(this story is filed in “finished fiction” and “works in progress” because, although it was written to it’s end, I am not yet happy with the final result…)
I’ve never told anyone this story. I don’t know if anyone would believe it. Sometimes I don’t believe it. Or if they did believe, maybe people would say I was exaggerating. Then again, oftentimes when you get to be my age, you find that the very people who used to look to you for advice start to look like they’re just humoring you when you talk. But I’ll tell it anyway, this story, and you can go on and believe whatever you want.
Late on a frigid January night, when I was a much younger man, I found myself stranded on a lonely country road somewhere in northern New England. Under brilliantly glittering stars in a black sky that seemed all the clearer for the cold, I paced frustrated circles around my defunct pickup truck, cursing a blue-streak into the silence around me. What kind of fool traveled such a distance without checking the spare tire for air? Bruno, my Lab mutt plodded along sullenly behind me, his head low, snuffling little clouds of white vapor from his nostrils. Every once in a while, he’d regard me with a look that seemed to suggest he felt very magnanimous for having put up with me for even half of his eight years.
“Beautiful, just beautiful,” I muttered. ”Fine damn mess we got ourselves into this time. Lost, no spare, way the hell out in East Jesus somewhere…”
Bruno rolled his eyes up at me, his nose pausing a moment on the broken asphalt and hard-pack that qualified as a road. Well, you’re supposed to be the smart one. Figure something out. I don’t even have thumbs.
Sighing heavily, I stopped pacing and leaned back against the hood of the truck long enough to tap a cigarette out of the pack, and just long enough for Bruno to back all eighty pounds of himself up against my leg as close as possible and sit down on my foot. I rolled my eyes. ”Not now, fool. This isn’t no time for ear scratchin’. It’s colder ‘an Hell out here…” My Southern twang seemed to come thicker when I was frustrated or uncomfortable.
But it was hard to be irritated with him, considering he was the closest thing to a wife I had. My job kept me on the road a quite a bit, traveling all over the east coast for construction jobs, and that left little time for romance. I reckon most women didn’t want a man that was gone all the time anyhow. And I suppose while I’m being honest, I might as well go on and admit that I was probably a little deficient in the department of social graces and a little behind in the times of women’s lib.
So deeply entrenched was I in rumination over my lack of finesse with the ladies, that I didn’t notice the road in front of me growing brighter in the wash of the headlights cresting the hill at my back. He was coming fast and I leapt from my post against the hood, Bruno giving me a reproachful look as I yanked my foot hastily out from beneath his backside. My truck was turned off, and facing away from the oncoming car. The driver might never notice me leaning there if he didn’t look in his rear-view, and maybe not even then, he was going so fast. I didn’t want the only other vehicle I’d seen in the last hour and a half to pass me by, thinking that my vehicle was just another abandoned heap on the side of the road, so I had intended to get right out in front of him and wave him down.
As I stepped out, arms already half up and starting to wave, I was momentarily blinded by headlights so bright, any view of the driver or even the vehicle he was driving was impossible. Suddenly, the engine of his car sounded like an airplane turbine, and for an instant, I was sure I was going to be so much road kill. Nothing more than a great red smear on his bumper. But then, at the very last second, the car swerved sharply to the shoulder, the tires spewing pebbles and loose gravel as they ground to a halt directly behind my truck.
I lifted a hand to shield my eyes, and as the driver’s side door opened and a figure stepped out from behind the impossibly bright beams, I tried to remind myself that this person had stopped to help me, after all, and I ought not to bawl him out, even if he did nearly run me down.
What I saw next was very curious. The man that stepped out of the wash of those headlights was all gussied up in an impeccably fitted suit, and he strode towards me wearing a matching syncophant’s smile. His hair was dark, short, and sort of slicked back from his forehead, and his tidy little goatee and trimmed mustache were as black as ink. His eyes were black too, so far as I could tell in the shadow of those lights…he must have still had his highbeams on, and those lights seemed to be getting brighter by the minute.
Suddenly I had a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I went to meet him in the road, offering my hand, just like my Daddy taught me. As he reached out to shake with me, I noticed how smooth and delicate his hands looked. The fingers were long and slender and there were no callouses or scars on the backs of his knuckles, like there were on my hands. And maybe it was a trick of the light, but the palms looked quite smooth, as if there weren’t hardly any lines on them. I had expected his hands to be cold- mine were half numb- but his skin was hot, as if were in the grip of a high fever.
Right then I became aware of two things almost simultaneously. The first was that my dog, who I had temporarily forgotten, was now cringing back from my side and whimpering. I glanced down at him, dismayed, and that was when I noticed the second thing; the man in the expensive looking suit was barefoot.
He must have noticed the way my hand paused in mid-air for just a moment, but he only smiled wider, and I said “I really appreciate you stopping, friend. I don’t know how long we’d have been out here if you hadn’t come by.”
His eyes, dark as they were, seemed to reflect light, although I don’t know where from, as he had his back to the headlights, and he gave a light laugh. “Friend. Oh, that’s nice. You can never have too many friends,” he said. He had a faint accent that I couldn’t place. I meant to ask him where he was from, mostly because I didn’t know what else to say to his peculiar statement, but he was already sweeping on by me to examine the flat on the rear axle.
Here he paused, one hand absently stroking the hairs on his chin. He stooped low and eyed the tire, all the while smiling and thoughtfully stroking his chin.
I kept staring at his bare feet. They looked so vulnerable, like pale white fish out of water. The temperature was easily 22 degrees, and the surface of the road was all gravel and broken blacktop, but he didn’t seem to cold at all. Why he would have been bare foot on a night like that, and dressed in a full suit to boot, I can only imagine, but as I watched him in a sort of numb silence, I found myself searching for plausible explanations… maybe his fancy shoes were paining him, so he took them off in the car, maybe he stepped in something, maybe…
“Well, here’s the problem,” he said, and still grinning, he stood in one fluid motion and held out the largest nail I had ever seen. Twice as long as a ten penny nail, and almost three times as thick. I gaped. There was no way I could have missed a nail that size when I had stooped to examine the tire myself, unless it was embedded in underside of the rubber, and even still, with the weight of the truck on it and no jack, how would he have seen it, let alone been able to wrest it free?
Inexplicably, the question of his bare feet occurred to me again, and it suddenly seemed very important that I have a rational answer to the question, because I was beginning to feel distinctly edgy. I heard a low sound like ripping fabric and realized with complete shock that Bruno was growling. The dog had never so much as scratched at a flea! He crouched down by the front bumper, hunched low to the ground, his head dipped down, as if he was trying to make himself disappear.
And those damn lights… Even with my back turned, they were nearly blinding. All at once my heart started racing and I broke out in a fine sweat, in spite of the cold. For a terrifying minute, I thought maybe I was having a heart attack. Sure I was fairly young still, but I didn’t have the best habits, being a man always on the road.
“You don’t have a spare, I assume, or you wouldn’t be here, now would you?” he said, and I couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or mocking me.
I started to grumble an embarrassed explanation, but he stepped towards me, and he was in close before I could even react.
“Don’t panic, my friend,” said the man, and he laid a hand on my shoulder. His breath was hot and smelled faintly of old meat. I had a sudden urge to bolt, just turn tail and run like hell, leave the truck and hope the dog had the good sense to follow. ”We’ll just…patch ‘er up, shall we?” There it was again, I thought, that slightly patronizing tone. Before I could answer, he turned neatly on his heels and retreated behind those lambent highbeams.
I’m a little ashamed to say that I was so stunned- and let’s face it, more than a little afraid- that I stood by and watched as he patched the tire. Ordinarily I would have insisted he let me do the work, especially on account of his fancy clothes. But he smiled all the while, as if enjoying some private joke, and the whole thing was done in a matter of minutes.
When he stood up and dusted off his hands. ”That should hold you over for a bit. Better get that spare fixed up. Never know what you’ll find on the road in these parts.”
I managed a weak smile and offering my hand, said, “Thank you for your help and God bless you,” (which was a more common utterance in those days.)
It was the only time his smile faltered. ”Oh, I do just fine, ” he responded, and that smile was firmly back in place as he shook my hand. ”Perhaps you may return the favor some day.”
I smiled and nodded, though I didn’t see how that could be, as I likely never see him again. I hoped I’d never see him again. I watched him disappear behind that wall of lights and turned to my own truck. Bruno was nowhere in sight. I gave a low whistle and he came slinking from around the other side of the truck. He was trembling and he whimpered pitifully as he jumped in the drivers side of the cab.
“Dumb dog,” I muttered, not unkindly. But I shivered too, and not from the cold.
(I feel like I am stuck between not being clear enough about the nature of the “good samaritan” and beating the audience over the head with it. Any constructive criticism or suggestions are welcome.)