The grease-slicked hair is a dead giveaway—no pun intended.
So is the loose and faded leather coat, though not as much that as the sideburns. And the way he keeps nodding and flicking his Zippo open and closed in rhythm with his head. He belongs in a chorus line of dancing Jets and Sharks.
Then again, I have an eye for these things. I know what to look for, because I’ve seen just about every variety of spook and specter you can imagine.
The hitchhiker haunts a stretch of winding North Carolina road, bordered by unpainted split-rail fences and a whole lot of nothing. Unsuspecting drivers probably pick him up out of boredom, thinking he’s just some college kid who reads too much Kerouac.
“My gal, she’s waiting for me,” he says now in an excited voice, like he’s going to see her the minute we crest the next hill. He taps the lighter hard on the dash, twice, and I glance over to make sure he hasn’t left a ding in the panel. This isn’t my car. And I’ve suffered through eight weeks of lawn work for Mr. Dean, the retired army colonel who lives down the block, just so I could borrow it. For a seventy-year-old man he’s got the straightest back I’ve ever seen. If I had more time, I could’ve spent a summer listening to interesting stories about Vietnam. Instead I cleared shrubs and tilled an eight-by-ten plot for new rosebushes while he watched me with a surly eye, making sure his baby would be safe with this seventeen-year-old kid in an old Rolling Stones t-shirt and his mother’s gardening gloves.
To tell the truth, knowing what I was going to use the car for, I felt a little guilty. It’s a dusk blue 1969 Camaro Rally Sport, mint condition. Drives smooth as silk and growls around curves. I can’t believe he let me take it, yard work or no. But thank god he did, because without it I would have been sunk. It was something the hitchhiker would go for—something worth the trouble of crawling out of the ground.
“She must be pretty nice,” I say without much interest.
“Yeah, man, yeah,” he says and, for the hundredth time since I picked him up five miles ago, I wonder how anyone could possibly not know that he’s dead. He sounds like a James Dean movie. And then there’s the smell. Not quite rotten but definitely mossy, hanging around him like a fog. How has anyone mistaken him for the living? How has anyone kept him in the car for the ten miles it takes to get to the Lowren’s Bridge, where he inevitably grabs the wheel and takes both car and driver into the river? Most likely they were creeped out by his clothes and his voice, and by the smell of bones—that smell they seem to know even though they’ve probably never smelled it. But by then it’s always too late. They’d made the decision to pick up a hitchhiker, and they weren’t about to let themselves be scared into going back on it. They rationalized their fears away. People shouldn’t do that.
In the passenger seat, the hitchhiker is still talking in this faraway voice about his girl back home, somebody named Lisa, and how she’s got the shiniest blond hair and the prettiest red smile, and how they’re going to run off and get married as soon as he gets back hitching from Florida. He was working part of a summer down there for his uncle at a car dealership: the best opportunity to save up for their wedding, even if it did mean they wouldn’t see each other for months.
“It must’ve been hard, being away from home so long,” I say, and there’s actually a little bit of pity in my voice. “But I’m sure she’ll be glad to see you.”
“Yeah, man. That’s what I’m talking about. I’ve got everything we need, right in my jacket pocket. We’ll get married and move out to the coast. I’ve got a pal out there, Robby. We can stay with him until I get a job working on cars.”
“Sure,” I say. The hitchhiker has this sadly optimistic look on his face, lit up by the moon and the glowing dashlights. He never saw Robby, of course. He never saw his girl Lisa, either. Because two miles up the road in the summer of 1970, he got into a car, probably a lot like this one. And he told whoever was driving that he had a way to start an entire life in his coat pocket.
The locals say that they beat him up pretty good by the bridge and then dragged him back into the trees, where they stabbed him a couple of times and then cut his throat. They pushed his body down an embankment and into one of the tributary streams. That’s where a farmer found it, nearly six months later, wound around with vines, the jaw hanging open in surprise, like he still couldn’t believe that he was stuck there.
And now he doesn’t know that he’s stuck here. None of them ever seem to know. Right now the hitchhiker is whistling and bobbing along to nonexistent music. He probably still hears whatever they were playing the night they killed him.