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The Hitchhiker Queen

by Alan Wise

It was somewhere between two and three o'clock on the second Thursday of July, but no one wanted to stop for the woman who waited patiently by the side of the road. Elizabeth Ann had been waiting by the side of her car for almost an hour and no one had bothered to stop to ask why. She was not dirty. Her hair had been washed that morning and it fell around a plain square collar and a pale white face. She stood completely erect by the side of the open car door, her young son Alex in her arms. Alex rolled his blue-green eyes at each passing car and burbled happily. The sun shone brightly and he enjoyed the wait in his mother's arms. It was somewhere between two and three o'clock on the second Thursday of July, but no one wanted to stop for the woman who waited patiently by the side of the road. True, Elizabeth Ann made no signal of distress; she did not motion to other drivers that her car was incapacitated, that her post by the shoulder of the road was distasteful and uncomfortable. Perhaps if she had put the hood up, someone would have stopped to inquire after the tiny grey hatchback. And she, relieved that someone had finally cared enough to stop, would sigh and say that the engine began to sputter about a mile back and then started to cough black smoke from somewhere beneath the hood. But the hood was not up and nobody cared enough to see why a woman would stand on the side of a busy highway with a tiny, curly-haired boy clasped tightly in her arms. Alex kicked his feet against his mother's stomach, but his pink heels had no effect on Elizabeth Ann's posture. It was Roger who finally stopped. "I've sort of made a habit of picking up hitchhikers." "I am not a hitchhiker. My car broke down." "Yes, Ma'am, I see that. Quite a mess you've made out of the engine, I see." He had lifted the hood. "Out of fluid, I expect." "Can you take me someplace where they'll fix my car?" Roger nodded. Elizabeth Ann moved Alex to her right hip as she collected her purse and a denim bag that overflowed with cascades of cotton patchwork. A flowered square from her bag was snatched by a wind that also tore at the hem of Elizabeth Ann's dark red skirt. Roger stooped, caught it, and returned it to a white hand, spotted with callouses and round, unpolished nails. "Thank you." "You sew, Ma'am?" "I sew a little. My mother quilts." "Yes'm." Alex burbled happily as a grimy moving van sped by, spewing black exhaust. "Would you like me," Roger indicated Alex's car seat, "like me to put that in my car? It won't take but a minute." "I'll hold him." Elizabeth Ann turned to Roger's car. Her blue cardigan slapped at her thighs as she walked; the pockets were full of change and Kleenex. Following her, Roger opened the door and waited for her to settle comfortably with Alex on her lap. He shut the door, careful not to catch the end of Elizabeth Ann's skirt, and hurried around the back of the small gold Honda. "I try to keep her polished up," he said, pulling the seat belt across his slim waist. "I figure if you're going to spend a lot of money on something, you may as well keep it nice." "Yes." Elizabeth Ann tilted her head to one side as though she were thinking hard about something, blinked, then folded her hands across Alex's round belly. "I've picked up lots of people in this car, Ma'am. A whole lot of people. Of course I don't give rides to big guys with beards and flannel shirts. I've seen too many movies to do that." He paused. "Mostly college kids." He spoke rather loudly. The radio was on, but that had nothing to do with his volume. Roger was under the impression that he seemed more friendly when he was more vociferous. Alex seemed to enjoy his prattle and smiled when he spoke. His mother sat silently listening as well. Roger thought she was trying to hear the radio. "You sew clothes for your baby there?" Roger watched Elizabeth Ann's head turn slowly to him. "He's a nice looking boy." "Some." Her hair hung brown to the base of her neck. "I make some of his clothes, but he grows out of them almost before I've stitched them together." She rubbed a yellowing callous on her right index finger with her thumb. "He's a handsome fellow, that one." Alex had begun to amuse himself with the knob on the glove compartment. "I made pillows when I was pregnant. Twenty-three. I gave them all away as presents to my cousins and my husband's mother at Christmas." The glove compartment served as a fine diversion for Alex, but he grew impatient when it refused to open. "He can't get in there, ma'am." "I'll see that he doesn't." Elizabeth Ann pulled her son's tiny white hands away from the latch. "What I meant, ma'am, oh, he's welcome to play with the handle, but he can't get in there. It's locked." "I've never known anyone who locked their glove compartment." "No'm." Roger's eyes dared his passenger to ask why he differed from all of her acquaintances in this respect. "I have stuff in there, ma'am, important stuff." The three rode in silence for a moment. Alex's eyes rolled over the passing landscape and crossed whenever a bright billboard rushed past. "I have papers in there. Newspapers. Not the entire paper, mind you, just some articles that I've cut out. You see, a man in New Jersey saw the Virgin Mary. He was walking one Sunday and saw her. In the Pine Barrens." He waited for a moment to see how the woman would react to this, hoping rather selfishly that it would not agree with her mental digestion. "My glove compartment has every article about the sightings. I'm collecting them so I'll have proof for anyone who asks. "Of course the Pope hasn't said a thing. He doesn't like to have miracles happen in America, I don't think. We're not Catholic enough." The road rounded a hill. A radio announcer declared that it would be three at the tone. As the highway twisted, sunbeams began to bounce off the hood of the gold car. Roger noticed that Elizabeth Ann's cheeks were burnt from her long solitary stand. "Oh, but I'm Catholic, Catholic enough for the Pope even. First Holy Communion, Confirmation, Mass every Sunday, and during the week sometimes too, all that stuff. Catholic enough to be a saint. My mother says that. But I never really used to think about it before, being Catholic, I mean, not until lately." He was silent for a moment, trying to remember all that he had told himself about being Catholic. "It's not the church that prepares you to be Catholic, it's what happens to you out in the world, the real world where your thinking's is not clouded by incense or chants or Latin. I guess that I hadn't really been Catholic until I read about the man in New Jersey. I even have an article from California about the man. My aunt sent it to me." The sun was beside them now, and when Roger glanced at his passenger, it looked like a golden disk set on her head, little rivulets of light bleeding through the dark brown locks. Alex stared ahead at the white column emitted from an unseen cooling tower mounting into the air with an elegance usually reserved for dancers and old movie actresses. "My aunt says she's glad that someone's Catholic in the family. Says she was tired of being the only one." Elizabeth Ann was concentrating hard. "I can't hear the radio either," admitted Roger. "It doesn't always come through that well during the day, all the trucks on the road." He paused. "I'm going to see her. The Virgin Mary. She comes on the second Sunday of every month. That's what the articles say, even if the Pope doesn't believe it." Elizabeth Ann pursed her lips, hugging her baby to her breast. Her chin rested lightly on the curly golden head. "She killed her baby." "Ma'am?" "She killed Him." "Who?" "Mary. Mary killed Him. A good mother would have known that her baby was in danger. A good mother could have saved Him." "I don't think that she was supposed to save Him. He needed to die." Roger turned off the radio so he could think better. "Mary had Him so He could die." "Then she shouldn't have had Him; she shouldn't have brought him into the world." Elizabeth Ann picked her chin up and set it before the rest of her face. "I would never have had Him." A pattern of clouds flitted across the sun dissecting the occupants of the car into patches of dark and light. "I can't say that I agree with you, ma'am. I don't think that we agree at all." Roger did not like the direction the conversation had taken. He gripped more firmly to the wheel. "I heard a man say that it wasn't Mary at all anyway. He doesn't go to church. Says it was probably the Jersey Devil there to fool dumb Catholics. He read the article and didn't believe it. He doesn't know." Roger stopped talking. He did not want to say any more. He looked down the road, hoping to see some tree or landmark that he could study to pass the time. Today was not the day to pick up strange women. His knuckles turned white on the steering wheel, and he tucked his left foot underneath the seat. The highway was an old one, made out of concrete slabs. The car wheels made a rhythmic th-thump as the gold car sped along. Roger was glad for the noise; it gave him something to concentrate on. He thought about turning the radio back on, but he felt that if he did that, he would be admitting to her that he needed noise to protect himself from what she said. Alex was still knocking his chubby hands on the locked glove compartment. Roger envied him. He wanted more than anything to read his newspaper clippings so he could reassure himself that it was real, that a New Jersey man had seen the Queen of Heaven in the Pine Barrens. This woman made him uneasy. He had never believed that Elizabeth Ann would say such things. He thought that she would understand his newspaper clippings. He stopped. He tried to conjure up every picture he had ever seen of Mary. Scenes of the Holy Family in darkened stalls, lit only by the golden disks set atop their heads. Mary, soft and white, her eyes lowered tenderly to her child. Soft with gentle hands and warm breath and eyes, eyes that were kind. "Mary loved her baby." His words surprised him. He did not intend to speak, but the words came unbidden. Elizabeth Ann turned to glare at him. "You aren't a mother so you really can't say if she loved Him or not. Mothers know." She twisted her wide wedding band around her ring finger. Her hands were swollen and it was difficult to turn the ring. Roger looked at her cautiously. Her hands had reddened at the fingertips. She held her left hand before her so the two of them could study it more carefully. "Are they hot?" Roger hoped that being solicitous would soothe her mood. "Feel." She placed her left hand upon his cheek. Roger bristled at the warmth. "Yes, they are hot." He did not turn his head, but continued to drive, hoping that he would find a gas station soon. His eyes were fixed upon the road ahead of them. For a while they continued this way until he realized that Elizabeth Ann had not taken her fingertips from his face. He shot a glance to his passenger. Evidently, Elizabeth Ann had forgotten completely about her hand and where it was. Her eyes looked beyond him and into the passing greenery. In a field alongside of the highway three boys played. Their naked bellies were white beneath sunburnt shoulders. Sweaty tongues of hair licked their foreheads, eyes squinting to avoid the sun. One had wrestled the other to the ground, while the third slapped his bare feet against the earth in merriment. His pants were big and patched and cut off above the knee. "Boys like that need someone to take them up and manage their life for a while, then they'll know." "Here's a gas station." Elizabeth Ann took her hand and pointed it toward a large lighted sign. "See if they have a tow truck." "Yes'm." Roger signaled then turned into the neon encrusted service station, the back wheels spinning slightly on some gravel left over from the winter's salt trucks. Leaving his keys in the ignition, he parked, climbed from his grey cloth seat and entered the glass office. The walls, fortified with a pyramid of oil and washer fluid, immediately obscured him from sight. Elizabeth Ann remained in the car, alone with her baby. It was some minutes before Roger emerged from the office followed by the young attendant's orange face. "I think she's out of fluid. My car looked the way hers does once when it was out of fluid. Maybe she just needs some of that to start her up." Roger directed the boy to a place beside the car so Elizabeth Ann could hear the conversation. "I'll see when I get there." The boy opened his mouth to scratch his chin. Yellow and black stripes fell around his dangling hand from the sleeve of his blue coverall. "I'll take her out there in the truck." Roger was satisfied with this and helped Elizabeth Ann from the car and into the high seat of the truck. Alex immediately found that he could open this glove compartment and discovered with an excited gulp an oily rag and a wrench. The boy drove away while Alex giggled over his new toy. Returning to his small gold Honda, Roger found that it bore no trace of Elizabeth Ann or her small son. No lingering perfume floated about, not a scrap had fallen from her bag; her seat belt had not even been used during the trip. She had passed leaving only an uneasy flutter in Roger's mind. He pulled the key from the ignition and drove it into the lock of the glove compartment. He needed to read an article to focus his thoughts, to streamline his mind. The latch clicked. The door fell open. Roger stopped. Elizabeth Ann had torn every article in two.