On Highway 52, Loving Hands, Rings On Layaway
OUTSIDE CELINA, TENN.--Love stories sometimes look like this: An engagement ring on layaway at Walmart.
Justin Hamby had been trying to pay off the ring for more than three months when we saw him on the side of the road, using one hand to flag down a ride and the other to hold onto the girl he hopes to marry, Holly Rogers.
Michael and I drove past the couple on our way to Celina, whizzing by like most cars on Highway 52, but we made it only a few blocks before guilt and curiosity turned us back. We knew there was nothing for miles but swaths of farmland and battered businesses and wondered what the couple was doing on this road, where they'd been and where they were hoping to go. We pulled over and rolled down the window. Justin walked up, holding a 5-inch switchblade in his hands.
“Sorry about the knife,” he said to Michael after noticing his eyes drift to the blade. He then explained he was as nervous about who would pick them up as that person probably was about them. “Sir, we’re not bad people. Just trying to get home.”
Three days earlier, the young couple – he’s 24 and she’s 21 – had hitchhiked about 165 miles from Oneida to Westmoreland for a $10-an-hour construction job Justin had been promised. He said they’d been struggling to make it on his $6.55-an-hour job at Sonic and hadn’t found anything better closer to home.
“I put applications in to every single restaurant in my own home town…and nothing. Not one single phone call,” he said. “Ï even took a coal mining class. And Ï can’t even get a job at that and that’s a dangerous job.”
“I’ve been trying,” said Holly, who lost her job at a restaurant in January. “Walmart ain’t hiring. KFC ain’t hiring. The gas station aint hiring.” She went on.
The two met three years ago when they walked into a free clinic in North Carolina at the same time. “Love at first sight,” they said. They have now lived together for eight months in Hamby’s mother’s three-bedroom house in Oneida. They want to get married as soon as possible.
“I told her to pick any ring she wanted,” Justin said. “And she picked one for $186 from Walmart.”
It’s silver, with a small diamond in the center and a cross on each side. Holly said she’s been anxious to get it since the day she picked it out, but they still owe about $100.
“She’s such a good girl and I want the best for her,” Justin said. “It’s just hard to not be able to give it to her.”
As they spoke, they stood no more than a few inches apart, their hands frequently reaching for each other’s. They didn't just hold hands, their fingers interlocked. Theirs was a love story amid the recession, and they knew it.
“Happy. Simple. Nothing glamorous,” Justin said, describing the life they want. “As long as we’re together.”
The construction job Justin had been promised was supposed to pay for them to get home and fix his car’s broken radiator. But soon after getting to the house of the man who had offered him the job, Justin said he realized it was not a safe environment for Holly. He was worried enough that they left before he could collect the $75 he had earned for completing a day’s work.
The two had been walking on the road for three hours, having received only two short rides, when Michael and I saw them.
We couldn’t leave them standing there, so we tossed our bags into the trunk of the Mazda 3 we had rented and cleared enough space in the backseat for them and their backpacks.
When we got to the house, hardship was evident everywhere, from the curled tile in the hallway to the cracked panels of their bedroom ceiling. In the living room, the job listings sat open on the coffee table.
“Making a life together is going to take a lifetime,” Justin said. “All we’re looking for is a good steady job for me where I know I’m going to get a paycheck.”
In the meantime, he said, he had no doubt they would get the ring, eventually. .
“I give it another month, maybe two,” he said.
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