“Need help?” I inquire through my open shotgun window. The family assumes a defensive posture that has Daddy holding a jack handle at the back of the car, Junior crouching unarmed behind him, Mama looking stern behind Junior, and Sis leaning on the right front fender behind Mama.
“Flat tahr,” Daddy answers.
“Bad luck,” I reply, not querulous but in no way threatening. I hope. “Hold on a sec.”
I reverse a couple more car lengths, then pull forward and park behind the shiny Country Squire, keeping my eye on the jack handle. Then I get out and introduce myself as a school teacher from Hawaii. What could be less threatening than that? And less likely? “Didn’t I see you folks at Carlsbad?”
“Could have,” Daddy admits, holding the jack handle in his right hand, business end cradled, wrench up, in his left arm.
“I remember you,” Sis says from her spot. “Cool old car.”
“More old than cool, I’m afraid,” I say. “You folks have a spare?”
Of course they have a spare. It’s on the ground beside the car. They haven’t been able to mount it because they’re parked in soft desert sand, locked in, the flat tire buried up to the axle. Daddy’s got the jack in place, but instead of lifting the car, each pump of the handle has driven the base of the jack deeper into the sand. He’s gained enough space to loosen the lug nuts, but not enough to remove the flat. They’re good and stuck. “I might have an idea,” I say, and Daddy follows me behind my Chevy while I open the trunk and push the mattress aside. He’s still holding his jack handle. At the ready.
First I grab my own jack handle, drop it quickly to the ground, and kick it out of the way. No fisticuffs, no shooting scrapes, no jack handles at five paces. He’s definitely got the drop on me, but I’m counting on his having the good sense to let me give it a try, if I really think I can. Junior follows Daddy just close enough: Backup. Mama and Sis hold their ground. “You sleep in there?” Junior accuses.
“Not as well as I’d like,” I admit.
“Fifty-one. Let’s see if we can squeeze my spare under your bumper.” Dad and Junior don’t offer a hand, but they don’t get in my way. There’s not a stick of wood or a smooth rock to be found, so I’ll used the wheel of my spare as a base for my jack, with which I will raise the Country Squire high enough to slip off the flat, slap on the spare, drop her on the road, drive her anywhere. Maybe. Daddy and Junior are getting the idea, and they’re interested. “Don’t stan’ too close, J.R.,” Mom warns Junior.
“Could work,” Daddy mutters.
“Don’t want to mess up your bumper,” I say.
“Don’t worry ‘bout mah bumper,”
I don’t worry about the bumper, and it all goes without a hitch, me on the jack, Daddy and Junior working the lug nuts, Mom and Sis radiating encouragement. All taken care of, the jack handles put away, trunk lid and tailgate secured, Country Squire sitting tall and pretty, Sis pulls out folding chairs and Junior drops an ice chest at our feet. Daddy and I slug Lone Star beer from bottles while Mom and Sis sip Co-Cola from cans. Junior slurps his. We all feel good, really good.
I’m from Hawaii, and they’re from Arlington. I hand them my slick State of Hawaii driver’s license, credit-card plastic displaying my clean-cut schoolteacher photo. The whole concept of credit-card driver’s licenses is new to these folks, as is my smiling, clean-shaven image. They’re passing my card back and forth, trying not to be overly rude when they compare the two faces of me. “Looks lack you, all right,” Daddy offers, his smile deepening the creases in his weather-lined face. “What’s the story?”
“As I said, I’m a school teacher,” I say, taking a long pull from my cold Lone Star. “On vacation. Looking at the world from a little different perspective.”
“Well I guess so,” Mama says. “Most people go to Hawaya for their vacation. You’re doing it the other way ‘round.”
Of course we have introduced ourselves, but of course I have already forgotten their names, a bad habit that seems to be getting worse. I ignore Junior’s sly, “If you can’t grow it on top, grow it on your chin,” and accept Daddy’s offer of a second Lone Star.
Junior is dark-haired and strongly put together, like his father, while Sis is lithe and blonde like Mama, a perfect next-generation family replication, their genomic obligation fulfilled, one-for-one. How often does that happen? In my family, a blond father and brunette mom produced me and my sisters, all childhood blonds. Which means? Don’t ask. It’s just a thing I notice. Does everything mean something? Does anything? Any thing? I digress.
It’s time to move on, and they are so grateful to be able to move on that they want me to follow them to Arlington, home of Six Flags. Seems Six Flags is a Disneyland-style theme park that I’d enjoy, plus Texas hospitality, etc. When I tell them I’ve got folks waiting in Bryan, they draw a map on a paper bag showing how I can get to their place after I leave Bryan.
I thank them for their invitation, fold the map into a crisp, pocketable packet, and watch them head on down the road, their Country Squire fully loaded and squared away. Whitey, a Ford man, would surely put his stamp of approval on this whole event. He’d be proud of me, to be sure. Why does it surprise me that I care? Aren’t I supposed to be beyond that? At my age?
Watching the Country Squire fade away east and loping along in its invisible wake, I find a spot to spend the starry night, deep in the heart of off-road Texas. I say my prayers and sleep soundly until sometime after Midnight, when I take a piss and start the engine, letting it warm at idle before shutting it back down. Come morning, it’s got to start. I really wouldn’t want to get stuck out here.