T wo hitchhikers waited by the side of a country road. They’d walked a half-mile from the farm where they’d been staying since late summer, through all the fruit crops and into the cider pressing. But now the ground was bare, as were the trees in this stretch of woods. It was mid-December 1970, and a long mild autumn was coming to a dramatic end.
One of the hitchhikers, a young man in a dark coat and a pulldown hat, stationed himself at the side of the pavement. He warmed his bare hands with his breath, then stuck out his thumb as a car approached. It passed them without slowing.
“We’ll have better luck next time, Flo,” he said to the second hitchhiker—a woman, sitting on a battered suitcase, a carpetbag at her feet.
“Next one for sure, Rusty,” she agreed, and pulled a man’s suit jacket more tightly around her thin body. Dark glasses hid her eyes.
Rusty would have preferred to walk the two miles to the main road, but the suitcases were heavy and Flo needed to hold his arm.
As they waited, the temperature dropped a few more degrees. Clouds that had bulked up over a gray and choppy Lake Ontario released their moisture, falling first as rain, then mixing with snow. The large, wet flakes stung like a cold slap against Rusty’s face and the back of his neck. Flo curled herself inward, as if being pelted by rocks.
Seeing her like that, Rusty planted himself in the middle of the road to flag down the next car. He’d risk his neck if it meant getting Flo a ride as soon as possible.
A manic lake-effect flurry veiled him suddenly, and Rusty couldn’t help but grin at the swirling flakes. “Like one of them snow globes, Flo—you know what I mean?”
“I remember.” Flo rocked back and forth atop the suitcase, then stopped. “Car!”
The constant ringing in his ears blocked out much of the sounds around him, but Rusty never doubted Flo’s hearing. He started waving his arms over his head, even before the car came in sight.
Inside the oncoming car, the driver watched the wet snow pile up on the edges of the windshield until a frosted pillar rose like Lot’s wife at the margins of the glass. He should have replaced the wiper blades the last time he got the oil changed, but thought he could coax a little more life out of the old ones. Now he needed to pull over and scrape off the snow.
The driver contemplated where to find an even patch of ground along this road he drove six days a week to pick up the afternoon newspaper in town and a seventh one to take himself and his wife to church. He thought of a place up ahead where the shoulder widened and he wouldn’t lose his balance navigating around the hood to clear both sides.
Focused on that accumulating snow, he didn’t see the hitchhiker. He only heard a shout and slammed on the brakes with more force than he’d felt in his right leg in quite a while. The car fishtailed to a stop.
The passenger door flew open. “What the hell’s wrong with you, man? You almost killed me.”
Hearing that voice, the driver exhaled. He hadn’t hit anyone. “The windshield.” He pointed to the clogged glass. “I couldn’t see you.”
They got a look at each other then. The driver was an old man, about seventy, with short gray hair and a green-and-black plaid wool cap on the back of his head. The hitchhiker was in his twenties, thin and wiry. His face was round and ruddy, with blunt features. From under his pulldown cap a few strands of reddish hair escaped.
The driver’s mouth slacked open. “Gabe—” A name he hadn’t said it aloud in years caught in his throat, though the man associated with it was never far from his mind.
The hitchhiker stuck out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Gabe. I’m Clarence, but everybody calls me Rusty. How about giving us a ride?”
“My name’s John—John Lange. I thought you were—. Sure, get in.”
Rusty disappeared and came back with someone. John noticed the cloche hat that hid her face, the mismatched clothes—jacket too large and a long skirt too thin to keep out the wind. The dark glasses, though, made him wonder the most.
“This is Florence—Flo.” Rusty settled her on the back seat. “She’s blind.”
“Pleasure, ma’am,” John said.
“Thank you for the ride. Soon as I heard your car comin’, I knew you’d be the one to stop.” Flo’s voice was surprisingly husky for such a small woman. John wondered if she was older than she looked.
Rusty appeared at the driver’s window. “Pop the trunk, will ya? Got a couple of suitcases and they’re kinda wet.”
In the rearview mirror, John watched Flo feel around her surroundings. Her hands touched the pair of long metal canes with arm clamps resting against the back seat.
“Push ‘em out of the way,” John said.
“No need,” Flo replied. “Just wanted to know what was back here.”
The trunk slammed and a moment later Rusty was leaning over the hood, clearing the windshield with his bare hands and a swipe of his jacket sleeve. He did it the right way, John noticed, pulling up the wipers and running his fingers along the blades to melt the hunks of ice that had formed. Then the front passenger door opened and Rusty was inside.
“Look in that glove box.” John pointed to the lower dash by Rusty’s lap. “There’s a pair of work gloves in there.”
Rusty opened the compartment. His eyes swept once around the interior. “Nice car. Is it new?”
“It’s a ’68—two years old. But I don’t drive it much. When I got it, the salesman couldn’t believe it, on account of my canes. Told him FDR drove with hand controls, and I’d do the same if it came to that.”
“Last car I had was a ’62 Impala. Gave it to my buddy when I was drafted. He wrecked it.”
John looked over at Rusty. “You were in the Army?”
“Yup. Did my tour in ‘Nam.”
John fought the urge to stare at that face, as if five decades had peeled away and it was Gabe sitting next to him now. “I was in the Great War—France. Went over in ’15 and came home in ’18.”
“Long time ago,” Rusty said. “But war is war, I ‘spose.”
John nodded, then put the car in drive and eased it onto the pavement. “Where you two headed?”
“Florida,” Rusty told him. “Gotta get Flo someplace warm.”
As he rode up front next to John, Rusty recalled the last winter he’d spent in Ohio doing factory work, which he hated. Then he’d headed south, catching the first of the crop work in the late spring, and followed it north. In Maryland, he’d gotten a job with a carnival, setting up and tearing down the rides, fixing the ones that broke. It was hard work, but gave him a place to sleep every night and a couple of square meals a day.
He soon learned that town girls were trouble: the fast ones who thought they were something, and the rest that were only teases. He hadn’t paid attention at first to Flo who worked the ticket booth, her fingers flying down the long strips and making change from the shape and size of coins. When she got a bill, she’d ask the customer what it was. By the sound of the voice, Flo knew whether to double-check with her co-worker if she really held a sawbuck or only a fin.
Once he got to know Flo, it didn’t matter to him that she was older—34 to his 25. And he didn’t care that she was blind. What impressed him was how much she noticed: a shift in the wind and the scent it carried; how far off a sound was and coming from what direction. She noticed things about him, too—like how he was almost always where he was supposed to be. Dependable. Like clockwork. First time in his life somebody said something nice about him without a punchline to follow.
Being a carney was a little like being a soldier.
He’d become disciplined in the Army, and might have stayed in, except the ringing in his ears got so bad—too much artillery fire, they said. Being a carney was a little like being a soldier, as least for him. Boss told them when to move out, when to set up. He liked that about the work; the routine made sure he was where he was supposed to be, instead of on his own and getting into trouble.
Then one day, he noticed Flo’s hair was dull and her wrists whittled to sticks. A doctor in Syracuse said she was severely anemic. They left the carnival in the next town, and he found work on a fruit orchard. They stayed in a caretaker’s shack on that farm so Flo could rest in the sun and get her strength back. Come October, they should have left, but the days were still warm. In November, he got the idea that he could insulate the walls with newspaper and put up some plywood on the inside, but the wind still found the cracks. When the farmer told them he didn’t want to be responsible if the two of them froze to death or asphyxiated from a kerosene heater, they’d packed and left the next day.
John was saying something about the town where he’d lived most of his life, but only when Flo responded did Rusty tune back in to their conversation.
The clock on the dashboard read nearly four-thirty. Cars had their lights on, and Christmas decorations illuminated the houses. “Lotsa colored lights here, Flo,” Rusty said. “One house all wrapped up in ‘em—red, green, yellow, blue.”
For John’s sake, Rusty explained that Flo had lost her sight at sixteen from a high fever. “She still got the pictures in her head, though, so I can tell her what things look like.”
“That’s good,” John said. “And good of you to make sure she doesn’t miss it.”
“Not, Flo.” Rusty turned toward her and extended his hand. “She don’t miss a trick.”
Flo reached for him simultaneously, which made Rusty wonder if she’d heard his sleeve against the upholstery or just sensed it. He’d never stop marveling at her.
“Say, you folks hungry?” John slowed down and signaled for a turn.
“Always,” Rusty grinned.
John pulled the Pontiac into a parking space in front of the diner and shut off the engine. He tucked the keys in his jacket pocket and opened the door. “You get Flo inside. I’ll be along presently.”
“Quick as two jackrabbits,” Rusty said.
John sank back against the seat. Gabe had a dozen such sayings. This man could be his son, except, of course, that wasn’t possible.
The cold made John’s legs duller and deader than usual, and the short walk took forever. Finally, he reached the door. Rusty bounded over from a table in the corner and helped him inside.
John insisted Rusty and Flo order something more substantial. He sipped coffee and listened to their tales of the being on the road with the carnival. Rusty was a born storyteller, and probably stretched the truth a little, now and again.
These two kept changing, right before his eyes.
Out of the oversized jacket and minus the hat, Flo looked younger, especially when she smiled. But now Rusty seemed older, a man who’d seen much on the road and in the war. These two kept changing, right before his eyes. John raised his cup and took a steadying sip.
When the waitress refilled Rusty’s cup, he reached in his jacket and pulled out a small bottle. “Don’t get ideas about this,” he said to John. “I got a problem with my ears—ring like a damn alarm clock in there. This helps a little.”
“No judgment here,” John said, and didn’t refuse when Rusty added a shot to his coffee.
When their plates were empty and John had drained his mug a second time, he leaned across the table and grabbed Rusty by the sleeve. “I got to tell you. You look like somebody I used to know—somebody from the war.”
“Ain’t that the way with most soldiers. We always look like one another.”
“No, it’s different. You look like Gabe.” Suddenly, John felt very old and tired, as if he could curl up and give in to everything that had happened, the circumstances that had saved his life and those that had taken his ability to walk on his own.
A hand reached across the table, small and smooth—almost childlike. He felt the pressure of Flo’s fingers. “Tell us,” she said.
“Met him in France,” John began. “Both of us scared to death and homesick as hell. Country boys—just 18. His name was Gabriel McLevy. We called him Gabe.”
The Great War was a brutal crawl from one trench to another. They feared mustard gas or getting a bayonet to the gut, or contracting trench foot from the mud and damp and then gangrene setting in. When anxiety made their hearts into overwound clocks, ready to spring out of their chests, Gabe would start talking about his mother’s cooking. “Dumplings as big as a horse’s hoof. You’d think they’d be dense, but no, sir—light as a feather. And chicken gravy as gold as a buttercup. My ma could cook your boot and make you think it’s a Delmonico steak.”
They talked until their stomachs growled and somebody told them to shut up. But by then the worst of the fears had passed. When the sergeant ordered them up and out of the trench, Gabe would reach for one of his pa’s favorite sayings—Fast as lightning. Quick as a wink. Two shakes of a lamb’s tail. On Flanders Field, in the First Battle of Ypres, rushing toward some pitted stretch of no man’s land, Gabe’s words pulsed in John’s brain, and his feet obeyed. Make like a bunny and hop! Every time, he reached the safety of the next trench.
Then once, as they charged ahead, John hadn’t seen the barbed wire that ensnared his feet and landed him face-first on the ground. He’d crawled away, trailing blood from both ankles, until someone grabbed him by the collar and dragged him into the next trench. Only then did he think to ask about Gabe. For fifty-six years, he pictured those blue eyes trained toward the sky and the red hair parted neatly by a bullet.
“Always had the feeling I’d stolen Gabe’s life. Every good thing I got—a wife, three daughters, a solid house, even my Pontiac—was really Gabe’s. When I got rheumatoid arthritis and my legs went, I thought God was punishing me.” John wiped the dampness from his eyes and cheeks.
“Oh, John,” Flo said softly. “That’s a heavy burden.”
“No, man—you got it wrong.” Rusty’s leg started pumping up and down as he spoke quickly. “Gabe was protecting you the whole time. That was his job, man. He kept you alive with all them things he said. And when you didn’t need him anymore to take care of you, he didn’t need to be there no more.”
“If I hadn’t fallen, Gabe would be alive!” John voice rose and three people in the diner turned toward them.
“You ever think that maybe you both would’ve died?” Rusty cocked his head at him. “I seen it in ‘Nam. You can’t stop fate. Gabe wasn’t going home from France, but you were. His job was to keep you alive to do what you needed to do—get married, have your daughters, work at your job. Hell, maybe even to give me and Flo a ride today!”
John rubbed his hand over his mouth a few times, gnawing on those words. “I don’t know. Seems kinda selfish to think that way.”
Flo’s hand reached for his again. “If I hadn’t lost my sight, I wouldn’t have met Rusty who loves me more than I could ever imagine. If I weren’t blind, I might have ended up with someone else.”
“And if I didn’t have this damn ringing in my head, I’d have stayed in ‘Nam and missed Flo,” Rusty added. “It don’t make no sense, but you got to accept what happens. Maybe it’s all some plan.”
John looked up into the face that had at first had resembled Gabriel McLevy’s, but not seemed markedly different. Maybe he was finally seeing things clearly. “Yeah, maybe you’re right.”
Planting two hands on the table, John got himself up, adjusted his canes, and walked slowly to the restroom. On the way back, he stopped at the payphone to call his wife, Clara, who scolded him soundly for making her worry that he was in a ditch someplace. When he returned to the table, he found Rusty and Flo right where he’d left them, along with his jacket and the car keys.
“Talked to my wife,” he said. “Why don’t you folks come to our house for the night? In the morning, I’ll drive you to the bus station in Syracuse, get you a couple of tickets to Florida.”
Rusty leaped to his feet and pumped John’s hand. Flo stood and kissed his cheek.
“It’s what I got to do, right? Can’t waste this life I’ve been given.” John accepted help getting his jacket back on, but walked to the car on his own with the canes.
Rusty tipped his head back to study the evening sky. “The clouds’re clearing, Flo, and the stars are coming out—like sparkles on dark blue velvet. It’s like ‘Silent Night.’”
“All is calm, all is bright,” Flo quoted.
Seeing Flo’s smile, John knew she could imagine it. And, when he glanced up a second time, so could he.
Videography by Pat Commins