by Terry Barr
I saw him standing on a road island, one of those grassy, shrubbery-laden stations between two busy highways. He was idling near and almost behind a shrub. I saw him from a half a block away, and I wondered: will he cross in front of me to get to The Clock, a hometown fast-food chain? Is he stranded, waiting on his car at the Jiffy Lube? Is he just another lost transient, hoping to find some place new?
As I drove past and stopped for the light, I thought this was just another story, another day in the life. I was heading now to the farmer’s market nearby where I could buy my wife the fresh ripe strawberries that had finally come in season. My wife has always referred to herself as a “country girl,” our in-joke since the country in question is Iran, the place she escaped back in 1979 just ahead of the immigration clampdown. These images had just flashed through me when I looked again to my left.
He was nearing me, motioning. I was sure he wanted money, but he made a strange lifting motion with his arm.
Why do I do the things I do? Why haven’t I learned to stare forward and not make the eye contact that invites these encounters? I am not a country boy, but I am from Alabama, a place where I was raised to be friendly, but regarding certain others, like this wayward man, to “speak only if you’re spoken to first.”
And then he spoke. I could hear him clearly because I had power-lowered my window.
“Can you give me a ride? I’m just going to the KFC in Cherrydale.”
He had one of those old-fashioned slick yellow raincoats draped over his arm. It could have contained any object you care to worry over. He wore a red plaid flannel shirt, blue jeans carefully cuffed to four inches, and hard black shoes.
He looked like I did back in the early days of first grade. Neat, just like our mothers had dressed us when they cautioned us about whom to speak to.
I unlocked the passenger door and he got in.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m a good guy.”
He had to be 70 if he was a day, but then I learned long ago that older Southern people often hide their aging, or have already aged beyond their years. Somewhere in there.
His head was grizzled white, and when he spoke, his teeth were broken, those that were there at all.
“These young guys, they can walk this distance in 30 minutes. I cain’t do that any more.”
“Are you really going to the KFC?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s right. Last week I was trying to make it to the barbershop out there on Easley Bridge road. You know the place?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“It closed at 5. You know those places close so early now, but I made it. I got there at 5 till 5, so they had to let me in. But I’m not going back. They charge too much for haircuts these days, so I’m gonna start cutting my own hair. I need to because I don’t wanna look old.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I paid $12 last week for my cut, and as long as I can’t see that bald spot in back, I’m OK.”
He said nothing to that, though I wondered if he thought I was putting him on.
I couldn’t look too closely at him, though, partly because long ago I was taught not to stare, but also because the road was too busy, and what if I got into an accident with him in the car? How would I explain this to my wife, or anyone? I was certain that he had no wife, no one at all. I wondered: is he older than 70? Is he 80?
His accent didn’t help. It wasn’t really Southern. It almost sounded Midwestern. I could have asked him where he was from, but I kept telling myself not to engage too much. This, whatever you call it, was enough.
So we talked about the weather. More storms were on the way, as the western sky so clearly told. It had climbed into the upper 60’s now and both of us had sheen around our brows.
I passed the strawberry street. I never thought I wouldn’t be returning there soon. Yet, I found myself forgetting to breathe, forgetting to sit up straight as my yoga teachers taught me. The streets were ticking by, and he kept talking about the roads he hitchhikes on—Cedar Lane, White Horse, Washington. He never said what he did, where he might be going next, why he needed KFC, why he wanted to get there instead of any other place.
And it wasn’t my business to ask.
When he first entered my car, I thought about the recurring odor I couldn’t get rid of; about my yoga mat on the passenger’s seat; the Pad Thai takeout I was bringing home for our supper; the $4 Café Misto from Starbuck’s I was holding.
My rider didn’t notice or at least remark on any of these things. He didn’t mention the Sirius-XMU music: Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs.” He asked nothing of me really, except this ride and if I had heard of the places of his immediate life.
Soon enough, I pulled into the KFC. I thought again that he might ask for money. Instead, he noticed the Elvis CD stuck into the pocket of the passenger door. It was Elvis’s comeback album, the one from Memphis.
“That storm that came through this weekend. It came from the west. Arkansas and Tennessee. I bet it drenched ol’ Graceland. Do you like country music? I do. I’ve seen Charley Daniels, Loretta Lynn, all them. What do you think of that, a man like me lovin’ country music?”
“I love it, too,” I said. “It’s good to be broad in your tastes.” I couldn’t tell him that I actually didn’t care for Charley Daniels, though I had seen him live once, back in high school, back when I didn’t know the difference between fun and danger.
Like I thought I did now.
“I could tell you stories about all them,” he said, looking back at me through the window. “But you don’t have the time. Maybe some other day.”
He walked on into the KFC, then, still holding his raincoat. He would need it later, as sunshine that had finally broken through, wouldn’t last. The bottom dropped out early that evening, but by then, I had our strawberries. We mixed them with fresh cream and ate them that night while watching reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show.” On that episode, we discover that Andy’s favorite dish isn’t fried chicken or country fried steak. It’s leg of lamb, though poor old Miss Crump doesn’t know how to prepare it. Not to worry, they find each other in the end. Frozen dinners, companionship, and a love of Andy’s country guitar.
We all have stories. We all are trying to get somewhere. So I felt good as I drove away from the KFC earlier that day, but that feeling didn’t last for long, either.
About the Author:
Terry Barr is the author of Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother (Third Lung Press), and We Might As Well Eat: How to Survive Tornadoes, Alabama Football, and Your Southern Family (TLP). His work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, storySouth, Wraparound South, Flying South, Full Grown People, Left Hooks, and Vol 1 Brooklyn. He blogs at Medium.com/@terrybarr and lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.