Out of Gas

The rain fell. It fell in sheets. It fell in drops as penetrating as buckshot. It slowed and still fell: a light, widely woven blanket of needles, piercing, stinging. It was day, but dark like dusk. The old man watched. Explosions of water rattled his windshield. He saw from inside the bursts, through the glass. They wanted to touch him. Some crept in through the cracked rubber seams of the door. They pooled together on the floorboard. They soaked through his sock; his one foot was bare, he had no shoes, but the one sock had no holes. One car passed, honked it’s horn wildly, and swerved. His car’s rear was jutting into the road where he had pulled off. It was the only car he’d seen all day. It drove off too fast for the wet road.

He was cold. He had gotten used to being hungry. He had gotten used to being alone. He had gotten used to the small bugs he could not see but itched very much in his beard. The dirt under his nails would no longer come out no matter how hard he picked, and he had gotten used to it. But the cold was still terrible. His feet were tough and leathery and calloused. He did not feel it when broken glass in the street would puncture his foot. Sometimes he would not know until the infection had reached healthier skin near his ankle, and the color turned odd. But the cold of the wet sock in the pool of invading water bit him, and his skin felt young and fragile again.

The old man had been driving when the car began to sputter. It was not broken. He knew it was because he did not have enough gas. It would soon run out, so he had pulled over. The rain was unexpected, but this would have happened anyway. He held a piece of paper in his hands with an address on it. Droplets of water that crawled across the inside roof of the car fell onto it and began to run the ink. It did not matter. He would never get to the address. It was not unusual for him to be in his car in the rain. He lived in his car. He knew his car well. He knew just what position he could lie in to fall asleep. He knew the best way to eat (if he had food) without spilling. But that was in town. There were other cars, other people; some would help him. Here, on the road, he was alone, except for the one car that passed going too fast in the rain.

Now he turned on the car. Heat blew from the vents, under and over and to each side of the steering column, onto his feet and face and hands. The rain beat on the roof, aluminum pings, bathwater filling a claw-foot tub. When the tub was filled, he would bathe. The heat from the vents touched his closed eyelids, then stopped. He was cold again, in the stalled car, it was raining.

He turned the key. The car was slow to start. He pushed the pedal to the floor and the heat came again. Water on the engine boiled. Steam rose from the hood and swirled. A little girl picked up the teapot and poured two cups, one for her, one for him. He let it steep. He looked at her, sweet child. He sipped his tea, it made his belly warm. The pot was still clacking. It was boiling over. The little girl was gone. The car stopped. A stream of water ran down his forehead and nose. It dripped over his lips. His tongue tasted it, cold.

The paper was like tissue in his hands now. The car no longer put up much resistance to the invading water. He smelled himself. He started the car again, but it stopped almost immediately. He let it rest. He could feel the engine inhale gasoline. He tasted tea. The car came to life. Warm air, saturated with moisture hit his body. She grabbed hold of his hand. Her touch was warm and comforting. She looked up at him. Her eyes watered with tears. He saw his face reflected in those tiny ponds of sorrow. How beautiful he was in her eyes. The car stopped. Her eyes were far away now, outside in the rain. They grew brighter and larger. His car door opened. A hand reached in and touched his shoulder. The warmth of it spread through his body. “You look beautiful, ” he told her. She smiled and pushed the hair back on his forehead. She raked his beard with her nails. He tried the car again. At last it would not start. She took his hand and lifted him from his seat. The rain did not touch him. “Will you take me to our little girl? I know where she is at last.” He showed her the melting paper in his hand. She nodded. Hand in hand they walked down the yellow line of the road, and the falling sheets of rainwater opened around them, and closed behind.

The men who found him did not understand. The old man’s smile was hidden behind his matted beard. The car’s battery was dead, but the ignition was on, and the weight of his body was arched to push down hard on the accelerator. They found the address in his hand. It had smudged; they could not read it. They had the car towed away. His body was sent back to town.

Richard Cassone recently moved from Paris to Venice Beach, for reasons he can’t quite reconcile. He is the writer of the film Say I Love You, But Whisper which premiered at the First Annual Flint Michigan Film Festival in 2003. He lives in a small cottage near the beach, and is pestered by a squirrel named Spaggio while he writes.