fork roads

I was frustrated, road weary, and bone tired.  The last thing I wanted to do was get out of my car.

But let me start my story twelve days earlier.  I was a Private Investigator in southern Louisiana.  I’d had a normal day planned, but I decided to start my morning by doing a quick drive-by at the last known residence of the subject of one of my investigations.  I hadn’t been able to find him, and I’d expected this to be a quick spot-check before I went about my day.

However, when I arrived, I saw a moving truck parked in front.  I saw the subject loading boxes into the truck.  For reasons I won’t go into here, it was extremely important that I find the current residence for this man.  My conclusion was that he would lead me right to his new residence if I could successfully follow this moving truck to its destination.  I was hoping his new home was nearby.

It was not.  He got on Interstate 10 and drove west.  And west.  And even more west.  Past the Louisiana border, into Texas.  Past Houston.  When all was said and done, my quick morning spot-check had turned into a thousand-mile impromptu road trip to El Paso, TX.  Complications ensued when he made a detour into Fort Bliss, the Army base near El Paso, but I ultimately was able to learn the information I needed.  I won’t say exactly how until I research the statute of limitations for unauthorized access to a military installation.

In time, I finished all I needed to do and began the long drive home.  On the last leg of my journey, about twenty miles west of my exit, I was stuck in traffic.  The cars on the interstate were alternating between a slow crawl and a complete standstill.  I was strung out, in a daze.  Any good PI is familiar with the unexpected and I was grateful it had been my habit to always have toiletries and a change of clothes.  But I had planned for an unexpected night away, not an unexpected week away.  I was ready for a shower and a night in my own bed.

It wasn’t just the fatigue.  I had a very important meeting the next morning.  I’d been courting a new client for months, a high-powered attorney who could be a significant new client for my young business.  He was notoriously tough on private investigators, and I needed to be at my best the next morning, not in this mental fog.

So the last thing I wanted to do was prolong this trip even further, but that’s when I saw it.  Pulled over off the side of the highway was a massive RV.  One of the driver’s side tires had blown out, and the driver was struggling with the oversized jack.  The light rain falling apparently made the jack handle slippery, and he was having great difficulty.  He had a silver head of hair and beard, wearing Bermuda shorts under a guayabera shirt and of course, black socks with sandals.

The man clearly needed help.  Of the dozens of cars around me, nobody was stopping.  I for sure didn’t want to either.  But sometimes that little voice inside of us is just impossible to ignore.  With more than a little reluctance, I pulled over and walked out into the rain.

The man and his wife were recently retired, and they had recently begun their dream of touring the USA.  The blown tire they viewed as only a minor setback.   Despite my sour mood, they were charming and gracious.  In relatively short order, we put on their spare, located an RV service center, and they were on their way.  Within another hour after that, I was showered and in my bed.

The next day, I arose and began mentally preparing for my big meeting.  I put on my best suit, and went over the materials I had prepared.  I had put together examples of my work and what I thought was an impressive presentation. (I had some skill as an investigator then, but I had a lot to learn about business savvy.)

When I finally met with the attorney, he endured my presentation with a Sphinx-like silence.  I couldn’t read him at all, and I had no clue if he had any interest in my firm.  About ten minutes in, he stopped me abruptly.  “I don’t need to hear any more, Keller.”

I was heartbroken.  I just knew I’d flubbed it and squandered this opportunity.  But then, he reached for a stack of files.  He handed them to me.  “Start with these,” he said.  “We’ll see how you do.”  I was stunned.  He was handing me almost two months of work, easily becoming my biggest client by far.

I’m sure he noticed my surprise and kind of smirked at me.  Lest I thought my lame presentation was at all effective, he explained.  “I was on the interstate yesterday evening, caught in the slow traffic.  I saw you help that old man in the RV when nobody else stopped.  I figured a guy like that deserved a shot.”

That experience became a powerful lesson for me.  We all hear about the importance of doing the right thing when nobody is watching.  Depending on our belief system, we may receive some vague, metaphysical benefit from doing so.  But this was a very real, very tangible consequence to a tough choice that I didn’t entirely want to make.

In the stories that we collectively read and write, our characters often face tough choices.  They are torn between what they want to do and what they feel they should do.  These choices have consequences, both good and bad.  In the best stories, these consequences come in unexpected ways, surprising the reader.  In my life I’ve made both good and bad choices.  Sometimes the outcomes were inconsequential.  Other times, they were life-changing in a variety of ways.  Joyous, like a lucrative new client; sometimes painful. Often, I didn’t know the choice I was making would have the big impact it did.  I guess there’s a lesson in that, too.

What choices have you made in your life that had an unexpectedly big outcome?

–Ben Keller

One thought on “Choices

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