She reads the Bible every morning. She also smokes off-brand cigarettes. To a lifelong Methodist like her, the two go hand in hand.
She’s eighty-four and frail. She digs a cigarette from a carton, her daughter lights it. The doctor says she shouldn’t smoke, but the Good Lord understands.
She tells a story.
“After my husband left us,” she begins, “I was raising my kids, doing all I could to survive. He left me with eighteen bucks in our bank account—no lie.”
Then, the worst. One day, she walked into work and her boss fired her.
Instead of crying, she lost her temper. She attacked him. She threw a lunch bucket at him. She landed several good slaps to his face. Her friends pulled her away.
This woman is a regular barrel of gunpowder.
That night, she loaded her children into a station wagon and drove straight for her sister’s in South Carolina. Radio blasting. Cigarettes burning.
“I was crying,” she says. “And worried about everything, I was sick.”
Her car broke down somewhere outside Athens, Georgia. Two in the morning. An empty highway. Not a soul for miles.
Her station wagon sat in a ditch. Her children were in the backseat, asleep. She leaned against her steering wheel and the tears came.
This was rock bottom.
Her sobbing was interrupted by the sound of transfer truck brakes. A big rig pulled behind her. Earth-shaking engine. Headlights blaring.
A man stepped out of the cab and walked toward her.
“I was scared,” she says. “Here I was, a young woman, middle of nowhere, and this man comes walking up.”
He was tall. She remembers this very clearly. And older.
He asked if she needed help. She told him what had happened, using a nervous voice.
His smile put her at ease. He said, “Pop the hood, ma’am. Lemme see what I can do.”
Beneath the glow of a flashlight, he made clanking noises beneath the hood. They got along famously. He made conversation while he worked.
“You could tell he was a nice man.”
She offered him a smoke. He thanked her. He tinkered beneath her car with a ratchet—cigarette wedged in his lips. She held the flashlight steady.
“Try it now,” he finally said.
Instead of shaking the man’s greasy hand, she hugged him. Two strangers, embracing. Then, even though she didn’t mean to, she turned into a puddle and cried into his shirt.
“Oh, don’t cry,” he said. “You’re gonna be alright, sweetie. Everything’s gonna be alright.”
They parted ways. He walked to his truck. She crawled into her car. She remembers taking deep breaths, starting her engine, then straightening her hair.
But something was wrong. There were no headlights in the rear view mirror, no rumbling engine. No truck.
She stepped out of her vehicle and saw nothing but highway.
“There’s no way he could’ve made a U-turn,” she goes on. “It was too narrow of a road, and I woulda heard it if he did. He was just up and gone.”
She stood outside her car, looking, but not finding. All she found was a crushed cigarette on the pavement. The man had stepped on it before he left.
“Maybe I was going nuts.”
This makes her laugh. Laughing turns into a coughing fit.
“Where do you think he came from?” her daughter asks.
She says she doesn’t know. And how could she? Besides, it was a long time ago. But, she says that for as long as she lives she’ll never forget that man. Or what he said to her.
Everything’s going to be all right.