Short Story

 OFF-RAMP By: Linda S. Browning


As I moved into the passing lane on the expressway to give wide berth to the vehicle on the shoulder, I glanced to my right and noted that the car was empty. I was returning to the cruising lane when I saw the woman’s hair; a neon-dime-store-blonde dye-job. The woman trudged along the shoulder several feet behind a burly man who was almost marching down the road. The woman scurried with her head lowered, cradling something against her chest … a baby (?). I assumed they were the previous occupants of the stalled vehicle and were making their way towards the closest exit in order to get some help.

I have never picked up a hitchhiker or a stranger, but this little family tugged at my 68-year-old heartstrings. Having just come from a support group for grieving spouses, which I attend to cope with the loss of my husband, the preacher’s message lay fresh on my heart. To lessen our own pain, he suggested we reach out with compassion to others who may be hurting. My heart overrode my head and I pulled onto the shoulder and stopped to offer them a ride. A few minutes out of my afternoon to tote this young family to the nearest off-ramp and on to a gas station would make a good sharing story for my support group.

I regretted my Good Samaritan-ism the moment the man opened the front passenger door. A tobacco saturated grubby looking man dropped heavily into the passenger seat with a loud rumbling grunt, “Thanks.” A minute later the loud-haired woman scrabbled into the rear seat. The cigarette stench from these two was almost a separate entity … it was that dense and determined. The woman held a small dog with white, matted fur against her chest. The woman said nothing and the man said nothing beyond the aforementioned appreciative grunt.

“I’ll drop you at the exit.” I announced cheerily.

Damn that preacher. Forgive me, Reverend.

“Please buckle your seatbelts.” I instructed.

The woman immediately starting twisting and fumbling around in search of the gadget, but the man just turned heavy lidded eyes in my direction. If eyes could growl, those eyes were growling at me.

“Please?” I pleaded.

All I got was an irritated grunt, but he did reach over and rip the seat and shoulder harness around him like he was trying to start a lawn mower.

“Thank you,” I nodded meekly and proceeded to pull back onto the freeway.

“My wife put the wrong kind of gas in the car and now the damn thing is ruined.” His voice growled at me along with his eyes.

The woman bleated, “Ron … I didn’t … I swear I didn’t … I put the right kind of gas in the car.”

The small dog whimpered and the man all but spat the words into the back seat, “Shut-up! And, shut that dog up. I told you not to take that damn thing!”

Way to go Sharon …you try to do a good deed and pick up a serial killer.  If I die at the hands of a serial killer, my late husband is absolutely NEVER going to let me hear the end of it. In all likelihood this man is not a serial killer. Serial killers are probably not this obviously mean tempered and obnoxious.

This guy is probably just an asshole. Forgive me, Reverend.

I felt sorry for the wife and flicked my eyes at the rearview mirror in an effort to catch her eye to communicate sympathy. Instead of the woman, the trembling eyes of the dog stared forlornly into my soul. I have always been a sucker for animals. My mother … and later, my husband, used to say, “Sharon, you can’t save them all.”

The dog whined again, and the man yelled, “Shut up that dog!”

I again flicked my eyes at the rear view mirror. The woman jerked the dog’s collar sharply and snapped at the animal, “Shut up!”

Oh, that little bitch. Forgive me, Reverend.

The dog was just a little bitty thing, and I could tell that it was some kind of supposed-to-be-fluffy dog … like a poodle mixed with something else. Nobody said anything, the dog was silent, and I quickly moved onto the off-ramp and pulled into a gas station. I placed the gear shift into the park mode so the doors would unlock and allow them exit.

“Good luck to you folks,” I sang.

Now, get the hell out of my life. Forgive me, Reverend.

The man snicked open the seat belt and it flew past his face, almost clipping him on the chin. He grunted, heaved himself from the seat, and stomped into the store. The woman was juggling the dog trying to get to the seatbelt button. I reached both hands into the backseat and said, “Give me the dog, honey. You need to have your hands free to get the door.” I hit the electronic lever to lower the window of the front passenger seat; which may have given her the impression that I intended to hand the dog to her through the window. People get funny ideas sometimes.

The woman handed me the animal, popped the latch on the seatbelt, and opened the car door. As the car door swung closed, I punched the lever on the window and quickly powered it up and slapped the gear shift into drive to disable the door latches. I pulled away from the miserable man and woman and their stinky miasma with an delighted grin.

I drove with one hand on the steering wheel and one hand on the back of the little dog in my lap. I cannot save them all … but I got this one. I named him “Off-Ramp”.

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