The two men walked on the shoulder of the road, both of their skeletal bodies hunched over as though in pain. As they walked into the frigid January wind, the snow blew into the small sliver of face visible between their hats and their tattered and worn knitted scarves, yet still they had no choice. It was either keep moving or freeze to death. Even with the icy road conditions, cars continued to flash past them at highway speeds, ignoring their cardboard sign with “Winnipeg” hastily-written upon it. The men continued in a silent fear, both of them fully aware that darkness was quickly approaching. Soon, the vehicles on the road would become far and few between and their chance at any form of heat for the night would be gone.
The first man appeared awkwardly lanky, as though his body had not yet become accustomed to being so thin. He led in front of the second man and was carrying a bulky, ragged briefcase. Inside, he had several pens and a notebook, which, until a few years ago, were the only possessions that he always carried with him. He had some crumpled pieces of paper, discarded because he believed they were not good enough to be part of his work-in-progress destined to become a novel. He also carried a small tin container which he hoped would hide the cigarettes he still smoked when he got particularly down on himself. It was days like today when the tin’s contents faced a significant loss. He carried a plastic comb and a small compact mirror, so that he could look presentable if he unexpectedly ran into any old friends from high school, who still did not know about his new, less than glamorous life. The majority of the briefcase’s space was taken up by his meticulously folded clothes. It never occurred to him that his dirty, hole-laden sweaters were probably just as noticeable as wrinkled clothes. His forgotten wallet holding his driver’s license and debit card was stored just below the pile of clothing. Even when he emptied his savings account and lost his car in the divorce settlement, he refused to part with either card. Some loose change rattled in the bottom of the briefcase with each step he took. Lying at the very bottom of the briefcase, he had an old, decaying toothbrush he had gotten the last time he’d visited the dentist, which must have been nearly five years ago by now.
The second man sulked closely behind the first, carrying their now soggy cardboard destination sign. The dirty duffle bag he carried his few possessions in was navy and gold, covered in the logos of his former high school’s basketball team. His name and jersey number had even been stitched into the dense fabric. Inside it, he carried a warped sliver of soap and a stained, ripped face cloth. A small, half empty tube of toothpaste lay beside an old toothbrush with yellowing bristles gone astray. Inside a small envelope for safe keeping, he carried pictures of his mom, younger brothers, and ex-girlfriend he’d left behind. He was not used to always being broke, and was reminded of it each time he heard the clanging of the glass beer bottles he’d been collecting from the ground to trade in for food money. It was a struggle to spend what money he did have on food, knowing it could also be used to make a phone call home. Unlike his friend, the second man did not carry all the clothing he owned in his bag. He did carry some special articles, such as his old Nike basketball shoes and the expensive dress shirt and tie he wore to his senior prom. However, the rest of the clothes were used to dress in layers, as he had not yet adapted to the painfully cold winter nights outside.
Suddenly, both of the men felt their hearts skip a beat when a shiny black BMW pulled on to the shoulder of the road several meters in front of them. The car’s engine stopped and the driver emerged from his car wearing an expensive business suit. Without noticing the two men, he hastily looked around at the trees that lined the highway and walked reluctantly into the bush.
The second man sped up to the first, now walking beside him. “Hey, Jerry. It looks like we might get a ride. You wanna try him?”
Jerry looked at his naive acquaintance. “Come on, Evan. I know you’re new at this, but don’t let me think you’re that stupid. You really think a guy like that would offer us a ride?” Jerry made a gesture of poise, pretending to adjust a neck tie.
“Hey man, you never know. Maybe he’s one of those ‘American Dream’ kinda people. Maybe he’s into stuff like charity. What’s the worst that could happen anyways? You think a business man is gonna beat us up? He wouldn’t have the nerve.” Evan sounded more like he was trying to convince himself than Jerry.
“Fine. Let’s wait by the car,” said Jerry without making any effort to hide his doubt.
“Look! The keys are still in the ignition!” said Evan once they approached the vehicle. “Jer, we could totally just steal the thing. Come on, let’s hop in!”
Jerry stared at Evan in disbelief, tilting his head to the side. Whispering, fearing the man could hear them from the bushes, Jerry said, “Evan, smarten up. You want your first call to your mom in five months to be from prison? I bet she’d be proud. Besides, I can’t imagine what my ex-wife would say to her new big shot husband if she sees my mug shot on the news tonight.” Jerry sounded angry. This was the first time it had ever occurred to him that crime may actually be necessary for his future survival.
Just as Evan frowned in agreement with Jerry, the business man quickly returned from the trees, looking anxious and embarrassed. He was clearly not the type of man who stopped for restroom breaks on the highway often. Continuing to jerk his head around to the sides of the road, he finally spotted the two men standing beside his car, his eyes widening.
“Umm… Hello gentlemen. Is there a problem here?” If this was his best attempt at disguising fear, he’d better work on it.
Evan looked at Jerry with an expression that he hoped would say “I’m sorry.” Then he threw down the cardboard sign and duffel bag and walked over to the business man, grabbing him by the shirt collar.
“Jerry – you get in the car. Get in the passenger seat. I know this isn’t what you want, but listen to me.” Evan’s voice was cracking and Jerry couldn’t distinguish whether it was from his fear or from the cold. “I’ve spent too many nights outside, man. I just can’t do it anymore. I won’t do it.”
“What are you doing?” Jerry began to yell. In the hours they’d spent outside together, Jerry had gotten to know Evan quite well. He knew this was not like him at all. “Look at yourself. Why are you doing this?” He screamed at Evan, who was shaking as he held the terrified man by the neck. The man looked on the verge of tears. “Evan, this man probably has a wife and kids.”
“Yeah, well did this man lose a basketball scholarship because of one stupid mistake? It looks like he’s doing okay, doesn’t it. Look at his car. Maybe he does have a wife and kids, but that’s more than we’ve got, isn’t it, Jer?” Evan, like the man he was holding hostage, was nearly in tears.
“You’re acting like an idiot, Evan!” Jerry’s throat was becoming raw from the cold mixed with his yelling. He allowed himself to calm down and speak softer, begging Evan to change his mind. “Yes, you did make a mistake. I’m sorry you lost your scholarship, but getting into that fight was your choice. It was your fault you sprained your wrist before playoffs. It’s not this man’s fault.”
“It’s just so frustrating, Jer. One stupid mistake. The guy was hitting on my girlfriend. Was I supposed to just sit there and watch? Yeah, I punched him. But I lost my scholarship and my girlfriend on the same day.” His voice lowered and he spoke only to himself now, “One stupid mistake. It changed everything.”
“I’m sorry. You know we both didn’t get what we wanted. You think I wanted to go bankrupt putting everything I had into getting that book published? You think I wanted my wife to leave me? Evan, don’t you think stealing this guy’s car is a bigger mistake than punching some jerk? Is that what you want? Mistake upon mistake, until you finally go to jail?”
Evan released the man from his grip, throwing him down. The man fell backwards a few steps and caught his balance.
Evan tried to regain the strength in his voice, but he knew that it was gone. He began to beg the man instead. “I won’t hurt you. We just need a ride. I can’t sleep outside anymore.” The man was still trembling, but Evan was too focused on hiding his own shaking hands to notice.
The man looked reluctant. He was now holding his hands together and breathing into them, trying to keep warm. “I don’t know why, but I am going to trust you. Sit in the back seat. I’m going to Winnipeg. Is that good enough for you?” The man asked pleadingly.
For the first time since Evan jumped at the man, Jerry moved in his place. He walked to where Evan had tossed the cardboard sign and held it up to show the man the wet, running letters that spelled out their hometown.
“We both live in Winnipeg. And it's time to go home.”