I was sitting on the stool next to the ice-cream counter, waiting for the next car to drive up to the tanks. The air conditioning inside the store had kept the place cool despite the morning sun which shone directly into the storefront.
After a while, the bell rang to signify that there was a car at the tanks, and I looked up to see a middle class family sitting in a car on the inside set of tanks, heading toward Wilmington and the beaches. As I stepped off the stool to head outside, a man stumbled out of the driver’s seat and reached his arms far into the sky in a hearty stretch of his back. His wife followed him out of the car on the passenger side and then opened the back door to let out three little white haired boys.
I was now halfway to the tanks and the lady asked me about the bathrooms. I told her to ask my dad for the key at the register and then asked her husband “Fill her up?” He nodded in agreement. I took the hose and proceeded around to the license tag holder and pulled it down to reveal the gas tank lid.
After the gas was flowing, I checked the oil and washed the windshield, by which time the woman and her kids had completed the bathroom portion of their visit to my hometown and had headed inside for snacks. I found them buying ice-cream bars when I handed my dad a twenty and told him to take out $11.50 for the gas their dad had just purchased.
I resumed my perch on the stool and looked at how neatly dressed the kids were. It caused me to examine myself. My t-shirt was standard white, but filled with holes and oil stains. My pants were a pair of yellow-and-green plaid pants that I refused to wear to school, and so they had become my work uniform. A bit too tight and likewise covered in oil stains, they must have made quite the impression on this lady from Ohio. If my clothes didn’t, my hair likely did. I had parted my hair on the left, and from that part line, it curled and writhed its way upwards and away, giving my head the rough shape of a melon that had had a section removed.
When all the kids had been supplied with their snacks, they were marched back out to the car and everyone climbed back inside to resume their vacation in the sunny South. Then came hesitation. The car had been started, but it was idling in the lot as the woman was busily talking and groping around on the seat surrounding her.
The door to her car opened and she stepped back out. She walked back in to the store and quite deliberately up to me. I looked up at her and thought, “Can I help you?”, but she reached out her hand. I looked and realized she was handing me a $5 bill. I took it and looked up. Her face was full of compassion as if she has just walked upon a dying animal. She smiled, nodded and turned on her heels, walking out the door, back to her car and off to finish her vacation. I never saw her again, nor learned who she was.
I used to think of this story and laugh that I had been treated as an orphan in the hollers of some Yankee myth about the South, but I couldn’t imagine that this lady mistook me as someone in need. Obviously she was overly sensitive. With time, though, I understood that she saw through me, perhaps, to the part of me that was desperate for anything.
Categories: memories poverty identity compassion