It was hot; Texas-hot, hot like she’d never known. It relieved her to gush forth from the car, to leave the non-air-conditioned enclosure for the open heat, heat that seemed more natural, less oppressive and confining somehow. She looked ruefully down at her body: tank top soaked with great splashes of sweat, denim cutoffs sticking rudely to her skinny thighs. Embarrassing.
Her windshield stood splattered, smashed with insects, unfamiliar enough in their unwrecked form and unrecognizable at all now, their gooey guts of green and yellow speckled and crushed all over everything, everywhere. Resisting the full force of her forearm and the gas-station window-washer, they clung tight to the tempered glass, insistent stowaways for the remainder of her journey.
“Where you headed?” a voice called out.
She glanced up and saw him, an affable-looking man in his late thirties, perhaps early forties, bearing a bit of an accent but no cowboy hat; maybe a local, and maybe not one. There were only two of them there; he had to be speaking to her. She supposed there was no harm in answering.
“California,” she said, bending her elbow again to the window.
“That’s a long way off,” he replied, whistling softly.
“Yes, it is,” she agreed.
He approached her, thumbs tucked into the pockets of his own full-length dungarees, evidently immune to the heat.
“Say, that’s an expensive trip,” he observed. “You, uh — you got enough money to get there?”
Instantly she was on her guard. She circled casually around to the other side of the car, in the direction of the shop and its sleepy attendant. Was he going to rob her? Find out if she had any cash and then knock her down and take it? Instinctively she felt for it with the muscles of her behind, the wallet tucked tightly into her back pocket, crammed into a space too small for its contents, and plastered there now with sweat and fear.
“I think I’ve got enough,” she equivocated, ears burning with the lie.
“You sure?” he prodded encouragingly, penetrating her with moist periwinkle-blue eyes. “Because I, uh, know where you could make some — you know — some extra money. If you needed it.”
So he wasn’t going to rob her; he was offering her a job. The windshield was nearly clean now but she continued scrubbing, pondering the proposal. She wondered what kind of work it would be. Day labor, no doubt. But didn’t people usually want young men for that kind of thing?
He stood smiling kindly, warmly down at her, almost fatherly in aspect. She really could use the money. It had already been two days since she’d eaten. Was saving the rest of it for fuel.
“Thanks,” she said finally, deciding. “But I’m in a hurry; better get going.”
“You’re sure you won’t change your mind?” he replied, a hint of pleading in his voice.
“No,” she asserted. “But thank you for the offer.”
What a nice fellow, she thought as she headed back towards the highway. People sure were friendly down here in Texas. They sure were friendly.
* * *
“Rest Stop” is the true story of something that happened to me when I was seventeen. I had run away from my home in Massachusetts shortly after graduation, and now found myself baking in the scorching heat of July in rural Texas. I was supposed to start school at U.C. Berkeley that fall, but since I was still underage and therefore subject to recall if caught, I was understandably anxious about conserving the little money I had, as I wasn’t sure how easy it would be for a kid with no parents, no home, and no local references to find a job. Being mathematically minded, I quite naturally spent the long miles driving in calculating a fairly precise budget, which, once I’d paid for necessities like gas and oil, had little room in it for luxuries like food. And then I stopped at this gas station and here was this wonderful man asking me earnestly if I had enough money to get where I was going or whether I wanted to earn a little extra to tide me over until I arrived safely at my intended destination.
I’m embarrassed to admit now that I was just as naive as the girl in the story. I spent a lot of time traveling alone in the years that followed, and was propositioned numerous times by other equally friendly fellows seeking the company of a young woman for an afternoon or an hour. But this was the first such occasion, and I was so utterly confounded by this man’s incomprehensible behavior that I spent many miles pondering it in my head. Why had this stranger been so inexplicably nice? Who offers money to a girl he doesn’t even know, in exchange for services he isn’t sure she’s qualified to perform? I’d probably driven a good half hour before comprehension finally came roaring into my addled teenaged brain and I understood that I’d come unbelievably close to becoming an unwitting body for hire. At length amusement over the incident replaced my horror, and at least the next time it happened, I was prepared with a polite, “No, thank you, sir.”
* * *
“Rest Stop” is one of the stories featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past. You can learn more about it by visiting the book’s webpage or by clicking the image below to be taken to the Amazon details page: