…In which an Ethiopian driving a chariot picks up the Apostle Philip, who baptizes him and then disappears.
I’m tired of this story and I know you are, too. It starts differently each time: an Elizabethan forest…12 miles outside of Baltimore…Pele’s lost daughter risen from the ashes. But always ends here. With you and me. You whispering in the dark. And me. The dark.
And again at 5AM the sky is blushing with embarrassment. I, too, feel chastened for staying out all night. The brisk morning air was meant to refresh early risers and joggers. To be drunk in with freshly brewed coffee. Not sweat and cigarettes. It’s amazing how those odors stay on. And on.
I have to get home, again, and I’m so tired of this ride.
“Please redeem me” I squint into the road. “Come here and save me. I’ll save you. We’ll save each other.” A thought that could be visceral. But isn’t.
Good crops, the end of a war, a natural catastrophe about to strike, or the imminent coming of Jesus have been predicted.
When I see the white pick-up truck in the horizon I wonder which of these I’ll be. I’ll be who they want me to be. I’ll say what they want to hear. I know how.
Jeff was driving the pick-up car to visit his mother. She had a long untreated case of diabetes and lost both of her legs. Jeff lived 90 miles away from her. He can’t be with her during the day-to-day. He can’t pay for her care. So when he visited her on the weekend…and he did visit her faithfully every weekend….not every young man would do such a thing…mind you….he had a mess to contend with. She smelled terribly, she was scarey to look at…because she was mostly just a torso and head and this is shockingly strange to take when you consider that this is now how we are used to seeing people. And she was pretty mean. But Jeff visited her and took the best care of her that he could. Some day it will pay off, he thought. These good deeds. Karma will come around. Deep down, he’s a good guy, he figured. And someday he’ll have a good life.
This is not an unusual thing to figure. But it’s not true. But its what Jeff did and I did it, too. With a letterman jacket on a foggy night.
“Need a ride?” He smiled. The way he pictured this scene, he was slimmer and had far more hair on his head than he did. And his teeth were nice. And he pictured me as charmed and alive.
Jeff told himself the saddest lies when he drove this long distance to visit his torso mother.
“Please,” the desperation in my voice was authentic. I want to breath the morning like the joggers and the early-rising coffee drinkers. And be like the people who drive past me in nice cars.
That’s who I want to be. I want to drive past me.
I want Jeff to drive me home. When I get there, I’ll watch an afternoon become boring. I’ll find time. I’ll waste it. I’ll assume that I’m entitled to another day.
“So, you live around here?” Jeff asked.
He is trying to figure out if I’m a valued youth of the community, or a runaway, or a prostitute. The answer will determine how he treats me, and I don’t hold it against him. But whatever my answer, he wouldn’t harm me.
He just wants to know how much I’d harm myself. A pink scarf in the back seat. A telling photograph on a stranger’s mantle.
“I can’t pay you, if that’s what you’re asking.”
I know that it’s not what he’s asking. But there are certain things I need to tell him.
“…But I can tell you your future once you drop me off.” I grab his hand off the steering wheel and drop it in disbelief,
“What…what is it?” Jeff smiles, because something is happening. Things rarely happen around Jeff, but right now…they are. They are happening in his crappy truck.
I brace myself against the passenger door. “I really need you to take me home. Just up the seventeenth up there.” I won’t look at him now.
“So…you’re, like a Gypsy or something?” Jeff asks.
“Mmm….I don’t think we’re calling them that anymore. Roma…I think is the name.” I stare at his hands again and he smiles.
“But you just tell futures…” He whispered and I sighed heavily, as though carrying a huge burden. She’s trying to get back to the dance. Back in the arms of a young lover.
“So this is weird, Jeff, I hope you don’t mind if I ask you something…” I demurred and he felt powerful, “What is it?” he asked.
“What does someone like you see for yourself? I mean, knowing what I know…before I tell you any more, I want to know what Jeff thinks about his life as it is…and where it is going?” But what on earth is a youngster like you doing out here all alone at this time?
This is where he told me about his mother. How hard it was to take care of her. How he had so few job prospects. How he had a hard time talking to women and he imagines having an even harder time keeping a relationship going, given his circumstances.
I listened and I understood that there would be no redemption for me this morning. Jeff is a man who wishes and years for things that come easily to others, but never seem to come to him. That special kind of painful wish that follows you where you go. It taunts you at night, when you dream a wonderful dream that the wish has been fulfilled. But then you wake up and realize you are still you. Unfulfilled. Unfulfilled in this way that makes you not like other people and very, very alone.
Jeff pulled his truck over where I asked him to. “This is your stop?” He asked hopefully. I took his hand.
“Jeff, I can see here that you’ve been misunderstood and taken for granted. You give of yourself generously and you’ve been taken for granted. Those days are coming to an end. Future generations will know your name.”
“You are a great man, Jeff. You will have fame. You will have love.”
I left the truck and I left it behind. The scarf.
The letterman jacket. The whatever it is that I have in that particular iteration of the legend. I left behind the prophecy that made some loser feel special. I left behind the wish for a thing that it seems other people don’t need to wish for: importance, love, respect, dignity. A safe ride home with a new boyfriend.
The wish that what came to others so easily would come to you: It’s different for different people but it persists across the globe and across time.
I’ll persist for as long.
The appeal of vanishing hitchhiker stories lies in the nature of the encounter — an interaction with a ghost occurs not because the main character went looking for the supernatural, but because it came to him.