Oh, oh, Alabama.
Can I see you and take your hand?
Make friends down in Alabama.
I’m from a new land
I come to you and
see all this ruin.
What are you doing, Alabama?
“Is this the way they do business in Alabama?” I grab the black plastic knob attached to the end of the lever, shift the transmission into gear and bounce the truck forward. I check the mirrors to confirm that my crippled vehicle follows. Finding myself behind the wheel of a large tow truck, I look over at its owner slumped against the passenger door, head tucked into the corner, already beginning to snore.
After exploring the small towns and back roads south of Montgomery this weekend, I had navigated to the nearest northbound interstate highway and pointed my black Pontiac Fiero toward my temporary home in Birmingham. I had never lived in the south before and weekend drives through the countryside helped get me oriented. This weekend, I got a closer look at one particular slice of Alabama.
Sometimes things are perceived but not comprehended. While driving on the Interstate, a dense gray cloud extends from the sky to the ground. I am intrigued but foolishly drive onward. As I approach, it becomes apparent. This is an isolated deluge of rain. Floodwater covers the road surface to a depth of an inch or more. I try to slow down in time but it is too late. When I hit the water, my wide rubber tires skim across the surface and lose all traction. “Help me, Jesus” escapes my lips as the car does a slow counterclockwise rotation while waterskiing at fifty miles an hour and bounces off the guardrail. When I roll to a stop with “a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track,” I face backwards pointing south. Fortunately, the northbound lanes are deserted. The rain cloud now moves to the east to dump on someone else.
I shift back into gear and nurse it to the outside shoulder while a hollow thumping sound vibrates from below. The steering wheel pulls hard to the right. My shoes soak up water as I retrieve a couple pieces of car body parts at the scene of initial impact. A brief inspection of the little sports car concludes that it is unfit for duty. The view to the south is nothing more than a narrowing line of asphalt that disappears into the horizon between the trees. Turning north, an overpass is visible through the twilight. I walk the half-mile to the exit and up the ramp. Across the bridge that spans the highway, a couple lights pierce the gathering darkness. The lit sign says “Auto Repair” and includes a critical word: “Wrecker.”
The evening light is all but gone. I gravitate toward an electric flood lamp that shines from a tall pole above a mobile home with a couple bright windows. Encouraged by this sign of life, my feet approach the door but hesitate, not knowing what to expect. I knock. The scent of fried food wafts out through the screen door that is soon shadowed by the figure of a thirty-something man with a five o’clock shadow and a wide smile set below concerned eyebrows. “Kin I hep ya?” he says, while hitching up his pants. The man sports a white tank-top undershirt with thin vertical lines woven into the fabric, and it wraps tightly around his protruding abdomen. His belly droops slightly over his belt that barely holds up his worn blue jeans.
“Your sign says you have a wrecker. I’ve had an accident and need to have my car towed to Birmingham.”
“I might could hep ya after we eat here. Come on in and we’ll talk ‘bout it over dinner. Ya hungered?” He invites me in without hesitation, as if we were familiar neighbors. “I’m Gopher, and this here’s my wife, Twink. She’s got food ready. Tain’t much, but you can join us.”
Twink is a thin young woman wearing gray sweat pants and a faded green top. Her stringy blonde hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail and she is only mildly embarrassed about not being prepared for a visitor. When she smiles, I see a gap where a tooth used to be. Twink offers me a fried hotdog and some pasta. I pass on the dog but accept a bowl of mac n’ cheese. Between bites, Gopher looks up at me and asks, “Where abouts ya from?”
“I’m from Colorado…,” and prepare to explain specifics. He interrupts with a chuckle and says, “I figgerd ya was from out west by the way ya talked.”
After dinner, I decline a bowl of ice cream and glance at my watch, fidgeting in my seat with my elbow on the edge of their Formica table, fingers in hair. Gopher releases a low rumbling belch as he gets up from the table and walks toward the back door pulling on a light jacket. “Give me a minute and I’ll be ready to go hep ya.” While Twink clears the table and moves dishes into the kitchen sink, I hear the crank and then the roar of a diesel engine vibrate in through the thin walls. I thank Twink for dinner and she says goodbye with a distant look in her eye.
Hoisting myself into the passenger seat of the wrecker, I inhale the background scent of fuel as we rumble out the driveway. Before we get to the highway, he says he has hardly slept in the last two days and is very tired. I say nothing, worried that he might change his mind. We head down the ramp onto southbound I-65. My gaze locks onto the black silhouette of the car in the northbound lane as we pass. He loops around at the next exit, and soon we approach the disabled Fiero.
I had bought this sports car after a few months on my first job after graduating from college. It was only a few months later that buyer’s remorse set in. That was 1983, nearly ten years ago, and I was determined to drive this car to its death just to get my money’s worth. Now it sits wounded and inoperable on the side of a highway in the southern part of Alabama.
Black grime rubs off the straps and onto my hands as I help Gopher sling them around the wheels. The electric winch whines as it pulls the front end of the car up onto his ramp. He adds a couple backup chains that hook onto parts of the suspension that probably wouldn’t hold. Pretending to inspect, I walk around the rig, but it is too dark to see much.
I climb into the passenger seat while Gopher opens the driver’s door and steps up onto the sideboard. He gives me a weird look, grabs the steering wheel and pulls himself up with a groan. He puts the transmission into gear and slowly accelerates. Before he gets into fourth gear, he again starts talking about how little sleep he has had. Was it three hours last night and two hours the night before, or the other way around? I can’t remember, but he seems pretty sleep deprived. He doesn’t explain why he hadn’t slept, and I never ask.
Amid frequent yawns, he repeats his saga of sleep deprivation. I do not hold a Commercial Drivers License, but I can take a hint… “Gopher, do you want me to drive so you can rest?”
“Well, sir, if you don’t mind, I’d be mighty obliged,” and immediately the engine decelerates as he veers toward the shoulder. I walk around the front as he scooches across the bench seat and collapses into the passenger door. I know the feeling. When the body needs it, there is nothing better than sleep.
Driving a tow truck, or any vehicle this large is a new experience. I am looking out the window on the second floor of a moving building, but after the first couple miles, I start to enjoy the feeling. The flashing roof lights reflect off the passing trees. Loud uneven snoring fills the cab. Interstate 65 passes Montgomery and as we rumble north toward Birmingham, my mind wanders. A month into my one-year contract job for the power company here, I have only begun to explore the Deep South where I encountered some shocking opinions about the relative value of races and colors of fellow human beings. Unusual characters have crossed my path, but Gopher and Twink stand out. This evening’s drive proves to be particularly memorable.
I had never approached the city from this angle, but with luck I take the right exit and begin to see familiar landmarks. Navigating this large, awkward rig through the city drips adrenalin into my arteries. I expect Gopher to jolt himself awake at any moment, especially when the truck jerks us away from a traffic light, but he is out cold. After turning into the parking lot of my apartment complex and maneuvering around the parked cars, I raise my voice, but he does not stir. After a significant prodding, he raises his head and gives me a dumbfounded, “Where-am-I-and-what-is-going-on-here?” look. He rouses himself, opens his door and nearly falls out onto the pavement. He has loaded and unloaded vehicles hundreds of times and can do this in his sleep. Soon enough, my car is nestled into a parking spot. I write him a check and point him back toward the highway.
Gopher rubs his eyes and asks, “Anywheresa guy can get a cupacoffee roundhere?”
While walking up the steps to my apartment, Gopher drives west on Valley Avenue and I think, what an odd individual—but I catch myself. How many times have I overextended myself until I was unable to do what needed to be done and trusted a complete stranger to fill the gap—even, perhaps, a couple hours ago? As his empty rattling tow truck disappears beyond the streetlights, I wonder in how many other ways we might be fellow pilgrims, very different yet very much alike, and maybe even kindred spirits in a strange sort of way. I also consider with how many other people, seemingly different, I might share some common pool of human experience.
Top illustration by David B. Such.