McCandless turned back down the road and squinted. He thought he could see the truck in the distance but was not certain. It might’ve just been a heat shimmer where he thought the truck should be. He knelt to the spigot to drink and spat out the first hot mouthful. Then the water ran cool and he drank for a long time. He took off his hat and wet his hair. He splashed some on his neck and back but his back was already soaked and water felt no different there from sweat.
Around the front of the station a boy sat in a faded uniform and overlarge hat. The boy held his head awkwardly and did not meet McCandless’s gaze when he spoke.
—Good afternoon, mister. We ain’t got no gas today.
—That’s all right. This a mechanic’s shop?
—Sure is. But we ain’t got no gas to give you.
—Don’t need gas, need a mechanic. Got a truck needs work. Mechanic around?
—Gas truck comes Mondays, might be gas then.
—Maybe it’s closed on account of Sunday.
McCandless waited for him to say more but the boy’s head just drifted off.
—Your father the owner?
—No sir, he’s off to the meeting. Be back at sundown.
—All right. What’s that there? Cafe?
McCandless paused but could not think of what more to say.
—Good day to you.
He crossed the road and set off toward the cafe some hundreds of yards down the road. His legs had stiffened for having stopped at the spigot and he covered the distance slowly.
He entered the cafe and took off his hat. His eyes were immediately useless. The bell jingled a second time as the door shut. Tinny honky tonk music came from the left and he turned his head that way. The air was chilled and he felt the sweat on his body.
—Warm day. Fit to fry an egg if you wanted.
McCandless winced a reply.
—Few hours. Truck broke down.
—What can I do for you?
McCandless considered a moment.
—Well I need a mechanic. Don’t seem like there’s one of those around.
—Not on a Sunday, no.
—They make any exceptions?
—Not likely to. Anyhow he’s off at a revival meeting. Won’t be back before dark.
—Maybe I talked to his son at the station.
—Get much out of him?
—No, wouldn’t expect to. He’s not quite right in the head.
—I had a thought like that.
—Go on have a seat. You look like you could use a drink.
But McCandless hesitated so he said
—Drink what you want, water’s free.
He sat in a booth and held the wet glass in his hand.
—Been walking then? Where’d you come from?
—Hour or two down the road. Car trouble.
—So you said. Yessir, that happens. Slight grade in these parts. Cars overheat afore folks knows whats happening.
—Well tomorrow’s your first chance for a mechanic.
—Guess so. There a place to stay around here?
—Got some rooms upstairs.
—Yeah? What’d you take for them?
—Thems three dollar rooms.
—Got no other rooms? Got no one dollar rooms?
The man didn’t answer but worked his jaw. McCandless’s eyes worked now and he could see what kind of man the shopkeep was. Puffy pink face and watering eyes and an uncertain jaw. He saw him and knew he could take the room for a dollar or just plain take the room.
—Thems three dollar rooms, got em fixed up this year. New carpet, new beds.
—Don’t need no room. Haven’t slept in a bed since we left Oklahoma and don’t need to now. I’s just thinking about a bed on account of being tired from walking.
—If you’re in need we could work something out.
—Said I don’t need no room. Don’t need no Okie mussin’ up your new beds. Shouldn’t a said anything.
And then just to have something more to say he said
—What do you have to eat here?
—Got a 15 cent plate and a 25 cent plate. 25 cent plate has a double helping.
McCandless considered a moment the five cent discount and the likelihood of a true double helping.
—Can I fix a plate for you?
—Not now. I imagine I’ll have to get back to my partner.
—Yeah, left him with the truck. All we have’s there. Couldn’t leave it alone. Can’t say I have much of a plan without a mechanic.
The bell of the door chimed again but his back was to the door and he couldn’t see it.
—Duffy. How the hell’d you get here? Where’s the truck?
—Right out there. Drove here.
—Like hell you did.
—Go see yourself. Mind if I sit down?
—Suit yourself. Drink this.
And he handed him the water. Duffy drank it down and closed his eyes. The shopkeep spoke.
—Yeah, give him another. I left this bastard with steam coming from the hood and black smoke coming out the exhaust. He’s like as not put it over the edge driving it this far.
—I told you the truck’s fine. Wasn’t nothing much wrong with it. Oil and coolant was all, and we had them in back.
—Changed the oil and put in coolant.
—Like hell. Let’s eat first cause I’m sure as hell not springing for the 25 cent plate if I find out you just wrecked the truck.
McCandless spit his toothpick on the ground and walked to the truck. He got in and started it up. It started rough but evened out. No smoke. No steam. He put it in gear and drove a circle.
—Well I’ll be damned.
He put it in the road and drove to the gas station. He turned it off, restarted it, and drove back.
—Told you. Oil and coolant.
They went back to the cafe and got coffee.
—Okay, miracle worker, you’ve had your fun. How’d you fix it?
—You go to hell if you don’t wanna listen. Changed the oil. Added coolant.
—Sure you did.
—How’d you do it?
—How d’you think I did it? Ain’t you never changed oil before?
—Sure I have.
McCandless’s eyes narrowed and he set his hands on the table.
—What do you think the temperature is out there? Hundred?
—It’s a hundred and ten if it’s a hundred.
—I agree with you there. How long we been driving?
—Shopkeep says there’s a slight grade in these parts. Makes engines overheat.
—Sounds like what happened to us.
—What do you figure to be the hottest part of the car?
—Engine I guess.
—And how hot’s that?
Duffy looked aside impatiently.
—I don’t know. Hot.
—And how bout that oil all sloshing around in that engine? How hot’s that do you think?
—Damn hot too.
—I’d say so. So’d that oil burn your hands any draining it out?
Duffy’d understood his point and sat with his jaw set and looked straight at McCandless. He spoke slowly.
—No it didn’t.
—You didn’t change no oil in that truck. What’d you tell me you did for?
—I did change the oil, damn it. You drove the truck.
—I drove it but I didn’t see what you did to it.
—Well how’d it get fixed then?
—I don’t know.
Duffy considered a moment.
—Here, look at my hands.
He offered his hands and McCandless took them. He considered them a long time, turning them over. Two knuckles skinned on his right hand. Oil stain on the palm and all around the fingers. He could see the dust and the sand where Duffy’d tried to get the oil off rubbing his hands in the dirt.
Duffy took his hands back and sipped his coffee. McCandless looked at the table and was silent for a time and then spoke.
—Well. Doesn’t prove nothing. I don’t suppose I need to get worked up over some Okie ditch-digger’s tall tale. Glad the truck’s fixed, anyhow.
McCandless took a sip of coffee and looked to move out. Duffy had not moved.
—Well damn you, McCandless. Don’t think you’ve called me a liar before today.
—Cool off, never said you was a liar.
—Like hell you didn’t.
Duffy again sat still and McCandless at length acknowledged that it was his turn to speak.
—Well if I did I didn’t mean nothing by it.
—I don’t care about that. Forget I said it. Just.
Duffy worked his mouth and looked like a kid forced to make nice after a fight.
—The oil was lukewarm.
McCandless looked him in the eye.
—I’m prepared to forget you said that.
—To hell with what you think. You believe or don’t believe what you want. I was there. The goddamn engine oil was lukewarm. There’s nothing more to it.
—I’m sorry I called you a liar.
—I said I didn’t care about that.
—No. I’m sorry cause I knew you was telling the truth and I just didn’t wanna think about it. I saw your hands myself.
—Well. Thanks, I guess.
The men sat and drank their coffee and did what they could to smooth things over. Then things were smoothed over and they just sat and thought. Duffy was silent and McCandless looked uncomfortable.
Duffy got up and the door bell clinged as he went out. A minute or two passed and the door clinged again and he sat down and put his fingers in his ice water.
—Burned my hand.
—Check the oil?
—Nope. Imagine it’s as hot as the engine though.
They sat some more and McCandless looked around the cafe. His eyes rested on each booth and he inventoried the contents of each: the salt, the pepper, the Tabasco, the napkins, the menu. He ran his fingers along the edge of the table and felt the grain of the wood through the varnish.
—Don’t seem like a dream.
—No it don’t.
—Seems real as anything. Course in a dream anything seems real.
—No, dreams is different. In a dream things don’t make sense and you just accept it. Like this would be a cafe and also the house I grew up in at the same time, and it just would be even if it didn’t make sense. This don’t feel like that.
—Can’t remember having a dream neither where you talk about whether it’s a dream.
—Well, I’m real anyhow.
—Well I guess that settles it then.
—So where do we go from here? Call it a miracle and just get back out on the road?
—Miracle. Lukewarm engine oil’s not exactly Jesus Christ feeding the five thousand.
—That mean it can’t happen?
McCandless thought about this question.
—Well I ain’t a religious man and haven’t known you to be. Seems like for a miracle there’s gotta be faith.
—Don’t get to church much but sounds about right.
McCandless waited for words to come to him and when he did speak he spoke slowly and with effort.
—Thing is, it’s just so stupid.
—How d’you mean?
—Well two guys goin’ to California to pick fruit ain’t exactly the Israelites bein’ chased by Pharoah. And cold engine oil ain’t exactly parting the Red Sea. But even then… But the thing’s so stupid. It’s more a mistake than a miracle.
McCandless sat thinking a while and then spoke.
—You read much?
—I pick up a comic or a Zane Grey.
—You know how sometimes you read those things and it’s a wild west story and they’re talking about trucks or cattle or something. And the guy’s writing about something and just gets it wrong cause he’s not a cowboy at all, he’s just some jackass writer living in New York or San Francisco or something.
—Well that’s what this feels like. No goddamned deeper meaning to it. Just feels like a mistake.
Duffy thought about this.
—Mistake. Whose mistake?
—I don’t know that. It’s just what it feels like.
The men sat and thought for a time. The shopkeep had been silent this while but finally spoke.
—Now I don’t want to butt in where it’s not my business. I heard what you boys been sayin and I believe what you said, both of you. Now I just think—
He stopped talking so the men turned slightly toward him.
—I just think that you two got out of a spot of trouble and ain’t any the worse for it. And. And if something don’t make sense, well then maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.
McCandless considered this a moment and spoke.
—Well, you got me there. Can’t say we’re worse for the wear how this turned out. Bit a magic engine oil’s probably not worth the half-day we’ve lost over it now.
The shopkeep was not a man of substance in the town and McCandless’s response encouraged him.
—And it seems to me that you can get to thinkin about anything and get worked up about it. Why this. Why that. Fella drive himself crazy if he do too much of it. Why’d you set off for this town not the last town? Why’d the mechanic have to be at revival? Why’d you come here not wantin to eat nothin? Fella go crazy thinkin’ ’bout all that.
McCandless raised his head to meet the shopkeep’s eyes and spoke slowly.
—What did you say?
—Said a man’d drive himself crazy asking every why and wherefore he could think of. Any number of reasons for any number of things in this world. Can’t figure em all out if you wanted to, and who wants to?
—You asked me why I came here in the first place.
—Sure, why not?
McCandless fixed his eyes on a spot on the floor and was silent. Duffy looked uncomfortable and spoke.
—He was lookin’ for a mechanic. We needed to find a mechanic, that’s why he come.
—No there wasn’t no mechanic here.
—Well how’d you know that?
—Mechanic’s son told me he was gone. First place I came to I knew that.
—The kid at the station? I drove up askin bout you and all he’d tell me is that there was no gas today and it’d come Monday. Same thing over and over no matter what I said.
—Yeah, that was the kid. Told me his father was off the whole day.
—Well, but what’s that mean? Who’s gonna believe a kid like that?
McCandless lifted his gaze from the floor and met Duffy’s eyes.
—Well I did believe him. Even an idiot kid knows if his dad’s around or not.
—So you came here to sit down. What’s the big deal?
—But why’d I do that? Walked for two hours in the sun and thought I’d walk a bit more? No mechanic there wasn’t nothing more to do today but stay with the truck.
—Maybe you just wanted a bite to eat.
Duffy turned to the shopkeep.
—No I tried to sell him lunch and he wouldn’t take it without you.
Duffy turned back to McCandless.
—Well you made a mistake. Don’t matter none. We’re here now.
McCandless drew out the word as if doubting it.
—I made a mistake.
—Sure you did. What’s it matter?
—Yeah, what’s it matter. And what’s the oil matter? And any of it?
McCandless raised his voice.
—Well it’s a bit different if it’s a mistake and you don’t get burned from the engine oil or it’s a mistake and you’re not making your own damned decisions.
Duffy turned aside and did not speak. McCandless was silent a time and then spoke loudly and with the fluency of strong emotion.
—Hell, I don’t have to understand everything. You open up a radio and it’s clear there’s something there, even if you don’t know what it is. Damn thing works after all, and whether you understand it or not the thing works and so you know there’s a system to it. You look at life and there’s a system to that too. Only now I’m looking at this thing and there’s nothing to it. Engines not heatin up their oil with the engine runnin on a hot day and me makin a decision I can’t account for. What’s the goddamned thing mean? Don’t know if I’m gonna turn West and find myself back in Oklahoma or pull out my wallet to pay for this and find it full of cash. Or maybe the truck’s not there or maybe it’ll smoke out the front and shoot steam out the exhaust pipe when I start it. Goddamn, a man don’t have to know everything but if he can’t make sense of anything, what can he do?
McCandless and Duffy sat in silence for a time. Each drank another cup of coffee. They paid the shopkeep and went out to the car and drove out of town. The sun was already setting but they drove on two hours after dark and pulled off the road and slept in the sand. The sun woke them in the morning and they continued on their way, silent before the world.