The orange almost empty light is on. They used to call this running on fumes when you only had an arm leaning all the way toward empty, but now the dashboard indicator says she’s got 36 miles left. How far is 36 miles and what if she just gets out at the end, grabs her bag from the passenger’s seat and leaves the car when the fumes run out? Where is 36 miles from here?
She’s pulling into a gas station, maybe this is a liquor store that sells gas as an afterthought. She’s scanning the garish signs, barely registering the neon sunburst of On Sale Now cans and bottles at cut-rate prices, two for one Fish & Game licenses in season only. The sign for nightcrawlers and live bait is hand printed, stained, and taped to the door haphazardly, corners curling in the heat.
There are trucks here, pickup trucks with huge tires, hot exhaust fumes and deep rumbling diesel engines, stickers in the shapes of antlers and bass with fanned tails and gaping mouths, flags in red, and white, and blue, flags in orange, and white and blue. There’s a truck with a Don’t Tread on Me sticker next to If you see this vehicle operated in an unsafe manner, please call…
After this, how many hours before her next stop for gas in another anonymous crossroads just off a state road favored by pickups and farm trucks? Eighteen-wheelers rarely stray this far from the interstate. How far before all the new miles in this tank of gas plus the original 36 are gone? When this new tank is reduced to fumes, can she still grab her bag from the passenger’s seat and get out at the end?
She’s watching the trucks. Gas. This time, just get gas. Pay at the pump. Fill the tank and leave. She’s sliding her card, placing the nozzle into the tank, waiting endlessly, and here’s the handle’s abrupt full-tank slam. The scales of judgment are tipping, and the good sense required to fill her tank and drive away is dissolving into a euphoric benzine odor as the nozzle drips on the pavement.
Her tank is full. She’s walking inside the liquor store that sells gas as an afterthought, bells tinkling as she enters, making a beeline for the cheap plastic bottles on the bottom shelf. A battery-operated radio with a coat hanger as an antenna croons lyrics and static, “All the folks in Nashville, Tennessee, ain’t working hard for a boy like me.” These bottom shelf bottles are made for tumbling out of clenched fists and predictably dropping onto the pavement. Bottles made of plastic anticipate a bouncing without breaking and the expected final grasp and muttered prayer that the cap was on tightly.
She’s in line with one hand on her wallet; occupied hands mean she can’t open the bottle and choke it down. She’s standing behind a man with a wallet in his back pocket as thick as a sandwich. He smells of working outside, and his forearms are muddy with freckles, carpeted in thick blonde hairs, and the skin above the sleeves of his worn blue tee shirt is as white as the belly of a fish.
He’s asking for matches. He smells of cigarettes. He’s paying for beer, but he does not yet smell of it. He’s walking out the door.
She’s laying the bottle on the counter at the register beside the plastic tub of jerky, sliding her card, and scooping up the bottle again. She’s backing away from the register, twisting open the plastic cap, and her sip becomes a swig. She hears the cashier yell, “Hey, you can’t drink that in here!” as she exits. The static on the radio is humming, crooning, “All the girls that wanna dance, and you’re not givin’ em’ no chance,” as the door closes behind her with tinkling bells.
She’s striding across the lot toward her car, reaching into her softly worn black leather bag for her keys, passing a dusty truck at the adjacent pump. There’s a chestnut colored cowboy hat on the broad, gritty expanse of dashboard, and a brindle rabbit’s foot from the unluckiest rabbit of all dangling from the rearview mirror.
How impractical each swallow is, how meaningless and backward to deliver clarity rather than the dull and slurring adjectives of drunkenness. Instead, the clarity becomes keener and more salient as the bottle empties. She’s lifting it for another feckless sip turned to gulp, keys synchronously slipping from her hand as she passes the truck with the dangling brindle rabbit’s foot. Her open bag is slipping from her shoulder and following the keys downwards, the minutia of her life tumbling haphazardly onto the pavement. She’s propelling herself forward in an aggregate motion of crouching and desperation, reaching with the hand not in possession of the bottle to recover the bag’s disordered, spilled contents, now splayed out on the spotted, greasy pavement. She finds her keys first, snatching them from the concrete as if the whole of the spilled plastic menagerie are the unfamiliar detritus of another.
The man from the truck is suddenly crouched next to her among the upheaval, scooping up a purple pen, a small, slightly dented red and white tin of curiously strong mints, a blue plastic comb with a curved handle, and a softly worn black leather wallet, her larger bag’s tiny twin. The man’s frayed baseball cap bears the vintage cat, paw, and moon emblem in black and yellow that a railway system, now defunct for 30 years, painted on each of their cars.
The man is handing her the items scooped from the pavement, and she’s standing up with her keys and bag in hand, suddenly drinking from the bottle again but not reaching out to accept the offering. Her nerves are beginning to hum with lucid precision. She’s watching her wallet and comb in the callused and worn hand of a stranger who is reaching over to open her bag and gently deposit her belongings inside. She says nothing, and she drinks again.
Now the man is extending an empty hand and looking at her face. Is this an offer to steady her during another swallow? Maybe instead, it is a gesture to shake hands as though they’ve been introduced in polite company, but she does not reach out to take his extended hand. He’s speaking.
what’s your name
where are you going
do you need a ride
“Hop in,” he’s saying, and she does, casually opening the passenger side door as though another accidental on purpose gas station encounter is not a haphazard sprint toward a dangerous precipice. The bottle is now empty. She’s buzzing with bright and clear-headed crystal prisms, self-styled prey focused and staring down a predator. During each dropped keys and spilled bag encounter, she introduces herself to a tangible, menacing, and anonymous beast who sweats and works, fills his truck with gas, stoops to retrieve pens and mints, and always says hop in.
She’s staring at the tiny claws on the brindle rabbit’s foot hanging from the rear-view mirror, and the man with the truck is sliding into the driver’s seat. “Hop in,” he’d said, and she did. Now she is vibrating with get out, and now she is getting out of the truck with a clear head, a zipped-up bag, her ignition key in hand, and nerves alive with the rush that comes in the seconds before cliff diving amidst signs warning Danger – Watch for Rocks Below. She is crystalline, the clarion call of a battle trumpet, as sharp as an icicle. She has not found a brand of plastic bottom shelf bottle that does not bring on this strident clarity, this new feeling of electric nerves singing get out in all languages just in time, but never once singing to her don’t get in.
She’s slamming her own car door and turning the key in the ignition, a fluid motion perfected by countless predatory hop in’s and her own siren-song chorus of get out’s in pickup trucks, muscle cars with growling mufflers, and a single station wagon long past it’s prime with peeling simulated wood grain paneling and dull yellow quarter panels.
“How do you know I’m not a serial killer?” asked one driver with a wink in the breath before her practiced get out.
“What are the odds of two serial killers in the same vehicle?” she replied, her body already forming the shape of her exit. She was across the pavement and slamming her own car door within seconds. The in’s, the equivalent out’s, and the subsequent driving away from nameless gas lotto propane depots with a full tank, a clear head, and an empty bottle, this is her new normal. This is the muscle memory of blending good ideas with bad until only a raw, base idea, and the impulse to drop her keys, spill her bag, and get into a stranger’s vehicle remains.
The battle call of clarity is fading on this flat, impossibly straight two-lane road, bordered by verdant, low crops she cannot identify. She’s glancing at the gas gauge. Where is 36 miles from here, but first, where is here, the right-now here where roadside weeds and refuse tossed from nameless, uncounted vehicles does not serve as a compass, roadmap, or signpost? In a fleeting moment of regret and conscience, she can almost believe there was no recent hop in concurrence, save for the empty container of testimony on her passenger’s seat. The emptiness is proof of a parking lot guzzle; however, there is little here to substantiate the existence of a brindle rabbit’s foot, the practiced departure from the unknown peril of a stranger’s passenger’s seat, or the twang of a country song on the radio as her hands grasped and unscrewed a plastic cap. Her eyes are on the sunset and the straightaway that bisects endless fields of unidentifiable crops. She settles into the moment of conscience, having no physical verification for regret.