It’s been nearly forty years since I saw the man standing by the road in the rain. I was a young shop teacher driving a yellow and black ’67 Dodge pickup. He was short and middle-aged, dressed in an old brown suit and holding a battered suitcase. I stopped and offered him a ride.
In spite of his relief to be out of the rain, there was a sadness in his pale blue eyes, a thinness of spirit that seemed as weary as the few strands of hair draped down against the wet skin of his forehead.
As I drove on from Fulton toward Clinton, he told me that he was a barge man, a river rat from Memphis. He’d been upriver and was trying to get back home. Contrary to the image of the suit, his hands had the thick, toughened look of a man used to holding things that didn’t like being held and that had to be made to fit certain tasks. A few miles later and the thinness began to make sense.
“My wife died of cancer last year; we’d been married thirty-eight years.” He looked out the window for a minute and I saw him wipe his eyes with the back of his hand. Without looking back he sighed, “I just can’t seem to get over it.”
I paused for a moment, not knowing quite what to say. “That’s a tough thing,” was all I could come up with. In another mile or two, I thought of something else. “Guess you don’t have any place to spend the night, do you?”
“No,” he shook his head, “I don’t know anybody between St. Louis and Memphis.” He looked out at the buildings lining the edge of town and added softly, “I can’t afford a hotel.”
“Well,” I replied, “we don’t have an extra bed, but we’ve got a couch long enough for you to stretch out on. You’re welcome to spend the night with us.”
I think he was afraid to believe I was serious. I was and he got over it. After supper, he took a bath. He slept dry and sound, safe from the fears that live beneath the bridges that pass over the highways and in the dark corners of strange places.
By ten o’clock the next morning, thanks to a reluctant but generous donation from my good friend Billy Berryhill, who owned a small garage in Fulton, the sad stranger was in better spirits. He was on a Greyhound bus headed to Memphis and he was wearing a new pair of shoes that fit and didn’t have holes in the soles.
I never saw the man again but I think about him pretty often.
I think about him when I see other strangers standing in the rain beside lonely roads. I think about him sometimes when I see the ten pairs of shoes sitting in my closet. I think about him when I think about my friend Tom Hale who worked that mighty muddy river and who also knows from both sides of a barge about the kindness of strangers. I think about Billy Berryhill, too, and his thick, callused hands belying the gruffness of his voice as he opened up his wallet and handed me fifty bucks for a man he’d never even met. “Yeah… uhm-huh… he knew you were a soft touch as soon as he looked at you, man.”
I think we’ll all meet up again—someday—and there won’t be a single stranger in the bunch, not even the ones who’ve never seen each other before. In some way, maybe the ways that matter most, we’ve all met before, some place or another.