essays, poems        & stories


My New Job in Murray, Kentucky

by Mark Dvorak

What lark arises with every call from the open road? What remorse sleeps within each youthful reply? Such folly then, becomes the life of a traveling folk singer. Walking along Southwood Drive in Murray, Kentucky, a van whizzes by. The guy driving it works for an electronics supply company and he seems to be in an awful hurry. A few minutes later a beleaguered mom driving a beat up Honda minivan full of kids comes by the other way. I hear a siren blaring in the distance and a fire truck and ambulance speed by lights flashing, along the main road up ahead. Those firemen have an urgent job to do this morning, just as the mom in the van has the job of delivering her kids somewhere, or getting to the grocery store. The man driving the the electronics truck is also at work, delivering replacement circuits, switches and what not.

And on this steamy June morning in western Kentucky, my job is no longer to sing and play guitar. My new job is to walk. And it is my only job until the next thing to do comes along. It is the latest in a series of jobs I’ve had since leaving home last Wednesday, since Saturday morning when my car broke down on a remote Tennessee backroad on the way to the music festival. Worry and anxiety somehow ought to be above my pay scale in this newest job, but apparently worry and anxiety come along with just about every line of work.

It is two-and-a-half miles from the hotel to Cunningham Auto Repair, just south of downtown Murray. I have been walking for about twenty minutes and it is hot. And humid. I finished my apple a while ago and am about halfway through my water bottle. I am walking along the main road now, headed south. Trucks and cars roar by as I walk on the right, into traffic. There isn’t always a wide enough shoulder to walk upon and from time to time I have to step off into a ditch or away onto the grass to avoid the passing traffic. Lots of trucks, pickups and noisy, rusty old beaters. The roadside is littered with empty plastic bottles, sandwich wrappers, pieces of old car parts and other smaller broken, mysterious pieces of metal and plastic.

After I pulled onto the lone road that winds through the Tennessee wilderness toward the festival site, and after the engine began running poorly on Saturday morning, and after the check engine light began to glow golden and after the temperature gauge screamed that the engine was overheating, I coasted to a stop at the mouth of a dirt road that led to an ancient family cemetery. I opened the hood and checked what I was able to check. “Shit,” I said out loud. I tried to make a call. No cell service. I reckoned I was six or seven miles short of where I had to be, with no way of getting there. And then the words, “ I don’t know what to do,” dribbled from my lips. 

After a time I closed the hood, grabbed a water bottle and a hat, and my backpack. I locked the car and turned to head north and started walking up the road to the next hill in hopes of grabbing a cell signal.

A guy in a pickup truck, one of those full-cab models, is coming toward me. Following him is another huge pickup truck pulling a pontoon boat on a trailer. The first truck slows down and the guy driving rolls down his window.

“You all right?” he shouts.

“I gotta get up to The Homeplace,” I shout back.

He sees my truck and sizes up the situation. “Heck, we were goin’ the wrong way anyhow. Let me turn around.”

He pulls ahead two hundred yards or so and backs into the dirt road opposite of where I left my vehicle. His engine surges and  he pulls up to the side of the road where I am standing. The truck hauling the pontoon boat lumbers past and begins to attempt the same three-point turnaourd.

“Come on,” he says, “get in,” and I squeeze into the back seat with his two kids, each around ten or twelve years old. His wife watches from the front passenger side and says nothing.

“We were going the wrong way anyhow,” the guy says again. “They’ll catch up with us eventually.”

A little small talk about music and fishing eases the boy some. His sister watches and is silent.

“Thank you for taking me,” I say to the fellow driving.

He offered that I would’ve never made it walking in this heat and he asked what happened. I repeated the sequence of my car’s demise and allowed that it didn’t seem like a good situation. 

He then guessed it might be a water pump problem or perhaps it was possible that the thermostat had failed. “But nobody’s that lucky,” he added. I smiled and tried my best to laugh along with him. 

I’ve made it now to downtown Murray and drop my empty water bottle into a trash can. Just another half-mile or so to go. It’s ten to eleven and I’m making decent time.

After the kind family dropped me at the doors to The Homeplace 1850, an historic working farm and the site of the 20th Annual Homeplace Pickin’ Party, my next job was to figure out what to do next. Within minutes a young man named Darrin, the environmental education specialist at The Homeplace, had phone calls out and had spoken to some of the staff and volunteers who might know of someone who might be available to help out. Darrin drove me back to my car and we loaded everything of value out of my vehicle and into his. Microphones, a small sound system, a portable recording deck and cables, duffel bag, food containers, notebooks, merchandise box and four instruments. Darrin suggested I back my car around a little further down the dirt road toward the cemetery, away from the main road. The engine had cooled some by now and I started it up. Good sign. I kept my eye on the temperature gauge. The check engine light glowed and I backed it around ten yards or so. Hopeful.

Nobody local was available to look at the car or able to haul it somewhere to be worked on. We decided to call my motor service and have it towed all the way to Murray, where Darrin and his wife live, and where Cunningham Auto Repair is located, a reputable shop where Darrin has taken his vehicles when they needed to be worked on.

By the time I finished my last set and got off stage, the tow truck had arrived. I rode with Darrin in his pickup and a young man Adam, followed in his tow truck. Adam is not tall but is  lean and muscular. He wore work boots and a sleeveless t-shirt, his hair cropped back short and clean, his sideburns and goatee tight and trimmed. Adam hardly spoke a word as Darrin and I watched him do his work. He secured the front wheels of my vehicle into the cradles of the tow truck apparatus. Adam pushed and pulled some levers on the console at the back of his truck, and the front end of my car lifted off the ground. Adam and I exchanged contact information and I gave him the address to Cunningham’s.

“Oh I know Cunningham’s,” he said. Adam shook my hand. “I’ll get it there.”

My next job was to hitch a ride with one of the other musicians who was also staying at the Dixieland Cabins, just west of Dover, Tennessee. Then a quiet dinner and early to bed. Sleep was restless and the next morning while gathering my things for the second day of the festival, I heard the sound of car tires on gravel outside my cabin window. The sound stopped at about the place a car would stop being driven by someone who had come by to knock on my door. I heard footsteps on the wooden porch and pulled a shirt on.

There was a knock on the door and it came with a gravelly voice, “I knowed that you’d need a ride today, so I’ve come to get yuh.” It was Bob, a retired refrigeration and heating technician, farmer and former US Navy man. Bob attends the festival each year and we play together on the open stage segment of the program.

“What are you doin’ here?” I ask.

“Heck,” he said, “I tol’ you I would see you in the mornin'.”

I was glad to see Bob too, and just laughed.

Bob is in his mid-seventies and only a few years ago decided it was time to learn to pick mandolin. He’s started in on the banjo now too and is a good student. He practices everyday and as I see him only once a year, his progress is plain to see. 

At the end of the day, Bob rode me back to my cabin. “I’ll get you to Murray in the morning,” he said. And he did.

Murray is thirty-two miles north and west from the Dixieland Cabins in Dover. And Dover is another forty miles or so from where Bob lives, near Clarksville. Once in Murray, Bob paid for lunch and Bob paid for gas. We pulled into Cunningham’s. The shop is housed in a long, aging brick building with an office near the highway and eight bays stretched out behind. A whole lot of vehicles have been serviced here over the years, there are tool chests and car parts spread out everywhere. The grounds weren’t necessarily disorganized, there just seemed to be a lot going on.

Bob and I entered the office and I explained my situation to the gal behind the desk. She was polite and attentive and went off to retrieve the fellow in charge named Larry. And Larry said he probably wouldn’t be able to look at my car until tomorrow. I explained that I had to be in Cincinnati on Wednesday afternoon and then had other places to get to after that. Larry was dressed neatly and was also polite and very attentive. I probed him about the possible problem.

“Could be anything,” he said. “Could be a water pump, could be something else.”

I went through the sequence of the breakdown again.

"Could be anything,” said Larry. “Did you smell anything burning or out of the ordinary?”

I told him that I didn’t.

“It started normally?”

“Yes,” I said.

“And you didn’t smell anything?”

“I don’t think I did.”

“That’s a good sign,” he said.

I thanked Larry and Bob drove me and my sinking spirits out to a hotel on the north side of town on Twelfth Street, not too far from Murray State University. When Bob saw the sign that said “Twelfth Street,” he laughed and said he thought ‘twelfth” was a silly sounding word. 

“Twelfth,” he said again, emphasizing the “lfth” with a lisp.

After Bob helped me load all of my gear out of his truck and into my tiny hotel room, I became uncertain of my next job. I took an apple from my bag and lay on the bed. The room was cool and clean and I was tired already. And worried. I might not be able to get to Cincinnati on time. If it’s a head gasket, that might take days to repair and would be expensive. I just got the car two and-a-half months ago and this ought not be happening to a vehicle with only forty thousand miles on it. If it’s not a water pump, what could it be?

I decided then, that my next job was to straighten out the room and organize all of my stuff. After that my job became locating a laundromat, hiking over there, washing my clothes and making some phone calls. My situation was definitely pending. By late afternoon I made my way back to the hotel. 

Not knowing when or even if, the car could be fixed, I opened a bottle of beer and laid back down on the bed. There were just too many variables to put a plan together. An engagement in Cincinnati was booked for Wednesday, followed by Lexington, Kentucky, Somerset, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Chattanooga. With all of my stuff, it would be impossible to get to where I needed to be by bus. Renting a car would be expensive, impractical and too stupid. Then there was the problem of the hotel. I called the desk to arrange a late checkout. But that would only matter of course, if the car was fixed by tomorrow and I could get to the shop and back to the hotel in time to retrieve my gear. I might have to stay another night in Murray. 

Then the thought occurred that maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel everything, stay here until the vehicle was repaired, pay whatever it cost, and then go straight home to Chicago and never go anywhere again for any reason.

The phone rang. It was Larry.

“Hello Mr. Dvorak,” he said. “Well, we found your problem. A bearing blew out in the water pump and it froze and knocked the belt off. Heck, there wasn’t even a belt on there when we got it.” Larry’s tone was light. 

Thankful. “That sounds like good news,” I said.

“Well it might be,” he said. “It’s about four hundred bucks.”

“When can you get to it Larry?”

“Oh,” he said, “we’ve got it apart right now. Don’t think tonight, but most likely mid-morning tomorrow. At the very latest early afternoon.”

“Sounds easy,” I said.

“We’ll get you going,” he said. “I’ll give you a call when it’s ready.”

Relief.

I’m sweating now from the long walk fo Cunningham's, but feeling better. I entered the office and paid my bill. Three hundred and seventy-six bucks. The gal behind the desk was on task and positive. But she couldn’t find the key. “It’s probably in the car,” she said. “I’ll go with you.”

We looked this way and that in the parking lot. We looked up and down. There was no car to be found. She went back into the office to find someone. I started down the row of bays and in the very last one glimpsed gray paint and the rear end of a Ford Escape with an Illinois license plate. Uh-oh, the hood is still up. 

Wondering. The gal found Larry and asked if the Illinois car was done.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “The key is in it.”

Larry saw me. “You should be all right,” he said with a nod. “He’s just finishing up right now.” I nodded back and gave him a thumbs up.

The middle-aged fellow under the hood told me that he put in a new water pump and a new belt.

“Heck,” he said, “there wasn’t any belt on there when we got it.” 

He went on to tell me that he took the car out on the road and drove it for ten or twelve miles and the temperature gauge was holding steady, where it should be. He explained that I should keep an eye on the radiator fluid level and he showed me how to check it in the morning when the engine was cold.

“Let’s get you going,” he said, and he jumped behind the wheel. He started it up and backed out of the stall and pulled the car around.

“You should be all right now,” he said. “Have a good trip.”

“Thank you,” I said. And I reached to shake his hand.

I waved over to Larry. The engine idled beautifully, temperature gauge holding steady. “I’ll tell everyone about you,” I called out. 

Larry smiled and gave me a thumbs up, then waved. “Have a good trip,” he called back.

I now have a new job in Murray, Kentucky. And it is to get the heck out of here.

6.15.18


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