‘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.

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