The radio announcer said it was one fifteen at four o’clock straight up, but it had to be hotter than that. Ambient air temps had to be one twenty, one twenty five if you factored in the radiant heat from the cement slab-sided shoulder from the underpass at Tropicana, from the asphalt and the idling of a thousand cars and trucks as we stagnated there waiting for one more transition of the eternal highway construction that is Interstate 15 in Las Vegas.
Not so inside my sedan, air conditioning blasting since I left the airport that by the time I reached the freeway it cooled down to the seventies and to where I could wrap my hands around the leather-clad steering wheel. Not that I needed to since nothing was moving. A hundred and thirteen miles to go before home, the first three of which would take me almost as long as the rest of the commute to St. George.
From the underpass a pedestrian caught my eye in my rear-view mirror. His broken, awkward gate demanded my attention and I turned to see what seemed to a mirage in the heat waves, a mexican male, seventy something clad in canvas pants and boots with a flannel shirt buttoned at the cuffs and neck.
He was carrying a big brown paper sack and he couldn’t walk a straight line. He was moving, though, right past my idling car determined to get wherever he was going in his inebriation, making better time than I.
That guy’s going to die out there. If the heat doesn’t get him the dehydration will. Look at him, he can hardly take his next step. But he does, one after the other. The effort looks extraordinary.
And there’s a break in the jam, brake lights extinguish and traffic advances and I roll past the drunk mexican on the shoulder. We make maybe thirty yards and halt. I know he’s somewhere back there. I avoid the mirrors, out if sight out if mind, and think about a bar-be-que when I get home.
In my peripheral I know he’s there walking and I try to keep him out if my sightline. And that’s when the little devil and the little angel popped up on my shoulders.
“Pick him up,” said the angel and while I mulled that over the devil says, “Are you kidding me? Do you know what that guy’s going to smell like?”
The angel knows now much I like to be able to sleep. “Just pick him up, take him over to UNLV’s medical center and drop him off.”
“What if he pukes in your car?”
And the debate went on. The traffic moves again. See ya. We stop maybe twenty yards this time.
I don’t say this to pat myself on the back. On the contrary, I was a racist prick, but the angel prevailed and I pulled out of the lane on to the shoulder and waited for the drunk mexican to reach my car.
I opened the passenger side door, the ambient air temperatures so different from inside to outside that it sounded like the break of a hermetically sealed hatch on a spaceship. The pedestrian reached the opening and bent down to see me.
“Hey Pedro, need a ride?” Yes, I really said that.
“Yes!” He said. His enthusiasm was surprising to me. He turned away, bent over more, enough to allow his frame to rock back and collapse into my passenger seat. He shifted his paper bag and its contents to his right arm and used his left to pick up his left leg by his trousers and move it into the footwell, revealing the stainless steel brace that connected to his boot. Then he did the same with the other leg. Brace on that one, too.
“Thank you for stopping. It’s pretty hot out there.”
He then told me he somehow lost the drain plug from the oil pan of his pickup stranding him and his grandkids somewhere near Moapa on I-15. He’d hitchhiked his way to Vegas to find a new plug and eight quarts of motor oil, the prize he had in his bag, and was making his way back when I was kind enough to pull over and offer him a ride.
Every declaration of my kindness and his gratitude cut me to my core. I made this guy walk half a football field. No guile, no judgement from him, just gratitude. I couldn’t say the same for myself, instantly ashamed.
We merged back into traffic and made our way north. He was a decorated Vet, wounded in combat, ran his family farm in Overton with three generations living under his roof, two of the third were waiting for us when we reached his truck.
We parked on the northbound shoulder and made our way to the southbound side where the pickup and his grandkids were waiting, happy to see him. I installed the plug, filled the engine with oil and listened to make sure no noticeable damage was done and they were on their way.
Back in my car I sat there and wondered on the shoulder of that freeway what other drunk mexicans I had in my life.