I should not have allowed the scooter to run out of fuel. The problem is mileage. I am required to fill the tank so infrequently that I forget it even exists. I forget about combustion, about the small explosions taking place in the engine just centimeters from my feet.
I was on my way to church. I had been riding the scooter only a short ways when it sputtered and then stopped. I turned the ignition five or six times before it occurred to me to check the fuel gauge.
At the house we rent there is a bin for trash and a bin for recyclables. The bin for recyclables was filled with soda cans and pizza boxes, and I dug around inside it until I found a plastic milk jug. I rinsed the jug out in the sink until the water I poured from it was no longer opaque. I let a couple minutes’ worth of clear drops fall from the jug’s mouth, and then I re-capped it and put it inside my satchel.
The gas station is not far from our house. It is a nothing walk. The sun was shining and thin white clouds disappeared into the tops of trees as they moved low and slow across the sky.
The previous time I had been at the gas station, two weeks before this, I was a passenger in Michel’s car as he drove us home from the slaughterhouse. It was almost midnight, and the windows were rolled down because we smelled like work, like blood and sweat and hogs. When Michel lifted the fuel pump and inserted it into the opening for the tank, a voice descended on us from above. It was a woman’s voice, garbled, speaking English. We might have otherwise thought it was God.
Michel did not understand what the voice was saying. He continued trying to pump the fuel, but it would not work. When he went inside to ask the attendant what the problem was, she told him he must pay in advance. He had to pre-pay for the fuel, and then the pump would work, no problem.
We had never before been asked to do this, but on the morning my scooter ran out of fuel, I remembered what Michel had taught us. I stood on line holding the milk jug and a twenty-dollar bill in my hands.
The woman behind the counter was wearing bedclothes and slippers. Her hair looked as if it had not been combed for many days.
I was wearing a nice plaid button-down shirt, pressed jeans, black leather shoes. I was on my way to church, yes, but I could not fathom working a job dressed the way she was dressed. At the slaughterhouse, I wear nice, clean clothes even though they remain unseen beneath my uniform.
The woman asked me if I had fuel.
I have not been in the country long. I am still figuring things out. My English is not very good. Still, I knew this is what she was asking me.
I held up the jug and the money at the same time. I did not know how to say that I wanted to pre-pay for the fuel, or I would have said it. I pointed with the hand I held my money in toward the pumps outside.
The woman seemed to recognize right away that I was not American black but African. She looked and saw no vehicle parked at the pump, not even a scooter. She stood on her tiptoes, and her shirt, stained and too small for her, rode up her fish-white belly.
She said the name of the other woman behind the counter, who stood and left the computer she’d been sitting at. This woman, too, was dressed as if for bed. She had long gray hair twisted into a braid that fell to the top of her ass and wore sunglasses with light blue lenses. Both women looked toward the pump and saw nothing.
The milk jug I held was smooth in some spots and rough in others. The woman wearing sunglasses saw me running my hands over it and frowned. She shook her head, waggled her finger at me, then spoke to the other woman, pointing at my milk jug.
I wanted only to pre-pay for the fuel. I did not want to be late for church. I extended the jug toward them. There was a pink plastic ring on its mouth, a remnant from the cap.
The woman at the register raised the volume of her voice. She spoke slowly, as if I were a child. “I can’t let you put gas inside there,” she said. She could tell I did not understand her, and she grew frustrated. “No gas,” she said, pointing toward the milk jug.
“Pre-pay,” I said, very clearly. I flicked my twenty-dollar bill at her, hoping she would take it from me.
The woman wearing the sunglasses with blue lenses came around the counter. She touched my shoulder. She pointed at the milk jug and made an X with her arms. She said the word dangerous. She said the word illegal.
I did not understand, of course, what she was telling me, though I understood the word illegal.
I spun away from her, headed toward the door.
Outside, the sun was higher now in the sky, hotter. There was time still to walk to the church without being late if I hurried.
The service, it would be held in both French and English. This was something new. This was something just for us. There would be singing. There would be times that I would not know what the pastor was saying, and times that I would, and during the latter, I would feel my heart swell inside my chest. I would feel any number of the difficulties I face on a daily basis leaving me.
The work my roommates and co-workers and I do at the slaughterhouse is very difficult. We have come to Illinois, to Monmouth, from countries all over the world and do our part to kill and cut over ten thousand hogs each day. Each sign at the plant is translated into six different languages so that it can communicate what it wants to communicate to anyone, everyone.
Maybe, I thought, walking quickly now, the milk jug returned to my satchel, a bit of sweat breaking out on my forehead, on the skin at the small of my back, I will say a prayer in my French for the stupid women at the gas station. For how small their world is on a Sunday morning when I am out here, on my way to do this, and they are back in that space, doing that.