There's the right way ... the wrong way ... and the Haugen way.
This is the first in a series of short stories where Lincoln Anderson shows he is a sucker for thumbs stuck out along the highway. He picks up these hitchhikers and often ends up learning as much about himself as he does about them. Today, he picks up a man claiming to be Jesus Christ. Together they drive from Rapid City to Denver and Lincoln's life is changed forever.
By Mark Haugen
* * *
Copyright 2011 Mark Haugen
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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* * *HITCHHIKER 1
It's one of those things mothers tell us not to do, but we do it anyway – well, maybe not you, but I do. In fact, I've been doing it since I was 15 years old, but not every day – maybe once a month, but hardly ever in the winter.
I guess I can see how it could be considered dangerous, but I've never felt physically threatened by a hitchhiker. It's safe to say though that there's almost always something a little off kilter mentally with any person who walks the lonely highways of America with a thumb stuck in the air. Frankly, I'm a sucker for them and their stories.
So I took it with an experienced grain of salt when I picked up the haggardly-dressed man on the Heartland Express south of Rapid City and he said he was going to Denver ... and he said his name was Jesus Christ.
He threw a bulging Army surplus knapsack into the back seat of my 1974 white Galaxy 500, slid in across from me and introduced himself.
“I'm glad you didn't bring the 12 others because we wouldn't have room,” I joked. He responded with the serene smile you might expect from somebody named Jesus, though I suspected he had heard the joke before and was just being kind. Gotta play the part, I suppose.
Like most everyone you probably know a little or a lot about his name, but far less about mine. I'm Lincoln Anderson. My friends call me L.A., though I've never been there. My name isn't as famous as my initials, but I have this odd feeling it will be someday, perhaps when I sober up.
I've pretty much been a happy drunk since I was 18, so I'm not much on passing judgment on other people. If they want to call themselves Jesus Christ it's probably better than picking up somebody calling themselves Charles Manson.
As we pulled back onto the highway and got up to speed, I noticed out the corner of my eye that Jesus was sizing me up from head to toe. What he saw was a pretty normal character on the outside with blue jeans, gray hooded sweatshirt and Minnesota Twins baseball cap, but what I assumed he couldn't see on the inside was a second-hand flea market of unfulfilled dreams, conflicted emotions and a waning desire to succeed. As he stared, I started to feel self-conscious about the 16-ounce can of Coors Light between my legs.
“You want one?” I asked.
“No, thank you.”
So I finished what was left of mine with a big swig, and out of habit, rolled down the window and tossed the can, which clunked across the highway and rolled into the ditch. For some reason I immediately felt the need to apologize to him for littering and did. “Sorry.”
He afforded me a slight nod and stared ahead at the road.
I felt oddly unsettled, even nervous, in his presence, which was odd because I had picked up many others more threatening looking and even probably psychotic. He was none of those. It was more than just his name too. It was his uncommonly calm demeanor.
He seemed content with silence – didn't seem bound, like many do, to make small talk and pepper me with questions of my life history. It was almost as though he already knew all that, which is what made me feel most uncomfortable. So I obliged him with nonsensical chatter instead.
“So what's waiting for you in Denver?” I asked.
“People. Like you.”
“People like me?” I asked, looking at him in his camouflage Army pants and a red and black flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up above his elbows.
“Yes,” he said, “people who need my help.”
“Are you implying that I need your help?”
“Everybody does. All they need is to ask.”
“I could use some help with gas money,” I said only half jokingly.
“I have no money,” he said.
“Well a lot of help you are then,” I laughed and softly chucked him on the shoulder.
He smiled at me and we rode through Hot Springs and another hour before he spoke again.
“What are you going to say to your father,” he asked, with dark brown eyes beckoning mine.
I turned my head enough to meet his soft gaze.
“How'd you know I was going to see my dad?”
“You look like a man going to see his sick father.”
I momentarily let my foot off the accelerator, considering whether or not to let him out as we approached the Wyoming state line. He sensed my apprehension. He seemed to sense everything.
I opted to play along. This was too odd not to see to its conclusion.
“Who is your father?” I asked, trying to trip him up.
It didn't work.
“My father is everybody's father.”
“So he's my father too?” I asked.
“We are all the children of God,” he answered.
“But you already acknowledged that my father is sick and in Denver.”
“Don't confuse your Heavenly father with your earthly one,” he explained.
“Oh,” I dim-wittedly responded, reminding myself not to talk politics or religion with future passengers, especially those with Biblical names.
“You never answered my question,” he said after another lengthy silence that saw us cover 30 miles and pass numerous grazing antelope.
“What question was that? I forgot.”
“What are you going to say to your father?”
“I think I'm going to ask him if he still loves me.”
“You don't know?”
“Well, I guess I know he does, but I want to hear him say it.”
“What else do you want to ask him?”
“Gosh, you are making me work a little more than I'm used to with hitchhikers,” I said. “Kind of a curious fellow, aren't you?”
“Oh, I know the answers to the questions. I'm just hoping you do.”
“So you're the teacher and I'm the student?”
“Hey! I got one right!” I cheered and tapped the car horn a couple times in celebration.
“What's the other question you're going to ask your father?”
“You're a persistent cuss, aren't you?” I said.
“I guess I'll ask him if he's proud of me.”
“You don't know the answer to that?”
“Actually, I reckon he's not very proud of me,” I admitted. “How could he be? I'm a drunk barely hanging on to my third job in five years, am separated from my wife and kids, and have alienated most of the rest of my family.”
“So you're driving all this way to ask him questions you already know the answers too?”
“I guess so.”
Another long bout of quiet passed as I contemplated his observation. I didn't bother trying to find a radio station beaming over this barren stretch of prairie. Besides, some country and western my-wife-left-me, dog-got-run-over, so-I'm-gonna-get-drunk Hank Williams songs seemed grossly inappropriate at this juncture of the conversation.
I did venture another glance at his face, which was strikingly different than what I would have stereotyped for some crazy, dusty drifter. His hair was closely cropped in a neat but obviously self-inflicted buzz cut you'd find on a Marine recruit at basic training. His face was V-shaped with a couple days' growth of stubble on his thin neck, sharp chin and jagged cheek bones. Yet his skin was unblemished, smooth and tan. A tight trim of dark eyebrows sat over his shiny brown eyes. Then he caught me looking.
“You're wondering about me, aren't you?” he said.
“You are a curiosity,” I replied.
“You're wondering if I really am Jesus Christ.”
“But I know you aren't.”
“If you're wondering, then you aren't certain.”
“I'm certain you died a couple thousand years ago.”
“To be risen again.”
“So they say.”
“So you believe I existed at some time.”
“I believe Jesus existed. Yes.”
“And you believe he was the Son of God, died for your sins, with the promise to come again.”
“Yes, that's what I was raised to believe.”
“But I wasn't raised to think he would rise again and I'd pick him up along the highway and give him a ride to Colorado.”
“They left that part out of the Bible,” he smiled at me.
“You DO have a sense of humor,” I said.
“Of course. God created all things, even a sense of humor.”
“I guess he did create the Colorado Rockies baseball team,” I joked.
“And two World Series championships for your Twins.”
“I prayed hard for those.”
“God answers prayers.”
“But not all of them,” I corrected, or so I thought.
“Ah, but he does answer them all. Sometimes the answer is 'no.'”
“He said 'no' to my prayer to win the lottery.”
“Perhaps he answered somebody else's prayer then.”
“I suppose he did.”
“It is good to pray.”
“I should get back in the habit.”
“We stopped in near Loveland where I filled up on gas and bought him a bottle of water and bag of Doritos.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“You're welcome. I sure never thought I'd be buying Jesus a bag of chips. We're only an hour out now.”
“Perhaps we could pray in the time remaining,” he suggested.
It's pretty hard to argue with that, considering who the guy said he was. So I relented.
“I have a dumb question,” I blurted out a few miles down the road.
“Should I pray out loud or to myself?”
“Whatever suits you. God has good hearing.”
I smiled. Funny guy.
So I put both hands on the wheel, straightened up in my seat and tried unsuccessfully to think what to pray for that didn't sound stupid – like winning the lottery.
He must've sensed my quandary.
“Pray for what will solve all your problems,” he said.
“There's one thing that will solve ALL my problems.”
“Will that make your father proud? Bring your wife back to you?”
“What has caused all your dismay and misery?”
I thought a bit, stumbled upon what was probably the answer but didn't want to say it.
“Just pray,” he urged.
So I did, in my head, staring at the center line along the way: “Please, God, help me quit drinking.”
It was nothing elaborate – no more than that. I just repeated it to myself over and over, trance-like, as the traffic started to become more congested and we entered downtown Denver.
Jesus said nothing.
We were finally stopped at a light, sky scrapers on three corners and a run-down tavern on our right. Five tough-looking youths loitered near the curb. Two of them saw me looking at them. One flipped me off. The other threw down his cigarette, stomped on it and flashed me some gang-type hand gestures that included a slice across his throat. The flipper opened his jacket to show me the butt of a handgun tucked inside the waist of his baggy jeans.
“I'll get out here,” Jesus said, reaching for the door handle.
“What!” I exclaimed. “You can't get out here. Those guys are bad news!”
“And I'm the good news,” He replied.
The light turned green as He had both legs already out of the car. I didn't dare start driving. Cars began honking. Jesus ignored them, got out and leaned His head back inside, one hand on the car, the other on the door to shut it.
“Say that prayer every morning. It will be answered.”
He closed the door.
Flustered, a few blocks up the street I found a parking spot and swerved in. I turned off the engine, leaned my head on the steering wheel, began to tremble, and then sobbed.
I said that prayer once again, then every morning for the next 10 years, when my dad finally died – very, very proud of me.