Eighteen Gallons to Freedom

  • Reading time: fifteen minutes
  • Word count: 2600
  • Published: 8 may 2013
  • Author: Matador the First
  • Copyright: Matador the First, 2013


Daniels had hoped he would make it to the gas station before he ran out of fuel. Only two miles separated his apartment and the Chevron with the slow pumps, but he hadn’t been able to coax his car to go more than halfway before its engine shut off. He had to coast across two lanes of traffic into a Wal-mart parking lot. When the car stopped rolling just inside the entrance, he got out to push. No one offered help. The person in the car behind him honked and went around him and nearly crashed into another car leaving the lot.

♣ ♦ ♥ ♠

At the pump closest to Daniels there stood a man, maybe fresh out of college, next to a car the same color and generation as his own Camry. This wasn’t why Daniels walked over. What called to Daniels was the man’s neat-trimmed beard, which made him look friendly—and also wiser than he should be, or maybe actually was.

The bearded man looked left, saw Daniels, and snapped his head back toward the pump. Daniels approached anyway. When he got to the bearded man the bearded man sighed.

“You be willing to do me a solid?”

The bearded man said nothing.

“Be your good deed for the day.”

The bearded man stared at the pump as it counted. “What you need.”

“My car’s out of gas and I need to get to work.”

“How much gas does it hold?”

“The car? Eighteen—”

“The gas can.”

“Five gallons.”

“…”

“That’s, what, seventeen bucks?”

“…”

“Can’t you afford seventeen dollars?”

The bearded man glanced at Daniels. “Yeah. Sure.”

“Thank you very much, you have no—”

“Just—please. Don’t want to talk.”

“Ok.”

“I’ll get you your gas.”

“Ok.”

The pump stopped. The bearded man hung the nozzle and got his receipt. “Give me the container.” He took the gas can and unscrewed its cap. “Where’s your car at? Is eighty-seven all right?”

“Eighty-seven’s fine.”

“All right.” He held back the nozzle’s protective flap as it pissed out fuel.

“I came from the Wal-mart down the road.”

“That’s where your car is?”

“Yeah.”

“You walked?”

“What else I’m gonna do.”

“Mile off.”

“Not such a bad walk.”

“No. But it’s hot out. You’re dressed in black.”

“…”

“Turkey Lake’s no fun either.”

“Wasn’t so bad.”

The bearded man stopped pumping. “Looks full to me. Pump says just over five gallons.”

“Thank you so much.”

The bearded man hung the nozzle and took his receipt. “Take care.” He got into his car and drove off.

“Take care. What else I’m gonna do. Dump it out?” He picked up the gas can. “God. That’s heavy.”

♣ ♦ ♥ ♠

When Daniels got his car to a safe spot—which hugged the bushes along the far edge of the Wal-mart parking lot and faced a protected area whose plants looked like raggy knotted hair—he found his one break that morning: a gas can in the trunk. He thought maybe his old roommate had let him borrow it once. Its long narrow yellow spout, sealed off with a thin plastic cap, was still bright despite how much dirt clung to it. So much grit and debris covered the spout’s base he shook some off and coughed.

♣ ♦ ♥ ♠

Daniels’s mouth stuck and stank from the walk, but he wouldn’t ask anyone for a drink. “Keep it to what you need,” he muttered. “Air’s got water enough.” He crossed the parking lot’s edge and stopped.

Elephants at the watering hole: four cars at four pumps. The cars shut off and waiting, their people tending to them, sloshing black water over their grimy windshields before wiping them down. Daniels couldn’t tell if what stewed in his nose was his own musk from the walk or the gas and water and rubber all mixing together.

Daniels tapped the gas can against his leg. He wouldn’t ask any families today. He’d asked a family for directions once and almost wound up in jail. His ex was even with him that day.

Daniels walked inside the convenience store. After his first return to his car he’d found a few dollars in his glove box. He decided to buy a peanut bar and a bottle of water.

The cashier eyed Daniels’s gas can.

“For gas.”

“I know.”

Daniels placed the bar and the water on the counter.

“What you brought it in for? Why’n’t you leave it in your car?”

“Last time I did that someone stole it. The gas can.”

“Three twenty-one.”

Outside, the lot was now empty. Daniels wondered if he’d enjoyed the A/C too long. He sat down on the curb where the cashier couldn’t see him and wolfed the peanut bar. In the middle of a sip of water two kids drove in in an older convertible. When the driver got out Daniels got up and walked over. He didn’t know how long he’d have to wait otherwise.

“Scuse me.”

The kid had just pulled the nozzle off the pump. “Yeah?” He stank of cigarette smoke.

“My car’s just down the road at the Wal-mart on Turkey Lake.”

“There’s a Wal-mart down the road?”

“Been there a couple years.”

“I never go down that way.”

“He never goes to Wal-mart.” It wasn’t the boy who stank of cigarettes, it was the girl in the passenger seat. She was smoking.

“This’s a gas station, yeah? Ma’am?”

She glanced at him.

“I tell her that all the time. She never listens to me. She’s not pumping the gas, she says.”

“Please put it out, it’s making me nervous.”

She snorted and tamped the cigarette in an ashtray.

“Thank you.”

“You need something, man?”

“My car’s a mile down the road.”

“Right. At Wal-mart.”

“At Wal-mart. Ran out of gas this morning. I was on my way over to fill up but it dried up.”

“So you need gas.”

“…”

“You got a card? Cash?”

“Why’d I ask if you I had money.”

“…”

“I just need five gallons.”

“Five gallons?”

“Eighty-seven grade. That’s seventeen dollars.”

“Exact?”

“No, exact is sixteen ninety-five.”

“How you know that?”

“That’s how much it cost the guy I asked earlier.”

“Your car’s got gas in it already.”

“Yeah.”

“You walked back after you put some gas in it.”

“Yeah.”

“Just drive it here.”

“Hadn’t thought of that.” He had. But Daniels liked disappearing. No one person the same on one visit as on another—he hoped—and it was easier asking for five gallons than asking for eighteen. “I’ll do that next time.” He wouldn’t.

The nozzle pissed away. Drunk man at the grandfather clock. The fumes bent the car’s edges.

“You gonna be able to spare me five gallons?”

“What?”

“He asked you if you’d fill up that gas can for him,” the girl said.

The boy looked from the girl to the man. “Oh.” Girl, then the man. “Sure. Why not? It’s my parents’ card anyway.”

“I ’preciate y’all. Lost my bank card last night and all I had in cash was maybe four dollars in my glove box.”

“That sucks.”

“Heading out of town today, too.”

“Yeah?”

“Panama City.”

“Beach?”

“No. Moving. My friend’s got a job for me there.”

“Right on.”

“Sure. It’s hotel work. Right on. I can’t stand this area and I’m going up there to do what I done here the last twelve years.” He unscrewed the gas cap. “Does that make me an idiot?”

The pump clicked off. “You said eighty-seven?” The boy replaced the nozzle. “Why are you telling me this?”

“So maybe you might learn there’s honest people. Trust them sometimes.”

♣ ♦ ♥ ♠

Most of the pumps were in use when Daniels got to the corner the third time. The only person not there with family and not in a business suit stood in the very back corner next to an older sedan, the same inoffensive faded brown-gold as every other Saturn people had been driving here the last fifteen years.

Daniels crossed the dead space between the edge and the pumps, careful not to catch his gas can on anything. The woman next to the Saturn was putting the cap back on her tank when he reached her.

“Afternoon.”

She jumped. “The hell?”

“Sorry.”

“What’re you gonna do?”

“What? Nothing.”

“…”

“Look at me. I’m dressed the same as you.” His black polo, which was faded and lined with white sweat stains, hung down to just below the top of his black jeans. It wasn’t an exact match for her clean maroon polo tucked into neat black slacks, but he figured it was close enough.

“Not exactly.”

“Close enough?”

“Maybe.”

He smiled.

“Ok, where’s this going.”

Why the smile why, he thought as he reached his hand—the one holding the gas can—to his head to scratch it. It hit him in the mouth.

“Gas?”

“Yes.” He paused. “I’m about to get started cutting grass for McDonald’s across the street there but there’s no fuel in the mower and the guys sent me over by myself to get some.”

She looked behind him. “And you don’t have money on you.”

“No. I told them I didn’t. I said give me some cash when they insisted. They didn’t listen to me.” Daniels put the container down. “I’m the new guy.”

“Why you have to ask me, though? There’s someone at almost every other pump here.”

“Most them are wearing suits. Suits get angry. They call the cops.”

“Mm.”

“The rest, they’re families. Go into alpha mode when I walk up. Protect the kids, I guess.”

Finally she took her receipt from the pump.

“You drive a car maybe old as mine, you dress similar—where you work?”

“Chick-fil-A.”

“The one right here?” He pointed his head left.

“No. The one near Downtown Disney.”

“Yeah?”

“I did just come out of this one. We need cups and our truck doesn’t come in for two days.”

“Two days?”

“Delivery fees. Owner doesn’t want to pay to receive product every day. Same for garbage pickup.”

“You like the job?”

She laughed. “It’s fast food. What’s there to like?”

“You hate it?”

“Do you actually need gas?”

“Yes.”

“I thought maybe you were just here to talk to me. Or whoever you came across.”

“No ma’am.” He unscrewed the cap.

“How much you need?”

“The whole can. Five gallons.”

“I’m not giving you ninety-one or nothing.”

“Please, no. Lowest grade’s what I need.”

“…”

“Thank you so much. Really ’preciate it.”

“Tell your boys lighten up, all right?”

“My boys?”

“The lawn guys.”

“Oh, them. They won’t listen. They don’t care. I’m not even supposed to be running the mower today. But the guy who is didn’t want to do it. So I am.”

“Like the kids on register at work. Tell them they got to check ice every fifteen minutes, right? They might, they might not. Got to keep on top of them, even if they’ve been there two years.”

“You a manager?”

“Mmhmm.”

“They should listen to you.”

“They should. Some do. But then some know the owner—not how to do or learn the job. So they complain to him.”

“Fire them.”

She laughed. “Sometimes,” she stopped and checked the gas, “I wish I could.”

♣ ♦ ♥ ♠

Daniels walked along Turkey Lake. The high and hollow sound of tires rolling past. Some engines growled and others whined, but most of them bore their one-point-five-ton burdens without complaint. He walked against traffic. He’d always walked and biked against traffic. “I’d at least like to see who’s running me over,” he would tell his ex. He walked slow, as if trying to up his chances of getting run over.

The gas can knocked against his right leg every few steps. He wanted to throw it into the street, right into someone’s windshield. When the gas can was full, he walked with traffic. Thirty pounds of liquid would’ve been too heavy to carry when it came time to sprint across four lanes.

♣ ♦ ♥ ♠

“What do you mean you won’t give me gas?”

“Just that. I’m not giving you any.”

“Why not?”

“Where’s your car?”

“I told you. Just down the road in the Wal-mart parking lot.”

“Why isn’t it here?”

“It ran out of gas.”

“Sure.”

“Not like I’m going to turn around and sell it.”

“…”

“Seriously?”

“…”

“Not like people buy gas from strangers out of dumpy old gas cans. Specially people in faded sweat-stained shirts.”

“I don’t have to buy you gasoline, man.”

“No. You don’t.”

“And I’m not. So ask someone else.”

Daniels’s mouth was dry. His joints were paper-light. His forearms were heavy. His feet ached and throbbed. The heat rising from the tar and concrete had been baking and the sun and wet air had been broiling him all day. The hot red gas can now stuck to his leg. His leg was scratched and tender from all the lugging today.

“We barely have enough to pay for our own gas. We’re a small local band. We just got the van a few weeks ago.”

“Cost you seventeen bucks. Come on.”

“What?”

“To fill up the can. Seventeen dollars.”

“We still got to go to the store and get oil. This thing burns through it quick.”

Daniels shut his eyes. A waking sleep.

“We can bring you back to Wal-mart if you’d like.”

“What good’s that gonna do! I still need gas.”

“…”

“You know what? God bless.”

As the drummer turned around to get in the van, someone stepped out the opposite side and walked around.

“We ready to leave, Colin?”

“Yeah. Just need oil.”

“What’s this guy doing here?”

“You could just ask me.”

“Ask him.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Asking for gasoline.”

Colin got in the van.

“Where’s your car?”

“Mile down the road.”

“Did he give you any?”

“Gas?”

“Yeah.”

“No.”

“He didn’t?”

“Nope. Gave me nothing. Said y’all’s money was tight.”

“Sure.”

“…”

“How much you need?”

“Five gallons. Seventeen bucks or so.”

“Hang on.” He walked to the driver’s door and asked Colin how much money they had. He walked back. “I can give you ten bucks’ worth. That’s, what, three gallons? Almost? We’ve got to buy some oil. This engine burns through it like crazy.”

“I need five. I’ll take three. Haven’t complained once, and I been doing this all day.”

The new man took Daniels’s gas can and unscrewed the cap. “All day?”

“What you do in the band?”

“Bass. I sing some. I only tour.”

“Yeah?”

“They got a bassist doesn’t want to play their few shows for some reason.”

“Huh.”

“He played on their demo and that’s it till their next batch of songs.”

“I need a full tank. That’s what I meant by all day. I’m so close. I didn’t want to wait even longer.”

The bassist stopped pumping. “You have money?”

“Can’t get to it. Lost my debit card last night and I had four dollars cash in the car.”

“…”

“I’m moving. Just got some clothes in the car. No furniture.”

“Where to?”

“Panama City. Got to get there in one run.”

“That’s ten bucks.”

“So close to a full tank I’ve got one.”

“You want a ride to your car?”

“No.”

“…”

“I like disappearing. My own little bit of independence. I been asking for fuel all day. Hot as balls and just one bottle of water. Whatever gas anyone gave me, I earned it.”

“Good luck.”

“Yeah.”

“If you need it.”

“You have no idea.”

Daniels didn’t wait for the van to drive off, or for the bassist to get in, or even for the bassist to turn around.

Daniels walked off first.