Rebecca Andem – Fumes

Fumes

R

“Please keep going. Please keep going.”

R
A mantra, a prayer, it didn’t matter as long as it worked. The road ahead disappeared, a straight line evaporating into a haze of heat. Rice fields, spiky green with new shoots, flanked my peripheral vision and curved off into the horizon. They seemed to circle in behind me. I passed a wat and the occasional warehouse. Nothing else. Trucks sped past. Their hot wind pushed me further onto the breakdown lane. I held my breath through clouds of diesel fumes that gathered grit. Pebbles spun off their wheels and pelted my visor. Again, I glanced down. I wasn’t going to make it.

R
“Please be around the bend. Please be around the bend.”

R
I changed my plea, anything to get me there. But there were no bends in this road. I slowed down. I remembered a moment from childhood, my mother coaxing an enormous black sedan down a country road. She drove slowly, and my sister and I practically squirmed out of our skin we were so anxious. We wanted her to hurry up and get to the station before the tank was empty, but she said driving slowly would save gas. I was willing to try it, but I didn’t have a chance. Was it my imagination, or was the moped slowing down of its own accord?

R
I began to picture the possibilities. How far could I push a moped?  How much did a moped weigh? The temperature had been well over 100 degrees for days. I had one inch of melted Yogurt Fruit Tea hanging in a little plastic bag from my helmet hook. When I looked down to check that it was still there, I couldn’t resist another obsessive glance at the gas gauge. The needle hovered near the bottom of the red zone.

R
But then there was a town. It rose out of the heat. There must have been a bend in the road. I scanned the cluttered sidewalks, the greasy little shops, the side alleys. I looked up through clusters of wires and signs, holding my breath for that giant yellow shell or a simple Esso, a bold Caltex star. Cars and motorcycles passed me from behind while several others came toward me, shortcutting through opposing traffic to get where they wanted to go. I dodged them and kept looking. They were all running on gas. Where did they get the gas?

R
But then the town was gone. I contemplated turning back. Perhaps I could take my own little wrong-way shortcut, but my u-turns were still a point of embarrassment – and danger – although in comparison, a farang woman pushing a moped down the highway was bound to draw some stares.

R
While I tried to make up my mind, I covered ground. Somehow the moped continued to run. I saw a sign up ahead, one of the official ones, black script on white, and I willed the moped forward. Suphan Buri 15. The needle rested at the bottom of the gauge. I couldn’t see even the tiniest sliver of red beneath it. How far could I go on fumes?

R

Up ahead tall trees bordered the road. They cast a shadow, a long, cool shadow, and I let off the accelerator, yearning to drift into it like a leaf into an eddy. But heat rose off the pavement, and another truck bullied past. I squinted against the grit and almost slowed to a stop. When I opened my eyes again, I saw it. Just past the trees, an entrance, a slight rise of tar off to the left. And there at eye level sat an old-fashioned sign with large removable numbers, white on navy blue. I didn’t need a logo to know what those numbers stood for. Gas.

R
Two old women sat on a concrete hump between the pumps. When I braked in front of them and turned the engine off, one of the women climbed to her feet. She wore oversized shorts and a polo shirt, and the bagginess made her thin arms and legs appear birdlike. Her hair was slicked back, and her smile was missing every other tooth.
She spoke, and I shook my head. I took the key from the ignition and unlocked the seat latch. I pointed toward the tank and mimed filling it up. She smiled again.

R
“How much?” she asked in English.

R
“Full,” I said.

R
“Hòk,” she said. “Six.”

R
I didn’t think six gallons would fit, but I figured she’d realize that soon enough. And then I remembered the concept of liters. Perhaps six would fit, but if they didn’t, would I have to pay for them? Why did I have to decide up front? Once again I mimed filling up the tank.

R

“Full,” I said.

R
She counted off on her fingers for me in English. “One, two, three, four, five, six.”

R
“Okay.” I was too tired, too hot, and too grateful to care about particulars, but just to be sure, I put the seat down and pointed at the gauge. “Empty.”

R
When she saw the gauge, her mouth dropped open. She flipped up the seat again and removed the cap to the gas tank. Bending over, she pressed her eye close to the opening to survey the inside, and when she stood up, it was with a gush of wonder. She gestured to the other old woman, who hurried over and repeated the motion, staring in close, standing with amazement. They chattered rapidly with each other, and then the first woman turned back to me.

R
“One hundred,” she said.

R
I shook my head, confused. Did the price go up when the customer was quite obviously stupid? The woman pointed at the last sale on the pump. The numbers were the old-fashioned kind that flipped. Either they were stuck on one hundred, or the customer before me had bought the same amount. Perhaps it was a standard amount to buy. I didn’t care. I didn’t even calculate how many liters that might be or what the price would be in US dollars. She could have said five hundred baht.

R

“Okay,” I said.

R
She pointed again to make sure and repeated the number. We agreed, and she picked up the nozzle. Within a second, the numbers on the pump had flipped around to one hundred again. I looked down. I could see the rainbow sheen of gas in my tank, right up to the brim, the perfect amount. Perhaps I wasn’t the only customer who took a chance with fate now and then.

R
The woman replaced the cap, and I paid her. She laughed and pointed at me.

R
“You good,” she said.

R
I laughed. I pointed at her. “No, you good.”

R
I straddled the seat and started the engine. I smiled my thanks one last time, and then with a little rush of power, I maneuvered down the sloped entrance and accelerated into traffic. The heat and haze encompassed me again, but I felt free. I glanced in my wing mirror. The station was already gone.

R

R

R

 

 

Rebecca Andem earned an MFA through the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine. Her short fiction has appeared in journals such as Petrichor Review, Hamilton Stone Review, and Upstreet. She also has three novels. Currently, she lives in Chengdu, China, where she teaches writing at an international high school.

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