Car Fiction by Gary D. Smith
I don’t exactly remember when I first became suspicious of Grandpa’s ‘39 Dodge pickup, but it was probably in the summer of ‘55 or ‘56. Those were the years right before I got my driver’s license, and Grandpa used to drive me everyday to the summer job I had. The job I found happened to be right across the street from where the hardware store was where Grandpa worked. He’d drive us downtown, then park the truck in the alley right next to the hardware store. The truck would be visible to me all day as I worked in the store front waiting on customers. At first, I hardly noticed the truck there. But later I found myself constantly glancing over to where it was parked to see if it had moved.
When I was old enough to reach the pedals, Grandpa would let me drive the truck out back on the road that went through our property. The truck was not in the best of shape, although it ran OK. There were a few dents, the paint was badly faded, and it had a few exposed rusty spots. The dash had some odd dents in it where something heavy must have flown off the seat and hit it. It was odd to me that some of the glass over the gauges was missing.
One day Grandpa put a two gallon gas can that he used to fill up his outboard motor into the bed of the truck as we were leaving for work. I didn’t think much of it, but on the way home after work, he stopped at the gas station and filled it up. He left without adding any gas to the truck. I’m not sure why, but that triggered something in my brain and I became aware of the fact that I had never seen my Grandpa put gas in his truck.
When we got home that evening, Grandpa parked the truck next to the barn where he always parked it. The barn was across the yard from the front of the house, so I could see the truck from any window in the front of the house, and that included my upstairs bedroom window. I kept thinking about it. The only time Grandpa even drove his truck anymore was to work and back. When we went to church, or when he and Dad would go anywhere, they’d always take Dad’s car.
I watched that truck all summer. It never moved from the side of the barn, or from Grandpa’s parking spot next to the hardware store. And if he had managed to move it undetected during the day, I would have noticed it when we got in it to go home after work, because the start-up procedure would be different. When we’d get into the truck in the morning or after work after it had been sitting all day, Grandpa would turn on the ignition, pull out the throttle and choke, and hit the starter button. He’d pump the gas 4 or 5 times while cranking the starter, and the Dodge would finally start. But if we ever stopped on the way to or home from work for any reason, the truck would start right up. Every time I ever went anywhere with Grandpa, that truck was always hard to start.
I couldn’t keep track of the truck when I was at school as well, but the following summer I started watching it again. Several Saturdays we took the truck way down by Barton Lake to go fishing. It must have been 70 or 80 miles down there one way, but I never saw Grandpa fill up the truck with gas.
It was toward late August that I finally asked Grandpa about it. We were on the way home from work and Grandpa was telling me about his latest solution to a customer’s electrical problem, when I couldn’t stand it anymore. I just had to know.
“Grandpa, how come you never seem to put gas in this truck?” I blurted out.
He gave me a quick, puzzled glance, and then he lifted up his eyebrows, and grinned as a twinkle came to his eyes. Then he turned his attention back to his driving, and explained, “Well, I guess I’ll have to let you in on kind of a strange secret about this old truck,” he started. “When your grandma fell back in ’48, I had to get her to Doc’s in town. We lived pretty far out at our old place then, and the quickest way to get her there was to take her in the truck. So I laid out some quilts on the seat to help soften the ride, helped her into the cab, and off we went. We traveled about 5 miles when I remembered that the tank was almost empty. I looked at the gauge, and it confirmed what I already knew. It would have been better to call for help back at the house and wait, than to run out of gas 20 miles from a phone on the way to town. Now it was too late to turn back, and I knew we didn’t have enough gas to get there. I kept glancing at the gauge, and the needle wasn’t even bouncing. I’d drive a bit and glance at the gauge, and the gauge seemed to enjoy reminding me of the inevitable. Why hadn’t I checked the thing before I left? Too much in a hurry. I kept driving, but there was the gauge, as a grim reminder of my carelessness. Your Grandma was getting pretty uncomfortable by then, and we were still miles from town.
“I don’t know why I did what I did next, but just to keep that gauge from yelling at me, I reached down and just moved the needle to full. I knew it was foolish, but it just made me less distracted. At least the gauge was happy.
“The funny thing was, we somehow got to Doc’s. Grandma’s injury wasn’t real serious, but after Doc fixed her up, I left her to rest up at her sister’s place in town for the night. On the way out of town, I made a beeline for the gas station. Buford came out to see if I wanted to fill it up. But the truck wouldn’t take hardly any gas. Buford asked me why in the world I wanted him to fill it up when it was already full? Just to get the windshield cleaned? I apologized, and drove home. When I came back the next day to pick up your Grandma, the gauge showed half full. I stopped by Buford’s and he filled it. Took half a tank.
“Then I started to experiment. I filled the tank up, drove it around the block, and back into Buford’s. When I pulled in, I pushed the needle to empty. Buford came out, the truck took a full 16 gallons, and when he came over to the window, he said, ‘What happened to all that gas? Must be some leak. Want me to check? I don’t smell no gas, though.’
“I got to the point that I’d run the gas down a quarter of a tank, then push the needle up to full. I’ve been doing that for nearly 12 years.”
After high school, I went away to college, then got a job across the state. Grandpa died a few years back, and when I went home last Christmas, I asked Dad about Grandpa’s old truck. “It’s out back, behind the barn. You’ve always liked that truck,” reading my mind. “If you’d like it, it’s yours. Needs some work, though.”
Later that day I went to check out the truck. I opened the door, and looked inside. What a neat old truck. I looked at the gauges, and the gas gauge was on empty. I went around to the other side, and took off the gas cap. I stuck my nose into the filler pipe, and took a wiff. Nothing. “Well, maybe I was imagining things. It’s just an old truck,” I thought to myself. I got back into the cab and sat behind the wheel where I used to sit as a kid. The glass on the gas gauge was still broken. I don’t know why, and I know it was silly, but I reached over and moved the needle to full. I sat there for a bit, and found my heart rate had increased. I couldn’t restrain myself from getting out and walking around to the gas filler. “This is ridiculous,” I scolded myself. I reached down, unscrewed the cap, and smelled gas.
© 2000 Gary D. Smith