You could tell he was pissed off. He threw the jack handle in an arc that took it most of the length of the shopping center parking lot. It bounced with a clang and slid another hundred feet before coming to rest against a far curb. I thought he was going to kick the flat tire, but instead he began the long walk to retrieve the tire iron. A one-word litany followed him down the empty lanes of the lot, “S—t, s—t, s—t, s—t . . .” I could have fertilized several garden plots with his potty mouth.
I pulled my bicycle up to his disabled vehicle and sat there observing the damage. The wheel studs were all well-rusted (a hazard of living here at the beach) and one of them glinted sharply where it had snapped off—the source of the tantrum, my guess.
A minute later, as he walked back toward the car, I could still hear him muttering the s-word beneath his breath.
“I see you’re having one of those days.”
Surprisingly, he laughed and said, “Just one of those days when everything turns to s—t.” He threw the jack handle to the pavement and looked ruefully at the flat tire. “I can’t get any of the lugs to budge, rusted solid.”
“A downside to living at the beach. Anything that can rust, will. Water destroys everything it touches.”
He nodded his head. “If I just had some oil I could loosen them up.”
“Take it from an old beach bum. The enemy is water, and—believe it or not—the answer is water.” I offered him the water bottle from my bike. “Just squirt some on each nut and wait a minute or two.”
“Or you can bring oil from the car’s engine, one drop at a time on the end of the dipstick. Trust me; try the water.”
He took the plastic container and doused each nut. He returned the bottle and stepped back. “Thanks . . . lived at the beach long?”
“Moved here ten years ago; I’m a retired minister. Once you get used to changing the shower curtain liner every 60 days and replacing every bolt and fastener you own with stainless steel, it’s a great place to live.”
“Don’t tell me you have stainless lug nuts on your car.”
I laughed, “No, same rusty ones you have. I keep a can of WD-40 in the trunk. I spray it on everything.”
He knelt and tested the first nut; it turned with a squeal, but it came loose. After a couple of minutes and some additional squirts, he jacked the car up and swapped the spare. As he tightened the replacement, he said, “Thank you, that was kind of you to stop and advise me early on a Sunday morning. Is there anything I can do to return the favor? Donate to the church of your choice?” He smiled at me.
“Well . . .” I paused to think about the favor I was going to ask, the kind of thing that puts people off. Sometimes it offends them to the point you can envision them angrily throwing a tire iron in the trunk of their car and driving off in a screech of burnt rubber. Being a minister, you learn to think before you speak.
“Could I ask a small favor? Something that you could say is none of my business; you might tell me to go fly a kite.”
He continued tightening and looked over his shoulder, “Ask and ye shall receive.”
“Could you stop using the s-word? Just try it for a day or two? For me, as a favor?”
There was a moment of silence as he tightened the last nut. He placed the wrench and the jack in the trunk and then balanced the flat tire on edge and sat on it. He folded his arms and appeared to be deep in thought.
He asked what denomination my church was, and I told him. He nodded.
“I would like to honor your request, but I’m not sure I can. I’m an old Marine and the cursing habit is deeply ingrained.”
“I’ll offer you a pact. If you’ll allow me to teach you four words that are more obscene than the s-word, I’ll try to do without it,” he hesitated, “for a month. No promises, just word of honor, best intentions. You don’t have to use these four words, but I expect you’ll remember them.”
He stuck out his hand; it was filthy. Between the dirt and rubber of the tire and the dissolved rust and road grime, his hand was almost black. We shook hands and then he threw the tire in the trunk.
“Are these new words or ones I already know?”
“Sadly we all know them: rape, starvation, oppression. Wouldn’t you agree those are all more obscene than the s-word?”
I nodded. “That’s only three.”
“War, the ultimate obscenity.”
I heard a tremor in his voice; as I looked up, his eyes appeared rimmed with moisture. “What do you do for a living?” I asked.
Softly he replied, “I’m a minister like you.”
He shook my hand again and got in the car. As he drove off, I noticed the sticker on the trunk lid: “Retired. No Money. No Job. Don’t Take Shit from Anybody!”