December 28, 2007

Out of gas

Somewhere near Yermo, California, the top story in the Desert Dispatch says, a woman was attacked by dogs and killed.

Soon after reading that, we are on a deserted stretch of the old Route 66, somewhere near Yermo.

The "Mother Road" according to John Steinbeck, 66 no longer runs as it once did from Chicago to LA. Or put it this way -- most traffic no longer uses it to travel from Chicago to LA. Long since superceded by smoother, straighter stretches of Interstate highway -- I-40 here, I-15 somewhere else -- Route 66 now exists largely in a country's imagination, a throwback to an era of diners and fast-food, nostalgia but even the Dust Bowl. People from the world over -- but many many from Europe -- drive it, soaking in the nostalgia. The new highways devastated the little communities along the way -- and in fact, part of the nostalgia lies in gawking at rusting, crumbling remains of the stores and restaurants and motels -- but some of them now survive on the tourist trade.

Not to imply that the road itself is no longer there, physically. In segments, it is. Usually as part of other numbered roads, sometimes maintained well, sometimes not, often with "Route 66" painted intermittently on the tarmac, or "Historic Route 66" markers on the shoulder -- in those ways, 66 lives on. And of course, it is personified in the businesses here that live on the memory of the old road.

So yes, we are on this deserted stretch of 66. I-40 is off to the south, cars and trucks scurrying along it like so many coloured ants. Ahead and behind for as far as we can see, which must be a good 4 mile stretch at this particular moment, we are the only ones scurrying along.

And then, far ahead, I see a stick-like figure in a long black coat flapping in the wind stepping into the road and waving his arms. Steps back. Steps back and waves again. Steps back. Once more, and by now we are almost on him; a teenager, pimply face and chubby cheeks, beard sprouting on his chin. We slow. It's then that we notice his car, parked on the edge of the road. Its faded grubby once-white paint is the reason we hadn't seen it, almost camouflaged where it stands. There's another person in the driver's seat, older, stringy shoulder-length hair, looking straight ahead through the windshield, impossible to tell what sex.

The teenager looks at us inquiringly, as if wondering why we have stopped. Says nothing. "Do you need help?" we ask finally, "you were waving your arms, right?"

"Yeah," says the guy. "Trying to stop anyone we can! Been stuck here two hours. We're out of gas. Do you have any?"

Apart from what's in our tank, we have none. "We can get you some," we tell him. "Do you have a cellphone?"

"Yeah, well, I don't know, you'll have to ask her," and he gestures at the person in the front seat, who hasn't moved at all and still doesn't. "My mom."

"Do you know where the closest gas station is?" we ask him.

"Yeah, I think there's one about three miles that way" -- pointing in the direction we are headed.

Which raises the question: two hours, three miles, why hasn't he just walked to the station yet? He could have returned, complete with gas, by now.

Never mind. "You need anything else?" we check before driving on.

"Yeah, but no thanks, just the gas, please."

There is indeed a station about three miles ahead. While we are there, a car -- no windows, no rear windshield and much tape holding down such parts as bonnet and boot and fenders -- arrives to fill up, standing right next to where I am. Two of the prettiest little kids in the back. I say hi and there's no response, so I try "Como estas?" and they brighten and their young mother smiles widely. "'Ta bien", they say, and a few minutes later they are off, turning to wave to me through their nonexistent rear windshield.

Fifteen minutes later, we are back at the grubby once-white car -- it has a rear windshield, I note, and no tape anywhere in sight -- with a gallon of the aromatic stuff. The teenager stands there waiting for us. Now he says, "Yeah, and now the battery has died." (Yes, he starts everything he says with "Yeah").

He stands there.

"Do you have jumper cables?" we ask.

"Yeah, no, no jumper cables. But someone is helping us with those. She called my mother."

He stands there.

We ask, "But you want the gas, right?"

"Yeah, sure, if you'll give it to me!"

We hand it over. "Yeah, I've done this plenty of times!" as he starts pouring it into his tank. The mother opens her door and steps out -- a tall gaunt woman in jeans, t-shirt and jacket against the cold, limps around to where her son is with a quick nod and a hint of a smile at us, leans oddly against the car, back to us.

Then. She reaches into her pocket in a way that suggests to me, almost screams, "gun!" Perhaps that's unfair, but as he arm moves, that's what pops into my head. I even wonder fleetingly at how odd the boy's long overcoat looks ... unless it's cover for a long gun?

My nerves on edge, I do the only thing I can think of: move our car slightly so that if I see a gun emerging, I can hit the accelerator and slam into the pair. (Yes, to my surprise, that's how I'm thinking.) Seeing me do so, my travel buddy, standing outside, looks at me questioningly. I motion to him, "It's OK."

Her hand emerges slowly. There's something in it, I get a glimpse of something solid and black, glinting in the sunlight. Looking down at her hand, then slowly turning towards me, she raises her arm and crooks it.

It's the cellphone. She's trying to call someone.

When the teenager returns the can to us, he says, "Thank you so much." He pats his pockets. "Yeah, thank you so much, I wish I had something I could give you."

"Don't worry about it," says my friend. "Just take care of yourselves."

Me? Unnerved, but mostly mortified, I can't speak for a while.

No comments: