This was written for the local newspaper, The Olathe Daily News. The day after it appeared I visited an elderly friend at the hospital where she lay dying. When I asked her how she was doing she said, wheezing, “Can’t breathe…but then you can’t have everything.” Then she held up a newspaper folded to this story and said, “keep writing.”
They drove up under the overhang in a battered Toyota wagon all rusted at the seams. I waved ‘em off with my good arm. Pump one had been out of order all week. The driver saw me and circled around to pump three, which was already blanketed in snow. He wore no coat, but stood hunch-shouldered, shifting from foot to foot in the flickering yellow light of the station sign. I could tell he was down on his luck, because he only pumped three bucks into her, and in that kind of storm you fill up.
He was the first customer I’d had in hours. Young, maybe 18. Thin. Fraying jeans. Then he got back in the car, and I reached for my thirty thirty. I thought, you lousy bum, if you drive off without paying I’ll blast you into next week. It’s not enough the new EZ-Mart has to steal my customers – the few I do get are thieves.
Then I realized that if he was a drive-off, he was an honest one, because he was only stealing three bucks. But I didn’t ask him to stop, and three bucks is three bucks. Then he got back out of the car, and I put my rifle down.
A pregnant woman struggled out of the passenger seat and waddled into the store. She wore a green army coat that was too big for her, and she held her stomach with both hands, gently. She glanced around silently and headed for the ladies room.
The young man came in, plunked three bills on the counter and blew warm air into his cupped hands.
“Going far?” I asked, as though it was my business.
A moment later she called for him from the bathroom, and that’s how it started.
There was a cot upstairs by the water heater. I gave her a blanket and told her to lie down. They asked me not to call an ambulance, and I just stared. I thought, Why’d you have to come here? But of course I didn’t say it. Later, when I saw their pictures on TV, I knew why they were in such an awful hurry to get away.
The young man knelt beside her and took her hand. “Marietta,” he said, “You’re gonna be OK.”
“Sure, Joe,” she said. Then she started to cry, and I figured that was my cue to leave.
I went back downstairs and waited. She screamed quite a bit during the night, and then, two hours before my morning help was due, I heard a baby squawk. After a while I couldn’t help myself. I clunked as loudly as I could up the staircase and rapped on the door.
Marietta lay covered by the blanket, asleep, the baby next to her. Joe waved a hand at the cot, awkward-like. “It’s a mess,” he said. “I can’t pay you for it now, but someday I will.”
“No,” I said, “But can I have a look?” I think I knew, somehow. Before I saw the child’s face.
Afterwards I got a wild hair and went out and filled up their wagon with high-octane. I broke the plastic off a dusty new thermos and filled it with stale coffee from the donut counter. Then I stuck two twenty dollar bills in the ashtray. Not much, really, but better than nothing. Enough to get them across the border. Looking back, I think it was the best and the worst thing I’ve ever done. This fills me with shame. I had another twenty in the register.
The storm had covered their tire tracks, and I wished them luck as they drove off. I think maybe I even prayed, but who knows? I’m nothing special. Just a small-time gas monkey with a gimped arm. But that night I felt different. I still can’t understand it. I don’t know why they came to my station. I’ve never done anything really good or really bad in my whole life.
And I’ve never told this story until now. Some things are just too hard to tell. But a man gets old and thinks maybe someone will understand that his life was important, at least for a moment. So he tells, finally, about a battle, or a woman, or a great suffering. But afterwards he sees that he was wrong. The words weren’t enough, after all. Not enough by a long shot. Like stale coffee, and forty bucks in an ashtray.
But if I could, I would put down in words what it’s like to go through life surrounded by people, yet all alone. I would put down how it feels to get your arm caught in a thresher.
And perhaps I would even put down how, in my best and worst dreams, that cold snowy night comes back to me from the past, and I see again – just before I wake – the face of the child. And I realize I am looking at the face of God.
© Daniel Schwabauer. All rights reserved.
May not be copied or used in part or in whole without express written permission from the author.