A wan sun.
The streets of Milwaukee a little sloppy with slush. Snow still piled up in the parking lane along the curb on Locust Street. I'm parked across the street from the Woodland Pattern bookstore, which is closed. I'm waiting to see if it will open before I have to head off for an appointment. I have brought work with me, and I'm in the car editing Peter's Story. It's Peter I will see in an hour.
It is a mild day compared to some harsher ones we've had recently. I've got the car window cracked open. In the rearview mirror I see a black woman get out of a small car thirty or forty feet behind me. She seems to be fussing with the car, but I can't say specifically why I think that. She walks along the street behind me, beside me, and in front of me, and crosses to the sidewalk at the alley thirty or forty feet before me. She enters the chiropractic office there. Ah, an appointment, I think.
A few moments later, she comes back out of the office, returns to her car. I am working, making progress on my revision. I look up to glance in the rearview mirror. I see that black woman approaching my car. My window is partway down.
"Excuse me," she says to me. "I run out of gas. I wonder if you could help me find a gas station?"
I think of all the times I have been between a rock and a hard place, between Perham and Perdition, as we say in my family, wishing there were some angel to pluck me out of an ugly situation.
"You have a gas can?" she asks me.
"No," I say, "I don't."
"Oh, dear," she says. She sounds somewhat panicked. "Let me see. Let me see if I have one in the trunk. You stay here, please? Would you please wait for me?"
She goes back to her car and returns with a small red plastic gas can. I move a package out of the passenger seat. She opens the door and gets in.
"You'll have to point me in the direction of a gas station," I say. "I don't know where there is one around here."
"Try up ahead," she says.
We're moving in that direction.
"Do you think a dollar's worth of gas will be enough to get the car going and get me home? I have just paid my rent. I only have a dollar left."
She wants to show me her rent receipt.
I think how helpless one is, cast upon the mercy of strangers.
"I'll give you a couple dollars for gas," I say.
There is no gas station ahead. "Turn right," she says at Humboldt.
I know there is no gas station on that stretch of Humboldt.
"Is there a gas station on Center Street?" I wonder outloud.
"Somewhere," she says.
But not between Humboldt and Holton on Center.
"Turn right," she says when we reach the stoplight at Holton. "I know there's one up at Burleigh."
We head north on Holton.
"I can't see it," I say.
"It's there on the corner of the intersection, where that car's coming out."
And there it is. I park at a gas pump. I give her three dollars. She gets out of the car, goes to the window, pays for some gasoline. She returns to the pump and fills her gas can.
"I hate cold weather," she offers as I drive back towards her car.
There is a young black fellow standing beside her car when we reach it.
"That's my nephew," she says.
I pull over, but leave some space so she can get out of the car without having to crawl over the plow bank.
"He can help me now," she says.
She gets out of the car.
"Thank you so much," she says.
"Thank you so much."