
Usually passers-by would offer him a ride or give him a few bucks, maybe a lunch they decided to give up. He was surprised by the offer and unsure whether to go with her. What the hell? What have I got to lose? Maybe my luck’s changing. He and the dog jogged back to get his overflowing, camouflage backpack and small, dingy purple suitcase, and then scampered to the passenger door.
“Where do you want the dog?”
The man pointed at the floorboard and commanded, “Up.” The dog jumped in and flopped down, leaving just enough room for the man’s long feet.
Sinking into the leather seat, the man sighed. “You know this isn’t safe?”
“It’ll be fine. Besides, it’s just lunch.”
“You shouldn’t pick up strange men.”
She looked at the dog with its nose low to the floor and sniffing in the direction of her feet.
“I believe if you were a murderer, you’d have already eaten the dog.” She chuckled and reached out a small, gloved hand. “Name’s Susan.”
He noticed his dirty hand and started to pull back, but suspected she would insist they shake. “I’m Jeff.”
“What’s the dog’s name?”
“Sparky. We found each other a couple of months ago.”
Susan smiled. “Well, I’d ask you what you’d like for lunch, but there’s only the
Subway at the convenient store and a local café just up the road. Not a fan of subs, so off we go.” With a quick look over her right shoulder, she rolled to the stop sign.
“What about the dog?”
“We’ll sit outside so he can join us.” Seeing no on-coming cars, she pulled onto the two lane highway, headed east.
“Will they let me in?” He looked down at the holes in the knees of his jeans and the oil-stained, orange sweater he had picked up on an overpass last week.
“They will if I bring you.”
“You are regular there?”
“Was there once a few weeks ago. Don’t be a worrywart,” she said laughing, as she sped up the car.
Susan was a petite woman who sat on a pillow to see above the steering wheel. She wore LL Bean slacks, button down, and with a light jacket fit for a mild, southern December day. Her shoulder-length, dark hair was pushed back behind her ears. Despite her stature, Jeff knew she was a woman to be reckoned with.
“Jeff, thank you for coming along. Gives me someone to talk to.”
He chuckled. Earlier in the day, he felt sorry for himself, thinking about what he missed most, and decided it was conversation, preferably with someone who might ask his name. He feared he might forget since he’d heard it so rarely after he was kicked out of the halfway house. Jeff. Jeffrey Harold Blanton. Praise Mama. She didn’t call me Harold. Or Harry. Teased and taunted enough. The son of the town’s two-bit hooker couldn’t expect different.
“You’re welcome,” he said. Wonder what makes her lonely for conversation. Thought she’d be the type to want peace and quiet. That trucker ‘bout talked my ear off, and now she wants to talk. Mama always said, “Be careful what you ask for.” He reached down to give the dog a pat on the head.
When the car reached the outskirts of town, she slowed down and pulled into the lot of a small cafe. Susan picked a table on the patio, close to the front door and tucked away in a corner. The other patrons couldn’t help but stare at the odd couple with the dog.
“Hi, I’m Bobbi. I’ll be taking care of you this afternoon. Can I get you something to drink? We have watering bowls for dog guests. I’ll bring one.”
“Thanks,” Jeff and Susan said at once.
“I’ll have a latte,” Susan said.
“Water, please,” Jeff said.
Bobbi waddled to the door of the café. Her taut belly hung low. Jeff expected the baby to burst forth like an alien he had seen in a movie. Poor girl. Not a ring on her hand. Maybe one of those tattoos on her arms reveals a commitment to someone who will help her raise her child.
“That’s all you want to drink?” Susan asked.
“About all I drink.” Jeff remembered one of his many “Dads” preaching about how drinks make restaurants rich. “Water and food coloring is all you get for two dollars,” he had said. Jeff didn’t quite believe him, but he learned to drink water.
“Where you from?” Susan asked.
“Suburbs of Atlanta. Haven’t been back in a couple of years. I prefer to spend my time on the coast where handouts and weather are better. I spent the summer in Maryland. Just up from Florida. Never did find a good spot for the winter. A trucker dropped me off here just a while ago.”
“Are people very generous?”
“Depends on what you mean. When I’m thumbing for a ride, most people are afraid to pick me up. Can’t say that I blame them. When I panhandle, I’d say less than 10% of drivers give me anything, but of those who do, I make enough to feed me and Sparky.”
“How long you been on the road?”
“A couple of years.”
“Traveling? Or are you homeless?”
“I’m not homeless.” He threw his arms open wide, leaned his head back, and looked to the sky. “Live in the big ole US of A with a roof of stars.”
Susan heard irritation in his laugh.
“I didn’t mean to insult you.”
Jeff shrugged, without comment.
“Anyone ever give you enough to get a hotel room or offer to help you off the streets?”
“More the latter than the former. Couple times a week, a social worker or preacher will try. Obviously, that hasn’t worked out. Money for a bed? Maybe once a month. Sometimes a trucker will let share their space.”
Bobbi returned with drinks. Susan ordered avocado toast, while Jeff ordered the soup and sandwich special.
“Bring Sparky a plain cheeseburger,” Susan said as Bobbie turned away.
“Gotcha,” Bobbi said with a nod.
“Did you have a rough childhood?”
“That’s a lot more personal.”
“Just making conversation. A lot of people have horrible childhoods that lead to rough times.”
“I did. That’s not the reason I’m here.”
“Why are you here?”
“Bad choices after being deployed to Somalia. Wasn’t ready for what I saw. Made me realize my life wasn’t so bad. Felt guilty for complaining. A fellow soldier offered me cocaine. It wasn’t that I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to.”
“So you kept it up at home?”
“Wasn’t quite as easy to get in the States, but I kept using ‘til my wife kicked me out. Went to rehab for a couple of months. Clean for a year or so after. The craving never goes away. My wife kicked me out again. Back to rehab.”
“How many times?”
“Just the two. My wife refused to take me back after the second one. Ended up in a halfway house. Got kicked out for fighting the first week there. Been on the road since. Seen a lot of places up and down the east coast.”
“You have other family?”
“I try to keep up with my son. He’s at Georgia, studying to be a nurse. He won’t have anything more to do with me. Last time I called I was in bad shape. Begged for money, and he refused and said never call again. So far, I haven’t.”
“He may change his mind later.”
“Maybe. What about you? Where are you from?”
“Atlanta.” She chuckled. “I’ve been traveling for the past few months. Retirement gift to myself. Spending some money I apparently didn’t have time to spend while working.”
“It’s been more educational than fun.”
“What’d you learn?”
“That my gated community is not the place for me.”
“Why is that?”
“The obvious. It’s meant to keep people out.”
“You moved in knowing that, right?” he asked with a smirk.
“Actually, I didn’t even think about it. My then-husband was the driving force behind that decision.”
“Where are you headed now?”
“Headed back to Atlanta. First thing, I’m doing is putting my place on the market. I’ve met so many people who could never get past the gate. Good, honest folk.”
Jeff felt like he was a priest hearing a confession. “So why are you telling me this?”
“I just realized a few miles back how I felt, and wanted to share with someone.”
“I hope everything works out for you.” He took a sip of water.
“So you like the east coast. Ever been out west?”
“Traveled there before I joined the Army. Can’t say that I ever want to go back. I wasn’t doing drugs back then, but they were much too available. Can’t imagine what it must be like nowadays.”
“You aren’t on drugs now, are you?”
“Naw. Been straight since I left Atlanta.”
Jeff’s glassy eyes told another tale. His pupils were abnormally dark, rimmed with tracks of bloody veins. He looked like a worn-out sixty-year-old, while his life story said maybe shy of forty. Susan doubted he could afford cocaine, but possibly could scrape up enough for crack on occasion.
Bobbi delivered their food.
“I thought the special included a cup of soup,” Jeff said as he looked a large bowl brimming with a beef stew.
Bobbi smiled and said, “We’d hate to throw out good food.”
“Thanks. Looks delicious,” he said.
“Enjoy now. Let me know if you want more.”
Susan picked at her green toast, while Sparky and Jeff wolfed down their food. When Bobbi returned to refill drinks, Susan asked her to bring two of her best desserts. Jeff’s eyes lit up as he loved a good sugar fix.
After eating piece of pumpkin cheesecake, Jeff said, “Why did you pick me up?”
“Oh, yes, time to talk business,” Susan answered, as she signed the charge slip.
“I’m not going to jail for you.”
“It’s not illegal. As I said, I’ve been spending some of my money. Paid off my house, new car, and the like. Then I decided I should give some of it to those who deserve it. When I’m out, I look for people for whom a little money might come in handy. When I saw you, I knew we should talk.”
“Stop for me or the dog?”
“The dog tipped the scale.”
She pulled a white envelope from her purse, and laid it in the middle of the table. Both of them stared at it like it might magically open on its own.
“Here’s $5,000. Use it however you’d like. I think you’ll do some good with it.” Susan wondered how much would go for drugs.
“What makes you think I won’t blow it?”
“I like the way you care for Sparky. You may go hungry, but I’m sure Sparky doesn’t.”
Jeff smiled and reached down to rub the dog’s head.
“I should get back on the road. Like to make home before dark. Are you headed north? I could drop you somewhere.”
“I think I’ll spend the night here. Head out tomorrow if I can’t find a good spot to live for a while.”
“Want a ride back to the interstate?”
“Walking will do us good.”
Susan suspected he wanted rid of her so he could get to spending the money she’d just given him. Without a word, she nodded and left.
Jeff watched while she sped out onto the highway. He picked up the envelope, noting how heavy it felt. Inside he found crisp $100s. Man, this would buy one hell of a party. He turned his head left, then right to scan the almost empty patio. He quickly removed five bills and put them in the wallet he carried hidden in an inside pocket of his mud-stained, blue jacket.
He stood, put on his backpack, and loosened Sparky’s lead from the chair leg.
“Got enough for dog food and boloney and bread, Sparky. That’ll get us through for a bit. Still got find a place to sleep. Bound to be a nice overpass somewhere. Maybe we will find an empty mansion.” He chuckled at the thought. I’d love to find good shelter to last for the winter. One that gives good cover from the elements and the cops.
Before grabbing his suitcase, he picked up the pen Susan had used to sign the bill, and wrote on the envelope with the remaining money, “For Bobbi. Happy Holidays,” and slid it carefully under the receipt. He picked up the water glass and held it up in a mock toast. May your child have a good life.