In Praise of Rural Kindness
Written By Laura Brodie | Photographed by Wendy Redfern
On the day before my cross-country trip, I went to the car wash.
It’s not something I do regularly. My car is an old 2006 Mazda four-door sedan, charcoal colored, manual transmission, 166,000 miles. It’s comfortable. It runs. Nobody will ever kill me for it. But last year, when someone in the Kroger parking lot left a big scrape over the left rear wheel, like a handful of fingernails clawed across the paint, (you left without leaving a note, did that trouble your mind at all?), I sighed, but did not file an insurance claim. There’s a point in a car’s life when it’s not worth the deductible. The outer, metal body becomes like an aging human body, and you don’t visit the doctor for every ache and pain. Those white scrapes on my car resemble the white hairs on my head—outnumbered by my original color, but multiplying each year. What matters most, at this point, is the health of what’s inside.
The previous week I’d taken my car for a checkup. I told my mechanic that I was going to drive alone across the country, and wanted to avoid breaking down in the summer heat of Texas. After I dropped off the car, I walked three blocks back to my house.
My mechanic, Jon, is a good man. He’s a farmer who, like most small farmers in rural Virginia, must support himself with another trade. At his modest garage, housed in an old gas station at the end of Lexington’s Main Street, his wife, Esther, answers the phone. His son, Josh, works alongside his dad. And Josh’s twin, preschool girls, show their dolls to the customers.
It’s a wonderful thing, to have a mechanic that you trust completely. Any mechanic could take advantage of my ignorance—and many have. Strangers at dealerships in strange cities, who knew they would never see me again, have handed me inflated bills that I didn’t protest verbally—what could I say? I only sighed and looked into their eyes and let them face me for a moment. We should all look into the eyes of the people we are swindling.
Jon has known me for decades, and he knows that three children, now young women, ride in the car he fixes. He also knows his other customers and their children, and he does his best to make sure we all get to work and school on time in the morning, and that we can drive down the interstate without risk of something in our cars going terribly wrong. Jon is not wealthy. He is not famous. He is one of the most important people in the world.
Jon knows to ignore the yellow engine light that is perpetually lit on my dashboard, because he’s the one who told me to ignore it, seven years ago: “Just put a little piece of masking tape over that, so you don’t see it.” But then I would see the tape, which would be worse. So I accept the light, the way one accepts a scar. And I accepted the bill Jon gave me before my trip, for new brakes and an oil change, convinced, as always, that he charges too little. And once my car had been checked out, I figured that if I was going to ride in it for four days, I should take it over to the car wash and vacuum it.
Now—Lexington has two car washes, both self-service. One stands beside a low brick shopping center where Kmart went out of business twenty years ago, leaving a vast gaping space, filled only recently by Ollie’s Bargain Basement. The other is located across town, beside the Walmart that put Kmart out of business. The newer car wash has more efficient machines, but I remain loyal to the older, more dilapidated affair, because it’s closer to my house, and when the owners built the place, they made a small attempt at giving it some personality.
It’s called the Beyond Bedrock Car Wash, and has a full-scale model of Fred Flintstone’s car at the entrance, complete with concrete, steamroller tires. Children can play in that car while they wait on their parents. Beyond Bedrock offers three vacuums: one older, basic model, and two newer varieties with big letters in yellow and green and brown, advertising various Freshen Up! options. I prefer the older, plain machine.
This time, when my first quarter got stuck in the coin slot, its ridged edge still visible but not retrievable, I should have moved to a different vacuum. But being stubborn and foolish, I took out a safety pin and shoved that quarter into the machine, feeling gratified when it clinked into place. Then I forced in two more quarters, but of course the vacuum didn’t turn on. And of course the metal coin return button, that dug an indentation the size of a pencil eraser into the tip of my indignant thumb, did not return my seventy-five cents. And of course I felt the usual, ridiculous outrage at being robbed, although I knew I had forced my quarters down the throat of that old machine, even while it was choking on them.
So I maneuvered my car over to the newer vacuum, and was pleased to see that it, too, only cost seventy-five cents. And when I reached into the bottom of my bag to search for loose quarters, I touched something that I hadn’t thought about for weeks. Something I had almost forgotten. I pulled the object out and looked at it.
It was a gift from the friend in New Mexico that I was driving west to see. Something she’d purchased while visiting a monastery in Romania—a long necklace of dark brown wooden beads, each one a half-inch long and a quarter-inch wide, separated from one another by round, shiny black beads smaller than cucumber seeds. Hanging from the string of beads was a small wooden cross.
The first time I held that necklace I counted the beads—forty-four. I figured forty-four was probably the number needed, with beads of that length, to have the cross lie close to my heart, which it did on that morning, when I raised the gift above my head and let it fall around my neck. Still, I googled the number, to see if it might hold special significance for monks in Romania.
Wikipedia says that forty-four is a tribonacci number, an octahedral number, a Størmer number, a repdigit, a palindromic number, and—most intelligible to me—a happy number.
A happy number is defined by the following process: Starting with any positive integer, replace the number by the sum of the squares of its digits in base-ten, and repeat the process until the number either equals 1 (where it will stay), or it loops endlessly in a cycle that does not include 1. Those numbers for which this process ends in 1 are happy numbers, while those that do not end in 1 are unhappy numbers (or sad numbers).
This sounds like human beings. Of the first 1000 Arabic numerals, only 143 are happy. They are happy because they can land squarely on the number one, while others loop endlessly in that pursuit. And being caught in that endless loop makes them sad.
But why not reverse your definition of “happy,” you great mathematicians of the world? Why assume that happiness is reserved for the few? How boring, to land squarely on the number one. How like death.
Nevertheless, I was pleased that my friend had given me a necklace with a happy number of beads. And more than that—a necklace with a very small cross attached. Most people wouldn’t think to give a cross necklace to a “liberal” English professor like me. We liberal professors are usually caricatured as “godless.” But that woman understood something that very few of my friends know: that although I’m not a regular churchgoer, when I was young I thought seriously about becoming a Unitarian minister.
Senior year in college, when I told my mother that I might go to divinity school and become a minister, she said: “To become a minister is not a choice. It’s a calling.” I needed to be alive on this earth a little longer, to know my calling.
A few years later, when I told my mother that I was going to get a PhD in English and become a professor, that was no better. “Oh Laura,” she sighed, “English professors are the worst. They fight like cats and dogs because the stakes are so low.” My mother had a PhD in political science. She was the Associate Dean of Research at NC State, which meant that she helped lots of professors get money for their projects. Apparently the English professors were obnoxious.
I suspect that a lot of professors in the liberal arts are the sort of people who, in a different century, would have been ministers. The clergy used to be the place for readers and thinkers who enjoyed libraries and the beauty of words and the Word. Some were passionate about social justice. Some just liked to pontificate. It’s that way today with many professors.
Lately, some Americans have chosen to attack the universities. They complain that the professors are trying to indoctrinate young people into their own liberal beliefs—as if the universities, instead of the churches, could make the rules for what it means to be a good person. And those Americans are right to be skeptical. Bad professors can be just as preachy and self-righteous as bad ministers. But in both occupations, the best people are trying to share knowledge and compassion.
Whenever I’m on campus, my wooden necklace is usually hidden under my sweater or tucked away in my purse. Perhaps that’s a sign of cowardice. Or a recognition that anyone seeing a cross around my neck would make silent assumptions—either that I’m superstitious, or that I share their embrace of Christianity as the one true faith. Both would be wrong.
That’s how the necklace wound up buried beneath weeks of ATM receipts and restaurant peppermints and loose quarters. Finding it on the day before my trip seemed lucky. I wondered if I should hang it from my rearview mirror.
A hippie website had claimed that the number 44 is linked to guardian angels:
Angel Number 44 brings a message that you are being surrounded by helpful, loving angels who wish to bring you peace of mind and joy of heart…you are being given support and encouragement along your path, and when faced with an obstacle, rest assured that your angels are most willing to assist.
I remembered this as I stood at the car wash, because New Mexico is full of old hippies, and the address of my destination was 765 Angel Road.
So I lowered that necklace gently beside my car’s stick shift, and I fed the Freshen Up! machine three grimy quarters, flipped the switch, welcomed the roar, and began vacuuming pine straw and small bits of gravel from the floor mat on the driver’s side. Then I lifted the mat and vacuumed underneath it and beside the door. I vacuumed tiny crumbs from the crevices of the driver’s seat and I pulled an old French fry from the narrow space between that seat and the middle console. Then I vacuumed the dust around the gearshift.
And suddenly, in one slurp, fast as a baby snake wriggling underneath a rock, my necklace disappeared into the mouth of that industrial-strength vacuum.
Anyone hearing the pained “Nooo!” that emerged from my throat would have thought I’d been stabbed. After a few seconds of shock, I rushed over to switch off the machine, saying “crap, crap, crap.”
I peered into the thin plastic lips of that vacuum, hoping that the necklace might have gotten caught in its narrow channel. Then I unscrewed the plastic mouth from the long, corrugated hose, and I held that hose upside down and shook and shook and shook, but nothing fell out. My necklace was gone, gone. I was an incredibly stupid person, doing stupid, careless things. Losing the small treasures that I valued most.
And as I shook that empty hose, I knew surely as I was standing there that I was going to die. Not eventually. Not in decades. I was going to die on my trip because I’d never driven more than ten hours in my life, and now I was going to drive twenty-seven without a cross necklace hanging from my rearview mirror. And without any link to guardian angels or the spirits of Bulgarian monks.
I stood there for a few minutes, having an existential crisis as I stared at Fred Flintstone’s steamroller tires. Then I got ahold of myself.
The Freshen Up! machine had two padlocks, and where there are padlocks there are keys. So I drove home and spent some time on the Internet, looking up the Beyond Bedrock Car Wash, and when I called the listed number, the woman who answered the phone said “Charles Barger Quarry,” which explained the Flintstones theme.
Her voice sounded middle-aged, which I welcomed. An older woman might be more sympathetic about a lost necklace, especially if I mentioned that the necklace had a cross on it. This was, after all, southwest Virginia.
“Are you the owners of the Beyond Bedrock Car Wash?” I asked.
From the hesitation in her voice I guessed that the woman was bracing for a complaint. These days most of us are full of complaints, and we steel ourselves in preparation for anger from the people around us, ready to lash back with our own sharp tongues.
I went in the other direction.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I just did something stupid at your car wash. I vacuumed up my necklace, and I wouldn’t trouble you about it, except that necklace has a lot of sentimental value. I was wondering if you all empty out those machines at certain times?”
“We have a man who does that for us. Are you at the car wash right now?”
“No, I’m back home. I live in town.”
“Let me try to track him down for you. What’s your number?”
I was surprised that she would address the problem so quickly. I thought I’d have to wait for a workman’s once-a-week or monthly visit to clean out the machine. And then I would be told that there were a bunch of individual, wooden beads scattered among the vacuum’s dusty muck. If I was lucky, I might get a small wooden cross sent to me in the mail.
A half hour later I was walking through Kroger buying fruit and snacks for my trip, when the phone rang.
“Is this Mizz Brodie?”
“I got your necklace.”
And the skies opened and the voice of God said “Let there be light.”
“That’s wonderful! Thanks so much. I’m at Kroger right now, but I can come meet you anywhere.”
“Why don’t you just take your time. Come by the car wash at noon?”
It was 11:30. Enough time to shop without hurrying, stop by my house and put away the groceries, then drive to the car wash. Everything was within a five-block radius.
When I arrived at Beyond Bedrock, a pickup was parked by the vacuum. The man inside looked to be in his thirties, with a ballcap and a thick beard. It occurred to me that he had been waiting there for the past half hour, even though Kroger is only two blocks away, and I could have come straight over and met him within five minutes.
When I pulled up, the man hopped out of his truck, and I rose to meet him. He opened his hand to reveal the unbroken strand of beads, and I thanked him profusely. I said I wanted to give him a tip, for taking an hour out of his day, and I held out a ten-dollar bill. But he shook his head and backed away from the money.
“That was no problem. You have a nice day.”
A small act of kindness from a stranger. Not just in the fact that he had retrieved my necklace—his boss had told him to do that—but that he had done it right away, and had waited there, in his truck, for me to finish my shopping, giving me time to take my ice cream home. And he wanted no money for his time. In fact, he had backed away from that ten-dollar bill as if he didn’t want to be touched by it.
It’s a rare pleasure to see a person backing away from money. Especially when you live in a country poisoned by the pursuit of wealth, where too many people rate their self-worth, and the worth of others, in dollars. But here was a man who wanted no money for an hour of his time, just like Jon at his garage, who will pause his work if you arrive with an immediate, unforeseen problem. Jon will look under your hood, make an adjustment, then send you on your way, without charge.
As I drove home from the car wash, with my necklace wrapped three times around my wrist, feeling slightly more confident that I wouldn’t die on that particular week, I thought of all the anger in our country—the labels and stereotypes and simplistic red/blue coloring of maps. How everyone can just pick a television network for affirmation and stew in an echo chamber of their own biases and beliefs, amplifying cynicism. But I knew that in spite of the deep divisions, this is a still a country full of good people willing to meet in the middle, which is why there is so much reason for hope.