The Hitchhiker

Horace was driving alone from Toronto to New York City. A few hundred yards before the Canadian border he saw the girl holding up a sign that said Hoboken, NJ. She was tall and delicate, and Horace liked the way she looked in her loose dress the color of sun-bleached seaweed. When he stopped, he didn’t think he might want to sleep with her — he was lonely, and could use the company.

She asked if she could smoke. Horace said yes, and she rolled down the window with her long, narrow fingers. Horace didn’t smoke, but carried a lighter on him everywhere he traveled. It was an old Zippo lighter he had from his father, brought over from France at the end of the war, as a memento. It had a large lid and a tall crown around the wick that protected the flame from the wind. Horace’s father had lit his cigarettes faithfully with it until he died of lung cancer, and Horace hated him for naming him Horace, and for smoking.

It turned dark by the time they reached the Catskills. When they stopped to eat the girl realized she had forgotten her lighter in the car. Horace let her borrow his and the girl kept it. Illuminated by the amber at the end of the cigarette, her face looked drawn, and her hollow eyes sparkled like multicolored droplets of water.

He was happy to arrive in Hoboken and park in front of her building. His vision was blurred from all the driving. They went inside. Her apartment was next to the elevator. It was modest and dusty. The telephone was unplugged, and there were cobwebs in the corners. “Coffee?” the girl asked and Horace nodded. But she sat down at the dining room table and started smoking.

In the kitchen, Horace found the shelves empty. He returned, sat near her, and unsure of what to do next, he touched her thigh. She crushed the cigarette in the ashtray, and slapped him. Hurt, he left the apartment. The door locked behind him. In front of the elevator, he realized he had forgotten his lighter. He turned around, and knocked at the door. There was no response, and he knocked harder. After a while, he started hitting the door with his feet, screaming and cursing.

Neighbors came out. They told Horace the young woman who had lived there until recently, had died under unknown circumstances. Horace told them his story. At first, the neighbors were suspicious, but Horace looked like a decent young man, and eventually, the superintendent took it upon himself to unlock the door.

There was no one in the apartment. On the dining room table, next to an ashtray with a crushed cigarette, was a Zippo lighter.

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