Joe Schwartz Fiction

Leaning across my seat, I asked, “Where you headed?”

The man looked in my car through the open passenger window. He was not as old as I thought dressed in his grubby clothes examining the inside of my car.

“South,” he said. “How far you going?”
“About ten miles,” I said.

“That’ll have to do,” he said.

I popped opened the trunk remotely using my key fob. He dropped the green military duffel bag in with a thump making my Caddy bounce before sitting down next to me uncomfortable in luxury. The leather seat seemed to aggravate his skin. He smelled of open fires and car exhaust. His salt and pepper beard looked sharp to the touch.

“Mind if I smoke?” he asked.

I thought about it for a minute. Nobody ever had inside my car before. I was about to say yes when he lit up a bent and crooked cigarette he had been cupping in his hand. The smoke filled my car almost impossible to see through. I rolled down my window, the electric purr of the motor like a cat in a sunbeam. His smoke brushing my cheek, passing over me, as death must have the Israelite’s blood covered doors.

“I’m hungry,” I said. “You hungry?”

“Sure,” He said, “but I’m used to it.”

“Let’s get a bite. I’m buying.”

“Sounds good to me.”

I pulled off the highway at the next exit. Blue road signs with white arrows pointed to a nearby hospital where once I had visited my grandmother before she died. I didn’t know exactly where I was going until I parked.

“Get whatever you want,” I said.

“Seriously?” He asked.

Yes I nodded. He grinned exposing his yellow and black teeth delighted with my decision. I went to the soda fountain leaving him to his choosing. I mixed myself a vanilla Coke. It was the drink my father had bought me after leaving the hospital, my reward for facing death with him.

He selected a burrito, popped it into the microwave and walked over to the chips. I strolled around the store looking aimlessly at the beer cooler. When I thought he was ready, I met him at the counter.

“Mind if I get a pack of cigarettes, too?” He asked.

“Sure,” I said. “What the hell.”

I stared out the windshield doing my best to ignore him trying to give him some portion of privacy. He took a long drink of his soda and let out a satisfied, unashamed belch. Folding the cellophane wrapper around his half-eaten meal, he tucked it in the white plastic bag exchanging it for the cigarettes. He lit up this time without asking.

I started the car and went back to the highway. My wife would wonder why I was late. She would ask when I got home what took so long and I would lie that traffic was a bitch. If I told her the truth, that I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker, I would never hear the end of it. To lie seemed a far easier thing to do.

“I’m heading to Florida. Gotta get outta here before winter hits”

“Long way to go.”

“I’ve got time. Lots of time.”

“How long had you been waiting back there?”

“All my life.” His laughter was filled with sickness. I suspected he couldn’t climb a flight of stairs without having to stop to catch his breath. “You married?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Eleven years in August.”

“I was married once, had a pretty wife. We had a kid, too. He was beautiful. My wife went nuts. I don’t know why. I came home and they were both dead. My boy was drowned in the tub, the shotgun was still between her thighs.”

I pulled to the shoulder. He got out taking his convenience store bounty with him, his bundle from my trunk. I gave him twenty bucks I’d been saving to buy lunch on Friday.

“Good luck,” I said through my open window.

He took my money walking away. I should’ve shaken his hand.

My wife didn’t ask me where I had been. I turned on the TV. The weatherman predicted snow. I hoped he was wrong.

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