By Keith Hood
Near midnight under a moonless sky, the boy and girl rolled down Main Street in an ancient minivan. It was the conclusion of the strangest date of the girl’s seventeen-year-old life. Her chest tightened, her stomach grumbled, and her evening meal of fried fish in tomato sauce threatened to erupt. He’d picked her up hours ago. Within moments of sliding into the passenger seat, she’d noticed the needle hovering on the big E on the fuel gauge. Her nagging question hovered in that shadowy space, where vocal cords translate thoughts into words. Shouldn’t you get gas?
They’d met that day at an audition for a school production of West Side Story. Both were clad in slim-fitting jeans and pocket tees, he tall and dark, she small and blonde. He was full of questions: How long had she lived in Ann Arbor? Did she like it? Was she auditioning for a specific role? Did she like the gaudiness of the film version? Why were her flip-flops stuffed into her pants pocket and not on her feet? He laughed when she said she liked a “barefoot lifestyle” and laughed again, saying, “Not a lifestyle I’ve heard of.”
She liked his questions and his laugh. Observing him in the dance studio mirrors, she’d decided that she liked him too and accepted his invitation to keep him company while he cleaned offices for his mother’s janitorial business. That evening, the loud rattle of the rusty, twenty-eight-year-old Dodge Caravan in need of a muffler announced his arrival. The frame for his rear license plate read MY OTHER CAR IS A CLASSIC MUSTANG.
As the boy vacuumed, emptied trash bins, and cleaned windows, he spoke of his recent move from Detroit to Ann Arbor. His other car really was a Mustang, inherited from his late father along with a collection of classic rock vinyl. He loved dancing and didn’t want a speaking role in the school play. He just wanted to be in the dance at the gym scene.
“Join me tomorrow night for a real date?” he asked. “I’ll pick you up in the Mustang. Teach you how to drive a stick shift. It’s an old three-speed. For now, let’s get you home.”
“Sure. Sounds good.”
Back in the minivan, the boy scanned radio stations landing on one that had started playing Led Zeppelin’s Communication Breakdown. “My dad had this on vinyl. This shit is never old. Man, I love it.” He turned up the volume, his head bobbing in rhythm.
Her gaze returned to the fuel gauge. As the noisy vehicle rumbled to life, her nausea bubbled up again. It was a simple enough question. Shouldn’t we get gas?
At home, she hated asking questions. Answers, from her father, if they came at all, might be lies or obfuscations. He was a master of retort and rejoinder. Answers might break a heart: hers, her brother’s, or her mother’s. Answers might arrive with a slap, a punch or alternative questions: Is that what you wanted? Is it?
“No Dad,” she’d say. “That’s not what I wanted.” She can’t help but remember family road trips to Northern Michigan and Mom’s suggestions that Dad get gas.
Did I ask for your help? Keep your damn mouth shut he’d raged. Whenever Mom had said nothing and they’d run out of gas, he shouted, Why the fuck didn’t you tell me?
There weren’t many cars on Main Street. No pedestrians. Evenings, the traffic signals switched to blinking red, requiring a stop on every block. The girl wanted to appreciate the Christmas-like show of bright purple, green, and blue neon signs in dark storefront windows. She could almost relax enough to do so when a clang-clang-clang sounded and the red lights of a railroad crossing flashed. The crossing arms lowered, and the boy brought the minivan to a stop. Seconds later, a freight train’s horn blasted, and the engine and cars clattered by.
The needle is on E. Read my mind. The needle is on E. She hugged her arms tight enough to hurt. Her mouth opened, closed, opened again. “Don’t you think we should get gas?” Her words were barely a whisper.
The boy didn’t reply.
She hugged herself tighter, bent forward, her head almost between her knees. “Shouldn’t we get some gas?” she repeated, her words lost in the clamor of the bad muffler, blaring radio, and train chugging past.
“What are you doing down there?” the boy shouted.
She sat up and turned off the radio. The shit is going to hit the fan, or not, she thought.
“Hey,” the boy said. “The song’s not over.”
“Look.” She pointed to the shimmering white needle. “We need gas.”
“What the fuck?”
The girl recoiled, her stomach churned..
“Thanks, I wasn’t paying attention,” the boy said.
She shifted in her seat and turned, pointing to a gas station ahead. “It’s open 24/7.”
They pulled into the gas station and counted their money. A Styrofoam cup in the drink holder held a few coins. She searched her pockets for change. He lifted his butt off the seat, withdrew an empty wallet, and scavenged his pockets, finding two crumpled dollar bills and more change. Without a word, they emptied the cup into her palm along with the collection of cash.
“Let me get this.” The girl opened the minivan door and skipped to the night payment window. “Four dollars and sixteen cents on pump five, please,” she told the sleepy looking attendant. The collection of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters clanged in the stainless-steel payment trough.
After pumping the gas, she settled back into her seat.
“This is what I want, isn’t it?” she said.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing.” Her hand found a place on his thigh.
The boy shook his head and eased the roaring minivan onto the road.
She imagined sitting in his inherited Mustang, their hands sharing the gearshift. The boy would show her how to move from Reverse, to First, Second, Third.