A Lesson from the Road by Bob Carlton
To be perfectly honest, Ben Clemmons would have to admit that he probably would not have stopped if the hitchhiker had been a man. Who, other than a desperate sociopath, hitchhikes anymore? But it was a young woman standing on the side of the road with her thumb out and a knapsack slung casually over her shoulder. Pulling over and waiting for her to catch up, Ben felt chivalrous, almost protective. Not to mention helpful, neighborly, and gallant. Certainly nothing more sinister than that as far as he was concerned.
“Thanks, mister,” the woman said once she had jumped in the car and shut her door.
“Where you headed?” Ben asked as he looked in the rear-view mirror and guided the car back out onto the highway.
“Least as far as Tillburgh,” she replied, buckling up, setting the knapsack on her lap and crossing her arms over it. “Might grab a bus from there the rest of the way.”
“Where you going?”
“Visit some friends out in Franklin.”
Ben glanced over at her. She looked young, probably not more than twenty. He thought her pretty in a tom-boyish way, her brown hair cut short above the collar in back and in bangs across the front. She wore a flannel shirt, unbuttoned, over a white tank top that clung tightly to a somewhat chunky, though not at all unattractive figure. Battered sneakers and faded, comfort-fit jeans completed the picture of a healthy, robust country girl.
“My name’s Clemmons,” Ben said, “Ben Clemmons.”
“Jenny,” the girl replied. They rode along in silence for a few minutes, until Jenny asked, “What brings you out to these parts, Ben?”
Ben was a bit taken aback by the young lady’s familiarity with him. He flattered himself that she thought him much younger than he actually was. Perhaps it was the case that, as he himself believed, he really did not look as old as his forty-seven years. He found these thoughts much more agreeable than the possibility of disrespect.
“Oh, I guess you could call it customer service,” Ben replied. “A client in Tillburgh has a billing issue. I get sent out to try and smooth things over.”
“Where you from?” Jenny asked.
“About forty miles back that a way?”
“Yeah, about that.”
“So you have to go out of town on a weekend to kiss some guy’s ass, right?” Before Ben could register indignation, Jenny continued, “Are you married?”
“Sure am,” Ben replied. “Twenty-eight years come August.”
“That’s a long time. How come you don’t wear a ring?”
“I do,” Ben replied, staring down at the bare finger of his left hand as he stretched it out across the top of the steering wheel. “I lost it raking up and bagging some rubbish in the yard yesterday.”
Ben saw, or thought he saw, out of the corner of his eye that Jenny had turned to look at him briefly, and though he could not be sure, he thought he detected a slight smirk. Ben felt his face flush. Had her look been somehow accusatory? Perhaps even judgmental? Should he be offended? Should he feel ashamed? And why should he be the one to feel either? He was not the one calling into question the sincerity of another person’s motives, not to mention the wisdom of that person’s chosen life.
“Man,” Jenny said after a few minutes, “I sure don’t envy you.”
“Why’s that?” Ben asked, trying to laugh, knowing that whatever the outward appearance, he certainly felt no mirth. He was, on the one hand, relieved when she did not offer an answer, as if perhaps the road noise coming through her partially rolled-down window had taken mercy on him and drowned out the question. On the other hand, there was his growing suspicion that she simply chose to ignore him, wrapped in the purity of a knowledge that no doubt she believed he was too old to understand.
For the last twenty miles into Tillburgh, they rode in silence, giving Ben’s anger an uninterrupted period in which to ferment into an intoxicating fury. How dare this young woman, a child really, judge him? What she saw no doubt as settling for less than what life has to offer were to him matters of responsibility, even honor. He was happy to be married, and not at all bothered that he sometimes had to work weekends driving all over the Midwest to keep his job, a job that covered his wife’s credit card bills, their mortgage, the car payments, his father-in-law’s cancer treatments and, for the seventh year running, his son’s college tuition. Sure, there were entanglements, pleasures foregone, unpleasant duties, but that was part of being an adult. How could someone so smug with entitlement possibly understand the complexities of his life?
A Lesson from the Road
Our Immortal Souls
Maps and Miracles
Tailing the Blond Satan
Into Open Hands
Drill & Kill
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