Try as I might (which is, admittedly, not much) I rarely learn my lesson. I don’t even learn the hard way. I face the hard way head on, it hurts like a bitch and then it drifts into the past, leaving me unchanged. Even when I remember my mistakes being exactly as bad as they were, I remain unaffected, unwilling to employ preventative measures. I simply shrug and move forward carelessly, clumsily and totally unprepared.
If you’re reading what will ultimately be this two-part blog post, I hope for your sake, that you are nothing like me. If you are, I can’t blame you, but do I pity you. It’s not a way to be.
1. Don’t Drive On Empty
I’m getting into the car a few weeks ago, after a day’s work. The sun is shining. The air is a perfect blend of warm and breezy. As I start to drive, I remember that my Mini’s gas gauge is on empty. I check the range, a digital feature that tells me how many miles I can drive before I cannot drive any more, and it says I have 12 miles to go. “Perfect!” I think, not wanting to turn around, “I’ll get gas in Leiper’s Fork.” (Leiper’s Fork, for the record, is almost exactly 12 miles away.)
Onward I drive, windows down, breeze on my face, happy as a clam (and totally as brainless). As I leave town I make a second brilliant decision to call my friend, Sara. And why shouldn’t I? I haven’t spoken to her in a while and it’s not like I have anything else I need to do. (Remember, I’m a clam, not an astrophysicist.)
Soon, Sara and I are engrossed in conversation. I drive into Leiper’s Fork and out of Leiper’s Fork in a swift minute. What a quaint town. And what a beautiful sunset. Sara and I discuss our alma mater, Columbia University — the ways it shaped us, whether it prepared us for the world. (I’m gonna say no.) Ten miles later I turn on Shoals Branch, my road, and admire the country homes perched on their country land — how the inside lights are starting to glow.
It is then that I decide not to go straight home. Instead, I take an impulsive turn. I drive 10 minutes west and then 10 minutes back. Talking to Sara is so nice, I think. And because I don’t want to hang up, which I’ll have to if I go home due to our service being crap, I pull over a mile and a half from my house alongside an empty stretch of field and idle the car as we talk. It’s not until the idling stops and the car jolts in a violent kind of way that I remember.
“Oh my god,” I say, cutting through our conversation.
“What?” Sara says.
“I ran out of gas,” I say.
“You ran out of gas?” Sara says.
“I was supposed to stop…but we were talking and the sun was setting and…”
I look around and see nothing but darkening fields, and shadowy trees, and hawks flying overhead.
“Hey, Sara, I should go.”
“Yeah, Casey’s off work soon, I’ll call him — he’ll bring me gas.”
We say our goodbyes, I hang up, and I stare at my phone.
“Crap, crap, crap,” I say to my phone.
I think about what I’ll say to Casey and how I can make this not my fault. You see, Blog, the thing that Casey knows that you do not know, is that I’d just gotten myself into this exact same pickle only a few months ago. Twice. Both times affecting him. The first time, Casey and I’d been driving home late at night, him in front in his Prius me behind in my Mini. We were out on our rural highway, still a solid 15 miles from home, when I’d realized my range was 0. I’d called him in a panic.
“Casey, Casey, I’m out of gas, I’m driving on ZERO. What should we do? I’m such an idiot! I meant to get gas, the station was right there! Arghhhhhh!”
I remember the scenarios piling up in my head. Casey getting gas. Me stranded on the highway. Me crashed into by drunk driver and killed. No. Me found my murderer. Me murdered by piano wire strangulation. No. Me murdered by axe-hacking. I’d imagined one gruesome outcome after another — all the way to the pump. Somehow, the Mini made it. As I’d filled the tank with shaky hands I’d looked at Casey.
“This is never going to happen again,” I’d said. “But can you believe how far the Mini made it without gas? Pretty impressive.”
“Don’t push it,” Casey said.
But push it I did.
A couple weeks later, Casey and I had to swap cars for the day. When Casey got in the Mini he’d found the tank empty and had had to coast into Leiper’s Fork for gas. Luckily for him the drive is mostly downhill. He’d called me pissed.
“Didn’t it have enough to go 8 miles or something?” I’d said, defending myself.
“Leiper’s Fork is more than 8 miles away!” Casey’d said.
“Okay, okay,” I’d said. “I’ll remember to get gas next time.”
“Yes, gas is very important,” Casey’d said.
As I stare at my phone, I know there is no way to make this third time not my fault. Instead, I decide on a different approach to the conversation I’m about to have. The bargaining approach.
“Hiiii Lovvvvve,” I sing song into the phone when Casey answers. “I need to tell you something, but you have to promise not to judge me.”
“What happened?” Casey says.
“You promise?” I say.
“No,” Casey says.
I force him to promise, which he does half-heartedly, and then I explain.
“Where are you?” Casey asks.
I don’t know the address for darkening field with harrowing trees, but I offer him precise directions.
“Okay,” he says, “I’ll be there in an hour.”
“Are you judging me?” I ask.
“A little bit,” Casey says.
When we hang up I call my mom. I don’t know why I call her because whenever I’m in this kind of situation she gives me advice I don’t want and then gets mad when I don’t listen. It’s totally non-productive. But it’s habit. My mom answers just as she’s about to arrive at a party. She tells me she can’t really talk, but then asks me what’s up. This is very like her. Briefly, I tell her about my situation, (God forbid I miss this opportunity for a disagreement) and she tells me to call AAA. As though this is the most absurd suggestion ever, I tell her that I don’t need AAA, that Casey is on his way with gas. My mom listens and then tells me to call AAA again.
“Did you not hear the part about Casey?” I say.
“I have to go, I’m actually at this party now, but would just call AAA?” my mom says.
“Probably not,” I say.
Ultimately, my mom wishes me well still unconvinced by my plan but equally mindful that she raised a clam and that you can’t really help a clam.
“Let me know what happens,” she says.
“I will,” I say.
The sky is black now. The time passes slowly. Casey texts me every ten minutes to let me know where he is. I text back with songs I’m writing. One of them goes something like, “I’m in my car / yeah, I wonder where you are / with the gas for my car / la, la, la, yeah, yeah, yeah / I wish you were here right now.”
As I go to work composing a new tune, a truck turns onto the street where I’m stranded and stops about a hundred feet from me. I can’t see the driver. The inside of the truck is dark. The headlights of the truck begin to flash on and off and I wonder why. Suddenly I’m flooded with the memory of “Urban Legend,” a horror movie I watched in middle school. In the opening scene a cloaked aggressor in a truck stalks a lady in her car, terrorizing her with his flashing headlights. By minute five the victim gets hacked to bits with an axe. It’s not a movie a I recommend.
I sit in the Mini frozen. I watch and wait for a shrouded silhouette to emerge from the truck. I watch for the subtlest glint of a blade. The lights keep flashing but all else is still. The lights must flash 20 times. I want to tell the murderer that you don’t have to flash your lights that many times to scare the shit out of someone, but instead I try think about how shock will probably make the pain of getting hacked apart tolerable. BAM! I jump in my seat. Chugg-ChUGG-CHUGG. I watch the truck give a start and begin to drive my way. Oh my god, I’m going to die, I think. But then I don’t die. The truck doesn’t even stop. It just keeps driving until it’s gone.
“Oh my god,” I think, watching the truck’s taillights dim in my rearview mirror, “that asshole didn’t even ask if I needed help.”
“At least you’re alive,” I tell myself.
“You’re right,” I tell myself.
When Casey finally shows up with two gallons of gas, I jump out of the car and dance my way over to him. “You’re here! You’re here! I’m so happy you’re here!” It’s perhaps the happiest I’ve ever been that whole day.
We navigate the gas into the tank and somehow only spill about half a gallon.
“I’m saved!” I think. “I can go home!” I think. “And I’ve totally, totally learned my lesson!” I think.
I get back into the car, push my foot down on the clutch, turn my key in the ignition, and get ready to hear what will surely be the most beautiful sound in the whole world — the hum of a well-fed engine. But there is no hum. The car turns on but the engine does not rev.
“But we gave you gas!” I yell at the Mini.
Casey comes around to the passenger side and leans into the open window. “Try again,” he says.
I try again and then I try again, but nothing happens. I close my eyes. I tell myself this will work, that this time it will work. Slowly, I turn the key, employing all the finesse I can muster.
The car goes dark.
“Fuck!” I yell at the Mini. “The battery died!” I yell out my window.
I think back over the last hour, how I’d kept the car lights on, the radio on. Why am I such a clam?! Why couldn’t I have been an astrophysicist?!!! I think of the rocket ship I would build myself if I was an astrophysicist, and how awesome that would be right now.
“I guess we should call AAA,” Casey says.
I hear the echo of my mom’s voice and know that they’d already be here if I’d called them back when.
“Fine,” I say. “But you can’t tell my mom about this.”
With supreme shame I call AAA, and they assure me a tow truck will be there soon.
“Okay,” I say, “But I really just need more gas and a jump. I’m hoping I don’t need to be towed.”
The AAA lady promises they will come fully prepared.
“I hope we get a cool old timer,” I say to Casey once I’m off the phone. “Like an old guy that knows everything about cars and can totally fix everything.”
Ninety minutes later a man with a tow truck arrives. He’s middle-aged, has a thick southern drawl, is missing a majority of his teeth, wears the grease stains of a true mechanic, but looks at my Mini with disdain.
I can’t get a read on this guy, but remain hopeful. “I’m so glad you’re here,” I say. “I don’t know how much you know about Minis, but I ran out of gas and then we got gas and the battery died. I mean crazy, right? Good news is, I don’t think the fuel pump is dead because I heard it before the battery died, it just wasn’t working. I guess it could be clogged. Ugh. I hope not. Anyway, what do you think?”
“Don’t know bout dees kindah cars,” the man says.
“Well, okay,” I say, pausing to throw hope out the window, “I think we should just give it more gas and then jump it.”
“Ain’t dis ah tow job?” the man says.
“Well, maybe,” I say, “but I’m hoping–”
“Don’t have gas fer ah tow job,” the man continues.
“You didn’t bring any gas?”
The man turns from me, opens up a compartment on his truck, pulls out a nearly empty gas can and shakes it.
“But what about ‘fully prepared’?!” I say.
“Dey didn’ say nothin bout gas.” The man pauses to wipe his brow. “Migh could try ah jump. Y’all got jumpas?”
I wonder why the man is asking us if we have jumper cables when he is supposed to be AAA, but Casey speaks up before I can.
“We don’t. See, I drive a Prius, so battery is different. You can’t just jump a normal car off my car so…”
The man nods understanding, but I can tell he hates both us and our stupid liberal cars.
“So where ya wan ah tow to?”
I look at Casey defeated. “Our house is only a few minutes away, just take us there.”
It’s 12:10 when we get home. I run inside, shove crackers in my mouth and gulp a glass of water. I watch as the tow man lowers my useless, gasless, dead-battery car back onto the ground.
“So you can’t give it a jump?” I ask with a last pathetic, battered shred of hope.
“Sure,” he says.
I look at him surprised. “Why–” I stop myself and decide saying nothing is best.
The man turns his tow truck around, connects our engines, and I get into the Mini.
“I’m a give er ah lotta juice,” the man says.
I wait, nervous as he revs his engine. “Please, please, please,” I say to the Mini.
“Try er!” the man hollers from his truck.
And I do. And she turns on. And her engine revs.
“Oh my god! The mini is on! She’s on!” I say.
“Thank you!” I yell to the tow man, jumping out of my car. “You’re a magician! You seriously just made my night!” I want to hug him but I don’t.
“Got er get gas,” the man says tilting his head toward my car. “Drive er and fill up.”
“Okay,” I say, nodding, “I’ll go now.”
The closest gas station is 15 miles away. The whole drive is country road until you emerge on a highway. From there the gas station is in distant sight. I check the range — 18 miles. I’ll make it, I tell myself.
I drive cautiously, pausing but never stopping, afraid that a firm foot on the break will kill the car. (A fear that is based on no facts.) Casey follows me in the Prius just in case something happens. As I turn one last bend, I meet up with the highway. I look right and see the green lights of the gas station shimmering in the distance. “Oh my god, we did it!” I say to the Mini, rolling through a stop sign and onto the highway.
Suddenly, headlights flash on. At first I think it’s my murderer back for an axing, but quickly realize it’s a cop. Crap. No. No no no. Be the murderer. Be the murderer! The cop pulls up right behind me. Blue and red lights flash on in my rearview mirror. I look ahead to the gas station. So close. So beautiful. Instead of pulling over I decide to gesture the cop onward. I swing my arm, as if to say, c’mon, follow me this way! C’mon, c’mon, c’mon. I leave the cop with no choice.
At the pump I grab my license, roll down my window, begin to cry a little (my cop reflex), and start projectile vomiting my story all over him.
“…And then I thought I was going to get murdered but then he just drove away and didn’t even ask if I needed help, and then my husband finally showed up and oh, there he is, see the guy in the Prius? He was following me in case I broke down again, and anyway, he brought me gas, but it wasn’t enough, or maybe it was–”
“Okay, okay,” the cop says now standing at my window, looking at me, my license, and then me again. “So you didn’t want to stop at the stop sign?”
“See the thing is I know I didn’t stop, but it’s only because I was afraid my car would die and I just needed to make it to the gas station–”
“I’m not going to give you a ticket.”
“No,” the cop says in a way that makes me think he is trying to get away from me.
“Thank you,” I say. “Oh my god, thank you. You have no idea.” For the second time that night I have the urge to hug, but restrain myself.
Instead I step out of my car, and pump the gas, and look at Casey with a big smile. Casey waves to me and the cop.
“Thank you,” I say again as the cop rolls away. And just like that I am happy as a clam once again.
P.S. (Yes the longest story in the world has a P.S.) While I was busy charming / bewildering the cop at the gas station, Casey met a guy in the parking lot named Mitchell Fox. I don’t know how they fell into conversation, only that it was ultimately revealed that Mitchell Fox not only knows our house, but had grown up playing on our land, milking cows in our milking barn, and eventually married the granddaughter of the man who built our house. Turns out moonshine and molasses were produced on our farm back then. That’s small town life for ya.
P.P.S. Come back next time for “Lessons I Never Learn – Part 2: Don’t Canoe (or Do Any Water Sports for that Matter) with Your Really Expensive Brand New iPhone and Other Bad Decisions.”
-Molly Morgan Black-