Richie held his breath, waiting for Eddie’s acknowledgment. The pause seemed to last an eternity.
Eddie’s ancient office chair creaked loudly as the hefty man leaned back against the cracked vinyl upholstery. Richie heard the wheels scrape on the concrete floor as the chair swiveled with its occupant’s movement.
“What’s that?” There was a weary note to Eddie’s query, like he knew what Richie was about to confess. But his voice was warm and calm, as if he were encouraging a timid child.
Richie gulped and raised his gaze from his hands to the kindly mechanic’s face. He almost cringed at the benevolence in Eddie’s gray eyes.
“Umm… I’m not sure I can… I can pay you for… for my car. Not today, anyway.”
Richie swallowed hard again, a wave of shame washing over him. He blinked rapidly, willing the moisture that suddenly glazed his eyes to dissipate. “I can give you part of the money now, but the rest… Well, I’ll get it somehow.”
Richie paused for a moment, dreading Eddie’s response. When the mechanic just gave him a sympathetic smile, Richie felt an extended explanation tumble from his lips in an apologetic rush.
“I’ll see if I can do some handyman work or somethin’. Annie might know somebody who needs some yard work done, or some stuff fixed around the house. Or maybe Miss Tillie does. I’m pretty good with tools…”
Richie’s hands moved animatedly as he babbled, the folded yellow paper fluttering with his wave and with a gust of air from the fan. “Or… Or maybe my Dad can loan me the rest, send it by wire…”
The vocalization of his last resort stopped Richie cold. His shoulders slumped as again his head dropped. He stared defeatedly at the folded invoice now crumpled in his hand. At that moment he felt like a complete and utter failure.
“Richie, I kinda figured you might be a little short on cash.” Eddie’s reply was gentle, his voice softened to a warm rumble. “Since you said you ain’t been workin’ for awhile, and you’re sleepin’ on Annie’s sofa instead of in a motel.”
Richie nodded silently, unable to bring himself to look up at the big man.
“Times are tough, Son. I know. For lots of folks around here. Heck, most of my customers pay their bills on an installment plan. They just gimme what they can when their paychecks come in, until they’re paid up.” Eddie chortled softly. “Or until I need somethin’ from their business, then I mark whatever it costs me off-a their bill. That’s just how we do things down here. Everybody’s family, and you help family out.”
“That’s… that’s a nice thing to do.” Richie mumbled. He wasn’t quite sure what Eddie’s explanation had to do with his debt, since he was clearly not a local.
Eddie answered Richie’s unspoken question. “So, since I figured you were sorta in a fix, an’ you were already havin’ enough bad luck, I gave you a break. Only charged you for the part and for the tuneup, an’ just one hour of labor.” He nodded at the paper clenched in Richie’s hand. “To keep my books right.”
Richie acknowledged Eddie's explanation with a small defeated nod. While he was grateful for Eddie’s compassion, Richie was certain the cost of the thermostat and the filters and spark plugs they had replaced while tuning up the Impala’s engine far exceeded the meager balance in his bank account.
“Thanks, Eddie. I really appreciate you giving me a break. But right now I just don’t have the cash.”
Seeing that Richie was still avoiding eye contact, Eddie chuckled sympathetically. He turned in his chair, making it creak again, and propped his feet up on the open bottom desk drawer. “So…” He nodded again at the invoice Richie held. “How much-a that you think you can cover?”
Richie shrugged, then sighed wearily. His gaze fixed on his hands as he slowly uncrumpled the yellow paper, then opened the fold.
A brush of air from the fan made the stapled adding machine tape flutter, momentarily distracting Richie’s gaze from the ballpoint scrawl across the bill. A lump rose in his throat as he comprehended the numbers at the bottom of the column on the invoice’s right-hand side.
Georgia Tax: $ 2.68
Almost a hundred dollars.
He didn’t know how he’d come up with that kind of money doing odd jobs around town. Now he had no choice but to do the one thing he had desperately hoped to avoid – ask his father for money.
“Listen, Eddie…” Richie started to offer the mechanic the balance of his checkbook as a down payment, but hesitated. His eyes narrowed as they settled on something else on the invoice, something he hadn’t noticed in his tunnel-vision focus on the final cost of his repair. Then they widened in surprise.
Angled across the middle of the paper, large block letters stamped in red ink heralded the status of the debt: “PAID IN FULL.”
Richie sat frozen for a moment, staring at the paper in his hand. Swallowing hard, he opened his mouth to confirm what he was seeing, to verify that Eddie hadn’t mistakenly marked off his debt. Richie had to try three times before his voice finally came out in a raspy croak.
“Eddie… I… uh… This says ‘Paid’.”
“Uh huh. It sure does.”
Richie gulped again, choking back a lump of gratitude. The corners of his mouth curved gratefully upward as again he blinked, his deep brown eyes shining with moisture. When he finally raised his gaze to meet Eddie’s, the wide fatherly grin on the big man’s ruddy face almost made Richie’s self-control crack.
“But… It’s a lot of money.” Richie’s protest was meek. “And all the time you spent helping me when you coulda been working on somebody else’s car… instead of fixin’ mine for free.”
He was embarrassed at the rush of euphoria welling inside him; though Eddie’s apparent dismissal of the debt was a huge relief, Richie felt a sharp pang of guilt. Eddie was a working-class family man, with his own bills to pay and mouths to feed.
Eddie chuckled again, this time a little more huskily, touched by Richie’s obvious gratitude. “Well, it ain’t exactly for free, Richie. You helped me out all day Saturday with customers. An’ today you put in a lotta good hours helpin’ me out with these repairs.” He grinned and leaned back a little further in his chair, eliciting another long creak.
“So that was eleven hours on Saturday, another nine today, at three dollars an hour…” Eddie grinned as he ticked off the numbers on his beefy fingers. “Heck, that’s sixty dollars in labor, right there.”
“But the cost of the parts… and part of that time I was workin’ on my own car.”
“I know. But Richie, it’s more’n just you workin’ hard for me.” Eddie gave the shaggy-headed young man a long look, his voice gentling. “I told you, we’re a family ‘round here. When you rode into town in Annie’s pickup truck the other night, I had my doubts about you, I’ll admit. But you proved somethin’ to me, Richie.”
Richie swallowed hard again. “What?”
“Son, you reminded me that good people come from all ‘round, not just down here in our little communities, where people have known each other for generations.” Eddie paused again, clearing his throat lightly.
“The respectfulness you showed me, and the manners you showed to Miss Tillie… And how you kept smilin’ and bein’ friendly to everybody on Saturday who kept pokin’ their nose in your business, drivin’ in just to check you out…” Eddie snorted out an amused chuckle at Richie’s wry grin and embarrassed shrug. “Believe me, I know that ain’t easy.”
Richie chortled softly. “Naw, it was alright. People here are nice.”
“And most of all, Richie…” Eddie’s voice gentled. “The way you treated Annabelle since you been here. You’ve respected her, treated her like a lady, even been a little protective of her, from what I hear.” Again he chuckled. “And you came to church with her, when you ain't even Baptist.”
Richie’s cheeks heated as he listened to Eddie’s assessment of his relationship with Annie. If only Eddie knew that what they had shared was far from the chaste companionship he was describing.
“Annie…. She… saved me.” Richie dropped his gaze again to his hands as a gentle smile curved his lips. “She’s amazing. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.”
“Well, she obviously thinks you’re worth savin’. And I have a feelin’ she did her damndest over the past couple days to give you every reason to be happy your ol’ Impala broke down in Darien.”
Eddie’s throaty chortle revealed that he did suspect the full extent of Richie’s weekend activities with his hostess. Richie’s blush deepened as he slouched back in his seat. He didn’t answer, confident Eddie could read his admission in his posture and expression.
“Richie, I don’t think I ever seen her smile at a boy the way she smiles at you. And it’s been a long time since I’ve seen her smile that much, period.” Eddie stared at Richie’s profile until the younger man raised his head to give a sheepish nod of acknowledgement. He held Richie’s gaze for a long minute, wanting to make sure his message was received.
When he spoke again, Eddie’s tone was warmed by manly affection. “Richie, what we were talkin’ about Saturday, about you goin’ back home and gettin’ a job and settlin’ down…” He paused, smiling benevolently. “Don’t be in too much of a rush to do that, Son. You know, dreams are important. They’re what get you outta bed in the mornin' and what you pray for when you lay down at night. They keep life exciting.”
Richie’s brows lifted with surprise at Eddie’s contradictory advice. He sat silent, wondering where the big man was heading with his unexpected observation.
“You’re a fine young man, Richie. A man of character. You work hard, you treat people right… Your Ma and Pa should be real proud of you.”
At the mention of his parents Richie found his voice. He smiled wistfully. “Thanks. I think they are. No… I know they are.” Richie’s heart squeezed as he heard his mother’s telephone farewell echo in his head.
“Well, they have every right to be.” Eddie nodded his affirmation, then gave Richie a fatherly smile. “Listen, I don’t know much about you, other’n what you’ve told me and what I’ve seen with my own eyes. But I know one thing, Son. When you came into town three days ago, you felt like the world was kickin’ you in the ass. I could see it, read it on your face.”
Richie’s expression sobered. He nodded silently.
“Then somethin’ happened. You got a wake-up call, figured out that maybe the whole world ain’t so rough. Or maybe you figured out how to put all the bad stuff behind you and get down to what’s important. I dunno. Whatever it was…” Eddie paused and gave Richie a curious look. “You’re a different man sittin’ in front of me right now than you were a couple days ago. And I think that’s a good thing.”
Richie shrugged, the corners of his mouth again curving upward as he considered Eddie’s words. “Yeah,” he agreed softly. “It is.”
“I know you’ve been wanderin’ around for awhile now, trying to figure out how to live your life. But the fact is… while you been tryin’ to figure out the answer, you’ve been livin’ all along.” Eddie smiled wisely. “An’ I have a feelin’ you found the right path to take, to get you where you wanna go.”
Richie pulled in a deep breath, nodding slowly as he considered Eddie’s words. But despite his silent affirmation, he realized Eddie’s statement couldn’t be further from the truth.
Yes, this weekend had changed him, for the better. He had found shelter and comfort and affection in the arms of an angel. He had found passion in her bed and love in her heart.
And he had rediscovered a part of his soul he thought was long gone.
But as to what path to take… he had no clue. He was torn.
Eddie watched Richie’s face, reading the conflict in his expression. His heart twinged with sympathy. He felt for the young man, having to decide whether to follow his dreams or to follow his heart.
Eddie took a deep breath, then laced his fingers together across his belly. “Richie, Saturday when we were sittin’ here talkin’ at the end of the day, I asked you to do one thing. Do you remember what that was?”
Richie raised his face, his brown eyes meeting Eddie’s earnest gray gaze. The men shared a long look of silent understanding.
“Yes, Sir. I remember.”
“Okay, then.” The big mechanic leaned forward in his chair, extending a hand to his young companion. “Whatever path you take, wherever God leads you…. Good luck, Richie.”