It’s late, and cold with the first hard edge of autumn, and the car is not going to make it all the way back to town on what’s left in the tank.
The gas station is isolated, a lighted concrete patch along a rural highway, fallow fields and scant woods all around it. I rarely stop here. It is too exposed. Tonight I pull in. The sign in the office window says “open”. The office itself is bright with blue fluorescent glare. There is no one in it.
I wait for the attendant to work the pump. This is New Jersey, where I must pretend to helplessness. A single car passes, then another. The station lights hum like summer insects. Another minute slips by on the dashboard clock. I look around. The concrete pad around the pumps is crumbling, the edges of it dissolving into gravel. A dull assortment of cars marks the edge of the property. The office is the base of a bunker of cement blocks sealed with dirty white paint. From there the building stretches up to a second story with a picture window overlooking the pumps and the highway. There are lights on up there, and I can see a standing lamp and the edge of a shelf. A shadow passes on the visible angle of wall, and I hear a heavy door slam, feet coming down a hollow staircase.
A man rounds the corner of the office and heads toward where I sit locked in my car. He is an Indian, tall, possibly mid-thirties. He is wiping his hands on a crumpled rag as he walks. When he gets to my window I roll it partway down.
“I’m sorry, are you open?”
“Yes,” he says, his voice very lightly accented. He tucks the rag into the front pocket of his navy blue work pants. “Did you wait long? I’m sorry. I was having my dinner.”
It is nearly eleven o’clock.
“No, not long,” I say. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. The sign said ‘open’.”
“Yes. It’s okay. I live here, so I leave the lights on. Someone may come.”
He smiles. I smile back. I roll the window down farther.
“May I have twenty regular, please?” I say. He repeats my request and begins the pump. The sound of the machinery overrides the buzz of the lights. A car goes by.
He stands near my window, watching the numbers on the pump roll up. Then he turns to me.
“Were you working this late?” he says.
I pause for a moment, glance at the road. “No,” I say. “Not tonight. But I had a lot of errands to run up in Flemington. Shopping.”
“Ah,” he says. He shifts his feet. “Getting ready for Christmas?”
I pause again. The pump is at sixteen dollars now.
“No, not yet.” I laugh a little. “I used to start this early, but life got way too busy. I used to be really organized.”
He smiles and looks away at the night around us. It is impossible to see anything but darkness beyond the flat blaze of the station lights. He wants nothing from me. I pull him back.
“When are you able to get away?” I say. “Do you have any help here?”
He looks back to me, smiles again. “My uncle is here. My mother’s brother. He helps me sometimes.”
“That’s good,” I say. “Family is a good thing.”
“Sometimes,” he says, and now he laughs. I laugh, too.
The pump clicks heavily and shuts off. He screws on the gas cap and I hand him the money.
“Do you have a family?” he says.
I consider that. I could rely on the kindness of a stranger. I don’t ever have to come back here.
“A son,” I say. “He’s grown. He’s out in Pennsylvania.”
A pickup truck goes by, fast and aggressively loud. We both watch it pass, listen as the engine’s roar peaks and trails off.
“Thanks,” I say into the fresh quiet. “Have a good night.”
“Yes, thank you. You have a good night, too.”
He steps back from my car, away and behind it. I roll up my window as I start the engine. As I roll toward the exit I can see him in the mirrors, walking back toward the stairs. He waves at my taillights as I pull out onto the empty highway. I wave back. He won’t see me. The windows are clouded from the cold air, and I switch on the defroster.
It is still twelve miles to town. There are no streetlights on this stretch. In the dark sky, the stars are very clear.