The old transmission went squirrelly twenty miles outside of Memphis.
Snow pelted the windshield, and the Mercury’s worn wiper blades could hardly keep up with the icy slush.
Ben O’Keefe swerved the car to the shoulder of I-55 North, startling the sleeping baby in the backseat from a deep sleep. Wails erupted.
Two wide-eyed faces popped up over the front seat, the two older children awake now, too.
“What’s wrong, Daddy?” five-year-old Chris asked.
“Are we at Nana’s yet?” Six-year-old Jody fisted sleep from her oval-shaped eyes.
Coasting to a stop on the shoulder, Ben set the emergency brake, turning to quiet little Peg with his right hand. “It’s okay, sweetheart.”
“Do we got anofer flat?” The boy hung over the passenger seat, peering at his dad.
“I’m not sure, Chris—I think it may be the transmission this time.” Bands had been slipping for the last thirty miles; the pump wasn’t going to last much longer.
Cars rumbled past, rattling the old car’s chassis. Headlights pierced the snow as they flashed by the stranded vehicle.
Looking at his children, Ben calmed their fears. “Everything is fine. Daddy needs to get out of the car and take a look at the problem. Jody, give the baby her bottle. Chris, you help your sister. Don’t anyone get out of this car. Do you understand?”
Nodding in somber unison, the two older children murmured, “Okay, Daddy.”
Ben climbed out, pulling the collar of his worn Levi’s jacket tighter against the wintry assault. The weather had steadily worsened the last hundred miles, and his nerves were stretched raw. Still sporting his prison pallor, he huddled against a cutting wind and stepped to the back of the vehicle. No emergency flare, no cell phone to call for help. Flagging down a passing motorist was laughable—any self-protecting citizen would be afraid to stop for fear he was a criminal—
A bitter laugh escaped him. What kind of a dad could he be to these innocent children?
Ben knew what kind of a dad he was—a desperate one. A man who’d just finished an eighteen-month stint in Tipton Correctional Center, released early to assume custody of his three children after their mom’s death two months earlier. A man trying his level best to raise three small kids alone and trust fully in God’s grace, but doing a mighty poor job of it so far.
Christmas lights winked from a golden arch a couple of miles up the highway. Well-fed children dressed in Old Navy or Gap pajamas would be sitting in warm homes, ears tuned to the ten o’clock news, noses pressed to windowpanes, praying the snowfall would be heavy enough to put anticipated new sleds to good use.
Ben O’Keefe’s kids didn’t have a warm home, and they were hungry. No Gap pajamas—just frayed sleepers faded from too many washings. This snow was one more problem to handle.
Dropping to his knees, Ben bent just behind the left front wheel to study the transmission. Oil dripped from the pan. Sticking his finger in the hole to check the flow, he realized he wasn’t going to make Poplar Bluff tonight; he’d be lucky to make it to the nearest garage.
Great, he thought. He had exactly two hundred and eighty-nine dollars and some change in his pocket, not to mention two little kids who’d eaten nothing but peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for the last six hundred miles. The kids needed a hot meal, a bath, and a warm bed, but Nana’s house in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, was still three hours away.
Pushing to his feet, he dodged a missile flung from the rear window. “Chris!” he yelled. “Stop wasting bread!”
Ben opened the back door and cranked up the window. “You’re letting the heat out, son. Keep the window shut.” Doing a double take, Ben frowned. “Where’d that dog come from?”
Chris shrugged, draping his arm affectionately around the mangiest-looking mutt Ben had ever laid eyes on. The animal’s fur was soaked, and it stunk. “He just climbed in the car with me, Daddy. Right now. Can I keep him?”
A semi flashed by, throwing muck all over Ben and the windshield. Wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, he took a deep breath.
The car’s interior stunk to high heaven. The dog had rolled in something foul. The baby squalled, wanting free of her dirty diaper. Holding his breath, Ben fumbled on the back floorboard for the Pampers. The mutt he’d take care of later. Right now he had his hands full adjusting to full-time parenting.
Three weeks ago he’d been handed his release papers and a bus ticket home. Home being Saint Louis, Missouri—or it was until his wife, Sheila, died. Sheila’s sister, Lil, had taken the kids, so after his release, Ben headed for Mobile, Alabama, to get them. He and the kids spent a couple of weeks in Mobile getting reacquainted. Mom wanted them home for Christmas, so Ben was on the last leg of the trip when the transmission started giving him trouble.
I’m doing the best I can, Sheila. If you can give me any help from up there, I’d sure appreciate it.
The baby cooed, flashing Ben a gummy grin as he pulled her from the car seat and laid her below the steering wheel to change her diaper. He was getting good at this—thirty seconds flat, and dirty diaper was gone, Peg’s bottom wiped and smeared with Diaper Doo, clean diaper in place.
“Yeah, you think it’s all pretty funny, don’t you,” he teased, trying to protect her from the wind blowing in the open door.
“This dog is really neat, huh, Dad? And I don’t think he has a home—he looks kind of like he’s lost,” said Chris.
He looks more kind of like he’s been hit by a fast-moving freight and has lived to tell about it. Ben put Peg back in her car seat and glanced to see if the animal was wearing identification tags. He wasn’t.
“Can I keep him, huh?” Chris peered at Ben hopefully. “It wouldn’t be nice of us to leave him here on the highway with it snowing and all. He’ll get sick.”
“He probably lives nearby, son.”
Chris shook his head. “I don’t think so.” He peered deep into the dog’s eyes. “Do you live nearby?” He glanced back at Ben. “He don’t. He wants to live with us.”
Preoccupied, Ben let his thoughts drift. Christmas was two days off. What kind of Christmas could he give the kids this year? Sheila’s doctor bills had wiped them out. She’d worked as a waitress the last couple of years, barely managing to hold things together. They’d never scraped enough money together to buy a house, so it had been easy to vacate the rented trailer. He’d given the old furniture to Goodwill and packed the kids’ clothes and toys in brown paper sacks. Mom wasn’t in much better shape; she lived on social security and her heart was giving her trouble again, but she’d said that he was welcome to stay with her until he found work.
Ben O’Keefe was twenty-eight, had a basic high school education and a prison record. Job prospects weren’t exactly limitless, but he was strong, dependable, and good with his hands. He could work Manpower temp jobs if needed until he found something. He wasn’t that crazy kid anymore who’d gotten involved in a convenience-store holdup; he’d learned his lesson. The past eighteen months had reeducated his values. Incarceration had taught him two things: He was not smarter than anyone else, and Jesus Christ died on the cross for his sins. The latter blew his mind when he thought about it, and he’d decided early on that since he could never repay the debt, he intended to spend his life trying to live up to God’s expectations.
This Christmas wouldn’t be the best his kids ever had, but they would have each other. Raising three kids alone wasn’t going to be easy, but he could do it, with God’s help.
“The dog stays here, Chris.” Ben pulled the mutt out of the car over the children’s yelps of protests. Cars whizzed by, throwing brackish slush on the Mercury.
Ben climbed back behind the wheel and started the engine, easing back into traffic. The old engine bucked and jerked until he got it wound out and running.
Chris and Jody pressed their noses against the back window, watching the dog gradually fade from sight.
If Ben remembered correctly there was a garage before the U.S. 412 exit—if the old car could make it that far. He glanced in the rearview mirror. Chris was still mourning the dog, his head hung low.
Don’t let sympathy get to you, Ben. You’ve got enough problems without adding a stray mutt to the mix.
Jody leaned over and halfheartedly balanced a bottle in the baby’s mouth. Milk dripped from Peg’s chin and soaked the front of her shirt. The little girl stared at Ben with soulful eyes.
Ben reached back and steadied the bottle. “Keep it in Sissy’s mouth, Jody.”
“He wouldn’t eat much, Daddy,” Chris pleaded. “He could have some of my food.” They were back to the dog.
The old heater made a strange noise. Please, God, don’t let the bearing go out until I can get the kids somewhere.
Jody sighed, turning to look at her brother, who was still staring out the back window with a long face, tears rolling silently down his cheeks. “Daddy?”
Slamming on the brakes, Ben made a U-turn and gunned the old car back down the highway in a boil of smoke and a slipping clutch. Screeching to a halt beside the dog, he opened the passenger door. The half-frozen mutt lunged into the Mercury and settled into the backseat between Peg and Chris. Tongue lolling to one side, he cocked his head and stared straight ahead, instantly part of the O’Keefe family.
The kids’ excited chatter overrode Ben’s strong but silent objection as he set off again. Three kids and a mangy dog. He must be out of his mind.
The dog reared on the backseat, putting his front paws near Ben’s ear. Ben quickly cracked a window for air.
“There’s peanut butter and bread in the sack.”
Chris heaved a sigh. “We’ve eated that all day.” The child’s eyes fastened on the large golden arches straight ahead. “French fries,” he murmured with a trace of longing.
“French fries,” Jody echoed with the same tangible yearning. She leaned closer. “Can we have some French fries, Daddy?”
Ben thought about the money in his pocket: two hundred eighty-nine dollars and some change—every cent Sheila had in the house when she died. Hamburgers and French fries were out of the question if he were to make the money last until he got a job. The gas needle hovered on a quarter of a tank. If he found a garage, it wouldn’t be open tonight, so that meant unless they slept in the car he’d have to find a Super 8 Motel.
Thirty bucks for a bed and heat. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs. He’d have to find the garage and pray that the owner would take mercy on his situation.
Yeah, mercy for an ex-con. Unlikely, Ben. Highly unlikely.
Snow fell in sheets as Ben leaned closer to the wheel, concentrating on the road. The Mercury bucked down the highway, trailing black smoke. The transmission would go any minute.
Jody pressed her mouth against Ben’s ear and whispered, “French fries.”
“We can’t spare the money, sweetheart.” To refuse her broke his heart, but he’d let them have the dog, whose snores now filled the backseat.
How much did French fries cost—a buck or less? But they’d need every cent for gas. If the transmission went out, he’d have to sell the car for whatever he could get for a ‘73 Mercury with two hundred thousand plus on the odometer and no transmission.
Glowing McDonald’s lights loomed ahead. Persistent now, Jody hovered over the front seat and eyed the golden arch, getting closer. “I’m sooooooo hungry, Daddy.”
Pressed next to the wheel, Ben fished in his pocket for change, keeping an eye on worsening road conditions. If he had ninety cents in change he’d pull up at the drive-through window. The dash light enabled him to count nickels, dimes, and pennies. A quarter, three dimes, four nickels . . . one, two . . . five . . . nine . . . ten pennies.
Eighty-five stinkin’ cents. He glanced over his shoulder to meet two expectant gazes.
“French fries, Daddy.”
“No,” he said, steeling his jaw. “I’m a nickel short.” He mashed down harder on the gas, and the old car shot past the McDonald’s entrance. Two days before Christmas, and he was a nickel short—the story of his life.
The kids quieted, their heads whipping to watch the large clown gradually fade out of sight.
Dropping into the backseat, they sat pensively, their solemn faces reflected in the passing car lights.
Ben’s conscience throbbed. French fries. He couldn’t buy his kids a bag of French fries. The chaplain’s words rang in his head: “It’s not going to be easy out there, Ben, but God will be with you. That is his promise. Be faithful to him and he will be faithful to you.”
I’m doing the best I can—and I’m willing to give it all I’ve got, but I need your help, Lord. Bad, Ben prayed silently.
He ignored the sudden sound of backseat activities as one of the children rummaged around in sacks and sifted through trash on the floorboard. The dog popped up on the back of his seat again.
Suddenly, Jody’s head emerged, and a tooth-gapped grin dominated her babyish features. “Look, Daddy! A nickel!”
Glancing over his shoulder, Ben spotted the shiny coin she was holding midair. “Where did you get that?”
“In the seat! I pushed my hand in the cracks like Mommy used to do and I found it!” Eyes brightened. “Now can we have French fries?”
Swerving to the right shoulder, Ben caught a break in traffic and made a wide U-turn. The worn transmission bands slipped as the tires grabbed for traction. Squealing with glee, the children clapped their hands, and a holiday-like atmosphere prevailed as Ben, the kids, and the dog drove the short distance back to McDonald’s.
Engine racing, he chugged up to the drive-through window in third gear and drew a fair number of curious stares. Ben let the motor idle as he waited at the speaker box.
“Welcome to McDonald’s. Would you like to try our Big Mac Biggie combo tonight?”
“No, one small fries, please.”
Crackle . . . crackle . . . “Try a hot apple pie with that, sir?” . . . crackle.
“No, just the fries,” Ben said.
“Anything to drink?”
“No, just the fries.”
Jody hung over the backseat, hovering near Ben’s right ear. “Can’t she hear, Daddy?”
Crackle . . . crackle . . . “Large coke and one small fries . . .”
“No, one small fries and nothing to drink.”
Crackle . . . crackle . . . “Dr. Pepper . . . can I super-size that for you?”
“No.” Ben took a deep breath. “One small fries. No drink.”
Crackle . . . crackle . . . “Eight . . .” Crackle. “Cents . . . pull around to the drive-through window . . .”
Smoke boiled from underneath the old Mercury and obscured the young attendant’s face as Ben handed her a fistful of change.
Coughing, she counted the pennies and nickels, her eyes peering through the blue haze at the smoking spectacle.
Ben smiled. “Keep the change.”
She disappeared and came back a moment later, stuffing a handful of napkins in the paper sack. When she handed the order out the window, she remained a safe distance back.
“Thanks.” Ben opened the sack; when he saw two large orders of fries, he groaned. The tantalizing smell of the crispy hot potato sticks filled the car’s interior. Peg stirred, opening her eyes, her hand palm out in a gimme gesture.
Ben handed the sack back through the window. “There’s two large fries in here; I ordered a small one.”
Smiling, the girl winked. “My mistake, sir. Enjoy the fries. Merry Christmas!”
She slammed the window shut, coughing.
Two large orders of fries. Ben bit back tears as he pulled away. They could each eat their fill. The kids dug in. Ben blew on a fry to cool it down, then handed it to an eager Peg. Dog got into the act, sniffing the sack.
“Thank you, God,” he acknowledged as the old Mercury bucked back onto the highway and he bit into a hot, crispy fry, pitching one to the dog.
I never appreciated teenage help more.