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My grandfather was a travelling preacher, and I thought of him as I read this story about a travelling salesman.  Family lore says Grandpa once set out for a church meeting (a revival perhaps) in a town a good distance from home.  He left without enough money or gas to get him where he meant to go, much less to get him home again.  But he had an appointment, and he was bound to honor it.  He did so by picking up hitchhikers along the way.  They chipped in for gas, and he got there and back with money to spare. 

 

I don’t know when this happened.  The story is as old as my memory.  Maybe it was in the 30s or 40s.  Maybe it happened around the time of Welty’s story.  It certainly happened in the same state.  It could have turned out tragically, like Welty’s story, but it didn’t.  In those days, lacking transportation of your own said little about your respectability.  We see this in “The Hitchhikers” when it is pointed out that the men were not regular hitchhikers but full-fledged tramps.  I fear the days when we make distinctions among classes of hitchhikers are not entirely behind us.  If an economic crisis goes on long enough, lots of things become respectable again.

 

These hitchhikers in this story are of the ilk, however, that will always mean good people are scared to stop.  Even travelling salesmen should be concerned, but you know, there was the yellow guitar, and who wouldn’t want to stop for that?

 

I also thought as I read this how unlike Flannery O’Connor’s violent misfits these two are.  If O’Connor had written the story I suspect more than one would have met a bloody end. 

 

There was a promo on TV for the show The A-Team years back, and it said something like “This is violence that won’t hurt you.”  That’s how I feel about Welty’s story.  It’s violent, but not in a way that hurts.

 

There is a Mary Oliver poem, “The Swan,” that includes these lines:

 

And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

 

In Welty, there is the one violent act that permeates everything else.  We know how it pertains to everything.  Yet she doesn’t really insist that it change our lives.  She doesn’t even insist that it change her protagonist’s life.  She simply offers us the gentle beauty of the telling of it.

 

Tom Harris will move on, perhaps changed but not remade.  The reader is safe to leave the story with a sentiment that can be found in another of Oliver’s poems, “Wild Geese”:

 

Meanwhile the world goes on. 
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain 
are moving across the landscapes, 
over the prairies and the deep trees, 
the mountains and the rivers. 

 

My Grandpa’s story is always told with a message about doing what you’re supposed to do and trusting the Lord no matter how dire your circumstances seem.  If Tom Harris’s story were mine to tell, I believe I’d make it about our absolute inability to guess the consequences of even our most magnanimous acts.  And then I’d add a line about how I would have kept the guitar.

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