December 2017. Balmy, sultry night. Family visiting. Shared dinner on a porch paneled in weathered cypress at their Air B&B on Pass A Grill Beach. Although only I suspected the extent, the cancer had invaded every crevice of his brain; that night, his ugliness flamed on the youngest in our group, sneering at her youthful ambition to help Indigenous peoples. Breaths caught but everyone was polite as efforts to smooth ensued.
His absence of energy was convenient and real so we said our goodbyes and walked the short blocks to the meters, the closest parking now that my hometown beach is no longer mine, no longer ours, only theirs. The fog coming off the water made the waning moon a fuzzy crescent in the clouds. We didn’t talk but that was now normal. Get to the car, get him home.
Except the car wouldn’t start. Wouldn’t even turn over. My anxiety, always a ready companion, sprung to jumbrotron. I called Triple A. He slouched in his seat, head drooping when, miracle, my brother and his girlfriend drove by slowly because of the thickening fog. He got in their car without a look. I ran to press my house key into his palm, begged him not to lock the back door. He stared dully.
My brain began to wonder if I should be alarmed. I was on a very familiar street with only sea oats and sand dunes to separate the gentle Gulf of Mexico. The houses across were large and dark. Streetlights spooled golden puddles but in truth, visibility was nearly gone. I’d spent time out here on nights like this. Some of those memories were pleasant. Lifetimes ago. Now, the homes were vacation rentals and locals scarce. I got in the car to wait.
The Tripe A truck arrived a mobile carnival in the fog, amber lights flashing and rotating. A younger-ish muscular blonde man piled out and manspalined the issues with my dead battery except, try as he might, it wouldn’t start. Something far more dire, he pronounced. I needed a tow and that required the other truck, since Triple A now contracts every aspect of service to a myriad of companies and each only does so much. Or so he implied.
Insisting on waiting, he probed why I was stuck there alone. Dying husband with a ride home seemed to check some box. After ranting about the limitations on service being applied by Triple A, he was soon recounting his service in Afghanistan. He reupped twice in the Obama era. I would never assume he supported that Commander in Chief, but he did seem to respect the strategy. “Hearts and minds,” he kept repeating.
Hearts and minds. He told of soccer ball gifts to children. Reading programs for women. For me, his stories were butterflys and unicorns shared with happy villagers who were beginning to open up and trust people like him. Dressed like him. Armed like him. While I knew I shouldn’t, I couldn’t help asking what he thought about the state of relations with Afghanistan given a completely different Commander in Chief, a leader clearly not interested in winning hearts or minds on any continent. He shot me a look, wary. Maybe it was the weight of the stress I was living under but I charged in. “I’m someone people like you call a ‘Libtard Snowflake,’ but I’m all in for hearts and minds over guns and bullets.”
His head snapped. For an instant, I glimpsed a highly trained, tightly wound warrior evaluating and cataloging resources to eliminate a potential threat. Then his eyes changed and he strained out a smile and the tension wicked. The other truck pulled up, the driver an older Black man who greeted the solider as a friend. Who resisted my attempts at conversation on the long ride with cold indifference. Who did not wait with me in the slightly scary, very dark parking lot of the shuttered repair shop where he dropped offending me and my offending car.
Two months later, late February of 2018 was ridiculously hot and steamy; record-breaking heat. Leaving the hospital Hospice wing his second night in, I saw a Triple A truck, lights flashing, by the emergency entrance. Mister Hearts and Minds. I gave a small wave and shrugged my shoulders, forgetting we talked hundreds of rescues ago for him, decades ago for me. He stared and cocked his head as I strode past in a numb haze of tears. Then he called out with what sounded like a snarl, but I believe was not: “Need a ride?”