Paved in area’s while covered in gravel in others, the road made for a less than smooth drive as Tad crossed Death Valley towards U.S. 395. It was a trip he’d made on several occasions while visiting friends in Victorville and Barstow.
A full, bright moon lit the edges of the mountains and high desert fields filled with rabbit brush and sage. Tad could also make out the roadway using only the low beams on his truck as he bounced along from one surface to the next.
As he steered around the corner one of the more winding parts of the road, he saw the lone figure of a man walking on the side of the road. Tad slowly stopped the truck and slip it into reverse.
In no time he reached the man, who had continued to march along the roadway, “Would you like a ride?”
The man stopped, “You know you shouldn’t pick up hitch-hikers, right?”
“Yeah, but you are hitch-hiking and I’m simply offering you a ride.”
“You’re right, so I accept.”
The man, older than Tad had first believed, sat in the passenger seat and buckled the belt around his waist and shoulder. Tad also noticed the man didn’t take the time to say ‘hello’ offer his name or even shake his hand, so Tad remained quiet as the pair headed towards highway.
After a few minutes, Tad couldn’t stand the silence, “What’s your name and why out after dark?”
“I was wondering when you’d ask – the named Unger Stand and I’m a Census Taker.”
“You did say ‘Unger’ and not ‘Under,’ right?”
“That would’ve been kinda funny had your folks named you ‘Under’ but then I’m sure you thought of that before.”
For the first time the old man looked at Tad and smiled, “I didn’t know my parents.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Me and my big mouth.”
A few minutes of awkward silence slipped between the driver and passenger, before Tad grew brave enough to ask another question: “So. You work for the federal government, huh?”
“Sort of. Many people think it’s a part of the government, but like most agencies, it really isn’t. My turn is coming up ahead.”
Unger pointed a well-weathered finger at the turn-off. “I live in that little cottage there, so I’ll get out now and bid you a goodnight, what is left of it, and my sincerest thank you for the ride.”
Tad took Unger’s offered hand. While shaking it, he noticed how the old man felt chilly even though the old truck’s heater was working well.
“I’ll wait until I see you go inside.”
Unger nodded, turned and walked to the little house. He opened the door, looked back with a wave and shut the door behind.
“What a weird old man,” Tad muttered as he pulled back onto the road.
Within the hour and traveling north on 395, Tad pulled into the only gas station for miles to fuel his truck. He went in and used the facilities and bought an extra-large cup of coffee as well.
Back onto the highway, he reached down and grabbed the cup of coffee. He noticed that though very hot, and with steam rising from it, he couldn’t feel any heat radiating from it.
“What the hell?” he mumbled as he took a sip.
Tad could neither smell the coffee’s aroma or taste it. In fact, the coffee seemed neither hot nor cold as he took in the liquid.
Slowing down, he dumped the coffee out onto the roadway and chucked the cup into the bed of his truck, “Must have been a bad brew or something.”
“Maybe some tune’s will help fight off my tired,” Tad thought as he reached for the radio.
However, nothing came from the speakers, not even the hissing of the airwaves in their silence. He rolled the knob through both the AM and FM bands over and over. Nothing but dead-silence.
As he continued on into the night, his fatigue grew and he had to pull off the road, “Maybe if I get out and walk around I’ll wake up – if not I can always catch a nap.”
Tad opened his door and started to get out, but he felt very weak and wobbly as he clutched the side of the truck and stumbled around to the back of the vehicle. He complained aloud as he slid to the ground, using the passenger rear tire as an aide, “Son of a bitch…”
He could do nothing but sit there and note how his eye-sight was now failing and the moonlit night disappeared into an abyss of endless dark. And finally, as his brain began shutting down, his last thought, “Did that old man say Census Taker or did he mean Senses Taker?”
The following morning, state road workers found Tad unresponsive, but with a heartbeat and called 9-1-1 for help.