I was the night shift cashier at a gas station/mini-mart in Bridgeport, California one summer. Ours may have been the only gas station or store open all night on that stretch of 395 between Mammoth and Topaz. Not too many people pulled in, but we got enough to make it worthwhile to the station’s owner.
One night in late August, just before four a.m. when the chill was really beginning to set in, an old MG roadster bounced up to the pumps. It was top down and stacked with suitcases, crushed u-haul boxes, picture frames, a bit of old carpet rolled up, a stack of pots and pans and all tied down like it was Tom Joad’s.
The driver came into the store half frozen and poured a cup of coffee from the pot next to the condiments and said, “Man, I am sure glad you’re here! I’ve got a sleeping bag out there but no tent!” He was short with a mop of black hair and deep sunburned creases at the corners of his eyes.
“It’s a cold one alright.”
“And no top on the car! I don’t even have a hat!”
It went like that for a while about the cold and the empty highway and the pretty mountains at night while he warmed up over his coffee and then he said he oughta go fill it up and get moving. I followed him out and watched him unscrew the cap and start pumping.
“Hey,” I said. “You moving somewhere? I hate to ask but…”
“Hey no, I get you. I’ve been down in Mexico for, it was four years in May, and now it’s time to go home. End of story. Mexico’s great, but it ain’t home.”
“You came all the way up from Mexico like that?”
“Just Baja. It was hot as fuck, so I’ve been trying to drive mostly at night to go easy on the car. It’s not made to carry a load, if you couldn’t tell.” He laughed. “I didn’t guess there’d be no gas stations open up here though!”
“Just us pretty much.”
“Lucky for me!”
“So how much farther are you going?”
“Only to Reno.”
“Oh that’s close. You can be there before dawn.”
“That’s the thing. It could be tricky just pulling into the driveway. My wife and daughter don’t know I’m coming home.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“When I left, I didn’t say nothing, so they could be surprised when I get there. But look here.” The pump clunked. He put the nozzle back in its cradle and shifted through some of the junk in the back seat and pulled out a guitar. “Brand new. For my daughter. You think she’ll like it?”
“Does she play one?”
“She used to!”