State Route 78
When I realized the man had only one arm, I swung the car around easy, no traffic either way. In the back seat, Lena was pattering some sing-song to Alfie, her stuffed dog, tipping him rightside up, upside down, relentlessly, a smear of soymilk on her cheek.
I passed him again, turned again, and rode to a gentle stop behind him. I pulled my purse from the passenger seat onto my lap, and felt through it with one hand for my cell phone. The man glanced up briefly. He was very slender, with liquid, cherry-wood eyes. Then he focused back down on the bar in his hand.
My hand bumbled through the whole purse without finding it. I puffed out an impatient breath and looked down into my lap, pulling out one thing after another – but no cell phone.
Staring out towards the basalt-and-brown-grass ridge, I re-played the morning: engine running, Lena strapped in, the few steps back to grab my coffee, glance at the cat door, cat food and water, twist the baseboard heater to low, glance at the stove—no red lights—pick up my purse, set the lock, and out the door. Forgetting, I’m certain now, the cell phone on its charger.
I sighed. What would Jesus do? Fine.
“Lena, honey, I’m going to see if this man needs any help. You’re going to wait here for me, okay?”
Lena has the blackest blue eyes I’ve ever seen. Nice her Dad left her something. She looked at me solemnly, wordlessly. Already she can wait me out. You’d think a child this age would have a fluttering attention span, but Lena seems born with an inner burning stillness that dislocates me sometimes.
I brushed against the car, stepping quickly to the back hatch. I pulled the tire iron from its slot. There was a weapon-sized flashlight in the other side compartment so I grabbed that too. I hit the all-locked button and pressed the keys to the bottom of my pocket. One last look at Lena, but she wasn’t looking at me; she was absorbed in giving Alfie a headache again.
The tire iron was cold, and ached in my tight grip. I hoped this was the right thing. I moved slowly to the mid-point between our cars, escape route clear behind me. He didn’t look around.
“Need any help?” My voice sounded grating and abrupt, a nighthawk falling.
The man set his tools on the ground with a gentle metal clanking, stood, and turned. I looked up, a little, into his face, tanned squint lines. The ropy muscles of his right arm fit the comfortable, leaned-back way he stood in well-used Carhardts. But I was surprised by the fresh-ironed lines in his blue-jean shirt, and the precise folds of the empty sleeve safety-pinned to the shoulder.
“It’s just a flat tire.” His voice was quiet and certain. “Thanks for stopping, though.” Then he waited. One perfect curl of hair looped onto his forehead. He stood there looking at me, waiting for my move, for all the world like Lena.
“I don’t have my cell phone.” I hate when someone just stares at me. “Thought you might need help. This flashlight has a red blinker.” I looked down at the metal cylinder, pushing the button. It cycled to flashing red. I stood the flashlight by the road’s white line, flashing back towards Pateros.
His gaze swept the empty road, then came back to me – was that amusement? “Thanks,” he said.
I saw a full-sized spare by his jacked-up, clean, older Honda. About half the nuts were off the left front, lying in the dish of his hub cap. Having done this myself, more than I’d like, I couldn’t picture how he planned to lift the spare onto the bolts with one hand. But I didn’t want to just say that. Jesus? Suggestions?
The low sun drifted into clouds, and it felt like late afternoon jumped an hour closer to night. I cinched my unbuttoned sweater tighter with my left hand, the tire iron still clutched in my right. I looked at my car, but couldn’t make out Lena, just a reflection of tan hills fleeced with clouds.
“I could help you lift that tire up, if you need me to,” I finally said. There was a gritty gum wrapper near my shoe. Looked like Juicy Fruit.
I glanced up to see his eyebrows flicker up a second, to land it seemed in a gentler space, like mallards cutting a quiet wake through a beaver pond. I wondered if he hunted. I wondered if he had a wife. No left hand to check.
“It’s just a flat,” he said softly, in the way I wished there were a man to say to Lena, It’s just a dream. It’s all right now. Go back to sleep.
“I’ve done this a hundred times,” he added. Kindly, like you’d praise an old dog.
I hid behind my lashes a moment. Like blankets hang across living room windows in my neighborhood: cramped houses, wishing for fresh paint, yards gone to dirt. I blinked, and the dampness was gone.
I scooped up the flashlight. One more push of the button stilled it. I studied it, hearing for the first time, in the perfect quiet, the even tocking I had silenced. He seemed like he could have been from out here. From this open, sage-breath country, domed purple and gilt by low light. I searched my mind for anything else I could possibly say.
“Sure, uhh, good luck then.” A few steps backwards, the tools were on the passenger floor – a reassuring touch to Lena’s arm, and I was pulling out.
I watched him in my rear view mirror. He stood there, for the moment before I rounded the curve, watching my car, or maybe the clouds crowding the sun, estimating, maybe, how much daylight was left.