He's out there hitchhiking. I'm driving back up West Border Parkway in the morning snow, and I know right off it's him because I watched him come out of his house three times last month, and just saw him go in the variety store all alone about twenty minutes ago, hanging around while the school bus came and then took off without him.
He looks in the car window quickly, then opens the door and piles right in. He rubs his hands together and breathes on them. I can see they're pretty red from the cold. He's smaller than I thought he might be, like I could push or pull him with one hand. I look at his face, all rosy with a few snowflakes melting, though his eyes look unhappy or mad or something. "You okay over there?" I ask. "What's with the hitchhikin' – you forget somethin' at home?"
"Me? No. Just trying to get a ride."
"Where to? You skippin' school and goin' to the mall?"
He says nothing, just wipes his face with his hand.
"You really shouldn't be out there hitchhikin'."
He shrugs. Then he puts his fingers right in the defroster vents and shifts his feet, kicking the roll of duct tape on the floor. "Maybe I should just get out and try another ride." He puts his hand to where the door lever should be, but finds the stem part broken off.
"Let's not get hasty here," I says. "You're in outa the snow, you got nice warm heat. It's just not every day some kid jumps in my car. How's those hands? Warmer, I bet."
He looks at his hands. I can see they picked up some dust from the dashboard. He wipes them on his coat front, and it makes a kind of whistling sound. "This is a pretty old car," he says. "I never knew anybody that drove such an old car." Kid starts telling me his father has a brand new Jaguar XKR convertible that makes my car look like some dog butt jalopy.
"You're gettin' a little harsh there, don't you think? This car's a classic – a Dodge Dart with slant six engine. I'll betcha there's only five or six people that have one of these. How many hundreds have a Jag? Besides, you shouldn't be talking like that."
"When I was a kid, I never said that kind of stuff in front of respectable adults. Think you'd have a careful mouth, coming from such a high class town as you do."
I can see he's a little scared. He keeps looking at me like he thinks I'm going to hurt him or something. Maybe he can see I'm scared too, with him suddenly here before my eyes.
Pretty soon we come up to a red light, and before I know it, he's fiddling with the broken door handle. I jam the brakes hard. "Whatta you think you're doin'?" I says.
"I – I was just trying to close the door tighter."
"Can't you see it's busted?" I says. "Don't you try that stuff, or else you'll get hurt. You get that?"
"What's everybody's problem with me today?" he says. "If you don't mind, your stinking door's loose and I don't feel like falling out."
Just as the light turns green, I catch a look at his face and see some tears. Now I feel kinda bad. "You don't need to cry," I says. "Just don't be messin' with the door, you won't get yourself in trouble."
"Easy for you to say. I'm already in trouble."
"Well, for your information, primarily, blowing off school. Then, in case you didn't notice me out there hitchhiking? My mother'll kill me, and my father will ground me until I'm twenty-one. And plus, I'm stuck in this old car with you, and no airbags, and I don't think I should be doing this."
"Just don't worry," I says. But I realize I'm the guy with the worries. I figured and calculated a dozen different possible things, but never imagined him just jumping in my car.
We drive a while more and get into downtown by and by. He gets busy looking at the holiday decorations all around the city, and seems to calm down. "Now," I says, "you're in my car and not in your old man's hotshot convertible, which if you think about it, ain't too practical on a snowy day. And besides, if you love his car so much, how come you were so quick to take a ride with a stranger?"
"Can we just drive?"
"We are driving."
"If you really want to know, I was cold. And besides, nobody stops to pick up a kid."
"Except maybe a school bus?"
"Duhh – does it look like I want to be in school?"
"Don't look much like you want to be anywhere. Not school, not home, not in my stinking rattletrap jalopy, and I'm beginnin' to wonder how I got so lucky to get you, the Booker kid, all to myself."
His eyes jump right to me. "Hey! What the – how do you know who I am? Do you work for my father?"
"I just know your name's Booker," I says.
"Do you work at my school?"
"Hardly, kid. So what's your first name?"
He don't answer me, just wrinkles up his forehead and shifts in his seat.
"Ain't you got a name, kid?"
He's irritated now, like he's more mad I'm trying to pry out his name than he is about getting driven off by a stranger. "Okay, it's Gabriel," he says almost too soft to hear.
I reach out my hand for a handshake, and he looks at it like he don't know what to do, so I wiggle my fingers until he finally puts his hand in mine and I shake it. "Nice to meet you," I says.
We drive a half block more and nobody talks. Then suddenly he says, "Pretty hammy name, isn't it? That's my mother's idea. Gabriel – sounds gimpy."
"How old are you, anyhow?"
"Eleven," he says, then he looks out the window again.
"Just like I thought," I says.