He strains down and pulls the magazine out from the stack, then takes a seat where I’ve just brushed the crumbs from the stale doughnut I was eating.
His name is Paul, and he’s coming from Milwaukee on his way home to Grove, Oklahoma, 20 miles east of Joplin, where they have a house on Lake of the Cherokees. The fuel pump went out on them–himself, his newlywed daughter, and his wife, who has bone cancer. They went to Milwaukee to visit their other daughter, and have been there five years. But they come back to their Oklahoma house for a few months out of the year.
“We’ve been through Bloomington every year for five years, and it’s the first time we’ve seen it.”
They had to wait 45 minutes for a tow truck; nobody stopped to help them. They told the dispatcher they had two senior citizens, one with chronic health problems. Nevertheless, when the driver showed, they had to make do. Which meant riding in the car while it was on the back of the tow trucker; they laid low in the seats, so nobody would catch them.
They found Davis Tire and Auto on Angie’s List–which doesn’t mean much, he shrugs, only that they probably paid some money to get into the directory. I tell him that my friend Leann sent me here; she says they always take really good care of her.
Another man, who is reading a book by Rick Baker, looks up when Paul mentions that he was in Oklahoma for the tornado last month. The other man says,
“I assume you have a basement?”
No, says Paul. It costs as much to dig the hole as it does to build the house. They have a storm shelter, but it’s not big. Anyway, they’ve seen plenty of tornados headed their direction, but as he tells his wife, “If it’s coming from the west, it’ll dissipate before it gets across the lake.” He gives a chuckle harumph. “It should, anyway.”
The other man asks if he drains the tank dry–talking about the fuel pump again.
“I don’t,” says Paul. “But my wife does.”
“It’s her, then,” says the other man.
They both laugh, and I make a note to myself that putting off gas refills means a broken fuel pump in the long run. That’s the trouble with being female, and young in the 21st century: no one tells you things until they’re laughing at you for violating the obvious.
Paul was sure he going to marry a girl named Loretta–everybody in his family and her family thought it was a done deal. She ran off with a sailor twelve years older than she. Then one day, his sister brought home a friend that she worked with during the summer, while they vacationed at Chain of Lakes. It was a girl he’d known for the past seven years, and that day his sister brought her home, he says, “that was it.” He was 31, everyone was sure he wasn’t ever going to get married, by that time. I ask him what was different.
“I don’t know. It just happened. When you know, you know,” he says.
He worked in construction for 45 years, for the second largest firm in the nation. Coleman Flooring Company, he says. “If you bought a house within 50 miles of Chicago, I guarantee we worked on it.” He retired the same year my car was built, in 1993. It’s good he got out when he did, he says; the company’s gone out of business now, since the housing market tanked.
But through the work, he met a lot of people who hooked him up. One guy had a house in the city where the Masters golf tournament is played, and lets him use it whenever he wanted. Another, an insurance agent, built a vacation place that Paul worked on–“He said, Paul you do the faucets and fixtues for me, the place is yours whenever you want it.” The guy was Doris Day’s insurance agent, in fact. His retirement was 4000 a month. “I’d hate to see what his daughter got.”
He made enough money in construction to create his own retirement fund, but nowadays it’s fairly well eaten up by his wife’s medical bills. Just recently, she started on the marijuana pills, he says. “11,000 for 30 pills.” He shakes his head. “I told my daughter, we could spend $35 on a bag that would last the same amount of time.” But the pills are a lot more effective, he concedes, than smoking is.
A young sunburned woman walks in, headed for the vending machine.
“There she is,” he says.
“I don’t know you,” she responds.
His daughter, he tells me, is a newlywed. I ask if he likes her husband.
“I like him better than the first two!” he says.
His other daughter, who lives in Milwaukee, has a five-year-old grandson. If it weren’t for that kid, he says, his wife wouldn’t be alive anymore. “She was ready to die,” he says. And there is no trace of sadness or bitterness or anything in his voice.
“There’s my sweetheart,” he says, as a woman walks in with a cane, wearing a visor.
She looks at him, then looks at me. “I don’t know him,” she says.
“She’s got that black eye I gave her,” he says, which causes her to smirk.
“She fell down in the bathroom,” he adds.
“I was taking down a towel rack,” the woman says. She has the owlish eyes and grey skin of an invalid, but she walks strong.
Just after she goes back out front, the shop owner comes up to me. He tells me that he adjusted the price of the new wiper blades to fit within an even fifty, with the oil change. He also tells me Leann called and paid for everything.
I shake my head and laugh. Leann has already paid for me to get my hair cut in a couple of days, before leaving town.
“She’s quite a girl,” says the shop owner.
Davis Tire and Auto is on Eastland Drive, just off Veterans’ Parkway in Bloomington, Ill.