Susan Benedict was leaving the grocery store when she noticed a black man in a leather fedora waiting at the bus stop some distance off. A clerk pushed a grocery cart behind her, as they headed to the far end of the lot, just in front of a busy intersection. The man stood surrounded by various-sized white plastic bags.
He must be delivering those parcels somewhere, she thought. It'd be difficult loading them onto and off a bus. She remembered occasional forays, decades earlier, between college and her family's home, when she'd set herself up for bus travel and lugging bags, because of poor planning.
The man watched the carry-out boy stow her groceries in the trunk. From this proximity, he looked African with his blue-black skin, maybe Haitian.
In the driver's seat, Susan tallied the risks of offering a ride to a stranger. How dangerous could a man be when he's attending so many packages? His hands would be free, but she'd control the wheel. On the other hand, he might have his hands free on my neck. She'd move to stop him and the two-ton car would careen out of control.
Leave yourself an out.
It was Sunday, early, and she wasn't rushed, as Dennis had canceled their 1 p.m. time together. She'd be on the road again tomorrow. Alone. She turned the key in the ignition and looked down the street. No bus was coming.
Susan had three good friends, and she worked to maintain these solid connections. She'd noted a slight narrowing of her life, now, in her early 50s. This was new. She engaged the idea; examining it from various perspectives across months, noting causes.
Battina, her daughter, was off at school, deciding to take course work over the summer at Bates College in Maine. She'd been home last summer.
As a new commercial trucker with nine months experience, Susan'd continued an employment search for work in her industry, finance. These efforts allowed only specific time for her friends. Employment was fine; but in the long run, it was people who kept her going, who added richness.
How to push back this narrowing, and fill her life with one or two more people whom she'd value enough for friendship? That's the question.
Dennis Fine's canceling their meeting today put a damper on her usual upbeat perspective. He was one of the friends she counted on, and a professor at a local university. They met regularly for tea and conversation or a museum visit.
It's not as though I won't see him soon. Until then, why not help this man?
Susan left through the grocery's far driveway to situate her car to pass the bus stop. She pulled to the curb in front of it. Today was another hot June morning, and her front windows were down. She leaned to speak out the passenger-side window.
"Hello," she smiled. "How far are you going?"
He was broad-featured and clean shaven, with an open face. She wouldn't have a chance if he moved against her.
The man's eyes widened. He came closer to the window, lowering his head. "I'm going over to the warehouse district in Minneapolis, to the Salvation Army."
He had a slight accent, but spoke careful English, about 50, and there was something appealing about him.
Oh, and a polished African wouldn't harm a woman? She questioned herself.
"I know the area," she said. "Do you know the exact location?"
With no parking on the street, Susan swung back into the lot, and parked. Unlocking the trunk, she shoved her groceries to one side, jumped down the low wall, and helped retrieve the bags. Together they filled the trunk. She opened the rear door behind the driver's side. "The last bags can go in the back seat."
He put the two parcels in the car and slid in after them.
She raised her eyebrows. "Oh, please, won't you sit in front with me?"
"Yes, if you like." He came around.
As they buckled belts, she said, "I'm Susan Benedict."
He reached over to shake her hand, and said, "Akin Bassey."
"I like your hat," she said at a stoplight. It sat at an angle, lower over one eye.
"It's a little the worse for wear, but a good sun screen."
The leather fedora, creased down the middle, had a wide brim the color of a coconut. Accented with a thin rawhide band, it had a sporty air. A ring of sweat soiled the base just under the rawhide. Out of season, but well made.
"Where are you from?" she asked.
"Nigeria," he said. He was wearing tan trousers and a light blue, short-sleeved shirt. Good cotton, both garments were nicely cut, simple, if a little on the worn side. The shirt's top button lay undone at his neck.
The light changed and she meshed her car into the spare Sunday morning traffic. As a trucker, she liked to keep space around her.
Leave yourself an out.
"I know a little about Nigeria," she said.
"Ha! What do you know?" he said.
Susan glanced at him. He'd raised his eyebrows. She laughed at the surprise in his voice and noted the edge of sarcasm.
"Oh, you don't expect Americans to know about Nigeria."
"That's true, most don't."
"I know about Nigeria because I've entertained Africans. I host internationals, particularly during American holidays. Usually adult students working on advanced degrees at the University of Minnesota. And I like geography. Boning up on my guests' countries, before I meet them, seems the least I can do. It makes for more interesting conversations. Aside from that, Africa's been in the news lately."
"What do you know?"
"Oh, the usual. It's on the west central coast in the Sahara. Lagos sounds inviting, big and bustling. Your country's oil-rich and the U.S. considers Nigeria an ally, politically and commercially."
She drove to the freeway entrance and headed west.
Aim high in steering. Look out two blocks in front of you.
The traffic thickened, as she assessed the movement around her. A semi was a quarter mile back; two cars occupied the lanes closest to her, ahead and behind, at distances. She swept her eyes across the horizon, and noted a home-store delivery truck was a half-block forward. She tallied the space around the car and looked out further.
"There's greed and corruption as regards powerful men, such as, the ex-generals involved in the theft of crude oil. That's hard on the average Nigerian, but I'm more
concerned about tensions between the Muslims and the Christians in the northwest region, where the Christians are taking a beating."
"The Hausa region," Akin added. "There are problems."
Susan nodded and looked at him a moment. She saw him run his hands down his pants to his knees, as if to relieve tension.
"And that bleeds into the tense cases of unmarried women having children. The Muslim fundamentalists who hold sway frown on this kind of behavior."
"They are judged by Sharī-'ah, Islamic law. Sharī-'ah has swept across the mostly Muslim north in recent years." Susan glanced at Akin's now gesturing hands and noticed their intensity. "I'm a Christian. I don't know all the legal particulars, but it's harsh on women."
Keep your eyes moving. Check all mirrors every five seconds.
She nodded, listening, looked out his window, then through the windshield. Expanses of grass and native growth sped by and rose, from freeway level, up the steep incline to the avenues above them. Trees and bushes graced the slopes' top. Her eyes moved across the traffic in front, absorbing its flow, and out as far as she could see.
Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. He's ill at ease. Often, the foreign nationals she hosted were shy about beginning animated conversation. They got there gradually. Akin wasn't shy, he was focused and direct.
"Human rights orgs get involved," she said. "Or else we'd never know about these cases."
He nodded. She noticed his hands again, his fingers extended, smoothing his trousers. Susan recognized Akin's tension and heard herself speak faster.
"Most of your family's back in Nigeria?"
"Yes. But I have a cousin who was already here. He helped me come a year ago through sponsorship from a Lutheran church. We have a community down in the West Seventh Street apartments."
"I know those, not far from the Jewish community center. There are South Americans and Russian émigrés in those apartments, too."
"You seem comfortable here, in Minnesota. It takes energy to feel at ease in a new culture. I'm glad for you."
"And I have work now, too, thanks to my cousin and a good employer. I'm with a construction company. Today is my only day off. That's why I'm running this errand."
His hands lay still now.
"You are settling in. Congratulations," Susan said, as she held to the center lane.
The semi's pace remained constant about a block behind. It looked like the trucker kept trying to give the cars a wide berth.
"What is your errand, if I may ask?"
"We have a program through the church. Every few months any clothing that doesn't fit anyone is washed, mended, and bagged. Then someone hauls the bags over to the Salvation Army. It's my turn." He paused. "What work do you do, Susan?"
"I'm a trucker, right now. With a commercial license a person can drive anything. I drive a semi, like the one coming up behind us, and other trucks, depending on the work involved."
"An uncommon job for a woman, I'd guess. But you're strong and efficient in your movements. I like seeing women doing jobs that have been traditionally male dominated, and vice versa. That seldom happens in Nigeria."
"More women are in the industry than you'd think, and some men dislike that. I couldn't find work in finance. After 9/11 many people lost jobs there, so I trained at this."
She felt Akin's eyes on her.
"Do you wear a yellow dress and sandals when you drive a truck?"
"No." She laughed. "Today is Sunday. I like to wear dresses on Sunday."
"Another thing I like about America is that you stopped and picked me up. That's never happened to me. Why did you do that?"
Susan grinned. "It was all those packages, Akin. I wouldn't have considered stopping if you'd had one or two, but six, and some are bulky. That's a little different. You looked like you could use some help."
"Isn't it unusual for a woman to pick up a man?" he asked.
"Yes. It can be risky, dangerous."
"It's unheard of in Nigeria for a woman to do that."
A shiver whipped down Susan's spine.
It always came to this, she thought. The three times she'd picked up men-the other two incidents were life-threatening situations with sub-zero temperatures and auto skids on isolated roads up north-they seemed to need to discuss the risk she'd taken, which, in turn, made her wonder why she'd bothered. These were simple gestures. These instances weren't a difficult concept to grasp. Maybe other women had other reasons. Maybe men imagined their wives doing it, and were afraid for them. Maybe men don't want the burden of that worry. Susan trusted her instincts.
"But, Akin, most women in Nigeria don't drive cars, do they?"
"Akin, you aren't a violent man, are you?" Susan glanced at him and their eyes locked. He understood what she was thinking. The freeway slipped under the car.
"No, Susan, I'm not."
She glanced at him, saw warmth in his eyes and believed him.
"Lucky for you, isn't it?" he said.
Traffic encroached, and that comment unnerved her, too. Susan gave him a side-long glance, saw his grin, but a doubt remained.
"Susan, I was trying to be funny. I don't harm women, here or in Nigeria."
Get the big picture. Look for hazards.
She watched her rearview mirror. A blue pickup, several car lengths back caught her attention. Its driver was speeding up, changing lanes, then braking behind a slower-moving car. Susan was about a block ahead of the semi, both in the center lane. The pickup driver pulled in front of the semi. The trucker slowed. The pickup driver, a boy, moved into the right lane and slowed to align his truck parallel with the trucker, a woman. Another boy sat on the passenger side of the cab.
Susan still led the trucker but glanced into her rearview mirror to track the boy. Shortly, the boy changed lanes to follow the semi and then maneuvered to its left.
"That pickup driver's moved around the semi," she said. "Why would he do that except to aggravate the trucker?"
The tractor trailer maintained its speed. Susan pulled ahead and to the right, to gain some distance from both of them. This brought her into fuller traffic. When she looked into the mirror, the pickup had moved into the space she'd left, in front of the semi.
Gradually, the semi and pickup gained on heavier traffic, and the pickup moved behind Susan changing lanes to be parallel to the trucker. The semi's speed adjusted as the traffic thickened across the freeway, still the trucker was coming up on Susan's left, and the pickup accelerated behind her.
Flicking her eyes from mirror to mirror and ahead, no danger was apparent. Then, the boy was gaining on her with nowhere to go. She slowed, but it seemed to have no affect on him. He was less than a car length behind her. The semi was starting to pass on her left.
"Hang on," she said.
Akin glanced above his head and grabbed the hand grip.
"Press your head against the headrest," Susan said, her voice tense, as she pushed back to safeguarded herself from whiplash.
The semi started to pass Susan's car. The pickup came closer. Susan looked at her speed: 65. She slowed.
"He's nearly on us."
Leave yourself an out.
Even as she flicked her blinker on, she knew the boy couldn't see it, he was so close, but he couldn't miss her brake lights.
Too late. He slammed into her end.
Her tires gripped the rougher surface of the shoulder too fast. The car lurched forward, fishtailing, while her speed forced her onto the upgrade. Low growth and taller prairie grasses were swallowed under the car as it shot across the wide swath that angled up from the freeway at a steep pitch to meet street-level traffic.
"That fence, Susan." Akin's voice was tight.
She worked the brakes. Could she stop before she smashed into the chain-linked fence dividing the top of the slope and the avenue? Would the impact of the car on the barrier cause the car to burst through to street traffic? Her hands hurt from gripping the wheel as the car shimmied, responding to the grade and terrain. The steering wheel trembled.
It takes six-tenths of a second to die.
She pushed the brake, held, allowed the speed to diminish, then released as she turned the wheel. The fence was still coming at them.
"Maybe I can...," she raised her voice, then fell silent. She felt breathless and heard the strain in her tone. The noise of the air around them sounded loud.
"The column, Susan...."
A concrete pillar, which supported the overpass, appeared to be rushing toward them. Its sandy thickness rising out of the spring greenery offered an innocuous presence, but Susan saw wrinkled metal and limp bodies.
She eased off the brake, and continued to gently turn the wheel so the car started to angle itself along the line of fence.
"An inch, here," Akin squeaked.
Glancing his way, Susan saw the blur of fence pass his open window; and peripherally, his tight neck, his forearm bones' prominent because of his grip, the wrinkles in the headrest's leather as Akin protected his neck.
"We're going to hit," Akin shouted.
The passenger side of the car slammed against the fence, slid along it, metal on metal, screeching. Sparks flew. The jolt of the impact whipped through the car's frame. She held the wheel steady, adjusting her speed, slowing, slowing.
In her terror, the car felt glued to the fence, as it sped on, as if she couldn't steer it away. The screaming metal deafened her.
On her side, the hill's angle looked too steep. If she pulled away they'd be out of the column's reach, but she imagined the car tipping into the decline and rolling over itself down into traffic. It felt safer to ride the fence, but the column was nearly on them.
"Stop," Akin yelled, raising his left arm as if to ward off the coming impact.
A siren cut through her tension as she manipulated the wheel and pedal.
When will it stop? She pleaded silently. Then it did, two yards from the column.
Susan gripped the wheel, panting, and turned off the ignition. Her hands slipped to her lap. Her breathing slowed, as she turned to Akin.
"You okay?" His eyes were as wide as she imagined her own were.
"I think so. You?"
"I don't know." The terror receded. "Should we get out? Want to stand up?
"No, I'll sit," he said.
"Good idea. So much for a short jaunt across town!" She laughed suddenly, and noted an edge of hysteria. She looked at herself in the rearview mirror. Her auburn hair, cut short and usually swept back, drooped to her forehead. She pushed it back and saw her hand shaking. She held it out in front of herself.
"I was in car accident once, as a child. I remember trembling like this, all over."
Then Akin started to shake.
"A sympathy response," Akin said. She shrugged. They laughed weakly.
She glanced down at the traffic, thinner now and moving at a good clip.
"I'm going to check the damage. See if we can move this car. Wasn't there a siren."
"It passed us. Following a different emergency?"
Susan opened her door. Her legs felt shaky, but she stood. She looked down at the freeway. A jerky swath of steamrolled prairie grasses lay in the tires' wake, and she noticed, in variance, the grasses caught under the carriage bent gracefully toward the fence. Dew still glistened on some blades.
"I'm coming." Akin struggled over the gear shift, fell into the seat, and got out.
She walked around the car, noted the bumper's dent, so deep that it extended up to crumple the trunk lid.
"Damn," she said half-heartedly. They walked around to the wrinkled side. Paint lay on the links. Impact dents at head height and at the protruding lip below the doors marred the structure. The burn's streaking ran the car's length. She eyed the tires. No flats. She walked forward and sat on the grass. Akin joined her.
"My legs are still shaky. What about that pickup?" she asked.
"I think the driver wanted us out of his way, so that he could pull along side of the semi, try to challenge the woman in the big machine.
She expelled a grunt in disgust.
"Haven't men responded to you that way in your truck?"
She shook her head, watching the passing traffic, hearing the white noise of tires.
"Nothing that dangerous. I've never been rammed."
"I think he lost control momentarily, after that. He didn't intend to follow us onto the shoulder. The crash with us must have jarred his wheel."
"Yeah, I caught a glimpse of him struggling with it. Incompetent!"
"I hope we don't have whiplash."
They sat in silence a few minutes.
Susan liked this. She felt comforted sitting with this stranger, and the earlier chaos fell away. This ease came to her often in the most unlikely situations. A breeze rippled the standing grasses around them. Her hair lifted. Undulations moved down the slope and her eyes followed that serenity.
She knew this reverie would be swift and leave an aftertaste of loneliness, a flash of beauty, evaporated. The common stuff of life. In recent years, she'd trained herself to be on guard for such gifts.
"Did you see that? The vibrations?" a quick excitement in his voice.
"Yes," delight in hers.
They looked at each other with new eyes, then sat in silence, again.
Shortly, Akin commented: "You'll need new doors."
"Yeah," she sighed. Then: "Is there any chance you got that license number?"
"Wow!" Silence again. They seemed able to speak only in spurts.
Minutes later, "Should we go? How do you feel?" she asked.
"Let's go," Akin said as they stood. Before he entered, he walked to the front of the car and noted the distance between it and the column. He shook his head.
"Paper and pen are in the glove compartment. If we don't see any police, I'll call
and give them the number."
Susan inched the car forward to allow for room at the fence, then backed up,
continuing this pattern three times until she could pull away and creep down the incline.
Her arms ached as she held the steering wheel again.
"No straining sounds from the undercarriage," he said.
Some of the drivers passing below noticed them with a start, as she steered down the slope. On the shoulder, she re-entered traffic.
Around a curve, they found the tractor trailer on the freeway's lip, its emergency lights lit on the rig's roof corners. Further, to the right and at an angle on the embankment was the pickup, doors ajar. A state trooper car, roof-light spinning, sat behind the semi.
Susan saw that the trucker had situated three warning triangles at the appropriate distance behind her trailer-at 10 feet, 100 feet and 100 feet on a divided highway.
The trucker, two boys and one officer stood in a loose knot on the bank.
She slowed and parked behind the trooper's car. The delivery truck, that had stopped, pulled away from in front of the semi.
"Do you want to come with me? You're a witness."
"I'm hesitant to get involved with the police, Susan. Won't your account suffice?"
"Probably. Suit yourself, Akin."
He nodded. Susan started up the hill. She introduced herself to the trooper.
"Have you been involved with this blue pickup today?" the officer asked.
"Yes, this boy rammed my car and forced us off the road." Susan nodded toward
the blond youth. She stepped toward the boy.
"What were you doing?" She raised a tense voice. "We could've been killed."
"Yeah, well you weren't." Sullenness marred his face.
"Bret, shut up! You're making it worse," the other boy from the pickup said. His black, short clipped hair was parted on one side. The boys wore loose tee shirts and ragged-edged jean shorts and sandals. They didn't look 20 years old.
"He lost control of his car on the shoulder, after he'd rammed us," said Susan. "Why'd you do that? You saw I was slowing, there was time for you to respond."
The trucker spoke. "This kid was erratic in traffic long before he got close to this woman's car. Changing lanes often, speeding, slowing. I checked my speed twice when he was passing me. He was ten miles over the limit each time. He was looking for someone to bother. I prepped myself for a joy rider." She was irked, and Susan liked her sinewy smarts.
Her hair was shoulder-length, and a riot of jet-colored curls. Under medium height, the driver wore a lime tee shirt and loosely fitted slacks, comfortable clothing.
She looked seasoned, and yet, fresh-faced, in her thirties.
She extended her hand, and introduced herself. Susan took it and smiled.
The officer turned to the boy. "I've got notes from this trucker and the delivery truck driver corroborating the incident. Charges for ramming this other car will come from the city attorney's office," he said, as he flipped his pad and began to write. "I'm citing you for speeding, now." He looked up at Susan, "You'll hear from that office, too."
"How did the pickup get up there?" Susan asked, glancing at the trucker.
She said, "As you went off the road, I got on my cell phone for the State Patrol."
In Minneapolis, Susan and Akin passed Marquette and LaSalle. Little traffic kept them from their destination. It was just a Sunday morning again. Susan pulled in and glimpsed the red shield with the white lettering Salvation Army placed high on the building.
The driveway wound around a quarter of the concrete-block structure and broadened out into a spacious delivery area at the back. Several knots of men stood outside the building, apparently in deep conversation. The sun was bright. One man leaned against the warehouse in the shade, several yards from them. They all looked over at the car.
Susan, then Akin, got out on the driver's side.
Another man yelled a greeting to Akin and waved a lanky brown arm, then added:
"Hey, Akin, you been in an accident? Whew! Those doors!"
"Hello, Frank," Akin yelled.
"A friend of yours?" she asked grinning.
He laughed. "From the church." Akin started to pull bags from the back.
"I hope the trunk opens," Susan said, as she faced it. Despite the distortion caused by the ramming, she leaned into it. It gave. They emptied the trunk, and stood talking.
"Susan, thank you."
"It was quite a ride. Thanks for the talk on the slope. I liked it. Goodbye, Akin." She offered her hand.
"Akin, what's up?" one of the men yelled.
Two men craned their necks to see what they were doing at the rear of her car.
Susan grinned, "They're curious. I bet they'll like hearing your story!"
Akin slammed the trunk. Susan started the ignition and glanced back at him, then pulled out. The men watched her leave. She flicked on her right blinker, and turned onto the avenue.