Summer on the river in La Crosse, Wisconsin. On the weekends we loaded the boat with a barrel of beer and 20 lbs of ice, and headed out to the sandbar. We loved being on the river and there was nothing better than a cold beer on a warm sunny afternoon. Boaters drifted by going from sandbar to sandbar. We played Frisbee in the water. At night, we sang and danced in the sand.
Summer came to an end when Fall arrived and the weather turned brisk. Trips to our sandbar became fewer and farther in between. We moved driftwood up onto the banks so it would dry for next year’s bonfires, and we picked up trash so we could make fresh footprints in the sand when Summer returned. It was on one of these crisp fall days that I got a call from Bill.
“Hilldog! What are you doing?” Bill said.
“Nothing much, what’s up?”
“I’m going to pick up a load of firewood. Do you want to go with me?”
Bill laughed when he said this. It was a peculiar laugh, one I hadn’t heard from him since late last Spring when I helped him move a fridge. His laugh now, as it did then, had a tinge of the maniacal to it.
“I suppose I could. When are you going?” I said.
“I’m leaving now. Come on over.”
I drove to the city’s edge and crossed the bridge into Minnesota. In twenty minutes I was at Bill’s house in Dresbach, where the train tracks ran through Bill’s back yard. Bill’s ancient green truck sat in the street in front of his house. This surprised me because I had watched the truck die late last Spring on our trip over to the dump to deposit Bill’s fridge. Its engine mounts had rusted through and the engine had fallen forward, coming to a rest against the truck’s radiator. The truck was more rust than metal. It had died at the dump. It should have been buried there.
“Bill, why is your truck still here?”
Bill laughed and his eyes had a bit of crazy.
“That’s my truck.”
“I know it’s your truck, but what is it doing here? I watched it die last Spring. Don’t tell me the thing still runs.”
“I know a guy who’s a mechanic. He fixed it.”
“You put new engine mounts in? Why? The truck’s not worth it.”
“Not exactly.” Bill said.
He popped open the hood and showed me his new engine mounts. The engine was now held up, off of the ground, by nothing but a logging chain.
“That’s a chain.” I said. I didn’t know what else to say.
“It works good. C’mon, let’s go.”
Bill slammed down the hood and little pieces of rust fell from it. He laughed as I tried to open the passenger door.
“The door’s broke. It kept falling off of the truck so I had my guy fix it. He welded it shut. You’ll have to get in through my door.” Bill said.
I walked around to his side of the truck, crawled in, and scooched my way over to the passenger side. It was uncomfortable because I had to straddle a gas can between my legs. The gas can, unlike the truck, was shiny red new.
“Bill, can we put this gas can in the back?”
Bill laughed some more.
“No, the gas tank rusted through. The gas can is my gas tank. My guy fixed it. See?”
I looked closer at the can and I saw a white, semi-transparent, plastic hose coming out of the top of the gas can. The hose went down through a hole in the bottom of the truck to where, I can only assume, it hooked up directly into the fuel pump.
Actually, most of the bottom of the truck was a hole. I could see a wide swath of pavement underneath us through the rust. The gas can/tank was strapped to the seat, otherwise it would have fallen through the hole. And that made me wonder, if the gas can is being held up by the seat, then what’s holding the seat up? Bill saw the look on my face and he laughed again.
“We’ll have to stop halfway there and fill the tank up. It’s only a two gallon can.” He said.
The ride from Bill’s house to the halfway point was mostly uneventful, considering our top speed was 50 mph and the truck constantly weaved back and forth across the road like a drunk. We stopped and got our gas. Bill had to fill it up through the passenger window. It would have been a funny scene except for the fact that I knew I would soon be straddling the gas bomb once again. We drew a few looks from other motorists because this isn’t how you would usually fill up a truck, but we were in Minnesota nice country and so nobody said anything. Bill had a smaller gas can in the back of the truck that he also filled. He assured me it would give us enough gas to get back to the halfway point.
After the midway point the highway to our destination went up and down through the hills and coulees of southeast Minnesota. We drove down a long gravel road to a lumber yard set off in the woods where they milled dried pine into two-by-fours. Some of their millings weren’t fit to be sold as building material. These rejects were cut up and offered for sale to the public as firewood. We loaded up the truck, cherry-picking the better pieces, and filled up the gas can/tank for the ride back.
Filled with the heavy load, the truck weaved back and forth even worse than before. Our top speed dropped to 40 mph and a parade of cars passed us in the hills. Bill was busy keeping the truck on the road, laughing into the wind as he drove. I watched the road zip by through the hole in the truck’s floor. It was mesmerizing to see the pavement move so rapidly underneath. By the time we arrived back at the halfway point it was getting dark outside.
We again filled up the gas can/tank through the passenger window. We didn’t draw as many stares to ourselves under the cover of night. Then I saw the right rear tire was flat. It was deflated all the way to the ground and I swear it looked like it was attempting to dig a hole. I thought of the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. If we had left that one last piece of wood back at the mill then maybe we wouldn’t have broken the tire.
“Bill, the tire’s flat.”
Bill wasn’t laughing anymore. “Yeah, I can see that.”
“I don’t suppose you have a spare?”
Bill’s face brightened. “Actually I do!”
“Where is it?”
“Under the wood! But I don’t know if it has any air in it.”
I slowly grasped the situation.
“And your tire jack?”
“Under the wood too. But I don’t know if that works either.”
“So, our choices are to unload all of this wood to get to the tire and the jack, which may or may not work, or call a garage for a tow?”
“On a Saturday night in Hokah? There’s only one garage in town and their mechanic won’t be working this late.”
“So, no tow. Okay, now what?”
“What we could do,” Bill said, “is drive the truck over to the side of the road, park it for the night, and I can call somebody in the morning to come over and get it.”
“Sounds good. I vote for your idea.”
“I’ll call Ken for a ride home.” Bill said.
As Bill moved the truck I gazed across the road at a beacon of neon lights. Sitting a short distance from us was the Horseshoe Bar. Its door was open and I could hear the music playing on the jute box. Bill rejoined me.
“Can he pick us up?” I said.
“Yeah, c’mon, I’m thirsty. He’ll meet us at the Horseshoe.”
We walked over and ordered a beer. I looked through the bar’s window back at the truck, wondering if it had finally seen its last day. Would I ever see it again? Knowing Bill, I figured I probably would.