Rebecca Andem earned an MFA from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. She has published short stories in magazines such as Upstreet, The Clapboard House Journal, The Meadow, Prick of the Spindle, and Relief Journal, as well as Alfie Dog, an online collection in the UK. She also has three novels: Water From the Heart, If the Ocean Were Empty, and Marathon. Currently, she lives in Chengdu, China, where she teaches writing to hard-working high school students, and in her spare time she’s training her taste buds not to retreat from that spicy Sichuan cuisine.
Eventually, I had to stop for gas. A red warning light on the Mercedes’s dashboard told me I had driven the distance of a tank, or whatever was left in the tank when I stole it. I didn’t want to know what that distance was; I didn’t want to be too close to where I had been. I wanted to be nowhere, so I glanced at the light but avoided the numbers, all of them, because I didn’t want to know the time either. Not until I learned how to measure it without dollars.
The sun was hanging low, waiting to sink between the crevices of broken and blistered red hills. But it was still hot, potent, and it turned the road into a mirror that distorted the landscape around it. In a shallow basin that fell away to the east, windows flashed the sun’s reflection like a code, and an arrow pointed toward a gas station. It was visible from the road, an easy exit. When I rolled down the ramp, nothing existed beyond the station.
Up close, the windows were dull and dusty. An attendant sat behind the glass, staring in my direction. With stubborn, stiff legs, I climbed out of the car and stretched.
I waited. I glanced at the car, the gas pumps, the building. The car hissed at me, the engine knocked. Hanging beside my hip, my hand throbbed—gravity pumping blood against fresh scabs. I had tripped running away from the architect who called at the last minute to demand my services for the weekend. I fell when my heel caught in the crushed shells imported to line the pathways around his desert sand castle. He was proud of the incongruity his money could buy. He bragged that his property had once been beachfront, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. But his money was limited, not enough for prime real estate, and we both knew I was a bargain. I wasn’t supposed to be terrified by the fetishes of strangers.
Again I studied the car, the nozzles in their holsters, the building crouching beside the pavement. After a moment, I lifted my hand and waved.
Behind the glass, the man stood and stepped beyond a counter, then disappeared into the interior shadows. A long time seemed to pass, and still he didn’t appear in the doorway. Considering the horn, I poked my head back in the car, but my hand hovered over the steering wheel longer than the impulse lasted. I studied the scabs on my palm to distract my mind from the disappointment sinking through me. When I stood up and turned around, the attendant was standing beside the pump. I slammed the door and caught my skirt. His gaze traveled down the length of my body and acknowledged my trap with a subtle flicker. I opened the door and pulled myself free, but when I looked back to his face it showed no sign of amusement. His eyes watched and waited, steady. Their blue was faded, bleached clear by the sun, but his gaze was sharp.
“Can I help you?” he asked. His mouth barely moved.
“I need gas.”
He studied me a moment, and one corner of his mouth twisted, not up or down but deeper into the lines gathered there. With his etched face and lean body, I had no idea how old or young he might be. When he turned to lift the nozzle from the pump, the sleeve of his t-shirt shifted, revealing a band of birds inked into his arm. The tattoo was deep black and fresh, startling against the muted landscape, and I knew he was younger than his face.
“Does that hurt?” I asked.
He looked to where I pointed and shrugged, held the nozzle upright and used it to direct me out of his way. Once the gas was flowing, he leaned his hip against the car and crossed his arms. The band bulged, the birds flexing their strength. A passing breeze tumbled across the pavement, and he lifted his cap to catch it. His hair underneath was thick and curled with sweat. I touched my own hair and remembered the dirt on my face.
“Is there somewhere I can freshen up?” I was supposed to look like a lady—a high-class lady—but my tight linen skirt was creased, my hose torn at the knee, my silk blouse limp and clinging. Sweat pooled between my breasts and my legs, in the small of my back. With both hands, I pushed the dampness that had gathered beneath my jaw toward the nape of my neck. The man smiled at me with his pinpointed gaze, and the sweat turned cold on my skin.
“I wouldn’t send a lady into that bathroom.” He stepped over the hose and stood in front of me, over me. Up close, his face still had a softness between the lines, and the teeth behind his cracked lips were white. He pulled a bandanna out of his back pocket and shook it free of its tidy folds. I followed the blue cotton as it rose toward my face. “Here,” he said. “Use this.”
I shook my head and stepped back.
“It’s clean,” he said.
His mouth twisted again, both corners, and I shuffled my feet backward over the pebbled tar. Shaking his head, he stuffed the bandanna into his pocket and returned to the nozzle. Gas vapors blurred the air between his body and the car.
“Where’re you headed?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
He smiled at me and squeezed the nozzle another second or two, squinting at the pump. “Looks like you’ve arrived.”
“Vegas,” I said, and wondered if I would know how to wash up on that shore by the time I got there. “How much farther?”
“Never been there.” He replaced the nozzle in its holster and refitted the gas cap. “You eat supper already?”
I sidled up to the car. “How much?”
“Thirty-four dollars.” He pointed to the numbers on the pump. “I like rounding it up for people.”
I reached for the door handle. “My purse is in the car.”
With a low rumbling laugh that shook his chest, he stepped back and raised his hands as if I were pointing a gun at him. His mouth broke open into a wide smile around those white teeth. It was a smile he carried as charming, maybe even innocent.
“I didn’t expect a lady like you to pump and run.”
“I’m not a lady.” The resistance in my voice surprised me, but I didn’t want a stranger to believe the facade I had been hired to perform. I didn’t want him to assume he could see me. But as soon as the words slipped out, I knew they carried a different meaning, a hidden force I didn’t intend. The cold sweat on my neck turned hot again. My skull began to hum.
“Good to know.” His voice whispered past me, too close, and he sauntered back to his office.
With my purse secure on my shoulder, I followed him. Bare fluorescent tubes hung from the low ceiling above a counter stocked with oil and maps and flashlights. Two refrigerators with glass doors droned against the wall. A small, muted television flickered in the corner where the counter stopped short. Cool, damp air crawled over me as I hesitated in the doorway, shivering when it sank into my skin.
“You’re letting the air out,” he said. He was sitting low behind the counter, his eyes level with the edge, but he stood up and leaned toward me, his hip cocked out behind him, weight resting on one elbow. Lifting his cap, he wiped his wrist across his hairline, and the inked birds flexed their wings again. His t-shirt was dark and damp in the armpits. “It’s hot enough.”
I stepped inside and let the door suck shut behind me. Above my head, a laboring motor blasted the damp air into my hair and over my shoulders. I ducked and pitched forward, arriving at the counter too quickly, too eagerly. He hadn’t replaced his hat, and his sweaty hair curled beneath my nose, the odor hot and pungent, but strangely clean and young. The humming in my skull grew to a buzz, and a sound squeezed off my throat. He stood up straight.
“You okay?” His gaze pierced my face again. “You been drinking water today?” Hurrying around the counter, he reached toward me, touched me, his hand landing on my elbow, sliding to my back. He propelled me around the counter. “Here. Sit down.”
And then his hands were on my shoulders, pushing me down. Instructing me. The plastic chair still held his warmth, and it permeated my skirt, my skin. The heat rose to my face. He was gone, and then there again, his hand wrapping my fingers around a plastic bottle already dripping with condensation. He continued to hold my fingers while he twisted off the cap with his other hand.
“You can’t get dehydrated out here.”
“I’m not.” I heard my voice echo both inside and outside my mind, bouncing in the space between us. He was bent over me, his face close, its lines shallow, softly textured. With his hand still wrapped around mine, he pushed the bottle toward my mouth, but I shook my head. The bottle knocked against my chin, and water splashed onto my skin.
“Sorry. Here. You do it.” Backing off, he crouched and balanced on his toes. His boots were cracked and faded. He stared up at me.
My skin twitched. The water beaded on my cheek. I wiped at it, my knuckles brushing over my face and across my lips. He was watching me, following the motion of my hand, which took on its own momentum. It rocked me back and forth, blurring the edges until all I saw were those desert blue eyes. My lips pulsed, and my mouth dropped open. My knuckle bumped against my teeth, but I left it there. I closed my lips around my hand, and began to suck, greedy like an infant, an animal, a woman—something real. The next sound that squeezed my throat came from a deeper place, and the eyes below me widened. My blood thrummed.
The young man rocked forward onto his knees, and his hands landed on my legs. He had freckles on his knuckles.
“Lady,” he said.
The bottle dropped between us, ricocheting off my leg, splashing my skirt. I bit my knuckle, and he pulled my hands to my lap.
“Lady.” His eyes were too close, the pupils big and black, unfocused. “I think you’re having a bad day.” His hands tightened on mine. “You don’t want anyone to take advantage of that. Do you?” With a jittery gaze, he shook his head back and forth. “Do you?”
Gradually, he released my hands and stood up, stepped back. After a moment, I leaned over and picked up the emptying bottle. Water pooled around my feet.
“You okay now?” he asked.
“I had a bad day,” I said, staring at the puddle.
The puddle was so shallow, so sparse. With my toe, I dragged the water across the cement.
“I’ll get that,” he said, but I shook my head.
“It won’t last.”
“Not around here.”
Standing, I stepped carefully over the water and past the attendant. On the other side of the counter, I laid my credit card on the scratched glass. My blood had settled, coursing now with the slow burn of shame.
“I’ll pay for the water,” I said.
“It’s on the house.”
He ran my credit card and handed it back to me. I signed the slip, avoiding his eyes and his hands on the counter, the freckles that led to more on his wrists, his arms. When I turned to leave, his voice stopped me.
I paused under the mechanized gust of cold air, but I didn’t turn around. Lifting my face to the blast, I let it force my words back at me.
“I’m not a lady,” I said.
His voice pushed me out the door. “Have a good day.”