The old man is sitting on his front porch. A creaky cane-back wooden rocker in slow motion. A warm coffee cup held between both hands. The heat feels good to his aching joints.
In his mind, he believes for a moment that he is young and full of himself. But his back twitches when he shifts his weight in the rocker. He grunts in amusement because a man past the three-quarter century mark knows he is no longer the man he once was.
The screen door screeches open behind him. The black and tan bluetick hound stretched out beside his chair raises his head. “The bacon is ready. Why don’t you come inside and eat something?” His wife of 56 years is still taking care of him like she’s always done.
They have lived in this ramshackle of a house their whole lives. He has lived here since he was a boy. The worn-out rusty tin roof needs to be replaced, but he doesn’t have the money or the strength to do anything about it. The exterior of the house is wrapped in a tan asphalt roll material made to look like bricks. The whole thing sits up on field-stone pillars and is shaded by the massive water oaks that stand over the house like giant sentinels.
The hound stands to his feet at the sound of tires crunching on the gravel in the drive. A Crown Vic pulls up to the shed just out across the yard. The old man knows every car and truck in town. He’s worked on most of them.
“Morning Tweedy. You reckon you could take a look at my car for me?” Mr. Brown owns the hardware store in town. “It’s skipping. I put new plugs in it, but that didn’t fix it.”
The folks round here call him Tweedy because he kinda whistles whenever he’s bent over under the hood of a car. It’s not a real whistle, like he’s working on the opening tune to the Andy Griffith Show.
It’s more like the sound of a leak in a tire. Air pushing through between the gap in his front two teeth. Tongue lightly pressed up against the roof of his mouth. Lips flapping and puckering and squeezing the air in non-rhythmic high pitch hissing sounds. Reminds a man of a dying tweedy bird.
Tweedy hollers back to him. “Crank it up for me. Let me hear it run for a minute.”
He hasn’t moved from his rocker on the porch. His skin is dark, and his scraggly whiskers are white. He’s got one good eye, but the other is bluish and clouded over. His ears are as sharp as ever, though.
He tilts his chin up a little and closes his eyes as he listens. He turns his left ear toward the sound of the motor and leans forward. “Uh huh, uh huh. She sho’ does sound a little rough. Could be a little trash in the fuel line. Maybe some moisture under the distributer cap.”
He sets his coffee cup down. Old Blue rambles down the steps with him.
His shop is an old shed that leans a little bit to one side. His grandfather used to work on wagons in this shed. There’s a bellows and an anvil and blacksmith tools in there somewhere but buried behind all the stuff that’s accumulated over the last 75 years. His father worked on Model Ts and such. Old wheels and motor blocks and carburetors and fan belts and shells of gutted transmissions scattered and stacked everywhere. Tweety inherited the gift of working on cars and the curse of never being able to throw anything away.
He keeps his tools on a bench just barely under the roof. There’s just enough room for him to stand at the bench and put new bushings in a starter or scrape an old gasket off a water pump. Anything else he has to do outside the shed under the shade of the oaks.
There’s a chain hoist in one of the oaks at the side of the shed. It’s been there so long the chain is embedded into the bark of the huge limb.
“Pop the hood for me,” he says. Mr. Brown obliges and stands next to the front fender with his hands stuck deep in his pockets. “What you think, Tweedy?”
A young teenager rolls up on his bicycle. His grandson, Tucker, has the bug for working with his hands. Tweedy’s boys have shown no interest in getting grease under their fingernails, but Tuck is all about spending time with his Papaw. And Tweedy is glad to have him. He’s thought a lot about the fact that he might be the last one. He’s eager for his grandson to carry on.
“Tuck. Look in that corner over yonder behind my toolbox and get me a piece of fuel line.”
The boy knows exactly what he needs. The old man twists off the old line and slips on the new. He lets the boy remove the distributer cap and spray it down with a cleaner. The points look good. He wipes the inside of the cap dry with a shop rag and puts it back on.
Tweedy takes a look with a flashlight. Up and down both sides, feeling with his hands as he goes. “You got yourself a crack in your number three plug wire. Tuck, I believe we got one in that barrel. Take a look for me.”
“How’s Maude doing?” Mr. Brown is making conversation. “I ain’t seen her in town in a while.”
Tuck pulls the old wire off and goes to the barrel.
“Awh, I s’pose she’s doing just fine. Ain’t had much reason to go to town, I reckon.”
It’s just a minute or two and Tuck comes back. “How’s that Papaw?”
“That’ll work just fine.” He doesn’t let on, but inside he’s proud that the boy is catching on.
I miss the men like Tweedy like I miss cars before computers. A time when you could raise the hood on a vehicle, and you had some stinking idea of what you were looking at. The life of the shade tree mechanic is gone, or nearly gone. Cars are more complicated. Life is more cluttered.
Tweedy steps back a little, twirling a shop rag in his hands. “Start her up. Let me hear it run.”
The engine purrs like a kitten. He tilts his chin like before. “What you think, Tuck?”
The boy leans in under the hood. He doesn’t yet have the old man’s ears, but he listens like he’s seen him do a million times. “I think we got it, Papaw.”
“Close the hood for me.”
Mr. Brown reaches for his wallet. “How much I owe you, Tweedy?”
Tweedy studies life for a moment. “How’s ten dollars sound?”
“More than fair.” Mr. Brown knows a deal when he sees it.
About the time the Crown Vic pulls out, a blue Ford truck pulls in with a belt squealing to beat the band.
“Tuck. Get me a cup of coffee, will ya? I need to sit for a minute.”
The shade feels good. The coffee tastes even better.