Short story from Robert Thomas

In the Middle of Nowhere

Deeply eroded and worn looking landscape continually passed me by. Driving along
Highway 10 in the middle of Texas I thought, “Why does anyone live here?” Occasional areas of low rolling hills dotted with scrub brush, and a few oak trees dotted the horizon. Herds of cattle that moseyed across it over the past year, trampled the crisp, dry straw colored grass into a mat, The sky, a deep blue right down to the horizon, indicated an absence of any significant air polluting population.

I headed west, after visiting my brother in Austin, to meet up with Zelda, a woman in
California. I met her in Chicago some months ago. She was alluring and beautiful,
managing to draw me into her life like metal to a magnet. We quickly connected that
night at a friend’s party, and have kept in touch ever since. The pull was just to much
for me, and I had to see her again.

I cruised west at a nice 60 mph in my white 1969 Toyota Corona. I bought the car
several years earlier after noticing it in the window of a motorcycle shop. There were
very few Toyota dealerships back then, as it was just the beginning of the great
Japanese car onslaught to envelope America. When I first saw the car, I was smitten
with it. The fit and finish were excellent, and it had an economic four cylinder engine
with four on the floor, and an AM/FM radio, all for less than $1,600.00. It was half of
what I would have paid for a small American car at the time. The car was unique on
the road, and people often stopped me to inquire about it. Even driving down the
freeway, cars slowed as they passed guessing at what it was. However, I did have to
endure the occasional joke about where I inserted the key to wind it up, or how many
clowns came with it.

A couple years after I bought it, I got into a small accident. The repair shop had
difficulty obtaining parts, and it took a long time to get it repaired. After a lengthy wait,
the car looked as good as new, and ran well. I had no hesitations about taking it
across country.

Driving through Texas hill country, my thoughts wandered from topic to topic, when
suddenly I heard a pop, and felt a slight lurch. A red light appeared on the dashboard
indicating a problem with the oil. The engine became noisy and I noticed white smoke
from behind the trunk. I quickly slowed and pulled off to the side of the road. I got out
and moved to the front of the hood, popping it open with a flick of the lever just
beneath the hood by the upper grill plate. Steam and white smoke poured from the
engine. Waving my hands to clear away the mist, I eventually exposed the engine
compartment. There was the sound of a hiss, but I did not see anything in the
compartment itself. However, as I gazed down between the wheel weld and engine, I
noticed a small pool of dark fluid on the ground below.

I scrunched down on my knees and bent to get a better look beneath the engine.
Steam vented from the oil filter housing, and oil continued to slowly drip from a crack in
the housing itself. I could not understand why this happened at this moment, as I had
not hit anything on the road that might have damaged the filter mechanism. After a
few moments of exasperation, it dawned on me that a small crack or weakness may
have developed when I had my earlier accident, and the repair shop did not pick it up.
The heat and prolonged compression of my long travel must have caused the crack to
expand and open up, releasing the oil.

I stood up, and gazed both directions down the highway. Except for the occasional
rare whoosh of a passing car, dead silence reigned. There was no wind, and the sun
beat down hard on everything around me. A fly landed on my sweaty brow, and I beat
it off with a quick swipe of my hand. It smelled of herbs, dry grass, and engine oil.
“Now what the fuck do I do?” There was no urban environment to be seen. Low hills
blocked distant views in every direction. “Okay, then,” I told myself in a determined
manner. I locked the car, stood between it and the road, and stuck out my thumb,
hoping someone would see that I was in distress and needed assistance.
Fifteen minutes passed with no bites. People passed me by as if I were just another
advertising sign along the freeway. I figured it might be my long hair and the peace
sticker on the window of my car that put people off. After all, I was in pretty
conservative country. Except for the liberals in Austin, much of the population was
pro-war, and I had nothing to identify myself as a Vietnam Veteran.

Finally, in the distance I could see a white car approaching with an array of fixtures
across the roof. As it came closer, I could see that it was a Texas State Trooper. The
trooper turned on his flashing roof lights, slowed and pulled in behind my car. As he
pushed open his door, he grabbed his stiffly blocked cowboy hat off the passenger
seat, and placed it on his head, adjusting it with a slight tug of his forefingers. His grey
uniform was neat and crisp, as if he just picked it up from the dry cleaners. I wondered
how someone could keep their clothes so neat after sitting in a hot car all day. In a
thick Texas drawl, he asked if I needed help. Gazing at myself into the lenses of a pair
of highly reflective aviator sunglasses, shaded by the curled brim of a grey Stetson, I
explained my situation to him.

After a brief pause, the trooper went back to his car and pulled out his microphone,
stretching a long twisted black cord from somewhere beneath his dashboard, and up
to his mouth. He briefly talked to his dispatcher, and then hung the microphone back
in the car. Walking back over, he told me a tow truck would be coming in a short time.
The trooper then started walking around the Toyota, as if he were inspecting it. He
looked into the window and down underneath the frame. He ran his fingers across the
grill grating, and down along the front bumpers. I thought maybe, with my “Hippie”
appearance, he might suspect I had drugs on me. However, he never asked to search
anything. At one point he stated, “Ain’t seen one of these out here. I’ve seen some
small Jap trucks on occasion, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen a sedan.” He
placed his hand on his jaw and stroked down on it a couple times, giving considerable thought to the vehicle.

Once he was finished examining the exotic machine before him, he began a casual
conversation with me. “I notice you have Illinois plates. Where you from in Illinois?” I
told him I was from the Chicago Area, and was traveling to see a friend in California.
We talked of nothing significant for several minutes before he looked up. “Aah, here
comes Trevor,” as he waved at the oncoming tow truck to signal him in.

Trevor pulled the old 50’s series Chevy truck in front of my car. The vehicle had a worn
out Texaco emblem on the side of the door and the paint on the hood was burnt away
from years of sun exposure. Trevor emerged in his oil stained blue and white striped
mechanic’s jump suit. He had long dirty blonde hair and a moderate mustache. He
held out his hand and we shook, as we introduced ourselves. I told him what I thought
was the problem, to which he declared he would not be able to fix anything at this
location, but would have to take it into town.

After seeing I was properly tended to, the trooper nodded goodbye, got into his car
and left. Trevor then backed up the tow truck closer to the front of my car. He asked
that I put it into neutral, as he connected the chains and hook. He got into the truck,
and started the engine, then came back and pulled a lever in the back of the truck.
The front of the car was slowly lifted off the ground about a foot or so. He pulled back
the lever and placed a metal lock into the chain to keep it from accidentally loosening
as he drove.

We both entered the truck at the same time. The passenger side door creaked a bit as
I opened and closed it. The seat was a dirty grey with some areas of ripped cloth
exposing stuffing and the top of a spring. The truck lurched and whined through
several gears as we headed forward towards town. There was a small hole in the
floorboard, and I could see the surface of the road as we passed over it. The cab had
a musty smell of old oil. After a bit of silence, Trevor flicked on the small portable radio
wedged between the front windshield and the dashboard. Mel Tillis accompanied us
into town.

We drove a couple miles up a low grade, and descended down the other side of a hill
towards the horizon. On the right, a green sign with white letters spelled out Junction,
Population 2,550. I could see the town off to the right as we descended the hill. It
looked like a typical western burg, laid out on grid, a with a main drag lined with
various shops. Several cross streets heading out in either direction pierced the main
street. The side streets were lined with trees shading small homes situated along
roads. Trevor pulled off onto the exit which teed into the main street. He turned right
and headed towards downtown.

As we approached the business district, I could see a large slender red sign with white
letters indicating Texan, above a large wide marquise. I was impressed that such a
small place would have a movie theater. We passed a drug store, a cafe and a
saddlery, before Trevor turned left onto one of the side streets. I was surprised at the
turn, for I could see a gas station further down Main Street, expecting that the Texaco
sign was our destination. We next passed through a residential area before heading
out further beyond the confines of the city. I was getting a bit nervous at this point, but
hesitated to question Trevor directly. I decided to let things play out for now. Just past
a small fenced pasture, Trevor pulled right onto a gravel road which quickly ended at a
ranch with a large weathered barn. Paranoid curiosity finally getting the best of me, I
asked why we were here, and not the local gas station or auto repair shop. “This guy
can help you.” Trevor replied, offering no further explanation.

Three men sat in old weathered wooden chairs, the backs of which were butted up
against the barn. They wore jeans, work shirts, and sweat stained cowboy hats. Their
western boots were well scuffed, with bits of manure clinging to the cusp between the
heel and the sole. One of them gently placed beneath his chair a bottle of wild Turkey
they previously passed between them. As the truck came to a halt, they waved at
Trevor, got up out of their chairs and sauntered over. Trevor met them half way. “Hey
Trev how’s it going?” one of the men shouted. “Just fine, real good, Dil, but we got o
bit a problem here.” Trevor explained my situation to Dil, which I assumed was short
for Dilbert. After some conversation, animated by considerable gestures towards my
car, Dilbert walked over to me and introduced himself. “So, it sounds like ya gotta oil
leak.” I nodded in affirmation, and explained about the crack in the filter housing. He
then went over to the car and lay down next to it, shuffling himself partway underneath.
After a minute or so, she shoved himself back, stood up, and wiped his oily hands on a
rag he had stuffed into his back pocket.

Dil was a tall slender man of middle age. He was deeply tanned with a leathery quality
to his well wrinkled face. I noticed when we shook hands that his finger whorls and
palm creases were stained black, and he had a number of small scars on the back of
his hands. This was a working class man. A hands on kinda guy, who’s persona was
honed by years of hard toil and direct experience.

Dil moved to the front of the car, placed his hand beneath the hood, and popped it
open. He raised it full tilt, and slid the long metal pin up into the hole under the top of
the hood. Once the hood was stable, he asked that I get in and rev up the engine. I
quickly complied, and turned over the engine, which emitted a “whah whah whah
whah,” and never quite started. “Okay stop.” Dil shouted. He replaced the hood and
came up to me. “Yer number one piston is also seared.” “Damn, how could he know
that from just listening to the engine?” I thought to myself. Cognitive dissonance
overwhelmed me for a time. I was trapped between a sense of awe at the man’s
mechanical prowess, and the notion that I may be caught up in some highway robbery
of sorts.

“I ain’t never worked on one of these Jap cars, but I did watch a feller who lives down
south repair the engine in his Toyota pickup. The engines are puuurdy simple. I think I
can help ya.” With a mild sense of incredulity, I asked, “Where the hell are you going to
get parts?” Dil replied, “Well, there’s a Toyota dealership in San Antonio. “I can order
4the parts I need and have them shipped up on the Greyhound that comes up every
other day.” “The guy who owns the pickup knows the clerk in the parts shop. I’ll have
him order them for me.” Other than pay to have my car towed to the dealership in San
Antonio, which is over a hundred miles to the south, I really had no choice. So, I
accepted his offer to make the repairs on site.

“Trevor can take you back into town. There’s a motel there, and you can get some
supper at the nearby cafe. I will take care of things from here.” Dil had Trevor pull the
car into the barn, and left it. He then drove me back to town and stopped in front of
Motel 6. I gave him my AAA information, thanked him, and we parted.

After settling into my motel room, I decided to check out the town, and get something
to eat. Standing out along the row of buildings on the street was a large neon sign with
the words; Isaack Restaurant written on it. Air Conditioned was also boldly printed on
the sign, and it drew me in, as it had been in the nineties all day. The restaurant was
clad in distressed red stained clapboard. The roof looked more like an afterthought of
the architect with its metal frame and flat top—like a metal canopy was dropped down
over the place to serve as a roof. Part of the canopy extended out over the sidewalk,
providing shelter from the elements. I pulled open the single window paned door, and
found myself inside a singular environment of someone’s country kitsch.

I expected the interior to be much smaller. Inside, several wainscoted rooms adjoined
each other. In some places the traditional knotty pine trim was replaced by metal
corrugated paneling, giving it a somewhat industrial look. A number of stuffed deer
heads adorned the upper walls, along with various home spun crafts. A lacquered pine
buffet sat in the center of one large room. A large clawfoot bathtub occupied its center.
Inside the tub were a number of cold food trays sitting atop a deep pile of ice cubes.
On either side of the tub, counters held a variety of condiments. Along one wall was a
row of wooden booths, while another area had formica covered tables with unmatched
chairs around them.

Off in another smaller room stood a short bar wrapped in corrugated tin, with a
stainless steel top. There were several chrome legged stools aligned in front of it.
There was one other large room, the entry of which had a large double door. The room
had a couple of long wooden tables with a number of chairs. It looked like a good
place for the local ranchers club to meet on a regular basis.

I sat down in one of the booths and grabbed a menu from between a bottle of catsup
and a napkin holder. The menu appeared well used, as the plastic coverings were bent
along the outer edges, and had a few scratches across them. The food offerings were
extensive, and included a variety of standard American comfort foods, as well as a few
Mexican dishes.

Not long after I sat down, a waitress, perhaps in her fifties, approached me. She had a
stainless steel urn in one hand, and a ceramic cup in the other. “Coffee sir?” she
uttered with a slight twang to her voice. And yes, of course, she also chewed gum. I
nodded to her, and she quickly placed the cup down and filled it to the brim. She had
a high bouffant hairdo and dark heavy eye liner. She wore a pink striped dress with a
white apron sewn into the front. “Are you ready to order?” she said, as she pulled a
small tablet and pencil from the pocket in the front of her apron. I had noticed a nice
looking hamburger being eaten at another table as I walked in, and decided to order it.
It came with fries and a side of coleslaw.

There were only a few other customers in the place. They spoke openly with each
other, suggesting familiarity between them. While waiting for my order, I pondered the
fate of my car. “How long will this take? Will they be able to get the right parts? Can
the guy fix it right, and if so, how much is this going to set me back? Loud laughter
interrupted my thoughts. I turned to look at the source of the gaiety, and noticed two
tables of people quickly shifting their eyes away from my direction. I became a bit self-conscious, and wondered what they found amusing about me. Perhaps, they were
sharing some hippie jokes or something? Who knows? Their view was suddenly
blocked by the waitress, who brought my order. The hamburger was fantastic, as were
the fries, but the slaw was not so good. I ate quickly, and after gulping down the last
of my coffee, I waved down the waitress, paid for my meal and left.

I had difficulty getting to sleep that night. I kept ruminating over my car. After a period
of restlessness, I remembered that when home, I used the radio as a white noise of
sorts to help me sleep. I turned on the lamp next to the bed, and glanced about the
room for a radio. Indeed, there was one sitting atop an old RCA television. I crawled
to the end of the bed and reached over for it, pulling it towards me, as I sat at the end
of the bed. After squelching through a number of western music stations, I found one
offering American standards. I adjusted the volume and placed it back on top of the
TV. I pulled the cover back over me and tried to relax. I must have drifted off
because the next thing I knew I was awake, and sunlight glowed along the edge of the
heavy window curtain. It was well beyond 10 am, and a brunch was in order. After
cleaning myself up, I dressed and headed back to Isaack’s.

My belly was sated with a well made bacon, cheese and tomato omelet and a couple
cups of strong coffee. Once again it was a hot day, and by one in the afternoon, the
metal posts of the restaurant overhang were too hot to touch. All morning and into the
afternoon, I worried about my Toyota, as I paced the boardwalk along Main Street.
Finally, I decided to walk out to the ranch and check on things. The ranch was about a
mile from town, and the town itself was not that big. Besides, the exercise would do
me good.

Large Oak and Elm trees lined the median strip of the residential areas. A few locals
passed by offering a “Howdy” or Mornin.” Once I hit the city’s edge, vegetation
became sparse, and the road abruptly changed from hot sticky asphalt to gravel. The
gravel was actually more comfortable, than the heat absorbing asphalt. I was glad I
took my panama hat with me on the trip. For it now provided me with a bit of shade
across my head and face. The sun was intense, and sweat quickly formed around my
headband, underarms and upper back.

Coffee is considered a diuretic, and I eventually became aware of that fact. Checking
out both directions down the road, I was pleased that no vehicles or persons were in
sight, allowing me to relieve myself against a knotted fencepost. I continued on,
eventually sighting the ranch house and barn in the distance. A bluebird abruptly flitted
out and back from the top rung of barbed wire, flying off as I got closer to it. The fields
were covered in straw nubs, and intermittent dry caked cow patties. I turned onto the
approach road to the ranch, and headed towards the barn. The chairs were empty,
and an empty bottle of whiskey remained beneath one of them. The barn door was
slightly ajar, and I approached with some hesitancy, not knowing how any local might
consider a stranger on their property.

As I got closer to the opening, I noticed a couple of bright lights hanging from the loft ceiling, and I could hear the hum of a machine.

The door made a loud scrunching noise as I opened it wide enough for me to enter.
Hearing the sound of the door, Dil, off to the left, standing next to a workbench, turned
and looked in my direction. He had a small piston in his hand. He turned back and
flicked a switch, turning off a grinding wheel, fitted with a soft buffer. He held up the
piston, stating, “See, yer number one piston was seared, and I just buffed it out.” I
couldn’t believe it, but he was right. I then turned back in the other direction and saw
my car up on four jacks, hood open, and the entire engine in parts, laid out in front of it, neatly arranged on a clean white sheet.

“Oh my God!” I thought. Dil had dismantled the whole engine, and cleaned all the
parts. He walked over to show me the piston up close. I could see a slightly shinier
surface where he had buffed out the charred oil seared onto the piston by the heat. “ I
ordered the parts I needed last night, and they should be on the 4 pm bus today.” I
was completely dumbfounded and at a loss for words. All I could do was to profusely
thank him for his efforts. “I’d love to share some whisky with ya, he said, but I need to
start putting it all back together. I want to have it all done by tomorrow mornin.” I once
again thanked him, and left him to his work.

That afternoon, as I sat gazing out the window of a tavern, savoring a glass Raynal on
ice, I noticed a Greyhound bus pull in at the small bus depot across the street. It was
almost exactly 4 pm. One passenger got off, and the bus driver unloaded a number of
packages onto a cart, and took them into the station. About fifteen minutes later, a
Dodge pickup pulled in, and Dil got out. He went into the station, and came out with
several boxes of different sizes and placed them into the bed of his pickup. He then
drove off.

I spent most of the afternoon sitting in the bar slowly sipping my drink and gobbling up
salty peanuts, while I had casual conversation with the bar tender. Later, I walked over
to the Texan, bought a drink and some popcorn, and settled in to watch Clint
Eastwood in Dirty Harry. Sleep came easily that night.

I got up late again. It was another hot Texas day. Coming from the Midwest, I had no
tolerance for such heat. After brunch, I bought a few items at the local grocery store
and headed back out to the ranch. I did not know what to expect. I fretted about
money, and ran through my mind a number of ways I might pay for the repairs. There
was a bank in town, and I figured I might have to have some money wired to me. I did
have a credit card, but I doubted Dil had any way of utilizing it. I had some cash, but
probably not enough. When I got to the ranch, I saw my car out front of the barn. Dil
was hosing off the last of some suds on the hood. Not only had he repaired the car,
but he washed it as well. I thought, “God, this is a guy who really appreciates
automobiles. Dil waved to me as I approached him. “Mornin, I finished her up early
this mornin. It’s a neat little thing.” He set down the hose, and went over to the faucet
protruding from the side of the barn, and turned the handle. “Go head, git in and start
her up.” he directed, as he handed me the keys. I got in and turned it over.

“whirrrrummm.” the engine started quickly and kept on humming. It sounded a bit rough, but it ran well. “It’ll be a bit noisy at first, Dil noted, until the rings get fully seated, but you should have no more problems with it.”

I slid out of the car and went over and shook Dil’s hand, thanking him for all his work.
Then I asked the big question. “How much do I owe you for this.” bracing myself for a
shock. “ Oh, well, lets see now.” Dil mused as reached into his pocket and pulled out a
wrinkled receipt. He gazed at it for a moment, and handed it to me. It was a list of
parts, with each part having a price next to it. I mentally summed it up, and to my
surprise, the total was not that bad. “Okay,” I said, “but how much for your labor.” Dil
paused for a moment, then said, “Nothin. You gave me the opportunity to tinker with
one of these jap machines, and that was good enough for me.” I was taken aback by
his generosity, but also greatly relieved. Luckily, I had enough cash on hand to pay for
the parts.

I lifted a brown bag out of a larger handled grocery bag I had brought with me, peeled
it back, and pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey, and handed it to him. “It’s the least I
could do for you.” Dil smiled, removed a pocket knife from a small leather pouch on
his belt, and cut open the seal on the bottle. With a quick head gesture towards the
chairs, we both walked over to the barn, took a seat and leaned back against the wall.
He offered me the first sip, and we sat for a time, chatting as we passed the bottle
back and forth between us, occasionally swatting at pesky flies. It turned out that he
was also a Vietnam Veteran, so we had something in common.

After a number of war stories, I decided I had had better limit my intake of booze, I did
not want to head back out, and end up with a DUI from that state trooper who helped
me. I said my goodbye, got into the car and drove back towards town. Looking in my
rear view mirror, Dil’s image slowly disappeared in the dust of the road somewhere in
the middle of nowhere