Winner

The Tow Truck

We bought a house in Colorado. The tow truck came with the house. We bought the house to celebrate our second anniversary and because my sister, who lives in Colorado Springs, wouldn’t stop nagging on us, once the notion of a second place was mooted, to get something close to her. And yes, because the country up there is incredibly beautiful; and yes, because it’s halfway between here and Seattle where Robbie is from, so that his folks can come visit anytime a straight shot, no connections. We kept this house as well. I mean, why would a happily married gay couple want to sell up and leave Texas? Huh? Plus, at least for the minute, here is where our work is.

My sister helped us find the place. She was all over it. White on the proverbial. She scouted the country west of Twenty-five Sunday after Sunday, stalking the perfect place and making lists, calling brokers and realtors to set up viewings; sent us links, spent more time on the phone with Robbie than she ever has with me to get us motivated and moving. She’s a gem, so she is, God bless her. She’s going to keep a set of keys. You know how many visitors you’re gonna get now? she told us. You’re gonna have to get dogs.

The house is big. It was listed as a cabin but it’s half as big again as the place we’re in down here and came with a view to die for, God bless my sweet sister, out across the long valleys and foothills west of the Springs to the Sawatch mountain range. The floors are hardwood and flagstone. The fireplace in the main living room is a monster. Cathedral windows facing sunsets and off the deck the ground falls away gentle to a creek with willows and pine along the banks. It’s beautiful. We are very lucky people and I love my husband very much.

And plus a couple sheds on the property. Was the realtor called it a property. What we have right here boys, we’re sitting in his car on the highway out front of the house, is a prime piece of Colorado property. Thirty-two hundred square feet. Twelve acres, with suitable outbuildings. One of the sheds isn’t but a wobbly affair for garden tools and plant pots, leaning this way or that depending on where the wind is out of. But the other one is a serious structure, big and high and solid to where you think, you walk in the side door, you’re going find a set of stairs up to a second floor, like some sort of cabana or like that. But it’s not, it’s a workshop. Got a cement floor with drains set in and shelving all round and a workbench along one side and in back. Got water and power, got bags of room. And no ceiling, just the heavy thick struts across all the way front to the back with some serious lighting in place. And that’s where he discovered the tow truck.

You know how, you set a piece of string with a cat toy in front of a cat, tug it a little, his eyes going open up like they want to take all of this quarry, this victim, properly into view before he strikes? Robbie’s eyes, he set foot the first time in that workshop, saw there was something lurking under cover, did the same thing. He flipped on the lights while I waited outside for him to let me know wasn’t any spiders hanging waiting, scuttling about, and then stopped. Stood still for a minute. And then he walked round the walls, checked out the work bench and the shelving, looked for cracks in the floor, sniffed at the window in back, before he took a peek under the tarps – I mean he knew, was obvious was a vehicle sitting in there – and found the tow truck. He dropped the flap of tarp and shook his head. Made his lips all pressed tight together like when he’s focused, or pissed, which I only ever seen the second reason once and that was once more than enough. Shook his head again and stepped out from the door on the side of the shed.

He shrugged at me and turned back to the realtor, said something. My sister was standing in the doorway of the house all frowny and worried looking.

What am I going do with that? he asked the realtor.

The realtor told us not to worry, he would have it hauled out asap. Not a showstopper.

What about the floor though? Robbie said. Going be oil all on the floor and you never going get that up from there. Soaked in now, what that is. Compromised. Hummed and hawed, walked around a little bit, blew out his cheeks. I mean otherwise you’re right. It’s beautiful! Let his shoulders droop with disappointment and then took me and my sister into town for coffee, set us down in the booth by the window and warned us, no mistakes, wagging his finger, to keep our mouths shut tight. Called his dad in Seattle, pulled him out a meeting, explained the situation. Nodded. Shook his head. Nodded. Yeah, but this and I think that and yes, it’s the real thing, what it is, the little I saw of it. No! I pull the tarp he’s gonna figure, right? But it’s the real thing, I’m telling you. Put us back into my sister’s car and we headed back to the house, met up with the realtor again and told him, Leave it where it is but we want the place for this. Handed him a biddy piece of paper.

You sure?

We’re sure.

We bought the place in the spring and Robbie started working on the tow truck pretty much right away, holiday weekends and whenever we could sneak in an extra day here and there to get up there. Usually round once a month. We bought a pickup and left it at my sister’s house, got her on the insurance so that she could use it when we were not around. We’d land, grab a cab to her place, get coffee, get in the truck and go. He pulled the tarps off and we stood side by side, holding hands, and stared at it.

Fifty-three Chevy, he said, sun coming in all round us through the overhead doors at the end of the building, making the grill on the front of the big, high hood gleam. Older’n the both of us together. He glanced at me. The most gorgeous brown eyes you ever saw, but I never saw them shine like they did that first time we looked her over.

We gotta give her a name, I said. Daphne, some shit. Betsy.

I think that’s already done for us, he said. He stepped round me to the driver’s side door and pulled it open, pointed up into the cab. A thick piece of green plastic run through with silver flecks catching the light, hung from the rearview mirror by a thin silver chain.

Bethney?

What it says.

Not even spelled right.

He shrugged.

He poked around the internet some and studied and figured and called his dad some more and then started ordering parts. He found a manual online. He set up a laptop on the workbench. He bought a hoist and chain blocks and all manner of straps and cradles and dollies and lifts. A blast is what he was having. The time of his life. The man who delivered the hoist looked at the old girl and pulled off his beat to shit ballcap, scratched his baldy head, said, Man, that a pretty ol gal, ain’t she? Stepped back a little, leaned one way and then the other, pulled his cap back on tight, said, I know this girl. I remember her. Belong to a boy made a living out of pulling folks out the ditch round town. Had a plough up front also, I remember right. Robbie turned and pointed into the gloom at the back of the building. Right there.

He unbolted the hood and lifted it clear, swung it away and set it against the wall on wood blocks. He brought in ramps and got the truck sitting up off the ground, dropped the entire drivetrain and set it on cradles. I helped. I was labor. I followed instructions. I humped and lifted and pushed and pulled, held wrenches and brought tea and juice and whatever else he needed. I have to say though, he never became frustrated with the work, even he encountered issues here and there along the way. He took his time. He did it right. We were going to go to my sister’s place for dinner, or to a restaurant, to a hockey game, he put away his tools and switched off the lights, locked up the shed and washed up without a complaint. It was going to take time, then it was going to take time. It was his thing. I know he loved doing the work. He had done the same thing with his father up there in Seattle when he was a young lad. And plus he wore the sexiest coveralls he could find in Walmart. I mean he looked good, especially he wore a white T underneath and left the zipper open down the front. Good Lord! He rebuilt the engine first and then the transmission, hoisted them up, one after the other and set them in place, bolted them up and then turned his attention to the back of the truck. He drained the fluid, pulled off all the old hoses, rebuilt the hydraulic system itself and then installed new hoses, bright red ones, and all fine shiny fittings. And then started cleaning and polishing, inside as well as out. One day into the fall he came into the house mid-morning for coffee and said, Come on.

I stood under the overhead door, while he climbed up into the cab, settled himself some and turned the key in the ignition. You want to think there’s going be something not right, something forgotten, going give you nothing more than the dead flat click of failure when the engine doesn’t catch. But it wasn’t like that. Wasn’t like that at all. Robbie is my angel. He touches something, it’s going be beautiful. The engine caught and started and away she went, rough as a dog’s arse for a minute or two while he messed with the choke, but then settled into just a fine rhythm, a rumble, the fenders trembling, got that power in beneath again, taking in air, taking on life, ready to go to work. Ready for pulling folks out from ditches.

He thought about the body, which I have to say, even I could recognize was already in a damn decent condition for its age, maybe was the dry mountain air, and then decided that, barring a little work needed round the fenders, the rest was just fine for now.

I love the color, I told him again. I’m good with color. Dark green with matt black patches on the front fenders like the leather patches on college blazers in the UK. A wore down badge painted on the doors. The back of the vehicle, where all the workings, the cables and the jib, were slung, was a steel plate looked like an inch thick, like something military. Scrubbed and polished, shiny as a new dime!

And then he was done.

You want to take her out?

Sure! Where we gonna go? Can we look for folks fell off in the ditch?

Seriously?

If we can be of assistance to someone, why not?

I was thinking the Rusty Pale. Get dinner, a couple beers to celebrate. Big ole tow truck parked out front on the street.

All shiny.

He grinned. I kissed him.

Robbie eased her gently out from the shed and across the gravel onto the drive, the tires tall and thin, the hubcaps gleaming, while I pulled the workshop door down snug and locked it. I climbed up into the cab and we pulled out onto the highway where Robbie turned us westward toward the mountains. I started rattling on about how cool it was, he and I riding high in this big ol truck, but Robbie shushed me while he listened as he brought the speed up through the gears and then slowed again, shifted down, pulled the wheel to the left and then to the right. The truck had big wing mirrors hanging out wide, for when there would have been another vehicle slung up in back. I looked in the mirror on my side and saw a pair of headlights coming up in back of us. I jerked my thumb up back.

Maybe ease up on the slaloms until this car gets by hon.

Robbie pulled across onto the shoulder and slowed to let the vehicle pass but it slowed in behind us as well.

He’s looking at us. Is it a cop? We should turn and head back. I’m not liking this. Why did we come this way anyway? We should have headed straight into town.

Easy big man. We’re fine. Robbie was looking in the mirror on his side, watching the road at our back. It’s ok. He probably just is looking at the truck. Robbie wound his window down and stuck his arm out, waved the guy through. We were almost completely over onto the shoulder now. Either side of us the land was settling into evening dark. The last of the day’s light dwindling up ahead.

He’s checking us out, all he’s doing.

And sure enough, after a minute the vehicle – it was a beat to shit white Jeep SUV – pulled out and alongside. I couldn’t see the person inside on account of the vehicle was too low beside the truck. Robbie waved again and nodded and then it was gone, red lights heading away into the dark. Robbie turned us around. We passed the entry to our prime Colorado property, kept on towards town. At some point along the road Robbie reached for the green plastic name and slipped it into his jacket pocket.

In the summertime the town is a real tourist sort of a place, all wild-west paraphernalia, got swing doors in coffeeshops and boutiques, got restaurants masquerading as saloons, rails along the edges of the sidewalks for tying up your horse. Except for the last place at the western end of Main Street, which is nothing more than just a friendly, comfortable place to get a beer and something to eat. Not done all up with tarty make-up for pictures from out on the street and the local folks go in there you don’t hardly see a cowboy hat nor hear the clank and rattle of dumbass wannabe cowboy boots on rough wood floors. Just a place to eat, all it is. Inside got a few pictures of mountains on the walls over the tables and a bar up front, sans faux spittoons. We eat in there quite regular, me and Robbie. Nobody bothers us. We sit up at the bar, take a couple jugs from the local microbrewery, eat a steak, or the well-regarded San Jose chicken, got artichoke hearts and the best fries ever, and we’re done, we’re out and home to tea and bed ‘fore anyone knows we been through. Lot a ballcaps, lot a plaid vests and Carhartt jackets that time of year.

We angle parked out front, jumped down and went inside, up to the bar and settled ourselves, put in for the beer and grabbed the menus from the rack. Kind of exciting, tell the truth. We just drove into town in a cool old tow truck, all rumble and jangling chains and we’re wearing ballcaps like everyone else, except not everyone else is with a sweet angel who loves me.

What are you going get? I asked him. He’s checking the list, checking it twice, feeling pretty good about himself and why not?

Well, it’s gonna be steak probably, or maybe I’m gonna go for the melt. But I’m going to have a couple more of these first. He looked at me and handed me his gorgeous, brown-eyed smile.

It ran good though right? I said.

Perfect.

I know it. So are you.

He smiled. Yeah, I’m thinking steak.

Behind us the door opened, and cold air reached across the room to our shoulders.

I’m looking in the mirror back of the bar, through the liquor bottles, and I can see someone – a very large man – inside the door but not stepping all the way in, not moving anyplace towards a table, even though the place is seat yourself.

Hey!

I started to turn on the stool, but Robbie shook his head, put his hand on my arm.

No.

No what?

It’s the guy from the highway. Leave it. Drink your beer. Decide what you wanna eat.

Who in the fuck driving that tow truck out there?

Nobody answered. I could see out the corner of my eye that Robbie was watching through the mirror as well. Other direction the bartender was wiping glasses and shaking his head.

What up JW?

The guy at the door started across the bar, folks at the tables along his way leaning in to let him pass.

My fucking truck sitting outside, and I want to know who in the fuck got the nerve to bring that thing over here! Huh?

I mean, loud.

The barman was looking square at him now, still shaking his head.

We talked about this how many times JW? You never going be unwelcome in here but you can’t, I’m sayin you can’t, come in here all spitting and shooting off at the mouth. Can’t be doing that anymore and you know it. You want a beer?

He came up to the end of the bar and stood between Robbie and the window and the alley outside. He was wearing a big old beat to shit work jacket, a woolen hat and got him a huge beard down onto his chest. He glared at Robbie. He recognized Robbie from the highway. He stared at him for a very long time. I had the feeling that the folks at our back, at their dinners and beer, were all staring as well. The bartender came along in back of the bar to stand close up.

That your truck? He had his hands to his sides. He might have been flexing his fingers. All I could think at that minute, and it made us laugh afterward, was, He going draw on us?

Which truck? Robbie kept on looking into the menu in his hands.

I asked you son. That your fucking truck out there nor is it not? Belligerent and loud, although maybe Robbie was seeing something else.

Robbie turned his head and looked at the man. I could tell, even from the back of his sweet head, that he was pressing his lips together.

  1. That about enough now. Bartender threw his towel over his shoulder.

We caused you any issue out there on the highway sir, I apologize. We were talking maybe and not paying full attention. We got in your way somehow, again, I’m sorry. Robbie looked back to the bar and lifted his glass to drink some beer. I’m saying cool. I was learning all manner of things about my husband since we took up residence here in God’s country. Set his glass down again. And far as your enquiry is concerned, though I don’t see it as being any of your business, if you are referring to the green tow truck, then yes. That’s my truck.

You got my truck.

I’m sorry?

My truck. Drove that truck twenty and some years hereabouts…All and sundry knew me and my tow truck. How you all come to have my truck?

Was it stolen from you?

No. But…

Then how is it your truck? Careful but clear and firm.

Who the fuck…

That vehicle was bought clean and clear.

You got…?

I got everything I need makes it mine and I’m not showing you a damn thing. You got any further issue, the police station is down the street and to your right. Robbie tilted his head just a little.

The guy was steaming. I’m saying he was hot. He was a bull woulda had steam and fear snorting out his nostrils.

I know where the fucking police station is!

But Robbie just cool as can be sitting there at the bar, got his beer and got his truck and looking over the menu, looking forward to a nice dinner with his husband.

The barman into the fray then and telling this monster of a man he needed to go back outside and cool down, walk around a little he want to partake of the service provided herein. How he’s talking. Like wanting to be funny but knowing he’s got a situation on his hands. The big man don’t even acknowledge the bartender’s existence. He was glaring at the side of Robbie’s head, like deciding which method to use to take it off the shoulders and eat it. Between them was an empty stool, the last one at the end of the bar. Then seemed like Robbie come to some sort of decision. He turned to look at the man.

You want a beer?

The man took a huge, deep breath, like maybe he would just blow Robbie’s head clear off, watch it roll along the top of the bar. Robbie turned to the barman. Bring him whatever he usually takes, on me. And then, God bless me, God bless Robbie, who has the heart of a real bull, he turned back to the huge man towering over him and said – no, instructed – Sit down.

The man blinked. His beard trembled over whatever rage was boiling in his chest. He even cocked his head a little, like he didn’t hear clear what Robbie just said to him. And so Robbie repeated himself. He tilted the empty stool back and out from where it was tucked in behind the foot rail, pulled it clear from the bar. Sit down.

This here. This whole scene going on, this huge insane man, the rebuilding of the truck and the smell of oil and grease and metal and new rubber, the lifting of heavy things, the mountains looking over our shoulders the whole time, was changing the dynamic of my marriage before my very eyes. How was I going take this boy in my arms and hold him tight and kiss him all over, he’s going tell the meanest motherfucker in Colorado to sit down and stop squawking? Apart from the very real fact that I was terrified at that particular moment, I was also hard as a woodchopper’s ax.

And the man sat down.

I’m saying, you could hear the entire restaurant exhale as one.

The barman set a huge mug of draft on the bar in front of his new customer.

You take care, John William. You go easy on that one.

John William looked at the young man behind the bar, scowling, eyes black as night yonder in the mountain valleys, said. That it?

The barman tutted and walked away along the bar, came back with a double shot of whisky, set it beside the mug of beer. Like I said, John. Go easy. He nodded at Robbie. These boys is good custom.

Robbie waited for the man to take his whisky and a pull of beer, wipe the foam from off his beard, and then reached his hand along the bar. Robbie. Pleased to meet you. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. My partner, Telly.

John William looked from one to the other of us and squinted a little, like not sure what he was supposed to be seeing. He took Robbie’s hand but didn’t reach for mine.

Robbie poked his hand into his jeans pocket and pulled out the keys for the truck, set them on the top of the bar. He nodded at the keys. Take it for a run.

John William continued to stare forward over the bar. I couldn’t tell if he’d drifted someplace or he was watching Robbie and deciding how best to respond.

You wanna go, Robbie said, go now before you take on anymore. He nodded at the beer and the empty whisky glass. I just spent six months fixing that old girl up nice and new. I don’t want to have to get a tow truck out from somewheres to pull my own tow truck up out the ditch all broke and shit. You come back we can take us a beer together and you can let me know what you think, tell me a story.

I’m saying, Robbie looked like approximately half the size of this man.

John William sat for another minute, I had no idea what he was thinking. Robbie did. Robbie knew, told me later, in bed, all beer and whisky fume kisses and pepper sauce farts. On account of the green plastic. JW reached along the bar and pulled the keys towards him. They were keys he obviously recognized, and Robbie had kept the old wore smooth leather fob, you could just about make out the badge, JW’s Towing.

What if he doesn’t come back?

Robbie returned his focus to the menu after the big man stood and headed out. He’s local honey. Where’s he going go? Everyone in here knows him. And then Robbie lifted the green plastic name out from his pocket just a little. Drink your beer sweetie, he’ll come back. He glanced at me and smiled his beautiful, Robbie smile, calm as could be. You still hungry?

He came back, wasn’t ten minutes later, came in the door, gently this time round, and sat down beside us, handed over the keys to the truck, took possession of the fresh glass of whisky the bartender brought for him. He sipped and set the glass down, took a slug of beer, wiped his face with a huge hand and stroked down the length of his beard to his belly, looked straight ahead.

You all rebuild the drivetrain?

Yessir.

Where?

I did the work myself, with my man here helping. Sound fine?

He nodded.

Thank you. I appreciate that, and we going take good care of her.

John William shrugged inside his jacket and reached for his whisky. Had a name for her.

Yeah? Like Robbie didn’t know this.

Call her Betheny. After my little girl. She went with her mama and that’s fine, that’s alright. How it needs to be and her mama a good person so nothing there.

Good. That’s cool. Robbie drank his beer and nodded to the bartender to bring a couple more. The bartender pointed to me and Robbie shrugged, glanced sideways at me. You want?

By golly! I needed six! I waved for the bartender to bring for me as well.

She used to ride with me.

Sweet.

I’d take her out on calls. All the folks round about knew her. He tipped his head back a little towards the crowd at his back. Most the folks in here know her, ask after. Now she grown up, but she calls me every week.

Cool.

She been out here too, once or twice, but not too much. Ain’t the type a life you want your child to see you living, you know it?

Robbie shrugged. In his mind any life is a good life, long as you keep going and be honest.

We had a nice house right here in town but then…His voice rose up a little.

That’s ok. That’s your own business, unless you want to talk about it.

But I had to keep her in mind some way, you know it? He had his huge rough hands round the base of his mug of beer. He took a long pull. He pursed his lips a little as it went down, dipped his head some, his long hair falling. Didn’t happen to…

Robbie took the chunky plastic name with the flecks of silver all through it out from his jacket and set it on the bartop. John William glanced sideways at it, looked ahead again into the mirrors back of the liquor shelves, reached to stroke his beard again but then let his hand drop and rest beside the beer glass. Along the bar the bartender was watching what was happening. Robbie pushed the name and its flimsy chain along to the guy’s arm, left it there.

The bar was gone all quiet now. This place was his place, even we’d never seen him before. He was something in here. He called to the bartender, Tommy name of, which was another thing we’d never known.

Whatever these boys going eat nor drink you putting it on my tab. His voice was a little bit shaky sure enough. I’m talking about them filets and shit, and pie and ice cream, whatever they want.

He turned to Robbie. You ever need a damn thing – and he looked from Robbie to me and back so that we knew what he was talking about – you call me. You hear me?

Robbie pushed his ballcap back on his head and nodded.

I don’t answer means I’m in jail nor dead, nor with a woman. He looked again from Robbie to me and back. You need me bad enough come get my brother here. He nodded at the barman. He’ll know where to find me. He finished off the beer, wiped his face, banged the empty glass on the bar, and stood from the stool, headed out the door to the street.

The bartender followed him with a fresh pour of beer and another whisky.

Whew! I said.

Robbie just shrugged.

We took ourselves a couple more rounds and then ordered the steaks. We watched the barman take another full frosty mug out the door and come back in with the empties. And then another, and two three more before we were into the coffee. Robbie asked the barman, There a patio outside? Little chilly for sitting out ain’t it?

Ain’t it? God knows I loved him too much!

No patio, the barman said, pouring more coffee, asking we wanted anything else. He’s setting in your truck. It’s alright, he be gone soon enough.

We tried to pay and were rebuffed. Strenuously.

More’n my life’s worth.

Robbie asked him, He your actual brother?

Yessir. He’s my older brother. He’s done the tours over yonder and lived the life, so he has. Looks after me and I look after him. He shrugged. Best I can, anyhow.

He followed us out the door to the street. A deeper chill had come down while we were in the restaurant. Might be getting a skiff a something by morning, he said. You were in the business might be you be getting a call nor two. He nodded at the tow truck sitting up against the curb, a monstrous size against the regular pickups alongside. Big and dark and green in the light from the bar’s window, the rigging hangin out behind over the glittering street.

The truck was empty, and the last, empty beer mug was sitting on the top of the hood. The barman reached up and took it, wiped the paint with his bar towel and headed back inside. You boys drive safe huh? The truck was not locked. We climbed in and Robbie started her up, pointed. The green plastic name was hanging on the mirror with a napkin folded into the top hole of the ‘B’. Phone number and a note: Take good care of her. I know you will!

Robbie eased her back into the street and we headed off to the house.

* * *

 

 

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