Thomas J. Hubschman /

The Hitchhiker

He had been stopping all over Ireland to pick up hitchhikers. So when he saw Seamus at the side of the road with his thumb out and the mandatory cigarette hanging from his lip, he didn't think twice before pulling over onto the gravel shoulder.

The young man climbed into the back seat as if it were a bus he had been waiting for, and none too early it was.

"How far you going?" Matt asked like a world traveller after five full days away from Morristown. He and Greta were on the last leg of their trip, with one night to go in the capital city and then a quick run cross-country to Shannon.

Neither had been overseas before. The trip was a wedding present from their parents and included a set of vouchers for six nights in first-class hotels and a thousand dollars spending money. They had seen the Ring of Kerry, with a stopover in Listowel to light a candle for Matt's ninety- year-old grandmother, Connemara, Cork City and of course Waterford where Greta ordered five hundred dollars worth of crystal. Three days from now they would both be back at the Passaic County Department of Audit and Control.

"Dublin," the hitchhiker said, sunk into the backseat like a frail old man. Some hitchhikers were intimidated by Matt's American accent, their Irish sociability suppressed as if it were the driver and his young bride, not the stranger by the side of the road, who might be thinking robbery or worse. But Seamus (they didn't learn his name until he got out on O'Connell Street) merely seemed to prefer his own company.

"We'll be just in time for supper," Matt said to Greta who was still embarrassed by her newly sanctified state, as if any stranger could see just from looking at her what they were up to each night. "I'm famished."

From the rapidly urbanizing landscape it was clear that they were approaching a major city, unlike their earlier entry into Cork which had materialized as suddenly as an afternoon squall, a smoky old town sunk into a crater rimmed by lush green country. But entering Dublin was clearly going to be a graduated experience, with suburb, light industry and all the other spinoffs appropriate to a major metropolis.

Matt had only been away from home for a week and had loved every hedge-rowed mile of it. Even left-hand driving no longer held any terrors. But the sight of an honest-to-God housing development and then a factory, with the road widening to accommodate heavy trucks, made his pulse quicken with delight.

"Reminds you of the Jersey Turnpike," he said.

Greta was still affecting an interest in the passing scenery, so Matt decided to appeal to his passenger's natural garrulousness.

"You're from Dublin yourself?"

It wasn't clear from his expression that Seamus realized he had been spoken to. Matt's rearview-mirror estimate was that the Irishman was about the same age as himself. Dark, in need of a haircut and pathologically thin, he looked like a down-at-the-heels rocker. All the other people they had picked up -- young mothers popping into town for a quick shopping spree, older women saving on bus fare, teenagers up to God-knew what -- though shocked to find themselves in the company of foreigners, could at least be induced to answer a question or two and even venture a comment on the fickle Irish weather.

"Nah," Seamus finally replied, unwilling to do more than the minimum to avoid being put back on the road.

But after five days of easy successes -- Matt was a listener by default, but an eager and encouraging listener -- he still had faith that if he could only hit on the right subject he could open up this glum young man like a bartender uncorking a bottle of stout.

"Could you," he tried again, "recommend a place to eat in town?" this time taking a tone that, while not unfriendly, suggested that a full and civil answer was anticipated.

The question caused a shiver to rack the hitchhiker's meager frame.

"One place is as good as another."
"Something special. We're on our honeymoon," Matt persisted with a quick glance at Greta who was still paralyzed with shame.
"I don't eat out much myself," the hitchhiker replied in a barely audible voice. "Don't have the money."
"Well, maybe you could recommend some points of interest."
"'Points of interest'?" Seamus replied with a disgust that turned him back into a bitter old man. "If it's p'ints of interest you want, you'd best ask the bloody tourist board."

When they entered the outskirts of the city the passenger finally made himself useful by directing them through the tangled streets. Crossing a canal-like body of water, Matt asked if it was the Liffey. The river's name was all he remembered from the Joyce he had read for school -- the Liffey and the opening lines of Portrait of the Artist: "When you wet the bed, first it is warm, then it is cold." Matt had been a hopeless bed-wetter right up to the age of puberty.

"'Tis. The filt'y Liffey."

They were on Dublin's main drag, clogged like any other city at this time of day with rush-hour traffic. This was were Seamus got off. He unexpectedly extended a cadaverous hand to shake first Matt's, then Greta's own hands and even called her "Missus."

"Glad to have you with us," Matt said, lmore than willing to forgive the young man's prior sulk. "I'm sorry, we never actually introduced ourselves. I'm Matthew Conover, and this is my wife Greta." That was when they learned the hitchhiker's own name.

"Seamus What?" Matt asked.

But Seamus was already out of the car and, once free of it, resumed his cynical sneer.

"Smit'," he said with a grin that only affected one side of his face, and disappeared into the crowds on the sidewalk.

They had booked a room in the Gresham. There had been a bomb scare a couple days earlier, so when Matt drove the car into the hotel garage the attendant, a plausible twin to any of his maternal uncles, thoroughly checked out the "boot." Then Matt joined Greta in the lobby, a darker but more memorable public space than those of the Great Southerns or the restored castles where they had previously stayed.

They were escorted to their rooms by a bellboy old enough to be their grandfather. Matt overtipped him, having already offered to carry one of the bags himself. The old man would have none of it and seemed insulted even as he pocketed the pound note.

"What do you think?" Matt said, trying out the narrow double bed in the larger of the two rooms. "Not bad?"
"It's grand," Greta replied, still standing in the smaller but tastefully-furnished sitting room. "I've never been in such a grand place before."
"'Grand.' You're starting to sound like an Irishman."
"Irish-woman," she corrected. Willing to defer to Matt on almost all matters both before and after their marriage, she held to a narrow but passionately-held range of feminist canons with uncharacteristic feeling. She had already corrected him publicly when, having engaged a young farmer and his wife in conversation one night in a pub, Matt referred to the woman as a shepherd. "Shepherdess," Greta corrected quick as a gunshot. The only other matter about which he had seen her show such warmth was when her mother tried to talk her out of a set of Royal Dalton in favor of a less expensive china for her trousseau.

"Come and look at this quilt," he said, fingering the thick featherbed. "You could make a mattress out of it."

But Greta had begun unpacking. "I'll have to change before we go out for dinner." "There's plenty of time. Come and sit by me."

She removed her makeup kit, then a blue dress from the larger of their two valises. She put the case down on the bedroom dresser and hung the dress on the closet door. Then she checked her hair in the big round dresser mirror.

Matt began nuzzling her neck.

"Give us a kiss, woman. Sure, I'm doyin' fer it."
"I thought you were starving. For food, I mean."
"Oy am that," he said. "But for you too, Mrs. C."

"What did you make of Seamus?" she asked half an hour later as she hooked on a string of pearls Matt had given her as an engagement present.
"What about him?"
"Strange, don't you think? So glum and gloomy. Not at all . . . well, Irish. He had a mysterious quality. You know, like he's done bad things. Why do you suppose he was hitchhiking?"
"Why does anybody hitchhike?" Matt said, sitting on the edge of the bed in his underwear.
"Do you think he's a member of the IRA? What was the character called in that play? The shadow of something?"
"That's it," she said, turning toward him with an animation he had last seen the night he put his diamond engagement ring on her finger. Then she had burst into tears. "Do you think he's a gunman?"
"Schizophrenic, more likely. Or mugger."
"Don't be silly. They don't have schizophrenics in Ireland. Here," -- turning her back to him again -- "finish zipping me up."
"They have schizophrenics everywhere."

"They don't," she insisted, checking her lipstick in the mirror. "They're too religious." They decided to have dinner in the hotel. Matt had had his heart set on a plate of mutton stew ever since they touched down in Shannon. After a medieval feast in Blarney Castle and one after another serving of "continental" cuisine, he was delighted to find exactly what he was longing for right there in the Gresham.

If he had been hungry earlier, he was downright ravenous after their lovemaking and had to keep nibbling rolls and soda bread while waiting for his meal to arrive. But when the waiter, a lanky youth in a uniform that might have been his first communion suit except that it was black, finally set the steaming plate down in front of him, Matt found that apart from a huge boiled potato there was nothing but fat on the plate -- big chunks of sheep fat.

"Send it back."

Greta herself had opted for lemon sole.

"How can I? This must be what real mutton stew is."
"But you can't eat that mush."

He regarded the cubes of fat with disgust. His mother used to trim the gristle carefully from his lamb chops before he would consent to eat them. Her own stews were so lean that the butchers used to disappear into the meatlocker when they saw her coming.

He cut a piece, then halved it again to postpone the inevitable and finally stuck a piece in his mouth. He immediately spit it out.

"Sorry," he said. "I just can't eat it."

He filled up on potato, more bread and dessert. But when they left the restaurant he felt unsatisfied.

"You should have sent it back."
"Let's just forget it. Look, it's still light out."

Their watches read 9:30.

"That's because we're so far north. They play golf until ten o'clock at this time of year. It said so in the travel brochure. Would you like to take up golf, Matt? We could get matching sets of clubs."
"We'll see."
"Who's statue is that?" she asked, seemingly more animated the more glum he himself became. "By the bridge there."

As she rushed forward to read the inscription, he looked down into the dark river below. The filt'y Liffey.

"Who was O'Connell?" Greta said. "I should know, I suppose. Isn't that terrible?" Greta was only half Irish.
"Some revolutionary."
"An IRA man?"
"No doubt."

She took hold of his arm and squeezed hard.

"Matt, isn't it exciting? The two of us here in Dublin. On our honeymoon."

They had come to a halt in the middle of the bridge. She lifted her head and closed her eyes. People were trying to pass on either side of them.

"Kiss me."

Half a block further on she demanded that he kiss her again.

"Tell me how much you love me, Matt."
"Greta, for pete's sake."
"Tell me that you'll love me for ever and ever."
"What was in that wine?"
"If you don't tell me you'll love me for ever and ever, forsaking all others, I won't take another step."
"I already said all that."
"At the altar."
"I want you to say it again. Put your arms around me, Matt, and say it."
At least now they were off to one side of the pavement and out of people's way. "I'll love you forever and ever."
"Forsaking all others."
"Forsaking all others."
"Do you really mean it?"
"Of course I do."
"Cross your heart and hope to die?"
"Good," she said, releasing him. "Then it's all right."

He didn't know what she meant by that "all right," so he assumed it had something to do with being female.

There was still blue sky above the narrow winding street that had been a wide boulevard just a few blocks back. The shop windows were filled with smart clothes and crystal (thank God they had gotten that over with). A tea house, to Greta's disappointment, was closed.

Then the street suddenly ended. Ahead lay a park with a swank neighborhood of Georgian row houses to one side. It was as if a stroll down New York's Fifth Avenue had abruptly ended at Forty-Second Street. They turned around and had begun heading back toward the hotel when Greta tightened her grip on his arm and said, "Do you see him?"
"Up ahead. Just passing the woman in green."

But there were half a dozen women in green and, besides, who could he be expected to recognize here, thousands of miles from home?


But he saw no one who looked like the morose young Irishman they had ferried into the city that afternoon.

"Do you suppose he's on his way to plant a bomb?" she said, her fingers digging into his arm.
"More likely he's picking pockets."
"Don't be silly, Matthew," she chided in the voice the nuns used to use when his attention wandered from his classwork. "This isn't New York City. _I_ think he's a gunman," she said. "You could tell from his eyes."
"A minute ago you said he was planting bombs. Make up your mind."
"It's the same thing." Her face was still animated in a most disturbing way. This was not the levelheaded junior auditor he had wooed and expected to bear him one son and one daughter with a minimum of fuss. "He's on a mission. Carrying a message to someone. Orders. Do you remember how quiet he was in the car? Like a spy."
"I didn't realize you knew that many spies."
"He's gone. I can't see him anymore."

She didn't mentioned the hitchhiker again, but for the rest of their walk back to the hotel he had a cheated feeling, as if he had found a clause in an already signed contract that, too late now to do anything about, was clearly unfair. Instead of listening to what his new wife was saying, he looked down at the dirty narrow river they were crossing again, perhaps for the last time. He would be glad to be out of this disappointing country. In the future they would vacation in Florida or out West somewhere.

When he found an article and fuzzy photo the next morning in the Irish Times about a young man "detained for questioning" by the Dublin police on charges of gun-running for the IRA, he quietly closed the paper and stuck it behind the bed where Greta was unlikely to find it.