All Stories, General Fiction

Helen vs The Gas Pump by Joel Pedersen

Helen stood at the back of her car, in the unrelenting heat of summer in the desert, staring blankly at the pump. This was the first time she had pumped gas since David had passed. A great, vital man. A locomotive halted by the failure of the tiniest part, cascading into ever progressive, irrevocable destruction. It was one of the worst things she had ever experienced, and when the end came it was the worst relief. She had her hand on the valve when, looking back at her car, past the faded McCain 2008 bumper sticker, there was no gas cap cover. She remembered then that she had always been on the opposite side of the car, in the passenger seat, as David pumped gas. So she got back in the car and turned it around.

The funeral had been good, as funerals go. Her children had driven and flown in with their spouses and children, and, despite her sense of loss, for a week or so her family helped fill the emptiness of the house. She wished she had asked one of them to show her how to fill up a gas tank, but it never occurred to her to ask, or to them that she wouldn’t know. She wasn’t an incapable woman, obviously. Raising three people from infancy to preparing them for college was not a trivial errand, nor something that could be achieved while reclining on a couch. It was a full-time job requiring effort and initiative, a good mind and a good heart. Nor was she utterly dependent on David. He was working for more than half of their waking lives until he retired a few years ago, and she had a lot to look after on her own. Just this one task: David always made sure the tank was full.

She got out of the car and again approached the pump. She lifted the valve, and looked at the pump, and tried to decipher the instructions for payment. They were faded and peeled to the point of illegibility. She replaced the valve on the pump. She walked around to the other pumps, but they were all in much the same condition. So, since she was able to get no information from them, she walked to the cashier’s, but a little sign taped up in the glass door read, ‘Closed. Please pay at the pump.’

She wasn’t sure if she had enough gas to make it home and back, or even if she had enough to make it home, and having to walk in this heat was not safe for anyone. She walked back to her car. She stood.

Between the heat, her tinnitus, and the droning of cicadas she started to feel a lonely despair begin to turn into a bit of panic. She picked at a crack in the McCain campaign sticker, and thought about David. Both of them valued self-sufficiency, personal responsibility. So why should she find herself flummoxed by such a simple thing? What failure led to her inability to take care of herself in such a simple way, with such potentially dire consequences? ‘David should have thought of this,’ she thought, but immediately countered, ‘I should have thought of this.’

Eager to distract herself, to perhaps make some progress, she turned to the gas cap cover. She tried to open it and found that it would not open, that she didn’t even know how to open it. She pinched her fingertips between the cover and the body and tried to pry, but no luck. She pushed. Nothing. She tried pushing all corners, with increasingly frantic movements she tried prying all sides, until she was just slapping the cover with tears welling in her eyes.

She stopped. She felt foolish, and only grateful that no one was around to see her. She slumped against the car and sighed.

Over the droning din she heard the sound of an engine in the distance, and soon saw a vehicle crest the hill in the shimmering heat. As it approached she saw it was a faded orange Volkswagen bus with patches of grey primer and a faded blue drivers side door. When the van pulled in Helen froze between the pump and her car, trying to figure out if she should pretend she was doing something or ask for help. It stopped at her pump, just opposite. When the door opened, and the occupant emerged in his ripped jeans and stained t-shirt, she leaned and peeked into the back windows of the van. There were clothes hanging and bedding strewn in the back. At this point she decided she was definitely not going to ask for help.

She listened as the stranger finished filling up his van and waited for him to leave, but nothing happened. In a moment, a head appeared around the pump. He had unkempt hair, a metal ring in his lip, but kind, curious eyes.

“Is everything okay?” he asked.

She blinked. “I… don’t know how to fill up my car.”

“Ah, don’t worry. Would you like me to show you how?”

“Yes,” she said, “Please.”

Joel Pedersen

Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay 

12 thoughts on “Helen vs The Gas Pump by Joel Pedersen”

  1. Hi Joel,
    This made me a wee bit emotional. (And by fuck that doesn’t happen often!!)
    Now, I’ll be honest, if we do publish this we could be open to all those Women lib (Why did I capitalise that??) Nazis (Same question) stating that this is ridiculous as any woman can fill up their car.
    NAW they fucking cannae – Read the story!! Think about the situation!! She was a very capable woman but that was the one thing that her husband did – So fucking what!!!
    If Gwen leaves me I have a list of things that won’t happen – Not cause I am useless, I’m just useless at certain things and all of them have to do with technology – Eating and living I am fine with!!
    I loved the line ‘It was the worst relief.’
    There are two things that have crippled me with my dad dying. (Not even a year back and still have that ‘anniversary’ to face) The first is that bastard of a disease took away his ability to articulate. He could speak but when he got to a point, the words went. That’s a bit of a pisser when you are trying to leave some feeling. And the other thing is, and here is my point about her managing the petrol, at my mums, the wild birds aren’t fed anymore. Of course she could, but she won’t, as that was what my dad did.
    Okay, maybe I am twisting this and being a bit emotional about it, but I thought this was extremely well done. The inane job of filling the car was brilliantly tied into her grief.
    Grief was what this was all about.
    Due to the observation and understanding, this is as good as I have read for a while.


  2. Totally agree with Hugh about the emotion in this – genuinely moving, and very real small moment bringing into focus something so big – the grief of a lost one. I love how you’ve taken the everyday, the supposedly simple, little process and used it to magnify something overwhelming. Beautifully done.


  3. Joel
    This is a fine example of writing an interesting story from one of those little things that can get big just once, and always seem to find the way to do it in public.


    1. Hits the nail on grief and loss and how even something so apparently trivial can blow up into something so major it could loosen one’s grip on things – beautifully written and nice to see a positive ending!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Such a beautiful story wrapped in truth and honesty. Life is often about the small things that don’t come to mind till they become big due to a life change or change of perspective. She is right to be afraid, confused, and basically pissed off. Love how a slight nudge at the end makes her let go and move on. Wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Joel,
    Reading this, I suspect you don’t “flounder” at much. This was a touching tale of how the loss of a spouse manifests itself in so many ways. Using the mysteries of operating a gas pump brought that home.
    As aside, anyone who can work “tinnitus” into story deserves an “atta boy”.
    Good work.
    Ed McConnell

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hey there to everyone who commented! Waking up to your kind words this morning was one of the nicest things to have happened to me in a while. I’m so happy to see that it resonated, and was taken in the spirit in which it was intended. I think most people naturally develop divisions of labor in long term relationships, which over time can lead to blind spots regardless of gender.
    Thank you, everyone, so much!
    P.S. Hugh, I’m sorry for your loss. I lost my father 6 years ago. It completely rewrote my world, and left a large question mark in many important areas of my life. He too was the one to feed the wild birds in the yard. It’s a profound loss.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Joel,
      Thanks for the thanks and the kind words.
      Grief or maybe more so, loss, makes you revaluate so many weird and sometimes uncomfortable aspects of relationships and life.


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