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| Category: || Biographical Non-Fiction |
Posted:|| August 27, 2017 Views: 429|
Stranded stranger seeks help. Should he get it?
by Sis Cat
He removed a knife from the rear pocket of grass-stained jeans. The closed switchblade nestled among wadded bills and grimy coins in an open hand extended toward me.
From my vantage point in my car idling at my workplace exit, the pearl handle that sheathed the blade appeared five inches long. The back edge of the folded knife glinted silver in the shade of eucalyptus trees that lined the Oakland Hills road overlooking the San Francisco Bay on a gray day. Parked behind him, his out-of-gas pickup truck flashed emergency headlights.
The man (whom I won’t call Mexican since I work with Salvadorians, Guatemalans, and others I can’t differentiate) had approached my car when I stopped to exit the parking lot. His fingers, grimed from gardening or contracting, fluttered the bills. “I have money.”
Shrunken in soiled work clothes, he resembled a boy more than a man, not in his height, age, or looks, but in his fear of me abandoning him in a neighborhood of million dollar homes and exclusive private schools without my help to escape alive.
An image of Renisha McBride’s shotgunned face popped into mind. Several years earlier, the black woman had crashed her car on a Detroit street before dawn. When she knocked on the door of a home for help, the white homeowner thought she was breaking into his house and shot her in the face through the screen door with a shotgun.
As an African American man, I always remember Renisha McBride before I either ask strangers for help or offer it. I bring a cell phone and charger when I drive; I know a person I can call for help; I have a Triple A card stashed in my wallet; and an insurance card tucked in my glove box so that I never have to ask strangers for help on the road and get mistaken for a carjacker or a rapist because of the color of my skin.
Outside my car stood a man a shade lighter than me. When I had asked him . . .
“Do you have a cell phone?”
“Is there anyone you could call?”
“Do you have Triple A?”
. . . the man shifted in his muddy work boots, shrugged his shoulders, and shook his head. “No.”
My mouth flew open. In a split second, I gaped at the man and sized him up.
You must be new to this country and no one ever gave you The Talk about how to conduct yourself as a man of color on the streets of America. Instead, you grope your way through a maze of unwritten rules on race. At the time I left work, women predominated the staff. As they drove out of the parking lot one by one, I bet you held yourself back from asking them for help because you intuited that they would profile you as a rapist or carjacker. Instead, you asked the one black man left on staff at the end of the day, hoping for sympathy from a fellow dark face. I would have done the same.
I avoided staring at the knife in his hand so he would not know that it scared me. I glanced at his dark eyes which quivered with a baby’s vulnerability. We began a silent communication with our eyes and bodies.
My nose sniffed the air between us. How do I know you’re not going to stab me with that knife and steal my car? That’s what robbers do—they run out of gas, flag down motorists, kill them, and steal their cars.
The man’s hand shivered as he held the knife and cash. His face pleaded. I’m not going to hurt you. If I was, I would have left my knife in my back pocket. I’m not one of those panhandlers you see at freeway exits. I have money. I earned it today. I just need help to get gas.
The side of my mouth turned up. I don’t care if you’re Honest Abe. I was going to give you a ride to the gas station, but I’m not letting you in my car with that knife.
Sensing my discomfort with the knife, the man wavered before slipping it in his back pocket, uncertain of the wrongness or rightness of this gesture. Cash remained in his hand. The bills trembled.
I squinted to determine his intentions. Are you trying to bribe me for help? I’m not interested in your money. I’m interested in saving my life. If I was going to help you, I’d help you for free.
The man shook his head slightly. His hands widened in a begging motion, the bills threatening to flutter to the ground and blow down the street. No sound issued from his trembling lips, but I heard him. Please.
We froze in a Mexican standoff like I saw in movies where everyone points guns at one another and no one pulls the trigger because he fears being shot before he can shoot.
The man stood a safe distance from my car, but could not bring himself to back down and return to his out-of-gas pickup whose emergency lights clicked as they flashed. I could not bring myself to drive off and resume my commute although I would be late for dinner.
Americans’ default setting is fear—fear of race, fear of foreigners, fear of anyone different from us. We remain safe in gated homes and locked cars. It takes Herculean effort to override our default setting with love.
I stirred in my seat and sighed as I felt an answer to end our standoff. I addressed the stranger. “How about you give me your money and I go buy a gas can and bring back gas for you?”
He hesitated, as if he would never see his money again. Suspicion crossed his face. Are you robbing me?
A gush of air blew from my nose. No, I’m not robbing you. I’m trying to help you.
The shadows of resignation and vulnerability enveloped his face like the moon passing before the sun during an eclipse. Keeping a five and several ones in reserve, he handed me his only twenty which I tucked into my breast pocket. Based upon my earlier call to a gas station, I calculated that the can would cost seventeen dollars and the gas to fill it would cost more than the twenty he gave me. I pointed to Abraham Lincoln in the palm of his hand. “Give me the five, too, just in case.”
The man wavered. Without the five, he would lose an entire day’s pay from whatever contracting or gardening job he had completed before he ran out of gas. He would have no backup cash to get home. What choice did he have other than to trust a stranger? He exhaled and handed the five over.
I left him on the side of the road next to his exhausted pickup with no more than a promise to return with a filled gas can.
* * *
Click. Click. Click.
My finger pulled the trigger beneath the gas nozzle but no fuel filled the red can that sat on the ground between my car and the gas pump.
I re-hooked the nozzle into the pump and entered the station. Snacks and drinks surrounded me on four sides. An empty space remained on the wall behind the counter where I had purchased the can ten minutes earlier. “The gas pump doesn’t work.”
The station attendant, a boy barely out of high school, if even, stood in a blue uniform that sagged on his scarecrow body. In an earlier generation, the acne-scarred kid would have flipped burgers. “You have to pull back on the accordion thing around the nozzle.”
I returned to the pump. Click. Click. Click. The nozzle failed again.
What am I doing wrong?
The attendant appeared beside me. His unblemished hand took the gas hose from my wrinkled hand. With one hand, he retracted the accordion-like ring at the base of the nozzle, inserted the spout into the can, and pulled the lever with the other hand. Fuel poured. “You have to pull back on the rubber thing like this.”
My brows arched. I had thought that the lever alone operated the gas nozzle and never realized that the rubber thingy at the base assisted. Eager to try it out, I grabbed the nozzle from the youth, inserted it into the can, pressed the lever, pulled back the black disk, and laughed as fuel poured. Returning to his booth, the kid had shown a man thrice his age how to operate a gas pump. I called after him. “Thank you.”
It took seconds to fill a two-and-a-half gallon jug. After I fetched my—I mean the stranded motorist’s—change, I placed the can on the car floor behind my seat. Even though I had screwed the cap on tight, vapors filled my car anyhow. My mouth gasped for air. I banged the buttons to open all of the windows and blow the AC at maximum. Like a dog, I nosed outside of my car window as I drove.
The evening commute congested the freeway in both directions. Avoiding any fender benders which could ignite the gas fumes, I drove along the frontage road at the pace I had followed my uncle’s hearse at the cemetery the previous week.
I turned my car onto the downhill road toward work and approached Dead Man’s Curve. A runaway cement truck had almost entombed me in wet concrete twenty years earlier at the dogleg bend in the road around the Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Eighteen months after my near collision, a runaway dump truck struck and roasted Ricardo Cook alive in his imploded car along the same stretch.
My foot pressed the brake to slow my car’s momentum down the eleven-percent grade. Fingers tightened around the steering wheel to maintain vehicle control. Gas sloshed in the container behind my seat. Wind blew vapors back inside. If I missed this turn, crashed, and exploded, would the FBI identify me as a jihadi whose car bomb detonated prematurely? I held my breath as much from the fumes as from Dead Man’s Curve ahead.
What if the man is not waiting for me when I round this curve? What if I took so long to fill a gas can—thirty minutes—that someone else had offered him roadside assistance before I returned? If he is not there, what would I do with a full gas can? Drive it home twenty miles along clogged freeways and mountain roads?
My car coasted twenty miles an hour around Dead Man’s Curve, past the cliffside home that the cement truck’s insurance company had repaired after the crash missed me. A pair of marble dragons guarded the home now. They grinned good luck. I added no fuel to their carved flames as I passed.
The front gate of my workplace came into view. The pickup truck remained parked on the street outside. Its headlights flashed an S-O-S signal. Alongside the vehicle, a slumped man raised his head. His brown face brightened, as if he had watched every black car which had driven down that mountain road in the previous half hour. He jumped and waved like a man stranded in a foreign land without fuel, phone, or friend. The cavalry galloped over the mountain with one hundred and twenty-one horsepower. Gas vapors trailed the windows. I leaned further out and waved. Our eyes locked.
I can’t believe you’re still here.
I can’t believe you came back.
My car pulled into my empty work parking lot. The man dashed towards me before my car stopped. I alighted from the front seat, opened the rear door, and retrieved the unspilled gas can from the floor. I handed the can to him. “I got the gas.”
He embraced it as if I were a United Nations aid worker. His face barely contained his smile. Eyes beamed. A callused hand pumped mine in a handshake which almost dislocated my shoulder. “Thank you. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” I shrugged. “I don’t know how to use the nozzle.” I left off, “But you’ll figure it out. You’re a gardener.”
I gazed at him in wonder as he turned and skipped with his prize toward his flashing pickup. Never before had I witnessed a man as joyous as him. Every ounce of his faith in God and man had burst forth like fireworks, threatening to ignite the gas can with spontaneous combustion.
My hand dug into my breast pocket and retrieved the contents. I chased the man before he reached his truck. “I have your change.”
The man turned, his face incredulous. You’re giving me change, too?
I caught up with him and placed the bills, coins, and receipt in his hand so he would know I did not short him one penny. The gas can cap dropped into his palm, too. “Here’s the cap.”
Amazement flooded him. He leaned to one side to counterbalance the weight of the two-and-a-half gallon gas jug. He grabbed and shoved the change and cap into his pocket to join his knife, and then he said something unexpected. “What’s your name?”
As a storyteller, I gathered he planned to retell the story of his encounter with a real life Good Samaritan and name him to convince everyone that God answers prayers and that not all men are bad.
I planned to tell my own story of our encounter. “André, and what’s your name?”
“Gabino.” He nodded and paused to connect my name with my face. Anxious to fill his truck and resume his journey up the mountain, he pivoted and sprinted to his pickup to make up for lost time.
For the second time that evening, I exited my work driveway. Pausing before I turned my car uphill, I looked down. Standing in the street, Gabino hugged the side of his pickup as if it were a parched Palomino. Drivers slowed to rubberneck and then accelerated. The upended gas can sloshed fuel into his tank. Sunlight of a setting sun caught the translucent can in profile. Flammable liquid glinted and drained inside.
Hoping he would acknowledge me one last time before we parted forever, I waved from my window. He released one hand from the nearly empty gas can long enough to wave at me. His grin resembled the grill of his satiated truck. I smiled in my rearview mirror and watched him recede in the distance.
Non-Fiction Writing Contest contest entry
Triple A=American Automobile Association offers roadside assistance to members.
Always practice caution when offering or receiving roadside assistance. Even when closed, carrying a gas can inside a car is dangerous. It should be tied to a car rack.
An account of my near collision with a runaway cement truck on this same stretch of road can be found in my portfolio under the title "Dragon Road."
I thank cleo85 for the photo of a pickup.
Thank you for your review.
© Copyright 2016.
All rights reserved.
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