Countdown Story #7: Friendship, AR

As I rest on the curb on the shady side of a gas station, a young Black man in khaki shorts, a pink polo, and tortoise shell glasses approaches. His elbows are locked with his hands in pockets.

“Hey there, sir. Where you coming from?” he asks.

“Los Angeles,” I say.

His face tells me that wasn’t the answer he was expecting. He careens to read Little Buddy’s front panel.

“Um…How do you even do this? You got a job?” he asks, then immediately apologizes for being nosy.

I tell him it’s all good—that I’m a writer, but I also do small business consulting to pay the bills.

“So wait, you’ve got a life besides this?” he says.

I laugh—I’ve yet to grow tired of folks’ shocked response when I tell them what I am up to. Many people seem baffled that I’m out here by choice. I like to imagine that our encounter somehow helps them remember the excitement of discovery. Humans didn’t evolve by being sedentary or indifferent, and so many of us have grown convinced that every home needs a doggone couch.

I tell the man that my so-called real life seems super distant right now. Like it’s somebody else’s, maybe.

“But it’s all back home waiting for me to dive right back in, I suppose,” I say.

He stands in a silence neither of us try to fill. Then I offer him one of the green apple Gatorades I just grabbed inside. He shakes his head more than necessary, like my question interrupted his imagination.

“How about this here lemon lime one, then?” I say.

He waves it off.

“No, but thanks,” he says, almost in a whisper. “Sheesh…You really can’t judge a book by its cover. I figured you were some kind of destitute and you’re not—you’re just….”

He looks at the sky to find the right words.

“You’re just…going home,” he says.

The word home makes my throat tighten.

He then asks if I’ve experienced any sort of bias or bigotry. I feel weird answering this question when asked by a Black man. Embarrassed, even. Because, for the most part, every single person I’ve met has been kind. I want to tell him that as a white guy, I’m pretty sure the entire experience is different. Maybe even easier. Maybe lined with less day-to-day worry. But I don’t say these things because I don’t quite have the words and am afraid I’ll stumble over myself. So I keep my response neutral.

“So far it’s been pretty easy, you know?” I say, hoping he’ll read between the lines. “Which isn’t unlike my normal life. But I’m doing my best not to take it for granted.”

The man looks back at his car. Gives the woman in the passenger seat a quick wave.

“Where to next?” he asks.

His eyes widen as I say Little Rock.

“And then through Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and I’m not quite sure exactly after that,” I say. “But eventually the Atlantic Ocean.”

He shakes his head. Looks back toward the waiting car.

“I don’t know what else to ask,” he says. “But I want to know more. Like, oh I don’t know—what’s it like out there?”

I tell him that’s a huge question, and he chuckles knowingly. I tell him that all in all, the trip’s been about people like him.

“Every day I wonder if I’d be brave enough to stop and say hello to me like you just did,” I say. “I think I’m learning to take my blinders off. To slow life down a little and make it more manageable. I’m trying to pay better attention to the small details that matter the most.”

“Man, humanity’s a crazy thing, isn’t it?” he says. “I’ll damn sure be praying for you.”

We shake hands. He holds mine for an extra second. Then he turns around and shufflejogs back to his car, his body glowing brighter in the hot Arkansas sun.

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