Nothing In Common
If Cass’s mother could see her now, she’d die all over again. A few books and some questionable fashion choices stuffed into a canvas backpack with a broken strap, standing on the side of the Interstate, thumb out, her dark face squinting into the Florida sun.
Traffic screams past her. The blowback from vehicles whooshing by nearly knocks her over. Her eyes are stinging from the sand and debris flying into her face. The roar of traffic is louder than she thinks a tornado must be. Dark clouds are moving in. It feels like the end of the world.
She keeps moving north with her arm out, sometimes facing forward, then switching and walking backward, which is even more dangerous, because she can’t see where she’s stepping. Several times she nearly falls—once over a Mercedes hubcap. She briefly considers taking it with her to sell, but it’s too big for the backpack.
It starts to drizzle. At first it cools her off, but as she gets wetter, she’s chilled. She pulls her hood up. A little later, she’s walking forward unable to see behind her when a car slows, pulls off to the side, and then stops. She lopes toward it, but as soon as she gets close, it pulls back onto the highway, scattering stones.
She feels a sting, looks down and sees she’s bleeding where a piece of gravel hit her leg. Her momma would’ve said something about if she’d buy jeans without holes in ‘em. “It’s just a scratch,” she answers her dead mother in a defiant tone, but she’s near tears, so she walks into the weeds, throws the backpack down and sits on it.
Stupidity got her in this mess. Andre, showing up with his so-called friends. Lowlifes and hoods she called them at one point. Yelling at him. Crying. Then this morning, her money was gone. Not that she’d had much to start with, but it was all she had. Her phone, too. And her debit card. Couldn’t even buy a bottle of water, much less a burner. Although, who would she call?
She trudges back to the emergency lane and sticks her arm out.
She can’t even guess how long she’s been buffeted about and peppered with sand when an eighteen-wheeler pulls over, a noisy undertaking that takes a lot of highway by the time it comes to a stop—a long way ahead but waiting. Flashers are going, and an arm waves out the driver’s side window. She runs.
It’s high, but she pulls herself up and makes sure he sees her face. He looks directly at her. No reaction. “Sorry you had to run so far,” he calls out. “Full load. Couldn’t get her slowed down any faster." He’s older, in his fifties, white, balding, with a bit of a paunch. “You gettin’ in?”
She tugs the big door open and climbs in. The cab smells like tuna fish and motor oil. She’s winded, breathless, still wary. “The weather’s about to get nasty.”
“Got that right. Nobody should be walking in what’s coming our way. Bad enough having to drive in it. Buckle yourself in, okay?” He’s got his left blinker on, and he starts going, picking up speed, watching in his side mirrors for a break in traffic. He reaches down under the seat and she stiffens. As he gropes for whatever he’s looking for, she glances out the window and calculates that they’re moving too fast for her to jump out.
He hands her a half-empty roll of paper towels, and she feels foolish.
“Thanks.” She feels her heartbeat slow back down as she pulls several sections off the roll, rubs her arms, then dabs at her face and hits her right eyebrow where the new piercing is. She winces.
“How far you going?” He’s watching the mirrors.
“Chicago—Blue Island, actually. You know it?” Not even a remote possibility he does.
He drives for a few beats in the emergency lane without answering but finally pulls onto the highway and begins shifting through the gears. “No, I—Illinois? Good grief, girl. That’ll take some doin’.” He glances in her direction. “Is that home?” He looks back at the road. His face is sun damaged with noticeable squint lines. He’s wearing a wedding band.
“Yes sir, more or less.”
“You got no choice of transportation other ‘n this?” He nods at the interior of the cab. “Hitch hiking isn’t safe, you know. Can’t trust just anyone. Got nobody to float you a loan for bus fare even?”
She bristles. “I’ve got—” What’s she going to say? Who does she have, anyway? Instead, she says, “I’m not sure they’ll be happy to see me.” She hates how the truth sounds, so she softens it. “Besides, it’s been a long time, and they don’t know I’m coming.”
“Aww, heck, I’m sorry to hear that.” He’s a cautious driver, constantly watching the mirrors, checking his surroundings. “But listen, I’ll get you as far as I can. I’m not headed to the mid-west, though. Started in Homestead. You know it?
“Way south of Miami. Going to Atlanta—about eight more hours from here—with this load. Not sure where from there, but most likely back to Florida, so that won’t help you none—any.”
“It’s okay, mister…”
“Fred Kelly, hon. Just Fred. No mister stuff—that’s my daddy—may he rest in peace.”
“My name’s Cassandra Bishop. Cass to my friends and rescuers.”
He smiles. The lines deepen. “You got it.” He looks at her, and she’s waiting for the question, but no. Instead, he says, “Listen, Cass, there’s some sandwiches in that cooler behind you. Wife always stocks me up.” He pats his substantial belly. “Wants to make sure I don’t starve, I reckon. No chance ‘a that. Help yourself. I mean it. They only last so long, and I had mine already.”
She glances at the dash clock. Two thirty-seven. “Are you sure? I don’t want to—”
“I am. Sure as I can be. Full up.”
He’s probably lying, but she’s hungry. And thirsty.
As if he read her mind, Fred says, “Plenty of bottled water there, too. Little bottles. Might need two. Gotta stay hydrated. That’s what the missus says.”
The water tastes so good, she drinks it down and then takes another one. As she unscrews the top, she remembers her manners. “I sure do thank you for this, Mister—Fred.”
“Ah, come on. What else we got going for us as a species ‘cept helpin’ each other out. People down on their luck all over the place right now. I read that book about passing it forward—oh, wait that’s not right. It’s—what is it?”
“Paying it forward?” Cass offers. She’s read the book, too. Made her cry.
“Paying it forward, that’s what it is. Made sense to me. Someday I might need help, and I hope like hell—pardon my French—there’s someone to help me out, too.”
Cass, in the meantime, prays this guy is just what he seems. Her mother’s voice is ringing in her ears about how he could be a serial killer. “They seem nice too—until they’re not.” Momma would say. Would have said.
The downpour comes then, crashing on the glass, but Fred’s diligent wipers keep the windshield clear. The view of the highway from up here fascinates her.
“Don’t be shy now,” he says. “Get yourself one a them sandwiches. There’s egg salad and chicken salad left. I ate all the tuna. They’re all on wheat bread, don’t cha know. She’s trying, the missus is, to get me to eat healthy.”
The sandwich is good. Soft, fresh bread, and Fred’s wife uses plenty of mustard in her egg salad. It doesn’t taste bland like some people’s. “This is really good. Your wife—what’s her name?” Small test.
“Maryann. All one word. Been married to that woman thirty-two years now. She’s a good cook, for sure, and a good woman, too. Got the patience of Job, she does. What with me gone so much.”
Cass swallows, drinks some water, and asks, “Children?”
Fred’s face pulls down. “Nah, no kids. Just never happened for us. Took in foster kids for about ten years, and one or two ‘a them comes back and sees us—well, sees her—from time to time, but we never had any of our own.”
“I’m sorry—” She’s thinking about her sister and brother—about how they’ve probably grown.
“Maybe just as well, ya know?” Fred goes on. “Got dogs instead. Four of ‘em. As of today, anyway. Maryann rescues mutts. Then she civilizes ‘em and finds good homes—most times ours.” He smiles and the lines in his face deepen again. “Woman’s nuts about dogs. I never know what I’m gonna find when I come home.” He looks down at the wadded up plastic wrap in her hand. “Get yourself another sandwich, girl. You’re needin’ some meat on those bones.”
He’s not wrong. Ninety pounds soaking wet on a good day would describe her at this point. Five feet nothing, kept waiting to grow more and it never happened. Her girlfriends in school said they envied her, always going on about how they wished they could be petite like her, when she hoped to grow taller. She wonders where they are now, what happened to those girls. She lifts the cooler lid. “Can I have the other egg salad? There’s only one left of that kind.” They’re all labeled neatly.
“Sure you can. Take it, I’m telling ya.”
She bites into the sandwich and it tastes as good as the first one.
When she’s done, she uses a napkin to dab some of the bottled water on her knee. It’s stinging and she can see dirt in the cut, so she works to get it clean and it starts to bleed again.
“Get aholt of that first aid kit just behind you there. Put some antibiotic ointment on that knee and a bandage, you hear? Can’t have it getting infected.”
As she’s doing what he suggested, he asks, “How’d that happen, anyway?”
She tells him about the car that pulled up and waited until she got close, then sped away.
“Why?” He asks.
“Saw my face, I guess. Wrong color.”
I don’t understand people like that, I’ll admit it.”
“Prejudiced, you mean?” Cass asks.
“Suppose that’s as good a word as any. Intolerant. Ignorant, maybe?”
“Of you?” He makes a dismissive noise. “Look at you.”
She almost argues with him about people being afraid of her, believing people are afraid of anything different from them, but she figures he wouldn’t get it. He’s White. “Can I ask you how you came to be so—open-minded?”
“You know what? It’s not a long story at all. My daddy was a racist son-of-a-bitch from a long line of ‘em. I jes’ decided one day that no way was I gonna be like him. Had friends on the football team, in trucker’s school, and in the service too, that were different from me—in all sorts ‘a ways. One day I realized something.”
“Everybody’s worried about something. Everybody gets ticked off from time to time. Some more ‘n others, but still. Everybody’s got pain and sorrow. And everybody has something that makes ‘em smile. Don’t matter what color we are or who we pray to. Simple as that.”
They’re both quiet, and then he seems to remember something. He’s got brownies. “Forgot all about ‘em. Coffee, too, in my thermos. Plenty left. Nothin’ better’n coffee and brownies, you think?”
She couldn’t agree more, so she helps by unwrapping the plate of brownies and pouring two cups of coffee. It’s nearly tan with cream, and it’s sweet.
“Sorry if you like it black . . . “
He looks chagrined, as if he might have offended her, and when he sees the expression on her face, they both laugh.
“No, sir, I like it just like you do.”
The cabin is warm and smells of coffee and chocolate. She feels safe for the first time this day, and thinks, how odd.
Fred says, “Can I ask what got you on the side of the highway with your thumb out, little one? You don’t have to tell me ‘a course, but—"
Maybe it’s the caffeine, but she tells Fred way more than she thought she would—about her disastrous evening and waking up this morning with nothing.
He tut-tuts and tells her he’d hate to think of his daughter having that kind of experience. “Where’s your family, child?”
She tells him about how her daddy died in Afghanistan when she was six years old, living in Chicago. Her brother five and baby sister only two. She tells him about her mother moving them to Plantation in south Florida. “It wasn’t ‘down on the plantation’, but, well, you know.” She’s not at all clear about why she trusts this White man, but she does.
“I rightly do.” He smiles. “Good one.”
“Momma married again and we had a stepdad. He was okay, I guess, but eventually she got sick—cancer—and he took off,” Cass says. “I was eighteen by the time she died, in my first year at community college. And in love. With Andre. Family Services sent my sister and brother back to Illinois to my grandmother. I could’ve gone too, but I planned to get my associate degree, marry Andre, and raise his babies. But he—well, he quit seeing the point.”
“Just about anything.”
“Drugs?” They are finally making good time, and the rain has stopped.
“No,” she says. “Disappointment, maybe? Frustration? He’d started college the same time I did. Criminal Justice. He thought law enforcement needed more black officers, and he’d always wanted to be a cop. We kept hearing about all the unarmed black men killed by police, but none of his instructors or his fellow candidates—even the black ones—would talk about it.”
“Damn shame, that is. Not right.”
She finishes her coffee, snaps the lid back on, and stashes it in the plastic bag. “So, final straw, he’s pulled over one night, taken in and detained without a phone call. Several hours. He hasn’t been speeding, isn’t armed, no illegal substances, nothing. They leave his car—with his dog in it—by the side of the road and the tow truck driver lets the dog out—”
“Yes. She gets run over.”
“Oh, crap!” Fred says.
“Aretha. Black lab—sweetest disposition.” She swallows. “He loved that dog.” She feels her throat close up with a memory of Aretha with a tennis ball in her mouth. Tears threaten to fall, so she turns her head to the side. That would be a first, she thinks, crying in front of a white guy.
He doesn’t seem to notice. “What was the reason they pulled him over? I mean besides—”
“Mistaken identity. Something about a cap he was wearing. His mother knitted it, so there wasn’t another like it in the whole freaking world.”
“What did he do?”
“Quit school, participates in BLM demonstrations.”
He nods. “This the same Andre who robbed you and stole your cell phone?”
“Yeah, I know. We hadn’t been—together—for some months, but there was a party, and he was there. He seemed—well, he’s a fine lookin’ dude, Fred. No lie. And I’m soft in the head.”
“I was young once. I get it,” Fred says.
They ride mostly in silence, each with their own thoughts.
She dozes, and feels him throw a blanket over her.
In Atlanta, he buys her a bus ticket and gives her some spending money, making her promise to pay it forward should she run into someone needing help. She gets his address and vows she’ll pay him back. He’s given her enough money to get a motel room, but she feel safer cleaning up in the restroom and sleeping in the well-lighted bus station.
Somebody has left a newspaper in the lobby. She doesn’t feel like reading it, but she scans the headlines and notices the date. March first. The beginning of a month has always felt hopeful to her, like a do-over. Maybe it’s a sign.
The next morning, she’s waiting to board the bus when she sees Fred waving to her. She can’t believe how glad she is to see him.
“Just wanted to be sure you got off okay. That granny of yours is gonna be glad to see you, I betcha. Everybody will be, you’ll see.”
They hug, and he feels warm to her. It’s a cool day, but he’s sweating. “You okay?” She asks, wiping the tears off her cheeks.
“Sure. Just a little tired. Parked the rig at the truck stop next to some guy heading south who kept getting out of his truck and puking in the parking lot.”
“Yeah. Said he musta got some bad food. I had some Pepto Bismol and gave it to him. Told him ginger ale might help.”
“You’ve paid it forward plenty by now, Fred. You can stop now.” She’s smiling.
“Nah. That’s the point. You can’t never stop.”
Cass can hear the last call for her ride north. “Listen, thank you again, Fred. You might’ve saved my life, you know? I promise you’ll get your money back.”
“Listen, Cassandra, we’re friends, right?”
She’s stunned to realize it’s so. “Yeah. . .”
“Well, that’s how friends do. Okay?”
She nods, then turns toward the waiting bus.
He calls out, “You be careful, okay?”
“You, too,” she calls, but doesn’t turn around.
She finds a window seat toward the back. Glancing out, she sees Fred get into his rig. This trailer is a different color. He jockeys around, sounds his horn, and heads south.
She waves, knowing he can’t see her.