Apr 13, 2005

Wanting to help and backing away

The old black man was standing by the side of the truck on the side of the road, staring at the tops of the trees, his right arm laid along the edge of the hood where the paint was peeling back in the heat. His short white hair was wet with the sweat of 10 a.m. in Texas, in the summer, and his blue button-up shirt was soggy and arm-pit stained a darker blue, with white salt rings settling out in circles.

His gas cap was unscrewed and set flat on the roof of the cab, like a black cork in a red sea.

Guy’s outa gas, David said, and we pulled over.

We were driving, in those days, a big brown paneled van we’d bought from the cousin of a friend. We loaded lawn mowers in the back, up boards, and blocked the wheels with gas cans and blowers, angling the weed whackers over besides the back bucket seat where I sat. The front windows were always rolled down and the back ones always tented open and we put a bungee on the sliding door to hold it open for the muggy breeze that whirled grass clippings into our hair.

We always stopped and helped people. Once we pushed a brand new plate-less Pontiac that stalled at a busy light, put a tire on a minivan, gave or loaned gas to people who’d puttered out to the curb with gauges gone flat, and we stopped to help the old black man stranded on the side of a busy hill. Watch the traffic, Dad said, and we jumped out, ran around to the back and slid out the gas can heavy with gas.

The man started. White eyes widening. He stooped, bending his body over bringing his shoulders up around his chin, moving lanky, stepping quick around behind the truck.

No sir, no sir, he said. We stopped. Gas, I said, confused. I held up the can, lifted it to my chest, cupped it with both hands and stretched it out. No sir, he said, waving his hand and shaking his head in a whole-bodied no.

We saw you, my dad said, opening his hand at the blistering truck, and stopped to help.

No sir. No thanks.

You need help?

I got somebody coming.

And we backed away. Get back in the car boys, Dad said, and we did.

Why didn’t he want help? I said, after a silence.

Was he scared? David said.

Yeah, I think we scared him.


So Dad told us about the KKK and burning crosses, lynchings, segregated cities, dogs, deaths and fire hoses, about the "ugly record of brutality" we'd seen showing in the old man’s fear.

I wish he’d taken our gas, David said.