Henry shaded his eyes from the metallic rest area lights as he studied the map of new Mexico.
It was sheltered behind the kiosk’s tired plexiglass armor. On the glass, just west of Albuquerque, was a blocky yellow arrow pointing at a spot on the map indicating where he stood. It read: You are EAT SHIT.
Though he’d never visited this desert wasteland before, he was pretty confident that EAT SHIT was not an official New Mexico Department of Transportation location. The words were hand-scrawled on the surface of the plexiglass in block-style blue lettering. He scratched a thumbnail against it and looked again.
You are EAT SHIT.
He scratched at it more vigorously, but it was evident the graffiti was there to stay. It’d remain on that public map, offending people’s sensibilities and insulting their values until the kiosk burned down or the state replaced the plexiglass. What the hell, he thought, wasn’t there enough routine, generic, day-to-day stupidity surrounding them already without the uneducated halfwits forcing their bullshit dysfunction into innocent people’s lives as well?
He slammed his fist against the plastic. It didn’t leave a mark. He looked around for a better weapon. There was a bit of landscaping outside the restroom. He walked over to it and sorted through some rocks until he found one just jaggy enough.
Who in the hell walks around with a blue Sharpie in their pocket anyway? And if you do go to the effort of carrying a blue Sharpie around with you, aren’t you inherently obligated to come up with something more profound, or at least wittier, than EAT SHIT before you use it? Why go to the trouble of carrying the damned pen if that’s the most original bit of homespun philosophy you can come up with? It didn’t make sense.
He walked back to the map.
You are EAT SHIT.
Genius! This country was quickly becoming a moron’s paradise.
He guarded his eyes and slammed the rock against the offensive spot. This time he was rewarded with a lovely pair of cracks that intersected precisely over the naughty words, just exactly as if the Lord himself had driven over from heaven and Xed them out himself.
There, mission accomplished! Now maybe it’d get replaced, thus sparing some passing widow or roving boy scout leader or impressionable tween the grievance of bearing witness to the grimmest of America’s moral turpitude. Another good deed to help offset his karmic debt. He had the feeling Josho would approve. He tossed the rock into the shrubs.
He traced the line of Interstate 40 west under the cracks, across New Mexico and into Arizona. And then he traced the route again. And again. Much to his surprise and delight, his ride with Josho had taken him three hours in completely the wrong direction.
The revelation left him speechless. This outing simply kept getting better. It was his Magnum Opus, a monument to his self-immolation. “You’re a regular rocket surgeon,” he whispered to himself, “Seriously brilliant. You should buy yourself a trophy.”
“Do you need a lift to a shelter?”
Henry nearly jumped out of his skin.
He wheeled around to find a middle-aged Hispanic woman in a lavender pantsuit standing immediately behind him. Her hair was tied back so tightly, he was inclined to wince in sympathy for it. Shadows cast by the mercury light above and behind her obscured the details of her features. Secured on a long strap over her left shoulder was a shiny square purse that’d somehow teleported out of the seventies. It was the size of a detergent box and so white it seemed to glow of its own accord.
“Do you have problems with your hearing?” she said. Her tone implied she already had the answer.
He didn’t know how to reply to that. Judging by the woman’s stiff posture and puritan-grade scowl, he was confident none of the possible responses sparking through his head was the right one.
“I asked you a question, sir,” she said sternly.
“I’m sorry?” he said, more to stall than outwit her.
“Do. You. Need. A lift? To a shelter or elsewhere? I’m not inclined to ask again.”
“A shelter?” he said, “Do I look like I need—”
He stopped and looked down at his attire. The dry cleaner’s starch had pretty much bailed on what was left of his tattered dress shirt. And Josho’s soap hadn’t so much cleaned the vomit stain out of his slacks as enhanced its sheen.
He drew a hand down his shirt to smooth it. He surprised himself by blushing. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said, “I believe we’re actually pretty well set here. But, uh… but, thanks all the same. I guess.”
The woman stepped closer, turning just so that her features drifted into the flood of the stark mercury light. She wore a harsh expression that was miles too close to the nuns of his youth. One hand fortified the crisp white purse strap running down her shoulder, while the other was mounted securely against her hip. Her gaze was locked on him like a bobcat waiting for a rabbit to run.
“Do I look like a fool?” she said seriously.
“Mm… no,” he said carefully, “Then again, I just met you, so I’m not sure I’m really the most qualified person to—”
“You cannot lie to me, young man, so it’ll save you a great deal of energy if you simply and sincerely resolve yourself to not attempt it.”
He swallowed. Hard. “Roger that,” he said, for lack of anything smarter.
“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” Her tone was efficiently administrative.
“Sure. I mean, of course I do.” He’d never had so intense an urge to run away from anyone before in his life.
“Do you have transportation?” she pressed.
“Yes, obviously,” he said, faking a laugh, “It’s right over there.” He hiked a thumb off toward the parking lot.
She stepped a bit closer. “What did I just tell you about lying to me?”
He couldn’t find his voice. She scared the hell out of him.
“Lying is a sin, sir. A sin and a complete waste of energy.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“Are you trying to be funny?”
He studied her for a beat or two. It was becoming rapidly clear that this woman was not one to screw with. This one ate her young. If he was ever inclined to take the route of feigned respect, this was probably the time
“Well?” she said sharply, “Do you believe yourself in possession of a particularly sharp wit? That you’re some kind of funnyman, perhaps?”
“No, ma’am,” he said carefully, “Actually… I’m just trying not to get hurt.”
They looked at each other for a time as the highway buzzed in the background. It sounded like the cars were speeding up as they passed the rest area, like maybe they were trying to get by this place as quickly as possible because they knew the Agent of Honor was lurking inside.
“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” she asked again.
He just looked at her. He didn’t know which response would result in the least amount of pain. He could feel her eyes dissecting his intentions like a pair of lasers.
“I don’t find your stubbornness any cuter than your wit,” she said, “Or are you just having trouble understanding me?”
“No, ma’am. I understand you fine.”
“Then why do you refuse to answer?”
“Well, to be honest… you make me a little nervous.”
She watched him for a moment. Her expression might even have softened a bit, though he couldn’t be certain.
Finally, she began digging through her white purse, which was still so bright against the shadows he had to squint to look directly at it. “My name is Mrs. Pena,” she said, “I’m a Bernalillo County Social Worker. I also volunteer at several homeless shelters. I can arrange a ride to the nearest one for you.” She pulled an old-school cell phone from her purse and flipped it open smartly. “You’ll be safe there. Perhaps you can get yourself cleaned up.”
“What are you doing?” he said.
“You look like you could use some food,” she said as she began pressing numbers into the phone, “When did you last eat? And please know that wine does not count as food, even if it is bred from grapes.”
“Seriously,” he said, “What… what are you doing with the phone?”
“I’m calling the New Mexico State Police to get you a ride.”
“What? No!” he said quickly, “Are you crazy? Don’t—”
Her eyes threw solar flares at him. “What did you say to me?”
“Nothing! I mean, I didn’t mean literally crazy. I meant… please, look, you don’t have to do this!”
She put the phone to her ear. “It’s not a problem, sir. I’m happy to help.” She didn’t look like she was.
“No!” Henry said, waving his hands before her, “Please! I’m not homeless. I swear it! I’m just traveling. I’m passing through on my way to my home in California, and I ran into some troubles, nothing more. Please, hang up. Please! I don’t need the trouble!”
She watched him with the phone to her ear for what seemed like the longest moment of his life. And then, much to his surprise and relief, she slowly pulled it away and flipped it shut.
“Thank you,” he said, “God, thank you. I’m just traveling, I promise you. I just… I’m taking a road trip, nothing more. I got a little wild last night, which explains my appearance, but I don’t need a place to stay, and I don’t mean anyone any trouble. I’m not homeless, I give you my word.”
“You can put your hands down now, sir.”
He realized he was still holding his palms up at her. He threw them behind his back. “Sorry,” he said quickly. Then he added, “Thank you,” as an afterthought.
After another prolonged examination with her laser eyes, she said, “I’m going to ask you a question.” She held the closed phone up between them like it was the microphone to a lie detector. “If I am dissatisfied with your response, I promise you I will place the call to the state police. There are vagrancy laws in this state, after all. Do you understand me?”
Henry didn’t know what to make of this. The day behind him was already one for the books, but this moment felt like a psychotic episode. Maybe it was the Vicodin, maybe it was the hangover, maybe he’d finally lost his mind. He had the strangest urge to look around for cameras.
“Are you fleeing the law, sir?”
Should’ve seen that one coming. “No, ma’am,” he said, “I’ve never even been arrested. Had a speeding ticket once, but that was years ago.”
Her eyes reflected doubt.
“I swear it, Mrs. Pena,” he said urgently, “It’s the absolute truth, so help me Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.”
Her lips pursed just a bit at that. She was studying him too closely. After what seemed like days, she nodded and dropped her phone back in her purse.
“All right,” she said, still watching him, “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. This time.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Don’t make me regret it.”
“I won’t. I’ve just finished up the strangest goddamn day of my—”
She threw him a glare that left a mark.
“Sorry!” he said quickly, probably too quickly, “I don’t mean to offend.”
“Well, you personally don’t, but your language most certainly does.”
“I’m sorry. Seriously, I don’t want any trouble. I’m just working my way home. That’s all of it. I’m not here to bother anyone. I’m not a threat to society. I just wanted to get cleaned up a bit.”
She gave him a cursory examination, then said, “I see.”
They again stood looking at each other in the suffocating light of the mercury lamp. The silence was murder. He wanted to leave but didn’t know how. She had a queer kind of grip on him. Desperate to fill the void with something, anything, he glanced around at the restrooms and vending area, and said, “Do you have an office here or something?”
“Is that sarcasm?”
His heart nearly kicked its way out of its cage. “No, ma’am!”
“I’m not sure I like your tone,” she said. He had the feeling she used that line a lot.
“I meant no disrespect,” he said, “I just meant… well, isn’t it a little odd to approach a strange man at a rest area and ask him if he needs a ride?” He immediately regretted the question.
Her expression shifted a bit at that. “What are you implying?” she said.
“What? Nothing! I mean… not like that. It’s just, you know, a little odd. I mean, from where I’m standing and all.”
She looked momentarily indignant but quickly recovered. “I take my work seriously,” she said, pressing a hand alongside her head, as if she could somehow make her hair even tighter, “I see a person in need, I act on it. I see another who may be a threat to passersby, and I do the same. It’s in my nature. It’s also my responsibility.”
“I see.” He didn’t.
“I had a site visit this evening. I was on my way home and needed to stop to…” She flushed a bit, then simply shrugged.
Once again, they stood looking at each other in the atomic silence. Moths were tried to kill themselves against the buzzing mercury light above them. Cars growled along the highway beyond the rest area. Somewhere off in the night, a coyote screamed.
Then she looked up at him, and said, “When was the last time you ate?”
He looked down at his feet and drew his hair back across his head. It was still wet from washing it. He sifted back through the last twenty-four hours. He remembered eating lunch at his desk yesterday, but pretty much everything after ten p.m. was in hiding.
“I asked you a question, sir.”
“I honestly don’t know, ma’am.” He fished around in his pocket, then pulled out the tortured twenty. “I’ve got cash but no change for the vending. No one seems interested in breaking it for me. I’ve asked, but… well, people pretty much take a wide berth when they see me coming.”
“I’m not surprised,” she said, “You smell like shit.”
Henry startled himself by laughing. “Yes,” he said, shaking his head, “Yes, I do. Although, for the record, I did wash up. It just didn’t seem to take.”
He saw her mouth twitch at that. It was barely perceptible and passed quicker than a wink, but a smile did tease her.
He stretched the twenty tautly between his fingers. “Mrs. Pena,” he said, smiling at her, “If you could somehow manage to break this, I can get a candy bar or a bag of chips. I don’t need exact change, just a couple bucks. You can keep the difference.”
“Do I look like I need your change, sir?”
“No. I mean… that’s not what I meant. I just… well, I’m a little desperate, is all.”
Mrs. Pena’s laser eyes burned into the bill held up before her. Then they returned their fire to him. “I can’t help you, sir,” she said.
The bill drifted lower. “I see,” he said, nodding, “Sure. No problem. I understand. Thanks anyway.”
“What’s your name, sir?”
“You don’t know?”
“Of course, I know,” he said, “It’s Henry, actually.”
“You don’t seem confident of that.”
“No, it’s definitely Henry.”
“Are you an honest man, Henry?”
“Which part didn’t you understand? The words? Or their context in the question?”
Henry again suspected there was no right answer. “I am an honest man,” he said, “For the most part.”
Her brow lifted.
“I mean, I am one hundred per cent an honest man so far as my relationship with you is concerned.” Nice recovery.
Her eyes were fierce, her gaze physical. He was sure she was going to either leave, or call the police and then leave. Finally, she turned away, and he’d never felt more thankful for any human act in his entire life.
But then, just as he was about to run as far away as possible, he heard her say, “Follow me, Henry.”
Henry had no intention of complying, yet he found himself reflexively doing exactly as he was told. He grabbed his gear, a soiled brown paper bag with the supplies Josho had donated to his cause and followed her through the night to her car. It was parked down at the end of a long line of cement stairs in the first stall after the handicap spaces directly beneath the flood of another mercury security light. She was a prudent woman, Mrs. Pena.
When they were a dozen paces from the car, she turned and threw a hand up at him. “Stay there,” she said, pointing at a picnic table sitting just off the sidewalk. When she seemed confident he’d comply, she stepped off the curb and walked to her car.
A few moments later, she returned carrying what looked like a pizza box and a couple dark plastic bottles.