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Three more bluebirds

I used to drive a Freightliner bobtail tank truck, delivering propane to rural homes. Only months on the job, I was new and had great satisfaction in what I did. In the middle of a weekday people are working, so the rural spaces were mine to savor. Work was pleasant, sitting way up and driving all of the back roads. Alone with my thoughts, I would ferret out addresses, see the countryside and bring people a steady supply of heat, cooking and hot water.Today, as I lifted a propane tank’s bonnet to reach the fill valve, three scruffy bluebird babies tumbled out. Their parents had built a nest under the protection of the tank bonnet. As the cover hinged up, startled youngsters beat stubby wings and flopped to earth. I filled the tank, did my job, but after the propane nozzle was stowed on the truck I confess I returned. The boss or other driver would have swept the nest away and been on about their deliveries. Company policy: “No bird nests allowed under propane tank bonnets.” I did not return to sweep that nest away. Gently gathering the lost and plaintive babies, my gloved hands slipped them back into their nest and just as gently lowered the bonnet. Mom and Dad bluebird hovered above, voicing concern. Driving off, I could see in the big rear view mirrors that Mr. and Mrs. Bluebird had alighted on the propane tank. I smiled as I grabbed another gear; gravel crunching under my tires.Driving on, I thought of the propane company’s office situation and how it was good to be out working alone. The office is a Colorado country classic. Everyone there has deep roots and connections. Everyone, that is, but me. When in the office, I was given stony silence and no reason why. I think maybe I’d been hired to give them someone new to talk about. Around the office I’d try to ignore it and bury myself in work, painting, mowing, shoveling, valve repair. Anything to excuse myself from the palpable cruelty of my ostracism.Sometimes I would overhear Mr. Big’s personal assistant disparage the rough-edged older fellow who ran the convenience store next door. “Ugh,” she’d roll her eyes and tell stories to the others about him. It went on and on about the convenience store man, about our customers and certainly about me, too. Ethnic and religious slurs were not uncommon. I would excuse myself and leave the room. A secret employee picnic was held. I was not invited. Still, I liked the job of driving the truck, my office with a window – and I tried to get along.Today at lunch, cup in hand, I went to buy a soda refill from the convenience store. About to pay for the refill, that “awful” older fellow told me, “Nah, forget it, go on,” and jerked his thumb toward the door. I smiled and thanked him. As I left sipping the cool drink, his simple kindness washed through me – a man parched of kindness in a tiny town.This evening, after another long workday in the heat, I was called in and fired. Both bosses waited for me: “Your work ethic is tremendous, but you don’t fit in. You think too much. We’re letting you go.”A cold knot formed in my stomach. It was high school again, and I’d failed to be popular. I had a feeling this day would come. So this was it? The bosses had the advantage of secrecy and planning. I was stunned. Somehow I was able to think. “Mr. Big,” I said, “If I were to quit you would want two weeks notice?” He agreed that he would indeed. “Well,” I asked, “won’t you pay me two weeks out in lieu of notice?””Nice try,” Big said.”Nice try.” The words seared me. Stripped of my shop keys, I was hustled over to the Freightliner tank truck to empty out my stuff. Up in that cab one last time, I gave the big steering wheel a squeeze. “Good ol’ truck,” I muttered. No. 2 boss stood waiting and heard my quiet goodbye. He looked down at his shoes. Climbing down from the cab, again I thought of the words: “Nice try.” My cheeks flushed as that sneering retort burned in my mind.Dazed, I drove home to tell my wife and kids that, though diligent, I had been summarily discharged – a first for me – for not fitting in. I numbly drove on through lengthening evening shadows amongst the pines and thought about this fitting-in business. How it came with no instructions. How one-sided it was. I remembered the despised convenience store man, his small kindness and how much it had meant to me. My thoughts strayed to that morning’s bluebirds. Sometimes when you’re new you need a little help and understanding. There would be three more bluebirds in the world. Though my eyes were shining, I smiled. The world can be tough, but life endures.Nice try, I thought, lips tight, as I looked ahead around the next bend. Tom

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