“Just fixing old shit.” The voice was not harsh nor melancholy, flexed no urgency or whispered dejection. It was merely succinct in reality. The truck was old and looked like an abscessed tooth long uncared for. Red, rusty and layered in a grungy film, the old standard grain hauler was parked quietly alongside a gas pump lit by neon lights. The temperature had turned a hard south. The wind out of the Northwest could shear through clothing. Layers were needed. It was late evening. 10:00ish. The truck was on the far side of the Holiday station where four islands with pumps either side – two abreast – waited for thirsty vehicles. The Red truck was the only one as I pulled in. I took the pump on the opposite side of the same island.
Two young ones plunked in kid chairs were outlined in the dark cab. They stared mutely out at the man. The unlit cab in its darkness seemed aortic to their well being given the temperature and wind, excepting no heat was being generated. The truck was not running. One of the children shifted his(her?) gaze to me as I had scooted out to start the pump. It was too cold to grab my billfold, so I hit the pay inside button. Besides, a cup of coffee sounded good.
I braced my back to the wind which gave me a view of the work going on inside of the bowels of the engine. I thought for a minute, then finally asked if help could be extended. Was there anything I could do? The response caught me off guard. No bitterness to the plight which probably was a function of his daily life; no agitation to someone interrupting his work, which placed him in a sprawled position over the engine with his arms extended out and down, working at the base of the block.
“Just working on old shit.” Not too soft, certainly not loud, yet its evenness was earthy in its plainness. Spoken with resigned understanding without rancor or frustration. Said to the engine more than to me. Old shit.
The coat, with this exposed position, stopped just past the bend of the elbow. It was filthy in a bedraggled- used way. His bodily extension pulled the bottom of the coat upward so that it matted around his shoulders, laying bare his midriff which was pressed on the cold engine. If a hat had been present, it had fallen from the curly dark head. Blue jeans protected his legs and they too had worked up from the normal position to bare his calves. Hairy at least. His boots were completely scuffed, with one having string for a shoelace. And a hole at the sole.
The hood was propped open with stick of some kind. It was high enough so that he could wedge his large frame up over the engine to get to the back. He used the bumper for a stabilizer. Thankfully it was still in place. One leg to extended up and braced against the top of the grill. He had pulled himself as far as he could. Now his body was completely still as his hands worked down low.
It was his hands that made me feel cold. Tough meaty hands working a knife and screwdriver, no gloves. My eyes narrowed to extend some sympathetic covering for them. I was standing there now all of two or three minutes and I was freezing. He seemed oblivious to anything but his work. And the bundles in the truck never moved or complained. Dull eyes just took in the man.
I stood outside my car pumping gas, or more factually letting the gas pump itself. We were catty corner from one another. I wanted to do more. I needed to do more. But that voice kept coming back to me, hauntingly. The words themselves echoed some prehistoric rhetoric that remained confined to my consciousness. I too had fallen prey to “old shit,” not necessarily this exactness but to situations as such. It was a life refrain and I am sure somewhere there are lyrics to a country song concerning this topic. Texas had coined the phrase “shit happens,” which had always given me chuckles. But here in this miserable cold, this was truly shit happening and yet the man seemed acceptable to the course it had taken. “Fixing old shit.” But he was not singing any a song right then. He was dealing with a problem and I am considerate to the fact that most likely he had faced it before. With the cargo he had, an empty dump bed and cab with two small children, I surmised he would have addressed his need for help should he not have had the notion of what to do.
Maybe he was on his 10 acre farm with no one around to help him. Maybe he was five miles back with his tractor, held together with baling wire, radiator slewing steam as darkness shrouded in. The fact was he understood he was the fixer of “old shit.” His tone of voice had stated nothing to me to indicate anything other than he did not need my attention or help. Were I to do so would have been expressing my opinion beyond the statement and that was not tolerable, to me at least. It was the same old shit, which just happens.
Cars came and went. People walked from the pumps to the store and back. The truck, ancient and dirty, sat there at the farthest pump from store. Had he parked in such a manner to expressively isolate himself? I positioned the pump handle in the cradle as the pump turned off. I slipped into the car and purposely drove forward, turning in a “u” fashion so that I would pass the truck and the man.
I had not seen her when pumping gas. She was standing alongside the tilted truck lid, a thin be-speckled lady with long ratty hair pulled back into a ponytail. She was in the position of chill, her arms intertwined and wrapped together around herself. The Mom? She had no hat but the coat looked to serve some protection. Long heavy type. I could only guess why she was just standing there as no communication was transpiring nor was she physically doing anything that would suggest help.
I drove on to a parking spot and entered to pay. I grabbed a cup of coffee, absently adding creamer and sugar, thinking of the family at the truck.
“Cold one out there!”
“How long that truck been parked there?”
“Don’t know, a while it seems.”
“Not a good night for car trouble, or truck.”
“I guess not.”
“Have you seen them before?”
“I would guess they are local.”
The young man rang up my coffee and gas. I handed him my credit card. Taking a sip of coffee, its bitterness subdued, I looked at the truck.
“Did they get any gas?” I asked as the thought came that perhaps I could maybe buy their gas for them and then sneak away before they knew.
“Nope,” the young man said as he counted money. He had no interest in the Red truck or its occupants.
I paid my account and exited into the biting wind. I pushed my chin down into my throat and put hand on my stocking cap. My eyes looked up to gather my path and here came the woman. Her hair was blowing wickedly but she did not attempt to tame it. She just continued to wrap her arms about her slim torso and moved deliberately toward the door. I backed up and quickly opened it for her. She shot me quick smile of thanks but kept her eyes down. I let the door shut and moved toward my car. I could see a bulk still buried under the raised hood, with no exhaust emulating from the pipe. I opened my door and just for a quick moment looked at the man, the kids, the truck.
“Good luck.” I yelled.
“Yep” came the dull response, distant in its return.
I pulled out and headed home. His simple expression settled into my thoughts.
The next morning, I headed into town. My appointment was at 10:00. I drove myself. I entered the hospital and walked to the “C-Wing.” As I entered the nurse with practiced professionalism sat me down and began the process. The drip intake began and the Chemo entered my body. I sat back in the chair I had chosen to begin the wait. Most of the people I knew in the room, as I was now a veteran of the “fix.” I looked to see if any new people were attending. In the far side corner was a slim lady with long bedraggled hair. She was alone. I looked hard at her, without staring, and wondered where I had seen her before. A nurse came alongside of her and something was asked. A small grin acknowledged the question and then a slight shake of the head. The nurse smiled large and, slightly touching her shoulder, moved to another person. I knew that light grin, the hair was familiar, and I recognized the coat beside the chair. It was the lady from last night’s encounter at the gas station. My mind filled with the picture of the truck and the man. I looked at the woman again and my heart sank.
I completed the treatment and gathered my garments. As I walked slowly out, I glanced quickly at the woman. She sat silently, her eyes closed. I exited the building using the stairs, moving slowly down from the third floor. Windows formed the outside wall and as I turned the corner toward the second floor, I gazed out at the whiteness scarred by plows and cars deposited like mushrooms. Even as ugly red as it was, it still was a stark contrast to the snow, especially given that it was parked in the farthest corner of the parking lot. The Red Truck. Sitting very much alone with the hood down.
“Fixing old shit.” The words came rushing in.
My eyes watered.