Be Sure to Stop When You Get to Where You Are Going
By Patrick Dwyer
Saying goodbye to all those people seemed both urgent and full of sorrow. These are some of the best and finest friends a girl had, and we had made a madcap weekend of it! Group cuddles in every bed in that big rented house, shower plumbing more complex than the NY sewer system and just as hard to turn off, long walks down by that languid and ever time-stopping stretch of the Hudson, and those faces, all those faces. Every one of them up-turned to me with love, acceptance, even some admiration, as I rushed crazily through them all, making excuses for my haste, dallying for a kiss only at my peril.
I could not stay there any longer, even though I had promised for the full long weekend. The pressure behind my eyes, the ache behind and just to the left of my sternum had become unbearable. I could hardly see straight, and I was afraid of bursting into open sobs and ruining the party for everyone. I ran down the driveway and vaulted over the door of my convertible, flinging my bag into the narrow space behind the passenger seat, slammed the key into the ignition and spun my wheels down the gravel lane to the gate. I did not stop for the road but flung the wheel hard right and slid out in a drift heading south to the highway.
Not even daring to put words to the unasked question buried deep down, I let the dashed line in the center of the road wash away the pain in my head like the hot-pulse setting on that crazy shower massage back at the house. I would be alright. There was nothing I knew to do for the ache in my chest, except maybe wear it like armor and smash my way on through the rest of my life. Sometimes I found I could not wait for the next encounter, breast forward, like a lowered lance, daring all in my path to flee. Or to stand and deliver me to my rest.
Down the highway, realizing with a start that I had not filled my tank on the way up, and the needle was near empty. Which meant in this car that I was empty and would soon be coasting. As I lifted my eyes to scan down the road for fuel, I saw across the hundreds of flat farm acres here in the valley bottom, a goodly clump of trees by the road, a copse up ahead I did not recall from the drive up. And in their midst, high in their boughs, nearest the road, as if leaping for joy over an impossibly tall white post, a winged, red flying horse.
* * *
A very small, short-legged person in a ball cap with the same red horse emblem came out of the low one-story building, letting the screen door bang behind, and waddled up and between pumps older than any I had ever seen, to stand with a small and patient smile just safely out of reach of the swing of my door. I could not tell if it was a man or a woman, or even if it was only a child. The eyes that crowned the smile were ageless and deep brown, like the river in this valley, and they had that water’s same languid flow, the one with no sense of the passage of time.
As I opened my door, she (I just have to say ‘she’, because, well, I think I needed that smile, that intimation of a peace, of a great and effortless rest, to come from another woman right then) – she reached up a hand with stubby fingers so short as to almost not be fingers at all and took the handle of my car door, like I was being ushered down the steps of my own carriage by a footman. Standing on the apron, I turned my head distractedly from left to right, catching the scent of working dirt from the surrounding lands and also, much closer, the fragrance of blossoms so familiar, but which I could not name. The tiniest whiff of petroleum drifted by too, but without the usual assault. She said nothing, her smile remaining unchanging but not frozen, rather continually renewing, and if anything, growing just a bit warmer even as it grew just that bit smaller on her wide face.
“Fill it up?” I asked, not sure why I made it a question instead of an order. She gave me a nod with only the slow blink of her eyelids, closed the door of my car as if it were the door of a vault, and made the closing sound of that great slab of Detroit steel no more than the faint snick that the lid of a fine watch makes coming home to rest. Then she went about the business of pulling down the hose, winding back the meter numbers, unscrewing the filler cap and pouring gas into my tank, as if no activity could be more pleasant or more completely ordinary. So common it might’ve been beneath my notice.
I found myself wandering across the apron, pausing to consider if I wanted to enter the low building, perhaps buy myself a cold drink, or not. I did not, though I do not recall deciding that, and went instead around the left side of the building and out beneath some of the trees, where that blossom scent grew faintly more compelling. It seemed to be coming from the trees themselves, though none of them were in flower. In fact, the maples among them had already begun to turn and the huckleberries were well into fruit, countless tiny green swellings at the ends of the stems on the low bushes scattered in openings amongst the trees. I stood there, hip deep in that sense of the familiar-but-unnameable. Willing something to emerge, to appear before me, something that would take me up bodily and, as compelling as the haunting and elusive fragrance, spin away the life I knew and cast me up gently on the banks of … what? Something new? Oh no. No more of that. I wanted to be consumed, sweetly and eternally.
* * *
When I got back to my car, the hose was hung at the side of its pump, and everything, chrome, windshield, even the paint, gleamed as if new. Better than new. My host, yes, my host was not in sight, and I became aware for the first time since I had stopped that I had not been hearing any sound of traffic on this highway. I was not bothered by the oddity, only a little surprised that I had not noticed earlier. I went to find her and offer my payment for the gas and her services.
As I opened the flimsy screen door and entered the low room, feeling a little like a giant, or maybe a troll stooping to enter human habitation, fearful for my head, even without any fear of the occupants. There was a counter immediately to my left with an old cash register, the kind with pop-up numbers on levers, but no one in attendance. There were racks of the usual notions on the counter across from the space occupied by the register and a small display of dusty maps. Chewing gum, LifeSavers, some jars of penny candy and a neat display of pocket combs. Ahead there were rows of merchandise, not at all unlike those in the ubiquitous roadside convenience stores across America, except maybe for an overall greater simplicity of presentation while offering a much greater choice and variety of goods. And to the right, a cooler. Not the kind with the sliding glass doors, but the one with the metal lid that you raise to look down inside at the serpentine rows of bottle caps in their gated metal dispensing grooves. My hand reached down and along the caps as if, by a kind of commercial Braille, I might read and select a dewy wet bottle of cold refreshment, put my dime in the slot and slide it through its gate, free it from its long hibernation, and carry it away with me to enjoy down the road, on my way to … what?
She was standing beside me, not even coming up to my waist. She would need a tall bench or a ladder to get up to the top of this cooler, to reach down and replace the bottles. I was distracted by unasked-for thoughts of the logistics of her operation here, the unending physical challenges. Until she turned away, an invitation unspoken in the lingering twist of her round face toward me as she walked. I followed her to the counter, where she waddled to one end and around it and then, as if climbing a staircase, stood with her waist to the counter top, her surprisingly agile but short fingers working the register levers with those flat, round buttons on their ends.
“Twenty-three dollars even,” she announced with just a touch of apparent pride, and that very small smile again.
Even in the voice I could not tell either age or gender with any certainty. I was not surprised at the cost of the fill, though of course I should have been. I took cash out of my pocket and paid her, returning, as best I knew how, the warmth and grace of her smile.
She started to speak. I heard “Be sure to stop -” and then I finished her pleasantry in my head before she could continue – ‘be sure to stop again.’ But that is not what she was saying, I realized only when she stopped. “Be sure to stop when you get to where you are going,” is what she said, and she said it brightly, without any portent or meaningful inflection.
Still, other than getting it wrong, I made nothing of it, nodded my thanks, and went outside. I was careful not to bang the screen door.
* * *
I walked across the pump island to my carriage, for that is what it now seemed to be, opened the door with my left hand, and as I slid into the seat, realized my right palm was wrapped tightly around the wet green ribs of a seven-ounce bottle of Coke. My left hand arrested on the inside door handle, my eyes watched a small rivulet of moisture running from the fingers of my right hand down between two ribs of the bottle of nearly black contents to drip two big drops onto my seat cover, the wet stain spreading darkly, if briefly, in the fabric.
I closed my door. I knew I’d have to set the bottle down somewhere to get out my keys and start my car, but I could not let go of the bottle. I had a thought then about whether the cap was a twist-off, but I could see it was not, and I had no bottle opener in the car. I would have to go back inside to get the cap off. And I did not want to. I did not want to drink the cold contents, feel the rush of burning bubbles down my throat, the heady lift of eye-widening stimulation reach between my ears and detonate. Not right now. I needed to be going. I put the wet bottle standing on the passenger seat, leaning against the seat back, and fumbled for my keys. Where had I put them? I raised myself up, reached with my right hand into my back pocket, then my front pocket, switched hands on the steering wheel and patted my left front pocket. Nothing. Cash in my right pocket, from which I had paid for my gas, coins in my left, from which I supposed I had paid for the Coke, but no keys. Had I left them inside, on the counter, at the cooler?
Now I really did not want to go back inside.
“Wow! Look at this car!” I heard a boy child pipe from my right side, and to the rear. I turned to see, and saw a small boy in bibbed blue overalls and no shirt or shoes, running just ahead of a girl with blond pigtails, her hand reaching forward to catch up with him.
She was larger than the boy but not by much, and she let out her own running exclamation. “Ohhh! It’s so shiny!”
They were all smiles, excitement, and caged energy as they both slid to a stop by the passenger door, my own smile helpless but to return theirs.
“Can we have a ride?!” the boy chirped.
“Yes,” confirmed the girl, “can we?!”
They both stood on tiptoe, not so much to see inside as to maintain the barest tether to a planet that could not hold them down flat. I was, in a tired old word, captivated! I looked quickly in the direction from which they had run, but I could not see another car or any older folks that might belong to these two pixies. I did not know what to say. I looked back at the store across from the pump island but there was no one at the door. Of course I could not just drive off with these kids, but I did not want to leave them either. And I really did want to go for a spin with them! I looked all around again, returning to their faces, still suspended weightlessly above their feet.
With a quick look at each other and back to my face, they spun and rushed to the back of the car, climbed the bumper, ran up the back deck and dropped into the space behind the seats, seizing my bag between them and swinging it back and forth between them as if they had stolen a great treasure on an unusual day for the Spanish Main. They shrieked together in their joy and triumph, flung the bag ahead into the passenger seat, and tumbled over after it. The precarious pile of boy, girl, bag and damp Coke bottle quickly resolving itself into both kids sitting on the seat, with the bag at their feet and the bottle in the hands of the boy, the shrieking undiminished.
“Oh, you can’t …” I started to say as they swarmed aboard, but my heart was not in it, and I let it get flattened by their onslaught. In seconds, I suppose really, though it seemed like the length of the afternoon, they settled down marginally, their bouncing subsiding into the steady thrum of an ocean liner’s engines, and turned their eyes expectantly to me.
“Let’s go,” the girl commanded but with no trace of disrespect, more the inexorable will of Royalty, not unkind, but impossible to ignore or disagree with. The boy produced a bottle opener, popped the cap on the bottle and took a long drink, handing it with a nudge to his sister (I was sure of it now) who did not take her eyes from mine but did also take a long drink. The pulse of their energy continued, the boy belched loudly, and the girl handed the bottle to me to finish. I drank it all down, feeling the bubbles rise back up, and I immediately belched myself, to the complete delight and renewed bouncing of both of them. The boy sprang up, tossed the bottle cap overboard, and replaced the opener in the front of his bib, as he began to experiment with climbing the rigging. The girl put both hands on my elbow, pulling so gently and so insistently, pleading without a trace of whine, “Please?”
* * *
It seems we spent the whole rest of the afternoon together, and in the time we played and jumped and laughed and hugged it seemed we had always known each other, and always would. We changed places many times in the seats, everyone had a chance at the ship’s wheel, everyone got to walk the plank and disappear overboard and astern, all victims of a Captain’s rough justice. And I am not sure that we did not, or I did not, fire up the engine and at least drive them around the apron more than a couple times. I could not swear we had not sailed with the tide and gone many leagues down the road and back home to port, Captain and crew, Jolly Rogers all of us. Though of course none of that would have been proper.
When my bag was stowed away behind the seat again, and the crew had taken leave and gone ashore and the sun was now visibly lower in the sky than when they had arrived, when we had each taken a silent measure of each other’s smiles and bright faces, I put the key in the ignition (yes, the lost key), started up and slowly drove out and off the apron, waved my arm back at them widely, received theirs in return, and sent my face down the road.
Born in Missouri, raised in the East, traveled a lot, became a West Coast guy, studied a lot, raised a family. After two decades of professional writing, turned (back) to fiction. I am fascinated with who people are. Really are, not just what they seem. So I write tales of adventure, whimsy, humor and grit. Looking for what I think we all have in common.