Lidia stops at a run-down gas station, many miles from nowhere. The unchanging blue sky is a vast cloudless prison. She stands before a single red and white gas pump, not self-service. The station wears a faded gray jacket of weather-beaten wood. Its red front door, mute and unthinking, is in need of a paint job.
She looks toward the two-lane asphalt highway, County 501, then back at the station. “Anyone here? I need some gas and I’m in a hurry.”
Lidia is startled by a figure coming around the side of the station. The man’s shoulders are hunched and he walks with a tall wooden cane that reaches the level of his watery eyes. The cane is knotty and curved. Near its top, just below the old man’s arthritic knuckles, is the carved visage of a face, either of a man or a god, its beard flowing downward.
“You work here, sir?”
The old man says nothing as he shuffles over to a tattered lawn chair. He sits with great effort and the chair creaks. “Jessica will be out lickety-split.”
Lidia peers through a dirty window but can see only a few stacked cans of oil and a grimy desk. “Maybe I need to go inside and let her know I’m here.”
“I was young once,” says the old man, who strokes the white stubble on his chin.
A confused look crosses Lidia’s face. “I was too.”
“You’re still young. You’re like my daughter. Blonde. Tall.”
“Is Jessica your daughter?”
“My daughter’s long gone.”
“She moved away?”
The man nods. “Some forty years ago. About your age, she was. Pretty. Boys chasing her. But she followed some son-of-a-bitch to Topeka. He used to beat her. She died when she was twenty-three. Murdered.”
Lidia winces, as if she’d received an electric shock. She raises her hand to a bruise on her right forearm. Still tender.
The man pulls a stained handkerchief, once white, from his back pocket. He blows his nose. A honking that fills the parched prairie. “I know the bastard killed her.”
“That’s terrible,” says Lidia, realizing how inadequate her response is. She feels chilled, though the temperature hovers just above ninety. She raises her hand to a spot below her left eye. The puffiness is gone but the purpling is still visible without makeup.
The old man’s chin juts toward 501. “They couldn’t pin anything on him, and he went off scot free, even though he killed my little girl. Since then I got nobody.” He raises the hand with the handkerchief to make a point. “A man’s only riches are his children, you know.”
Lidia stands motionless. The feeling of entrapment is suffocating. There is no wind, no movement at all save for flies troubling a small animal carcass by the road.
The old man’s face contorts, and he presses the filthy handkerchief to his face. His shoulders shake.
“I’m so sorry,” says Lidia, but her words feel bloodless. She shoots an angry glance back at the red door. Where the hell is this alleged Jessica?
As if on cue, the red door opens and a middle-aged woman in a flannel shirt and jeans emerges. The woman gives Lidia a cheery smile. “Need some gas, hon?”
“Yes,” says Lidia, too loudly. As she follows Jessica—this must be Jessica—to the pump– she says, “It takes premium.”
“Sorry, hon, got only regular.”
“Well, that’ll have to do. Fill it up.”
Jessica’s face remains frozen in a smile. She inserts a key into the old pump and it sputters to life. She lifts the lever, pulls the nozzle from its cradle, unscrews the gas cap, and inserts the nozzle. The pump sounds like a hoarse old woman as its bell registers gallons.
“Fancy car,” says Jessica, and Lidia nods.
“About the old gentleman’s daughter,” says Lidia to Jessica’s smile, as unmoving as the sky. “Such a tragic thing. Is he, uh, are you two related?”
“Naw, we ain’t related. I’ve just known him forever. Old Fred sits here all day and chews on the sorrows.” Jessica’s face turns cloudy. “The thing with his daughter, it ruined him. Got divorced, started heavy into drinking. Doesn’t have a dollar to his name now, poor old coot, so I give him his meals and he sleeps on a cot in the garage if he’s not passed out someplace.”
The pump clicks off and Lidia owes $39.50. She fishes in her purse and pulls out a credit card.
Jessica’s smile returns. “We never been set up for credit here, hon. Just cash.”
“Oh,” says Lidia, biting her lip. She opens her billfold and frowns. She has a fifty. It was all she could grab from her husband’s top drawer as she scrambled to leave before he came home from the office. She hands the bill to Jessica, who says, “Let me see if I got change.”
Just then the man’s sobbing escalates into a bitter wailing. “My little girl, God in heaven, what you have you done to my little girl?” His gnarled cane clatters to the gravel beside his chair.
Lidia feels a lump rise in her throat. She looks at the two-lane asphalt, a refuge shimmering in the afternoon heat. She needs to be on that road. She needs to be moving.
“Keep the change,” she calls out to Jessica, who stops at the red door. “Give it to Fred.” Her voice is streaked with panic.
Jessica turns, holds up the fifty-dollar bill in her stained hand, and gives Lidia another bright smile.
Rudy Koshar lives in Madison, Wisconsin. His work appears in Guernica, Stockholm Review of Literature, decomP, and some forty other magazines. He is a former Pushcart prize nominee, Guggenheim Fellow, and recipient of a Notable Story award in StorySouth’s annual Million Writers’ Award competition. Read more of his fiction here.