“Christmas I-55” by John Calvin Hughes
Maybe it was the curve of the windshield, but the snow fell straight at him as if down a long tunnel, through air already darkening with dusk. It was freezing, even in the Impala, since it wasn’t running, since it was outta’ freaking gas. The big old car sat beside the pumps at the Quik Spot Café Shoppe and Gas, but the pumps weren’t on. It was Christmas Day. Nobody would be working at the Quik Spot Café Shoppe and Gas on Christmas Day. Ford had been sitting in the car, listening to his flashers clicking, for the better part of an hour. He looked up through the windshield again at the tumbling snow flakes, and foresaw with fortune teller accuracy his sister’s complaints about him–being late, not showing up at all. Then a flash of red out of the corner of his eye, and he saw them. Two women inside the café were just sitting down at the table behind the huge café window with steaming cups of hot coffee. He hugged himself and shivered with a combination of relief and freezing to death. Then he threw open the door and sprinted toward the building.
The Impala had run out of gas half a mile up the road. He had gotten immediately out of the car and climbed up onto its roof, looking ahead for a service station or another car somewhere, but he could see nothing in the distance except the pencil straight line of pitted concrete between tall pines. He got down and paced around the car, and he cursed himself for pushing the limits of the gas gauge, for driving this particular highway, Highway 49, that runs parallel to Interstate 55 where, by now, he would have seen a hundred cars, had he driven on it like a normal person; then he cursed himself for brooding over these choices that were already history when he should be thinking about how to get out of this present situation, i.e being stuck in the middle of nowhere on Christmas Day. He was kicking the front left fender as hard as he could when heard the truck’s engine winding down through the gears.
It was a big, black, battered pickup truck, and it stopped and sat idling about six feet behind the Impala. Ford walked back to the driver’s window and stood stamping his feet while the man inside rolled down the glass.
The driver was about two hundred years old. His hands were like bones on the steering wheel, but blue
ined and liver spotted. “Hell of a note to get broke down on Christmas, fella. Where you going?”
“Memphis. Got presents for my sister’s kids and all.”
“Boy, you oughta’ be over on I-55.”
“Yeah. Well, I ran outta’ gas cause my gauge is broke. I never know how much I got in it.” Ford was huffing in the cold. Nothing was said for a minute. The old man just stared at him.
Ford said, “I gotta’ get some gas somewheres.”
The old man nodded his head as if this were the wisdom of the ages. Finally, he said, “I’ll just push you down to the café, and you’ll be on your way.”
Ford thanked him and headed back to his car. The old man called out something about Ford writing down his mileage to keep up with his gas. Ford waved, got into his car, and put it into neutral, then groaned when the truck banged into the Impala’s back bumper. He began wrestling the steering wheel which was stiff without the power steering.
Ford had pushed and towed and been pushed and towed many times during his broken-down car life, but this was something else. The old man was quickly picking up speed and now approaching sixty miles an hour with no sign of slowing down. Ford was worried that if they came to a curve he might not be able to turn the wheel enough to hold the road. It was an eerie sensation, at nearly seventy miles an hour, to feel as out of control of his car as he, in fact, was, strange to hear the wind whipping by with no sound of motor, only the grinding of the tires against the concrete and the clicking of the emergency flashers. The phrase “unsafe at any speed” crossed his mind, but he couldn’t think where he’d heard it. Suddenly Ford could see an intersection up ahead, one with a traffic light. On the far side of that traffic light, off on the left, sat an old café with rusty orange gas pumps out front. When the Impala and the truck were within a hundred feet of the intersection, the light, which had been green for them, turned yellow, and the old man sped up even more. They must have been doing ninety miles an hour as they passed under the light, now red, and the black truck veered off sharply to the right, heading up the crossing road, and leaving Ford to brake hard and coast alone onto the broad concrete apron, coming to rest finally next to the regular pump.
There were no other cars at the pumps. A brown Datsun pickup was parked beside the café, but there was no one in sight. He tried the double glass doors of the café, but they were locked, and except for a couple of lights left on over the counter, the place was dark. He couldn’t see anyone inside. He walked a few steps back toward his car, turned and took one step toward the restaurant, then ran back to his car and got in shivering.
He spent half an hour trying to decide whether or not to call his bastard of a brother-in-law and trying to turn off his emergency flashers. He couldn’t remember how he had gotten them on in the first place. Did he push or pull? Actually he had pushed and pulled, and twisted, and yanked, and jiggled, and finally they had come on. But now they wouldn’t go off. Now they just blinked and blinked and clicked and clicked, and he was worried if he couldn’t turn them off, they might run down the battery. Then, even if he did manage to get some gas, he wouldn’t be able to crank the freaking car. So now he pushed and pulled and jiggled and finally tried to tear the goddamn switch off, so desperate was he to stop the tick tick tick tick tick tick tick ticking of the flashers, like an atom bomb about to go off. It had started to snow just then, and he watched it fall for a while, trying to ignore the ticking, trying to be the snowflakes that should have fallen gently, but seemed instead to be flying straight at him like bullets. It was then that he looked over at the café and saw the women sitting down at the window with their coffee.
He climbed out of the car and walked over in front of the window where they could see him, then pointed toward the locked glass doors, and headed that way, expecting one of the women to get up and let him in. But neither moved. One was middle-aged with blue-black hair and a bright red blouse. The other was older, with gray hair and wearing some kind of waitress uniform. While the older woman stared indifferently at him, the other cut into a piece of pie with a fork.
He walked back to them. “I need to get some gas,” he said loudly at the window. He could read the woman’s lips saying Closed. She turned and said something to the other woman, and they both laughed.
“No, “ he yelled, “I’m completely out of gas. I can’t go anywhere else to get some. Please, help me out.” This time the women did not acknowledge him, but sipped their coffee and talked to each other.
“It’s Christmas, for God’s sake. I’m freezing. What else am I going to do?” It was very cold now, and he turned and sprinted back to his car. He sat there a moment shivering, and then dug into his ditty bag and got out all the money he had left for the trip, fifty-seven dollars. He ran back to the window where the women sat.
“Lady, hey, lady. Look. I’ll give you twenty dollars for ten dollars worth of gas. Hey, look.” Ford pressed the twenty flat against the window. They looked at him like he was crazy. He slid a ten up next to the twenty.
“Thirty dollars. Thirty dollars, for God’s sake, for ten dollars worth of gas, please.” They stared and said nothing. “Or just five dollars worth, thirty dollars for five dollars worth.”
The older woman made a beckoning motion with her hand. Ford took out all the money and held it up.
“Fifty-seven dollars. It’s all I got in the world.”
The woman got up and walked back through the cafe to the glass doors. She shook out some keys and unlocked one of the doors. Ford stepped out of the cold into the warm foyer. The woman was short and squat and held out her hand, palm up. He gave her the money, and she walked over to the console that controlled the gas pumps.
Ford smiled his best smile. “You’re not really just gonna give me five dollars worth of gas for fifty-seven, are you?”
“I don’t have to give you nothing, creep. You want the five dollar’s worth, go get it. You don’t, who cares. Now get the hell outta’ here.”
But Ford just stood there watching the woman count the money. She put five into the register and the rest in the big pocket of her blue apron. She looked up and saw he was still there. “I said get the hell outta’ –“
But she couldn’t say anything else once she saw the mean little .22 pistol he had taken out of his jacket and was pointing at her face. Her mouth stopped wide open mid-sentence, and she made some quiet gasping sounds. He put the barrel of the gun into her mouth and reached into the apron pocket, taking back the money. Then he fumbled with the cash register a moment until it opened, and he took back his five, and the rest of the money too. “Set the pump to thirty dollars.”
When she didn’t move, he slammed the butt of the gun against her cheek, then pulled the hammer back and pointed the barrel at her left eye. She set the pump, and he motioned her to sit down behind the counter.
“Call her over here.”
The woman was crying now, saying please don’t hurt me, please don’t. He drew his arm back to hit her again and told her again to call the woman over. She managed to call out to the other woman. Ford made them lie face down behind the counter. They were both crying and begging him. The younger one, with the pretty red blouse, asked him not to rape her.
“What’s the matter with you people, it’s Christmas, for God’s sake. Christmas, you hear?”
He leaned over and almost put the muzzle behind the older woman’s ear. His face felt like it was on fire, like a burning mask. He hurried outside and found snow falling harder than before. The cold felt good now, welcome. He got back into the Impala and sat watching his breath. The flashers were off. The battery was dead, of course. He couldn’t think what to do. It was very quiet. Nothing was coming to him. What to do? It was so quiet. He thought he could just hear the snowflakes tick against the windshield.
*MuleNote: There’s nothing like a Christmas story when it’s 100° in the shade!