August 15, 2016
He drove his rusted out, smashed-in pickup truck to the local fruit stand, parked, and took fifteen minutes to get out of the truck and order some cantaloupes. He was in his mid-seventies, short, as wide as he was tall, and he wore a see through straw hat and overalls. He leaned heavily on a cane. There were three teeth in his mouth.
Then he insisted on carrying his own melons to the truck, climbed aboard and cursed as the vehicle wouldn’t start. Cathy from the stand used jumper cables to give his truck a jump, and the engine roared to life. As soon as Cathy disconnected the cables, the truck died again.
“I’m sorry, hon, your truck is dead,” Cathy said.
“Oh, that’s all right. I git me a taxi I reckon.”
But he didn’t call a taxi. He stood in the heat and watched us hopefully, until Cathy asked me to drive him in her car to the Do Drop Inn, a beer and meat joint (all you can eat pork chops) on Route 109, just south of Jerseyville. He said his trailer was next to there, and the boys at the Do Drop, though they didn’t like him, would help him.
So I drove him. I cranked up the air conditioning. He smelled of alcohol.
“I guess I need to quit drivin’ regular trucks,” Lonnie said, “start driving my lawn mower.”
I told him about Alvin Straight, about whom a movie, “the Straight Story,” was made, when Straight, unable to drive anymore, drove his riding lawn mower from Iowa to Northern Minnesota and back again, to visit his dying brother (played by Harry Dean Stanton).
We drove four miles in silence, then Lonnie said, “Iowa all the way to Minnesota and back again. If that don’t beat all. Iowa Minnesota – huh. His brother?”
I said I guessed he needed a new truck. He said, No, no, my truck break down like that every couple of weeks. He said consider the lilies of the field, God would take care of him, when in fact Gene, God’s unlikely minion, was taking care of him.
And so it went to the Do Drop Inn, the parking lot of which was half filled with the trucks of afternoon beer drinkers.
“Oh my lord,” Lonnie said, “how am I git out this here small vehicle.” We were sitting in Cathy’s full size van. “Can you give me a hand them cantaloupes?”
I carried the huge melons into the bar, which was so dark I couldn’t see the interior. Lonnie trailed behind, way behind, the tripod of his feet and cane barely holding upright.
A voice from the bar said, “Lonnie comin’? Put down the stuff. I got it from here.”
Lonnie came into the entrance and said, “Hello, guys! How you?”
The voice answered, “Set down, Lon. Somebody take you home.”
A chorus in the dark tavern (why are taverns so dark in the afternoon?) said, “Lon.”
“Boys,” Lonnie said. He shook my hand, his palm sweating. “Thank you kindly the ride. Iowa to Minnesota, I will remember that. I forgit your name.”
I had told him my name four times as we drove.
“Gene,” I said.