I pick up a boy hitchhiking. Or more to the point, he picks up me, approaching my truck as I idle at the blinking yellow light that brings a semblance of order to the main intersection of the small town we frequent. “I need a ride to East Hardwick,” he says, and because I am going right through East Hardwick, and because even if I weren’t I’d probably give him a ride anyway, just to better understand the nature of a boy who approaches a man in a truck to ask for a ride.
He climbs into the cab and settles in. We wait our turn at the blinking light, then accelerate through the intersection. He tells me he’s 19, though surely it can’t be true; he looks younger than my 14-year-old son. He tells me he spent the night outside, and this I believe, because he smells badly, and his bare arms are covered in dirt. He asks if I have a couple dollars, and although of course I do, I reflexively tell him I do not; there is something in the request that feels inauthentic to me, though in hindsight I’m pressed to say why. He tells me his name is Kenneth, and ask for money again. He complements my 15-year-old truck, asks what kind of motor is has, says it’s smooth. He calls me “sir” and between requests for money, thanks me for the ride. I drop him in the parking lot of the mechanic I’m visiting to pay for recent repairs to our car, and he stands in the open door of the truck, not backing away, asking for money yet again. But I don’t give him any. Maybe I should, but I don’t.
I pay my bill, and drive home, detouring past the long-neglected private campground that is reemerging under new ownership as an adults-only, clothing optional venue. This is big news in our little town of 200 (give or take a few), and predictably, the venture has become the butt (see what I did there?) of innumerable jokes. I drive slowly, and look carefully, but there’s no one around, naked or otherwise. I don’t think they’re open yet, anyway, and even if they were, it’s still black fly season. You’d have to be plumb crazy to let it all hang out right now.
I wish I’d given Kenneth some money, even though I’m still not convinced he really needed it. But I can feel it in my pocket, even now, that small wad of crumpled bills. It feels heavier than I know it is.