The gas pump meter crossed sixty dollars, the highest Jerry had ever seen. He was even more annoyed at the client who’d just texted a cancellation, the wasted miles.
“Excuse me, sir.”
Jerry turned: by the front of the car someone in a smudged white face mask, light brown crew cut.
“Excuse me, sir, I’m trying to get to Middletown—are you going that way?”
“Heading to Sussex, so sure, I’ll drop you off.” Sussex was where the appointment would’ve been—this gave him a reason to keep driving.
“Thank you, sir.” The voice was raspy but not deep. Sticking out of the black Slayer T-shirt, slender arms crowded with tattoos, green lizards and red roses. Over the shoulders, green backpack straps, a small hand gripping one of them.
Jerry hung up the nozzle and twisted the gas cap. He got in the car, and the person followed suit, nesting their backpack between their knees. He started the engine, steered around an SUV, and turned onto the street. He said, “You can take your mask off if you feel like it.”
With both hands, the person pulled off the ear loops. “Never know how folks feel about it.”
“Safest to be polite.”
Under the mask were full lips, a slightly crooked nose—and a curving bust, a woman, Jerry was pretty sure. What he’d taken for a crew cut was a close crop with a few longer sprouts, a nearly bald spot on the side. Her ashy, musty smell floated around the car.
On the highway, the morning rush was dwindling, not much competition for lanes. He hadn’t driven with someone else in forever. Was the last time really with Anne? Not that their doomed attempts at weekend road trips were particularly pleasant memories. Every time they were in the car and the air fell silent—like it was now—Anne would start gasping and clutching her knees. When he asked what was wrong, she said she wondered why they weren’t talking. Because, he replied, no one needs to jaw nonstop. As usual, it was the wrong thing to say.
Even if his passenger was on the scruffy side, he was glad she could sit through silence. The woman stared ahead with a vague smile.
“So what’s in Middletown?” he asked.
“My friend’s gonna help me get another waitressing job. Got fired from my last one.”
“Hope it works out.” He watched the trees go by, finally green after the dismal winter. “I’m in the restaurant business, too.”
“Yeah, I sell equipment: stoves, batch processors, mixers, steam tables, you name it. Business is still pretty slow, lots better than it was, though.”
“Really? Why’s that?”
He looked at her, catching no hint of sarcasm. “Covid.”
How could a waitress not know about the thrashing that restaurants had taken? He asked, “So are you from Middletown?”
“Nope, grew up in Mantleville.”
Mantleville was one of those crumbling old mill towns on the way to Rhode Island, a place he’d passed through but never stopped in. How much was this person hiding? He tried something: “What a coincidence…so did I.”
“Hey, that’s cool.” She leaned toward him, hazel eyes widening. “You been back there lately?”
“I go maybe twice a year, see old friends.” Her attention was warming him up; isolation had been a nightmare.
“Y’know you kind of look like someone I knew back in high school. You got a brother?”
“Umm yeah, a younger brother.” Jerry only had an older sister—this fib was a trap waiting to snare him, but what did he care about this traveler’s opinion?
“When did he graduate?”
“Let’s see, he graduated in…it was 2012.”
“I was class of 2013. Is his name Nate?”
“Yeah.” He’d guessed her age right, mid-to late twenties, maybe six or seven years younger than him.
“Smartest guy I knew. And the nicest. My crowd didn’t exactly run with the smart kids; we called ’em the College Crotchheads. Not too classy, I know, but Nate was tops, always wanted to hear what I thought about things.”
“Sounds like my little brother.”
“What’s he do now?”
“Umm, he works on Wall Street.”
“So he got a good job there?”
The words “Wall Street,” Jerry thought, meant “good job.” Didn’t she know that? He remembered a friend from college who’d hit it big in New York: “Yeah, he’s a hedge fund analyst.”
“Wow, sounds real important.” She laughed. “I guess we can always dream.”
“Sure can.” The first Middletown exit was ahead. “Where are you meeting your friend? I’ll take you there.”
She looked out the window, then back at him. “Haven’t got a friend. I just said so ’cause it sounds good. But you’re Nate’s brother, so I can tell you. We’re all from Mantleville.”
He turned off the highway. “So what’re you gonna do? You got a place to stay?”
She shrugged. “I always manage.”
He could invite her back to his apartment so she could shower and rest up. But would she think she owed him sex? Was that how she operated? The idea of putting her in that position revolted him.
He pulled into a convenience store parking lot. As soon as he stopped, she opened the door and stepped out.
“Wait…” From his wallet, he grabbed two twenties, most of his cash. “Here.”
She gave him a smile. “Thank you, sir.” She reached for the bills, shut the door, slung on her backpack, and walked briskly away.
What now? No new calls or texts, so for the moment Jerry was free. Why not take a look at Mantleville? He tapped it into Google Maps—an hour away, an afternoon adventure. No, it was best to just head home.