by Ellen Ashdown
There’s a split second before a car door swings shut when you know the keys are inside. Locked inside. You are not. You are—I am, this time—free as a feather in the parking lot of a minimarket gas station in Sopchoppy, Florida. I would like to be a feather. I could be blown by the wind to my business meeting two hours away in Georgia. I could be cool even in hideous August heat, as I would not have on pantyhose. I would care nothing about the cell phone staring at me from the dashboard.
It could be worse. I realize this dimly even as I say Shit!, not under my breath. I have my purse; I’m on a U.S. highway connecting the Gulf coast to Tallahassee (two-lane but a highway); the people in the minimarket are friendly; it’s daylight. Nevertheless I babble frantically to the worn blond clerk after she waits on locals buying soft drinks and lottery tickets. I’m still in a state when I get the AAA operator. She, of course, is calm. I think she is irredeemably dense. The tow truck will come from no farther than Tallahassee. Everyone knows where 319 goes through Sopchoppy. How should I know the street address? Just tell the driver the one gas station at the bend!
I’m sorry. I do need the address. And would you spell Sopchoppy, please?
I wake up: This operator is probably in Minneapolis. She must want to howl at “Sopchoppy,” not to mention at the unhinged redneck “at the bend.” The driver will be there within an hour. Please stay with your vehicle. The redneck refrains from sarcasm.
I make one more call reannouncing my stupidity and cancelling my meeting.
I commence to wait. A few minutes in the tiny store push me outside to a cement picnic table in full sun. Nice or not, the cashier doesn’t invite me to hover by the register, and one circuit around the snack cakes and six-packs takes 30 seconds.
This minimarket/station is a busy place. It’s the only one in the invisible town (which is off the road, Old South, rural plus hippie-ish, riverine, eccentric). It offers fried okra in the lunch steam trays. It’s a pit stop to and from the coast. Still, no one hunkers down at this table for picnics. Single women in pantyhose seldom pass the time.
But from my grass plot next to the store, I’m out of the foot traffic with clear people-watching vantage. After a while, I notice I am not alone in hanging instead of passing through. Three adolescent girls in dark blue T-shirts are handing out flyers and offering to clean windshields when people park. They are cheery and cute. Time passes. Even with their busyness, I am conspicuous, and at a lull, they bring their smiles to the table.
They are sympathetic when I explain, and want to wash my windshield. I thank them no, not needed. They’re from a church youth group, proclaimed in white letters on their dark shirts. The flyers invite to a Baptist Block Party at 2:00. (It’s coming up on noon. God, please don’t let me be here for Your party.)
Thus begins our time together as minimarket companions. They drift between me and the cars. I drift between the table and a few minutes of cool in the store. We buy drinks and crackers. I meet their Mama.
She is a lovely, white-haired, patrician woman who could be photographed in a wicker chair on a Southern Living porch (though not wearing her blue T-shirt). The girls are black, white, and mocha. We all sit at the table. “They call me Mama,” she says affectionately. I don’t blame them. This woman gives off grace and realness. She’s staying with them on a sweltering day on unshaded sidewalk. She hugs them.
I don’t remember what we chat about, except that I don’t encourage religion. They get it. I don’t need to say, “I am a long-lapsed Presbyterian with no interest.” The beautifully round-faced dark girl had offered me pamphlets, which I declined while trying to donate. “Oh, no, we don’t want money. We just want people to come to the block party.”
The tow truck arrives! The rescue driver looks like Opie at 19. He is very quiet, which I put to shyness. He looks over my two-door Honda coupe and starts working on the passenger side.
I am still sweaty as hell but more cheerful as I resume my station with Mama, who is pleased for me. I meet the Missionary. He is visiting from Tampa. I did not know that Tampa Baptists sent emissaries to darkest north Florida, but why would I? Anyway, his mission is clearly more organize than proselytize. Or organize to proselytize. He is young, wiry and wired, black-haired, coal-eyed. He is perfectly nice and as recognizably Not From Here as a concentrated Cuban coffee. Mama continues to beam and would hug him, I am sure, if he stood still long enough. The Missionary goes back to the block party preparations.
As we talk, I mention to Mama, in praise of her zeal and girls, that they wouldn’t take a donation. Mama hesitates gracefully, “Oh, well . . .” I donate; as I said, she was real. We all expect I will be on my way soon. I am not. Opie is still at the car. I walk over—friendly, feeling sorry for him too in a zillion degrees—as he continues jiggling a thin metal rod up and down, back and forth, inside the door panel. He describes tonelessly how the lock parts fit together, which I don’t understand, but says the word stuck, which I do.
So we wait. By now Mama, the girls, and I are a group. A little restless, we have shifted to the pumps a few feet from the parked cars; at least there’s a roof covering the island. Also, I would feel guilty waiting in the store while Opie burns. The Missionary returns. My curly hair frizzes another inch shorter in the humidity. One girl has to go home, with farewell hugs. Mama presses a bottle of water on me. We all wonder why it’s taking so long. Amen to that. I have to ask.
Opie now shows mild frustration. I decide he needs the water more than I do, which loosens him up a little. He actually looks at me. But as he launches again into the mechanics, an epiphany bursts through my trusting ignorance. He is not saying the lock is stuck. His tool is stuck. (As I write this, a mean slang visual appears. Shame on me.) Everything changes. He may be driving a big honker Triple A–approved truck, but he’s as feckless as he looks. I want to shout. I want to shake his Opie shoulders. I want my water back.
I do none of this, surprisingly and not surprisingly. I can let people have it big time. Righteous anger is a specialty. But because I’m wilted in so many ways, I don’t have the bad sense to unleash a useless blast. Oh, Opie knows—once he confirms my epiphany—my incredulity and disgust. I just turn on my heel to the waiting group. Jiggling resumes.
Naturally, I have to report. I can’t even summon a sharp tone. After hours here, I feel defeated and removed more than anything, which Mama senses. She commiserates; so does the Missionary, not even hyper; so do the two sweet remaining girls, mocha and pale. He’ll get it soon is the general bolstering. Sure.
We’re still. Then Mama, quietly, not forcefully, and because she can’t help herself, says, “We could pray for you.” I look at her lovely face and say, “Go for it.”
So there, under the pump island in the heat and the fumes with cars gassing up, they form a circle and pass arms around my waist. I feel and see it clearly in memory, but I can’t hear a word Mama speaks. I know good angels are invoked for Opie. I don’t know whether he sees us. I don’t know whether anyone does. Of course they do. Bible Belt or not, even Sopchoppians are not accustomed to public gas-station displays of prayer—especially with such five unusual suspects.
I just know I have nothing to lose and it’s the least I can do for my faithful, believing friends for the day. I don’t believe, yet keeping my distance now seems a pointless principle. And they don’t care. I am in their circle with my eyes closed. It’s what they do.
No, Opie doesn’t shout Praise the Lord! and fling the door open. The circle disperses as it must, back to the flyers, into the store, on to the nearing block party. I am standing with Opie when, not too long after, the rod pulls free. All over. Is anyone left when this happens? I don’t remember. We said farewells.
We shared something, though. I didn’t expect to be parked at a blistering minimarket for hours. They did. And yet I like to think that we all enjoyed the unforeseen company. The time passed differently. The circle closed. The door opened. Miracles happen.
© Ellen Ashdown, 2014