PROGRESSIVE JACKPOT — A SHORT STORY SET IN EDMONTON

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Author: Shane Lambert

Each member of “The Sunday Afternoon Beer League” served a purpose in society, however, not one of them paid their taxes as a professional bowler. The league average scraped 110 pins per game, the code of conduct for the 5-pin league was not to get too competitive with one another, and, accordingly, it wasn’t unusual to see a league member attempt a between-the-legs-and-backwards ‘trick shot’ of sorts in an official game.

The league had forty-five members, they were of the blue-collar or unprofessional sorts, and they came together almost every Sunday at 1 pm between the start of September and the end of March. The bowling was frivolous, the times were good, the scores mattered little, and the beer almost always went down fast.

Barb Henderson was voted treasurer of the league in 1984. She had held the voluntary position for each of the last four seasons entering the 1988/89 season. It certainly didn’t hurt her ability to keep track of money that, unlike almost all of the Beer League members, she didn’t actually drink. However, her main ‘credential’ in the minds of the bowlers was that her husband Harold was the best one in the league.

Harold’s average score for the 87/88 season had been 202 pins per game. That was a score that would have made him only slightly above average in almost all of the other leagues at the bowling alley. But with “The Sunday Afternoon Beer League,” an average pin count that high far and away made Harold the most reliable shot. It was this marriage, the one between the league’s treasurer and the league’s best player, that created a conflict of interest ahead of the 88/89 season. It was one that none of the drunks in the league would ever perceive in a million years.

Barb was in charge of the league’s weekly raffle, both designing it and taking responsibility for the funds. In the weeks that lead up to the start of the 1988/89 season she decided, in no way arbitrarily, that she would institute a progressive jackpot for the weekly raffle. Unlike most raffles and unlike the ones the league ran in the past, the 1988/89 season would have an element of skill to it that was additional to the luck-of-the-draw component.

With Harold’s relatively good bowling skills in mind, Barb decided ahead of the start of the 88/89 season that, henceforth, whoever won the raffle draw would have to bowl a strike to take the prize money home. If a strike was not bowled, then the prize pool would be forwarded to the next week.

Barb didn’t do any math when she put her self-serving plan forward. She just instinctively understood that the fact that her husband was the best bowler in the league made him the person most likely to win the jackpot. Anyone could have their number pulled but Harold was the one most likely to roll a strike if given the opportunity. The progressive component was designed to keep money in play from missed-strike attempts in hopes that Harold would get a shot down the road.

The plan was hardly foolproof. But Harold had won the weekly draw three times in the last four seasons. He bought a lot of tickets and the league was small. In Barb’s mind, the other bowlers would miss their strike attempts and it would just be a matter of time before Harold would win again and, at that grand time, she imagined a huge jackpot.

“25%,” Barb announced when she was asked what the size of the increase for the price of tickets would be. “Up to $1.25 each.”

Twenty-five cents of the proceeds would go to the season-ending party in March of 1989 and one dollar would go into the jackpot. After Barb introduced the details of the raffle over the bowling alley’s intercom in Week 1, she certainly didn’t foresee the jackpot going unclaimed for the first 22 straight weeks of the 25-week season. Nor did she have the foggiest idea as to the implications.

In Week 1, bowling a strike was only worth $50.

A guy named Brad, a convenience-store clerk who smoked pot on lunch breaks, hit the head pin but it went straight backwards. He shrugged it off and then Barb reminded everyone that the $50 would be carried forward to the next week.

In Week 2, the jackpot was worth $110.

Nick, a dishwasher at a restaurant in West Edmonton Mall, likewise missed. He wasn’t a good shot at the best of times and certainly not after five bottles of Molson Canadian. He hit the gutter not 20 feet down the 62-foot lane. His miss caused him minor annoyance but he was too drunk to remain focused on much of anything.

In Week 3, the jackpot was worth $205 and therein laid a clue as to how it would come to be that no one would bowl a strike until Week 22 of the season. More money meant more pressure and Beer League bowlers weren’t good at bowling on any day — but especially not when something was on the line.

The prize pool had gone from $50 to $110 to $205. There was clearly an exponential factor to the bowling-league’s progressive jackpot. It went +$50, then +$60, then +$95. It seemed that the higher it went, the more tickets that the patrons would buy.

A $50 or $110 jackpot was one that a store clerk or dishwasher wouldn’t lament too long about missing. However, a $205 jackpot was significant. At that time in Edmonton, Alberta the minimum wage was $4.50 an hour. $205 for people that made minimum wage or just a little bit better was an amount that made them pause and think.

“If I get this strike, I’m taking a week off of work,” a woman named Janelle said to herself after her ticket got pulled in Week 3.

Almost all of the other Beer Leaguers had their own minor-league fantasies about what they would do if they won the money. One lady wanted to be a bar star for a weekend at a local country club. Another guy wanted to place a bet on the Edmonton Oilers winning the Stanley Cup. Another simply would have bought a new RCA television.

For Janelle’s part, $205 wasn’t quite enough money to make her nervous. That kind of injection of revenue would change the complexion of her week, not her life and not really even her month.

She calmed her nerves, prayed for a strike with her eyes closed, opened them, and then focused on the headpin with her ball in palm. She took two steps forward according to proper bowling mechanics, reared back, and then looked to the side quickly.

She made the latter action because a guy named Clifford, the league asshole, yelled “JINX!!!” in her peripheral vision. It was the first incident of bad sportsmanship that the league had seen in years.

Janelle tried to stop her forward motion but as she did so she lost her grip on the ball. The ball went down at a 45-degree angle into the bowling lane and then bounced its way to the gutter from there. Some people chuckled as Clifford triumphantly raised his hands in the air. In short order, Janelle protested.

“It’s part of the game,” a scorekeeper named Beverly said.

Then Barb, who wanted her husband to win, aired her voice into the intercom.

“Alright folks,” she said as she dismissed Janelle’s request for a do-over with a flick of the hand, “I’m sure next week the jackpot will be up to $250! Wow!”

Barb had dropped out of Eastglen High School fourteen years earlier. She was remedial at math even before she did that and, consequently, she didn’t actually know what “exponential” meant nor did she have a loose idea.

Colin, the 35-year old who owned the bowling alley, did know what the word meant. He had two university degrees and that total equated the total number of degrees that the 45 Beer League bowlers had combined.

“No,” Colin said to Barb when she put the microphone down, “I bet it’s more like $425 next week.”

His prediction wasn’t all that far off. The raffle/strike-contest in the first Sunday in October, which was Week 4 of the league, had a prize pool of $417. If you graphed the prize-pool amounts from week to week and projected the graph, then you might have foreseen a huge jackpot coming in the future. However, after Week 4, the exponential rate of the prize pool’s growth tapered off. Waiters, cleaners, and such simply didn’t have very deep pockets.

As drunk bowlers missed their strike attempts the prize pool’s growth stayed steady for a short time. Then, when the prize money eclipsed a thousand dollars, some of the bowlers cut back on beer consumption in order to buy more tickets. That amount of money also generated a consistent buzz while Colin noted a decline in beer sales.

“There’s too much magnitude,” a 19-year old CN railyard worker thought to himself before he bowled a gutterball in Week 8.

By “magnitude,” he meant “pressure.”

“Way too much fucking magnitude,” he thought after he went home. “$1294 to bowl a strike? Who could keep steady with everyone watching?”

The Week 9 bowler likewise choked amidst a not-so-friendly reminder from Clifford about what was on the line.

Concentrate buddy! Just concentrate! Think about your footwork! One little strike and fifteen-hundred smackeroos are all yours!”

Barb’s husband got his chance in Week 10 when the prize pool was up to $1772. She used the clout that came with holding the microphone to silence everyone, especially “Asshole Cliff.” After Harold hit the left three-pin and two-pin a noticeably shaken Barb said that the prize pool would be “up to $2000 next week in all likelihood,” an announcement that evoked some cat-call-like whistles from more than one patron.

Colin, who spent his life looking at the trends within the bowling alley, noticed more than just declining beer sales. He saw that the average bowling score for the Sunday Afternoon Beer League actually went up substantially in Week 10.

“Drink less, bowl better,” he lamented.

The lament was due to the fact that a game of bowling cost the same amount regardless of the score that was achieved. However, people drinking less beer to buy more raffle tickets had affected his profit margins.

“Someone better win that prize soon,” he thought to himself, yet it would still be a long time.

In Weeks 11 to 17, there was more than just money on the line. $2000 to $3500 of extra money at that time of year meant Merry Christmas. Parents that strove to be shift supervisors at hotels and restaurants for $8 per hour never really impressed their kids that much. But they knew that if they won that money, then there would have been enough Christmas-time magic to go around for once.

This dream of ‘love’ was enough to cause one patron named Ron to try and cheat. He worked his Saturday shift at a south-side warehouse in mid-December. Afterward, he went to a party and novelty store at Kingsway Mall. There, he bought six of the same kind of raffle-ticket rolls that the bowling league used. In his own head, he viewed the purchase as one that might be perceived as odd, a purchase that would have to be explained.

“What should I tell the clerk?” Ron needlessly asked himself as he drove to the store.

This was a problem that he totally concocted. Cashier clerks didn’t normally question the motives of their customers.

“Yeah,” Ron said as he went to pay, “I’m holding a raffle at my kid’s birthday party tonight.”

“You got six kids?” the party-store clerk asked, referencing the number of ticket rolls Ron bought.

“Uh, yeah…I mean no,” Ron fumbled. “I’m planning on holding the same raffle every year until he’s 11 though.”

“‘k,” the clerk said with a quizzical look on his face.

On Sunday, Ron bought a dozen tickets for the draw and received a dozen consecutive ticket numbers. Then he forfeited a frame of bowling to go out to his car. When he came back he had the matching numbers from just one of the rolls of raffle tickets that he’d bought.

During the intermission between games, he showed Colin’s clerk behind the reception desk that his tickets, the phony ones, had not been torn in two. She retrieved the bucket that the tickets were pulled out of, ripped his fake tickets in half, and then put one half in the bucket — thereby doubling his chances of winning.

“Lemme give it a shake,” he said as he palmed the sixty other ripped-in-half tickets tightly in a closed fist.

Releasing them inside the bucket, that gave him a total of 84 entrants with almost all of them sitting at the top of the pile. Minutes before the draw, he warned Clifford to keep his “damn mouth shut” during the strike attempt, something Clifford did as he perplexed himself as to how Ron seemed to know he would win the raffle.

“FUCK!!” Ron yelled and he stormed home early, forfeiting seven frames in the third and final game of the day.

The league took a break for Christmas and New Year’s. Then, in January, everyone that proved love by buying people stuff had credit cards to pay off. That included Barb and Harold. For the month of January, she dealt with this by skimming $25 off of each week’s draw as the beer-league bowlers continued to miss under the increasing pressure. During this time, beer sales for the league remained very low.

Accordingly, a precedent for the league was set when a good-for-nothing guy that still lived at home at the age of 32 bowled a whopping 394. That put him on the bowling lane’s “High Scores Board,” the only time “The Sunday Afternoon Beer League” had ever been represented there since Colin bought the place back in 1981.

The effects of that would actually be far reaching for the man. Bowling a score of 394 wasn’t a small deal. If it could be maintained, then it was an average that would easily put you in the ranks of the professionals. As a one-off score, it was still enough to draw some positive attention his way.

“Congratulations!” Barb said to him over the intercom during a small round of respectful applause.

He then walked with his head a little higher and his shoulders a little squarer. That, in turn, caught the attention of an admirer and things went from there.

In Week 19, clever Colin figured out that Barb was skimming money off of the top of the raffle money. As a small-business owner, he knew a thing or two about accounting. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that when a dollar-per-ticket went into the prize pool the value of the prize pool’s increment should match the number of tickets sold. The latter could be ascertained simply by subtracting the end-of-draw ticket number from the start-of-draw ticket number. This was something that Colin kept track of.

However, he also kept track of profits for the bowling alley. By his calculation, blowing a whistle on a well-respected member of a profitable league wasn’t a good business strategy. He decided that bowling alley owners weren’t detectives: they sold beer and they sold bowling games. With this, he threw out his moral compass and kept his mouth shut.

When Week 20 came around, “Asshole Cliff” won the draw and missed the strike. Janelle had prayed heavy-hard for that along with five other people that likewise thought that he was an asshole. The cheering when he missed was so loud with these Edmontonians that you would have thought that the Los Angeles Kings had just traded Wayne Gretzky to the Edmonton Oilers — instead of the other way around.

Clifford no-showed the league in Week 21 as the jackpot climbed. Colin, ever mindful of absenteeism, did a courtesy call and found out that he had lost a customer. That meant that one team had a vacancy and that allowed for a fated new member.

She didn’t look like much but she didn’t drink on Sundays after church. She also understood, in her terms, that the laws of physics were the same regardless of the pressure you imagined in your head. The route that a bowling ball was destined for after release wouldn’t deviate from its course just because there was a ton of money on the line. This, she told herself and it somehow calmed her nerves and gave her a precious moment of clarity that allowed her to do what she needed to do.

People protested when “a non-league member” won in Week 22. They suggested to Barb that her strike ball wouldn’t “be legal in court” because the new member wasn’t with the league at the start of the season.

Barb would have expressed agreement with them. In her secret thoughts, she did not agree with them but she would have feigned agreement so as to keep the prize fund available for her husband to have another shot. Also, you couldn’t really skim much off of a $50 pool but with a huge one it was a lot easier to take a little.

During the protests that ensued after the strike ball, Colin robbed Barb of the microphone. Moral compass or not, he took charge of dealing with the problem at hand — the declining beer sales.

“While she wasn’t with the league in Week 1, she’s with the league now,” he said. “You sold her a ticket. You would have kept the proceeds if she lost. In my mind, that means she gets the jackpot for winning.”

That’s how it went down. Beer sales immediately recovered.

Winning didn’t make the 21-year old woman too popular. She felt some tense glares for the balance of the Week 22 Sunday afternoon. To deal with this, she happily bought some $200 worth of beer for the other patrons in hopes that their intimidating anger wouldn’t burn so bright.

They did react that way but that one week in February would still mark her only appearance at the bowling alley. When she got home, she decided that the people there were a bunch of assholes that had tried to screw her out of $5700. Taking their money, taking a month off from stocking shelves at Sears, and taking a flight to Vegas where it wasn’t -40 everyday in February felt a lot smarter than going back to the league.

The truth was that after Clifford was gone the beer-leaguers weren’t such assholes anymore. In fact, the jackpot incremented one more time when they all finally got back to what they’d originally signed up for. In Week 23, the bowling was frivolous, the times were good, the scores mattered little, and the beer went down fast. It seemed a lot more precious than it had before.

All rights reserved. Shane K. Lambert.

The preceding was a work of fiction. Any resemblance to anyone living or deceased is a coincidence.

ON BEING INDISTINGUISHABLE — A SHORT STORY SET IN THE CANADIAN ROCKIES

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The following short story contains an afterword. All rights reserved by Shane Lambert.

Author: Shane Lambert

Although I had been a fixture in the town for months, I wasn’t a permanent resident of the resort town of Jasper, Alberta. I lived on the west coast and was only in Jasper for a tourist-industry job. When the contract for that job ended in late October of 2010, so too did end my time in the town. In truth, I was more than happy to see Jasper off as I, like most people, preferred my own home to all other places. Home was, after all, where you found the people that knew you best, the people that knew what you were about.

When I left Jasper, I traveled west on the Yellowhead Highway at daybreak on what was a chilly Wednesday morning. I knew the trip ahead would be long but it was a trip that I looked forward to for scenery, peacefulness, and isolation. While the former wouldn’t change regardless of what I did, a decision I made early in the trip certainly injected some unwanted social drama into my day with long-lasting effects.

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The town of Jasper, Alberta is in the foreground. The Rocky Mountains around Jasper are in the background. Credit: Shane Lambert

I was only about 30 kilometres into my trip when I spotted a hitchhiker in the distance on my side of the road. At first, I couldn’t tell much about this person but as I neared her I realized that she was a young woman. That fact and her location in a remote area both got me thinking.

I couldn’t help but wonder how she had arrived at such a desolate point on the highway, especially at such an early hour in the morning. She couldn’t, I thought, have walked there from the nearest hotel and, in my mind, that meant that she must have exited a vehicle near where she stood.

With that assumed, I considered it relevant for figuring out the mystery at hand that there wasn’t an intersection near this stretch of highway. It meant that the hitchhiker’s former driver could not have executed a turn, one that could have terminated the two parties’ shared route. Whoever her previous driver was seemed to carry on west while simply leaving this west-traveling passenger behind.

“Why would someone do that?” I asked myself.

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It then crossed my mind that the hitchhiker and her former driver may have parted in an unfriendly manner. Perhaps, I thought, she had just fended off an attack of some sort, maybe even from an overly amorous male.

In the moments I had before I arrived at the woman’s location, I ultimately reasoned that the reason why this young woman was where she was didn’t really matter that much. In my opinion, she certainly wasn’t safe where she was and that was a problem I could, if I chose to, help her solve.

“Should I stop or should I drive on?” I asked myself.

When I answered that question, I felt a touch of annoyance. I wanted an uneventful day as I drove and, to that end, ignoring a stranded traveler seemed like the right thing to do.

Yet, at the moment of truth, I found that I wasn’t able to abdicate my conscience. Instead, I halfheartedly eased off of the gas pedal when I neared the lone woman. I slowly passed her, I gave her a glance, and then I came to a complete stop about ten meters after her.

The young woman was slender, she appeared to be about 21 years old, she carried a large red backpack, and I noted a scared look on her flushed face when I drove by her. Despite some annoyance with the situation, I resolved that I would act extra nice to her given that I was a stocky man in my late twenties.

When I leaned over to the passenger-side window to lower it, I looked at her reflection in the side-door mirror. At this point, I saw her pause as she approached my car. Then, in a few fleeting seconds, the young woman both took a picture of my vehicle’s rear with her cell phone’s camera and then carried on walking.

“So where ya headed?” I asked her with a forced smile when she reached the open window.

“Where you headed?” she countered with a slight scowl.

After a short and surprised pause, I replied, “Vancouver Island.”

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With her lips pressed together, she opened the car door as though to enter. However, instead of getting in immediately, she first inspected the interior of the passenger-side door. As I watched her, I wondered exactly what it was that she was looking for. With the door swung open, she pushed the lock down and then aggressively tugged on the inside handle. After the lock popped back up, she began to remove her large backpack.

“Wudder you doing?” she asked curtly, her eyes wide like an owl’s, as I reached down and pulled the trunk-release lever.

I paused, a bit stunned by what I interpreted as suspicion.

“Well I thought ya might put yer bag in the trunk,” I replied.

She then pointed to the leg space in front of the seat.

“I’ll keep it up here,” she asserted while scrutinizing me.

I expected that she’d change her mind given how squashed the inside of the car would be. Regardless, before I could carry on down the highway I had to exit my vehicle to close the trunk.

After lifting it up and then slamming it shut I caught a glare from the hitchhiker, a paralyzing look that lasered through the back window of my car as though we were in Sascha Schneider’s “Hypnosis” painting. Whatever she was thinking, she definitely meant business as her wide eyes focused on me. As a matter of instinct, I flashed my bare hands at my new passenger to make sure she could see that I wasn’t holding anything. She did not reciprocate, as I could see that she had her left hand deep in her backpack.

I’d only known the hitchhiker for a minute, but it was clear that she wasn’t sure whether or not I was helping her out of the goodness of my heart. Firstly, she’d snapped my license plate, perhaps to identify me if I assaulted her. Secondly, she’d assured herself that the door handle worked from the inside, possibly protecting herself against a planned trap. Lastly, she had carefully watched me as I’d closed my trunk, maybe out of fear that I was getting a weapon. If I wasn’t mistaken, then the hitchhiker was concerned that I might have been out to harm her.

At first, my belief that she was suspicious of me was hard to accept: she was the one that had effectively asked for my help with the thumb-up signal on the side of the highway. While I had no derogatory opinion of this hitchhiker for asking for a free ride, I did expect that she would be friendly as I helped her.

Yet, I did realize that I had suspected, with basically no firm evidence, that her former driver had treated her poorly. It seemed that we, the hitchhiker and I, both had a prejudice against people that picked up hitchhikers. I supposed that meant that I would have to suffer some suspicion, which I imagined would dissipate the longer we shared a ride together. For my part, I knew why I had stopped but I did wonder to myself why this hitchhiker traveled the way she did if she didn’t trust people that merely responded to her request.

“Odd spot t’ be at this time,” I commented as I shoulder checked, “with not much traffic.”

My thoughts on the matter persisted and, in fact, took to me to an uncomfortable topic. I knew that many had associated the Yellowhead Highway with several cases of missing and/or murdered women, women that were last seen hitchhiking somewhere between the Rocky Mountains and Prince Rupert. Such were the numbers of these cases that writers, locals, and news agencies often referred to this stretch of the Yellowhead Highway as the “Highway of Tears.” That I viewed myself as ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ without reflecting on how other people might see me was a mistake.

“I had a ride earlier,” the young woman quietly replied, confirming what I’d suspected.

I would have asked what ended her earlier ride but did not feel welcomed to do so. In fact, the hitchhiker and I barely spoke on the road ahead, and I didn’t even ask her name. Furthermore, since I figured she would know where she needed to get out, I did not pester her about her destination.

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As I drove, I maintained a speed that was slower than the limit to avoid any chance of a fine. As a result, a few speeding vehicles passed us on the Yellowhead Highway, route #16, before I turned south toward Valemount, using the #5 route.

I had noticed that when these cars had passed, the hitchhiker had paid close attention to them. It was only in these moments that the unpleasant vibe around her changed.

In one instance, the hitchhiker overtly reached across the space between my chest and the steering wheel and gave the driver of a passing car a friendly peace sign. She’d behaved in a similar manner when two other vehicles passed us. The behavior would have seemed odd except that it lined up with my belief that she’d regarded me as a man who had questionable intentions.

“She’s imagined the need for witnesses,” I thought to myself.

I decided that her hitchhiking method involved making sure her drivers knew that others had seen her in their cars. In this way, perhaps she thought that she could deter criminal acts by any so-inclined person that picked her up.

Although her fears of me were unwarranted, I still felt that the young woman was being smart. Based on her knowledge of how dangerous hitchhiking could be, she’d evidently developed a method that, as far as I could see, would increase her survival chances as she took part in an often-dangerous activity.

She might have been interesting to talk to if she hadn’t been so nervously quiet. This nervousness did bother me a lot as we drove toward Valemount, so much so that I strongly wished that her journey in my vehicle would end in that town. On that matter, I’d already resolved not to kick her out as I assumed her previous driver had. The same conscience that compelled me to stop for her would prevent me from sticking her roadside without serious merit.

“I need a bathroom break really, really bad,” she remarked when we were in the midst of Valemount’s businesses.

I guessed from that admission that she would not be ending her trip with me in the small British Columbian town but would instead carry on. I further surmised that she was selling the urgency of her need for the bathroom so as to put the maximum pressure on me to cooperate. I stopped at a gas station that had an adjoined restaurant, parked in one of the outer-fueling stalls, and then rolled down my window to take in a breeze.

On her way to the restroom, the hitchhiker, despite her claim that her need for the restroom pressed, interacted with three people. As she spoke amidst the refueling vehicles, she again made her interpersonal interactions clear to me. For a few moments, she would face the person she was conversing with but, in the next few moments, she would turn her head a little and talk with me in her eyeline.

With each of the three people she spoke to, the young woman communicated three points. To each, she stated that her name was Danielle; to each, she claimed that she was a hitchhiker heading to Vernon; and with each, she pointed at me, made eye contact with me, and stated that I was a driver that picked her up.

The surface messages, I thought, were meant for the people she spoke to: her words contained clear information about her identity. While this information would help locate her if she went missing, I thought that there was a deeper message for me. After all, no one actually wants to end up on a missing person’s website.

“I’m telling these people to remember your face,” she seemed to be saying to me, “to remember your car. They know you might be the guy, that guy, and they know you were with me — that you picked me up. If you dare harm me one of them will remember you.”

When each person she spoke to glanced my way, I vouched for myself with a smile. But a feeling of horror grew in my throat when one bearded and middle-aged man in a blue cap returned both a grimace and shifted eyeballs that I felt reflected skeptical thought.

Moments later, with Danielle in the station, I observed this man’s reflection in my mirrors. He walked around the rear of my car and casually glanced in the direction of my plate. He kept his back turned to me, but it looked like he entered some information into a cell phone.

In the context of my accidentally suspicious behaviour, I could only wonder if the guy was hell-bent on heroism. I feared that, with an anonymous tip to the police, he might allege that he knew of a creep who had lured a helpless woman into his car near The Highway of Tears. That ‘tip’ could make someone with power think that I might have been the man that lurked invisible to all — all, except for the women that disappeared while hitchhiking.

Next, a sturdy 40-something-year-old woman walked out of the gas station’s restaurant and approached my car. Her stride had such a determination to it that I prepared to be treated like Ted Bundy himself.

“So is Danielle rude to you too?” the woman asked with a smile that surprised me.

I felt confused for a moment but then conjectured that this was the person that had dropped Danielle off on the side of the highway before I’d arrived on the scene back near Jasper. That she was a middle-aged woman refuted my earlier assumption of an overly amorous male motorist.

“She behaves a bit oddly,” I confirmed. “How d’ya know ‘er?”

“Well,” she huffed, “I picked ‘er up coming out of Jasper this mornin.’ Bu’ she almost pepper sprayed me when I reached into the armrest compartment for a piece of a gum! After that, I kicked her out straight away!”

She gave a nod that validated her decision and then left me alone with a wave of her hand. A moment later, I glanced at Danielle’s backpack and noticed a bulge near the top of it.

When I ran my hand over this bulge it felt like it could have been a can of mosquito repellent. But I also knew that it must have been this object that her left hand was near when I’d returned from the trunk — and I wasn’t a mosquito.

Five minutes later, my ever-so-favourite person returned.

“Sorry fer taking so long, but I’m getting such a great connection here that I decided to touch base with some friends,” she said while holding up her cell phone. “Can we pose fer a pic?”

I knew that declining would be tantamount to an admission of intent to kill. It would mean that I didn’t want there to be any evidence of being in her company.

“Sure,” I said unenthusiastically.

She then held her camera aloft while we both faced it, me through the driver-side window and her just outside of it. A few moments later, she held the phone square to my face. This action showed me with absolute clarity that the picture of us was online at a popular social media website.

I could have left things alone, however, I had petty revenge on my mind. All of her unwarranted suspicion, even as I tried to do her a favour that she’d effectively asked for, had affronted me.

“She thinks she’s so sneaky,” I thought to myself.

Then I thought that I would burst that bubble with a reference to the picture of the back of my car, a picture she probably thought that she had taken on the lowdown as she approached my vehicle.

“I’m sure you already posted the pic of my plate,” I snipped.

I stared at Danielle with the left side of my mouth turned downward. With bewildered eyes and clenched teeth, her head nodded a few millimetres, a minuscule confirmation that she had posted my plate online.

I shrugged my shoulders and chuckled.

Rats!” I said sarcastically as I snapped my fingers in the air in front of me.

I thought that she would sense my sarcasm and just get back in the car but Danielle instead glared at me for a few moments more. Next, she took a quick look at the highway and strode a few paces from me. During the next several moments, she kept her back turned and her arms folded across the top of her abdomen.

I was of the opinion that part of her wanted to try her hitchhiking skills with another driver. When she retrieved her bag from the front seat, I took it as confirmation that she would, in fact, do that.

But, before I changed from ‘Park’ to ‘Drive’, she opened the back door and placed her bag on the passenger-side backseat. It was an action that could only mean that she wanted leg space more than she wanted to be near her aerosol can. It meant she’d figured out the logic puzzle before her.

“Hey thanks,” I said sarcastically.

After we started travelling again, we were both silent for a long time. But it was more of a comfortable silence than an awkward or tense one. In fact, my hitchhiker was so relaxed that she actually fell asleep for a bit.

When she woke up, Danielle acted softly toward me for the first time. She spoke openly about some of her fears when it came to people — men and women alike — that picked up hitchhikers. After she addressed this topic, I felt a little less insulted: part of what had bothered me must have been an incorrect belief that she’d treated me with suspicion only because I was a male.

During the balance of our time together, I learned that Danielle lived off of the small earnings of a coffee-shop barista. Her romantic interest, a woman named Cara, worked in Jasper at a hotel that stayed open year-round. They both took turns hitchhiking the route between Jasper and Vernon on their days off in hopes of keeping their relationship alive.

“Thanks pal,” Danielle said pleasantly when she exited my car at a major junction in Kamloops.

That ended my direct association with her.

But, unfortunately, even after Danielle left, I knew the annoying and insulting gaze of those looking for the maladjusted invisible lurker might persist. I’d welcomed something evil into my car the moment I’d welcomed Danielle. I realized this and sped away in hopes of making an early-evening ferry bound for Vancouver Island. I had to be fast just in case his visible form picked Danielle up next and mutilated her.

For those that don’t watch the crime shows…

If she started to decompose that Wednesday in a drain pipe, then there would be pencil-behind-the-ear half-scientists later on who would try to determine the time of her death. Well before she would be found — by an individual who would have to be interrogated even if he only stopped to take a leak — the smarty-pants people would already have looked into who saw her last. One of these self-professed geniuses would raise his or her pointer-finger into the air and say “Aha!” when he or she viewed Danielle’s falsely incriminating social media posts.

“Why on Earth,” he or she would say to another with quizzical eyebrows, “I say to you ‘Why on Earth!’ would the decedent — as the last thing she ever did online — have been so determined to post this man’s licence plate for all her friends and family to see?”

And then the man from the gas station, regarding the photo of Danielle and I together…

“Oh yes! I saw her in Valemount with that creep! I’ll say this about her for sure: she was behaving really oddly! I’ll testify to that if you want!”

But — and this was key — if I got to the ferry quickly, then the time-stamped ferry receipt could prove exculpatory. There was a chance that it could establish that I couldn’t have been at the scene of the carrion feast at a time relevant to the investigation.

Some would hate me anyway but I knew there were some people with power that at least partly cared about justice. With such a person in mind, I contentedly risked a high fine to get that receipt stamped as quickly as possible.

“NO HITCH-HIKING PICKUP IS ILLEGAL,” the roadside signs often said en route.

That seemed to give the police the authority to search the cars of Good Samaritans and serial killers alike. I left small pieces of my concern for the well-being of hitchhikers beside those signs until it, my concern for others, was all gone.

“You shouldn’t help anyone anymore,” a very quiet and resigned voice finally said.

I figured that since it could be difficult, at times, to differentiate between someone who was trying to help another person and someone who was the scum of humanity, that I shouldn’t be either. Whether this conclusion came from a voice of reason or from a whispering devil on my shoulder — one that was placed there by none other than Mr. Maladjusted himself — remains a valid question for those that live in a dysfunctional world.

I would like to recommend the short story ON BEING INDISTINGUISHABLE by Shane Lambert. #Fun #interesting #Goodreads #Indie

Read another short story by the same author or bookmark it for later!

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AFTERWORD

This preceding was not based on a real event. It was imaginative and resembled a trail of thoughts I had about why I thought it would be a bad idea to pick up a hitchhiker even though I was well meaning.

BUDGET TRAVEL — A SHORT STORY SET IN FRANCE

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By: Shane Lambert

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I visited France in the spring of 2008, a trip where I was primarily interested in seeing the capital city of Paris. But in the early part of my trip, I found myself in the smaller city of Nice, a city situated in the south of France on the Mediterranean Sea.

This was a region that I had no previous knowledge of before the spring of 2008. I’d only selected Nice as a city to visit because the airfares from Canada, my home country, had been incredibly affordable for my travel dates. My economic situation was such that I often felt pressure to shave off expenses whenever I could, even when I was on my annual vacation.

To this end, during my time in Nice I was fortunate to find very affordable accommodations. I stayed in a hostel for several days, a type of accommodation that had dormitory-style rooms with multiple and ever-changing dorm-mates.

I’d also had the good fortune of making a friend during my five days in Nice, a man named Conrad from the United States of America. While meeting Conrad did nothing to cut back my expenses, it certainly made my time in the south of France far more enjoyable than it otherwise would have been.

Together Conrad and I had gone to Monte Carlo, we’d visited the tourist sites in Nice, and we’d gone out drinking on a couple of occasions. He and I both planned to leave the south of France at about the same time, but not to the same destinations. Whereas I was heading to Paris, he had just come from there and our mismatched itineraries promised to force a parting of ways.

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When I said goodbye to Conrad, he was sitting in the common area of our hostel’s dorm. I didn’t want to make the farewell between us too emotional so, after saying goodbye and exchanging email addresses, I didn’t linger near him but instead took a seat on the other side of the room.

Minutes later, I noticed that he was speaking to a man that I had judged as suspicious during my stay. I wasn’t sure of this man’s name, but the fellow certainly hadn’t been on the friendly side over the last few days. He’d also shared the same dorm that Conrad and I had shared and I’d made attempts to speak with this stranger on some occasions. However, every time I did so my efforts were met with no response — even when I was certain that the man had heard me. As far as I knew, he’d behaved the same way towards Conrad and, while choosing to keep my distance, I found it strange that the two were speaking to one another just minutes before my friend was to depart.

It had mainly been due to the strange man’s presence in the shared dormitory that I had felt concerned for the security of my possessions over the last several days. My travel items were mostly of minimal value, however, I still would have been out a pretty penny if I had to replace my entire travel wardrobe. I was also fond of a new backpack I’d purchased not two weeks earlier from a shop back home.

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But, most importantly, I felt I had to worry a little bit at all times about my passport. I imagined that losing this while on vacation would be a red-taped nightmare, one that I knew had the potential of ruining my trip for several days. In my heart of hearts, I did not trust the stranger in my dorm and I was sure that if something of mine was to go missing then he would be the proper one to blame. Thus, I kept everything that I didn’t keep on my person securely locked up, including my precious passport which always sat in a pocket in my backpack.

The first time the strange man spoke to me, after several days of sharing close quarters, was shortly after Conrad left. It was at a time when I was looking at the travel costs of getting all the way to Paris from Nice, a trip that could take about half of a day. The high costs of ground transportation that I found on the Internet certainly didn’t impress me much and, after paying so little for trans-Atlantic airfare, I was more keen on finding similar deals for points between destinations within France. It was at this time, while I lamented the costs associated with getting to Paris, that the man approached me.

“Hi,” he said in an English or Irish accent, “I ‘aird that cher lookin’ to go up to Paris.”

I was immediately intrigued, not by him but simply by the fact that my instincts told me that a chance to save some travel expenses might have just presented itself.

“Yesss!” I replied with raised eyebrows. “I’m kinda lookin’ over prices right now. You headed there too?”

“Uv coehz,” he said in a way that communicated a degree of frustration with me, as though I should have automatically assumed that he was heading there too.

He then motioned his nose toward my laptop.

“Yer nuht gunna fine anythin’ fer less than two-fifty euro lookin’ online,” he continued, “but I’m drivin’ to Paris at thuh crack uh dawn and if you wanna ride I ken charge you ownlay fiftay.”

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I knew that his price estimation of two hundred and fifty euros was a mistake, maybe even a lie. I’d already found that you could take a night train to Paris, like the movie, for only sixty-five euros from Nice. That wasn’t a cheap price when I converted it over to Canadian dollars and, adding insult to injury, the timing of the next available train to Paris meant that I would have to stay an extra day at the hostel, something I didn’t want to do now that Conrad was gone.

However, my inclination was that the price that this man was offering me, fifty euros for a shared ride to Paris, was a rip off too. As far as I could see I would be paying for 100% of the gas cost and then some. I knew fifty euros was the cheaper price compared to the train but it wasn’t this basic math that guided my decision. I simply felt better about a company ripping me off than this guy who stood in front of me, a man who only started acting half-nice to me when he thought he could swindle me.

“I’ll think about it,” I said. “I think we’re bunkin’ in the same room.”

“‘k,” he said, kind of choked up, and he started to turn away.

“Shayne,” I said, extending my hand before he fully turned.

He looked at my open palm for a split second and then extended his. It was in this moment where I felt that I had a read him. It seemed, at first, like he didn’t really want to shake my hand, but did so only when he calculated that there could be something in it for him.

“Andreas,” he remarked as we shook hands briefly.

After the exchange, I weighed my options more thoughtfully but came to the same basic conclusion. It was my opinion that I would be better off paying a company to take responsibility for my travel arrangements rather than an individual that I’d just met, one who seemed odd. The former offered a guarantee while the latter could ditch me without giving me a refund.

After Andreas walked away, I researched online again in hopes that I might find something both better and more affordable than the night train. After a solid 30 minutes of searching, that proved futile. It was at this point, when I went back to the night train’s reservation page, that I learned that the price had increased by five euros. Since I was already reluctant to book at the previous price, I wondered if Andreas might negotiate.

I’d certainly overspent a little during my time in Nice — not on accommodations but on alcohol — and avoiding the high cost of the train was something I saw as bringing my travel budget back into balance. I could have used some advice on travel in the region but the only friend I had in the area, Conrad, was nowhere to be found at this point and I wouldn’t see him again. We would not converse until several months later, when we were both back home and exchanging emails.

At that time, in the summer of 2008, I would learn that he did send Andreas in my direction before leaving the hostel. According to Conrad, the American hoped that I’d gain a shared-ride option as an alternative to expensive rail travel.

An important point that Conrad emailed me, one that I never knew while I was in France in the springtime, was that Andreas wasn’t actually going to Paris but just up to Lyon. This destination was, in fact, en route to Paris but it was still a city that was only about 40% of the way to the French capital from Nice. That Andreas wanted to charge me fifty euros and then dump me off in Lyon would be a point that he would keep hidden from me at all times in the day ahead.

I found Andreas in our dorm and offered him a generous thirty-five euros for the trip, fifteen up front and twenty when we got to the capital city. He countered with twenty up front, five more in Lyon, and ten more when we got to Paris. I agreed, but then I found it peculiar that he wanted the twenty euros immediately, even though the plan was to leave the next morning.

“I’ll pay you when we’re in the car,” I said.

It was a remark that I thought a reasonable person would find agreeable. However, when he acted as though he had been affronted, that was another occasion where I sensed something not quite right about him.

That night, before heading off to sleep, I made sure to prepack and I had a late shower. At about 6 AM, as I slept in bed, Andreas flicked my temple as one might flick a bug away off of a table. Before we left, I did little more than brush my teeth, return my room-access card, and get my deposit back from the front-desk staff. By 6:10 AM, we were both in the vicinity of his car.

“Five mo’ minutes and I woulda luft ya,” he claimed.

He drove a small hatchback that only had two seats. In the rear of the vehicle there was a deep trunk where we both stored our bags. I didn’t really like having a locked trunk between me and my bag, a lock that I didn’t have the key to, however, there really was no space up front. The way I ended up looking at it, him having my bag (and my passport) in his trunk was a way for him to guarantee that I wouldn’t stiff him in Paris: he could hold my bag until I evened my bill up with him. In a way, it did seem fair to me.

The vehicle he drove was different from ones I’d seen in France to that point, because both the driver’s and passenger’s seats were switched around. At first, I actually went to enter on the wrong side, but when I saw the steering wheel through the driver’s-side window I quickly corrected my actions. When I sat down on the other side of the car, I reached into my wallet and found twenty euros for him. As I did so, I glanced at Andreas and judged his eyeballs to be very focused on the other bills that I had.

“So that’s five more in Lyon and then ten in Paris, right?” I asked apprehensively.

“Ken we do ten in Lyon?” he asked and I shook my head slightly.

“‘k,” he said abruptly, with squinted eyes.

We didn’t talk a whole lot, but when I asked about why the steering wheel was on the right side of the car Andreas muttered something about how I should pay attention to people’s accents. It was a remark that seemed to highlight my inability to connect a certain set of dots, as though I should have known that the car was British from the way he spoke.

As he drove, I sensed that he had a lot of confidence in where he was going. Along the “Route de Grenoble” there were both train tracks and a river than ran parallel to the highway. There were also mountains in the area, although none as majestic as the ones back home in Alberta. The area seemed more on the arid side too and, in that way, everything reminded me more of the Okanagan. It was not desert, but it was not lush. It was not flat, but there was nothing towering.

A huge difference between home in western Canada and where I was in France was how the latter had a town or village almost every ten minutes. When I thought of a road trip, I thought of fence posts for miles on end, undeveloped land, isolation, and signs that told you how far away the next gas station was. In France, or at least at this part of it, it felt like civilization never ended and for a good hour of driving I wasn’t even sure that we had left Nice.

When there wasn’t tense silence in the car, Andreas would generally be swearing about something or other. He was as bitchy as a chain smoker that couldn’t afford his daily pack and that bitchiness only intensified when he faced a genuine hardship.

The highway travelling was very slow and I faded in and out of a nap, much to Andreas’ dismay. Multiple times he slapped me on the chest and said that since he wasn’t able to sleep, neither could I. Just getting to Grenoble ended up taking us a full six hours in thick traffic. With the time about midday, I asked Andreas if there were any plans to stop for lunch.

“No,” he replied sternly. “You ken go fer lunch in Lyon.”

At the time, the comment struck me as odd, but I didn’t think much of it for long. It felt like he should have said “we” could go for lunch in Lyon. To make sense of the remark, I presumed that he couldn’t use that inclusive pronoun because of his antisocial approach. Not knowing that he planned to ditch me in Lyon, when “we” went for lunch I imagined it would be more like “him” and “I” going separately, perhaps even in the same restaurant.

As we passed through Grenoble, I noticed that Andreas often looked down at the readings on his dashboard. I wondered if, from his point of view, the car was acting funny. In speculation, I thought that maybe the RPMs were high or that maybe the car was overheating. We pulled into a gas station when we got into the rural area after Grenoble and, after we came to a stop near a gas nozzle, Andreas seemed perturbed.

“Wite ‘air,” he ordered as he exited the vehicle and walked into the station’s store.

I actually wanted to go in the station to use the restroom and I wondered why he’d ordered me to stay put. Then I wondered why he’d ordered me to do anything at all and I further wondered some more about why I listened.

Did I do it because both my bag and passport were in his trunk and because I didn’t fully trust him to not drive off with it if I rubbed him the wrong way? Did I do it because I wanted to stay on good terms with him until we got to what I thought would be Paris?

The answer was a mixture of the two, but nothing changed the fact that I had to use the bathroom badly. After a short deliberation, I figured that if he was going to run off with my stuff then he wouldn’t be doing it too quickly. He needed gas and I knew it would take a few minutes for him to fill up. As for staying on good terms with him, some things in life needed to be thrown in the wind.

“Salle de bains, sil vous plait,” I said to the clerk in the station as Andreas looked through the drink coolers.

The clerk passed me a key and pointed to the side of the building. When I returned, Andreas was filling his car and, after I reclaimed my seat, he started tinkering underneath the hood.

“D’ ya know much about vayickles?” he asked in an uncharacteristically sweet voice through the window on the side of the car.

“Not a whole lot,” I lied. “Why? Havin’ a problem?”

He nodded his head and described a certain feeling when he drove the car. According to Andreas, when he pressed the gas pedal it didn’t seem like the car responded with its normal power.

My first thought on the matter was that the change he noticed actually had something to do with me and my bag. I was a hefty unit and my bag weighed a bit too. Together, we might have been almost 300 pounds and my one-time occupancy of a seat in his small-engined vehicle may have been a good explanation for the difference in how the vehicle behaved.

But this was a point that I decided not to bring up for two reasons. The first of which was that it suggested that sticking me curbside was the solution to his vehicle’s problems.

“Check the transmission fluid,” I said through the window.

He then made a “come here” motion with his left-pointer finger, an action I found a little bit affronting. But I continued to obey him and I directed his attention to the transmission dipstick. After that, I took little interest in his problem and I stood back from the engine.

When he looked back at me, he probably noticed my disinterest. He then consulted his owner’s manual, a consultation that a very loud sigh followed. A couple minutes later, we were back out on the road again as it became clear that fate would simply need to be tested.

I didn’t actually notice anything unusual at all about the way the car was running myself, but then I had no previous experience with the vehicle to compare to. All I noticed was that Andreas was constantly looking down at the readings on his dashboard and frequently muttering swears of frustration under his breath.

Then, after we drove for another twenty minutes, a rumbling sound came out from under the hood. With that, Andreas swore out loud as he slapped the steering wheel and pulled off to the side before we both got out. When he lifted the hood, I saw steam escape from the inside and into the air. I figured that a leak must have been sprung and that some kind of fluid had sprayed into the heat of the engine.

“Fuck sakes,” he said with his hands on his head. A moment later, he directed his angered attention over toward me. “I thut ya said that things wuh fine!!” he yelled.

“I never said that,” I retorted and he glared at me.

I got the feeling that he was trying to shift some responsibility for his car’s problems to me, maybe believing that putting a guilt trip on me might lead to me paying for some upcoming towing costs. However, that certainly wasn’t part of my plan and that had nothing to do with the fact that he was a jerk.

I was a minimalist in life in terms of my possessions. I’d gone without a car in recent years and there had been all kinds of inconveniences that had been associated with that. However, the one major convenience, besides the saved money on car payments, was that I didn’t have to deal with random car troubles. That issue was the domain of vehicle owners and, in my mind, I’d be damned if I suffered the inconveniences of not having a vehicle while shouldering the inconveniences of having one at the same time.

That I’d shared a ride with someone that owned the vehicle I was transported in meant that I had to kind of jump through his hoops while I was in his car. When he told me not to sleep, I listened. When he was rude to me, I suffered it. But, at least, when his car broke down I could do something that he couldn’t do — walk away from it.

We’d passed a village about two minutes earlier and I could see houses on our side of the highway back toward Grenoble. Otherwise, there was nothing but farmland on each side of the highway. The passing vehicles were numerous and it seemed pretty clear to me that those motorists represented our best hope for rescue.

For my part, once we hitched a ride I had no intentions of staying with Andreas. He wasn’t my friend, I owed him nothing, and he’d been brash with me. However, my travel companion would force alternate plans on me.

Andreas closed the hood to his car and walked some steps toward the barrier on the side of the highway. He then stared away from me into a farmer’s field for a few moments and I allowed him some silence to collect his thoughts.

“Shoyne,” he said softly several seconds later, “I need ja t’ stigh with m’ car while I go get ‘elp.”

It was funny how people’s voice tones changed when they needed a favor.

“No,” I said and he turned around and gave me the evil eye.

“Why nauht?!” he asked sharply.

“Because this is your car. If ya think I’m waitin’ ‘ere fer more than twennie minutes while you go get help you ken forget about it,” I said.

He gulped and he turned his face away from me again.

“I ken get ‘elp ‘air in thirdy,” he said. “I’ve gut relations aroun’.”

“Really?” I asked, a little more optimistically. “Don’t cha have a cellular on ya?”

He shook his head, kept his back turned, and replied “no” as cars drove by — including that one that seemed to be decelerating.

“Salut!!” a voice then yelled out from about thirty meters down the highway, one that caught both Andreas’ attention and my own.

“Salut!” I replied and I walked toward a man who had parked his car on the shoulder ahead of us. “Tu parle anglais, mon ami?”

“Yes,” he said. “Eez yer car broken?”

“It’s not my car, but his,” I replied as I directed the man’s attention toward Andreas.

My travel companion then gestured with an open palm to some space away from me, as though he wanted the helpful stranger to walk into that space to talk privately. If Andreas thought that it was smart to keep his conversation away from my ears, it wasn’t. I knew that the conversations that you couldn’t be party to in life were the ones that you needed to hear the most. To me, Andreas’ invitation to the man to move to an area away from me screamed out one incontrovertible fact: whatever Andreas would speak about would be a mini-conspiracy against my interests somehow. A minute later, Andreas directed the man back to his car and then the grump came up to me privately.

“I’ll be buhk in huff ‘n hour,” he said before sneaking in an up-sell, “forty-five max. In the meantime, I need ja ta mayhk shuh the car doesn’t get towed away or broken into. I’ll need a piece of I.D. from ya too.”

I thought about it for a moment and the up-sell was fine as forty-five minutes didn’t seem like a vast amount of time to me. However, there was no way I was giving him an identification card.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll wait but I’m not givin’ you my passport or nothin.’ In fact, I want my bag out while I wait.”

He smirked at me in a distrustful way and shook his head ever so slightly.

“I’ll only be forty five,” he said. “Jus’ relax for a bit. Anjoy thuh sainuhry.”

With that stunning indifference to my demand to be in possession of something I owned, he power-locked both of the doors to the car and walked away. That he had a certain opinion of me in doing so was clear as day.

After all, there was a way to get my bag out of the trunk of the car without his car keys. His impression of me must have been that I wouldn’t dare take that option. But when the vehicle Andreas traveled in left my sight, I started to look for a good-sized rock. It was a search that I gave up on very quickly as I froze and stared off into the distance in roadside introspection.

I found that my impulse to break into Andreas’ car would be one that would be tough for me to act on. Accordingly, as the time slowly passed in rural France, I found myself only thinking about what the consequences would be if I did break a window on Andreas’ car. It was an action that would give me access to the trunk-release lever, but it was one that would also put some potentially vacation-wrecking forces into motion.

After all, if I did break into his car, Andreas might file a police report against me. I had no reason to believe that he knew my last name, but if there was any will power on the part of the police, then Andreas could direct them to my hostel stay in Nice.

I had registered under my legal name and I had used my correct home address. Andreas knew the room I slept in, the bed I slept in, and the time frame I had been in Nice. For certain, the hostel’s software would have my identity in it if the staff were provided with those pieces of information. I thought about this sequence of events intensely as I stood roadside.

“No,” I said in my head, “that’s not how it’ll go down.”

It seemed possible, even probable, that no one in the French legal apparatus would spend much time bothering with me.

“He’ll have to tell them that I was offered a ride,” I continued to think. “They’ll wonder why I would then break into his car and Andreas will have to explain that he abandoned me without relinquishing my possessions.”

At this point, I began to summon some nerve. This required justifying to myself that it was, in fact, okay for me to break the window of a car that I did not own against the wishes of the owner.

That Andreas was an asshole mattered little the more I deliberated. It would feel good to break his window as revenge for flicking my temple, slapping my chest numerous times, making many cutting remarks, and ordering me not to use the bathroom. But that I felt a vindictiveness toward Andreas was something that I knew I had to reason past.

Sorting my emotional contempt for him from my logical reasoning was difficult. But one fact that was definitely true was that the owner of the car that I wanted to break into had abandoned me on the side of a rural road with my bag and passport inside his vehicle. I had no bathroom, no water, and no food. While I had agreed to a 45-minute wait, I felt that much longer than that meant that I could free myself from my difficult situation with whatever means I had available. That was especially true given that I had no way of tracking Andreas’ movements, no way of knowing if he’d been sidetracked, and no way of knowing if he was honestly on his way back to the car.

That he was an asshole wasn’t entirely irrelevant by any stretch. It suggested that my well being would not be a major consideration for him as he tried to solve his problem.

“You can break his window and remain the same person,” I thought to myself.

While walking around the area near the car, I noticed a pile of rubble about thirty meters off of the highway. The rubble had to be on private property because it was on the edge of a field, one that someone clearly maintained. I climbed over the small barrier on the side of the highway in hopes of finding something that would break a window without risking any part of my hand.

Among this precious rubble I found a muffler, some scrunched up tin cans, two blown-out tires, a shoe with a sock, a board with a nail, and other kinds of random items. The only sturdy object I found that I could easily carry was a glass one-liter pop bottle. I grabbed it, walked back toward the car with it, and figured that the base of the bottle would definitely break what’s-his-name’s window.

Moments later, I stood beside the broken-down car with my new bottle in hand. I then glanced at the sun and decided that perhaps only twenty-five minutes had passed since Andreas had left.

“You gotta give ’em that forty-five,” I whispered. “It’s a contract.”

In the time period ahead, I routinely looked around and I constantly reassured myself that I was in safe enough isolation to commit an action that looked like a crime. The only people that could possibly see me would be passing motorists, but I judged it very possible to avoid their eyes because of both gaps in traffic and because I could break the window on the side of the car that faced away from the road.

My heart rate remained unnaturally high for someone whose body was at rest, a condition that attested to the pressure I felt. But when I was sure that at least a generous sixty minutes had gone by, I started to tap the base of the pop bottle on the driver’s-side window. I’d already long since spotted the release to the trunk in the foot area of the car.

At any moment, I could have shattered the window and relied on the remote location to prevent any kind of attention coming my way. However, I refrained from doing this because I feared that a momentous blow might leave me cut. After a while of tapping, I gained confidence that the base of the bottle was actually stronger than the window and so I progressively tapped a little bit harder until I passed the point of debatable culpability.

Pressure. Time. Fracture.

There was no alarm that sounded, likely because the car had not been equipped with one. Moreover, I didn’t shatter the whole window, but only made a small hole that I enlarged with the spout end of the bottle.

Then, using my sleeve to protect my hand, I reached inside the car and lifted the knob that unlocked the door. Shortly thereafter, I entered the vehicle, sat for a minute, allowed my heart rate to calm back down, and then reminded myself that I should leave the area as soon as possible.

In the driver’s-side cup holder I found an unopened drink, one that Andreas bought at the gas station earlier. In the glove compartment, I found a packed lunch with both a rice-and-salmon concoction and an apple. I decided, with no one around to argue with me, that I’d paid four-sevenths of the agreed fare to get to Paris from Nice yet did not receive anything close to four-sevenths of the distance. I paid myself the balance with his lunch and a drink and then I tucked the falsely-incriminating evidence under his seat. Next, I flipped open the trunk and retrieved my precious backpack. The thought, that I had access to Andreas’ bag, did cross my mind but I never did touch it.

I then tossed the pop bottle deep into the ditch, put my bag on the hood of the car, and stuck out my thumb. I speculated that anyone that passed me would think I was a car owner whose engine had failed as opposed to a budget traveler who needed to freeload. It was a difference in image that I thought would work in my favour.

“Tu parle anglais?” I asked a man who pulled over.

“Non,” this driver replied with a shaking head.

“Ummmm…..Paris?” I asked.

“Non,” he replied with a shaking head.

“Ummmm…..Lyon?” I asked.

“Oui,” he said with a nod.

As I got in, I could tell that my unwitting getaway driver wondered about the broken-down car and, in a way, it was nice that he couldn’t speak English nor I much French. When I imagined his perspective, I couldn’t help but think that he must have wondered why I would want to go to Paris and leave my car behind so far.

“L’auto est mon ami,” I said.

What I meant to say was “the car is my friend’s” but what I really said was “the car is my friend.”

After an hour of driving, “Airvay” (ie. Harvey) dropped me off in Lyon at a public-transit station that I figured was probably not too far out of the way for him. He wrote a message on a piece of paper for me: “Gare de Lyon Part-Dieu” it read.

“Gare” was a word that I felt like I had seen recently, but it’s meaning escaped me.

“Gare?” I asked with a confused look on my face.

“Oui, Gare,” the man replied.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” I asked, meaning “What is it?” in English.

He looked troubled for a moment and then said “Choo-choo!!” and I knew he meant that there was a train there for me to Paris.

“Ahhh,” I said with a smile before speaking slowly. “Gare….de….Lyon Part-Dieu a une CHOO-CHOO pour moi a Paris” (the train station has a train for me to Paris).

“Oui,” the man said with a smile.

“Aujourd’hui?” I asked, meaning “Today?”

“Oui,” the man said.

“Bon,” I said. “Merci!”

We shook hands and I left.

It would only cost about eighteen euros to get from Lyon to Paris, but I didn’t leave that night. Instead, I spotted a hostel near the train station and felt that I should stay there instead of risking travel to Paris and arriving in the evening without accommodation. I did, however, make a train reservation for the next afternoon and I spent the remainder of the evening planning my days ahead.

With the money I’d paid to Andreas combined with the train ticket from Lyon, I’d saved about 30 euros compared to if I took the night train. However, the mental effects of breaking the window were on my mind and it was this card that my opponent had played against me. In paranoia, I wondered if the sound of police sirens that night in Lyon were for me.

However, every time I thought of it, which was very, very, very often, I realized that finding a tourist in any city was a difficult thing to do. Even if he knew I was in Lyon, there were a lot of hostels and he had no way to know which one I would go to.

I really didn’t think the police would help Andreas much. If they did, then I didn’t think that they would do it too quickly.

The last of the incident played out the next morning when the manager of the hostel in Nice emailed me, a bilingual man. He informed me that someone named Andreas was trying to get my contact information and wondered if he, the hostel manager, had permission to give it out. I said “no” in response and thanked him for respecting my privacy.

“May I ask what it’s about?” he replied. “He said that you vandalized his car.”

I thought a good while about how I would respond to that, fully aware that there was a minuscule chance that my reply message could end up in court. The last thing I wanted to do was admit that I caused the damage because it’s a fact of life that the things that you can justify to yourself aren’t universally accepted. After two hours of edits, I came up with the following.

“We shared a ride to Paris yesterday, but his car broke down outside of Grenoble,” I replied in writing. “He hitched a ride to Lyon to get help from a relative and refused to allow me to leave the vicinity of his car (he kept my backpack/passport locked in his trunk and refused to allow me access, locking the car doors),” I continued. “He failed to make it back after three hours,” I lied, at least as far as I knew, “and I started to wonder if I was going to have to sleep road side. As daylight faded,” I lied, “I was fortunate to find a coat hanger in the rubble on the side of the road and was doubly fortunate that the driver’s-side window had an ever-so-slight opening. In elongating the hanger and bending it into a hook, I was able to reach the trunk release with it through the window opening, something that allowed me to retrieve my bag. I then had to walk two hours to Grenoble and, if his car was vandalized as you say, it must have been done by someone in the time between when I left it and when Mr. Andreas finally arrived back. Please don’t give out my information, but do feel free to share the facts above with him. If he presses then just tell him that it’s out of your hands because I do have a right to privacy.”

I decided that the message was perfect before I hit the “Send” button. It made me into a victim that had to babysit a car for hours under the duress of not knowing when the owner would return, something that contained a lot of truth. It avoided admitting that I’d committed the alleged vandalism and it suggested an alternate way for the damage to have occurred. Furthermore, the message lied about my current location and put me in the opposite direction of the one I had gone in.

The only real regret I had was not standing up to Andreas before he left me standing by the car. Maybe, it would have been better if I had told him that if he didn’t let me have my bag then he’d return to find his car window smashed. However, that would have created a possibly hostile moment with no clarity as to how it would have played out. Furthermore, he actually shocked me a bit with his brashness and that left me in a discombobulated indecisive state for a few critical moments. When I rumbled into Paris on a train the next day, I decided that saving travel costs could be complicated.

As a man in my 20’s, this was a lesson that I could learn from with many years ahead to apply it. As an imperfect human that felt a natural inclination to get revenge, I took some satisfaction in knowing that Andreas, someone who mistreated me, was much worse off for it. As judge of myself, my precious conscience felt clean because I didn’t think I’d played my cards unfairly.

All Rights Reserved.

The preceding was fiction. Any resemblance to anyone’s life is purely coincidental.

The Christmas bird – a short story — Robbie’s inspiration – REBLOGGED

The narrow bar of bright light from the gap in the curtains crept across the room. It moved across the face of the sleeping girl and she stirred, the red glow through her eyelids dragging her away from her dreams. It was Christmas morning and […]

The Christmas bird – a short story — Robbie’s inspiration

“Johanna” — Short Story by Jane Yolen

“Johanna” — Plot Summary

Jane Yolen, author of
“Johanna.”

By: Shane Lambert

Jane Yolen’s short story “Johanna” tells a short ‘tail’ of a young sixteen-year-old North American aboriginal woman. Set in the past, possibly in the 19th century, Johanna and her dying mother live in a village in a forest known as Hartwood. Although the aboriginal village can support many more residents than its current population, Johanna and her mother are the last of their family. The others, it is said in the story, have all disappeared into the night or died.

Near the start of the story, we learn that it may soon be Johanna’s mother’s turn to pass away. To prevent this, Johanna makes a decision that is a catalyst for the story’s plot. Believing that her mother’s death is imminent, Johanna decides to fetch a nearby doctor. While this may seem to be a straight-forward decision, the drama involved is that Johanna’s motive is so strong that she feels compelled to fetch the doctor immediately, in the quiet of night. As a result, she decides to face the terrors of running through Hartwood forest at night — despite the fact that her other family members have previously disappeared for doing just that.

Click to Read “Budget Travel – A Short Story”

There is a surreal aspect to this story. As Johanna runs through the forest, she turns into a deer. We learn this, with clarity, at the end of the story when she enters the doctor’s yard.

The doctor looks at her, claims that he wants deer meat for the winter, and then shoots her — not really knowing that he is killing Johanna. We may assume, that in killing her, the mother’s death will follow back at the aboriginal village. As they were the last two members of their family, themes of genocide and/or cultural destruction can be looked at in this short story.

There is a suggestion that the aboriginal ‘village’ is not officially considered to be one. Perhaps the best of view of them is “unincorporated.” However, the white-people’s village is considered a village, despite identical size. There is a theme of ostracism that can be expanded on from that. Understanding this story involves looking at what is being ostracized.

But first, on a simpler level, this story is one with a lot of so-called Easter Eggs for readers to pick up on. Before we learn that Johanna has changed form, there are many clues that she is about to do so.

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If you read the story twice, then the second time around you can spot these clues easily. Firstly, there is a reference to Johanna gaining “new senses” and she can see clearly in the darkness of night. Also, she doesn’t feel cold despite the winter-time setting and nor does running burden her from a cardiovascular perspective. Gaining new senses, seeing clearly in the darkness of the forest night, not getting cold in frigid temperatures, and having the wherewithal to run great distances without facing fatigue could all be viewed as inhuman.

At one point, she and her family are described as “strong as beasts.” At another point, when Johanna gets close to her goal, it is said that she “ranged,” a verb to describe movement that’s more common to animal movements than human ones.

There are other clues as to Johanna’s impending change still. For instance, Johanna is apprehensive to enter a meadow — perhaps an instinct common to deer more than humans. This aspect of the story reminded me of a scene in the Disney movie Bambi where Bambi’s mother won’t enter the meadow quickly for fear of hunters.

Picking the story over for these Easter Eggs is perhaps a challenge for the high-school student. A more challenging look at the story requires looking at “Johanna” as an allegory for the historical relationships between aboriginal people and Europeans. From this point of view, the topics of stereotyping, cultural extinction, genocide, and environmental destruction can be explored.

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Themes in “johanna”

Yolen, the author of the story, makes it clear that Johanna is to be understood as aboriginal. Yolen doesn’t wait to do this as the opening line strongly implies it when Johanna is described as having “moccasined feet.” Moccasins are the footwear that aboriginal people in North America were first known for. As a modern fashion, anyone of any culture can wear them. However, in the historical context of this story, it’s clear that Johanna is aboriginal. This is something that should be considered important for understanding this short story.

Johanna starts the story as an alive human and ends up as a dead deer. Her death is one matter to be looked at. But, firstly, let’s look at what her change of species means.

A literary character that starts as a human and ends up as an animal could be viewed as a literary character that is at one with nature. There could be other views to take. For instance, an aboriginal person that starts human and ends up an animal might be taken to be an argument that aboriginals are less than human. However, the former position is the one that I think is better for understanding this story. There is plenty of precedent when it comes to stereotyping aboriginal people as stewards of the environment.

For some, this will provoke retorts of the “noble savage” myth. However, such comments are not too relevant when it comes to short-story analysis. Fictional representations of aboriginal people have been used as a symbol of being at peace with the environment before.

Perhaps a strong example is Iron Eyes Cody. He was actually an Italian-American but he portrayed Native Americans in acting roles. In this fictional capacity, he was featured in a famous, or infamous, 1971 advertisement that advocated fighting pollution.

Seen crying in the advertisement, one can ask if his portrayed identity as a North American aboriginal juxtaposed with an environmental cause somehow lent credibility to the environmental stance. If you answer “no” to this then an additional question remains relevant. Did the environmental agency think it would? In my mind, the only answer to that question is “yes.”

What appears to be clear is that the organization that ran the advertisement, Keep America Beautiful Inc., thought that Iron Eyes Cody’s in-character endorsement would add credibility to their institution somehow. This must be because they had an instinct that a percentage of the public would see an aboriginal person as a metaphor for environmental protection or stability. We don’t have to have a serious discussion about which cultures were better for environmental stability but, instead, we can just talk about public perception.

The advertisement below, depicting Iron Eyes Cody, is an example of a fictional aboriginal character being used metaphorically as a symbol of the environment. His crying eyes and sad face are the embodiment of environmental destruction, specifically, the spread of pollution.

Source: Keep American Beautiful Inc.,used here for the purpose of critical commentary.

Another fictional character that is both at one with the environment and aboriginal to North America is Pocahontas as represented in the Disney animated film of that name. In that film, she sings “Colors of the Wind,” a song that implores the profit-oriented European invaders of her homeland not to be so greedy when it comes to exploiting natural resources.

An excerpt from Disney’s Pocahontas (1995). Used her for the purpose of critical commentary.

Johanna has something in common with both Iron Eyes Cody and Disney’s Pocahontas. “Johanna,” the short story, could be viewed in the context of positive evaluations that have been made of aboriginal cultures in North America. They are, in fact, regarded as being more harmonious with nature in the world of fiction. Johanna, the literary character, is effectively a metaphor for a culture that can co-exist with nature. That’s what it could be held to mean when she turns into a deer.

Along those lines, that a prominent member of the nearby European community, a doctor, kills Johanna in her deer form shouldn’t be taken as a reference to genocide. That’s definitely a related topic but the story should be taken more as an opinion that European cultures aren’t grounded in an environmentally sound philosophy.

That Johanna and her kin are dying out makes genocide a related topic. However, in the short story the doctor’s killing of Johanna, as an aboriginal person, is actually completely inadvertent. Also, that her mother will die is inadvertent too. The doctor is not depicted as genocidal, rather he is merely killing a deer from his point of view.

There could be an implication here of two cultures colliding — and one largely losing. Perhaps this kind of inadvertent destruction could be viewed as having taken place in North America alongside other forms of deliberate destruction.

But, in conclusion, I think a fair interpretation of “Johanna” mainly has to do with a positive evaluation of aboriginal cultures in terms of environmental sustainability. As shown, the story is not unique in this regard when a broader look at fiction is undertaken. Iron Eyes Cody was actually a fictional character and Pocahontas was, at least as far as Disney’s representation of her goes.

On a related matter, one could debate which cultures are better or worse for the environment. My opinion would be that the current environmental crisis facing humanity has a lot more to do with both industrialization and deforestation than anything the pre-contact aboriginal cultures did.

Johanna could be read here as of June 1st, 2020.

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