“Does your mom know you’re alive?” I ask. “No.” With that, my mission changes.
HIS THUMB is arched out, but this hitchhiker seems unlike other men of the road. The lithe, clean-shaven young man jogging toward my waiting car bears little resemblance to the rough-hewn, roadsmart deadbeats and parolees the Georgia interstate routinely serves up in 1987.
“Hi,” I smile as he gets in. “I’m Paul. Do you mind buckling up? It’s a rule of mine.”
“No problem,” he replies. “I’m Dennis.” Dennis carries no luggage. His blonde mane is silky, his features defined, his complexion pure. He is, in a word, beautiful. In a jail cell, he wouldn’t last long. (Afternote, 2013: He looked rather Orlando Bloom's Legolas in the film trilogy Lord of the Rings.)
I accelerate into traffic. Fifty, 55, 60. Now begins the ritual small talk between hitcher and host.
“So where are you headed?” I begin.
“Florida,” he says, gazing straight ahead.
We’re heading the other way, toward Tennessee.
“I hate to tell you,” I inform him, “but Florida is South. We’re going North.”
I pretend nothing is strange. “I turn off in three miles,” I continue, “at Exit 111. Why don’t I turn and let you off by the South ramp?”
Ten seconds pass, then I speak. “What’s in Florida?”
“Don’t know. I’m on a mission from Heaven.”
Mission from Heaven? Please. If he’s on a mission, so am I.
“Really?” I reply. “How did this happen?”
“Well, one day the Lord just spoke to me. He told me to go to Florida. So that’s where I’m goin’.”
Well. This sure beats “My woman done me wrong,” the tale I’ve come to expect.
“So, Dennis, where are you from?”
“Kentucky, originally.” “Originally,” I’ve come to learn, is shorthand for many adventures ago.
From my driver’s seat, I feel a gnawing urge to pry. “How long since you left home?”
“About three years.” He looks 20, 21—too old to be a runaway. Perhaps he got some girl in a family way.
Exit 109. In two miles, it’s mission accomplished, for me. But I sense Dennis isn’t telling all. There are disquieting questions to be asked.
“Tell me: When did you last speak with your mom and dad?”
There’s a pause; my question has hit a nerve. “Well, my pa, he left when I was small. My ma, it’s been a while. Maybe two years.”
Two years? “Does she even know you’re alive?”
“No, I don’t reckon.”
My mission has just changed.
We drive on, silent. Exit 110. It’s 6:35 a.m. “Say, when was the last time you had a meal?”
“Well, it’s been a while. Maybe day before yesterday.” How he’s survived, I don’t want to know.
“Tell you what,” I say. “Where I turn off, there’s a Waffle House. Can I give you a few bucks and you’ll have a nice breakfast before moving on?”
“Sure, that’d be great.” Little does he know.
Exit 111. We turn off. Soon we’re in the Waffle House parking lot. I park near a phone booth. We get out, and I wave a bill at him. “Here’s a five,” I say. “But you’re gonna have to earn it.”
He stares at me.
“See that payphone?” I explain. “You’re going to call your mom and let her know you’re alive.”
He thinks. “Do I have to?”
“If you want to eat.”
“OK. But you talk to her. Not me. And don’t tell her where I am.”
“Fine.” I enter the booth, quarter in hand. He waits just outside the open door. I dial my long-distance code. “What’s her number?” I ask. He tells me. “What’s her name?” He tells me.
After several loud clicks, her phone rings. It is the coarse ring of a rural phone network from a bygone time. Then, I hear the tired voice of a woman well past 50. “Hello?”
“Hi, Ms. Davis? My name is Paul. I’m calling to let you know I met your son Dennis.”
“Oh, my god, is he dead?”
“No, no, he’s fine. He wanted me to tell you that he loves you. In fact,” I say, waving the five at Dennis, “he wants to tell you himself.”
I thrust the phone into his hand; before he can protest, we trade places. “Hi, Ma?…Yeah, I’m fine.… I dunno, a few miles from Atlanta.…Just some man who gave me a ride.”
I press the bill into his hand. “Talk as long as you want,” I whisper, and wave goodbye.
Minutes later, I arrive at my desk. I relate the encounter to my friend Susanne, a former social worker. “The boy is almost certainly schizophrenic,” she explains. “He needs to be on medication. The system has let him down.”
I clutch her hand. “Susanne, tell me I did the right thing.”
She clutches my hand back. “You did what you could. You were put there for a reason.”
Weeks later, the phone bill arrives. I tear open the envelope. Mother and son had two years of catching up; at 25 cents a minute, the tab for their call would probably top $10. I scan the state column. Kentucky…Kentucky…Bingo.
$1.25? That’s pocket change. Is this possible? I sit, wondering how a son, after two lost years, could hang up on his mother after just five minutes. I wonder, to this day, if I did enough.
Today, as a husband and father, I yield to my family’s pleas. No longer do I stop for the men who walk the highways. “Let other drivers take care of them,” I’m advised.
Which would be fine. If they did. If we all took care of our Dennises.
© 1999 Paul Franklin Stregevsky