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On the Road

A Friendly Young Man
Mike Blake

 I remember I first spotted him standing behind the store, smoking a cigarette. He had spotted me first, as I quickly made my way to the clothes dumpster, which was overflowing with discarded goods. It was the thrift store’s dumpster, and no doubt this employee had been helping to fill it. I didn’t spot him until I had my hand on top of the pile of clothing. When I saw him, I pulled my hand back, though I knew it was too late. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be digging in the dumpster; there was probably a sign around there somewhere. Yet he didn’t protest or wave me off; he smiled and gave me a little wave. Then he stepped on his cigarette butt and came over to me.

I greeted him and then motioned at the black plastic bag I’d set on the ground, as if that explained things.
            “I thought I’d see if I could find a t-shirt or two,” I said. “I had my backpack stolen the other day and all my clothes with it.”
            “Man, that sucks,” he said, shaking his head. “Go ahead, take what you need. Most of it’s women’s and kids’ stuff, I think.”

            As I went through some of the clothes, I told him I had just gotten into town that afternoon. I was on a summer tour of the area, hitchhiking and walking, and I had sweated through the one t-shirt I had. I really could use a couple t-shirts and some socks if there were any in the bin.
            “You’re just traveling around, huh?” The smile was back. He was a good looking kid, even with the pimples on his face. On his chin was the start of a beard. He was quite thin and his shoulders looked bony in his t-shirt. His light blue eyes, along with the smile, gave him a kind look.
            “Yeah, I’ve never been through this part of the country,” I answered, giving him the brightest smile I could manage, though I didn’t feel bright and enthusiastic. It had been a long hot day and I felt sunburned and worn down. I’d been on my way to look for a place to rest for the night when I saw the store. I thought it would be nice to put on some clean clothes, if they were just sitting there for the taking. “I’ve been staying as close to the lake as I can. In fact, I figure I’m pretty close to it now.” Meaning Lake Erie.
            “The lake’s about four miles that way,” he said, pointing in the direction I was heading.
            I asked him if there were any parks near it, where I could camp for the night. He wasn’t sure if there was any place I could legally camp, but at this point, I wasn’t concerned with legalities.
            “I’m sure you’ll find someplace down there,” he said. “Once you get by all the businesses on this road. But it’s a long way.” He shook his head, not envying my position, and I guessed that I might have looked as hot and bothered as I felt. “You could catch a bus, if it was earlier. But they stopped running at six.”

I figured it was at least seven by now, seeing the sun just over the tree line in the west. Another hour of steady walking and I’d have gone most of the distance to the lake. I wasn’t having much luck with the clothes pile I searched and I thought I might have to hoist myself up on the side of the dumpster, in order to dig deeper. Yet before I did that, the young man told me to hold on.
            “What is it you need? Shirts, socks?” I nodded my head. “How ‘bout pants and a jacket? A sweatshirt?”
            I told him a pair of pants and a sweatshirt would be much appreciated.
            “Shoes? A blanket?”
            I smiled at him and shook my head.
            “I can only carry so much in this bag.”
            “I might be able to find you a bag. Just sit over here for a bit while I go look.”
            He pointed out an old wooden chair next to the back door of the store.
            “We got all kinds of stuff that just came in today,” he explained. “Most of it hasn’t even been looked at yet. I’ll fix you up.” Before he went inside, he asked if I would like a drink of water. “You look like you got burned pretty good in that sun.”

            I accepted the drink, too. With relief, I sat down and stretched my legs. They had browned up from my full summer days outside, but my face kept peeling and burning. I’d used up the last of my skin lotion about a week before and couldn’t afford anymore. I couldn’t afford anything at that moment, being dead broke. As I walked along that day, I’d stopped in at numerous businesses, looking for any kind of job for cash, but had been unsuccessful. At this point in the day, I’d given up on that. I felt too tired to do any kind of work.

            I was still a little angry with myself for having lost my pack and all my things two days earlier, when I had money and I got too drunk. I had blown all the cash and woken up with just the clothes on my back. Yet I figured the story of a theft would get me more sympathy than the truth.
            The kid came back out with the water and a candy bar.
            “I didn’t know if you were hungry, but …”
            As a matter of fact, I was, and the candy would have the sugar I needed for another hour’s walk. After he stepped back inside, I ate it in three bites and guzzled the water. I thought that it would be nice to reach the lake that night, but it wasn’t essential. I could sleep on some cardboard behind a business if I had to. I wished I still had my mosquito spray – I could have used it the night before - but that had gone with the pack.
            About ten minutes later, he stepped out the door again with a large brown paper bag full of clothes. There were t-shirts, pants, socks, a sweatshirt, even a blanket.
            “I tried to find a backpack, but all of those are up front. But I did get you a couple more garbage bags.”
            “You’re very kind,” I said.
            “Ah, they have so much stuff back there, they can’t put it all in the store.”
            I had noticed a big truck parked near the building and I asked him if that was for pick-ups.
            “Yeah, when someone wants to donate furniture or something like that,” he said.
            I quickly stuffed the brown bag into my bigger plastic one. I would go through the stuff later. It was actually too much to carry, but I wouldn’t let him see me making my selections. He had made me feel better with his generosity, and I needed a boost like this at the end of a trying day. It made me feel better about people in general.

            The young man asked me what my plans were for when the summer was over and I couldn’t tell him for certain. I shrugged and grinned.
            “Probably some place south for the winter. I’ve heard it can get pretty cold up here.”
            “Yeah, it gets cold. And we get some snow, too. You don’t want to be camping out, that’s for sure.” He laughed.
            “No, I gotta go where the weather suits my clothes.”
            “How is it getting rides?”
            “I’ve been pretty fortunate so far. I try to look as clean as I can.”
            “You look like someone from college.”
            “I hear that a lot. But it’s okay with me if it works.”
            “I’ve thought about doing something like that. I’m not sure which way I would go if I did.” He smiled again.
            “Just pick a direction,” I said, with a shrug. “See where the road takes you. That’s what I’m doing now. No set plan.”
            I figured he probably had to get back to work, and I asked him what time he got off.
            “Well, that’s not so bad.”
            “No, it’s a pretty easy job.”

            I thanked him again and said that I’d better head on my way before it got dark. I slung the Santa sack over my shoulder.
            “Hey, man, you broke?” he asked. “Here, it’s all I got, but you can get yourself a soda and a burger or something.” He had a few bills rolled in one hand, held out to me.
            I smiled at him and shrugged.
            “I sure could use it,” I said, accepting the gift.
            “Not a problem, man. You take care of yourself. Enjoy the lake.”

            I shook his hand and then was off, with some new energy in my step. A serious, intelligent young man, I thought. A kid with some heart. If he had the nerve to go with it, he might just do something like this one of these days. If he did, I hoped someone would take care of him, as he had just done for me.

© Mike Blake

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