“Excuse me, could you maybe help me out with some money for gas and the toll.” She smiled. Young, maybe eighteen. Dressed in a white jacket a little too light for how cold it was. A dirty fur collar framed her face, washed out in the fluorescent light. Trailer park pretty. Damaged blond hair.
He’d stopped at the Wawa before the bridge as he always did to piss and grab a coffee for the last push home. He’d been saying “sorry’ to the girl as he turned, as he took her in, but when he saw her face he’d reached into his wallet and pulled out the lone single snugged up against his saved receipts, smiled lopsidedly, said “all I got,” and handed it to her, already heading for his car.
He sat in behind the wheel and set his cup in the holder and thought of the ATM next to the restroom inside, the $400 in his checking account, the girl’s shivery smile. When he got inside he saw her talking to the manager by the sandwich counter. She turned and though he did not meet her eye he registered her smile and worried there was something in it that suggested she’d expected him to come back. It unsettled his charity and made him march quickly to the men’s room. The can was empty and he spent a minute looking at his face in the mirror and feeling foolish, thinking how his momma used to shake her head at him and say “Charley’s big-hearted aunt! Soft touch in a hard world.”
This time, as he made for his car, he did not look for the girl.
As he passed exit 30 for Whitehall Road, he flipped on the radio to the oldies station he liked. He recognized the tune right off and hummed along as the boy’s voice from a life ago sang:
Just walk away Renee
You won't see me follow you back home
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same
You're not to blame
An image of his first wife, Marti, came into his mind then, on a pay phone outside a 7-11 on a steamy August night in Newark, Delaware, all manner of bugs bouncing and buzzing on the fluorescent light above her head, listening to her tell her mom and dad in Vermont that they had made it okay and the new place was nice and they’d have a phone soon. As he approached the next exit for Sandy Point Park, he saw LAST EXIT BEFORE TOLL beneath the sign. He said out loud, “Well, I’ll be a fool then,” yanked the wheel and crossed three empty lanes to make the ramp in time.
On the ride back he remembered the story from church of the good Samaritan and goosed the gas a little and pictured how he’d ask Renee (she became the girl in the song somehow as he got back on 50 West) which car was hers and tell her to pull it up to the pump where he’d fill it and then she could follow him through the bridge toll and he’d cover her, get her home safe. He was pleased as this plan allowed him to know for sure where the money was going.
He pulled in the opposite drive from the one he’d exited moments ago. He could not see her outside. But it was in the 20s so she was likely still inside. She wasn’t though. He went to the ATM and took out $50 and bought a couple of packs of peppermint gum. He craned his neck and looked back toward the racks of chips and pretzels, coffee station, freezer cases.
When he got back in the car, he wheeled slowly around the parking lot. He wondered about the dark cab of the semi parked around back. He thought again of the song as he got on 50 East, but he left the radio off .
You’re not to blame.
But he was. He knew he was.
James Keegan has published poems in Southern Poetry Review and Poet Lore, and his chapbook Of Fathers and Sons. He is an associate professor of English at The University of Delaware (Georgetown). He is also an actor and has been a member of the resident acting troupe of The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. He lives in Milton, Delaware, with his wife, the writer Anne Colwell.