He didn't even know where he was. By now, he was doing good to remember who he was. It was getting colder and darker out here every minute. The piney woods had looked just like home in the fading light of day. Now they were only a darkness looming at the side of the road. He could hear the trees sway and crackle in the wind but he could no longer see them -- and there was nothing cozy about them. They rose over him like a threat. Was he going to have to spend the night here? And then what would she think?
What would anyone think if they could see him stumbling back and forth between the driver's seat and the engine, fiddling around under the hood to no good purpose? As if he knew what he was doing. The old pick-up wasn't even sputtering any more, just coughing a little. Like somebody with a bad cold. Wouldn't you know she'd conk out right now, when everything depended on his getting back. Old Reliable indeed. He'd tried poking and prodding and cussin', but nothing seemed to work. His little flashlight, worthless thing to begin with, was growing dim. That's not good, he thought. None of it is good. Any more than he was. What had ever possessed him to go into town? Or to take on the whole trip, for that matter.
He knew the answer to that one. He was going to show her he could take care of her, and take care of business, too. Only right now he couldn't even take care of himself.
Wasn't that just like him, he thought, always biting off more than he could chew, let alone swallow. He wished somebody would come along, then maybe he could hitch a ride. But what would he tell her then, that he'd left the truck on the road, that they'd have to turn back? Go home with his tail tucked?
He couldn't afford to pay a mechanic even if he could find one out here, wherever here was. He knew the road led to where he'd left her out back at the little boarding house, but where was that? Not that it mattered much if he wasn't going to be able to get there.
The whole trip had been like that, his whole life had been like that. Always thinking he could do more than he could, look better than he was. He knew she was pregnant when he'd asked her to marry him, but that didn't matter none. Nobody needed to know. And he'd never seen anyone, anything, so beautiful, so kind and trusting, and, yes, needing him so much. There was something shining about her, from within, that never went out, even when she slept. He loved that.
There comes a time when all a man wants is to get up every morning and ask what he can do for a woman, one particular woman. And he'd known she was the one from the moment he'd laid eyes on her. Something told him.
He'd hated to ask her to come with him, but he couldn't leave her all alone, not now, and they had to get downstate if he was going to pay his taxes and save his land. And get her name on the rolls, too. The land was all he had for her and, soon enough, for theirs. That's all he'd wanted. A place to call their own. It didn't seem like a whole lot for a man to ask. But now here he was, alone, in the dark, messing with an old truck that had given out on him. Just like all his hopes. What a fool he'd been. About everything.
But he didn't have time to worry about all that. Not now. He'd just have to get the dadblamed thing going, that's all. She'd be worried about him by now. Heck, he was worried about him by now. But at least in this weather the milk and other stuff would stay cold. If he could just get this heap moving again. He'd tried everything except trying it again. Slow down, he told himself. Concentrate. If it can be broke, it can be fixed. Somehow.
Focus on one thing at a time:
The battery looked all right. He chipped away a little more corrosion, applied a little more grease.
He'd checked every plug, cleaned and set it just right.
The fuel pump? He'd just put in a new one.
The ignition cranked all right, if kind of slow. It just wouldn't turn over and fire up.
Couldn't be the generator.
The wires looked all connected.
The carburetor. Again he unscrewed the top, checked the intake valve, made sure it wasn't flooded. It'd been running ragged the last few miles. He tried to start her again. Nothing doing.
The flashlight put out only a faint glow now. Not good, he thought again. He went poking under the hood again.
The hoses, what about the hoses? He checked them again. One looked a little loose. Was there a tear in this one, or was he just seeing things in the dark? He wrapped it with duct tape.
Back to the carburetor. He took out the air filter, tapped it, put it back again.
Checked the wires once more. Just for luck. And tried again.
And came to life. Why, he had no idea, but he didn't care. He'd never been so surprised. It was a miracle. So long as she ran. Soon the heater would be warming up. That would be good. Everything was looking up as Old Reliable came to life. He didn't push her or dare to. He used a feather foot at first to make sure she'd keep on humming. And she did. They were on their way. Not fast, but moving.
The headlights grew stronger. And beyond the shoulder of the road, even the fields seemed brighter. Away in the distance a lone star shined. Venus? No, one he'd never noticed before. A rare peace settled over him, as if everything was going to be OK. Even when it wasn't.
He turned the last bend, then up the hill to the inn, only to realize he'd come too late. Or maybe just in time. She was surrounded by people, loving faces, proud faces, like they'd been the ones to have the baby. Folks weren't so bad after all. Everybody had pitched in.
He'd never seen Mary so beautiful, so kind, so exhausted, so happy. So grateful. So needing to see him. She had a kind of glow about her, and it suffused everything, as if it could light the world. He had never loved her so much, or been so thankful. She was all right. That was the important thing. She had accomplished her days.
He couldn't take his eyes off her. She was saying something. "It's a boy." And so it was. Yes, five fingers, five toes. Healthy. Like his mother. The word Mother had never sounded so perfect in his mind. He wanted to sink to his knees and adore her. He'd been lost but now he was found. Through the mist she was saying something.
"Joe," she whispered, "what shall we call him?"