1st Place Story: “Hitchhiker” By Joanne Weck

Posted on: January 17, 2011
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Hitchhiker
By Joanne Weck

It was dusk. A light rain was falling as we drove through the hills of Pennsylvania, heading west. As we rounded a curve near a turnpike entrance, a slight figure stepped almost directly into the path of our car. My husband, at the wheel of his battered ’59 Ford, swerved to avoid impact. Glancing into my rear-view mirror, I caught a glimpse of a fragile-looking girl, thumb outstretched, standing in the rain.

“Stop, David! Stop!” I shouted.

He slammed on the brakes. “Christ! What is it?” He looked at me, alarmed, and I pointed at the figure running toward the car.

“Are you out of your mind? We are not picking up a hitchhiker!” He was adamant in his opinions, and he had a lot of them.

“But it’s a girl. And it’s raining! You can’t leave her out here alone in the dark!” I said.

It was June of 1965—before seat belts, the tenets of women’s lib, or highways crowded with hitchhikers had become commonplace. He’d grown up in the projects of Newark, and I’d been raised in rural Pennsylvania. Attending college on scholarship, he’d become friendly with my older brother, who’d introduced us. We were newly married; I had taken his last name as a matter of course. A brand-new college graduate and bride, I was hectic with anticipation as we set out for our honeymoon summer in the West.

The glove compartment contained the fat bank envelope that was to see us through until my teaching job started in September. (We’d tactfully suggested to friends and family that cash would be more welcome than coffeepots or electric mixers.) I planned to spend our first months together in luxurious hedonism, recovering from my four years of intense scholarship, while he completed several credits for his degree.

The slight figure came bounding toward our car through the rain. A young, pretty face appeared at my window. The girl was wearing a hooded poncho, the green rubberized kind that was popular that year, but she was drenched, shivering, and her teeth chattered.

“Could you give me a ride to the Honesdale exit?” she asked.

I glanced at my handsome new husband, who studied me with narrow green eyes before he shrugged. I knew he considered me hopelessly naive, but he was in love and therefore generously indulgent.

“Get in.”
Before he’d finished speaking she was opening the rear door and clambering inside. A second low, dark shape leapt into the backseat behind her, and it took me a moment to realize that her companion was a large dog. I jumped back, startled, as the black-nosed German shepherd sniffed at my face.

“Oh, this is Rex. He’s a sweetheart!” She smiled, showing slightly crooked, yellowish teeth. On second glance, she appeared older than I had first surmised. One side of her face looked as though it had been burned and the skin slightly melted, like a wax candle. The “sweetheart” shook himself thoroughly, splattering water about, before curling up next to her on the seat.

Having grown up in a home in which canines were considered part of the family, I was enchanted by our second passenger. David, however, had once been badly mauled by a Doberman and was wary of dogs. While he might acknowledge that it was sensible for a girl alone on the highway to have such protection, I felt that he was already regretting his charitable impulse. Once they were settled in the car, it was impossible for him to renege on his invitation.

“I’m Charlene.” The girl extended an icy hand over the seat back, and I took it in mine. It was stubby, with short fingers and ragged nails, but adorned with ornate silver and turquoise rings and, on her arm, a jangle of silver bracelets. Long blond hair, soaked from the rain, tumbled over her shoulders, and she wrung the water from it, drying it with a silky purple scarf.

As David eased the car back onto the highway and we drove off, she removed her poncho, found a warm sweater in her duffle, and snuggled against her dog.

“Where are you from?” I asked her.

“I was born in West Virginia,” she said, “but I live about a hundred miles from here.” Her musical voice betrayed an unmistakable twang. She told us she was a student at Penn State, heading home for the summer. She proceeded to charm us a few minutes later by producing, from her duffle, a small stringed instrument (called a dulcimer, I believe), and she strummed it, singing folk songs in a sweet, melodic voice for the next hour. We drove through the rainy night with the windshield wipers slapping back and forth and the headlights cutting a path through the night fog.

Esso gas stations and Howard Johnson restaurants were scattered at intervals along the turnpike and some time later we stopped to fill the tank and to get some coffee and a meal. Charlene had fallen asleep by then, but she stirred when David slammed the door as he got out at the gas pumps.

“Are you hungry?” I asked her. “We’re going to grab a bite.”

Charlene stretched and rubbed Rex’s head. He licked her all over her face. “I’d better let Rex answer the call of nature,” she said. “I’ll join you inside when he’s finished.”

David was watching the attendant fill up the gas tank, to make sure he wasn’t getting cheated. He knew all the tricks attendants could pull to steal a few bucks from the unwary customer. Charlene and Rex disappeared into the darkness near a line of trees. I headed into the restaurant, found an empty booth, and slid in.

David paid for the gas and joined me in the booth. I was starving. When the obese, sallow-faced waitress appeared, wiping her hands on a dirty apron, I ordered a cheeseburger, French fries, and a Coke. David ordered a ham sandwich and coffee. We held hands across the table and talked of our plans once we reached California.

The waitress had already slammed the plates down on our table, poured out seconds on the coffee, and we were finishing our sandwiches when Charlene appeared in the doorway. Instead of joining us in the booth, she sat at the counter next to a burly man in a plaid shirt and a dirty fedora who looked to me like a big-rig truck driver. When I looked over again they appeared to be engaged in animated conversation. Moments later she was devouring a large, juicy burger and drinking a cup of coffee.

“I wonder why she didn’t sit with us. That guy isn’t exactly a lover boy.” She was obviously flirting, tossing her hair and laughing, looking up into the man’s ruddy face as though entranced.

“I’ll bet she’s hitting him up for a meal,” David said.

“You think so?” I was genuinely surprised. “You think she’s broke?”

“Who knows?” he said. “But I’d lay odds that’s her little game.”

I went to the ladies’ room while David paid the bill and went to wait for us in the car. I was combing my hair and applying lipstick when Charlene came in. She smiled at me and entered a stall.

“How was your burger?” I called out.

“Umm, hit the spot.”

“It looked like you were having a good time,” I said. Her laughter rippled
from under the door of the stall. “Did you give him your phone number?” I asked.

“I gave him somebody’s phone number.” She laughed again.

When we got back to the car David was waiting behind the wheel, looking a bit grim, as the huge dog, paws on the back of the seat, nuzzled at his ear. An odor of wet dog permeated the car.

“Rex likes you,” Charlene said. She got in and closed the door, and Rex transferred his affections to her. She cooed at him and petted him, and he smeared her face with his wet tongue.

“Your exit is five miles ahead,” David said shortly. I gathered he’d had enough of their company. We continued along the turnpike until an exit sign came into view; he pulled the car to the end of the exit ramp and stopped. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, but it was late and dark and the only lights visible were several miles distant.

“How far do you live from here?” I asked.

“Oh, not far,” she assured us. “This is just fine.” She pulled on her poncho, shouldered her duffle, and called to Rex. The two of them disappeared into the night like shadows.

“It wouldn’t have killed us to take her into town,” I said. I was beginning to suspect that my husband had a cold heart.

“Oh, believe me, she was quite happy to get out right here.” He sounded angry for reasons I couldn’t fathom. “I doubt she lives anywhere near this town. I bet she’ll be back at the entrance ramp in five minutes with her thumb out, looking for another pair of suckers.”

“What are you talking about?” I was truly mystified. “How are we suckers? Because we gave her a ride?”

“Well, you were a sucker, Miss Bleeding Heart,” he announced, “but not me. I was one step ahead of that conniving little bitch.” He reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a thick roll of bills, and shook it in my face.

“Where did you get that?” I asked.

“You remember how she very conveniently had to walk her beast and then put him back into the car while we were inside, right?”

“Right,” I agreed. “But where did you get all that money?”

“It occurred to me to check the glove compartment while you two were taking your time in the ladies’ room.” His voice was gleeful, triumphant.

“And my little hunch was right. Our stash was mysteriously missing. But she was stupid enough to hide it in her duffle bag. Probably thought I’d be afraid to search it, if I even happened to suspect something, with that mutt back there guarding her stuff.”

“But, David!” I was nearly sobbing as I pulled the fat envelope from my purse. “I took the money out of the glove box before I went in!” On impulse—and influenced, no doubt, by David’s opinion that I was too trusting—I had opened the glove compartment and slipped the cash-filled envelope into my purse before going into the restaurant.

He had the grace to look horrified.

She hadn’t told us her last name or even the name of the town where she lived. We got off at the next exit and drove back, but it was many miles and after midnight by the time we found where we had left her. We drove into the town we had glimpsed, but there was only one late-night bar open, and no one had seen anyone of her description.

“We can’t just go on,” I insisted, but my tearful remonstrance did no good. After 30 minutes David steered the car back to the turnpike and on toward California.

EDITORS’ CRITIQUES:

Geoff Anderson, Literary Magic Senior Editor: ‘Hitchhiker’ is an excellent story. It’s a tale about trust, a requirement in all relationships, between humans and animals, and between people, especially in marriage.

The ending has a great twist in the tail, for the standard ending
one expects is for the couple’s money to be stolen by the hitcher.
We were encouraged in this thought by Charlene’s behaviour in the
diner, when she flirted with a stranger and David suspects that she’s
blagging a meal off him.

The fact that both David and his bride don’t trust Charlene
– the bride removes the cash from the glove compartment just in
case, while David ransacks Charlene’s bag when he sees the cash
is missing – is what leads to the tragic finale. It’s a tragedy for
Charlene, of course, but a far greater tragedy for the couple, who
have each discovered that they have just married a partner who is
full of mistrust and has a low opinion of other’s honesty. Charlene’s
money will burn a hole in their hearts long after it has burned a hole
in their pockets and been spent.

It is a fine morality tale: mistrust, like hate and envy, damages
the person feeling these emotions far more than it does the target.
Charlene has only lost money, but the couple have lost self respect,
which is much harder to restore.

The characters are well drawn, with no clunky dialogue, and
there is good atmosphere to the descriptions – one can feel the wet
and cold when Charlene first gets into the car, for example. The dog
could be simply for narrative decoration, but in fact Rex is important
to the plot, since it gives an excuse for Charlene to be late entering
the diner. And also Rex adds to the atmosphere of tension and
mistrust since David doesn’t like dogs.

My only complaint is that the narrating bride has no name.
Even in ‘I’ stories, it’s easy to introduce the narrator’s name. Names
are important (David is good; Charlene is excellent; Rex is a bit trite!
), since they help make characters more real.

Rocky Reichman, Editor-in-Chief of Literary Magic: What starts out as an innocent tale turns into something else entirely by its conclusion. The author has done a marvelous job in leading readers down one suspected storyline, and adding an extra twist along the way. More than anything else, this story teaches us the importance of not just doing a good deed, but how to go about doing. Because, as is shown in the story, it is one thing to do a kind deed for someone. But if done in a snobby, distrustful, angry or disrespectful manner, the good deed does not read so well. It does not register in the mind of the receiving party so well. And to the watching eye, it does not appear favorable. Not only that, but the consequences of having distrust for someone for no other reason than their outward appearance can lead to unhealthy and harmful activity that cab affect all the characters involved. This is illustrated in this story, as well as everyday life.

What this story illustrates is not the story of one traveler, as the title suggests, but of how people treat other people. And how these different ways of treating people contrast. It also supports the notion that people really do not appear as they are. In other words, a reader may think one thing about a character on page one, but be convinced of something on the other side of the character trait spectrum by page seven.

While the story does not necessarily leave with a satisfying ending that explains everything in the story, it nevertheless serves as a wake up call to change people’s perspectives. And to inspire people not only to appear to help people with our actions, but to actually help them with our mind, our intentions and our hearts.

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