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Eudora Welty
1909-2001

   

The Hitch-Hikers

by Eudora Welty



   
 

TOM HARRIS, a thirty-year old salesman traveling in office supplies, got out of Thurston a little after noon and saw people in Flat Top and Baxter, but went on toward Memphis. It was a base, and he was thinking he would like to do something that night.
    Toward evening, on a long straight stretch of road, he slowed down for some hitch-hikers. One of them stood still by the side of the pavement, with his foot stuck out like an old root, but the other was playing a yellow guitar which caught the late sun.
    Harris would get sleepy driving. On the road he did some things rather out of a dream. To him the recurring sight of hitch-hikers waiting against the sky gave him the flash of a sensation he had learned to experience when he was a child: standing still with nothing around him, feeling tall, and having the world come all at once into its round shape underfoot and rush and turn through space and make his stand very precarious, and lonely.
    He and the two hitch-hikers spoke to one another almost formally.
    Resuming his speed, Harris moved over a little in the seat. The man with the guitar wanted to ride with it between his legs. Harris reached over and turned on the radio.
    "Well, music," said the man with the guitar.
    "I forget about it," remarked Harris.
    "Well, we been there a whole day in that one spot," said the man with the guitar, beginning to grin. "Seen the sun go clear over. Course, part of the time we laid down and taken our ease."
    They rode without talking, while the sun went down in red clouds and the radio program changed a few times. Harris switched on his lights. Once the man with the guitar started to sing "The One Rose that's Left in My Heart," which came over the air played by the Aloha Boys. Then, rather shyly, he stopped in the middle of it, but made a streak on the radio dial with his blackly calloused fingertip.
    "I appreciate them big 'lectric gittars all right," he said.
    "Where are you going?"
    "Looks like north."
    "So it is," said Harris. "Smoke?"
    "Well, rarely," replied the man with the guitar.
    At the unexpected use of the word, Harris's cheek twitched, and he handed over his pack of cigarettes. All three lighted up. The silent man held his cigarette in front of him like a piece of money, between his thumb and forefinger, most of the time. Harris realized he wasn't smoking but was watching it burn.
    "My, gittin' night agin," said the man with the guitar, in a voice that could assume any surprise.
    "Anything to eat?" asked Harris.
    The man gave a pluck to a guitar string, and glanced at him.
    "Dewberries," said the other man. It was his only remark, and it was made in a slow, pondering voice.
    "Some nice little rabbit come skinnin' by," said the man with the guitar, nudging Harris with a slight punch in his side, "but it run off the way it come."
    The other man was so bogged in inarticulate anger that Harris could imagine him running after the rabbit. He smiled, but did not look around.
    "Now to look out for a place to sleep—is that it?" he remarked doggedly.
    A pluck of the strings again, and the man yawned.
    There was a town coming up, lighted over a little piece of bluff.
    "Clearwater?" Harris yawned too.
    "I bet you ain't got no idea where all I've slep'," the man said, turning around in his seat and speaking directly to Harris, with laughter in his face that in the light of a roadsign appeared strangely teasing.
    "I could eat a hamburger," said Harris, swinging out of the road under the sign in some automatic gesture of evasion, and turning to a girl in red pants who had leaped onto the runningboard.
    "Three and three beers?" she asked, smiling, with her head poked in the window. "Hi," she said to Harris.
    "How are you," said Harris. "That's right."
    "My," said the man with the guitar. "Red sailorboy pants." Harris listened for the guitar-note but it did not come. "But not purty," he said.
    The screen door of the joint whined and a man's voice called, "Come on in, boys, we got girls."
    "Tell them to come out here!" the man with the guitar shouted back in the same breath, and then went into deep silence, as if afraid he had gone too far.
    Harris cut off the radio and they listened to the nickelodeon which was playing inside the joint and turning the window blue, red and green in turn.
    "Hi," said the car-hop again as she came out with the tray. "Looks like rain."
    They ate the hamburgers rapidly, without talking. A girl came and looked out of the window, leaning on her hand. One couple was dancing inside. There was a waltz.
    "Same songs ever'where," said the man with the guitar, softly.
    Nearly every time the man spoke, Harris's cheek twitched. He was easily amused. Also, he recognized easily any sort of attempt to confide, and then its certain and hasty retreat. The more the man said, the further he was drawn into a willingness to listen. I'll hear him play his guitar yet, he thought. It had got to be a pattern in his days and nights, it was almost automatic, his listening, like the way his hand went to his pocket for money.
    "That'n's most the same as a ballat," said the man, licking mustard off his finger. "My ma, she was the one for ballats. Little in the waist as a dirt dauber but her voice carried. Had her a whole lot of tunes. Long ago dead an' gone. Pa'd come home drunk as a wheelbarrow and she'd go sit on the front step facin' the road an' sing ever'thing she knowed. Dead an' gone an' the house burned down." He gulped at his beer. His foot was patting.
    "This," said Harris, touching one of the keys on the guitar. "Couldn't you make some money with your guitar?"
    Of course it was by the guitar that he had known at once they were not mere hitch-hikers, they were tramps. They were full-blown, abandoned to this. Both of them were—but when he touched it he knew obscurely that it was the yellow guitar, that bold and gay burden in the tramp's arms, that had caused him to stop his car and pick them up.
    The man hit it flat with the palm of his hand.
    "This box? Just play it for myself."
    Harris laughed delightedly, but somehow he had a desire to tease him, to make him swear to his freedom.
    "You wouldn't stop and play somewhere like this? For a dance? With girls?"
    Now the fellow turned and spoke completely as if the other man were not there. "Well but now I got him.
    "Him?" Harris stared straight ahead.
    "He'd gripe. He don't like foolin' 'round. He wants to git on."
    The other tramp belched. Harris laid his hand on the horn.
    "'Bye," said the car-hop, opening a heart-shaped pocket over her heart and dropping the tip courteously within.
    "Aw river!" sang out the man with the guitar.
    As they pulled out into the highway again, the other man began to lift a beer bottle, and stared beseechingly at the man with the guitar, as if his mouth were full.
    "Drive back. Sobby forgot to give her back her bottle," said the man with the guitar. He laughed. "Drive back. We got to give her back her bottle."
    "Haven't got time," said Harris rather firmly, speeding down the road into Clearwater, thinking, I was about to take directions from him.
    "You looked like you thought he was goin' to hit you with it," said the man with the guitar softly.
    Harris stopped the car in front of the hotel on the main street.
    "Appreciated it," said the man, taking up his guitar.
    "Wait here."
    They sat back at once, both striped by a streetlight, both caved in, and giving out an odor of dust, both sighing with obedience.
    Harris took his hand off the car door and went up the walk and up the one step into the hotel.
    Mr. Gene, the proprietor, a white-haired man with little dark freckles all over his face and hands, looked up and shoved out his arm.
    "If you ain't back." He grinned. "Been about a month to the day; I was thinkin' of you."
    "Mr. Gene, I ought to go on, but I got two fellows out in the car. O. K., but they've just got nowhere to sleep tonight, and you know that little back porch."
    "Why, it's a beautiful night out!" bellowed Mr. Gene, and laughed silently.
    "They'd get fleas in your bed," said Harris, showing the back of his hand. "But you know that old porch. It's not so bad, I slept out there once, I forget how."
    The proprietor let his laugh out like a flood. Then he sobered abruptly.
    "Sure, O.K.," he said. "Wait a minute: Mike's sick. Come here, Mike, it's just old Harris passin' through."
    Mike was an ancient collie dog. He rose from a quilt near the door and moved over the square brown rug, stiffly, like a table walking, and shoved himself between the men, swinging his long head from Mr. Gene's hand to Harris's, and bearing down motionless with his jaw in Harris's palm.
    "You sick, Mike?" said Harris.
    "Dying of old age!" blurted the propietor, as if in anger.
    Harris began to stroke the dog, but the familiarity in his hands slowly changed to slowness and hesitancy. Mike looked up out of his eyes.
    "His spirit's gone. You see?" said Mr. Gene pleadingly.
    "Say," said a voice at the front door.
    "Come in, come in, and see poor old Mike," said Mr. Gene.
    "I knew that was your car, Mr. Harris," said the boy. He was nervously trying to tuck a Bing Crosby cretonne shirt into his pants like a real shirt. Then he looked up and said, "They was tryin' to take your car and down the street one of 'em like-to bust the other one's head wide op'm with a bottle. Looks like you would 'a' heard the commotion. Everybody's out there. I said, 'That's Mr. Tom Harris's car, look at the out-of-state license and look at all the stuff he all time carries around with him all bloody."
    "He's not dead though," said Harris, kneeling on the seat of his car.
    It was the man with the guitar. The little ceiling light had been turned on. With blood streaming from his broken head, he was slumped down upon the guitar, his legs bowed around it, his arms at either side, his whole body limp in the posture of a bareback rider. Harris was aware of the other face not a yard away; the man the guitar player had called Sobby was standing on the curb with two men unnecessarily holding him. He looked more like a bystander than any of the rest, except that he still held the beer bottle in his right hand. Finally somebody took it away from him.
    "Looks like if he was fixin' to hit him, he would of hit him with that gittar," said a voice. "That'd be a real good thing to hit somebody with. Whang!"
    "The way I figure this thing out is," said a penetrating voice, as if a woman were explaining it all to her husband, "the men was left to 'emselves. So—that'n yonder wanted to make off with the car—he's the one they pulled out the driver's seat—he's the bad one. So the good one says naw, that ain't right." (Or was it the other way round, Harris thought dreamily.) "So the other one says bam! bam! He let him have it. And so dumb, right where the movie was letting out."
    "Hi, Mr. Harris!" yelled somebody across the street. It was the bearded postmaster walking along, waving a letter.
    "Who's got my car keys!" shouted Harris. He had without realizing it kicked away the prop, the guitar, and he had stopped the blood with something.
    He knew where the two-room hospital in Clearwater was—he had been there another time. With the constable scuttling along after and then hanging onto the side of the car with his glasses held carefully in one hand, talking continuously to him through the window, dragging the man called Sobby along too, handcuffed to him and trotting along by the slowed-down car with its rain-speckled windshield, and with a long line of little boys in flowered shirts surrounding him on bicycles, riding in and out of the headlight beam, and with Mr. Gene still shouting in a sort of plea from the hotel step and Mike beginning to bark a little behind the other dogs, he drove around the bank corner and through a tree-dark street with his wet hand on the automobile horn.
    The old doctor came down the walk and joining them in the car slowly took the guitar player by the shoulders.
    "I 'spec' he' gonna die though," said a colored child's voice mournfully. "Wonder who goin' to git his box?"

    In a room on the second floor of the two-story hotel, Harris bathed and put on clean clothes while Mr. Gene lay on the bed with Mike across his stomach.
    "Ruined that Christmas tie you wear," the proprietor was talking in short breaths. "It took it out of Mike, I'm tellin' you." He sighed. "First time he's barked since Bud Milton shot up that Chinese." He bent his head up and took a long swallow of the hotel whiskey, and tears appeared in his warm brown eyes. "Suppose they'd done it on the porch."
    The phone rang.
    "Well, everybody knows you're here," said Mr. Gene.
    "Ruth?" he said into the phone.
    But it was for the proprietor.
    "That little runt of a feller, he don't know which end is up by now," he said when he had hung up. "The constable. Got a nigger already in the jail, so he's runnin' 'round for a place to put this fella of yours with the bottle, and damned if all he can think of ain't the hotel."
    "Hell, is he going to spend the night with me?"
    "Well, down the hall. The other fella may die. Only place with a bunch of keys but the bank, he says."
    "What time is it?" asked Harris all at once.
    "It ain't too late," said Mr. Gene. He opened the door for Mike and followed him slowly out. "I'll see you. I don't guess you're goin' to get away very shortly in the mornin'. I'm real sorry they did it in your car if they was goin' to do it," he added.
    "That's all right," said Harris.
    The light was out on the landing. He looked toward the old half-open stained-glass window.
    "Is that rain?"
    "It ain't sawdust," said the proprietor. "It's been rainin' since dark, but you don't ever know a thing like that, it's proverbial." At the desk he held up a brown package. "Here. I sent Babe down the road and got you some Memphis whiskey."
    "Thanks," said Harris. "You better have some now."
    "That? It'd kill me," said Mr. Gene.

    Up the street he phoned Ruth, a woman he knew in town, and found she was at home having a party.
    "Tom Harris, the very person!" she cried. "I was wondering what I'd do about Carol, this child!"
    "What's the matter with her?"
    "Oh,—such a child. And no date."
    Some other people wanted to say hello from the party. He listened a while and said he'd be out.
    After a moment he telephoned the hospital and found out nothing new about the guitar player.
    "Like I told you," the doctor said, "we don't have the facilities for giving transfusions, and he's been moved plenty enough without you taking him to Memphis."
    Walking over to the party, so as not to use his car, making the only sounds in the dark wet street, and only partly aware of the indeterminate shapes of houses set back with a light or two showing inside and the rain falling mist-like through the trees, he almost forgot what town he was in and which house he was bound for.
    Ruth, in a long dark dress, leaned against an open door, laughing. From inside he could hear at least two people playing a skating song on the piano.
    "He would come like this and get all wet!" she cried over her shoulder into the room. She was leaning back on her hands. "What happened to your little blue car? I hope you brought us a present."
    He went in with her and began shaking hands, and set the bottle wrapped in the paper sack on a table.
    "He never forgets!" cried Ruth.
    "Drinkin'-whiskey!" Everybody was noisy again.
    "My name's Carol," said a blonde.
    "He stayed away a long time this time," said a girl who was making the introductions.
    "So this is the famous 'he' that everybody talks about all the time," pouted a girl in a white dress, whom everybody was calling "Mrs. Petti-bone."
    I wish they'd call me "you" when I've got here, he thought tiredly.
    "My dear, he's a legend," said Ruth firmly, and led Harris off to the kitchen by the hand.
    "So much has happened, and so little," she said, and told him while he poured fresh drinks. He was fairly sure she had not heard about the assault in his car.
    "Has this party been going on since afternoon?" he asked.
    "Oh yes." Suddenly she said, "Where did you get that sunburn?"
    "Well, I had to go to the coast last week," he said.
    "What did you do?"
    "Same old thing," he said. He had started to tell her about something funny in Bay St. Louis, where an eloping couple had flagged him down in the residential section and threatened to break up if he would not carry them to the next town. Then he remembered how Ruth looked when he mentioned other places he had stopped on trips.
    The phone rang and rang, and he caught himself jumping, especially when nobody went to answer it.
    "I thought you'd quit drinking," she said, picking up the bottle.
    "Oh, I start and quit," he said, taking it back and pouring his drink.
    She came over and stood near him while he set the glasses on the tray. Was she at all curious about him? he wondered. For a moment, when they were simply close together, her lips parted and she stared off at nothing, her jealousy left her free, the rainy wind from off the back porch stirred her hair.
    As if under some illusion, he set down the tray and told her about the two hitch-hikers.
    Her eyes flashed. "What a stupid thing for them to do!" she said furiously, picking up the tray when he reached for it. "So messy!"
    It was as though he had made a previous engagement with them.
    Everybody was meeting them at the kitchen door.
    "So!" cried one of the men, Jackson. "He tries to put one over on us. Somebody just called up, Ruth, about the murder in Tom's car!"
    "Did he die?" cried Harris.
    "Sly devil," said the girl in the white dress, looking at him sideways, like part of the Beatrice Lillie imitation she had already given.
    "I knew all about it!" cried Ruth, her cheeks flaming. "He told me all about it. It practically ruined his car. Didn't it!"
    "Wouldn't he get into something crazy like that!"
    "It's because he's sweet," said the girl named Carol, speaking in a hollow voice from her highball glass.
    "Who phoned?" asked Harris.
    "Old Mrs. Daggett, that old lady about a million years old that's always calling up. She was there. This is the way she talks."
    Harris phoned the hospital and the guitar player was still the same.
    "This is so exciting, tell us all," said a fat boy in a polo shirt.
    "Oh, he wouldn't, he never talks. I'll tell you," said Ruth. "We can sit in the kitchen. Carol, you can cook eggs."
    So the incident became a story. Harris got very tired of it.
    "It's marvelous the way he always gets in with somebody and then something happens," said Ruth, her eyes confidently on him.
    "Oh he's so sweet," said Carol, and went out and sat on the stairs.
    "Of course he is," said Ruth. "Maybe you'll still be here tomorrow, then," she said to Harris, taking his arm. "Will you be detained, maybe?"
    "If he dies," said Harris.
    He told them all good-bye.
    "Aw river," said the girl in the white dress. "Isn't that what the little man said?"
    "Yes," said Harris, the rain falling on him, and refused to spend the night or to ride back to the hotel.

    In the antlered lobby, Mr. Gene bent over asleep under a lamp by the desk phone. His freckles seemed to come out darker when he was asleep.
    Harris woke him up. "Get to bed," he said. "What was the idea? Anything happened?"
    "I just wanted to tell you that little buzzard's up in 210. Locked and double-locked, handcuffed to the bed, but I wanted to tell you."
    "Oh. Much obliged."
    "All a gentleman could do," said Mr. Gene. He was drunk. "Warn you what's sleepin' under the roof with you."
    "Thanks," said Harris. "It's two o'clock. Look."
    "Poor Mike can't sleep," said Mr. Gene. "Because it hurts him to breathe. Did the other fella poop out?"
    "Still unconscious," said Harris. He took the bunch of keys which the proprietor was handing him.
    "Lock me in too," Mr. Gene explained. "I want you to lock up, and lock me in."
    In the next moment Harris saw his hand tremble, and he took hold of it.
    "A murderer!" whispered Mr. Gene. All his freckles stood out. "With not a word to say. You wonder I love old Mike?"
    "Not a murderer yet," said Harris, starting to grin.
    When he passed 210 and heard no sound, he remembered what old Sobby had said standing handcuffed in front of the hospital, with nobody listening to him. "I was jist tired of him always uppin' and makin' a noise about ever'thing."

    In his room, Harris lay down on the bed without undressing or turning out the light. He was too tired to sleep. Half blinded by the unshaded bulb he stared at the bare plaster walls and the equally white surface of the mirror above the empty dresser. Presently he got up and turned on the ceiling fan, to create some motion and sound in the room. It was a defective fan which clicked with each revolution, on and on. He lay perfectly still beneath it with his clothes on, unconsciously breathing in a rhythm related to the beat of the fan.
    He shut his eyes suddenly. When they were closed, in the red blackness he felt all patience leave him. It was like the beginning of desire. He remembered the girl dropping money into her heart-shaped pocket, and remembered a disturbing possessiveness, which meant nothing, Ruth leaning on her hands. He knew he would not be held by any of it. It was for relief, almost, that his thoughts turned to pity, to wonder about the two tramps, their conflict, the sudden brutality when his back was turned—how would it turn out? It was in this suspense that it was more acceptable to him to feel the helplessness of his life.
    He could forgive nothing in this evening. But it was too like other evenings, this town was too like other towns, for him to move out of this lying undressed on the bed, even into comfort or despair. Even the rain— there was often rain, there was often a party, and there had been other violence not of his doing—other fights, not quite so pointless, but fights in his car; fights, unheralded confessions, sudden love-making—none of any of this his, not his to keep, but belonging to the people of these towns he passed through, coming out of their rooted pasts, out of their remaining in one place, coming out of their time. He himself had no time. He was free: helpless. He wished he knew how the guitar player was, if he was still unconscious, if he felt pain.
    He sat up on the bed and then got up and walked to the window.
    "Tom!" said a voice outside in the dark.
    Automatically he answered and listened. It was a girl. He could not see her, but she must have been standing on the little plot of grass that ran around the side of the hotel. Wet feet, pneumonia, he thought. And he was so tired he thought of a girl from the wrong town. There was something indistinct she said, her voice lowered and breathless, as though she were hurrying toward the door, and he started down.
    He let her into the lobby, and she ran as far as the middle of the room as though from impetus. It was Carol, from the party.
    "You're wet," he said. He touched her.
    "Always raining." She looked up at him, stepping back. "How are you?"
    "O.K., fine," he said.
    "I didn't know very well," she said nervously. "I knew the light would be you. I hope I didn't wake up anybody."
    Was old Sobby asleep? he wondered.
    "Would you like a drink? Or do you want to go to the All-Nite and get a coffee," he said.
    "It's open," she said, making a gesture with her hand. "The All-Nite is open, I just passed it."
    They went out into the mist, and she put his coat on with silent protest, in the dark street not drunken but womanly.
    "You didn't remember me at the party," she said, and did not look up when he made his exclamation. "They say you never forget anybody, so I found out they were wrong about that anyway."
    "They're often wrong," he said. And then hurriedly, "When was it?"
    "I used to stay at the Manning Hotel on the coast every summer with my aunt, I wasn't grown. Just dances and all, but you had just started to travel then, it was on your trips, and you—you talked at intermission."
    He laughed shortly, but she added:
    "You talked about yourself."
    They walked past the tall wet church and their steps echoed.
    "Oh it wasn't so long ago—five years," she said. Under a magnolia tree she put out her hand and stopped him, looking up at him with her child's face. "But when I saw you again tonight I wanted to know how you are."
    He said nothing and she went on.
    "You used to play the piano."
    They passed under a streetlight and she glanced up as it to look for the little tic in his cheek.
    "Out on the big porch where they danced," she said, walking on.
    "Lanterns. ..."
    "I'd forgotten that, is one thing sure," he said. "Maybe you've got the wrong man."
    "You'd put your hands down on the keyboard like you'd say, 'Now this is how it really is!" she cried, and turned her head away. "I guess I was crazy about you though."
    "Crazy about me then?" He struck a match and held a cigarette between his teeth.
    "No—yes, and now too!" she cried sharply, as if driven to deny him.
    They came to the little depot where a restless switch-engine was hissing, and crossed the black street. The past and present joined like this, he thought, it never happens often to me, it probably won't happen again. He took her arm and led her through the dirty screen-door of the All-Nite.
    He ordered at the counter while she sat down by the wall-table and wiped her face all over with her handkerchief. He carried the coffees over to the table himself, smiling at her from a little distance. They sat under a calendar with some pictures of giant trees being cut down.
    They said little. A fly bothered her. When the coffee was all gone he put her into the taxi that always waited in front of the depot.
    Before he shut the taxi door, he said, frowning, "I appreciate it. ... You're sweet."
    Now she had torn her handkerchief. She held it up and began to cry. "What's sweet about me?" she asked him.
    "To come out, like this—in the rain—to be here—" he shut the door, partly from weariness.
    She was holding her breath. "I hope your friend doesn't die," she said. "I hope he gets well."
    But when he woke up the next morning and phoned the hospital, the guitar player was dead. He had been dead while Harris was sitting in the All-Nite.
    "It was a murderer," said Mr. Gene, pulling Mike's ears.

    The man called Sobby said he would confess. He began to turn his head about a little and almost smiled at all the men standing around him. After one look at him, Mr. Gene, who had come with Harris, went out and slammed the door behind him.
    Sobby had found little in the night, asleep or awake, to say about it. "Hell, yes, I done it," he said. "Didn't ever'body see me, or was they blind?"
    They asked him about the man he had killed.
    "Name Sanford," he said, standing still with his foot out, as if he were trying to recall something particular and minute. "But he didn't have nothing and he didn't have no folks. No more'n me. Him and me, we took up together two weeks back." He looked up at their faces, as if for support. "He was uppity though. He bragged. He carried around a guitar."

    Harris, fresh from the barbershop, was standing in the filling station where his car was being polished.
    A ring of little boys in bright shirt-tails surrounded him and the car, with some colored boys waiting behind them.
    "Could they git all the blood off the seat and the steerin'-wheel, Mr. Harris?"
    He nodded. They ran away.
    "Mr. Harris," said a little colored boy who stayed. "Does you want the box?"
    "The what?"
    He pointed, to where it lay in the back seat with the sample-cases
    "The po' kilt man's gittar."
    "No," said Harris, and handed it over.

 
           

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Last updated:
February 27, 2008
   
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