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A Stranger on the Road

By David Gardiner

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I can see a tiny solitary figure standing by the side of the perfectly straight highway that stretches all the way to the horizon. How did he get there? There are only cornfields on either side, green and unripe, giant waves rolling across them like the surface of a lazy ocean. No houses, no vehicles, just the lone figure. He isn’t even thumbing for a ride but he’s watching my approach and as I draw level I feel a compulsion to stop.
        ‘Having a bit of trouble, Mister?’ I enquire in what I hope is a jovial tone. Up close he’s quite a lot older than I thought, long untidy hair streaked with grey, the hint of a beard, but he’s dressed respectably in jeans and a clean check shirt, and his rucksack looks new.
        ‘That’s what makes up a human life, isn’t it? Bits of trouble. I think everyone is always having a bit of trouble. Sometimes a little bit, sometimes a big bit. Yes, sometimes quite a big bit.’
        I am not prepared for this roadside philosophy. My fingers hover above the ‘drive’ lever. ‘Can I give you a ride, Mister?’ I ask, perhaps a little coldly.
        ‘A ride would be very welcome.’ With surprising agility he hauls open the two side doors and deposits his rucksack on the floor in the back and himself in the front passenger seat. ‘Kind of you to offer.’
        As we pull away I try to make conversation. ‘So, where are you headed?’ I ask.
        Out of the corner of my eye I see him shrug. ‘The road goes down into Georgia. I guess that’ll be alright.’
        For a time we motor on in silence. ‘I get the impression you don’t have any firm plans.’ He seems to consider this.
        ‘No. Quite right. I’ve never been one for firm plans.’
        He doesn’t volunteer any more information. ‘So what do you do? Just travel from place to place?’
        ‘Something like that. If I like a place I stay for a while, get a job, save a little bit of money before I move on.’
        It’s my turn to shrug. ‘Why do you move on?’
        ‘Why should I stay? I just get this feeling, after a while, that I’ve been some place long enough. You can’t argue with feelings, can you?’
        I am beginning to think that I’ve picked up a hobo who’s also a fruitcake. It reminds me of when I was much younger, just out of High School. I was always getting hit-on by losers that everybody else shunned – I had a gift for collecting stray dogs and misfits. I thought I had outgrown it. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I haven’t. I decide I’d better make things clear. ‘The next big town we hit will be Augusta,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll have to drop you off there. I’ve got business to attend to.’
        ‘Augusta will be fine,’ he assures me, and I think he means it. If I had said I was dropping him off two miles down the road he would probably have accepted that too. There seems to be something missing from this guy. I think it’s the self preservation instinct.
        ‘You sure you’ll be okay in Augusta?’ Why am I saying that? Leaving an opening for him to latch on, to become a parasite, to exploit my good nature.
        But no, he doesn’t try to play me for a sucker. ‘Augusta will be just fine,’ he assures me.
        There is a long pause before he adds: ‘I think you’re a good man.’ He says it with total sincerity and I am strangely pleased. Why should his opinion of me matter? I don’t know, but it does.
        We drive on in silence. I calculate that if I stick to the state speed limit I’m going to be with this guy for the best part of two hours. That’s a lot of silence.
        ‘How did you come to find yourself out here in the middle of nowhere?’ I ask as an opener.
        ‘Some people who’d given me a ride decided they’d had enough of my company. Most folks do, sooner or later.’
        Normally I would be surprised by this kind of honesty, but with this guy I am not. ‘Any idea why?’
        Another thoughtful pause. ‘I tell people too much. Make them uncomfortable. Those last folks asked me some personal questions and I told them the truth. That wasn’t what they wanted.’
        I recognise it as the way a lot of bullshitters talk, trying to make themselves interesting, but this time it doesn’t seem that way. I can tell that this guy doesn’t care whether he has a conversation with me or not. I can’t pick up much from the tone of his voice but I don’t think he’s a psycho. There’s nothing scary about him. If anything he sounds a bit detached and weary, a bit bored with his story, whatever it is.
        ‘Do you want to take another chance and tell me the truth too?’
        ‘And lose my ride? Why would I want to do that?’
        ‘I don’t care if you’ve made mistakes. If you’ve been inside or something. My life hasn’t been blameless.’
        Reluctantly, he confesses ‘I made one big mistake. A long time ago.’
        ‘Only one? That’s not so bad.’
        ‘This one was bad.’
        ‘Tell me about it. I won’t throw you out on the highway. Scout’s honour.’
        He reaches up and wipes the thin layer of sweat from around his neck. ‘It was a long time ago. I mean a very long time ago. I lived in a country that had been occupied for a long time by a foreign power. Things were different back then, in that land. Human life was cheap. The rulers kept us in our place by public displays of cruelty. I doubt if you can even imagine it.’
        ‘I can imagine it better than you think. My younger brother is in the Marines, he’s done tours of duty in the Middle East. That’s where you’re talking about it, isn’t it.’
        ‘Yes, as a matter of fact it is.’
        ‘I guess it’s pretty easy to get things wrong over there. Get yourself into trouble. Tell me about it then. Tell me what it was you did.’
        He pauses again. He seems really reluctant to tell his story. I wait patiently.
        ‘There was a public execution. A political execution of somebody who had bad-mouthed the occupying power. This poor guy was getting shoved and pushed along the street by the soldiers. I was just one of the onlookers.’
        ‘And I guess you said something a bit rebellious?’
        ‘No, the very opposite in fact. The prisoner hesitated just as he reached me. He tried to take a rest. I wanted to show how loyal I was to the regime, what a good a citizen I was, so I shouted at him: “Go on! Move! What are you stopping here for?” And he looked me straight in the eye and said: “I shall stand here and rest, but you shall journey on until the day that I return.” And that’s how it’s been. I can’t die, and I can’t rest, until that man returns. My name is Cartaphilus. It’s possible that you may have heard of me.’
        It dawns on me what he’s talking about. What a total fruitcake! ‘The Wandering Jew?’ Unconsciously I let my foot relax on the gas pedal and the car slows down.
        ‘You did make a promise,’ he reminds me gently.
        I can’t deal with this and drive at the same time. Part of me is infuriated at being taken for a fool. Part of me finds his manner so compelling that I can’t dismiss what he says. I let the car roll to a complete stop and put on the handbrake.
        ‘I know you don’t believe me,’ he says quietly. ‘There’s no reason why you should. I’m not troubled by your disbelief. We can pretend I haven’t told you if you like.’
        I turn and stare at my companion. Yes, his face is Middle Eastern, his nose slightly curved, his greying hair probably once thick and black. I imagine him in a crudely woven white robe with a prayer shawl over his shoulders and loose fitting sandals on his feet. Even his accent, now that I think about it, has foreign inflections. With almost no effort, I can picture him in a Biblical setting. I try to think of something to say.
        ‘I believe… that you believe… what you have just told me.’ I say at last.
        ‘You think I’m delusional. That’s all right. It’s a perfectly natural thing for you to think. You don’t have to believe me. I told you the truth for my own sake, not yours.’
        ‘How do you mean?’
        ‘When that man comes back, he’s going to ask me if I always told the truth. He probably won’t even need to ask. I’ve done myself enough damage with my words. I don’t want to do any more.’
        After a pause in which I can think of nothing more to say I release the handbrake and resume my journey. I am deeply troubled. I can usually tell when someone is lying, and (I flatter myself) when somebody is a little bit crazy, and in this case I am almost certain that neither applies. But my mind can not cope with the alternative. Miles go by before I manage to formulate my next question.
        ‘If, just if, what you say is true – how long do you think we’ve got to wait before this man comes back?’
        ‘If I knew that my punishment would be almost no punishment at all, wouldn’t it?’
        ‘So you don’t really know any more than the rest of us?’
        ‘Only that there is a moral order in the world, that evil shall be punished and good rewarded… and that death, as well as life, is a blessing. I am not afraid of meeting that man again – and you shouldn’t be either. You’ll probably meet him a long time before I do. Give him my regards, won’t you?’
        ‘But if – as you claim – he’s taken that awful revenge on you for a few thoughtless words… then he isn’t a kind, forgiving god at all, is he? He’s petty and vindictive – and to be feared.’
        The man smiles for the first time. ‘Oh no. Along with my punishment I have been given the most wonderful gift. Certainty. Everyone else has to survive on faith, but I know how the story ends. I know that the ending is a happy one, for me and for all creation. All that is required of me is a little patience. A great deal more has been asked of you, and all your mortal brothers and sisters. Save your pity for yourself and your compassion for them. I have need of neither. I have peace.’