I was 18 when I learned to drive a car.
I was 68 when I learned how to put gas in it.
Why did it take so long?
Because that was my husband’s job and after he died his jobs became mine. Besides that, the gas tanks scared me to death. I’d seen too many movies where gasoline spilled on the ground, a careless cigarette got tossed into it, and the whole station blew up.
For several months my children took turns filling the tank and I was so grateful I could have cried. When no one was around and the tank was almost empty I felt panic stricken. I took slow deep breaths and realized there was no way out. I needed to learn how to do this awful job myself. But I needed help. So I called my neighbor and said, “Gracie, do you mind going with me to the Shell station to teach me how to use the gasoline pump?”
I actually thought she would say, “No problem.” But she didn’t. She said, “You mean…you don’t know how?”
“No. Denny always did it. ”
“I can’t believe that you drive a car and don’t know how to put gas in it.”
I was not a dimwit. Gracie acted like I didn’t know how to tie my own shoes. I said, “Well, it’s true. Will you teach me?”
The silence meant that Gracie’s shoulders had dropped a foot and she was thinking it over. I waited until she said, “Okay, let’s get this over with.”
On the way to the Shell station at the foot of our hill she said not one word. It made me uncomfortable. I wanted her to break the silence and she finally did after I stopped at the first tank. She said, “You’re not even close. Pull the car up. Not that far. Back up. Not that much. Try again. Okay, okay, stop. Now–step one: get out your credit card and stand next to me and watch what I do.
I felt like I was back in fourth grade when the teacher tried to explain the ruler to me; all those lines and numbers. I wasn’t gettin’ the ruler at all and was more interested in her pretty fingernails and the ring she wore. The same was true with Gracie at the gas pump. I was in awe, distracted by her efficiency, not listening to the instructions she rattled off so fast they flew right past my brain. I didn’t have the nerve to tell her to slow down so I just kept watching her smooth moves. She must have been nine-years-old when she learned how to drive.
At least my car tank was now full. But two weeks later it was empty again and the kids were all at work. I had no choice but to call Gracie again, because I could not recall her instructions.
She said, “I already taught you how to do this. Have you forgotten?”
“Yes, I have.”
“Then write it down this time.”
I was beginning not to like Gracie very much but I needed her, so I wrote fast because, again, she was hurrying. I think I got it right and thanked her over and over, realizing that my gratefulness was kind of sickening.
After the tank got low the third time I took my notes with Gracie’s instructions and tried hard to leave the impression with other customers that I had done this all my life. But I was nervous and had purposely left the card on the seat so I could pretend to be looking for something in the glove compartment while reading step one. After step one was accomplished I glanced at steps two, three, and four. I managed to look like filling the tank was a ho-hum job instead of a nerve-wracking necessity.
It seemed that I was finished but I was looking for a button that said, The End.” I was so afraid of pressing the wrong one. It could send gasoline spilling all over the concrete causing a deadly explosion that I always saw in the movies during gas station scenes. I was eternally grateful that nothing spilled and I was alive. Before driving away I looked around to make sure I was not still hooked up to the tank. I’ve seen those kinds of scenes at movies, too, where the driver leaves and takes the gas tank with him.
When I pulled out of the Shell station I couldn’t keep a smile from taking up my whole face. I was in rapture. If I could fill my own tank with gas when it scared me so much, this meant I could do anything. The world was mine. I smiled so hard that my face hurt, but I felt like a new person.
It seemed the car was floating down the street when I came to the stop light. Me, my full tank of gas and my smile sat there waiting for the light to turn green. Out of the corner of my left eye I noticed the man in the passenger seat of the car to my left kept glancing my way. So I glanced back and he waved and I waved back, feeling a tinge of excitement because he was flirting with me. I felt I should smile more often because it obviously made me look like a hottie. A smile can sure change your looks.
Then he rolled down his window and I knew he was going to hit on me, so I rolled down my window and said, “Yes?” I was feeling flirty, too.
He said, “Ma’am, your gas cap is hangin’ off.”
My smile froze in place and I said, “Oh, thank you SOOO much.”
What a bummer!
What gas cap? I didn’t remember any gas cap. Where was it? I got through the light, pulled to the curb to see what a hanging-off-gas-cap looked like. And there it was sitting in a little thingie inside of a small door that was wide open. I didn’t remember seeing that before, but I must have touched it because I had put gas in the car. I screwed the cap back on, shut the little door and drove home knowing that a smile is just a smile and that practically everyone but me knew how to fill a tank.
But maybe they didn’t. I needed to find them and teach them how to do it.