Henry sat on the guardrail, slowly broiling in the murderous heat.
It was like sitting in front of an open smelt furnace. It felt like the sun had burned all the oxygen out of the air so that every breath scalded his lungs.
He was beginning to wish he hadn’t been so short sighted about Clarence’s recommendation on the water. He twisted around and looked back through the atomic heat waves at the aging bar simmering in the distance behind him. If that sorry old paleface Indian hadn’t sent him on his merry way on such a sour note, he’d be tempted to crawl his way back over and beg for a glass.
Then again, the hour they’d spent together had been like drinking with Nostradamus, nothing but dour observations and unhealthy prognostications. The man was so full of hot gas, it was a wonder the place didn’t go up in flames every time he farted. What a bunch of bullshit. And the sorriest thing about it was that he’d damned near succumbed to the old bastard’s Roy Rogers counseling. No, it was much better out here in the open, heat or no heat.
Unfortunately, four hours baking on this guardrail had pretty well smothered his faith in hitchhiking. The day was closing in quick, and the thumb he was trolling the road with had only pulled in a couple nibbles. His first ride had driven him a solid hundred feet before kicking him out. With the second ride, he’d barely opened the door before it pulled away without so much as a ‘by your leave’. He figured it had to be the smell. He smelled like shit.
A road weary, late model sedan materialized from the dense heat vapors flooding the highway. The dust had tainted its burgundy finish to a tawny haze the color of the smog that perpetually hugged LA. Henry stuck his thumb out half-heartedly and with no expectations of a bite. The car buzzed by exactly as he expected. But then, completely against plan, the brake lights flamed and the car veered off onto the shoulder and came to a stop in a plume of dust. Henry ran toward it as fast as his blisters allowed.
The trunk and rear bumper of this current opportunity were tagged like a train car with the automobile equivalent of graffiti. Each of the dozen haphazardly applied bumper stickers verbalized some variation on the theme of Jesus saving his undeserving ass. With his luck, this would be the ride that actually took him somewhere.
He grabbed the latch and pulled the door open. The chilled air rushing out through the open door felt like a dive into a cool spring.
“Howdy, son,” a voice called from the other side of the cabin.
“I appreciate the ride,” Henry said as he slid into the passenger seat.
As he settled into place, he wondered if there was going to be enough room for both of them. The man was huge, easily three hundred pounds. He was dressed in a well-travelled black suit that looked a half size too small. He wore a tired white shirt with a dull black tie. His head looked like it’d been scooped onto his collar without benefit of a neck, erupting from his suit like a fat red balloon swelling up from a collar an inch too tight. The bottom of the steering wheel was clenched convincingly against his belly.
Henry was barely onboard when the man leaned across the divider between the seats and peered out the still open passenger’s door. His voluminous head was painted with a ruddy, jowly face. The head hovered there for several beats, practically leaning against Henry’s chest as the man scanned the roadside beyond.
The man’s eyes eventually rolled up toward him. “Where’s your gear, son?” The head didn’t withdraw.
Henry retreated as far back into his seat as he could manage. He worried the giant head might pop right there in front of him, and he sure as hell didn’t need any more stains.
“My gear?” he said without breathing.
The man slowly withdrew back into his own seat, scratching at the Caesar’s crown of greasy hair pasted to the folds on the back of his head. “Your luggage,” he said like he was speaking to a foreigner, “Your suitcase? Backpack? Duffel bag? Sack? Where’s your gear?”
“Oh, my gear!” Henry said as he pulled the door shut, “It’s in my car.”
The man looked at him like he was trying to interpret code. “Well, where’s your car, son?”
“I suspect it might be on its way home.” Henry smiled as insincerely as he could manage.
“On its way home?”
“Not to worry. It’s had a lot of experience.”
The man smiled and nodded politely, the way one does when a stranger mentions the Voices. Then he turned to the steering wheel and seized the shifter. But he didn’t engage the drive. Instead, he paused, then threw Henry a look that made him feel like he should empty his pockets.
“I’m going to be straight with you, son,” the man said carefully, “As you can see by my luggage, I’m a man of the Lord, praise His glory.”
Henry glanced at the indicated back seat. The robes hanging on the door looked decidedly clerical. There was also a worn brown bible sitting on the backseat, and a string of dangling blue crucifixes lining the rear window like Low Riders for Jesus.
“I see,” Henry said. How could he not?
“As a man of God, I’m inclined to help folks in need, which is why I offered you, a man I don’t even know, a ride. See… even through the dust on my windows, even at sixty miles per hour, I could see by your… eh, appearance… I could see that you were in need of some assistance.”
“Well, I appreciate your—”
“But I am compelled to be straight with you, son. I simply have no tolerance for the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol is the dark serum that turns a good man into Mr. Hyde.”
Mr. Hyde? Henry felt the ground drop beneath him. He might just as well get out now and avoid the drama.
The man’s brow was so low on his face, it looked like an impending landslide. “It’s not my place to cast judgment,” he said carefully, “And I mean you no disrespect. However…”
Henry glanced out at the heat waves beckoning to him from the endless scrubs, and he suffered a moment’s panic. He couldn’t face that heat, not again.
“…I can smell the liquor on your breath. It’s quite strong and it’s quite recent. I have had some sorry experiences with that same affliction myself, a history for which I pray daily for forgiveness.”
“Liquor?” Henry said matter-of-factly, “No, sir. You’re mistaken.”
“Son, I cannot suffer a liar.”
“I’m not lying.” He was absolutely lying. Poorly.
The man threw a chunky finger up between them. “The devil is the father of lies,” he said, “The truthful lip shall be established forever, but a lying tongue is only for a moment. Proverbs 12:19.” Then he extended that same finger out at the passenger door like the Ghost of Christmas Future showing Scrooge his fate. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to disembark this vehicle, my friend, though I wish you the best of luck. I most sincerely do.”
Henry thought fast. He was too sick to lose this ride. The cold air flowing over his feet and legs felt like a lifeline. He couldn’t possibly bear another minute in that damned sun. He was trapped, and in that moment of desperation, he resorted to the truth.
“I shouldn’t have lied,” he said plainly, and hopefully not too quickly, “I’ve had a couple drinks, it’s true. And I don’t normally drink so early in the day, but… well, the truth is…”
“The truth is…”
“What is the truth, son?”
Think fast, Henry. “The truth is… well, it… well, for all its negative influences, it does numb the pain.”
The man was staring at him like he was never going to stop. His eyes were large and widely spaced, and they were darkly ringed, like he hadn’t had much time for sleep in the last year or so. The left eye appeared more interested in what was happening out in front of the car than straight ahead. Yet they still radiated all the intensity of a wildfire. And just as Henry was convinced he should simply leave of his own accord and avoid the scene that was inevitably to follow, the big man withdrew into his own seat, sliding back across the car like a garbage scow backing up to a dock.
“Pain?” he said, “How do you mean, pain?” His posture had relaxed, but his eyes remained metal detectors. They offered no quarter. He was ready to arrest a lie on sight.
Henry considered the question. There were so many possibilities. He thought about explaining how he’d awakened on the floor of a gas station bathroom with no jacket, no wallet, no belt or tie, a missing shoe, and no memory of how he’d ended up there, but that was too close to the truth. Anyway, he knew exactly how he ended up there. He knew the reason, anyway, it was just the specifics he lacked. No, he had to use a different excuse.
“I’m waiting, son.”
“It’s complicated,” Henry said, for lack of a more convincing tack.
“That’s the best you’ve got? It’s complicated? Well, life’s complicated, son. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave.” He rolled over into Henry’s seat again and reached across for the door handle, more insistently this time.
“I’m in mourning,” Henry said quickly. Too quickly, probably. Too quickly, almost certainly. It was a cheap, dirty resort that he instantly regretted. Not that it mattered. The man was bound to see his desperation as clearly as his black eye anyway. Game over. Thanks for playing.
But then, to his surprise, the man actually paused with his sweaty head hovering inches from Henry’s face. Henry again tried not to breathe.
“Mourning?” the man asked seriously.
A chink in the armor. Henry had used a semblance of the truth to keep it honest, and it had worked, but he now had to tread very carefully. If he got too close, it could bring him down.
“I lost my wife,” Henry said. He didn’t mention that it was four years ago. He also didn’t mention that he’d murdered her, or that he was a soulless asshole who was full throttle into a four-year suicide mission. Man, this was a new low even for him.
The man retreated into his seat. His brow slowly receded back up over his forehead, and a kind of sad darkness seemed to fill him. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said so softly, it seemed unreal, “That’s… most unfortunate.”
The words landed like a knife pinning a note to Henry’s chest with the words ‘Soulless Asshole’ scrawled on it. I’m sorry for your loss. The words threatened to drop the hangman’s gangplank beneath him.
“Arrogance should be punished,” the man said suddenly and in a startlingly robust voice, “So that people who don’t know anything better can learn a lesson from it. If you are wise, you will learn when you are corrected. Proverbs 19:25.”
Henry didn’t even have a clue what that meant.
“I’m sorry, son. I’m told I’m inclined toward haughtiness. It’s a form of arrogance. It means blatantly disdainful.”
“I know what haughtiness means,” Henry said, without knowing why.
“It’s a sin. And sadly, I’m greatly drawn to it. It’s the reason my wife has… well, moved on.”
Henry had no inclination to ask, but he sincerely prayed she wasn’t dead. He had no wish to share that burden with the man.
“My arrogance is like an affliction,” the man continued, “I pray on it often and with deep humility.”
Deep humility? Henry was beginning to hope he’d be asked to leave again.
“I’d like to ask you to forgive me,” the man continued, “I had no right to accuse you of lying, especially given your… your unfortunate situation.”
“Forgive you?” Henry’s stomach twisted. Forgiveness wasn’t a tool he typically kept sharpened. Vindictiveness, spite, and resentment more clearly defined his toolshed.
“Please, son. I am truly sorry.”
The man looked over at Henry from an expression of deep, almost surreal humility. Henry suddenly worried he was going to be asked to pray with him, maybe get out of the car and kneel in the hot gravel together, maybe even hold hands. He tried to think of an exit strategy before the dreaded event could materialize.
But before he could be called upon to prostrate himself before God, the man abruptly relaxed. He smiled and nodded, then threw the car into gear and yanked them roughly out onto the highway.
And as they accelerated down that burning highway with a delicious winter breeze hissing out from beneath the dash, Henry leaned back in his seat and drew a thankful breath, whispering “Thank God Almighty.” He even threw in a complimentary ‘Amen’ just for good measure.