DUTIFUL STRANGER 

 

By 

 

CYNTHIA LEE SHEELER 

 

 

 

I always do the right thing. So when my headlights flashed on that girl waving her arms on that cold winter night, I had to pull over. She must’ve been freezing in that short skirt, little more than a band over her privates. No coat. Low-cut sequined top. Heels spikey enough to wound a man. It’s a wonder she could stand in those things, let alone walk that ice-coated road. Foolish girls today. 

I dropped my eyes to the tiny plastic Jesus statue magnetized to my dashboard. My ever-present Lord and Savior, always guiding me. I smiled inside and rolled down the frosted window. “My goodness, dear. What on earth are you doing out here in the middle of the night? Get in, won’t you?” 

She swung open the door and tumbled into the front seat, sobbing and gasping for breath. Stringy, over-treated hair stuck to her tear-streaked face. A cut on her lip bloomed a fresh dot of blood. 

I felt around the inside of my purse for the Kleenex tucked beside my pocket Bible. “Here you go, dear.” 

She sniffed and pulled a tissue from the travel-size package. 

“My name’s Mary.” I extended my hand. 

With a handshake limp as a raw piece of bacon, she mumbled. “Brandy.” 

Brandy. Of course. I figured she was a Brandy or a Brittany or an Ashley, or some other popcorn ball name her mother saved up from some 90’s nighttime soap. Brandy. Not even Biblical. “Where’re you going, Brandy?” 

“Police station.” She blew her nose loud as a mechanic with a sinus issue. 

I put the car in gear and steered onto the dark street. My dim headlights, the only sign of life. “What happened, dear? Someone hurt you?” 

She nodded and fought a sob. “James. The guy I was seein’.” She turned her head toward the window. “I broke up with him tonight and he tried to break my face. Just went psycho.” 

I lowered my eyes to dashboard Jesus. 

“We’d been up at The Lucky Star Tavern. You know that place over there on route 44?” 

“Yes, I know the place.” I knew the place well, indeed. 

“Same place I met him around Christmastime. It’s kinda his hangout. So anyways, he’d been drinking shots all night like he always does. Got real liquored up.” She turned her head toward me and scrubbed her nose with the disintegrating Kleenex. “After the bar he was drivin’ me home. That’s when I told him. Told him we were done. We’d only gone out a couple months, so I’m thinkin’ no big loss. Right? It’s not like we were engaged or somethin’.” 

“Of course not, dear.” I turned a corner, the road slippery beneath my tires. Squinting in the dimness, I flipped on my high beams. Nothing but trees on either side and an empty stretch of road ahead. I gripped the steering wheel tight. “What did he do to you?” 

She sniffed, wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. “He pulled off the road, close to where you found me. Started screamin’. Told me I was lower than the dirt on the bottom of his shoe.” She wagged her head. “Said his Mother warned him ‘bout girls like me. You know, girls who live north of the river. He always thought he was better, because he lived in the better part of town and cause his Dad’s a preacher.” 

“Oh, I see.” I clutched the gold cross hanging from my neck.  

“Then he started poking my arm, over and over, just to irritate me. So, I swatted his hand away. Told him to quit. That’s when it got real ugly. He yanked my hair. Said I was trash. Called me a bitch.” 

“Oh my. Such language.” I flicked my stare back down to my all-forgiving Jesus.  

“Yep. That ain’t even the half of it. He could be so crude. So nasty.” She nodded, self-righteously. “Then he hauled off and smacked me. Right in the mouth. I think one of my teeth mighta come loose.” She touched her pinky to a bottom tooth. “Then he punched me. Hit me right here.” She pointed to her cheek. 

“Lord Jesus.” I shook my head. This was worse than I’d thought. 

“Then he opened his door and shoved me outta the car. Just left me out here in the middle of nowhere.” She hugged herself and rubbed her arms. “Didn’t even bother to toss my coat out after me. I’d been out there for I don’t know how long.” 

“Well, thank the Lord I came along.” Thank the Lord, indeed. “Had this young man, um…James, was it?” 

“Yep. James. Always James. Never Jim or Jimmy. Said only his Mother called him Jimmy.” 

I squinted through the windshield, trying hard to spot that turn-off. That old road was so much easier to drive on during the day. “Had James ever done anything like that to you before?” 

She shook her head. “Nope. Nothin’ like that. I mean I knew he was kind of a bad boy. Drove too fast, drank too much. The first night I met him, he’d had way too many. Was pickin’ a fight with the bartender. Even grabbed my ass before he even knew my name, but I kind of liked that about him.” 

I shot her a glance, catching a glimpse of her cleavage. Small breasts, like two scoops of ice cream served up for show. Girls today… 

“I liked how James was when we first started goin’ out. Liked that little bit of danger. You know, son of a preacher gone wild and all that. Was real nice to me at first too. Bought me little stuffed animals. Showed up at my work outta the blue to take me to lunch. Could be a real gentleman when he wanted.” 

“That sounds nice.” A smile played at the corners of my mouth. I flashed another glance at Jesus. 

“Yeah, it was nice, but, then things changed.” 

“Oh? How so?” I skated my eyes to the rearview mirror, relieved at the blackness behind me. Not another car in sight. 

“He stopped doing those nice little things after about a month. Got real possessive too. Always wantin’ to know where I was. Who I was with. I guess some men are just like that.” 

“Oh yes, dear. Even after thirty years of marriage, my husband, Frank, insists I tell him where I’m off to every time I leave the house.” 

“For real?” 

I chuckled and offered a hearty nod. “For real.” 

“Don’t get me wrong, Mary.” She placed her hand on her heart, as if making a pledge. “I’m not judgin’ you, but some women, those independent types, would think you’re a fool. Behind the times by like six decades.” 

“Well, so be it.” I waved my gloved hand. “I don’t listen to what some silly feminists say. I listen to my Lord. In the Bible it says the man is the head of the woman, so who am I to disagree? It’s the duty of a woman to give in to her mate.” 

Brandy nodded, but scrunched up her face like she’d bit into a raw beet. Foolish girls today. 

“If my Frank wants to know when I’m going to the grocery or getting my hair done, that’s his right. I always tell him where I’m headed.” I curled in my lips. Except for tonight. 

“James was real traditional like that. But that’s not even why I broke it off.” 

“So why did you break up with him?” 

“Things just got really weird.” 

“How so, dear?” The February wind whirled and whipped, pushing my tiny car toward the edge of the road. 

“He’d bring up his mother constantly. I’d never even met the woman, but he talked about her all the time like she was the center of his universe.” 

I tapped the breaks around a curve, felt the tires slide toward the center line. Just where was that turn-off? Had I missed it? 

“Now I’ve dated mama’s boys before. They can get real annoying, but this went way beyond that. Can’t tell you how many times he broke a date, so he could go help mama.” 

“Oh, that’s not a bad thing, Brandy.” I smiled. “Sounds like he’s a good son.” 

“It was way past that. It was creepy.” 

“Creepy? How so, dear?” 

“I mean he told her everything. Like, everything. Even parts of our, like you know…our romantic life. One time he couldn’t… um…let’s just say he couldn’t perform. I told him it was no big deal. I don’t make a big issue outta that kind of thing. I know it happens sometimes, especially when a guy drinks a lot.” 

“Oh my.” I touched my golden cross again. Give me strength, Lord… 

“So, I told him it didn’t matter to me. I thought he’d be happy, cause he didn’t have to be embarrassed. But then he tells me he told his mom about it. Can you believe that? Told his mom he couldn’t get it up!” 

I chuckled. “Oh my, goodness. Well, that’s what I call a close family bond.” 

“Yeah, that’s for sure. So mama had the nerve to tell him it was my fault. That I wasn’t desirable enough.” 

Snow fell in fat, wet flakes that landed on my windshield like frosty, splattered bugs. I twisted on my wipers and turned to her, really looking at her face for the first time. Despite her desperate attempt to look attractive with that skimpy outfit and over-done hair, she really wasn’t very pretty. Her eyes were too small. Her nose was too big. Skinny body, no curves, aside from those little ice cream scoop breasts. 

“I knew I had to end it with James after that. Didn’t expect him to go so crazy, though.” She rifled through her purse and yanked out a pack of cigarettes. “He really clocked me tonight. He’s already got a record. Nothin’ major. Few DUI”s. Disorderly conduct. But, what he done to me is assault. He’s gonna pay. They’ll lock him up after I report him.” She waved the pack at me. “You mind?” 

“Not in my car, dear. Let me pull off and you can step out for a moment.” 

“That’s cool.” She pulled a cigarette from the pack and dangled it between her lips. 

Narrowing my eyes, I spotted it. Finally. That narrow gravel path. I slowed the car and made the turn. “Here we are, dear.” 

“Thanks a lot for pickin’ me up, Mary. You probably saved my life.” 

“Of course, dear. It’s my duty as a Christian woman.” Her lips lifted to a crooked smile. Such a foolish girl. Shallow as a puddle. Probably never even stepped foot in a church. I couldn’t help but feel sorry. How could I not? 

She stepped out into the wet, frigid night and lit up. Her silhouette shivered beside my car. Bony frame teetering on those silly heels. She hobbled away toward the woods, the tip of her cigarette glowing through the falling snow. 

Leaning over the passenger seat, I popped open the glove compartment, and reached inside. I opened my car door, letting in an arctic blast. Moist flakes spritzed my face. My eyes traveled back to Jesus on the dashboard. Lord, give me strength. I stepped out, circled the car toward Brandy, cold metal cocked in my gloved hands. What choice did I have? Couldn’t let her hurt my Jimmy. It’s the duty of a mother to protect her son. 

And I always do the right thing.