Morning came through the car window with the brightness of a dentist’s lamp. I rubbed away the night crumbs from my eyes and opened the door, taking in the chilly air. The scene was quiet except for the rustling of wind through the trees. Three children emerged from a station wagon parked a few spaces away, running for the restroom, with their mother chasing behind. On the other side of the visitor’s center, a state trooper inched around the premises, pausing near some tucked-away trees where a tarp covered the sides of a picnic table. He parked the patrol and spoke into his radio. Afraid I was about to explode in my pants, I hurried inside and lost sight of the law on the other side.
Oh, sweet release.
“Whew!” a voice called out of nowhere.
Embarrassed, I flushed before I was normally ready, and the power lever sucked the waste water away in seconds. After a quick change of underwear, I left the stall and made my way to the sink where an older, African American man in rags was washing his hands. He’d set a battered harmonica next to the soap dispenser and had a rucksack at his feet.
“That you playing last night?”
“Sounds drunker’n goat piss, but it’ll do to pass sum time,” he said, brandishing a yellowed bucktooth smile.
“Sounded … sounded good,” I said, nodding.
Loud, knocking steps rounded the corner. “Morning, gentleman,” the officer nodded. “I’ve been getting reports of someone camping out on the premises. You boys seen anything like that?”
I held up my keys to proclaim my innocence.
“Not camping. No, sir. Not us. Just stretching out a bit,” he said.
The officer held his authoritative tone. “Sometimes folks don’t understand that there’s a hefty fine for camping in rest stops.”
“Camping? No, sir,” the hobo continued, “I just had knee surgery, so I need to keep it extended for a time or it starts twitching uncontrollably.”
As if on cue the man’s leg gyrated absurdly in his hip socket. Grasping it with both hands, he held tightly until it slowed to a stop.
“Is that right, now?” The officer took in his grimy subject without amusement.
“Yessir,” he nodded, resuming to smooth his long salt-and-peppered mustache in the mirror. “We sure are sorry if we overstayed our welcome, but we’re all rested up now and we’ll be on our way.”
The reflection of the man in the blue uniform, bright badge and buzz cut stopped and considered before turning to me.
I nodded without thinking, smiling around my toothbrush, just as the water from the automatic faucet stopped. Thankful for the distraction, I looked down and began waving my hands in front of the sensor so I could rinse my mouth.
“I think the man yer looking fer might’ve been the one who booked it for the woods when your car came around the bend.” He pointed the opposite way we all came in.
“Is that right?” the officer repeated, savoring every syllable, diminishing any signs of retreat.
I nodded again. The officer took a step back, pursing his lips. I could feel his eyes on me, as if saying, You don’t have to do this, son. You don’t have to protect this bum. Silence.
“Yins take ‘er easy then,” the trooper finally said. “Just remember, the fine’s a heck of a lot more than pullin’ over into a KOA, I’ll tell you what.”
The tall, black man beside me nodded.
“Thanks,” I said, turning around, but the officer had already gone. Instead, I peered dumbfounded at the man whistling as he twirled the ends of his facial hair. Shaking my head, I fumbled in my pockets to roll a cigarette.
When we both walked out a few minutes later, the officer nodded again to each of us in turn and continued scanning the premises. Heading back to the car, I wondered if I had just invited a crazy psychopath into my life— someone who might later cut me up and feed my bones to the wolves.
When we were out of earshot of the cop, he asked, “Where’ya headed?” his fingers flirting with the passenger door.
“I was thinking, I’d never seen the Pacific Ocean, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten.”
“Well, don’t worry ‘bout me, I mean no harm. I would be grateful to get away from you-know-who.” He held up his harmonica. “Play ya a tune to pass the time?”
“Get in.” I looked over at the cop. “I’ll get you out of here, but I’m not making any promises.”
“Fine. Pappy never had much luck in the way of promises anyhow.”
Merging back into traffic, the Cavalier’s four cylinders strained to accelerate into the choppy flow. After finally settling into the middle lane, I relaxed back in my seat and switched on the radio.
“There’s more anthrax in the news this morning…”
“I can’t believe our politicians are just…”
After about 10 minutes of silence, the car’s fuel warning beeped and a red light came on. I took the next exit and pulled over at a mini-mart. Keys in hand, I went inside and came back out with two coffees. He accepted it with a bowed head, revealing a bald spot. He reminded me of one of my dad’s friends who lived alone in a cabin and sold firewood by the roadside. On the floor between his legs was a small backpack. It was unstained compared with the rest of his clothes: acid-wash jeans torn in various places, muddied leather boots, long oiled duster, and a wooden cane. Normally, picking up someone I didn’t know would’ve been frightening, but this guy emitted a downhome, simple kindness. Besides, it felt good to have some company. He smiled as he poured all four French vanilla creamers into his cup.
Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative musings every other week in encore throughout 2014.