The first killing frost of the winter came on Valentine's Day. Matties purple bean vines hung from the fence like long strips of beef jerky drying in the sun. It broke my heart to see that colorful jungle turned to black slime, especially on this of all days when people everywhere were sending each other flowers, but it didn't faze Mattie. "That's the cycle of life, Taylor," she said. "The old has to pass on before the new can come around." She said frost improved the flavor of the cabbage and Brussels sprouts. But I think she was gloating. The night before, she'd listened to the forecast and picked a mop bucket full of hard little marbles off the tomato vines, and this morning she had green-tomato pies baking upstairs. I know this sounds like something you'd no more want to eat than a mud-and-Junebug pie some kid would whip up, but it honestly smelled delicious.
I had taken a job at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires.
If there had been any earthly way around this, I would have found it. I loved Mattie, but you know about me and tires. Every time I went to see her and check on the car I felt like John Wayne in that war movie where he buckles down his helmet, takes a swig of bourbon, and charges across the minefield yelling something like "Live Free or Bust!"
But Mattie was the only friend I had that didn't cost a mint in long distance to talk to, until Lou Ann of course. So when she started telling me how she needed an extra hand around the place I just tried to change the subject politely. She had a lot of part-time help, she said, but when people came and went they didn't have time to get the knack of things like patching and alignments. I told her I had no aptitude whatsoever for those things, and was that a real scorpion on that guy's belt buckle that was just in here? Did she think we'd get another frost? How did they stitch all those fancy loops and stars on a cowboy boot, was there a special kind of heavy-duty sewing machine?
But there was no steering Mattie off her course. She was positive I'd be a natural at tires. She chatted with me and Turtle between customers, and then sent us on our way with a grocery bag full of cabbage and peas, saying, "Just think about it, hon. Put it in your swing-it-till-Monday basket."
When Mattie said she'd throw in two new tires and would show me how to fix my ignition, I knew I'd be a fool to say no. She paid twice as much as the Burger Derby, and of course there was no ridiculous outfit to be dry-cleaned. If I was going to get blown up, at least it would be in normal clothes.
In many ways it was a perfect arrangement. You couldn't ask for better than Mattie. She was patient and kind and let me bring Turtle in with me when I needed to. Lou Ann kept her some days, but if she had to go out shopping or to the doctor, one baby was two hands full. I felt a little badly about foisting her off on Lou Ann at all, but she insisted that Turtle was so little trouble she often forgot she was there. "She doesn't even hardly wet her diapers," Lou Ann said. It was true. Turtle's main goal in life, other than hanging on to things, seemed to be to pass unnoticed.
Matties place was always hopping. She was right about people always passing through, and not just customers, either. There was another whole set of people who spoke Spanish and lived with her upstairs for various lengths of time. I asked her about them once, and she asked me something like had I ever heard of a sanctuary.
I remembered my gas-station travel brochures. "Sure," I said. "It's a place they set aside for birds, where nobody's allowed to shoot them."
"That's right. They've got them for people too." This was all she was inclined to say on the subject.
Usually the people were brought and taken away by the blue-jeans priest in the station wagon I'd seen that first day. He also wore an interesting belt buckle, not with a scorpion but with an engraving of a small stick figure lost in a kind of puzzle. Mattie said it was an Indian symbol of life: the man in the maze. The priest was short, with a muscular build and white-blond, unruly hair, not really my type but handsome in a just-rolled-out-of-bed kind of way, though I suppose that saying such things about a priest must be some special category of sin. His name was Father William.
When Mattie introduced us I said, "Pleased to meet you," making an effort not to look at his belt buckle. What had popped into my head was "You are old, Father William." Now where did that come from? He was hardly old, and even if he were, this isn't something you'd say.
He and Mattie went to the back of the shop to discuss something over coffee and pie while I held down the fort. It came to me a little later while I was testing a stack of old whitewalls, dunking them in the water and marking a yellow chalk circle around each leak. I remembered three drawings of a little round man: first standing on his head, then balancing an eel straight up on his nose, then kicking a boy downstairs. "You Are Old, Father William" was a poem in a book I'd had as a child. It had crayon scribbles on some pages, so it must have been a donation from one of Mama's people whose children had grown up. Only a rich child would be allowed to scribble in a hardback book.