Due unto others


The only good thing about driving a truck on Christmas day is the absence of traffic. The bad thing about this Christmas day was the appearance of an unexpected snowstorm between here and where I needed to go. The CB radio told me the Interstate was closed in the mountains ahead, so my map showed me a way around the closure, this scenic two-lane road meandering through the countryside. Fortunately, Mr. Kenworth makes a pretty fair snow plow, and with all this weight behind me, I figured I was helpin’ the County out, breakin’ through to the pavement. I crested a little hill, and up a ways on the shoulder sat an old car, its flashers on and trunk lid up. Bad day to break down, as if there’s ever a good day. As I pulled in behind the car my headlights took in the flat tire, and I sure hoped they had a jack and a spare. Turns out they did, but the lady and her little girl declined my offer to sit in my warm truck while I changed it. The work went well, considering the conditions, and I got it changed in record time, only skinning one knuckle in the process. I hoped they weren’t going far, ’cause the only difference between the worn out flat and the spare was about 15 lbs of air. I went to tell her that’d I’d follow for a ways, if she’d like, to make sure they made it to the next town. She saw my knuckle and handed me a bunch of Dairy Queen napkins to wipe off the blood.

“I know I have some money here someplace,” she said while rummaging through her purse.

“Oh, no, ma’am,” I replied. “I get a good feeling from helpin’ folks, and if you give me money, why, you’ll buy back that feeling, and it’s not for sale.”
She leaned toward her daughter for a moment, then turned back to me, pressing some change into my hand.”Then at least take this and have some coffee on us. There’s a little cafe with truck parking about ten miles up the road. You don’t need to follow, we’ll be fine, and thanks again!” She started the car, and pulled away.

I jammed the change into my pocket, and by the time I walked back to my truck they were out of sight. It took me 30 minutes to go that 10 miles, but there it was, just like she said, a little cafe with truck parking. I eased in next to another truck and went inside. I washed up and took a seat at the counter, and the waitress brought my coffee. I was just raising the cup for a sip when the older man next to me spoke.”Been playin’ in the snow, son?” he asked. He’d noticed my damp clothes and skinned knuckle. “Yeah, some folks had a flat tire back yonder and I stopped and gave them a hand.”Mighty nice thing to do, son,” he replied. “Wish you’d been around 25 years ago.”That was a strange thing to say. I looked in his eyes, but he was staring past me, back into time. A driver can always tell when there’s a story comin’, and he was just waitin’ to see if I was going to listen or run off. The room was warm and the coffee was good, so I decided to stay. “Back when you was born,” he started, “I’d just started this truckin’ life. As the new guy, I had to work the Holidays, and on Christmas Eve I drew a three-day run. We didn’t have much ’cause I’d just started, but I just had to give something to my little Mandy. I drilled a hole in a shiny new quarter, my wife strung a length of red yarn through it, and we figured she’d think it was a necklace. Anyways, I left out, and they went to her Momma’s for Christmas dinner. They broke down on the way back, and there was no one like you to come along and help them. The Highway Patrol found them the next day. The car had run outa gas, and it was snowin’, just like now, and they froze to death.”

Now he was just starin’ into his coffee cup. He went on, “Seems like a man has two jobs to do in this world. He’s got to protect his family, and he’s got to provide for them. Sometimes, he cain’t do both at the same time. I blamed myself for a lotta years, you know, for not bein’ there when they needed me. I blamed others for not stopping to help, as I’ve done many a time, but maybe nobody else was travelin’ that day, it bein’ Christmas and all.” He turned his dead eyes on me.

“You know what’s the worst part?” He rasped. “I never got to say Good-bye.” He turned back to his cup, and the painful silence stretched out. I finished my cup and the waitress poured me another one. There was and old record playing on the jukebox, a truckin’ song by Red somebody or other and the air in the room drew close, and kinda depressing. It was time for me to get back on the road.

I stood up, fished some change outta my pocket, and laid it on the counter. “Take care, Old Timer,” I said softly, and turned to leave. An iron grip on my arm stopped me. “Son,” he asked. “Where’d you get that quarter?” I looked down and saw it . . . a brand new, shiny quarter with a small hole in it . . . minted in 1975.

Steven J. Beres

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