The world seemed starkly, vividly pressed on the viewing screen like an xray. The metallic buzz of the flourescent lights beneath the station's canopy heightened the medicinal feeling. While the day was dawning, it was still dark beyond the station's lights. Eerie. Like some lone beacon standing guard against the madness of interstate solitude. I felt rested but sleep-deprived; alone but satisfied.
I pulled to a gas pump, got out and lifted the hood. I crawled under the motor and realized I needed light under there. The station clerk had a flashlight and was happy to help. I am a night owl, not exactly a morning person, but cheerfulness at such dreadfully early hours does not annoy me. The clerk was friendly, eager to assist, even worried about me. I am sure her kids are out of her house and that she can't wait to spend the afternoon with the grandkids. I smiled and walked out.
"You got light now, huh?" I turned and saw him, standing by the newspaper rack. I paused but not for too long, refusing to allow any confusion to float to my face.
"Yep." I continued walking.
"They have water here, too. There's a hose right there." He pointed to the side of the building, where a water hose lay coiled beneath a spigot. He was dressed in more layers than I, including a fuller beard, long hair, and probably more layers of dirt, though I couldn't be sure. I crawled beneath the Jeep and used the light to better secure the radiator hose. I glanced to the side and saw his feet, realized that I rarely notice someone's feet. His were large. At least, his boots were large. They were old work boots, worn, with many coatings of grease, oil. Beads of water perched precariously on the toes.
"See here, I saw you last night." He chuckled. "Well hell, this morning, I reckon. Yeah. I saw you up there on the highway. Heard ya, too. Would've helped if I could, but me crawling out of the drainpipe like I would, that woulda helped you none at all."
I finished with the hose and crawled out. "The drainpipe?"
"Yeah, last night that was the best place. Soon be a better place, though, you can bet on that. But that big drainpipe has a ledge that's good for sleeping, for fire, and in weather this cold no critters to worry with. I was just sitting when I heard someone talking. That was you. 'Light. Water.' Yeah, I heard you. I peeked out at ya, saw ya had car trouble, didn't wanna scare ya. Next thing I know you walked right by my hole, scooped some water a coupla times and were gone. Not for long, though. I knew that, too."
"How'd you know that?" I asked, wondering for just a moment if he had ever driven a car, then realizing that he's probably done many things I haven't, many things I wouldn't, many things I would like to, many things I haven't had to do yet.
"Not sure, just a feeling." He walked carefully back to the paper rack as I went back into the store. I placed a gallon of antifreeze, a pack of crackers, and a quart of milk on the counter. Suddenly I thought of the man outside.
"Hey, you want a drink or something to eat?" I asked.
"I already had some coffee, but a doughnut'd be good." He answered simply, unashamed.
I couldn't find a doughnut, so I added a honey bun and another quart of milk to the stash. I asked the clerk if I could use the hose, and she said she'd turn it on. I miss free air and free water. Seventy-five cents for air, tight water controls. I like to pay at the pump, though. There's good and bad with everything. I walked outside, and approached the man. He was a shade under six feet tall, maybe fifty years old, but his life had most likely played tricks with that.
I poured half the antifreeze in the radiator then filled the jug with water, poured that in, and topped off the radiator with more water. Then, I filled the gas tank and washed the windows. Feeling confident that things can really be that simple, I walked to the man and ate my breakfast as he finished his.
"You think you got it fixed?"
"I hope so. If not, then I will stop again and replace the thermostat. If that doesn't do it, then I will stop again and replace the water pump."
"And if that doesn't do it?" He grinned at me, and I held his eyes for a time that would be uncomfortable with most men.
"Well, then I will need someone else to diagnose the problem, most likely."
"Well listen here." It was his voice, a tad raspy, frayed at the edges, but stronger now, a firm command. I looked at him, considered this person, wondered about who loved him, who he loved. "You got your light and water, but you know you best make sure you got the best light and water. I done seen it in your eyes. You know what I mean. That car ain't important. That highway loses people. Light in the darkness is what you want." He walked to the island, beneath the bright canopy, and took a paper towel from the windshield cleaning rack. He checked, and the hose was still on, so he wet the towel and wiped his hands, his mouth.
"Do you need anything else? I don't have much, but I'll help you if I can." I was considering that I could give him a ride. I was considering that I couldn't spend anymore money.
"No, I'm fine. More than you know. I do have choices, and I do make bad ones, but I do have choices. You... you pay attention to what you know. You've got choices, too. Just wash your eyes."
"You mean watch my eyes?" I was ready to go, now, but still wishing just a little that he was riding with me - for a while, at least.
"Wash - like you washed those windows there. Wash. You have to see clear if you want light and water all the time." He waved and went inside the store. I watched him, knowing that a mile down the road I'd have something else to say, something worthy. For now, I had nothing but a need to keep moving. The xray feeling was gone with the gray light of day. I was rested, alone, not quite as satisfied.
The Jeep started, and I eased onto the ramp, still headed east.