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The Red Gas Can

by James Shaffer

His round trip commute is 100 miles. He doesn’t have to climb any mountains. It’s flat land all the way, dry and dreary. There’s nothing to see but scrub grass and sand and a cactus or two.

One gas station café marks the halfway point, The Black Rock, and it’s always crowded. It’s everyone’s last hope before the boredom of another workday kicks in, a last ditch effort to avoid the inevitable.

At this point, out of habit, he checks his gas gauge: a quarter of a tank. Plenty to get him to work and back to the halfway point that evening. He zooms on past, toward the inevitable.

The temperature difference between the intense heat of the day and the cold nights cracks the pavement. It has nowhere to go but up, like a rupture in a tectonic plate. The suspension system on his Civic won’t let him fall asleep at the wheel. At each crack, the car jolts and the gas can clunks in response.

It’s a tune he knows well. He used to think he could splash through the mirages he saw on the shimmering surface of the highway, but they disappeared before he could get close enough. He quickly lost interest in something that didn’t exist.

This stretch of highway is straight, its shoulders meeting at the vanishing point. The lack of curves relaxes him. There’s still the sound of the engine, the hum of the tires and the metered clunk of the gas can to remind him that he’s on the open road.

He imagines himself the conductor of some industrial symphony. He controls the tempo and mood. When he releases the accelerator, the sounds slow down and drop in pitch. As he goes faster, the pitch rises and the percussion builds to a crescendo. Over several successive cracks, the gas can rattles and the staccato rhythm of the tires adds a percussive theme to the composition.

He stares ahead at the straight, empty highway and then, in full control, looks casually off to the landscape on his right. Objects in the distance seem to be passing him more slowly than those in the immediate foreground. Someone said that’s because “it’s all relative.” With this thought in his head, his eyes stray back to the road in front of him.

Up ahead he sees a large jackrabbit in the middle of his lane. In that half-second he thinks, Does it appear large because I am approaching it at a high speed or is it just a normal-sized rabbit?

In the other half of that second, he slams on his brakes. The wheels lock as the tires scream and smoke on the hot pavement. The gas can tumbles from its niche in the corner of the trunk with the sound of a fortissimo kettledrum and slams hard against the back seat.

Used to the rush of high velocity vehicles through his domain, the jackrabbit takes two laconic hops to the center of the road, out of harm’s way, and passively watches another episode of what he has come to know as daytime TV made especially for rabbits.

The car skids sideways onto the shoulder, kicking up clouds of dust and gravel and rock. At one point it threatens to slide off on to the flat pan of the desert floor, a sharp drop-off a few feet below the level of the shoulder. For some reason — no doubt answered by a simple equation involving the relationship between inertia, weight, friction, barometric pressure, air temperature, tire pressure and speed that only Dr. Feynman could calculate — it decides to come to rest on the shoulder but facing oncoming traffic.

The jackrabbit hops safely to the other side of the road, bored with the repetitive drama, and disappears over the edge. The dust settles.

Though facing the wrong way, he observes he’s safely off the road. He exits the car, walks around to the trunk and opens it. The red gas can is lying inert against the back seat. He retrieves it and places it in a corner of the trunk where he attaches it with a bungie cord.

He knows the tires have suffered the most, but it seems they’ve held up. He can hear no air escaping as he kicks each one. You’re supposed to kick the tires, right? His journey begins again as he checks both ways, then pulls out on to the highway making a U-turn toward the direction of his job.

* * *

The daytime hours pass. He’s had a dozen cups of coffee and eight hours of geek work on a computer. He logs off, grabs his bag and heads for the exit. His escape goes unnoticed. It’s not an unusual feeling for him. Making your mark doesn’t come easy.

His car is parked in the public lot, along with hundreds of others. He finds his car, opens the door and tosses his bag on the passenger seat. As he secures his seat belt, he starts the car. The fuel gauge light flashes, indicating he is on the reserve tank level. This can’t be right, he thinks. He had a quarter of a tank this morning.

He exits the car, goes to the back, bends down and sees a wet spot on the pavement. The car is still running; he hops in and backs the car out of his space. He hops back out and looks underneath. He waits. After about a minute, one drop splatters on the ground. He locates the slow drip.

His toolbox in the trunk contains a roll of gaffer’s tape. He lies on his back and slides under the car, gaffer tape in hand. A strip of tape comes off in his teeth. He can see a rupture in the line. A dent surrounds the rupture. A rock must have been thrown up against the line when he skidded on the shoulder.

He wraps several layers of tape around the line covering the leak. Hopefully it will be enough to get him to the gas station. If not, there’s always his red gas can. He accelerates gradually and exits the parking lot in the direction of the highway on-ramp.

The red light keeps blinking its warning. He goes ten miles with no engine sputter. He knows after the next curve comes the straightaway where he’d met the rabbit that morning.

He comes around the curve and hits the straight stretch of highway as predicted. Near where he spun out on the shoulder earlier that morning, the car jerks as if it were choking on a peanut. It keeps going another half mile then sputters its last breath. He glides on to the shoulder with a dead engine, pulls on his hand brake and turns on his emergency flashers.

Night is falling and out in the dark desert, he imagines the rabbit watching episode two, the funny episode, where the guy runs out of gas. He opens the glove compartment and grabs the flashlight; then he takes the empty gas can from the trunk, locks the car and heads up the highway toward the gas station. The evening air is cold. He zips up his jacket and puts on his gloves. The metal gas can holds no heat.

He figures he’ll thumb a ride. The gas station is about eight miles away. It’s a long way to walk. After about three miles, it’s completely dark and colder. There’s no moon, but a canopy of stars covers his head. A distant coyote’s howl mixes with the crunch of gravel under his feet and the hollow clunk of the gas can against his leg.

The dark is good because he can feel the cars approaching from a distance. The headlights dance on the pavement’s white stripes. He sticks out his thumb without even looking back. He’s not a veteran hitchhiker and refuses to accept rejection by facing the oncoming vehicle. It zooms past him.

Disheartened, he drops the arm with the thumb on the end. Then he sees flashing brake lights ahead. The vehicle pulls off on the shoulder. It’s not a mirage. He trots through the 80 yards it takes to reach his ride. The red gas can rattles and bangs a cadence against his leg. It’s music to his ears.

He walks the last ten paces while he catches his breath. As he approaches the vehicle, the passenger door of the El Camino swings open, warm and inviting. The dome light is off. The inside of the cab is dark. He grabs the frame of the door and leans down to look inside. He’s breathing heavily.

“Welcome, stranger,” says the voice inside the cab. The tip of a cigarette glows bright orange in the dark. “I saw a car along the road some miles back, and now here you are with a red gas can on the end of your arm. I’m not a real smart man, but I put two and two together real quick, just like that, and slammed on the brakes. Here we are now. Get in partner, if you don’t like walkin’.”

* * *

He pushes into the seat, puts the gas can between his legs and closes the door. “Thank you,” he says.

“You can put the can in the back if you want.” The transmission drops into Drive.

“No thanks, I’ll hold on to it. It’s a lifesaver.”

“A gas can do that to you, I hear.” He laughs and fishtails out onto the road. “You ever think what a gas can is for? It ain’t good for nothin’ ’less it’s full. Know what I mean?”

I got picked up by a highway philosopher.

“Think about it. A gas can is downright mean. That’s why I never carry one. No siree. Oh, it preys on your conscience, rattlin’ ‘round in the back, moanin’ ‘n groanin’ like a spoiled kid. ‘Fill me, fill me’, it begs. The red ones are the worst. I tell ya, just to shut it up, wha’ do ya do, you run out o’ gas. That’s what you do. Yesiree, I take no truck with gas cans.”

By a crazy highway philosopher.

“You sound like you’ve made a study of it,” I say. There is silence. I think maybe I’ve offended him. It was delivered in a smart-ass way, but I couldn’t help it.

We ride a couple of miles without speaking. The headlights of an oncoming vehicle pierce the night. I’m going to get a good look at this guy. The inside of the cab is so dark. Oddly, there aren’t even any dashboard lights.

As the car approaches, I glance over at the driver. There’s just a pitch-black space where his face should be, except for the glowing tip of a cigarette. My head snaps back to the highway. I suck in air. I can’t look again.

“I have. I have made a study of it. I’ve been drivin’ this stretch of highway for ’bout twenty-five years. You think you’re the first one I picked up? There’ve been hundreds. Always the same story, the same can. Oh, different colors, mind you, but the same can. That can is evil, no matter what color you paint it. I’ve seen it. I know.”

He’s there. I can’t see him, but he’s there. I keep silent and face forward as we eat up the miles. Then I feel it. Something hard pokes me in the ribs. I sit perfectly still.

“You feel that? Sure you do. It’s the business end of a .44 Magnum. I know you don’t feel a bit lucky. You can blame it on the red gas can. I warned you. Now ease out your wallet and give me all your cash. I’m a sensitive guy so credit cards don’t interest me. I wouldn’t take your last penny. Come on, you can do it.”

I reach inside my jacket and pull out my wallet. It seems to take a hundred years. I think I’ll make a grab for him, but how do you grab something that isn’t there? Instead, I pull out all the cash and hold it toward him. Out of the dark comes a hand. It grabs the cash.

“Put your wallet back in your pocket.” The gun stays jabbed in my ribs as he pulls off on the shoulder and stops.

“Let go of the can.” He pulls at the can. My shaking legs are clamped tightly around it. “Come on now. You can do it.” He jams the barrel of the gun harder into my side. “Feels like all hope is draining right out on to that dry desert floor, don’t it?”

I force myself to release the can.

“That’s it. I knew you could do it. Now open the door.” I open the door and feel a boot on my shoulder as he shoves me out the passenger door. I land on my side sliding across the gravel to the edge of the shoulder.

“I hope you learned something tonight.”

In panic I shout, “GIVE ME THE GAS CAN!”

He laughs. “Oh my. You best settle down, partner. Like all the others, you haven’t learned a thing. Let me tell you this. Maybe somethin’ you don’t know. The average man walks about three miles an hour. Did you know that? Like I said, I’m not a real smart man, but I figure you got about two hours ahead of you, bud. Get going. Time’s a-wastin’.”

With that, the vehicle spins away. The door slams shut. I pound the ground with my fist. It’s gone. I’m lost. Then the gas can is launched out of the passenger window and tumbles, bouncing and clunking to the desert floor. The taillights become small red dots, then disappear completely.

It’s dark and cold. I scramble to my feet and pull my flashlight from my pocket. I drop off the shoulder onto the desert floor. I trudge ahead, swinging the flashlight back and forth. My light picks up a glint of red some twenty yards ahead. Thank God for a new red gas can! I run and pick it up. I see it has a few dents but none of the seams have separated from the impact.

As I crawl onto the shoulder, I look both ways. Darkness is in every direction. I stand clutching the gas can to my chest like a life preserver. I remember him saying two more hours, so I start jogging. We’ll see.

About an hour and a half later I notice a glow on the horizon. I’ve been alternating between walking and jogging. The gas station is on the eastbound side of the highway, so I cross over. I top the rise and the gas station appears like an oasis.

I stroll on to the forecourt. The gas can dangles at the end of my right arm. Instead of heading to the pumps, I go to the café. I’m thirsty. There are vehicles surrounding the three sides of the café. They are all El Caminos. Over the door of the café hangs a sign: El Camino Night! The only vehicle in the lot that is not an El Camino is the sheriff’s.

I enter the café and walk up to the counter. I stand there a moment while my partner the gas can remains silent. I’ll slake its thirst at the pumps.

The jukebox is blasting Born to Be Wild. Do an El Camino and a chopped Harley have something in common? The man who wears the star is sitting alone in one of the front booths.

I walk on over, clutching the red gas can to my chest, and sit down opposite. The sheriff swipes a piece of half-eaten toast across his plate, gathering the remains of his egg over-easy. He stuffs the last bit of toast in his mouth.

“I ran out of gas some miles back, and I’ve been robbed,” I tell him.

A waitress arrives and refills the sheriff’s coffee cup.

“Would you like a cup?” she asks. I look at the sheriff.

“Go ahead. I’m buyin’,” the generous sheriff says.

I nod and she grabs an empty mug from the adjoining table, slams it down and fills it in one certain, acrobatic move. It’s obvious she’s a professional. She scoots away. The sheriff holds up his hand to me like a halt signal.

“Don’t tell me. Let me guess. You ran out of gas. You were picked up by a guy in an El Camino who took all your cash. He warned you about the evils of the gas can and left you by the side of the road. Am I right so far?”

“You’re psychic, Sheriff. By the way, which El Camino in the lot is his?”

“None of them. His name is Bob. Twenty years ago he ran out of gas along this same stretch of highway. While he was walking along with his trusty gas can, he was killed by a drunk driver. Check your wallet. He always leaves you twenty dollars. Go ahead. Check it.”

I pull out what I think is an empty wallet. There is a twenty-dollar bill lodged inside. I pull it out for the sheriff to see.

“See? He always leaves you gas money. Now go put twenty dollars worth of gas in the can and I’ll take you back to your car. I’ll tell you more about Bob on the way.”

* * *

Later that night at the Black Rock Café, the waiter strolls to the end of the counter.

“You want a refill, Bob?”

“Thanks, no. Got to be going.” He slips off the counter stool, but he stops. “Hey Don, tell me, why was the gas can even invented? It’s an empty thing.”

“I don’t know, Bob. Something to do with hope, maybe?”

Copyright © 2014 by James Shaffer

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