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The Truck, a Christmas Short Story
"You better leave that old truck alone, you're going to get hurt fooling with it."
Reggie Stamply remembered that his father said that to him Christmas Eve twenty-five years ago when he showed up with his tools and a big can of WD-40. He refused to let Reggie near the old truck that he considered junk.
"Ever heard of sentimental value, Pop?"
"I have," he replied. "Just never thought much of it."
Reggie remembered that day as he sat in his den in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, 2015. It was a little after four o'clock in the morning and his wife had finally shook her head and went to bed leaving him to sit in front of the fireplace, occasionally stoking the fire he really didn't need and the memories he did.
The old man had bought the 1964 long bed Chevy truck in 1965. It was the newest vehicle he ever owned and he had sat in a little cafe in downtown Dismal, South Carolina fretting over the decision, chain smoking Lucky Strikes, and drinking black coffee. Reggie smiled when he thought about the day he bought it and his father getting so nervous. At one point his dad had tried to light the filter end and they both laughed about it. Simpler times.
Reggie’s phone chirped and he checked his text messages:
"GPs shows ETA to you about 7. Sorry for the delay."
Buying the truck that day didn't kill the old man, but those Lucky Strikes sure did. Late in the summer of 1990, about a month after the funeral, Reggie sent a wrecker to the home place and had the old truck pulled to a shade tree mechanic he knew. He picked up an in line six cylinder from a junk yard for three hundred bucks and paid the guy another two to install it and then drop the truck at his house.
Reggie sent the seat out to be recovered in black vinyl, sanded around the rust and then painted the whole thing with cans of flat black primer from Wal Mart. He got some tires from a friend who ran a pawn shop, and a radiator from a guy on Craiglist. Then he had to spend another $800 on the brakes and in the process figured out where the dent in the hood came from.
"Only the front brakes work," his mechanic told him and then laughed. "We're going to have to replace all the lines. Look at what your dad did when the back brakes failed because of the hole in the line."
The brake line running to the back of the truck was cut apart and the end folded and taped closed with black electrical tape. Reggie figured the dent in the hood came from making an emergency stop somewhere down in the woods while gathering firewood.
Reggie texted back:
"Sorry you're having to work on Christmas Eve. It could have waited."
"Like I told you it's on my way home and I can use the money. Interstate finally cleared, making good time now."
If Reggie had a dollar for every time the old truck's “three on the tree” linkage had hung up and caused his father to attack it both vocally and with a hammer, maybe he could have afforded a real restoration. He did get it road worthy, sort of, but as time wound on he got to where he only drove it two or three times a year. The fact that he rarely drove it and that it was sort of embarrassing to look at, caused him to put it on eBay. When he sold it to a guy in Baltimore for way less than half the money he had in it, he was just happy that someone was going to fix it up and drive it.
As Reggie put another log on the fire, he remembered him and his brother riding on the running boards helping sell watermelons to make ends meet when they were kids. He thought about learning to drive in that truck and driving it to high school and then to work at the local Winn Dixie.
Three hours later, Reggie woke from a dreamless sleep thinking he had heard air brakes out on the street. He headed to the kitchen, started a pot of coffee and then looked out to see the old man’s truck backed into the drive. Grinning, he grabbed his jacket.
He walked around the truck, looking to see where improvements had been made. The rusted out rocker panels had been replaced, the tires and wheels replaced, and the front bumper and hood had been repaired. Inside it was pretty much the same as it had been. The huge steering wheel that made it possible to turn without power steering was still there and thankfully there was still no radio. Reggie didn’t much care for most of what passed for country music these days.
He should have been ecstatic. It had taken years to find the guy in Baltimore who had bought the truck and talk him into selling it back. Reggie had bought and sold a load of cars, trucks, and motorcycles over the years but the old man’s truck was the one he missed.
Yet wanting it, and getting it seemed to be totally different things.
Reggie found the key under the floor mat, slid it home and the shifter into neutral. The engine fired instantly. Reggie set the emergency brake and let the old truck idle while he went back inside to get coffee and see if his wife was up.
She wasn't and he grabbed his wallet and the Wal Mart list and left her a note.
The mirror inside attached to the roof of the cab needed adjusting. Reggie slid the seat back, dropped her into first and popped the clutch. Barking the tires, Reggie headed out.
He cut through the neighborhood, drove through downtown, then out on the bypass. The old truck handled better, ran better, and looked better than it had when he sold it but somehow something was just... wrong. Reggie was happy, but he expected to be thrilled. He had pined for that old truck for years and yet having it was simply leaving him underwhelmed. He shrugged, sighed, and turned into the Wal-Mart parking lot.
"Stephen will understand," the woman said to her husband. "He'll be thirteen next year, he's mature for his age, and he knows you didn't get the bonus we expected. We'll get the two for the twins and he can make do another year."
He was passing the bicycle section headed to pet supplies when he noticed the young couple. The woman smiled sadly, the man simply shook his head.
"That Mongoose is all he's talked about," the man said.
"If we had the money, we couldn't carry three bikes in that old Datsun," his wife said. “We’re running behind, the kids will be home in about an hour. Things will be better next year, maybe we can get it for his birthday in May."
The couple noticed Reggie watching them, got two small pink bikes out of the rack, and walked them past him. Reggie didn't know he was going to speak until they passed.
"Hold up,” Reggie said. “Please."
The couple stopped as others rushed by and Reggie searched for the words that would keep him from sounding crazy.
"Which bike does Stephen want?" He asked.
Neither of the two spoke but the wife's glance told Reggie all he needed to know. The bike was $189.00. He reached for his wallet and started talking.
"I grew up poor," he said. "There were some lean Christmas times when I was a kid but then later on the old man finally was doing okay. Later in life he got to where he kept ten one hundred dollar bills folded up in his wallet for emergencies. After he died Mom gave the kids two each."
Reggie rummaged around in his wallet, found the bills that his father had carried and that had been left to him. He handed them to the man who looked dumbfounded.
"I've carried those two bills around for years," Reggie said. "and until now I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with them."
"Why would you do this," the woman asked.
"Honestly? I don't have a clue,” Reggie said. “But I do have a truck, let's go."
It was drizzling rain in the parking lot as they loaded all three bikes in his truck. After adjusting the mirror again Reggie backed out of his spot and followed the beat up Datsun east out of town. A winding dirt driveway off of a two lane pot hole dotted road led to the couple's double wide. The three of them pushed the bikes into a shed behind the trailer and the couple followed Reggie back to his truck.
The wife fought back tears and hugged Reggie and the man simply shook his hand and thanked him.
"You've made a little boy's Christmas, Mister."
"Sort of makes mine, too." Reggie said. He turned away, slid into the truck, and watched the couple head inside. He cranked the truck and reached to adjust the mirror again.
The eyes looking back at him in the old crooked mirror this time were not his blue ones, but his father's brown.
Stunned, frozen in place, and unable to look away, Reggie stared.
"Merry Christmas, son,” said the man in the mirror.
And instantly the brown eyes were replaced by his own.
"Merry Christmas Pop,” Reggie said. “I miss you."
The gears in the old truck hung up going into second as he pulled away. Reggie smiled as he walked back to the trailer to borrow a hammer.