Where I draw the line with hitchhikers is when they’re shirtless and sweaty. I’m too much of a neat freak to deal with bodily fluids. But, short of that, I always pick them up.
The other night it was so cold that when I realized I had to go to the store, Roo refused to come along for the ride. She would have come if she wasn’t spooked by the high winds. So I hurried.
The only place open was the Walmart. At the entrance an old man with a cardboard sign that had VET written on it was panhandling the exiting cars. I’d never seen a panhandler here before. Most small towns don’t tolerate them. I bought him a couple of fleece blankets and a roasted chicken and stopped to give the bags and my last six bucks to him on the way out.
“Thanks,” he said. He looked in the bag. “Oh, one of those chickens.”
“You’re not planning on sleeping outside tonight are you?” I said.
“Oh, no, no,” he said. “There’s a place down there by the McDonald’s.”
“Man, that’s a hell of a walk from here. How about a ride?”
He loaded his bags in the back seat and climbed in. In the heated car he slid his black ball cap back on his head — it had Vietnam Veteran embroidered in gold on the front — and held a hand out to shake.
“Dan,” he said.
“Brian. You don’t sound like you’re from around here.”
“Oh, no. I’m just passing through. I’m going to Mena tomorrow.”
“Whatdya got going on down there?”
“Some friends of mine put the rodeo on there. I do the flag handling. I used to do some rodeo clowning, but now I just handle the flags.”
“Ouch. Rodeo clowning. Those guys take a beating, don’t they?
“Can take one. I never did, though.”
I asked him where he was from and he said Washington state.
“Long way from home,” I said.
“You too, by the sound of it.” Neither of us had the local accent. Dan’s and mine were nearly identical, unaccented northern ones.
“Yup. Me, too. I’m from New York originally.”
“Oh, New York. They’re tax crazy there. Personal income tax rate can clock in at nine percent.”
“Well,” I said. “I haven’t lived there in a long time.”
“Washington hasn’t got any income taxes, but they get you on the sales tax. Montana’s getting nearly as bad. Not as bad as California. Thirteen point eight percent there. What did they expect? Everybody’s getting out. They go to Washington. So now Washington’s planning some sort of way to hit them with a tax. I’ve just about had it.”
“Death and taxes,” I said. All I know about taxes is that one day the IRS is going to send a SWAT team to take care of mine, since I’m not at the billionaire level at which I can opt out of paying any. That and the fact that you can’t turn on the radio anywhere in the United States without listening to advertisements about tax companies waiting to negotiate a way out of your unpaid taxes with the IRS.
“Death and taxes,” he said. “I never understood that. Death isn’t cruel. But taxes are. Taxes are just a way for the state to torture the people.”
We drove in silence for a minute or so until we came to the Black Angus Motel. It was the sort of place that Roo and I had stayed in on many occasions, the kind of place with sagging mattresses, chipping paint and stained carpet all hiding behind one of those paper toilet seat wrappers that have Sanitized printed on them. It was the kind of place that first made me think about upgrading to a trailer. He got out and thanked me again for the chicken. He left the fleece blankets. He didn’t need them and they were too bulk for his bags. They were one a couple of bucks apiece and I left the receipt for them in the chicken bag, so I couldn’t return them. We shook again.
Roo was glad to see me. She didn’t get up, because I always made a point of not making a big deal out of greetings, out of a firm belief that all that does is encourage a dog to get separation anxiety, and, that being the one form of anxiety that didn’t come as original equipment on Roo, I never wanted to risk developing it. She smiled and thumped her tail on the floor a lot, though. And wanted to smell my hands. She always wants to smell my hands to see what I’ve scavenged in food stores. Knowing nothing about the machinations of a money economy. She is unconcerned with taxes. Death she understands, but in the way of dogs, a way that is different, and probably much wiser, than that of fearful humans. She figures I’m pretty good at finding food and she certainly wonders why she isn’t allowed to accompany on the foraging expeditions. You can see it in her expression every time she has to wait in the car. So, as soon as I return, she always smells my hands to see what I scored.
She smelled the chicken right away and gave me a serious look.
“Sorry, Bearface,” I said.
I took out the package of marrow bones that was the reason for the trip and showed it to her. And that was good enough for her.