Jim drove past the timeworn gas station every morning on his way to the Cafe on the Square. It had been six decades since he’d talked the owner, old McGrady, into giving him a summer job there. Most days he didn’t give the run down place a second thought, but on steamy summer mornings like this one, when yesterday’s heat still hung in the air, he let himself go back.
In the summer of 1952 he’d been seventeen, long on adventure and short on sense. Close-cropped white blonde hair made for a startling contrast against his smooth, dark brown skin that covered tight muscles, firm from years of helping on his uncle’s farm. But he didn’t want to grow corn and wheat like every other Kansas boy he knew. Some how, some way, that job at the filling station would be his ticket out.
He’d been pumping gas and cleaning windshields for three weeks when the sky blue Cadillac convertible with California plates pulled in. The driver wore a yellow dress, white driving gloves and big sunglasses. A white scarf covered most of her red curls but several strands had escaped and continued to dance in the light breeze.
She yawned, her crimson stained mouth making a perfect “O” and then stretched, arms high and back arched. Jim tried not to stare as he cleaned the bugs off her windshield.
“I’ve been driving all night,” she said, pulling the sunglasses down to look at him.
“Yes ma’am,” Jim replied, not sure what to say.
“You know how to drive?” she asked.
“I do. I’ve been driving since I was twelve.”
“Oh god, please tell me you’ve more than three years experience under your belt,” she sighed and gave a pointed look at the waistband of his jeans.
“Five years, ma’am.”
“Seventeen,” he heard her whisper.
“I’ll pay you one hundred dollars to drive me to California, plus your bus ticket back,” she said.
Jim didn’t say anything. He fidgeted with the towel in his hands and retucked his white tee shirt into his jeans.
“Right this minute. I need a nap and don’t have time to stop.”
“I’ll be right back. My name’s Jim, by the way,” he said as he turned and darted into the store.
She was in the passenger side when he returned. Jim got behind the wheel, started the engine and pulled out of the station.
“Which way?” he asked.
“West,” she said, and then closed her eyes.
The two-lane road cut through miles and miles of prairie. Jim thought about what Old McGrady had said when he had run inside with the news.
“Well, son, be sure she’s just wanting ya for your drivin’. And leave a note for your uncle. Should take ya two days there and two back,” he said as he pushed a pen and paper across the counter.
Jim had never felt so free. About two hours into the trip he realized he was farther away from home than he’d ever been in his life. His brow furrowed as he looked across the wheat fields. No different from back home, he thought. The woman stirred in her sleep, but didn’t wake. Jim kept driving west.