I could see his silhouette in the faded red Toyota pickup as I pulled into the rest stop parking. It was nearly empty save for the rigs on the other side of the grasy picnic area. With only one other car a few spots from his, I deliberately selected a space to his passenger side, two lanes away.
Easing myself out of the car, I attempted to stretch the numbness out of my arms, legs and back. Hesitating only long enough to lock the car, I slowly made my way to the restrooms while wondering on the availability of toilet paper as I fished a napkin out of my pocket. Would there be any running water to rinse my mouth and wash my hands? Would it at least be semi-clean this time? With all the budget cutbacks who knows what the joint would look like on the inside, even though it was well manicured outside.
On the way back I passed in front of the truck and saw he was reclined in the seat with a baseball cap pulled over his eyes. It was a deliberate path in an attempt to scope out the stranger and feel more at ease. I unlocked my car and fished for something to eat from the fabric cooler on the passenger seat. Fresh blueberries and Greek yogurt, a paper bowl, plastic spoon, napkin and a bottle of sport drink. As warm as it was, a steaming cup of coffee would have been nice. As I straightened up with precious booty in hand, he caught my forward glance and inclined his head ever so slightly in acknowledgment. His baseball cap was off. Returning the gesture in the same barely perceptible manner, I turned and looked for a place to sit.
Settling on one of the benches under the pavilion in the shade, I carefully stirred the blueberries and yogurt together. Thankfully, it was still cool enough to eat without any fear. It had been over 24 hours in the cooler with no ice. A very good cooler choice at the drugstore before I left Seal Beach on my long trek home. Was that three or four days ago now? I slept a few hours last night. Where? I shook the cobwebs from my head and savored the taste of tart yogurt and sweet berries as I watched him, watching me. The slightly disheveled me. The tired from driving me. The unwashed me. More curious than worried, I wondered exactly when he would make his approach. It wasn’t a matter of, “if”. it was only a matter of, “when”. What did he want from me? I sensed he wouldn’t bother me while I was eating, but he wasn’t going anywhere, either.
Retuning to the car I dug for a smoke and purposefully sat sideways in the drivers seat with the door open. An open invitation. Now is the time. He approached almost out of nowhere, and quietly asked if I had another cigarette.
Sure, I heard myself say as I handed him a smoke and my lighter.
He appeared to be in his late 20’s. Tall and leggy with short cropped red hair, and piercing blue eyes. Sharp. Appraising. On guard beneath his innocuous demeanor. He wore a pointed skull ring on the middle finger of his left had. Alienware. A mark of the “gamer” crowd. Tats with snakes and skulls covered his right arm. He wore a faded logo T-shirt, and jeans and white sneakers of no particular brand. Obviously clean but in need of a shave. A soft voice with a slight southern accent.
He explained how he was stuck at this rest area for a while. Recently laid off after two tours of duty. Had been out over a year now. He was waiting for a friend to bring money for gas. Then he was headed east to see what he could see. Maybe find a job. Maybe travel to Washington to protest the plight of unemployed veterans. He didn’t ask for money, just the one smoke. He didn’t mention going home or family.
When he ran out of of words for me, I wished him well and offered up another cigarette. This time asking if he preferred menthol or regular. I needed to be on my way. Again I headed to the restroom, but didn’t bother locking the car. He wouldn’t take anything, and neither would anyone else. He would see to it. When I came out, he was perched on a table in the shade, his long legs dangling to and fro.
Hesitating a moment after starting the car and putting it into gear, I turned off the ignition and rummaged around in cooler. The last bottle of water, a pound of cold Rainer cherries and a bag of sugared walnuts from a stop in Bakersfield the previous afternoon. I was out of yogurt, sandwiches and sports drink, and debated keeping the figs and the rolled peach bars dusted in sweet coconut. I had another bag of cherries and sugared walnuts. I could stop for more water up the road. That do for the both of us.
As I walked toward him, he quickly let himself down off the table and stood in front of me. A gentleman?
Do you like cherries? I have another bag of cherries and more nuts to eat. You can have these if you want. Here’s some water for you, too.
He gingerly took my offering and set them carefully on the table.
I saw the tear in the corner of his eye as he hugged me tight, singing soft words of grace.
Somewhere along I40 in Arizona, a southern gentleman stranger blessed my soul.