I’m still in Colorado as I write this, though I’ll be home in Massachusetts by the time this hits the blog. It was just too funny not to write about. I laughed. I cried. I cried first, actually.
Anyway… here’s the story.
Colorado is a big place. If all you’ve ever seen is Massachusetts, and I have to admit that was most of my experience until I started coming out here, then you might think Massachusetts is a big place. Parts of it might seem that way. Some portions of I-95 might seem to stretch on forever, and the same can be said for some parts of Western Massachusetts where some places might seem to be pretty wide open.
Those wide open places you just thought of out in Western Ma, like out by Williamsburg or Sheffield, would probably fit into someone’s back yard around here. And I’m pretty close to Denver, technically a Denver Suburb, it’s not like I’m out in the Colorado sticks or anything. But if you want to go to the corner store out here you probably want to bring a lunch, or at least make sure you have some water in the car. Bring some supplies, in other words. Bring some CDs. Charge your cell phone. Put out extra water and food for your dog or cat, if they’re not coming with you. Let people know where you’ll be.
What I’m trying to say is it’s quite a trip. Literally. This is a land where Tall Tales don’t seem quite so tall.
So, in just every day travel, getting to and from work, getting to the corner store to replace the food you ate while on the way to the corner store, stuff like that, you tend to go through quite a bit of gas. They are aware of this, though, the local businessmen, and there are gas stations scattered about pretty thickly for Colorado; it seems like you can’t drive but 60 or 70 miles without seeing a cement island with fuel pumps growing up out of it like short, shiny trees smelling of gasoline and oil.
Well, we had driven SB’s minivan for quite a ways and the needle on the dash was poking at the big red ‘E’ like a belligerent man looking for a fight, so we pulled in at one of the local fuel depots. This particular station was a little …odd. It was in the middle of town, but for some reason it felt strangely isolated — almost disconnected from the actual town surrounding it. The pumps were of the older variety; they still had handle-locks so you could start the fuel pumping and just walk away as it filled, there were no slots for swiping a credit or debit card, there was no modern canopy over the pumps to protect them (and you) from the weather. The cement pad the station was on was worn, cracked in places, and though there were no actual weeds showing you could see the occasional blade of grass. The station itself was covered in weatherbeaten white paint, peeling in places, and the large plate window was a mirror due to the darkened interior. There might have been a happy, smiling pump-jockey in there looking out at us, but if you picked this whole place up and just plopped it down in the middle of nowhere, and if I was Stephen King rather than an admitted King wannabe, you wouldn’t have been surprised to find a scarred psychopath lovingly fingering a shotgun as he watched us from the shadowy office as we pulled up to the pumps.
Like I said, it was a little …odd.
It was my turn to pump the gas, so I got out of the van.
I started the pump rolling and sat there with my butt leaned against the side of the vehicle, casting glances at the office window and wishing the damn thing would pump faster. When I wasn’t shooting nervous looks at the little building I was watching the pump’s numbers roll by, and I figured the tank was just about full when the driver’s side door levered open and SB popped out. She took a step my way, thrusting a hand out toward me.
“I think this is burnt! Smell this!”
What she had in her hand, poking out of her fist like a stubby plastic carrot, was one of those small USB power converters you can buy at the counter at Walgreens for about $5. A red one. You can probably find them other places, but I’ve seen ‘em at Walgreens.
What I’m talking about, for those of you who may have never seen one, is a small plug that you fit into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter that has a small USB slot in the front of it. You can use it to recharge your cell phone, power a game or a light, even run a portable DVD player to keep the dang kids quiet if you have the right power cords. I had been using it to power my Garmin GPS unit, which I brought with me from Massachusetts.
You really think I was going to try to find my way around the Wide Open Spaces without something to tell me exactly how far I had to go before finding a bathroom, fuel, food, or the best place to just park, give up, and let the circling vultures swoop in for a closer look? Think again.
So I had been using this thing all week, when suddenly it died on us as SB was trying to recharge her phone (remember when I mentioned the importance of the cell phone as a survival tool out here?). Luckily she had a back-up converter I the van (survival kit! I told you!) and was able to get the phone working again, but here she was holding out the broken unit toward me, apparently to have a sniff. I gave the office glass one more suspicious glance, then leaned in to snuffle the little doohickey.
Two things happened almost simultaneously that combined to scare the crap out of me and make me cry.
The first was that the automatic shut-off on the gas pump kicked in, and the nozzle in my hand jumped with an audible ‘thud’.
The second, but remember this was right on the heels of the first, was that a big fat spark arced from the metal facing of the otherwise plastic converter in her hand to strike, with a sharp and veryaudible ‘crack’, my upper lip.
I had a quick flash of SB’s mouth dropping open in surprise and her eyes widening to cartoon-like proportions as I let go of the pump handle and stumbled backward. The pain was so intense and so sudden my eyes started watering almost before I had taken the first step. I had been a little keyed up from keeping an eye on the station office, and as I turned away I think part of me may have been preparing to run, I’m not sure.
My second conscious thought, as I staggered to a halt a few feet away, hand up to both protect myself from further assault and see if my upper lip was even still there, was about the TV show Mythbusters. I recalled seeing the show where they took a hard look at those “Do Not Use Cell Phones While Pumping Gas” stickers that we see on the pumps nowadays. According to their findings it is not cell phones in use at the pumps that causes the occasional gasoline explosion during fill-up. What they found was that people who were wearing Nylon jackets who were getting in and out of their car were sliding across the fabric seats and building up a static electric charge that was then creating a spark that was igniting the gas fumes at the pumps!
Holy cow! I thought. We’re lucky to be alive!
My first conscious thought, however, was the one that immediately leapt from my mouth as I wandered about, slightly dazed from the pain.
SB came over, very apologetic, eyes still huge. She had felt the shock in her hand, and she’d been holding the plastic part. We joked about it a little while I put the handle away on the pump, and SB threw the offending object into the pump-side trash barrel. Then I headed into the office to pay for the purchase. I was still a little leery as I opened the office door, since a part of me was still convinced that this odd place had just had something to do with my electrified upper lip.
I can honestly say that the inside of the station was just as odd as the outside. The woman sitting behind the register did not appear to be psychotic, and I saw no evidence of a shotgun (yes, I looked). She did not, however, either speak to me or look at me the entire time I was in the office with her. She sat sideways to the counter, facing the big plate window that looked out at the pumps. She hit some buttons and the register did its thing. She took my proffered debit card, ran it, slid the slip and pen across the counter at me, then took them back all without turning my way or saying a word. My “Have a nice day” was met with nothing but the ringing of the bell over the door as I made my exit.
As far as I could tell, she didn’t blink.
Knowing that this was the point in the story (if King were writing it, anyway) where things would take a turn for the worse, I was on the look-out for something: the station attendant to suddenly appear in the door behind me, calling me back for some horrible reason; to get back to the van and find SB had taken on an unanticipated and unwanted passenger who was missing some of his teeth and most of his marbles; to get back to the van and find SB to have simply vanished, as if into thin air. So it was with a sense of relief that I opened the door and hopped into the passenger’s seat to find SB turning the ignition key (and yes, the motor started! Take that, Stephen King!) and apologizing again for the shock to the lip.
I couldn’t help it. As we drove off the cement pad that marked the territory of the weird little station I looked sideways at the woman behind the wheel. My voice, when it came, was high and sarcastic, and a very poor imitation of SB’s own.
She looked at me, big eyes horrified for a second, then we both laughed.
…and you know, I never did actually smell that damn thing.