By Sean Dietrich
The filling station sits on a rural highway, across from a kajillion acres of peanuts. A kajillion, you will note, is more than a bazillion, less than a zillion.
He is outside the filling station, sitting in a wheelchair. He wears a camouflage cap, hunting T-shirt, tattoos everywhere. He is drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup. He is young.
“Nice weather,” he says when he sees me pumping gas.
And no matter how old I get, I love to cuss the weather. I come from a long line of men who cussed the weather. It’s something humans have in common. We can all talk about the weather with complete authority even though we don’t know much about what it will do.
“Yeah,” I say. “Great weather. But a little hot.”
“I know,” he says. “But I like the heat. It’s better than being stuck in a dark house.”
He seems to know what he’s talking about.
He parks his motorized wheelchair here at this station almost every day except Sundays. He does it because he is Chatty Cathy. Here, he meets people. And he likes people.
“I get all cooped up in my house,” he says. “I need to be around people, and feel like I’m really here.”
After his accident—which he tells me nothing about—he’s been isolated from life. His friends have all have jobs, and girlfriends, and he’s been fighting to recover.
“Man,” he says. “I used to do so much cool stuff, four-wheeling, and hunting, and fishing, and you know, everything. It’s tough not being able to do that no more.”
He doesn’t say it, but I can see it. He’s lonely. He just wants someone to talk to. Someone to do things with. His friends used to go fishing with him, and go riding.
Even so, this isn’t getting him down. Not when the weather is pretty like this.
I ask about his daily life.
“Dude,” he says, “I come up here and meet all kinda people, I even met a guy from Alaska last week. And you know what I tell the people I meet?”
“I tell’em: ‘have a good day,’ and ‘God bless you, bro,’ and stuff. That’s my main thing.”
He doesn’t push himself on gas station visitors. But he likes to talk, and he hopes they do. A small conversation is better than none. And just a few minutes with a friendly face is enough to last him for a few weeks.
“I learn from people,” he tells. “And maybe I can even encourage them, you know?
“I mean, if I can come as far as I have, then anyone can do it. You wouldn’t believe how far I’ve come.”
I can see scars on the side of his face. They stretch upward along his temples and beneath his cap.
“Know what?” he goes on. “At physical therapy, I walked. For 10 whole minutes. My doctor said he ain’t never seen nothing like me. And they told me they were all shocked, man. I’m walking. End of this year, I ain’t gonna need this chair.”
And it gets better.
This year, he has enrolled in community college. It was his mother’s idea. He has new friends, and he gets to talk about the weather as often as he wants to. He’s already been to a few classes.
“Oh, it’s awesome,” he says. “I’m taking a music class, a drawing class, and a pottery class. But my pottery looks like crap.”
It’s a nice laugh.
After our conversation, I go into the filling station to buy some snacks for the road. Namely: Chili Cheese Fritos, sunflower seeds, and black coffee.
The cashier is an older woman with gray hair. She hands me change and says:
“That child is the sweetest… He tell you about his girlfriend?”
“Oh yeah, he’s got him a little girlfriend. She drives him on dates and stuff. It’s precious.”
I’ll just bet it is.
I leave the store and walk to my truck. I say goodbye to my new pal. Before I roll away, he smiles at me and God-blesses me. He turns his wheelchair toward home. And he’s gone.
Admittedly, I don’t know much about life. But I don’t need to. Not after meeting this talkative boy. A young man who surprised a room of medical professionals when he grit his teeth, gripped the rails, strained his muscles, hollered, shouted, and maybe even cried. And by unseen forces, he got out of his chair.
And walked again.
Yes. It sure is nice weather we’re having.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.