Jim Smith: A story of goodwill in the Wild West
When I started my car I noticed today’s mistake of the day; I was running on fumes, the needle on my gas gauge barely moved when I started the engine.
There were no gas stations in Paradise since the town combusted in November, so, I rerouted my internal Siri and headed to the little market by Butte College.
I drove at geezer speed until I rethought. The trip was almost entirely down-hill, a familiar direction in my life. My new thought was that if I got my speed to up around my age (73), then, if I ran out of gas, I might be able to coast the rest of the way.
I was still going 50 when I hit the roundabout. I slid around the circle on my two good tires, and wheeled up to the pump with fumes to spare.
Until we got evacuated, I’d never gotten gas with a credit card so, I read the menu on the pump and followed the directions. When I finished the quiz (Pet’s name? My best friend growing up? Limbs missing?) I entered my zip code; declined. I tried two more times: declined; declined. I went inside to get help from Wayne the gas-pump jockey behind the counter.
“I tried to get the pump outside to work and it told me to come in here because nobody works in here either.”
“Well, let’s see what we can do. How much gas did you want?”
“Fill ‘er up.”
“You can go high, and get change, or pick a number short of full and we’ll run yer card right here,” he said, patting his miniature TV on the counter.
“How much is gas?”
“Four bucks twelve.”
“Okay, 40 should fit.” I kept my investment to a minimum. No matter the price of gas, I only bought 20 bucks’ worth. So, while America paid outrageous rising rates for gas, mine never went over 20 bucks. Forty sounded extravagant, but I’d done it last week.
“Okay, slide your card.”
“I slid my card down the slot then got quiz two: (name, birthdate, favorite pizza topping, and the site of my mother’s birth-mark). Finally I got to the essay portion of the test, Zip code … “declined.”
“Ok, here’s what we’re gonna do,” I did … declined.
“You’re sure you live in Paradise?”
“Well, my house is ashes on the ground now, but my cat’s there.”
“Wayne, let me do this …”
I turned around and saw there was a line of nine people behind me. I was holding up the entire county. Then, from seventh position in line, a young cowboy walked to the front of the line, while I explained to Wayne that I hadn’t been declined this many times since high school.
“Let me help you, sir,” said the cowboy-hatted stranger.
I assumed his calling me sir was a reference to my senior blond hair and premature wrinkles. I hadn’t liked a cowboy since John Wayne punched a hippie at the Democratic convention in Chicago, and I wasn’t over it. But this wasn’t just any cowboy, this man was surely a descendant of Roy Rogers, one of the good cowboys.
“Forty seven eighty two,” said Wayne.
The cowboy put his card in the slot, took the quiz and passed. The clerk bagged up the seven eighty-two, and the cowboy nudged my elbow toward the door.
It wasn’t until we got outside that I remembered I had cash. I pulled a wad of nearly 300 bucks out of my pocket.
“Put that away,” the cowboy said.
“Well, thank you, I really appreciate your help.”
“No sweat, you have a good day.”
I put the gas in my car, walked over to the cowboy who was gassing up his enormous pick-up truck that was towing a horse trailer with 10 horses in it.
I held out two twenties,”Really, man, let me give you money.”
“Thanks anyway, but I heard you say that your house burned down. When that fire happened, I was in Oregon and I felt bad that people lost everything. I wanted to do more to help but by the time I got back, everyone was being helped, and I was too busy running the ranch to pursue it. Actually, I should be thanking you for giving me a chance to help. Now put that money away, before someone thinks we’re playing Brokeback Mountain.”
I looked at the money, shrugged, put the money in my pocket. I shook his hand, thanked him again, and took off. As I sped through the roundabout, I looked at the silver hood of my car and asked aloud, “Who was that masked man?”
Jim Smith lives in Paradise.
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