I’ll Never Lose Affection
by Charles C. Cole
I left home before dawn for a day-long seminar in Boston, over two hours away. The air was brisk, with wet weather on the way. I had a full tank and a thermos of coffee. My wife had recently purchased the Easypass, so I didn’t have to pause for tolls; an electronic mechanism deducted money automatically from my account when I approached the gates. There was no reason to stop.
I was no fan of conference mixers: cold, windowless rooms crowded with handsy strangers and few practical tools to bring efficiency to the office. I’m a bit of a homebody. The best part of a day like that was the long quiet, meditational drive.
A young man in his early twenties, wearing a dark suit and looking like a sad, thin junior executive, was hitchhiking at the on-ramp. He reminded me of a younger me, and I pulled over.
“Car trouble?” I asked.
“More like an addiction: I like meeting new people. I almost don’t have a choice.”
“Wanna take my place at a conference in Boston? Nobody’ll know the difference.”
“Maybe.” He smiled.
Soon we were on the highway, going 70. Traffic was light. And it was 12 miles to the nearest exit. Rain started.
“My hero!” he gushed.
“The world’s full of bleeding hearts; someone would have picked you up.”
“Even if I talked their ear off? I do that. It’s a compulsion.”
“Where you headed?” I asked, trying to focus on the nuts-and-bolts.
“Same as you: Heaven.”
“Boston,” he said with a chuckle, meaning it might be a long, uncomfortable ride. “I’m Luther.”
“I think I’ve been waiting for you. I turned down a ride before you showed up. Told the driver my other half was peeing in the woods.”
I slowed down instinctively, afraid we’d left someone behind.
“Don’t worry, I’m alone.”
“Wasn’t easy. Gave me an ice-cream headache. I think I’m allergic.”
“To lying? Why me, dare I ask?”
“When you have a profound message to share from an invisible party, it helps to have a captive audience. Otherwise, people might, you know, run off.”
“Has that happened?”
“Plenty, but I keep plugging away. I have to, for peace of mind, you might say.”
“You’re persistent,” I said. “Good for you. What’s the suit for?”
“Drivers love people in suits! We’re irresistible!” He was very proud of his ruse, and he wasn’t wrong.
“What takes you to Boston?” I asked.
“Nothing much.” He squeezed the bridge of his nose as if suffering from sinus pressure. “You.”
I didn’t know how to respond and let silence speak for me.
“Why’d you pick me up?” He tapped my thermos in the console between us, like petting a protective lap-puppy. “You were all set for some road-warrior alone time.”
“I wanted to help,” I explained. “It costs me nothing. You looked pretty non-threatening.” I glanced over.
“Ditto.” He was looking out his side-window, pretending to give me personal space, but again a little sad-looking.
“My late mother wouldn’t want me to be rude, while my father’d probably lecture me for picking up a stranger. What do you want to talk about? Fire away, so long as it’s not a sales pitch or conversion offer. You caught me in a decent mood. Nothing can freak me out.”
“I talk to the dead.”
Many years before: my wife’s grandfather shared a story where his tractor had pinned him to the inside of the barn door for several hours. He’d cursed and cried. As he was about to give up on life, a former high school pal, Ash Sumner, showed up and turned the motor off, releasing the pressure. “You’re smarter than this, Toothsome,” he’d said.
When his two adult sons found Grampa, he had passed out. They said he’d lived only because the tractor ran dry. Ash had been dead for decades by then, shot in a hunting accident. “But he’d been right there. Close enough to smell his Beemans chewing gum,” Grampa said.
“I talk to dead animals; pets, specifically,” explained Luther. “I guess they’re underrepresented by today’s glitzy mediums. They follow me like rats to the Pied Piper.”
“Here goes.” He coughed for emphasis. “Ever have a Skye terrier named Lulu? You used to pick wild blueberries together way up on some mountain near Acadia.”
“Yes, we did. A long time ago. I wasn’t much more than a toddler.”
“Seems like yesterday to her. She wondered if you still remembered. She’s glad you do.”
“I do. She was a good girl, a boy’s best friend. Anybody else want to jump in?”
“There was a gray rabbit with purple eyes. You never named him. One time he jumped out of the cage and he just froze. That’s what you thought, anyway. He was just teasing. Later you gave him away to the neighbors across the street who had a female bunny. You thought you were a quitter.”
“He says things worked out okay.”
“Why do they talk to you?”
“They just want to be remembered. They want to matter.”
“They mattered. They gave me love and even taught me responsibility. They were both pretty cool in their own ways.”
With an urge to relieve myself, I pulled over at a rest area. “It’s not you,” I said. “I had coffee before I left. I won’t be long. You can wait in the car. I’ll get you a coffee. What do you like?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “Messages delivered. I’ll come stretch my legs.”
I found Luther in Burger King, talking with an enthralled white-haired couple. He mouthed the words “toy poodles” and waved me off. Apparently, he’d found his next audience.
The rest of the drive was more typical: me against the world. I fought the quiet, turning on the radio. I felt I had wet-nosed company. In fact, I was certain when Lulu’s “theme song” came on: “You’re My Best Friend,” by Queen. Thanks, girl.
Copyright © 2019 by Charles C. Cole