‘A Quarter of a Tank’ by John Dolan


A man with a good car don’t need salvation.
Flannery O’Connor

There are 38 million people in California, but none of them live on the long, mountainous stretch of I-5 between Weed and Redding. Which is why I was zooming through there in the dark, alone in the brave little Kia while the fuel gauge dipped below a quarter-tank.

I was hoping to get south out of the mountains before the rain could turn to snow. So I zoomed along without stopping at the gas stations in Yreka or Weed. It was like Casey at the bat, letting those first two pitches go by: You get cocky, you think there’ll be more stations every few miles—and besides, you’re too terrified to stop. Or at least I was.

Stopping meant that the car might not start again. There was no money to fix a flat. Or any other repairs. There was no money, period, and I was alone with my thoughts, because the stereo hadn’t worked since we got the Kia out of storage. And if you stop and turn off the engine, what if it doesn’t start again? I mean, why should it, just because you want it to? I don’t know how cars work. A shrink once told me I used a lot of magical thinking, and I thought, “There are other kinds?”

There are good and bad aspects to being an animist, or “magical thinker,” as shrinks call us. The good parts—well, there’s actually only one good thing, and it’s that animists don’t get bored. A haunted world is not boring. The bad part is that a haunted world is a nonstop nightmare, so we live in terror. In other words, the bad part is absolutely everything else in the world, once you’ve put “Never bored” on the positive side of the chart. Other than that, nightmare, at least for me. I’m not one of those cheery animists, the ones who think Nature loves them. Those tend to be hippies from the first wave who did well in California real estate. Property values; that’s the real basis of their sunny theology. I once heard one of these old smug hippies say at a party, “I know Nature loves me.” There was this young woman with multiple sclerosis there, trying to have a baby while stiff-arming death with one hand, and she said, “Nature sure doesn’t love ME!” To which ye olde hippie had no answer. She didn’t need smart answers; she had a pension and a house that was worth about 20 times what she paid for it.

Me—no house, no pension, so Nature doesn’t love me either. Nature thinks I’m an idiot. Only the crepuscular deities have any use for me, though they too have an ill-concealed contempt for me, and for all their adherents. As for the the bigger, more scenic, Nietzschean landscape features, they don’t even bother to hide their disdain. Mountains sneer at me, hills are disappointed in me. My own shipmates, my shoes, wish they had a better captain. For the Manichean animist, the world is haunted in a very un-cute, un-Casper way.

We develop a sense for landscapes that want no part of us, and try to avoid them. That was why I didn’t stop at Weed, the last town before the mountains; I didn’t like the look of the place, its whole feng-shui shrug away from me, from the freeway, like it was too good for us. I am, perhaps, too sensitive, but it seemed to me that Weed’s warm yellow gas-station lights were sneering at me. So I pushed south with the fuel tank steady at about one-third of a tank left.

I had faith in I-5, the great river, the noblest of the Interstates, the spinal cord of the West Coast—red taillight neurons zooming one way, white headlight messages the other, and the conifers looking on approvingly from both sides. I-5 is a good god. Granted, there is one stretch of I-5 that hates me, that bit between Redding and Red Bluff where the Chevy overheated and I kept driving until I froze the engine block forever. That part hates me, but the rest of I-5 feels a sort of condescending affection for me, like my brother. It would supply a gas station when I needed one, even in the dark mountains coming up past Weed.

I love hitting one of those gas station/AMPM Minimarts after curving through dark moutains for an hour or so.. It’s one of those freeway dream joys that we forget once the engine is off, which to my haunted mind is very ungrateful and sinful of us. We should be grateful for every stage of the approach to a freeway gas station. First come the green mileage signs, with the town name and distance. Then, when you’re within a mile or so, you get the blue signs telling you the pleasures you can access. They always come in the same sequence: fuel, food, lodging. In order of urgency. The fuel sign says, “Fuel next exit,” with the logos of the exit’s gas stations below it—the yellow scallop for Shell, the red-white-and-blue of Exxon. You may hate those corporations when you’re snug at home, but in the mountains, in the dark, they’re as glad a sight as that first glimpse of Rivendell was to Frodo’s company.

The mountains are not pretty when you’re in a Kia. In theory I love Mount Shasta and would support a move to make it the state’s official deity–the original pyramid, bigger and better than the ersatz Egyptian crypts. But in the Kia, zooming south and watching the gas guage head south even faster, Shasta seemed very cold. Its little cousin, the lava cone next to the freeway, always used to seem like a goofy little puppy next to its distant goddess mom, but tonight, in the dark it was like a punk sneering at me because he knew Big Momma had his back. Darker by the mile. The curves were sharper, the ridges were so dark they lost depth—black cardboard. And all uphill, a real gas-guzzle of a road, with nothing on either side but black-paper ridgelines. No lights! Not one light! How can there not be anybody here? Wouldn’t some of those 38 million surplus Californians move up here where there was no competition, get a Shell franchise? Wouldn’t The Market make them? Oh, they love their precious free enterprise, but my fuel gauge is hitting 3/8s and there’s nothing in sight—and now a downhill stretch where you can see ahead a few miles and in all that dark there’s not one light, my god, not one light! Just truck headlights coming at me, and not one of those bastards would stop to help if and when I run out of gas and coast to a stop. And there isn’t even a shoulder, just a white strip, then two more feet of asphalt and a rock face. A truck will come around a turn and slam hard into my brave little Kia and we’ll both be killed, me and the Kia.

No, worse, much worse: I’ll turn on the hazard blinkers and someone will stop. I will grovel, I will blather, I will stumble over unpracticed sentences. They’ll be polite, they’ll say something…what will they say? I have no idea. I never did understand these people anyway, that’s why I got out of this state in the first place. They’ll be polite, that Special-Olympics voice I know so well, until it comes out I have no money—and then they’ll get back in their truck and lock the doors and leave with very little delay. I never did anything good here, only New Zealand appreciated me, they loved me, and I deserted them and came back here, because I’m stupid, stupid forever. And the gauge is fluttering with one-fourth of a tank. And it’s a tiny tank, the Kia tank.

More uphill. Another fine vista at the top—if it was daytime, if you had gas. All it shows me now is black cardboard ridges and not one light. How is that even possible? It’s like an excess of omens, overdone. Like Frost said about the spider, “What but design of darkness to appall?” There, see? But the dark was real before it got into poetry and this is that darkness, the very literal kind—those astronomers who whine about “light pollution,” God, they should come up here! In a Kia with a quarter tank of gas! See if they feel like talking about light pollution then! Dark pollution, these fucking mountains are as polluted with darkness as a Chinese factory town and no poetry in the world will help me now, like it ever did in the first place—got me where I am, in the dark like the old punchline.

A big red truck zooms past on the uphill like I’m unpatriotic to be in this little sedan. I could slip into the slipstream of that semi ahead but it will slow on the steep bits so there’ll be no net savings of fuel. No MacGyver idea will replace cash, or rather the lack of it.

The gauge has now settled at a quarter of a tank, and I know that the gas gauge is overly optimistic. Ergo, I’m going to die. “Die,” always “die”—death would be easy. It won’t be anything that easy. I’m not going to die, I’m just going to whimper and beg, like always. Somebody will stop and I’ll get a ride to the next town and I’ll thank them and go in and try the credit card and it will be declined and they’ll be friendly at first and as polite as they can be, until they’re sure it’s maxed out. And even then they’ll be polite in a chill Californian way I know so well, the tone that means, “You are welcome to leave now” but I won’t even be entitled to resent it because it’s all, always, my own same forever fault. Oh, God, how great it would be if a semi just plows into me after I stall on the shoulder. Just to be squashed quick, a dignified road casualty.

Another matte black ridgeline. I see why it took so long for mountains to get fashionable. Ancient people hated mountains, cold and infertile. Fucking Romantics, fucking poets, how many have they killed? I mean not counting my so-called career. “Rivers and mountains without end,” that’s Ashbery. Ashbery, the twee jokester. When did he see a mountain? More a Hamptons guy, very droll, oh very droll. And I wasted decades trying to join that club!  

Oh God God God, another uphill. Not meta-fucking-phorically but up a literal pile of geology outright lousy hill, against physics and the last little drop in my tank. A tow will be like a hundred dollars way out here, if there even is one. And that’s more than we have in the checking account. The Visa is underwater already. Our credit has been running on fumes for years. I’ll have to sit next to the tow guy, some angry alkiethe giant alkie driver sulking next to me hoping I can’t pay so he can take his fee out of me with a tire iron. It’s not even the tire iron that’s worst—it’s the scolding, the lectures, because I deserve it.

Friend me, death. Click the death key. Nothing so easy, this is old tech, internal combustion, Newtonian physics, inertia. No wonder I flunked physics.

More dark, more ridges—do people know there’s this huge black zone up here? They should warn you. “Last gas for forever, next gas a lot farther than your Kia is going to make it.” Not one house? Not one family cozying up to the TV with extravagant electric light and popcorn and Protestant table manners, the bastards? That is simply not possible. Maybe over this ridge—and there I saw the longest, blackest, emptiest vista of all, a vista of pure darkness to cheer a Sierra Club member, unpolluted by man-made light, mile after mile.

That was when I started screaming. Terror is my homeland, my natural state. It has its own routine, like clockwork. When it possesses me, I always yell the same thing: “HELP ME! HELP ME!” Dumb thing to yell, like help is a right. Big entitled baby, idiot.

I screamed it over and over until my hoarse old man’s shriek started to embarrass me. Embarrassment can be as good as a slap in the face when I start screaming, but not now, not in that darkness. I was too terrified even for shame. So I sobbed a little, then started screaming it again, help me help me help me, as the brave little Kia, our loyal Kia, slalomed hip-first through the curves. Good little Kia, none of this is your fault. You drew an idiot for a master. You deserve better.

Then the signs to something called “Castle Craigs.” Oh, Castle Craigs, you sound wonderful, like a town, a clot of warm yellow signage at the base of a ridge. Be mine, Castle Craigs. Save me. Have mercy. I’ve always liked the letter C. I never had anything against three-syllable names, either. Have mercy on me for once, alliterative standoffish gods of this terrifying dark world.

I drove past Castle Craigs. At the moment when I could have turned off…I don’t know. I didn’t turn off. That exit went by like the women who might have saved me in grad school, skipped for no sane reason. Not even a good insane one. It just didn’t look like it had a gas station. But once I was past, the road turned again and I could see what I missed: A huge, bright ten-pump Shell station. The pilgrim’s friend, the scallop shell, the warm open hand, refuge. All skipped, missed, lost like Shannon who definitely liked me but I was too chicken, but fuck that romance shit, it doesn’t mean a thing compared to literally physically OUT OF GAS HERE.

Maybe I can do a big freeway U-turn. No no no, no place to turn for miles. The gauge is wobbling now below 1/8 of a tank. The Kia only has an eight-gallon tank because distances are short in Korea, Seoul itself is only a few miles from the DMZ, which means life is over. A spasm or hate for the short mileages of South Korea, the engineers who cut the gas tank down to this ridiculously tiny volume.

More screaming. I can’t even scream right. You need that Rod Stewart voice to scream well and that kind of voice goes with a completely different ego configuration. Only an oleaginous voice like me, unfit to scream rock, would head into the mountains in the dark with a quarter of a tank. The evidence was always overwhelming. I wish you could plead no contest in life, but it’s not an option. That’s Darwin’s doing, another smug Protestant, thrifty and calculating. You can’t surrender, not like an army can. Well, most armies can’t either; those rules of war are a very spotty recent invention. Why feed prisoners when you can put their heads on sticks to discourage trespassers? But a prisoner can’t even count on being killed—no, you can never count on a nice fast death. Most were sold into slavery. Naturally; more profitable for the winners. There’s no out, you have to play it out long after the outcome is clear. Darwin’s rules.

You get so tired of being stupid. It just wears you out, and it’s not funny when you’re the punchline. Not after the first few thousand debacles. The dumbest hick in this county, whatever it is, has more sense than me. The lowest scum in the state, the guy who gets paid to gas dogs at the pound, has more honor than me. It stops being funny, it’s just disgusting, all the yammer about potential, wasted potential. I hate every underachieving, glib, selfish Irish writer who ever wasted his talent and sponged on those around him. I hate you Flann O’Brian, in these dark mountains I hate you most of all–because you could have been the best of them all and you threw it away, booze and jokes. I hate you most of all, next to your little likeness in this Kia.

Another black graph line of ridges. It’s ridiculous. When did California get all these fucking mountains? “Fucking” mountains, listen to the old fraud, he can’t even swear colloquially. Yeah, U so street, uh-huh. Impoverished but not street—worst of both worlds. That’s my talent: to find the worst of all the worlds and make it into a one-man show. And I wonder why nobody reads my stuff. Ah God.

That’s more my true variety of swear-word, the call upon God. God, god, god. Please let there be a gas station. Then a little silence to see if honest prayer works.

Nope. More dark ridgelines, two dimensions like torn tar paper.  

Now the gauge shows less than an eighth of a tank …less than the quantity of Coke Zero I drink every day. A two-liter bottle’s worth of gas left, to get me over these mountains that just keep coming like the Chinese at Chosin. That would have been a wonderful death, firing your BAR into the quilted hordes in the freezing Cold War night. If only they hit you somewhere lethal. You definitely don’t want to be wounded at Chosin. Best thing would be to get a good shot right in the head. You don’t want to lose a leg, because though you’ll get free drinks back in Arkansas from patriots, and you’ll have a nice story to tell, the interim between getting shot in the North Korean winter night and ending up back home with a disability pension would not be bearable, would not make a few free drinks and salutes on Veterans’ Day worth it. They always do a quick cut through that part of the war stories, the part with the screaming and the cold and the pure perfect terror. Terror, terror, terror. Fear. They don’t even like it when you use those words. You’re supposed to call it “ anxiety” or “panic attack.” Or, if you’re a stoner, “paranoia.” They hate you saying it, “fear.” They don’t like being around when that deity’s name is spoken aloud. The god Fear. The deity Terror. My sign. What’s your sign, honey? Fear. Fear. Screaming terror in a subcompact in the mountains of Northern California. Please help me. Oh god, or God, I’ll give you the capital letter G willingly if you will help me. Please help me. I have nothing against the letter G. Just take me out of this nightmare scenic beautiful Sierra Club wilderness.

This rock face shows up wet on a curve, all lit in strobe by the trucks’ lights. Yeah yeah, very beautiful, I’ll sign a statement to that effect. And the magma stream tail lights. “Magma”? Always with the metaphors, always the idiot poet. I don’t have the money for metaphor. Literal all the way, Newton and Darwin and Adam Smith. Out of gas, motherfucker. That’s the only metaphor here, and its literal sense is the one at hand. I should have hit the “Delete metaphor” key when I quit my perfectly good tenured job. Dear tropes, thank you for your submission but your tenure has lapsed, your tank is empty, and your connoisseurship of mountain landscapes is not required at the present time, dipshit.

And actually, this forest, these mountains, the ones I am literally in? They aren’t beautiful, no matter how many postcards they adorn. I would go so far as to say this place is ugly and dark. Those peasants were right. Forests—bad. Not beautiful. Sunlight—good. Darkness—bad. Much money to buy gas—good. No money plus darkness plus empty gas tank—bad, sir, very bad. They were right about everything, and I deserted them to read and believe a whole bookshelf of mediocrities pushing formulaic reversals. Ah, where is the nuke to make me forget?

Make a nice Irish ballad,
“Ah where is the nuke that will let me forget,
The dark of the forest, it chills me heart yet…”

Besides, I would say at the moment that the whole concept of “beautiful” is irritating crap. Nothing is beautiful, least of all this dark lethal landscape. I would burn these ridges like that Anime robot in Laputa who can zap a whole ridgeline with his laser eye, ZZZZZZT, if some handy demon would promise me a can of gasoline in exchange. C’mon, please God, let me round this next turn and see a big energy-wasting, planet-killing Shell sign. Warm, yellow logo, oh God please let there be light and Shell and an open station with a sullen hick willing to take this last wad of cash in exchange for fuel to get me out of here.

Now the gauge is very near flat-out Empty. I know that range, from an eighth of a tank to nothing, real well. My poor father drove us around for years working that territory, always broke but never quite running out of gas. He was scared every second, scared about cash. It’s hereditary, but he had three kids. The Confucians say that dying without descendants is the worst insult you can do to your ancestors. I am sorry, father. For all the years we tormented you, designated punching bag. Forgive me, but it’s too late now.

My father never actually ran out of gas, as far as I remember. He worked that last quarter of a tank like a pro. But he was a good man, afflicted with an ungrateful son and a bitter life. I won’t get a break like that. Don’t deserve one. Pure Newtonian, Darwinian outcome for me. A car at rest will remain at rest unless you get cash, and a man with no kids is already dead.

Because I just took a flinch quick look at the gauge and O God it is actually touching the Empty mark now. I’m way too worn out to scream, but I do manage a high whine, falling away to an unconvincing, badly done whimper.

But now it’s a nice long downhill! Yay for physics, yay for downhill, whoever invented down, Archimedes or some genius Greek. Trucks are zooming past me but too bad, I’m not gonna waste gas to please them. Gonna take it at a slow coast.

Another turn and it’s uphill again, a Dr. Seuss ramp over the Lake Shasta reservoir, empty from the drought. Uphill means gas, my very last drop.  

The summit; squinting at the dark for something—and God, God! There’s a sign, kindly green rectangle, says “Lakehead”—I’ve always loved the letter L! Lakehead, come on Lakehead, hero town! Unless it’s one of the cruel signs that lead you on and then slap you with “No Services.” Please be services, Lakehead, savior Lakehead. I don’t even ask you to offer food or lodging. Just fuel, first and greatest of the triad.

I saw something at the curve—something yellow at the base of this hill. Yellow like the yellow scallop of a Shell station. It’s gone in the black trees but it was there, it was there, there is hope. Coast off the exit, down to a little country road and an arrow pointing left, and below the arrow, the two most beautiful words of all, “Fuel” and “Food.” Blessed letter F. The goddess of mercy, her name begins with F. Little sobs, but nice ones, happy and trembling.

The sweetest sight in all the cold dark world: an all-night AM/PM Market with two rows of pumps. And the door is open. It’s open. In this nowhere, in the blank dark night, this blessed AM/PM is open. And I have $37 left, enough to take me onto the plain, where I will advance at will like Hannibal out of the Alps.

This is an updated Edward Hopper scene, so glory to Hopper, and a thousand deaths to the Romantics who made mountains and forests cool. The whisper of the axe for them, who have deceived the people. Bless the fluorescent light bars, brighter than all the torches that lit the old kings’ halls. Rivendell didn’t have unleaded, motherfucker!

I pull up to a pump but I’ll have to turn off the engine. What if it doesn’t start back up? People tried to explain it, internal combustion, and I get the concept but then again—it’s a miracle, whatever they say, when a ton of metal and plastic turns into a magic carpet just cause you turn a stupid ignition key. That, sir, is a miracle, the product of God’s grace alone. I cannot deserve it or earn it. I’m an engine Calvinist, chuckle-chuckle.

But I half-know it’ll start. It always has. Not a hiccup, brave loyal little Kia. Besides, they can give me a jump if it doesn’t. I’m home.

All jolly again. Saved and smug, instantly. Two minutes ago I was keening and howling, and now I’m back to trying to impress myself with with little witticles about Calvinism and car engines. Saved me is as bad as terrified me. Worse, even.

But the joy of this AM/PM and all its lights is instant absolution for all my pedantic sins. It is the most beautiful nest of yolk-yellow light and pebbly asphalt in the world, perched beside the freeway like Buddha of the Wayfarers.

I get out to pay, fingering the money to be sure it hasn’t vanished just to spite me. It’s there, the 20 and the ten and the five and their destroyer escorts, the two singles. I’ll make sure, I’ll hold on to it until I’m actually at the cash register.

Whoa, though, what—something weird, jagged, moving behind the other row of pumps.

As I get out to pay, I see there’s a figure—the attendant?—moving by the other row of gas pumps. Moving in a bad, wrong way. Attendant? No, I can see him now, though he’s hiding his face in the shadow of the fluorescent light bars overhead. A bum or something. Old. White. Better not attack my car. I will kill him if he touches my car. I would be delighted. Face, meet concrete.

He’s twitching around in nothing but a t-shirt. And it’s cold out here.

But I get to go in and give the nice lady my money and get my gas. I’m the lucky one in this antithesis.

The woman at the register is young, black, stocky, and very polite. I suddenly want to chat with her, out of pure joy at finding this place, so I blurt: “God you’d think a place like California would have more gas stations! I’m from Canada and this state has more people than all of there! I mean Canada! I never thought it’d be so long without a gas station between Weed and here!”

She smiles, says, “I know, huh?” and nods, flicking the lever that will permit my gas to flow from the underground pumps into my Kia’s tank. I sounded a little hoarse from all the screaming, but she’s seen worse, she’s fine with me. We thank each other and I can now go and pump the gas.

The weirdo in the t-shirt is is still there, in the middle of the other row of pumps, next to the trash can, keeping in the shadow as best he can. You can’t see him very well; there’s something blurry about him.

He moves wrong; he is inauspicious, but not necessarily to me. Never mind him anyway, because now comes the sweet, familiar ritual, the tea ceremony of my world: take the pump off the cradle—you have to squeeze the trigger a little to lift it free—then you palm the yellow pad for Unleaded Regular—the good loyal Kia runs on Regular—and you wait for the numbers to wheel like a Vegas slot, until they stop at 000.00.

Then you guide the nozzle into the tank, pull the trigger. There’s a scared second when nothing happens, and then the pings and the humming begins. The Kia will live again. It’s a wonderful feeling to be standing there pumping my gas, my car, as entitled as anyone else. Gassed up and ready to go.  

I keep an eye on the guy by the pumps, just in case. Weird, how hard to see he is, right under the zillion-watt lights right over his head. Maybe because he moves funny. Darting, like. He’s angry at the trash can, seems like. Feints at it, to draw it off, and then finally gets his nerve up and lunges at it. I can see him now, his white face in the white light. It’s a very bad face. A street person, obviously, crazy, but they don’t bother me. Lived on Dwight Way for years, had to step over dozens of them just to get home. And later, I kind of was one myself for a few bad weeks. Crazies, street people—they don’t scare, depress, or even interest me.

This one has something else going on, though. He jerks back from the trash can, mission accomplished, whatever it was. Moving like a praying mantis or a trap-door spider. Jerking his joints like a first-lesson karate kid. And every time he makes one of his insect twitches, he makes noises, angry mumbles.

Doesn’t even make sense, somebody like him out here. Not another light anywhere. You can’t beg quarters out here.

He’s communicating with me, with these twitches. You’d be surprised how passive-aggressive even crazy street people can be. Attacking the trash can by way of threatening me. I get that. He’s giving that black plastic trash can sheer Hell. Karate chops, blurry head-fakes, and every one comes with a curse or a grunt, by way of “Take that, trash can!”

Now he’s seen a scrap of paper on the concrete. Feints at it twice with a blurry bony limb, more like a spider leg than an arm. Then the lunge, and he’s got it. Rocking back and forth in triumph now.

I thought he was gonna put it in the trash; a lot of these guys sweep up or do other little jobs in the hope the store owner will front them a candy bar or something. But no, this guy isn’t your garden-variety street trash. He likes that scrap, gonna keep it. Ah, I see: It’s a weapon, and he’s got the upper hand now in this passive-aggressive wizards’ duel he thinks we’re playing. Well, he picked the right opponent. I invented that kind of cowardly malice, and I know exactly what he’s doing: casting spells against me with his scrap. I doubt they’ll work, though. Whatever deity has him doesn’t seem to like him very much, and isn’t likely to hear his plea.

But he has one last best move: the face. He raises his head from the scrap and points his face at me, all lit up in the white glare. It is a very effective move, and a very bad face. I can see now that this thing is, or at least used to be, an old white man. He has gray hair, short, metallic spikes in the light, but the rest of his face is entirely occupied by huge, furious eyes, demon’s eyes.

At first I thought his face just ended under the eyes, but now I can see that he’s tied a black cloth over his face, everything below the eyes. Like an old stagecoach robber. He puts the eyes on me long enough, by his assessment, to destroy the target. Just like the laser robot in Laputa.

Then he clicks his head away, not like a human skeleton’s articulation at all. Whatever’s inside there was something else before it inhabited this old husk.

He got me, too, in a way—spoiled the wonderful ping and hum of the pumps, my one happy moment.

The pump slowed down as it hit $24.35, so I have to go back and get my change.

Just stay away from my Kia, O thing in the black mask. Whatever sent you or inhabits you.

Walking to get my change, I check and see he wants to storm the Kia but he’s chicken like me. All fear and malice, just like me. And he can’t be long for this world, not in this cold with just a t-shirt and a bandana. The gods who rode him will watch unmoved when he dies under a tarp off in the woods. The gods of the defeated are bad gods. Just because they’re defeated doesn’t mean they’re any nicer. Just because we lost doesn’t make us a sad sweet song. A little epiphany there, about 50 years late.  

Whoa, there’re three people in there now: the woman at the register and two white men, all staring at the freak in the bandana. One of the men says something about “…call if he does it again,” and the woman nods. The other man says, “They won’t do a thing.”

They stopped, not wanting a stranger to hear. It took the woman a while to come over to me, and she wasn’t happy when I asked for my change. The way she saw it, I owed it to her because, as I’d blurted to her, she saved me from the mountains. And she was right, she did deserve it. But I needed it. She dumped it in my hand, moved back toward the two men, and they resumed staring at the guy out there.

He merged with the pump shadows as I went back to the car. Didn’t want to waste that face of his– saved it for special occasions. He was obviously going to be ridden to death by whatever insect deity had him, but there was no point in telling him that. He was probably a jerk even before he acquired a rider.

And besides, I had one last chance to terrify myself coming up: The ignition. It should turn, but a lot of things should happen that don’t. Just have to try. I turned, wincing, and God be thanked, the Kia started, and I thanked it with all my heart. You should always thank your car.

I was giving my own passive-aggressive retort to the thing by the pumps. You see, my man? I have a better kind of magic, one that works. Just watch me start it up and pull away in style from your private Hell. We share many traits, bandana-man, but we differ in one fundamental way: I got a good car, and you know what Flannery O’Connor said about that.

A car that starts on command will generally keep running. You have to do something stupid to make it stop, and I would be careful not to do anything stupid to my Kia. I intend to keep my disaster within plausible bounds, to play the game out properly, even if the outcome is already clear.

5 thoughts on “‘A Quarter of a Tank’ by John Dolan”

  1. The distance from Weed to Lakehead is less than 45 miles. If your car makes you sweat that with a quarter tank, it’s probably worth more as scrap. And there are several gas stations in that 45 miles. Not all open after midnight, maybe, but if you’re dumb enough to skip the town of Mt. Shasta and the Castle Crags exit, maybe you deserve your wannabe HST head trip. This is Contrived/Self-inflicted. Good for journaling to keep you out of the funny farm, but not retailable. When my reaction is “take the Mt. Shasta exit, jackwad,” it means you needed a better concept altogether.


  2. Fuck what that other guy said. This is deeply relatable to any neurotic, absent-minded, self sabotaging person out there including me more times than I can count.
    Growing up poor in shitty mountainous country like you described it can be lethal to test your gas gague. Great read.


  3. Your account was brilliantly harrowing in ways too familiar to me.

    The first commenter has obviously never run out of gas on a one-lane bridge, for instance.


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