These are rare days in the south—days filled with sunshine and cool breezes when the humidity is low and the air feels dry and pleasant and almost cozy. Most days in the south you have a choice between two extremes: raining and cold or humid and hot. Whatever the weather it always seems like the air is full of moisture, like a sponge that has been left in a bucket of water slowly soaking in the liquid, the air in the south feels heavy and southerners mop the sweat that won’t evaporate off their foreheads as they swim through it from air conditioned comfort to air conditioned comfort.
I guess it is days like that that make days like this feel almost like miracles—like gifts from God himself. Everywhere I have been today I have seen people feeling the air. Their movements are subtle, but telling. They turn their heads to the wind and the corners of the mouths turn up and their eyes close slightly as they drink in air that for a change isn’t full of water.
As I was pumping gas–doing my own personal rejoiceing in this God-gift day–a couple pulled up across the pump from me in a newish Trans-Am. I always snicker when I see these cars which to me scream redneck almost more than a mullet.
In this car was a couple maybe in their mid forties, but it was a hard to tell because life had been hard on them. They had the unmistakable look of trailer dwellers. His hair was long and unwashed and pulled tight in one long bunch behind his head. With the top covered in a maroon Bama hat that speaks redneck almost as much as the trans am. Her hair had been bleached too many times and spent too many years collecting smoke giving it a thin coated look.
As they pulled up I was captivated and for some reason I had a hard time trying not to stare. They never spoke as he pulled too far past the pump and had to back up and then pull forward again to find the right spot. He got out of the car and I saw that his sleeveless shirt had been only buttoned halfway up the front showing leathery skin and graying hair. Through the window I saw the tattoos on her also sleeve free arm. She had a list of names, drawn without much skill almost lining up and down her arm. I wondered if these were a collection of names from her past and if the long haired guy pumping gas was on the list, or if she had learned long before that the tattoos always outlast the relationship.
The man removed the gas cap and then tapped on the back on the Trans-Am. Still without words the woman reached across the car and pulled the handle beside the drivers seat and popped the rear hatch. Then again without words she got out of the car and headed inside.
I was trying my best not to look, but I was fascinated by this couple, and I must admit feeling a little superior to them. They were such a picture of life in the south. I couldn’t take my eyes away as I tried to describe the scene to myself in a myriad of ways and desperately longed for my computer.
It was then that two things happened. As I was trying to see the whole scene and catch every detail I looked at the shoes of the long haired man and noticed of course that he was wearing boots, but attached to his right leg was also a brace: screwed into the boot and strapped around his leg just below his knee. It looked like the kind of brace that kids who had polio wore in the 50’s. I don’t know why, but seeing that brace changed the whole scene for me. I suddenly felt bad for looking and even worse for feeling like I was better than him.
Then, in one of those moments that stand out so clearly in your life, the man: the redneck-trailer-living-bama-lovin-no-bathing-open-shirt-man turned slightly to face the wind and drew a deep breath of clean cool air. And in that moment I saw him not as a stereotype, not as the hard-living man I assumed him to be, but as a man who understands beauty, and as a child of God who was also enjoying this God-gift day.
Nothing much happened after that. The music didn’t come up big and I didn’t go over and shake his hand or anything. After a moment the woman returned and he said to her, “How much”
“20” she replied and got back into the car. He spent another minute at the pump, slowly clicking and releasing the handle to reach twenty dollars worth, and then he got back in the car and drove away.