002 – The Courteous Strangers

When I was in college in the early 1990s, I had a roommate by the name of Clay.  Clay was a comedian, loud but rarely obnoxious, and he was the first friend I made at school.  We both shared a love of comic books, and we would spend hours discussing and debating characters, stories and which company was running the comics industry into the ground faster.  Clay was my best friend in school, and through him I learned how to be a better friend to others.

Clay had been in a very serious relationship with a girl, Amy, in high school.  He had stayed in Ohio, she had gone to the University of Chicago.  They spoke on the phone practically every day, so when Amy’s calls became less frequent, I could tell there was something wrong.  Near the end of the school year, as we were all cramming for finals, something happened.  Clay took the phone into his room and closed the door, and a short while later we heard his voice raised, then silence.  He didn’t come out and we became concerned, so I knocked on the door.

“Are you ok, man?” I asked through the sliding wooden panel.

“Yeah,” a weak voice replied.  “I’m fine.”

“Want to talk?” I inquired, genuinely worried about my friend.  I knew Amy had to have dumped him, and I knew he’d take it very hard.

The door suddenly opened and Clay was standing there with a duffel bag over his shoulder.  He pushed past me and headed for the door.  “Where do you think you’re going?” I asked, surprised.  I already knew the answer, of course.

“Chicago.  I have to go talk to Amy.”

“Clay, you have exams tomorrow,” I pleaded with him.

He stopped in the doorway and looked back.  “It’s seven hours to Chicago, and my exam isn’t until four tomorrow afternoon.  I can get there, talk to her, catch some sleep, drive back and take the exam.”

“That’s crazy!” I said, but he wasn’t listening.  He was already out the door.  I followed him, kept trying to get him to stop, but he wouldn’t hear it.  He got out to his car and drove off to try to save his relationship.  Looking back, I can’t blame him, even though it was a fool’s errand.

Clay didn’t make it back for his exam.  In fact, he didn’t return for almost a week, showing up on the last day of the quarter just in time to pack up his stuff for the summer.  I was already packed and had moved to an apartment in town as I had a summer job, but I was still hanging around the dorms and caught him as he was finishing up.

“Hey man…are you ok?  We’ve been worried,” I told him.  He looked haunted, his eyes tired.  He actually seemed older than when he left, his frame sagging and his expression dark and brooding.

“Yeah, me and Amy…we broke up.  I don’t want to talk about it,” he replied.

“Sure, man.  Need any help?”  He nodded and I started folding clothes and packing them into his cases.  “Was the trip ok at least? Any car trouble?”

Clay stopped what he was doing, his spine stiffening.  “I…yeah, some.”

“What’s the matter?” I asked.  He sat on his bed and motioned for me to slide the door shut.  I did and sat on my empty bunk and looked over at him.  He seemed hesitant, but clearly wanted to tell me something.

“Something did happen on the way back.  But no one would believe it, except maybe you,” he said.

“Because I’m damned spooky?” I said with a smile.  That was a code between us.  Because of my obsession with horror stories, I was always described as “damned spooky”.

“Yeah.  But…I…do you really want to hear this?” he asked.  I nodded.  What follows is the story he told me, turned into a cohesive whole for the first time.  He broke up a few times as he told the story, and some bits I didn’t learn until months later when he said something out of the blue about his experience.  To my knowledge, he has never told another living soul this story.

Clay had made it to Chicago in record time, breaking the speed limit the entire way.  However, when he got there, instead of a John Hughes moment, he found his girl in bed with another guy.  This part I’ve pieced together, as Clay would never really say what happened, but I’ve inferred that there was a scuffle, and Clay lost, getting a shiner for his efforts and a warning from Amy never to bother her again.

He didn’t want to come home after that.  In fact, he may have been downright suicidal.  He apparently drove to a nearby street, turned off the car and sat there all night.  What dark thoughts went through his head, I don’t know, but by morning, exhausted but apparently in a better state of mind, he decided to start back to Ohio.

There are two things you should understand about Clay and his mode of transportation.  The first is that Clay had a horrible sense of direction.  We once got lost in Detroit on our way to a comic book convention, despite his having a map and clear directions.  He even got lost on his way to his own house.  The second was that his car was his mother’s old beater, a little Ford Escort with a burned out second gear.  The fact that he had made it to Chicago, both nagivationally and mechanically, was nothing short of miraculous.  But miracles seldom happen twice.

Clay got completely turned around while trying to get back, and ended up going south west when he should have been going south east.  He ended up deep in Illinois farm country.  He decided to turn left, knowing that had to head east, on a country road.  Somehow he thought that any numbered road must lead to another interstate.  Instead, he ended up on a narrow strip of asphalt in the middle of bright green corn and bean fields.

It’s hard to explain the loneliness of those Midwestern roads, where you might not see a house for miles and miles, and then they are set so far back from the road that they seem to be mirages in a sea of waving crops.  Clay drove his struggling little car through these desolate reaches, taking turns at random.  His thoughts weren’t on the road, and all worries about his exam were completely forgotten.  All he could see was Amy’s face as he meandered deeper and deeper into the farm land.

The car sputtered and stalled around three o’clock.  Clay had lost track of time, and had completely forgotten that he hadn’t so much as had a bite to eat since the evening before, when a microwaved burrito at a gas station in Indiana had been his last meal.  He got out of the car, which was emitting a disturbing amount of steam from under the hood, and looked around.  He hadn’t consciously realized where he was until that point.  He was lost, stranded on a back country road, with no idea where the nearest house might be and no way to call for help.

He tried to remember if he had seen a house anywhere behind him, but all he could think about was Amy standing in the doorway, her new lover’s arms around her, her angry face as she told him to leave and never come back.  He shook his head and started walking in the same direction he’d been travelling.  He walked for close to an hour, the May sun beating down on his neck.  No car came by, and no house appeared on either side of the road.  He was getting light headed and thirsty, and he knew he was close to passing out.

A horn sounded behind him.  He turned and saw an old truck coming down the road toward him.  A white haired man was behind the wheel and he slowed and pulled up beside Clay, a genial smile on his face.  “Need a lift, son?  I saw what I’d bet was your car a couple of miles back.”

“Yes sir,” Clay replied, eagerly opening the truck’s squealing door.  “I’m sort of lost.”

“Yep, you got the look of someone who’s right proper lost, boy.  The name’s Arken, Tom Arken, and my farm’s just up the road here.  We’ll get you all fixed up,” the old man said as he put the truck into gear.

“Thank you very much,” Clay said.  “My name’s Clay, I was trying to get back to Ohio from visiting my girl…uh…ex-girlfriend in Chicago.”

The old man’s smile erased some of the hurt that had accompanied Clay’s admission.  “You’re a damned far way from Ohio, my boy, but we’ll soon set you right.”

They drove on for a few miles, the old man asking very general questions; where did Clay go to school, where was he from original, did he like peach cobbler; and Clay answering glibly.  Mr. Arken turned off the road onto a gravel lane and drove through a field of tall, wild prairie grass.  A rambling old farm house appeared ahead, though Clay saw none of the signs of a phone line running to the blue-gray home.  The truck came to a halt in a round gravel lot beside the front porch, and Mr. Arken invited Clay inside.

“Thanks, if I can just use your phone, I’ll call a tow truck or something,” he said as he followed the old man up the steps to the porch.  The air was filled with the smell of baking, and although he was a little wary, Clay felt very much at home.

“Ain’t got one, sorry, but we’ll get that car of yours running again.  May take us a day or so, but here after we get some vittles we’ll take my old tractor and tow the car back.  Then you and I can take a look at it,” Mr. Arken said.

“I…I can’t stay, I mean..” Clay stammered.

“Nonsense.  Me and the missus have plenty of space in this old house, and I think you need some time to get your head screwed down tight anyway,” the old man said, opening the front door.  A grandmotherly woman, short with rosy cheeks and a white apron over a flower print dress peeked out.

Clay considered for a moment.  He was fairly certain the old man wasn’t some sort of weirdo.  He didn’t know why he felt that way, it was just a gut instinct.  And he had to agree that he needed some time, time away from school, from friends, and from any reminder of Amy.  Back at school there would be plenty of places where she would be on his mind, but this farm house in the middle of nowhere was completely vacant of her presence.  “Ok, sure.  I suppose.  If it isn’t any trouble.”

“No trouble at all!” Mr. Arken replied with a giant smile.  Clay thought he looked a little like Colonel Sanders without the mustache and goatee.

Mrs. Arken stepped out on the porch and stood by her husband, smiling from ear to ear as well.  “We’re always happy to have guests!  My name’s Elizabeth, but you can call me Betsy.  I’ve got some nice cold lemonade and some peach cobbler cooling on the counter inside.”

Clay followed the old couple into their home.  He had lunch with them, used their facilities, which he was initially was concerned might be of the outhouse variety, but turned out to be good old standard plumbing, and then went with Tom Arken to retrieve his car.  They rode out on Tom’s old John Deere, a big green monster of a tractor with wheel that stood taller than Clay.  The thing looked like it had been built in the 1940s, but it ran smooth as silk.  They reached the car, hooked up a chain, and Clay rode inside to steer while Mr. Arken pulled the car with the big tractor.

They got the small Ford back to the farm and put it up on blocks in the old barn.  Clay admitted he knew nothing about cars, but Mr. Arken just chuckled and said he knew enough for the both of them.  By the time the sun started to droop below the western horizon, they had pulled the radiator out and diagnosed that it had broken a seal somewhere.  Mr. Arken was sure they would be able to fix it the next day.

The two men headed inside where Mrs. Arken put out a tremendous repast.  She had cooked a full turkey, complimented with soft cooked baby carrots, a mountain of homemade mashed potatoes, green beans, beets and eggs in a tall glass jar, and some macaroni salad in a glass dish.  They ate and spoke of the sort of things that only make sense while sharing good food with friends.  When dinner was done, cups of coffee and slices of fresh blueberry pie were served.  For a short time, Clay actually began to forget about Amy.

As the hour grew late, Mr. Arken showed him to a room.  It was large, with a huge four post bed with a feather mattress and a homemade quilt.  His host showed him where the upstairs bathroom was, then left him to settle in for the night.  Clay fell onto the bed and was asleep before he knew it.

The next day began at dawn, with Clay woken by a friendly knock.  He dressed, combed his hair and brushed his teeth, and shared a breakfast of toast, bacon and eggs with his hosts.  Then Mr. Arken suggested they get to work on the car.  They spent another few hours looking it over, pulling apart the radiator, checking hoses, and finally the culprit, a split in a hose, was discovered.  They had lunch, sipped lemonades on the porch together, and then went back to work putting the car back together.  Not once during that wonderful day did Clay think about Amy.

Just as Mrs. Arken came out to tell “the boys” that supper was ready, then finished tightening down the last bolt.  Clay jumped behind the wheel of the car and turned it over.  It started without any hesitation and sounded just fine.  “That’ll get you home,” Mr. Arken said, “but best you wait till morning, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Clay said, smiling.  He followed his host back to the house, aching from work but relieved.  He still hadn’t had a single thought of Amy.

They had another amazing feast thanks to Mrs. Arken’s skill in the kitchen.  Over dinner, Tom explained how to get back to the highway, and the quickest way for Clay to get home.  The old couple and the young man sat at the table for hours chattering away.  Finally it was time for Clay to head to bed.

“It’s been a pleasure having you here, Clay,” Mrs. Arken said, an unmistakable note of sadness in her voice.  She hugged him close, and he felt warm and safe.

Tom Arken offered his hand, shook Clay’s and then pulled him into a hug too.  “You take care of yourself, son.  Remember that this world’s got a lot of dark spots in it, but it’s also got some light too, if you look for it.”

“You make it sound like I won’t see you before I leave in the morning,” Clay said with a smile.  The old couple just exchanged glances.  “I promise not to leave without saying goodbye.”

“That’s just fine,” Mr. Arken said, but there was sadness in his eyes.  “Now you get some sleep.  You got a hell of a lot of miles ahead of you.”

Clay nodded, climbed the stairs and fell into his bed.  He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

It was a bright shaft of sunlight that woke him, not the friendly knock at the door he’d been expecting.  He knew immediately that something wasn’t right; even as his eyes worked to focus in the morning sunlight, he felt rough wood under him instead of the comfortable bed.  He looked around, trying to get his bearings.  He was in a room that looked fire blackened and scorched, missing most of the roof above it, with a window that hadn’t had glass in it in years.  There was no furniture, just moldering heaps of detritus.  As he stood up, he realized he was still in the same room, but somehow everything was different, as if the place had long ago been gutted by a fire.

He stumbled to the door, calling out for the Arkens.  He got no response.  Outside of the room he saw that the farm house was a shambles, mostly collapsed with only the staircase up to the second floor intact.  Everywhere he looked he saw the telltale signs of a fire.  He grabbed his bag and began looking around, calling out for the old couple.  He went downstairs and looked around at the kitchen, an old iron stove that had held cooling apple pies just the day before the only evidence that the room had ever served such a function.  It, too, was covered in char and mossy growth.

Confused, Clay wandered out onto the porch, watching his step as many of the boards were loose or missing.  From outside, the burned out house looked so strange, like an image superimposed on his memory.  He looked over at the barn.  The rusted hulk of the John Deere sat beside the mostly collapsed building.  The rubber tires had rotted off, the green of the tractor almost completely replaced by rusted orange.

Clay’s car sat in the middle of the mostly weed filled lot.  He looked back at the sagging house.  None of it made sense.  Whatever fire had destroyed that farm house had to have happened years ago.  And yet he knew he hadn’t dreamed all of it.  The Arken’s had to have lived there, they had to have been there just last night.  He could still taste dinner, could still almost smell that musty-sweet scent of the old furniture.  But it was gone, all gone, and clearly could never have been there.

He got into his car, tossing his bag in the back, still not understanding what had happened.  Were they ghosts?  Had he just had a mental break?  He started the engine, looked back at the house one last time.  For a brief instant he thought he saw two faces looking out from the windows, but they were gone in the blink of an eye.  He wasn’t sure if it was real or just his mind wishing for his friends to return.  He put the car in drive and rolled up the overgrown lane to the road.  He looked back in his mirror, the skeleton of the house still there.  He shook his head, turning onto the road, following Tom Arken’s directions.

He made it to a town named Oakland and stopped at a diner just inside the city limits.  He ordered breakfast, his mind on the strange events of the past few days.  The waitress, a large, matronly woman, smiles pleasantly at him and asked what was wrong.

“Ever heard of anyone named Arken?” Clay asked.

The waitress considered.  “You mean the old Arken farm?  You’re not one of those ghost hunter types, are you? Why can’t people let those poor folks rest in peace?”

Clay shook his head, “No, no, I just…heard something about them.  They’re dead?”

The waitress snorted.  “For the past fifteen years.  Poor folks got caught in a fire.  Lightning, they say.  Place has been haunted ever since.  You aren’t going to go disturb them, are you?”

“No, not at all.  I’m… I’m on my way home,” Clay replied.  “I’m sure they deserve their rest.”

“Amen to that,” the woman nodded.

He finished his breakfast, tipped the waitress and favored her with a smile that he didn’t really feel as he walked out.  He got back into his car and headed out.  Sure as Mr. Arken had said, he was on his way onto the interstate.  It wasn’t until he reached the Ohio state line that he realized he hadn’t thought at all of Amy for two full days.

He stopped at home first, got clothes and made small talk with his parents who assumed his exams were done and he was home for the summer. When he got to campus, he’d been wanting to tell someone his story, and I was the lucky ear that heard it.

“They were real.  I swear they were,” he said after he finished his story.  “They weren’t ghosts.”

“Maybe they were guardian angels,” I said, which brought a smile to his face.  He knew I believed in no such thing.  “Whatever it was, they helped you when you needed it.”  He agreed, and after packing up his car, he left for the summer.

I never saw Clay again.  I ended up going in a different direction in life.  I heard he met a girl the next semester and that they eventually were engaged.  As far as I know, he never told the story of the courteous strangers to anyone else.

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