The roaring radio or my rusty muffler couldn’t drown out the chattering thoughts in my head. I’d been chipping away at my long list tasks for most of the morning, but there was still so much to do. “If I drop off this letter now, I can do the rest after work,” I thought. My mind on auto-pilot, I rolled through a few stop signs I view as optional and winded my way to the post office.
It seems the road is plagued by slow drivers on the days I really have to get something done. I tapped my foot, heaved a sigh, and cranked up the air conditioner. The last rays of summer were an annoyance and I grew more irritable. Over the radio I could barely hear my cell phone ringing. I reached for it and it vibrated out of my hand to land with a thud on the floorboard. Glancing at my dashboard clock for the umpteenth time, I decided to swerve into an empty spot to avoid the long line at the drop-off mailboxes.
Inside the post office there was no evidence of the commotion outside. I shoved my envelope through the slot and was rewarded by the sound of a soft landing on what must be a hefty stack of mail. A quick check of my missed call and I would be back on the road. I turned the key, quickly glanced in the my rearview mirror, and reversed while checking my phone. Reaching for the radio dial to change the station, I heard a horrendous noise! My heart stopped and I slowed hoping the grinding had been a rough patch of the road I hadn’t noticed. Even at a snail’s speed my car sounded as if it was breathing its last agonizing breaths! I rolled to a stop in the closest spot and got out to take a look.
It didn’t take a mechanic to diagnose the problem. I had a flat, more accurately a blown, front right tire. I threw my arms up in the air and knelt down to run my hands across the warm interior of the rubber tire. “Great,” I mumbled and wiped the first of many beads of sweat off my temple. My mind scanned where my closest friends might be right now. It was mid-day and everyone was wrapped in the grip of work, school, or other inescapable responsibilities. I faced the inevitable and began to scour my trunk for what I’d need to change the tire on my own.
I hurried to empty the assorted contents of my trunk onto the ground and lifted the floorboard of my trunk to unveil an ancient spare tire. “It’ll have to do for now,” I thought. I just needed to get to work. I awkwardly rolled the tiny tire to the front of car and returned to retrieve my rusty jack. I tried to clear my mind and remember the exact steps to changing a tire. From a distant memory, I could hear my father’s calm voice guiding me, “That’s it… Find a sturdy spot and let’s crank ‘er up!” I eased through the steps and exhaled as the car steadily rose off the pavement.
I looked around my feet for the tire iron but didn’t see it. What did catch my eye were the looming black clouds shielding the baking sun. The air seemed heavier but I tried to ignore it. Maybe if I didn’t think about rain, it would wait. I dug through my trunk. Shuffling my gym bag and an empty anti-freeze container, I felt for a cool metal rod. The clouds above were even more impatient than I and they delivered a few tiny drops as a warning signal of what was to come.
Before I could come up for air from the depths of my trunk, I felt a tap on my damp shoulder. “Can I help you?” asked a thin and somewhat elderly man.
“No…No I got it,” I answered. “I just need to find…,” my voice trailed off as the man’s frail wrinkled hand pried my tire iron from the back corner of my trunk. “Thanks,” I said in hopes he’d consider his good deed done but the man followed me to the front of the car. The rain echoed my anxious guilt as it intensified and I repeated, “You really don’t have to get wet too.”
“I don’t mind,” he replied. “Now let’s get this thing changed!” As only my luck would have it the second lug nut seemed welded on since the days of knighthood. I tried not to grimace as I used all the leverage I could muster to try and budge the grip. Nothing.
The old man waited. He was the embodiment of patience. He watched as I waved off his help with my persistent efforts and he casually wiped the rain from his face only when it was necessary. We were both too wet for it to make any difference when we got out of the rain. As a courteous but less-than-hopeful gesture, I finally offered the old man a try at the stubborn lug nut. I barely watched as my mind siphoned through who I might be able to call now that I was really stuck.
The old man carefully twisted the lug nut off and placed it on the ground next to a growing puddle. Without a second glance, he spun the other lug nuts off in succession and stepped back for me to lift the carcass of my tire into the resting place of my trunk. By the time it was secure, the old man was already spinning the new lugs on my spare tire.
“It won’t get you far, but it will get you home,” he said as he lowered the jack.
I stood speechless in appreciation. I’d fixated all day on the annoyances of the world and how life’s diversions were a hindrance to my busy schedule. Here’s a man-who could easily be my grandfather-that didn’t mind crouching in the pouring rain, smudging the grease from the creases in his hand, and helping someone he’d never met. How could I repay such a random act of kindness?
Embarrassed at my rudeness and impatience, I stammered, “I didn’t even get your name. I don’t have any cash on me, but I really appreciate your help.”
The old man winked. He tapped my trunk once after it slammed and replied, “Pay it forward. All you have to do is pay it forward.”
I gave a final wave and yelled over the rain, “I will.”