The rain was falling in ice-cold sheets. February weather can be the harshest in the mountains; rain so cold it should be snow. The wipers on Derrick’s car could barely keep up. The occasional shower of sleet only made his view worse. The memory of the fight he and his wife Heather had earlier that morning kept running through his mind. Her refusal to match his anger only enraged him more. Church just wasn’t working for him lately; it wasn’t sinking in. The harder he tried to understand the sermons, the greater became his disconnect. Earlier that morning, Heather simply asked if he had time to read his Bible. It felt like she had stabbed him in the back. How could she question his faith?
He slammed the door when he left, the echoes still lingering in his mind. Tormented, he pushed the pedal on the accelerator, throwing himself through the curves of the tortuous backroads until they hurt. He had an interview in Louisville for a lucrative position that could take his career to the next level. He only needed to get there in time for the meeting tomorrow morning. Unable to leave home until later in the day, he figured he would take a shortcut through the mountains. That would give him plenty of time to check in at the hotel and still have time to visit the bar before bedtime. After all, he deserved it!
Darkness descends upon the mountain valleys much faster. In the winter months, one cannot tell 7:00 pm from midnight. So it was, as Derrick’s car wound through those hidden roads deep within the recesses of the Blueridge, his GPS soon lost connectivity. Then, without warning, the dashboard lit up – low air pressure, front passenger tire. Shortly after that, the unmistakable sound of a flat tire began thumping. Barely enough room to pull over, he found himself sitting on the side of a narrow mountain road. Aside from his headlights shining into a sheet of water falling from the sky, there was nothing but pitch-black darkness. Slamming his fist against the dash, he cursed loudly, “God d*#&%it, son-of-a-b*#&h.”
With only a sweatshirt hoodie for protection, he angrily threw open the car door and stepped out into the deluge. “Why God,” he screamed, looking up to the pitch-black sky as water poured onto his face, running down his bearded chin, its icy fingers finding their way into the warm spots along his spine. The news wasn’t any better when he opened the trunk. The donut spare was nearly flat. After several minutes of knuckle-banging, slipping in-mud delays, he had replaced the flat tire with the poor excuse for a spare. Drenched to his core, he was back in the car seat but badly needed to find someplace to stop to get air before he was totally stranded. Inching along, after rounding several hairpin turns, he saw a pale light ahead. The wipers were losing ground rapidly, so he could barely make out the sign as he pulled in front of the ancient wood-shingled building. “R.C. Sharpe’s Store,” the weathered sign read. Next to the front porch, he could barely make out a hose hanging from a hook with the words hand-painted on a sign above it, “air.”
Jumping out of the car and running to the hose, he tested the valve, but nothing. “Damn it.” A dim light shone through the porch’s dusty windows – a faint flicker of hope. Leaping up on the porch, he was finally out of the drenching ice bath. Shaking himself off, he started to open the door but froze. He swore he could hear the faint sound of an ancient stringed instrument playing. From his Appalachian Studies class, he had learned about the autoharp but had never heard one played in person. Slowly, grinning to himself, “Here goes nothing,” he grabbed the cast iron door handle and pushed. The door opened with a creak, and he cautiously stepped inside. Lightning flashed, and for an instant, everything went gray. He blinked, the thunder roared, shaking the earth, and then the color returned to the scene before him. The music immediately stopped. From the back of the store, he could hear a radio click on, and some unknown country song began to play.
Derrick had never been in an actual working country store outside of those tourist stores up in Boone. Immediately he noticed the smell of cheese, tobacco, and wood smoke, the latter coming from the pot belly stove sitting in the middle of the store. The rusty old pipe extended upward through the ceiling, lined with bead board wood. On each side of the store were shelves against each wall, with long wooden counters in front of them, all filled with home goods and an abundance of supplies one might need to run a mountain farm. Antique wires hung down from the ceiling, holding light bulbs that appeared as old as the building itself. The sound of an AM radio station was playing an old song he had never heard, but the melody pleased his mind, “Lord, I hope this day is good. I’m feelin’ empty and misunderstood. I should be thankful, Lord, I know I should. But Lord, I hope this day….”
“Come on in, I’ll be right wit ya,” came a strained voice from the back corner. Derrick looked to see its source. In the far-right corner sat a thin elderly, white-haired gentleman. He was bent over yellowed papers on a desk, lit by a lamp that barely illuminated his writing surface. About him, on the wall hung a calendar, the kind that provided the signs for planting and some feed store ad at the top. Next to it hung a tweed jacket and a matching fedora, neatly placed. He appeared to be doing the books late into the evening.
Derrick moved closer to the warmth of the stove. The heat felt good, radiating into his bones. In the background, the radio continued, “Lord, have you forgotten me. I’ve been prayin’ to you faithfully. I’m not sayin’ I’m a righteous man. But Lord, I hope you understand.”
“Go ahead, take that there jacket off, and hang it on the chair by the stove. You’ll get warm quicker that way.”
Derrick looked back toward the old man, but he hadn’t seen him look up yet from his papers, which he thought was odd since he somehow knew he was soaked. He did as the man had said and laid his hoodie over the back of a straight-back chair sitting nearby. He heard the creak of an old office chair as the old man got up and began shuffling towards him while the singer kept singing, “I don’t need fortune, and I don’t need fame. Send down the thunder, Lord, send down the rain. But when you’re plannin’ just how it will be. Plan a good day for me.” Derrick realized the song was somehow intentional – was it about him? Chill bumps ran up his muscular arms. His thought was interrupted when the old man called, “Howdy, I’d ask how ya’s doing, but I’ve seen bullfrogs drier’n you,” he said, half chuckling to himself. He wore an old ball cap slightly cocked off to one side and wire-rim glasses. One of his clean-shaven cheeks had a slight bulge indicating a chew of tobacco at rest.
“Yea, my car got a flat, and the spare is about flat too. I saw your lights and thought I’d see if you had any air. I tried the hose outside, but it didn’t sound like it was working.”
“Oh yeah, I’ll have to turn the compressor on for ya. It might take a spell, but it’ll do the trick,” he said, grinning broadly. “What’s your name?”
“Derrick, what’s yours?”
“They call me Reno,” he said with another broad smile.
“Reno, like the place out in Nevada?”
“Yeah, something like that,” his head shaking in agreement.
Something warm, something inviting about the old guy, made Derrick feel at ease. He felt it the moment he stepped inside, but at first, it was like that chill; it took time to warm him through. Meanwhile, the song finished in the background softly ending with, “Lord, I hope this day is good. I’m feelin’ empty and misunderstood. I should be thankful, Lord, I know I should. But Lord, I hope this day is good.”
“You travelin’ a long ways are ye,” he said, squinting as he looked at Derrick, starting to chew a little more on his cud.
“Yeah, I’ve got an interview tomorrow,” Derrick went on to tell him all about himself, how he had been climbing the corporate ladder since graduating college. He shared how he made a lot more money each time he left one company and went to another. He was happy to boast about his accomplishments. With each revelation, Reno’s eyebrows would raise, showing his impression. “Hey, making money’s what it’s all about, ain’t it?”
The radio was now playing an old Tom T. Hall song as the lyrics drifted into their conversation, “Ain’t but three things in this world that’s worth a solitary dime, But old dogs and children, and watermelon wine.”
Reno didn’t laugh with him but drew up his mouth in a pucker as if he wanted to say something but didn’t. “Well, you know what I mean,” he quickly tried to correct course, “you want to do right by your family so you can provide for them and all.”
Reno nodded but wasn’t smiling broadly, only a slight grimace now shown on his face.
“Derrick, you look like you could use a slice of cheese and a drink. Why don’t you sit in that other chair next to the stove, I’ll get that compressor going, and we chew the fat until you dry out a spell. Sound good to you?”
“Ah, ah, I guess, …but my tire?”
“Oh, we’ll get to that. Don’t you fret.”
The song continued as Reno stepped away, “Old dogs care about you even when you make mistakes. God bless little children while they’re still too young to hate. When he moved away, I found my pen and copied down that line ‘Bout old dogs and children, and watermelon wine.”
The old man came back shortly, took a large circular wooden crate out of the cooler, and sat it on the well-worn counter. He removed the lid, pulled out a block of cheese, and placed it on a cutting wheel. He sliced off a couple chunks, laying each slice on a piece of wax paper, and then handed one to Derrick. “Go over to the cooler yonder and grab yourself a cold drink,” he said as he pointed to the ancient Pepsi cooler on the opposite side of the store. Before long, they were both seated, munching on cheese and drinking ice-cold sodas.
“You ever have a dog long enough for it to grow old,” Reno said, leaning back in his chair and taking another bite of cheese?
“No, not really.”
“It’s a painful thing to have to say goodbye to a good dog,” the old man’s eyes turned downward as he spoke as if he were looking somewhere into the past. “They become like family after a while.” The song’s last lines echoed again into their words, “That night I dreamed in peaceful sleep of shady summertime. Of old dogs and children and watermelon wine.”
Derrick sat feeling the warmth of the stove working on him. It seemed to permeate beyond his core and somehow began numbing the uneasiness and stress from the previous drive. What comforted him, even more was that Reno spoke in a soft-spoken southern drawl that alone kept your attention.
“You got a wife,” he said, pointing to Derrick’s ring?
“Yeah,” he smiled broadly. The ball was back in his court now, and he was more than happy to brag about his beautiful wife, Heather, but before he could start, Reno continued.
“I had a wife once.”
Derrick bit his lip and took another sip of his drink to cover his impertinence.
“Cancer took her too soon,” he turned and looked at a faded black-and-white picture sitting on one of the many shelves nearby.
“If I had just one more day with her, it would be a dream,” he said, still turned as if talking to her through the photo. Then turning back, facing Derrick again, “But I know that where she is, for her to come back here would be akin to Lazarus rising from the dead. You know he didn’t want to leave Heaven, nor would she. It’s selfish to think that way. Sometimes we have to think about life being more than about us.” Reno paused, finishing off his drink, and sat it down. He reached down, grabbed another piece of firewood, opened the stove door, tossed it in, then looked back at the young man and smiled. The AM station had now switched to the evening gospel show, and another unfamiliar tune came drifting into Derrick’s ear, “Shackled by a heavy burden, ‘Neath a load of guilt and shame. Then the hand of Jesus touched me, And now I am no longer the same.”
“You know, the good book tells us, ‘That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love.’ Do you love her, Derrick?”
“Well, hell yeah, of course, I do.” His thoughts quickly darted back to their argument that morning. Deep inside, he wanted to take back his words. But, like so many times, he had a way of saying things that hurt people. He liked to tell himself that he was honest to a fault. The thought began to convict him, joining the other worries in his life. Once again, he felt like he was being crushed. Heather couldn’t understand, but somehow, here with this stranger who seemed to know his thoughts, something was changing. Even the music seemed to be listening.
“Do you know that it also tells us, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” You know what that means?”
Derrick felt uneasy all of a sudden. It was like Reno could somehow read his thoughts. It was almost as if he knew about the fight that morning. “Yeah, I think so,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck, starting to feel as if there was more than this being just a chance encounter.
“You took that girl away from her family, and you became one flesh. You are now responsible for her, and that face you see in the mirror every day, that person that you show the rest of the world, is how she is seen. You gettin’ what I’m sayin’?”
“Yes, yes,… I’m with you.”
“There is only One who can take away your burdens, my son. There is only one that can make you whole. You gotta quit trying to do it all on your own.”
Derrick’s eyes began to water. His head began to swim. The stove felt like it was glowing red. The hoodie was now steaming, and he could feel something come over him, like a tidal wave, washing against the shore, erasing the clutter, the debris in his life. The Gaithers added the final push with the song’s last lines, “He touched me, Oh He touched me, And oh the joy that floods my soul! Something happened, and now I know He touched me and made me whole.” He was so convicted about that morning that he wanted to scream. Softly, Reno touched him on the shoulder and said, “Give it to God, son. Give it ALL to the LORD!”
He pressed a small piece of paper into Derrick’s hand.
Then, through the tears, he read, “Love – 1st Cor. 13….”
The damn burst and tears ran down his cheeks. Something inside him had changed. He didn’t know how long they sat there with him, crying, sharing, being comforted by Reno’s encouraging and loving words. Time passed. The rain stopped. Before long, there was an orange glow in the windows. “Oh man, I’ve got to get going.” Derrick realized he had let the night slip by.
“What time’s your interview?”
“It’s at nine AM.”
“You’ll be fine; the Lord’s got this.”
About that time, Derrick’s cell phone rang. He answered, and it was the company where he was to interview. Unfortunately, they had something come up and needed to postpone the meeting until that afternoon. They apologized profusely and asked if it wouldn’t be a problem, then they talked further about specifics. When he hung up, he looked up to find Reno already outside. The spare tire had been replaced and put away, and the original tire was back on. It was as if it had never happened.
“What the heck,” Derrick said, not realizing he had not uttered a string of profanities for a change.
“Oh, you just had a nail in it. I pulled it out and plugged her for ya. Nothin’ to it,” he said, smiling again like when they first met. Something about the sunrise made Reno seem younger like he had dropped twenty years in the blink of an eye.
“Well, what do I owe you?”
“You don’t owe me a dime. But you need to run on now and make that meeting. That little lady back home is countin’ on ya. Don’t let her down,” and he paused, but the seriousness returned, “But Derrick, more importantly,”
“Remember when I said give it ALL to Him?”
“I meant every word of it. Serve only Him, and he will change your life.”
They shook hands, and for a minute, he felt as if he could hug the old guy. But instead, he stepped in the car and pulled away as he saw Reno waving goodbye sitting on the old school bus bench on the store’s front porch.
Later that morning, a few miles up the road, he found a little country diner. He had ordered his food and the waitress came back to refill his coffee when he began to tell her about the wonderful evening he had spent at R.C. Sharpe’s store. She shook her head, not understanding. “What store is that?”
“The one just a few miles down the road.”
“There’s no store down that way that I know of.”
“Are you from around here?”
“Why sure, but….”
An elderly man in the booth next to him wearing overalls and a ball cap turned slightly around and said, “Son, she don’t know nothing about that old store cause it closed long before she was born. Reno was a fine man, but he’s been dead almost fourteen years.”
Derrick looked at the waitress, and she back at him. He felt his face go white.
“You going to be ok,” the young girl asked with a concerned look on her face?
“Ya, yes…I’ll be ok, ….I think,” he said. He paused, then turned to the booth next to him, “Thank you, sir, for sharing that.”
“No problem,” the old man said and turned back around, shaking his head in a confused manner. Then, feeling as if he had just seen a ghost, Derrick reached into his pocket to ensure he wasn’t losing his mind and pulled out a tear-stained slip of yellowed paper.
“Love – 1st Cor. 13, love, …your friend in Christ, …R.C. Sharpe.”
Just then, he heard the music playing in the diner’s background, and he had to smile. The sound of that ancient instrument, the autoharp, was playing Amazing Grace, and Derrick realized at that moment he was forever changed.
Thanks be to God.