They ran out of gas on I-35 so she left her daddy in the truck and went to find a station. The heat was brutal, pure five o'clock sun and no clouds in the sky. And these days she was so pregnant and heavy she got tired when she climbed a flight of stairs. But her daddy was worse. He got shot in the leg, the first time we fought in the Gulf. When the new war started he would sit in the den all day and watch the bombs over Baghdad and yell at the generals, the same liars from 20 years ago.
So he stayed to guard the truck while she walked along the highway and wished she had shorts on instead of jeans that trapped the heat. On that stretch of interstate between Waco and Fort Worth there's nothing but fields and horses and cows and hay bales rolled up like grass cookies. And it was after the Fourth of July so all the shacks that sold fireworks were closed until New Year's Eve.
She wanted a cigarette, but didn't want to hurt the baby. Besides, she had a respiratory infection and a cough that wouldn't quit. Maybe Kyle was right when he called her a country cow. But he was wrong when she told him about the baby and he started with his fists. So her daddy came to the rescue. Only he forgot to put gas in the truck and he forgot his wallet at home and now they were here.
After she walked a while she started to limp. Her right foot had only nine and a half toes from the time that pipe on the rig burst and landed on her boot. The doctor said she was lucky the metal only shaved her pinkie. But the settlement money she got from the oil company all went to the hospital and her union lawyer. And she still had to sign papers and promise never to sue. And she still lost her job. But an rig was no place for a female, not when you got pregnant. Maybe now away from Kyle, she could work in a store with air conditioning, a place where you didn't lift anything heavy or worry about getting maimed. She was twenty-three. Maybe she failed at marriage, but she hadn't failed at life.
She told me all this when I picked her up on my way to a Rangers game. I never stop for hitchhikers: But when I saw her on the side of the road while the trucks roared toward Oklahoma and Mexico, my heart went soft. Up close, in the passenger seat, I saw her yellow teeth and jiggly arms and bra straps that cut into her back fat and her hand tattooed with the confederate flag.
While she talked I didn't say much. At the Shell station, I filled her can with five gallons of gas, more than what she said she needed for the 30 miles to her daddy's house. Then I bought her a bottle of water. We drove back along the frontage road with the windows down to air out the gasoline smell. When we got there, her daddy hobbled over and took the gas can and went to fill the tank.
Then the girl offered me three bucks, all she had in her pocket. I told her to keep the money and got back in my car and headed north toward the ballpark. If I hurried, I could still make the first pitch.
Keith Meatto has fiction published or forthcoming in Harpur Palate, Opium, Artifice, Glossolalia, Ghoti, The Northville Review, Writers' Bloc, LITnIMAGE, and Hawaii Women's Journal. He has worked for many years as a teacher and a journalist and is now at work on a collection of short stories.