Bad Traffic is a short story of five chapters, posted over five week days -- by me, your mammalian host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Caution: store this story in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight or moisture.
And now, today's chapter:
Papa Rock LeRoche picked up the hitchhiker on the west side of the Oregon line.
A late afternoon thunderstorm was blowing out to the east leaving in its wake shiny roads and wet fields, and standing at the border of an example of each was a round-shouldered youth soaked to the bone, huddled against the spring breeze. By his feet was a sign that must have once advertised his destintion but had now been reduced to an asymmetrical Rorschach.
"Where you headed?" called Yves.
"New York City," said the damp hitchhiker.
"Come on up," nodded Yves, leaning over to release the passenger door.
The boy climbed up onto the cab and slipped inside after shaking a flurry of spume from his jacket and knapsack. He looked startled when he saw Yves fixing him with a hard look. "You don't want to be leaving that sign there," said Yves. "It's a shame to litter America. We all have to live here together, right?"
Once that was taken care of Yves moved the rig into gear and nosed back out onto the freeway. As they jostled along he asked the boy's name.
"Joe," he said, his accent thick and sharp edged.
"Bullsquat," said Yves not unkindly. "You don't look like a Joe."
"It is my American name."
"What's your real name, son?"
"It is Alishaer, sir."
"Good to meet ya, Al. They call me Papa Rock but my name's Yves."
"Thank you very much for stopping, Mr. Yves."
They drove in silence a while until Yves noticed the youth shivering and pulled a rough woolen blanket out of the back of the cab with a grunt. Alishaer was grateful. He used it to dry his short black hair before wrapping it around his shoulders like a cocoon. He looked so skinny and small.
Yves sighed to himself. It wasn't the first time he'd picked up a hard luck case. In fact he was unlikely to stop for a hitchhiker who looked like they were on solid footing -- Yves specialized in the downtrodden and lost. He was of the opinion that if he could supply them with an earful of common sense they just might find the gumption to pull themselves out of whatever pickle they were in, like the black fellow on the lam from North Carolina he'd convinced to turn himself in for his crimes, the street tough from New Jersey he'd turned on to Jesus, or the teenage girl from Alberta he'd found pitifully used and discarded by a motorcycle gang.
He remembered each of their names: Sammy Brown, Knife Gill, Daria Something. Sometimes he even looked them up years after the fact, to see whether or not they had straightened out. That was another reason they called him Papa Rock: because he cared.
This kid was maybe twenty-five. He had one bushy black eyebrow that ran across the bridge of his nose, like Burt on Sesame Street. Around his right wrist was a simple silver chain bearing a token inscribed with wiggly worm-writing.
"So, where're you coming from?" asked Yves.
"Portland, sir," said Alishaer.
"No, I mean originally. You got that funny writing on your bracelet there, like from Iraq or something."
"This is a medical notice," explained Alishaer. "It says I am an epileptic. I have the seizures once in a sometime."
"That's too bad."
"It does not trouble me much."
"So you're from Iraq, huh?"
"No sir, I am coming from Turkmenistan."
"No sir, Turkmenistan. In Asia."
"You don't look Chinese to me."
"No sir," agreed Alishaer with a little smile.
Yves grunted, checked his mirrors, changed lanes. "I can tell from your way of talking you haven't been here long, is that right?"
"I have been in this country for one week, sir."
"Fresh off the boat, huh? Heading to New York to find fame and fortune, are ya?"
Alishaer smiled self-effacingly. "I am hoping to find my cousin there. He is running a restaurant, where perhaps I can find an opportunity for working."
Yves nodded. "Good for you. Hard work is what makes America great."
"Yes sir," agreed Alishaer.
"I'm only going as far as Michigan, but that's a fair way along for you. Should shorten your trip a bit, huh?"
"I am grateful, Mr. Yves. I will be no trouble to you, I swear it."
Yves nodded. Perhaps the young man wasn't as wayward as he'd first appeared, rainsoaked and forlorn at the side of the road. He seemed to have a pretty good head on his shoulders, and had manners like his mother had raised him right. And helping a man on his way to an honest wage was something Yves could feel proud of -- in his little way again contributing to the health of the economy, the free-flowing currents of people and money, sharing in making somebody's American dream come true.
"It's no trouble to me," said Yves amicably. But he was wrong.