The Kindness of Strangersbylakesailer_mi©
I thank Respieto who provided some wonderful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft. Also, I thank all my friends on the playground whose encouragement and friendship keep me writing and playing. This is a work of fiction and contains sexually explicit scenes. If the laws in your area prohibit you from reading this, please respect those laws. This work is copywrited by Lakesailer_mi.
It had been the worst year of my life. I was angry at the world, at everyone I worked with, at everyone I lived with, and, I realize now, I was angriest at myself. Frustrations with relationships that were not what I had planned. Anger at an organization which failed again and again in spite of my warnings and direction. People who relied on me, but never paid attention. People who took all I gave, and only demanded more. I had begun to hate people. To despise them in their weaknesses and pettiness. I also felt the feeling was mutual, that most people, including those closest to me, had come to despise me as well. It had all become too much and one day I reached my limit. Packing a small backpack with a variety of clothes and items, I just left.
It is a testament to the self centeredness of the world that no one noticed, no one tried to stop me. I simply walked out of the world I had built and entered an invisible world. I walked along roads, some busy, some deserted. Occasionally, especially at first, I would get rides with truck drivers or other travelers. They would ask "where are you headed"?
My answer was always a nod down the road and a simple "there."
Sometimes they would try to engage me in conversation. I soon learned to turn the conversation toward them, asking questions like "where are you from? " and "where are you going?" Probing and letting them talk. My answers were non-answers; short, clipped, and probably off putting. Looking back, I notice that the rides got shorter and shorter with people making excuses to get off the highway just a few stops later. Looking back, I also realize I was getting fewer and fewer offers for rides. My appearance must have been off-putting and I may have smelled bad. I was, after all, a homeless man.
Some months later I walked into a rest stop at just about dusk. Rest stops were part of the reason why I stayed on the major highways, rather than venture off onto smaller roads. Smaller roads usually afforded easier walking, and I was nearly always walking by this time, but it was difficult to find places as hospitable as a highway rest stop. There was always a bathroom and water at a rest stop. Saving money I had found - you would be stunned at the amount of money simply lying on the side of a road - I could usually afford some snack or small amount of food from the vending machine. If I hung around long enough, I usually got the remnants of some family's rest stop lunch, often retrieved from the trash as they pulled back onto the road. The best part of a rest stop was that I could usually find an out of sight corner to rest and sleep.
Sleeping and bathing are the two most difficult aspects of being homeless. While water and public rest rooms are available in myriad places, and food can be scavenged from a society so rich it discards 'left overs' that would feed families in other parts of the world, finding a place to sleep safely was a challenge. Rain or snow was uncomfortable, but not really dangerous. There were other homeless, some clearly much less sane than I. There were the crazy people who were a part of society and looked for ways to hurt those outside it, and worst of all, there were well meaning people and police. All of these people, for their different reasons, would destroy my sleep unless I found a place to hide. Rest stops often afforded that luxury.
It had grown dark while I used the rest room and found some food. The rest stop was deserted by dark, the road being far from most towns and not really on the way to or from anywhere. Not far from the parking lot I found a place, behind a picnic table and under a bush where I could hide for the night. Patrolling police and the occasional rest stop patron would not see me or venture into this area in the dark. It wasn't particularly late, but I settled in and had begun to doze off when I heard a car coming into the parking lot. Normally I would have ignored it but this car did not sound right. The loud flap-flap and the sound of metal grating on pavement was unmistakable: this car had a flat. Not just a flat, but probably a complete blow out and likely some miles back. The driver had continued to drive on it, well past what was prudent, and was finally limping into this rest stop.
I heard the car door slam and a woman's voice screamed through sobs "Jesus Motherfucking Christ! Why?!!" I had grown cold over the last few months, leaving my anger and disgust behind me, but all of those feelings were perfectly reflected in her anguished cry of "why" and they awoke something inside me.
I slowly rose and walked out of the dark toward her car. I could hear curse words and muttered cries of anguish and sobs. I stopped at the back of the car, she stood on the sidewalk in front of it. She didn't see me coming, I realize now, and so when I said "can I help you" she jumped and screamed in surprise, although I think I was at least as surprised by my offer.
"Stay back! I have pepper spray and I'll use it" with an anger and bravado I could tell she was unaccustomed to. She fumbled with her purse and was soon holding her arm rigid with a small bottle of something pointed at me. I shrugged and turned to walk away, emotionless again. As I retreated, she said flatly "wait." It wasn't a command. It wasn't a pleading question either, it was simply an indication that I should wait. I turned back and looked at her standing there. We were nearly under a light and as her arm lowered and she relaxed slightly I began to make out details. Her shoes were heels, and her calves, exposed by the knee length black, tailored, designer cocktail dress, were perfect. Her body curved subtly, clearly sculpted by many hours in the gym. Her face, classically beautiful was pinched in pain. I could see swelling, and possibly a bruise on her left eye.
Her voice portraying a level of control I knew from my life was a mask, she flatly asked "can you change a tire?" That simple question exploded in my mind. Could I change a tire? At seven I began working on cars with my Dad. We rebuilt the '68 Mustang he had rescued from the guy who had driven it without oil. We worked on the family cars and my friends' cars, and the 1972 Grand Am I had bought from some moron who thought it was a lemon. I had taken engines completely apart and put them back together before I was fourteen. I knew timing settings and carburetor settings of a half dozen late 60's and 1970's cars like I knew the back of my hand. I could rebuild brakes and clutches and I had even done a little body work and painting. Most of those skills though, were useless today. No one had a manual transmission and clutches were a thing of the past. Electronic fuel ignition was controlled by a computer and was perfect, something nearly impossible to achieve with a timing light in your backyard. Of course when the chip failed, you couldn't drive your car at all. Such is the price of perfection.
But I simply shrugged and said "yeah." We stood there looking at each other for a moment and she reached into her purse and I heard the bleep-bleep of remote key entry opening the car and the trunk popped. She remained about three feet in front of the car on the sidewalk. I approached the trunk again and opened it completely, assuming I would find a neat and empty trunk, with a spare under the carpet. Instead I found a jumble of beautiful clothing thrown hastily into the pristine trunk. I gently gathered an armful, and walked slowly to the passenger side of the car. The door was unlocked and I placed the clothing on the leather seat with far more care than was probably necessary. The small back seat of the two door car was also strewn with clothing and knick knacks. The woman stood, the car always between us, and watched.
I suppose I should have felt anger at doing all the work. Or perhaps pity or disgust. But what I felt was an understanding for someone who was leaving her life with only a carful of possessions. I carefully moved her clothing to the front passenger seat until I could lift the trunk panel and expose the spare tire and jack. The spare was not one of those emergency ones, but a full tire. I lifted it in one hand, while the other grabbed the jack and tire iron/lug wrench/jack handle. I wished, for a brief second, for my good lug wrench, as the combinations did none of the jobs well. Mechanics using pneumatic wrenches could over tighten a lug nut making it humanly impossible to remove. Rust and road grime, and in this case the trauma of a blow out, could damage threads too. I didn't hesitate, and soon was apply the lug wrench to the tire.
Hesitantly, she tried to strike up a conversation "So, what were you doing over there?" Her voice betraying her nervousness.
I mumbled something about "sleeping" and continued working the lug nuts off the posts. I saw, out of the corner of my eye her nod. She opened her mouth to say something more, but realized there was little to talk about.
The front passenger tire was, in a word, destroyed. The blow out must have happened some miles back as there was very little of the actual tire left on the rim. The high tech fibers that make up most modern tires were frayed and torn. I could see bends and scraps on the rim itself and suspect that it was bent, nearly surely beyond any further use. The amount of abuse necessary to achieve this effect was nothing short of horrific.
The lug nuts were difficult to release. I worked on each one, a light sweat building. Two of them actually screamed in protest as they resisted me. But leverage and upper body strength won out on all five and soon I was jacking the front end of the BMW up to affect the actual replacement. I placed the new tire on the lug bolts and secured the nuts to flush tire against the hub. I lowered the car and following the classic star pattern, tighten the nuts the last bit to ensure the tire would remain in place.
Carefully, I placed the damaged tire in the trunk and re-secured the jack and combo tool. I paused and looked at my hands. They were, of course, covered in grease and grime. I did not want to soil her beautiful clothing returning it to the trunk. It occurred to me that they could probably stay there, as she clearly had no passenger. I heard her heals on the pavement before I saw her approach the driver's door. She opened the door and reached into the back over the seat. Out of the jumble she pulled a small white box and closing the gap between us, she simply handed me a wet wipe. Mechanically I wiped the mess from my hands as she watched.
We stood there for a moment, our eyes meeting. I could now see the bruising around hers, and slight crows feet betraying the aging that she resisted with trips to the gym and makeup. Her eyes were brown, like her curly, shoulder length hair. They were warm, but I also saw in them emotions that mirrored the ones I thought I had abandoned along the roads I had walked. I could see in her damaged face the damage we both had suffered. And as I found myself in her, I could see that she was finding herself in me.
I finished cleaning my hands and turned and walked to the passenger side again. Carefully, I gathered her clothing and returned it to the trunk, attempting some order where none had been before. She stood, watching. Perhaps I should have felt abused or used, and yet, I simply did not. Nor did I feel righteousness. I simply understood.
I closed the trunk and turned to walk back to my few possessions and my resting spot for the night. Her voice, flat, unpresuming, unemotional, broke the long silence we had shared with that same single word: "wait." I turned, standing in the middle of the parking lot and looked at her.
"You're homeless. Come with me." Her voice was not filled with senseless pity or self righteousness. Neither was it a command or even really an invitation. It was simply an understanding, and a logical conclusion.
I shrugged, no answer or words were necessary. I turned again and walked to recover my positions. I heard her car start and I wondered if she had changed her mind, or misinterpreted my actions as rejection. I doubted it, and gathered my back pack and stepped back into the parking lot. She backed out and positioned the car next to me, and in I climbed . She began accelerating quickly and soon we were floating silently along the dark highway stretched out before us.
As a well lit intersection approached I felt the car begin to decelerate and my heart sank. Sleeping in a rest stop is far preferable to any location within walking distance of this intersection, and since I had no real goal for my wandering, the 30 or so miles we miles we had covered were meaningless to me. As the car slowed at the top of the exit ramp, I began to mumble something like "I'll get out here, thanks for the lift."
Before I could really articulate the words she whispered "shhhhh." I do not know why, but I shrugged and remained in the car. We turned into the large lot that the Love's Truck Stop shared with the Waffle House and the Motel 6. We could have been nearly anywhere along a US interstate. She parked the car in front of the Motel and got out. I sat, knowing I should wait.
A few moments later she returned, a paper and key card in one hand. She pulled the car around the back of the Motel and paused, looked at the few cars in the parking lot and finally choosing the most remote dark corner to park, half hidden behind the Motel's dumpster. We got out of the car and she grabbed a few small bags from the back. I followed her, a few paces behind as we approached a room.
I broke our mutually understood silence again and simply said "you could probably get a tarp at the Love's and that would help hide the car." S
he looked back at me, not surprised that I understood, and smiled and nodded. I could not tell if I had contributed, or simply stated the obvious.
We entered the room and as the door closed she said "I need a shower, you want to flip a coin for who goes first?"
I chuckled "perhaps it should be you, ladies first, and all that." She nodded and quickly moved to the bathroom. I took a seat on the chair in the room and closed my eyes for a moment. I was surprised at how much I was looking forward to a shower. I had not had a shower in so long I could not even count the days. It is nearly impossible for a homeless man to find a place to shower. Showers are a part of a society we have left. We rejected that society and it rejects us. And nowhere is that more clear than showering and hygiene.
I must have dozed off, since the next thing I knew she was standing in front of me, changed into blue jeans and a knit shirt, toweling off her hair. "It's your turn. The water's hot and the pressure is decent."
Making my way into the bath room and closing the door I began to disrobe, shedding layer after layer that had protected me for so long. I stepped into the warm shower and watched as the water swirling at my feet turned to a dark gray. The grime and dirt of months was slowly making its way into the drain. I washed two, or three times, and needed at least four latherings for my hair to rinse clean. I thought I heard the bath door open and close once during this time.
When I finally stepped out of the tub, no longer gray but a tanned and weathered man, my old clothing was gone. I was puzzled as to why she would take my clothes and why I trusted it was for a good reason. I looked into the mirror, and wiped the steam away. I hardly recognized the grizzled face that peered back at me. Only my eyes were familiar. Long hair, which was curlier than I thought possible and a thick, black, unkempt beard covered most of the features I remembered. I dried myself, enjoying the feeling of a soft warm towel against my skin. I was surprised at the changes that had occurred in my body. Ever since early college days, I was best described as plump or soft. But all of that fat was gone. The long days on the road, and the many days of little food, had left my body wiry and even muscular. My thighs and calves were strong and somehow I had gained some muscle definition in my abs and shoulders as well. Walking, apparently, is good for you.
I emerged from the bathroom, a towel wrapped around my waist and found my bag emptied of the few clothes I was not wearing. But on the bed was a package of 3 cheap undershorts, a pair of work pants, a T-shirt advertising the local tourist trap, and light jacket. All were brand new and about my size. There was also deodorant, and a range of hair grooming tools including what looked like a professional clipper, scissors, an assortment of combs and brushes, and three Bic razors. I pulled on the shorts and pants, and returned to the bathroom with the clipper and the razors. I started with the beard, using the clippers to remove as much as possible and then using lots of soap and water with the Bics. It took two passes and I think I ruined the razor.
During that time the room door opened and I heard the woman moving about. When I came back out of the bathroom she looked at me and smiled a warm generous smile. Very matter of factly she said "I found a washing machine and I'm washing the clothes that seemed salvageable."
Again, there was no hint of pity or disdain, it was a simple statement meant to inform me. She looked over at the scissors and said "I used to cut hair for a living, I can cut yours, if you want."
I shrugged and nodded and we went into the bathroom again, where she quickly cut and trimmed my hair. She left it longer than I had usually done in my life, but it was again, recognizable to me.
I finished dressing in the clothing she had purchased. She held up a tarp, and said "would you help me?"
I laughed and said "sure" as I followed her out the door and back to the corner where we quickly covered her car with the crinkly new tarp. As we stepped back, she let out a deep sigh, which may have been the first moment she had relaxed in who knew how long.
She smiled at me "Thank you. I'm famished, will you join me for some dinner?" She started walking toward the waffle house, without waiting for the answer that she knew I would give, and I followed trusting that whatever happened would be OK.
We took a seat in a back corner booth with a good view of the parking lot and her tension returned. We both ordered and soon a plate of hot food was in front of me. I ate slowly, savoring the taste. I realized that it had been a long time and I was amazed at how wonderful freshly cooked food tasted. As I finished the last few bites, about the same time she did, I looked up at her. I could now see that in addition to the black eye, her arms, and wrists, were covered with bruises. The eye looked slightly better than I recalled perhaps she had found something to put on it while I was in the shower and the swelling was reduced. I didn't say anything, I didn't have to.
The waitress returned "Save any room for Pie?" she asked.
In a voice far brighter and more enthusiastic than I thought was possible, she said "we'll both take a slice! Apple for me, please."
The waitress scribbled on her pad, then looked at me. "Cherry if you have it."
It was as if the pie broke the ice and started a conversation. Not really about us or anything, but just a an exchange about the weather and the local town and its gitchy tourist trap. Memories of childhood road trips to places just like this only miles away. We laughed about plastic dinosaurs and the wonder of Mystery Hill.