It was a scorching day in June.
She was at the fuel pump, cell phone pressed to her ear, trying to get the nozzle into the opening on her car while juggling keys, gas cap, and listening to the phone. She wasn't frowning, quite, but she wasn't smiling. It was an old look, a tired look, an expression that spoke volumes of such phone calls flooding her day, a tired patience that was pained, a sort of wistfulness about the edges as if remembering or dreaming of better days, or even minutes. She had to go inside to pay for her fuel, returning to her car with a dejected expression and her phone still pressed to her ear.
When the van pulled up to the pump behind her, she didn't notice it. She was busy trying to take care of too many other things to see the world around her. The driver of the van got out, fueled up, took her receipt, and got back into her seat, watching the rest of the motorists at the station - the man on the ground under his car, tapping at something with hammer, then getting in and trying to start it. The woman who went into the building and came out with cigarettes, a fountain drink, a lottery ticket, scowling. The woman at the pump fumbling her keys, her phone, stuttering and stammering, trying to speak but seemingly interrupted every few words by some sort of tirade.
The voice from the phone carried to the van and its driver, not in detail but enough for her to hear anger. The other woman's face confirmed that what she was hearing was unpleasant. She pulled the dispensing handle on the fuel pump.
It only took a moment.
The pump nozzle jumped from her car, spraying liquid in an arc that went from the tank to the woman's torso and face, finally falling to the ground before shutting off. There she stood, dripping, trying to tell whoever was on the other side of that phone conversation what had just happened. She finally hung up, hung her head, and sighed.
The van driver left her van, telling her children t wait a few minutes, Mama would be right back, here's a snack and she'd leave the AC on.
She approached the driver of the car.
"Are you okay?"
"Did any get in your eyes? Your mouth?"
"No, it's okay, I just need to go wash my hands." She looked at the pump, where it was clear that most of the two dollars in fuel she'd paid for had landed on the pavement. Her eyes teared up.
"Come on inside and get cleaned up." The van driver placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"Thanks. I was on the phone...I don't know what happened...I was talking to my husband. He's mad because I went out for a drive and got a little lost, turned around, and took longer than he expected. I ran out of gas...just stopped here to get enough to get home."
"I'm so sorry. Rough day."
They went into the gas station. The woman from the car found the restroom, washed her face, hands, and arms, rinsed her shirt a little, and came out. The van driver walked her back to her car.
"I bought you some more fuel. It's only ten dollars...I'm afraid things are a little tight right now...but hopefully it'll get you home."
The driver of the car cried.
"I don't...I can't...you don't...I can pay you back, just give me your address."
"No...just pay it forward. Some day you'll run across someone who needs a friend. Be that friend."
"I will. Wait! Here...take this!" She fumbled in her car, removed the decoration that was hanging from her mirror,a moon and stars with a prismatic crystal suspended from the bottom, the words "Follow your dreams" etched into it.
"It's okay, you don't need to..."
"Please! I sell these at the store where I work, I can get another one! Please..."
"Thank you. Take care, now..."
The woman fueled her car and the van drove away.