Full disclosure: nobody died, his name wasn’t Joe, and thankfully no one was singing. And yet this is a true story.
While on a trip to my home state of West “By God” Virginia, my spouse and I were on our way between stops when we had to change lanes on Southbound I-79 just before midnight. We were in high spirits, having found a favorite restaurant open on our way and looking forward to some much deserved sleep, but being deer season, a buck had wandered onto the road and been struck. The lane change had been to avoid the fresh carcass, just behind another vehicle who had done the same.
Before we could switch out of the passing lane, the vehicle in front of us did so abruptly; a thick wooden or metal grating was in the lane and over it we went. The front tire cleared but my right rear tire snagged. A tire pressure warning on my dashboard appeared almost instantly, and Exit 5 was just ahead. I caught a glimpse of a gas station sign, so I took the exit. As I made the turn, I felt how badly the tire was pulling, so I stopped beneath the underpass to check it.
This was my first mistake.
You’re more visible on the interstate — even in a rural state like West Virginia. At midnight on a moonless night, it’s dark…like REALLY dark. Get off the road but don’t leave the road. The other problem was it was highly unlikely either of the aforementioned gas stations were open; this is a state where the capital rolls up its sidewalks at dusk. Moving on…
Realizing where I’d stopped, and took my high-lumen flashlight out and did a quick sweep of the underpass; we were alone. While I was born in WV, movies like Wrong Turn are far more realistic than The Blair Witch Project, so we weren’t looking for any encounters. I had a tire pump and a repair kit but not a spare, something my car manufacturer assured us was more than adequate.
This was my second mistake.
I have low-profile tires. They look good and grip the road really well, but what I didn’t know then is the grating had gashed my tire’s sidewall, something the repair kit wasn’t going to fix. The tire was a loss and we were stuck. A donut could have gotten us back on the road and to our next destination. Lessons learned.
And then Murder Joe appeared out of the darkness.
We weren’t being loud and the only other sound was the very occasional car going by above us. Murder Joe was less than ten feet away when he stumbled toward me asking if we needed help. I flinched. Tall and thin but with a solid build, he was under-dressed for the cold; jean jacket, light work gloves and a greasy ball cap. My home state is full of friendly people and I could smell faint alcohol on him; if he’d been there to kill us, he’d already missed his opportunity. My spouse and I are both veterans — I look more dangerous but she’s the black belt — so I kept his attention on me and not my spouse behind him…just in case. But hey, I’d just gotten the pump out with the repair kit, so I let him help while I held the flashlight.
The tire was a no-go. Murder Joe did all the country boy mechanic things trying to get air into it, so I thanked him and said a tow truck was on the way. Joe still seemed intent on helping, and that’s when his hand went inside his open jacket. I stepped back defensively and my spouse was already behind him, but all he drew out was a small book with pictures of Elvis with a sleeved baseball card tucked in like a bookmark. It was funnier to think it was an Elvis baseball card, but that would have been a lie. The friendly drunk started mumbling something about this-that and the other, so I maneuvered him in the presumed direction he appeared to have been heading in before stopping. He mumbled something else about a sister-in-law close by he could call (with MY phone), but I dissuaded him, said good night, and he disappeared into the darkness again.
With both of us being horror writers (and concerned Joe might come back with his five evil brothers to finish the job), my spouse and I hastily coordinated the aforementioned tow truck that could get us home. Moments later, a WV Courtesy Patrol vehicle spotted us as she was turning around and stayed until the tow truck got there. We all talked for a while; she’d been called out about the deer and grating we’d run over and was there to check it out. Let me say here that those guys are woefully underfunded and need a cash infusion if they’re really going to continue doing jobs like that; vote the Courtesy Patrol in some more money, West Virginia!
On the way back, my spouse and I started joking about the tipsy stranger. He’d said his name was Tim or something, but Murder Joe sounded funnier, and before long it became “The Ballad of Murder Joe.” Nothing bad had happened, but things could have been worse. If Joe had been the less-friendly sort or if we had been someone less friendly, things could have escalated. Worse yet, while good ol’ boys and folks in West Virginia are generally the helpful sort, there’s been too many reports of heroin usage in the state these days and crimes relating to addicts looking for easy scores.
Sure, there were a few tense moments on a dark deserted highway with the cool wind in our hair, but everyone lived to tell the tale. The tire was replaced and the rest of our Turkey Week vacation went off without a hitch.
But as horror writers, we’ll always wonder what became of Murder Joe.