The steam rising from the engine fogged Peter's glasses. He reached out to touch the radiator cap and regretted it, yanking his hand back. The pain in his fingertips beat in time with his racing heart. The cars racing down the highway passed without care, the wind buffeting Peter's lanky frame. He bent his head down and backed away from the raised hood. He'd been hoping this greying hunk of metal would last a bit longer, but it looked like the car's days were numbered - assuming he could find some way to get it fixed.
"Overheatin' on ya?"
The voice made Peter jump and he almost banged his head on the hood. He turned around to see a barrel-chested man walking towards him. The man was evidently a tow truck driver who'd stopped to see if he could pick up a quick buck. He wore the same dirty coveralls issued to every tow truck driver, Peter thought. Sporting a full grey beard and glasses with thick black frames, the man was dingy at best and discomforting at worst.
"I appreciate you stopping, but I don't think I'll need a tow", Peter said. "It'll cool down in a bit and I'll be on my way." He half smiled, trying to convince the man as much as himself.
"Nonsense. No decent Christian can leave a man stranded on the side of the highway, especially with the light failing. Name's Kelly. Joe Kelly. At least let me take a look. If I can help you get on your way a bit quicker, I'll feel much better." Without waiting for an answer, the burly man pushed past Peter to peer at the engine.
Peter wanted to get out of there. Sweat began to bead on his forehead and bald scalp. He hated confrontations, but he didn't know how he could politely tell this person to leave him be. The man outweighed him by at least a hundred pounds. Who knows what he'd do if Peter became rude? Images of road rage on the news filled Peter's head. Instead Peter chose to stand behind and to the side of the man, watching as Joe poked and prodded the engine.
Trying once more, Peter craned his head and said, "Really sir, it's quite alright. This happens all the time. I just have to wait for a bit, that's all. I couldn't pay you for a tow anyway." He regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. Maybe this Joe would pummel him for being a waste of time. "I mean, I don't have any money on me right now." That made him sound like a mugging victim. Great. And it was a lie.
Joe turned to look Peter over. He took off the thick glasses and wiped them with what must be the only clean spot on an otherwise greasy rag he produced from a pocket. His face split in a wide grin and he said, "Don't worry about that, bud. Like I said, no decent Christian can leave a man stuck on the roadside. What's your name, friend?"
"P..Peter. Peter Hutchins, sir."
"No shit? You THAT Peter Hutchins? The writer?" At Peter's cautious nod, Joe continued, "Well ain't that somethin'. I just bought that new one you put out. Butterfly's Curse or something. I ain't started chewin' through it just yet. Put her there, bud."
Peter glanced at the man's hand before shaking it with his own, very aware of the black grease rubbing between their palms. He would have to use a whole box of handy wipes later, Peter thought as he looked at his now blackened fingers.
"Oh hell, I'm sorry. I'm used to it, forget muh hands are dirty as a pig's belly." Joe proffered the dingy rag, but Peter shook his head in negation.
"It's okay, really. Thanks for being one of the few who bought that." Peter resisted the urge to wipe his hand on a pant leg. He also refrained from correcting Joe concerning the actual cleanliness of swine.
"Are you kidding? You're one of the best authors ever, Petey. I got every book you've wrote. Now I gotta give you a tow. Nobody will ever believe I towed Petey Hutchins." Joe reached up and closed the hood, shaking his head. Then he turned and walked towards the tow truck.
"Um...It's Peter. And while I appreciate the offer, I couldn't take advantage of your generosity. You need paying customers, and I can't afford it. Really." Peter hurried to catch up with the man, trying to convince him.
Joe turned on him, the smile gone and the eyes flashing. "What the hell? Oh, I get it. You're the big author and us lowly peons ain't good 'nuff, huh? Greasy hands and honest workers ain't got no place 'round you, huh? Is that it, ya son of a - "
"No no no" Peter backed away as he tried to placate the man. "I didn't mean that at all. I just meant..."
"What an egotistical bastard." Joe was in the cab before Peter could continue. The tow truck engine roared to life, making Peter jump once more. He recoiled as the tow truck spit gravel at him and disappeared into the highway traffic.
"What the heck..." Peter shook his head and turned back to his dead car. As he walked back, something nudged at the edge of his mind. Something wasn't quite right. It took Peter a moment, but it finally hit him; his wallet was gone.
- To be Continued (maybe)