Stephen M. Vest is the editor and publisher of Kentucky Monthly magazine. A native of Louisville, he lives in Frankfort with his wife and four children. Prior to founding Kentucky Monthly in 1998, he worked for more than a dozen years as a columnist and sportswriter for papers in Kentucky, Indiana and the Carolinas. THAT Kind of Journalist, a collection of his columns from Kentucky Monthly, was published in 2008. He is a recent Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction graduate of Murray State University. His work has been published in ShimmyHoots Review, The Single Hound and Trajectory.
Tag You're It
I can picture him heading north on Interstate 75, singing along with Keith Urban on the radio:
And the sun is Shinin’ …
this road keeps Windin’ …
through the prettiest country …
from Georgia to Tennessee.
As they drew closer to home, somewhere in ridge lines of northeast Tennessee, he’s still singing, only louder.
… And I got the one I love beside me, my troubles behind me,
I’m alive and I’m free,
Who wouldn’t want to be me?
That was when his van first began to sputter and then began to coast, and he limped into a Pilot gas station southwest of Knoxville, Tennessee.
What happened in the 90 minutes between his discovery that he, like Urban in the song, didn’t have any money in his pocket and his credit card—if he had one—was not going to work, and my arrival on the scene, I don’t know.
I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know.
As for me, I was en route home alone from a semiannual gathering of regional magazine publishers in Atlanta. By the time I arrived at the gas station, it was a clear night with a lovely three-quarter moon. As I started pumping my gas, he approached me. His hands were together in front of his chest in a prayerful pose as he bowed to me as if I were either a Tibetan monk or possibly a martial arts instructor.
He looked a mess.
On a good day this 20-something-year-old could have passed for Shaggy on The Adventures of Scooby-Doo, right down to his crusty chin whiskers, but this obviously wasn’t—at least anymore—a good day.
“Dear sir, would you be so kind as to spare any pocket change?”
Oh, good grief, I thought. Is this what the world has come to? Meth addicts panhandling in the well-lit shadows of Knoxville’s trendy Kingston Pike shops?
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I have a dime and a penny, and that’s not going to do you much good.”
As I gave him what I had, I noticed that dangling from his neck was a white passkey identification card. The side with his name and picture was toward his protruding ribs. Facing me was a barcode and the bold embossed black letters “I” and “T,” which I guessed meant he had a career in the information technology field. I thought of making some witty comment about his tag saying “it,”—get it? tag, it?—but my eldest daughter, Katy, has told me repeatedly that I should refrain from saying any old thing that pops into my silly old head, and I, for once, heeded her advice.
“Thank you, kind sir. I understand. It’s just that me and the missus have been trapped here for more than an hour and a half, and we just want to get home,” he said as he slunk, shoulders sagging, back to his overstuffed, tattered minivan.
As I climbed back into my wife’s Mercury Mariner—with the automatic seat warmers—I pondered my dinner choices. In the interest of time, it needed to be something quick. Should I get a No. 1 with cheese (no onions or tomatoes) from the Wendy’s attached to the gas station or go into the Pilot food mart and spoil myself with a Hostess Suzy Q and a small carton of milk? Oh, the thought of the devil’s food cake and the white créme filling was hard to resist, but I held off the urge. “That is the way to madness,” I told myself. “It’s called devil’s food for a reason.”
Putting the car into gear, I glanced to my left and IT was slamming his fists on the dash board and his head against the steering wheel. I was pretty sure he was about to cry. The object of his desire was splayed out across the front seat like Lulu Roman from Hee Haw, working a seek-and-find and chawing a supersized Baby Ruth candy bar.
Ever aware of my own tendencies, at times, to be overly judgmental and right-out condescending, my mind was suddenly flooded with images of my benevolent father always helping others in need. Jumper cables at the ready, a spare gas can, a kind word were all a part of his arsenal. He was never reluctant in stepping forward. He would never have labeled a stranger a meth addict when the obvious evidence pointed toward and penchant for sugary treats.
As my mind wandered, I found myself in one of a half dozen Sunday Schools Dad oversaw over the years. I could faintly hear the story of the Good Samaritan helping the injured man along the road, and Jesus’ parable in the 25th chapter of Matthew, the 40th verse: “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”
While IT reminded me of Shaggy, there was something about him that reminded me of my high-school-aged son, Christopher, too. Maybe it was his deeply set hazel eyes.
“I hope I never find myself in this situation,” I mumbled to myself. Then I remembered that I had been in this exact situation 30 years ago and to lesser degrees numerous times over the years.
My own goatee-sporting high school friend, Slick Johnson, and I were on our way home from a weekend of camping at Rough River when we ran out of gas on Dixie Highway in Muldraugh, Kentucky, a gritty commercial strip outside the borders of Fort Knox that is every bit as lovely as its name. Speckled with used car lots, pawn shops and adult peep shows, we pushed my lime-green 1975 Mustang II into a tattered Convenient Food Mart. We had no cash, other than a few pennies, and the store proclaimed that it accepted “NO PERSONAL CHECKS, NO EXCEPTIONS.”
For what seemed like several agonizing hours, we pleaded with the clerk to spot me a dollar’s worth of gas to get us down the hill into Jefferson County where my overused ATM card would probably work.
“Look,” I said. “I’ll leave my driver’s license and wallet with you. I’ll go down the hill, get some money and come back here and fill up my car. I’ll even let you keep the change.”
“Nope,” he said.
“Please,” I said.
“Nope is nope.”
Slick and I eventually called Dad collect, and he drove more than 30 miles from Louisville to help us. While it was inconvenient for Dad, for me it was humiliating.
“Do you think you should have planned your trip a little better?” Dad asked.
“Yes, I know, Dad. I know.”
In those days it couldn’t have cost more than ten dollars to fill the Mustang II, but, with traffic, it cost Dad more than an hour and a half of his last Sunday afternoon—time he could have been spending helping someone more grateful and deserving.
Busy sulking, I’m not sure I even thanked him before driving away.
It wasn’t the last time Dad would come to my aid, but with the exception of that one day in Muldraugh, whenever I’ve found myself in need due to misfortune or poor planning, someone else always attempted to help.
Verily I say …
“OK, OK,” I said to myself as I spun my wife’s car around to the pump next to IT’s gray van and asked him how much gas he would need to get the rest of the way home. “No more than five dollars,” he said, sheepishly, with an expression of amazement, as if we had never met before.
“Fine,” I said. “I can certainly help with that.”
Before you start thinking I’m a nice guy without reservations, I no sooner had pulled out my credit card than I feared this was some kind of scam, and IT—being that he worked in information technology—was going to somehow steal my identity to order who-knows-what from the darker side of the Internet. This kind deed, I knew, was going to come back and bite me somehow, I just didn’t know when or how.
Why, I thought, had he selected me? Did I look like a soft touch, or was it that I looked well-heeled in my new $9.95 blue-and-white-striped dress shirt from the Williamsburg, Kentucky, Wal-Mart?
“How about ten?” I said. “Are you sure that will get you home?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “That’ll be more than enough, kind sir.”
“You wanna pump the gas?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “You should, if you don’t mind.”
IT paused. He put his hands together and bowed to me again. He nervously fiddled with his name badge.
Lulu hadn’t uttered a word or moved a muscle.
Then IT said, “I certainly wouldn’t want you to think I was taking advantage of you—like the last guy did.”