An Act of Charity

The summer my wife, Carrie, and I went on a road trip out west to Yellowstone Park, it was the first time we’d ever traveled so far in a car for a vacation. We drove over four thousand miles, round trip, from Maine by way of a Triple A Trip Ticket that had our route highlighted so we wouldn’t get off track.

Carrie’s sister, Millie, was going to feed the cat and collect the papers and mail, so there wasn’t anything to fret about when we were away. She’d water the couple of plants we had, too.

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It was so brown, flat and empty that we hadn’t imagined such a place ever existed, except maybe on the moon.”

We were into our third day on the road, somewhere in western Nebraska. It was so brown, flat, and empty that we hadn’t imagined such a place ever existed, except maybe on the moon. Carrie kept asking where the trees were and saying the only time she ever saw so far was when she was looking straight up to the heavens. She was right about that. You could actually see the curve of the earth, because there wasn’t anything to block the horizon no matter which way you looked.

The wide-open spaces kind of appealed to me though. Filled me with some kind of awe, you could say. But Carrie wasn’t of a like mind on that score. She thought it was way too desolate and it put her off some.

“Where would your friends or family be out here? People can’t live in such a place,” she said, but then I pointed out a house sitting way off from the highway.

“Somebody does,” I remarked, and Carrie just shrugged her shoulders, saying, “Not me . . . never.”

We pulled into to a rest area to stretch our legs and relieve ourselves, and we saw this old car off to the side with its doors wide open. Three kids were running around like they were playing tag and a man and a woman we figured to be their parents were standing there just looking kind of lost. We parked across from them, and the woman gave us a friendly wave.

We were about to head into the facility when the man asked if he could have a word with us. We turned and walked over to where they were parked. The kids stopped their chasing about and stared at us as if we’d just magically appeared out of thin air.

“Thank you, sir,” said the man, extending his hand to shake.

He couldn’t have been more than 25, and the woman with him looked even younger. Both had this haggard and wary expression on their faces that gave me the impression that life had not been too easy for them.

“My name’s Josh and this is my wife, Carmen. We’re in kind of a bind. We ran out of cash on our way home to Laramie and only have enough gas for a few more miles. We thought we were fine, but underestimated what we’d need to get back home. Kids haven’t eaten since yesterday, too.”

Here the young man took a deep breath that looked to pain him and slowly continued.

“Would it be possible to get a small loan from you? Enough to get us on our way and get the kids a little something to munch on? We’ll pay you back as soon as we get home. Just give us your address. You can trust us. This has never happened to us before. Had to get to Kansas City for my mom’s funeral, so we took off from Laramie half prepared.”

My wife gave me a quizzical look, but I could tell that she was feeling sorry for the couple and their brood. They looked like decent enough people to me, so I asked how much they needed. When I looked around, I saw that their kids had resumed their playing near our car.

“Thank you, sir. I figure $20 for gas will get us home. If you have another $10 for the kids to get something to put in their bellies, that would be great.”

I gave my wife a glance and could tell she was okay with giving them the money. As soon as I reached for my wallet, the woman grabbed my wife’s hand and thanked her profusely.

“Please give us your address, so we can mail it right back to you, ma’am,” she said.

“No . . . that’s okay. Don’t worry about it. Glad to help,” I said.

“Oh, please let us pay you back,” insisted the woman.

“We’ll get paid back some other way, dear. A good deed always has its rewards,” said Carrie.

“That is tremendously Christian of you,” said the man, tucking the bills into his pocket.

“Well, good luck to you and your family,” I said, taking Carrie by the hand and moving us in the direction of the restroom.

When we returned to our car, there was no sight of the family we’d run into in the parking area. My wife and I sat for a while thinking about the poor folks we’d helped and feeling pretty good about our act of charity.

“It was the right thing to do, honey,” said Carrie, squeezing my arm affectionately.

“Yes,” I said. “It was the only decent thing to do.”

That night we reached Guernsey, Wyoming, where we planned to stay on the last major leg of our west-bound road trip. When we gathered our things to take into the motel room, we discovered that Carrie’s camera was missing.

“Did we leave it back where we stayed in Lincoln?” asked my wife.

“No. I think we contributed more than $30 to those folks back at the rest stop,” I answered, thinking of the kids playing around our car while we talked with their parents.

“No . . . really? You think those kids stole it. Well, I can’t . . .”

“Hate to think that . . . but, yes, I’m convinced they did. I know your camera was in the back seat.”

“Oh, that’s just so awful! Can’t imagine anyone putting their children up to stealing from people. What’ll we do?”

“Nothing we can do. We don’t have their address. All we know is that they were going to Laramie . . . if, in fact, they were.”

“We should call the police.”

“And what would we tell them? We don’t even know their names.”

On our return home, we stopped at the same roadside rest area where we’d had our bad experience. Just for the heck of it I asked the attendant if she remembered seeing the couple we’d run into. She gave us a surprised expression and then lifted a bag from behind the counter.

“You the people who left this behind?” asked the woman, removing Carrie’s camera from a sack.

We were more than a little stunned, to say the least. “Yes, it’s ours. But how . . .?”

“A young couple said they found it in the parking lot and hoped you might come back and get it. And, Lord almighty, here you are. Isn’t that just the darnedest thing?”

“Did they say anything else?”

“Not at that time, but they came back a few days later and told me to put this envelope in the bag with the camera.”

We thanked the attendant and returned to our car. But we were in shock. There I opened the envelope and found a piece of paper with handwriting on it and three 10 dollar bills.

The note read as follows:

Our oldest child has a problem with taking things that don’t belong to him.
When we got back home, we found your camera, and he confessed to stealing
it from your car. We feel so bad and hope you come back to that rest stop so
you can get your valuable. We’re still not sure what to do with our child’s problem,
but we hope returning your camera shows him how to right a very
bad wrong. We may have to tie him up in the basement until the devil is out
of him. Bless you and thank you for your kindness. God be with you always.

 

“Oh Lord, they wouldn’t do that to their child, would they? That would be so cruel.”

“No . . . I doubt it. They’re probably just joking about tying him up.”

“Well, they didn’t strike me as the joking type. We have to try to get in touch with them.”

“There’s no way we can find them, honey. There’s no address on this envelope.”

“Maybe they left it with the attendant. Let’s go ask.”

We checked back with the lady in the rest stop, but she said the young couple hardly spoke a word when they dropped off the camera and, later, the envelope.

Carrie was so upset at the possibility that a child might be abused on her account that she even suggested we go toward Laramie and try to track down the family.But I convinced her that it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack without having their names, and we continued on home to Maine.

Since that trip a few years ago, we’ve pretty much put the whole thing out of our minds. But every so often it comes up in conversation – and we start worrying about that kid all over again.

Michael C. Keith is the author of eleven story collections, a critically praised memoir, and two-dozen non-fiction books. Find out more at www.michaelckeith.com.

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