W.R. pulled his coat tighter, after closing and locking the door of his truck. Stopping for a moment, he took a deep breath, hoped for a hint of fresh air, but was rewarded with the odor of diesel and the exhaust of the tractor-trailer rigs at the pumps. Moving on, he hunched his shoulders in the cold, damp north wind. The faint smell of the grill in the attached restaurant made his stomach growl, although he wished he was smelling something more traditional on a Christmas Eve.
Glancing around the parking lot, he felt the familiar feeling all truck stops brought. They were all the same, but different. All had different faces behind the counter; some he knew, some he didn't; all were the refuge of those that led a huge portion of their life behind the windshield of a truck.
Across the parking lot, in a corner isolated from traffic, he noticed the small car, with the woman standing and looking under the hood. Steam rose in the cold wind and was whisked away; streamers of lost hope and anxiety.
W.R. paused, silently argued with his inner voice, but succumbed to the urge to help someone in trouble. Changing direction, he quickly walked to the car, stopped for a moment, then offered his help.
"Do you need some help?"
The woman looked his way. For a moment a faint smile crossed her face, but was soon replaced with the hardened expression of someone that felt slight fear and apprehension. She stared at his face, paused, but replied with resignation in her voice: "The engine light came on; the engine died; so I coasted to this spot."
W.R. examined the woman's face for a moment. The glance revealed a young woman with dirty blonde hair, a pretty face, and a determination found only by those unwilling to give up, when faced with problems. He guessed she was around thirty, down on her luck, and stranded in a truck stop, while travelling somewhere important. What little makeup she wore was overshadowed by her unkempt appearance: an old flannel shirt, faded blue jeans, and sneakers that had seen better days.
"Do you mind if I take a look?"
She hesitated before answering: "Go ahead; maybe we can figure it out."
He liked her answer. Unwilling to admit defeat, she wasn't about to defer to the advice of a stranger.
It didn't take long for W.J. to make an initial assessment. The coolant reservoir was empty, and the steam was from a cracked heater hose.
"Have you checked the oil"
"I was about to."
Pulling the dipstick revealed a gray, oily sludge. W.R. hesitated, but soon announced: "You've lost coolant, and you have a blown head gasket."
"Is that expensive to repair?"
W.R. looked at her face and found a worried look. He paused to reexamine the car before he replied: "Probably more than the car's worth."
"My phone is out of minutes. Do you have one I can borrow?"
W.R. felt a pang of apprehension. His kindness had led many places he never wanted to go, but he was raised to be that way. He immediately replied: "Sure", and handed her his cell phone.
She dialed a number, waited a few moments, then answered: "Hi, Mom. I'm broken down on the interstate, so I won't be there in time."
W.R. walked a few steps away to give her privacy. Although he couldn't hear all the conversation, he heard enough to understand the woman didn't have the money, her mother would need to wire her some money, and it wouldn't happen until a family member returned to take her to wire the money.
"I'll be alright. I'll stay in the car, and I'll call to give you the place to wire the money."
Lost in his thoughts, W.R. was a little startled when the young woman said: "Thanks. I appreciate it."
A thousand thought crossed W.R's. mind. Pushing sixty, a little overweight, and with a salt and pepper beard, he felt he looked the epitome of a trashy trucker. He felt any offers to help would either repulse, or cause fear to the woman young enough to be his daughter. He looked at the woman, and her face revealed a sadness that pulled at his soul.
Ignoring his instinct to flee, he asked: "How far are you going?"
He couldn't read her reaction, but she replied: "I'm going East, to Mobile. I was hoping to spend Christmas with my mother."
W.R's. heart broke. It was Christmas eve, Mobile was a few hundred mile away, and it would be after Christmas before she received her money.
"I'm heading East. You can ride along, and come for your car after Christmas."
The woman's face changed from apprehension, hope, fear and a guarded look in a few moments. Pausing, she soon spoke: "I'll wait until you come back."
Feeling awkward, and not really knowing what to say, W.J. responded: "I'm going to get something to eat, so it may be awhile. Why don't you join me?"
"I'm not really that hungry."
"I'm buying. I won a few hundred on scratch-offs at the last stop, so I need to pass my good luck on"
She examined his face for a moment, smiled, and replied: "I'd hate to ruin your good luck."
As they walked to the restaurant, she spoke: "I'm Cathy."
Stopping, he turned, held out his hand and introduced himself: "I'm W.R., and I'm pleased to meet you."
She shook his hand, and replied: "W. R. must stand for something."
"Wendell Roberts; everybody just calls me W.R.; I like that better."
Continuing to the door, she spoke again: "It's not a bad name."
W.R. laughed, and replied: "No, but it led to a few fights in grade school."
She laughed, started to say something, but decided not.
W.R. held the door, as they entered the restaurant. Mostly men sat at the tables and booths. A few looked at them as they entered, but most just continued eating, or staring into space.
Finding an empty table, they were soon seated. A tired waitress soon arrived to take their order.
W.R. responded: "I'd like some coffee, and a little time to look at the menu.:
Turning to Cathy, she replied: "I'll have coffee, too."
After the waitress left, W.R. cautioned: "There's a lot on the menu, but other than breakfast, I usually stick to the hamburger, or club sandwich. Unless they hired new cooks over the last few weeks, everything else isn't very good."
The waitress soon returned with their coffee. Speaking as she set the cups on the table, she asked if it would be one ticket, or two.
"Put it on one ticket", W.R. responded. "I'll have a cheeseburger all the way, with fries."
Cathy was quick with her order: "I'll have the same, but cut the onions."
Writing quickly, the waitress left to give their order to the cook.
Neither spoke, until they fixed their coffee and took the first sip.
Cathy was first to speak: "The coffee is good."
W.R. smiled and replied: "It's some of the best around. It's fresh ground and makes up for the food."
Cathy examined W.R.'s face as he looked out the window. Mostly unwrinkled, the only clear lines were his smile lines. His beard was neatly trimmed, a little curly and his pale complexion was free from damage by the sun.
"Have you driven trucks most of your life?"
W.R. turned to look at her face, when he answered: "Since I left the Army in my mid-twenties." I started working for others and eventually bought my own rig. I've hauled just about everything, but it's mostly been flatbed and long hauls."
"Do you have a home?"
"Not right now. My wife of 15 years got it in the divorce settlement, and I kept what little I had for my retirement."
"Do you have any children?"
"I have a step-daughter, although she's like my own. I was hoping to see her, but she's spending Christmas with her mom; and her grandfather. I'll see her when I get back to North Texas"
"Is that where you're from?"
"Amarillo. I was raised there, left for the Army, returned long enough to marry, and start trucking."
"What about your parents?"
My dad died in a farming accident, when I was in the Army. I wanted to request an early out, but Mom wanted to sell the farm, since there wasn't much money to made and she didn't want to keep fighting so hard for so little. She's living with my sister and her husband. We never really were that tight of a family, so I only see them a few times during the year"
Saddened, Cathy spoke without thinking: "That's sad." She wished she hadn't said anything, when she saw the momentary look of sadness, and defeat, in J.R.'s expression.
"I guess so. Those types of things just happen."
Cathy decided to be quiet, but W.R. continued the conversation: "What about you?"
Cathy stared out the window and replied: "I never married. I thought I would, but my ex was full of more crap than a Christmas turkey."
W.R. silently waited for her to continue.
"He had a good job offer in Houston, persuaded me to leave Mobile, so I went to find my dreams. One year later, he's fired for drinking on the job; six months later I had enough, and a little over two years after leaving, I'm here, fresh quit from a crappy retail job, and broken down on the interstate."
Before W.R. could ask any more questions, the waitress returned with their order. Placing the plates in front of each, she placed the ticket in front of W.R. and left.
Cathy spoke: "She could have asked if we wanted some more coffee."
W.R. laughed, and replied: "I'll flag her down in a minute. It looks like only half the wait staff is here, and I wouldn't be surprised she doesn't have a relief."
Cathy looked around, and realized W.R. was probably right. Feeling a little sheepish, she commented: "I should have known. I waited tables for a few months. It's tough to be helpful, when it's all you can do to keep up."
As they ate, Cathy remarked: "The burger is good."
W.R. replied: "They make their own patties, and cook them on an open grill."
As they finished, W.R. flagged down the waitress, and pointed at his empty coffee cup. She soon returned, filled both cups and asked if they needed anything more. Both answered "No; thank you", and she was soon gone.
Sipping her coffee, Cathy said: "I'm guessing my car will be towed before tomorrow night."
"It doesn't matter. It isn't worth the towing fee."
Sitting silently, W.R. thought of a friend, made an excuse to go to the restroom, and was soon away from the table to make a phone call. Returning to the table, he asked Cathy: "I have a friend that will buy your car for scrap; if you're interested."
Cathy sat for a moment before replying: "How much?"
"He wouldn't commit, but said he just finished repairing a tire down the road, and would meet us in the parking lot."
"Well, let's go find out."
Rising from the table, W.R. picked up the ticket, and examined the cost. When they reached the checkout, their waitress was there checking out another customer. When finished, she quickly rang up their bill, and announced the cost of a little over sixteen dollars. W.R. pulled a twenty from his pocket, peeled another with it, handed it to the waitress, and said: "Keep the change."
Shocked, the waitress started to say something, but didn't when she noticed his wink. A huge smile appeared, but soon faded, when a customer called from one of her tables. With a quick "Thank you very much", she was soon gone.
"That was more than kind"
"She deserves it. Waiting tables is a thankless job, without tips."
A gust of cold wind caused both to bend their heads to the wind as they left the restaurant. Looking towards her car, they could see a service truck parked next to it, with a man looking it over.
As they walked up, the man held out his hand and spoke: "Howdy W.R.; Merry Christmas."
"How are you doing, Hank?"
"I'm tired, but the business is too good to stop. Most of my competition is off tonight, and I just had another call for a flat repair."
Cathy introduced herself and asked: "So, what do you think?"
"I'll give you a hundred dollars for it."
W.R. quickly responded: "The tires are almost new; you'll get twice that much for selling them used."
"Yeah, but I'll have to put them on, so there's labor involved."
Pausing, Hank offered another price: "I'll give you another fifty, but I won't go any higher."
Cathy looked at W.R. with a questioning look on her face. He nodded "yes", but she was hesitant.
W.R. waited, but Hank quickly responded: "You're killing me. As it is, I won't make much money."
W.R. replied: "Maybe not, but she's probably losing money."
"Okay, I'll give you one hundred seventy five, but that's my final offer."
Cathy quickly responded: "I'll take it; I even have the title."
"I don't need it, but I'll take it anyway. You sign it, and I don't have to worry about you reporting it stolen."
Pulling the title from her purse, she signed the back, and handed it to Hank.
"If you have anything in it, you need to get it now. I'll probably tow it before morning,"
Opening the back door, Cathy pulled out a suitcase and two Walmart bags, with wrapped presents. Placing them on the ground, she quickly took the money Hank pulled from his wallet.
Shaking her hand, he said: "It's pleasure doing business with you, but I need to get me a cup of coffee to go and get out of here. There's money to be made."
Quickly shaking W.R.'s hand, he was soon off towards the door of the restaurant.
Cathy stood quietly as he disappeared. W.R. could see her eyes were brimming, so he quickly said: "We need to go put your things in my truck. After that, you can go use the restroom, I'll get us some coffee to go, and we'll be off.
Hank was sitting in the truck, with the engine running, when she returned. The heater warmed the cab, which made him a little drowsy. Taking a sip of coffee, he watched, as she climbed into the passenger seat. Fastening her seat belt, W.R. put the truck in gear, and started from the parking lot.
Cathy was first to speak as Hank accelerated up the entrance ramp on the interstate: "I want to thank you for your help. I figured the car was total loss and I'd get nothing."
W.R. didn't know what to say. It was obvious she had almost nothing to her name, and little more to show for the last two years of her life.
Cathy's laugh surprised W.R. as she commented: "I only paid five hundred for it; and used it for months. Truthfully, I was surprised it lasted as long as it did."
W.R. continued to drive silently, but Cathy was in the mood to talk. He decided she was probably a little nervous and was glad for the company.
"I'll be home in time for Christmas with my mom. She'd have come with Uncle Bill to get me, but he doesn't drive on the highway any more; he broke both his legs last year, while driving to Florida, and is too scared to drive any farther than the grocery store."
"Your mother doesn't drive?"
"She doesn't have a car, and Uncle Bill won't let her drive his pickup. I'm sure he'd have brought her to wire me some money this evening, but he's visiting his daughter. Even then, I doubt they'd find any place open"
W.R. digested the information for a moment. Cathy soon commented: "You need to meet my mother. I think she'd like you."
"What about your father?"
Cathy's response was quick, and full of vehemence: "That sorry bastard is probably in jail, or shacked up with some whore."
"Don't be. Mom left him years ago, and if she hadn't, I'd probably shot him for beating her."
W.R. didn't know what to say, but Cathy did: "She's about your age, and she's still very attractive."
The comment made W.R. nervous, but raised he curiosity. If she was as pretty as her daughter, she might be someone to meet. He'd been lonely, since his divorce, and his life didn't allow much time for dating.
Handing Cathy his cell phone, W.R. advised: "You should call her, and let her know you're on the way."
Cathy felt guilty for a moment. In all that happened, she hadn't called her mother, and all she knew was she was stranded in a truck stop.
"Hi Mom. I found a ride, and I'll be there in a few hours...No, a kind trucker offered me a ride...I know, but I can take care of myself....don't worry, I'll call when I get close....I can walk to the house, it's not that far from the interstate.........okay, but tell your neighbor I'll give them some gas money......I love you, too....Bye.
"She's worried. I can understand that, she hasn't had much luck with men."
Both were silent for the next few hours, except for comments about the traffic, or things of no importance. Cathy eventually nodded off, so W.R. turned on the radio and listened to music as he drove.
When they were getting close to Mobile, W.R. spoke loudly, so Cathy would wake up: "We're almost there. You probably should call your mother."
Cathy woke, took his phone, and stared through the windshield for a few moments, before dialing.
"Hi Mom. We're almost there...I dunno....that's on 65, isn't it?"
Recognizing the interstate number, he told Cathy: "I'm heading north on 65. We can meet her somewhere there."
Cathy continued: "That's that Super Walmart past Airport?....I'll ask."
Turning toward W.R., he quickly answered: "I know where that is."
"Okay...I'll see you, when we get there...Uncle Bill's home?...Great."
For the next few minutes, Cathy talked about how Mobile changed, even in the short few years she was gone. They were soon at their destination, so W.R. pulled into the parking lot and came to a stop. In a few minutes, an older pickup pulled next to the truck.
Looking at the truck for a moment brought a huge smile to Cathy's face. Climbing from the truck, she hurried to meet her mother, who she hugged tightly and kissed on the cheek. Quickly hugging her Uncle Bill, she turned to find W.R. approaching with her suitcase and bags.
"Mom; Uncle Bill; I want y'all to meet W.R."
Both smiled, and held out their hands. W.R. shook both their hands and said: "I'm pleased to meet you."
Cathy's mother responded: "I'm Ellen, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate your help."
W.R. examined her face, and replied: "It was nothing. It was on the way."
Ellen was pretty, just like Cathy said. Far from young, W.R. could see Cathy in thirty years.
We'd like you to have Christmas dinner with us."
"I appreciate the offer, but I need to keep going. I'm due to deliver my load tomorrow and pick up another for delivery in Dallas in two days."
Cathy pulled a small pad from her purse, quickly wrote down a number and handed it to W.R.
"This is my Mom's number. Call, if you're this way again."
W.R. took the piece of paper, stuck it in his coat pocket, and replied: "It's nice meeting you all, but I need to get going."
Cathy quickly hugged him, and said: "Merry Christmas, Wendell Roberts; and God bless."
W.R. hugged her back, looked at her face, and saw her tears. Turning, he returned to his truck, placed it in gear, and waved as he pulled away. Looking in his rear view mirror, he saw them standing together, and waving in return.
Pulling back on the service road, he was soon on the next entrance ramp and accelerating into the traffic. Rolling down the window, he reached into his pocket and threw the piece of paper out the window.
For a few moments, he regretted what he did, but knew it was best. Turning on the radio, he found a rock station and turned the music up loud. He'd stop a few miles up the road; and continue on, after a short nap. He'd work on his log book tomorrow, while he waited for them to unload his truck.