Fuck. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck fuck fuck fuck fuck FUCK.
The cruise control clicks off, and the car slows from 70 to 0 mph in thirty seconds. I am literally eight miles away from the Shell outside of Palestine. I swear I was going to fill up.
I should’ve known better. I should’ve stopped at the sketchy pumps thirty miles back in Cayuga or Mildred. As soon as I saw that “unleaded fuel only” red light blink on, I knew I was pushing it.
Evidently I pushed it too hard.
The steering wheel does not lock, so I’m able to drift to the edge of the road, crushing blooming Indian paintbrushes and brown-eyed Susans. There are two houses on either side of HWY 287. One has a car in the driveway. I consider knocking on their door. No, what if the owner has a shotgun tucked away in the living room and, upon my knock, snatches it for their safety and swings their door open with the gun in my face, screaming, “What the hell do you want?” I can’t trust this nearly uncivilized stretch between Tennessee Colony and Palestine. TC has three correctional facilities—what if a former convict lives in this place? The porch holds two rocking chairs. Perfect spot for a former convict to sit with his illegal gun on his lap, bullets inserted in the hatch, watching for young women to run out of gas and pull over by his house. The other house looks domestic and nurturing, but just as rundown as this supposed former convict’s place. I think there’s a Dodge peeking out around the corner, but I can’t tell, and I’m not going to approach it. Stranger danger!
I get out of my 1998 Grand Am Pontiac, already faulty as hell, what with the right headlight springing out of the screw, the engine rumbling louder than an orca breaching the Pacific Ocean, the dashboard almost detached from the interior. It’s 82 degrees, yet the hot afternoon sun feels like it’s 103. A light breeze hits in a contraction of eleven minutes or so. I’m melting. My heather gray shirt drenches into a darker gray. Why am I wearing full-length leggings? I want to peel my skin off. I fucking hate Texas. I hate this fucking place.
My phone is fully charged from being plugged in to play music, but there’s no service. How in the world does an iPhone not have service where there are telephone poles streaming along the streets? I call my mother eight times in the hopes that somewhere along the ringing the wires will magically pick up my desperate plea. I feel like I am calling a lifeline on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. I am twenty-one, and I have never been in a situation like this, at least, not alone. When I was eight, on a road trip with my father and brothers, we ran out of gas in the middle of Utah. I try calling AAA. No signal. Okay. Think about the movies where the main character runs out of gas. None come to mind. Damn it. I’m gonna die out here. Bury me in the backyard of the supposed ex-convict’s place.
I stand by my car, dialing numbers, hoping someone would pull over and offer to help. The good citizens of East Texas will surely help. Texas is known for their three-gallons-of-sugar-sweet-tea-hospitality. I mean, that’s what everyone says. “Everything is bigger in Texas!” So somebody’s gotta have a big heart and a spare tank of gas in their trunk. Somebody. Gotta have it.
My hazard lights faintly flash against the stupidly bright sun approximating the vernal equinox. I don’t exactly plead for attention. My thumb isn’t sticking out—I don’t need to hitchhike. I just need gas. Even an eighth of a tank will do. I’ve got a gift card to Kroger, and that’s where I was gonna get fuel if I had made it past the Shell. Twenty cents off needs to be used by March 31. Even though it may look like help is on the way because I’m on my phone, I want to scream that I am a false statement, I’m not just standing here fiddling around, please save me. I am the stereotypical damsel in distress, and I deserve to be rescued.
Am I not an innocent, non-threatening, white young woman? Why is no one pulling over? Why do they deliberately speed up and glide in the middle of the yellow stripes when they pass me? Is it because my car is silver with a green hood? I presume that because I am an innocent, non-threatening, white young woman, I would immediately get help from, preferably, a nice person whose motives are not to kidnap me and take advantage of a body that can’t run anywhere and then dump me off in a ranch’s little lake. This is why I hold off on calling for help. I make eye contact with a few drivers rushing by, but none slow down, none have made their way up the hill and swerved around back to me. I’m sure a passerby might think, I won’t help, but I’ll bet you someone behind me will help, and I secure all hope into that supposedly serendipitous stranger that will save me. It’s a chain of karma, a reverse sequence, in that the passerby is passing on their karma to someone else, but perhaps they are entitling themselves to their own dose of karma—if they were to break down miles later, would they be in the same situation as me? Would they assume that someone would stop and ask if they need help?
Motorcyclists zoom by. I rest more hope in them than anyone else. All they have to do is pull over, take their helmet off, and ask, “What’s wrong?” It’s easier than pouring an Arnold Palmer. Just ask two words. I know I don’t look like I obviously need help, i.e., a flat tire or smoke coming out the hood, but I would never, in my free time, pull over in the middle of nowhere with no phone service in the fucking heat and just stand outside to soak in the sun. I mean, why would I spend my last day of spring break stuck on the side of a barren highway? I have better places to be.
The sun hurts my eyes. I’m sick of this. I get in my car, thinking it recharged or some shit, and to my surprise I make it up the hill, and then it fucking does it again. The acceleration dwindles down and I barely manage to park on the side, dangerously closer to the road to avoid falling into a slight ditch. The telephone poles have extended up here. I try calling AAA for the fifth time. Nothing. Whoever installed these telephone wires did a shit job.
12:45. I’ve gotten desperate.
I remember my school journal is in the backseat. Trying to make my tiny handwriting big enough for the near-blind to see, I scribble out “Need gas!!” and leave it upright by my back window. I stand around outside a bit more. Someone’s gotta stop. They have to. It’s polite. Southern hospitality. It won’t take too long. I am harmless.
The cars that have crosses hanging from their rearview mirror do not stop. They’re possibly ignoring me because I’m an atheist. But how do they know? Do I have a broken halo above my head? Where the heck are the good people? Is everyone on this highway a bad seed?
I tinker with five different scenarios because I have a foolishly wild imagination, and I know better. I know better about everything, but I did not know better this time.
Scenario one: A complete stranger pulls up. We do not question each other’s murderous/advantageous/innocuous motives. There is full trust. There’s a glowing haze as the stranger gets out of their car. We are two people colliding on one highway out of a four million mile public road network in the United States. The stranger genuinely wants to help. They either have a spare gallon in their trunk or a cell phone that actually reaches a signal. Water in the cupholder. Maybe a dog to pet because stroking an animal lowers your blood pressure, and I’m pretty sure I’ve inherited my mother’s crazy high BP. If they don’t have extra fuel, if they can’t contact AAA or anyone, they would stay with me until I am taken care of, until maybe another person stops by to help, and we would chat until someone competent arrives, and through the conversation, perhaps we will fall in love, if the stranger is a young adult man. This is the story of how we met, we’ll tell our kids twenty years later. We met when your mom stupidly ran out of gas on her way back to school. I’d playfully nudge him and look at him with a lot of love. The stupid rom-com trope of the man saving the woman from despair will be real. We will be living proof of sappy dramas. James Cameron will adapt a film based on us, and we will appear as the old version like Jack and Rose and have much more attractive younger actors play out this awful day in a three-hour motion picture. I would pay good money to see that. What a grand love story.
Scenario two: A complete stranger pulls up. Because I am hesitant to get into someone’s car without a full criminal inspection and cannot accurately judge their character based on appearance—because I know better—I offer them cash to bring back a tank of gas while I stay with my car. A sound compromise—they can buy snacks with whatever’s left over. But then they could take my twenty bucks and never see me again. Free money. Bad karma. I hope they lose my cash somewhere. Or they could forget where I was stranded. They could take HWY 19 instead of back to 287 if they were to get gas at the Shell that’s on the intersection between the two routes. It can be confusing. I wouldn’t feel bad if that was the case.
Scenario three: A van of complete strangers pull up. It is the kind of van soccer moms lease for five years until the kids outgrow their sport. Sliding doors. Rotten orange peels in the trunk. DVD player overhead; headphones latched onto the handles above windows. I look like I’m sixteen. I look like I could be the daughter of a middle-aged couple. The southern mama in the van acts as though she is looking out for another mama’s cub. “Oh darlin’, what happened? Do you need help?” the southern mama says. The kids in the backseat offer me fruit gushers from their tournament. The southern daddy uses my situation as a lesson to their kids: “Don’t be stupid like her and run out of gas.” I trust them enough to take me to a gas station and back all in one piece, not spliced like an orange.
Scenario four: No complete strangers pull up. No one is good. Good Samaritans don’t exist. There is no good in this world. I am the center of the universe; my problem is far too difficult to solve. I need every single scientist to help me out. I need someone to lift and sliiiiide my car to a gas station. I’m not being overconfident here. I mean, I assume I will get out of this situation somehow. Maybe I’ll call 911. They will always answer when a signal does not exist.
Scenario five: No complete strangers pull up. I decide to walk eight miles to the station. I tie my hair up, place my Chapstick in my pocket, move my valuables to the trunk, groan that my Thin Mints are melting in the backseat. I abandon my shitty car, leave behind a Nikon D750, a new Free People dress for graduation, schoolwork that I didn’t touch over the past week, spilled Epsom salt behind the passenger seat. I take my tripod as both a walking stick and as a shield. I can’t be too far from the nearest gas station. If there are bears out here, I will win the fight. I will not die out here, no. “An Innocent Non-Threatening White Young Woman Dies While Stranded on 287” will not be my headline in the Tennessee Colony/Palestine papers.
Three days ago, I took an Amtrak train from Austin to Fort Worth and sat in the observation car for six hours, editing essays and feeling miserable about some bad news. I had drunk a venti iced cinnamon coconut milk macchiato right before boarding, and, as you can imagine, my bladder was pulsing by the second hour.
“Can you watch my stuff?” I asked the forty-ish-year-old man at the table behind me, who had his laptop and some papers out. I put my complete trust in him to keep an eye on my table, which had a brown purse and a red backpack with my camera gear and a suitcase zealously over-packed laying out. He nodded. I hurried to the tiniest bathroom downstairs, not even thinking about the possibilities of this stranger taking my stuff. I hadn’t memorized his face in case he did take it and went hiding in one of the nine cars with my awkwardly girly luggage. People could pass him off as carrying his wife’s things. It would be so easy to steal thousands of dollars’ worth of items in one clean swoop. At the next stop he could just get off, and I’d have no verification of the thief. But I didn’t think about this too hard because I’ve left my stuff unattended in cafes and libraries without alerting someone to watch it, and nothing happened. It’s a universal thing to trust strangers in a small space with your belongings.
I returned and my stuff was positioned exactly as I had left it. I tapped his table and said thanks. An hour later, he asked me to reciprocate this action, and I, of course, had to say yes. What I found odd was that he moved his stuff to my table, when I abandoned mine for the course of six minutes. He was gone for the fifteen minute stop in Temple and returned smelling like smoke. He grabbed his laptop, mumbled thanks, and headed toward the end of the train, presumably back to his actual seat.
How is there a clear, wholesome trust put into strangers mindlessly watching someone else’s stuff as they take a bathroom break for five-ish minutes, but there is absolutely no trust in helping out a girl on the side of the road?
Best case scenario was scenario three, where the risk of something going awfully wrong is incredibly low. There are very few American folktales of girls being marooned on the road as a lure to kill people. In what I can recall from my plethora of western America horror documentaries from my childhood, the appearance of innocent-turned-murderous applied to solo sketchy-looking men, not women.
I’m different. I’m not a violent person at all. I would never hurt someone. Please just pull over and help me out for twenty minutes, and then you’ll be on your way, I’ll be on mine, stubbornly yelling at myself for being so stupid.
12:57. It is time to call the Big People. Commit to Scenario Four.
I forgot to ask who I should be looking for. I guess it’s a cop car. I did call the police, after all. But I don’t know which direction it’ll come. I should’ve told her I have a green Washington sticker on the right side of my back window. Not that there are like eleven other 1998 Grand Am Pontiacs named Doris just lounging gasless on the side of 287 with a girl dehydrating in the heat, but still. Just in case.
Then I think about what I would do if someone did finally pull over and offered to do something. “Oh, someone’s coming. Thanks, though! Ya, should’ve showed up ten minutes ago!” I shouldn’t get mad if someone did finally assist me. It’s not their fault that they arrive ten minutes after my phone call. Their path is not the same as mine.
It’s terribly boring waiting for help.
I alternate entertaining myself by opening my door to let a breeze in and actually getting out of the car, walking around it, staring at the useless fuel receptacle, cursing at its emptiness even though it is my fault I ran out of gas, and then getting back in the car. My left arm sticks to the door, and I glare at myself in the mirror. I take a selfie so I can remember how stupid I am. This will go on Facebook later, I think, so I can share my survival story. Imagine me on an MTV show alongside a cast of other strong survivors who have gotten through an extraordinarily long amount of time waiting for their Starbucks order or fought over the last medium-sized couture dress at Burberry on Rodeo Drive. Imagine me on the cover of TIME as 2017 Person of the Year, arms crossed with fake oil smudges to relate to this story, and as the audience reads, they will gasp and pity a standard non-threatening white young woman who got stranded for an hour in the desiccating spring sun but still relate to the situation, just a little bit, not completely, because it is my situation; you can’t take my story away from me. I am the strongest woman alive for sticking it out for an hour. This is a fucking intense hour. I mean, of course, I assume I will make it out of here. That’s how headlines are made. “Strong Woman Survives Hour-Long Abandonment on Highway 287 Without Help.”
Big Mike’s Wrecker Services is this red truck with the logo scrawled in neon green like a Monster energy drink. The tow dolly is also a disgusting shade of green, the kind of green found on the walls in early 2000s skating rinks and in Limited Too spring catalogues. Seems legit.
Out comes this white guy a few years older than me, who is presumably not Big Mike, because I figure the owner of any type of services would have been dressed a lot nicer and not in Bud Light pajama pants and a Cowboys shirt with a torn left sleeve. He introduces himself as Jeff. This guy’s got a real southern accent, and I cringe internally. I know I’m supposed to be grateful for the help, which came speedily yet slowly after twenty minutes of my 911 call, but that accent rips my muscles into shreds. It’s not an aesthetically pleasing sound for me, being from up north.
And even though I’ve lived in the south for fifteen years, nothing prepares me for the horrendous voice, and I almost want to deny his service so he could go away. I can call the 911 operator again and demand for the operator herself to come get me when her shift is over. But. Assistance is here. I shan’t refuse it. “I know the operator said I’d bring you two tanks of gas, but the way our roadside service works is, it woulda costed you feefty-five dollars. It’s still the same price to tow, though, so I thought towing you would be easier.”
If I can just get past the culture shock, I’d have said that there is no logic in his reasoning. Now I have to pay $55 to tow my useless car and then an additional $20 for gas. I know I have a gift card, but still. The cash I’d give him was meant for unnecessary dinners away from the repulsive cafeterias on campus.
But I’m really hot and running dangerously low on my own fluids, so I accept. I awkwardly stand on the passenger side and watch him load good old shitty Doris onto his towing thing. Jeff works fast and makes sure she’s secured, strapped in, though at this point I don’t fucking care if I lose this car. She has been the most expensive hassle the past six years. I’ve been in a rear-end collision with her, I’ve nearly blacked out from the lack of AC as I neutrally drove through the car wash, I’ve skidded along medians on rainy nights, I’ve been stranded in my high school parking lot because I let the battery run during my free period to listen to music on the radio. Every three months, I lose money that I’ve saved because of this damn car. I haven’t been able to buy anything new because of her. Every time I got close to affording a new camera or cool clothes from Urban Outfitters, Doris just had to throw a fit, malfunction, break down in some way. She was a fussy teenager in my fussy teenaged years.
“All right, it’s good. Hop in.”
I amble over to the passenger seat because the last time I got towed there was only one row in the truck, not two. I open the door and a girl is sitting there staring at me with this expression of “bitch, whatchu doin’ coming up to sit next to my man.” So I go to the backseat. The dashboard has a Confederate sticker. A large Chicken Express cup sweats in the cupholder. Jeff constantly looks in the side mirror, and I begin to question his authority to tow my car. I do need it after all. Just for four more trips from Nacogdoches to Mansfield to Nacogdoches to Mansfield.
I still don’t have a signal, and I repeatedly try to text my mother that everything’s fine now, ignore the fourteen calls in the span of twelve minutes. The girl yaks on and on to a friend, and Jeff whips around and apologizes, clearly embarrassed.
“We have a client,” he hisses at the girl.
“So? I don’t care. It’s not like we’ll see each other again after this.”
How does she trust me to not remember her chatter yet no stranger would stop to help me out? I could be recording her right now. She’s prattling about some military ordeal, Skoal dip she gotta buy for her brother. Their tension lightens up, Jeff and the girl, and I attempt to figure out their relationship. Are they dating? Married without rings? Cousins? Incestual cousins?
“What side is your gas on?” Jeff asks as we approach the Shell station. “So I can pull you right up to the pump.”
I tell him it’s the right side, the unusual side compared to cars these days.
As I wait for Jeff to finish checking out the information on the car, write up the license plate, and fill out the receipt, a guy at the pump across from us inquires, “What happened?”
Where were you ten miles ago? I think. Why couldn’t literally anyone have asked me that when I was stuck? “Oh, I ran out of gas. Haha. Whoops.”
There is no risk in asking after the problem has been taken care of. All he can receive is my simple answer: no gas. He can nod and walk off knowing that I’m okay, I’m fine, I have filled up my tank with fuel. But if he had asked me all those miles back, there’d be a risk between us both, and the stigma of hitchhikers and broken-down cars returns. If he were to have pulled over, we’d run through all of my scenarios, particularly Scenario 6.1: A complete stranger pulls up. They act nice. Normal. They coax me into their vehicle, assuring me that I’ll have my problem fixed. They drive past the designated gas station. “Hey,” I quiver, trying to keep a strong voice, “where are you going? It was back there.” And I catch a devilish squint in the rearview mirror if I am in the back row or a hand on my thigh traveling up if I sit beside them. A quick escape is not an option, but permanent escape is. I am sexually abused and mutilated and murdered and dumped on the side of the road or dragged into the pine trees and left to decompose among the squirrels and deer, and my mother will never be able to find me because by then my phone will have died and the tracker wouldn’t track me, and because there’s no fucking signal anyway, not even the police would be able to track my phone, but they would find my shitty car, and my mother would blame my shitty car, but not me because she didn’t know it ran out of gas; it could’ve been the radiator or the oil or the engine or the battery.
Or there’s Scenario 6.2: A complete stranger pulls up. I am the kidnapper, the one who pulls a knife on the driver, slashes them, disposes of them on the side of the road, makes it seem like they were the one who was stuck, out of fuel, and I scurry off with their vehicle, jutting in short bursts because it takes me at least three miles to get used to such a smooth engine compared to my shitty car, and I lightly tap on the brakes since my own brake pads are awful. I have to slam my foot all the way down to brake, but this vehicle—this shining lovely 2010 Ford whatever—is so goddamn smooth it’s like spreading butter on a warm bagel, and I drain their bank account from whatever cards are in their wallets, and I get the hell out of Texas and become a fugitive known as the Highway 287 Innocent Non-Threatening White Young Woman Killer.
Jeff returns from his truck and rips off a pink sheet. “Here’s your receipt. If you call Triple A, they will reimburse your feefty-five-dollar bill.”
“Thank you so much for coming out,” I say and almost add “because it seems like you just got out of bed,” but I decide that that is not an appropriate thing to say to someone who probably did just get out of bed to rescue you from running out of gas.
I fill up a quarter and make my way into Palestine, where I stop at Kroger and spend ten dollars of my gift card. I silently berate any car that looks similar to those who passed me even though they would have already been in Rusk or Alto by this time. I plug my music back in, roll the windows down, and carry on to Nacogdoches.
On Highway 84, a small Armadillo trailer is off to the side in Lasiter-Hill Community. The sun coruscates through the pine trees, shining on a couple pacing around their vehicle. The middle-aged man inspects the gas cap; the woman stares at the cars dashing by. They don’t seem terribly frantic to get out of this situation. They have each other.
In the three seconds of held eye contact with the woman, I consider stopping. I really do consider this. It would be good karma, I suppose, to send forth the karma I received from calling 911, who called a towing service, who dragged my dumb car to a gas station.
But I don’t. I know better. They look like they are handling it well. Like it had happened to them before.
Emily Townsend is a graduate student in English at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her works have appeared in Superstition Review, Thoughtful Dog, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Santa Clara Review, cahoodaloodaling, Kettle Blue Review, Watershed Review and others, and are forthcoming in cream city review and Burnt Pine Magazine. She is currently working on a collection of essays in Nacogdoches, Texas.