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Jordan Mitchell: 'Gas'

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Photo: Jordan Mitchell.

Kerhonkson, NY. March 2020.

We drove to Walmart. None of us had ever been to a Walmart before. And Guy wanted to have a go at driving the car, so he reversed it up the path that led from the log cabin, through the trees to the top of the hill, then we swapped before the turning, so it was me pulling out onto the main road.

We drove down the mountain past a still green creek and into a flat valley, and on our left we saw an enormous building that looked like a castle or a fortress, but it was as though it had been built out of plastic, like the castles in Disneyland, only bigger. Behind us a pickup truck was honking. Inside two men in tank tops were jamming their horn and waving their arms, indicating for us to make way so they could overtake. They did this all the way to the Walmart, and when we eventually pulled into the car park they sped past us and honked again.

Some children were happily squeezing hand sanitizer from a large dispenser by the automatic doors. The store was unimaginably vast, and all the shelves were empty. Old men and women were filling their trolleys with jumbo cartons of half and half and 8 litre barrels of own brand cheesepuffs. We were all so anxious to leave that we forgot we were supposed to be buying food to make dinner for my birthday. We just got the essentials and left.

On the way back we pulled into a gas station to fill up the car. Sam went up and paid in advance, because that’s how you do it there, but when he came to fill up the tank, we realised that we didn’t know if the car took petrol or diesel. So we checked the rental agreement and the manual in the glove box, and we searched the car for any symbols that looked like a petrol pump, but without any luck. Sam went back to the till and asked the cashier if he happened to know what type of fuel our car would take. It was a long shot. The man shook his head and said no.

Sam came back to the car, and I was double-checking the glove box when I heard a tap on the door. I looked up and saw an old man’s face filling the window. His skin was leathery and wrinkled. He had thinning grey hair and a black trucker’s cap, with searching eyes and missing teeth. He was wearing a denim jacket and a white vest, and just above the neckline there was a hole in his throat, right where his Adam’s apple ought to have been. An impenetrably dark, gaping hole, the size of a golf ball, and I could see all the way into it, past the sinewy red flesh of his larynx, into an abyssal dark.

I was so shocked by this man’s face, looming at the window, that I jumped and said oh fuck. Which the man noticed. And I thought for a second he was going to take out a gun and say get out of the car, but instead his face, which was so haggard and wizened, suddenly became full of regret and sorrow. He somehow signalled with his entire being that he hadn’t meant to scare me and suddenly his face was a picture of kindness and calm, and I felt embarrassed and ashamed to have let him see my fear at the way he looked.

He started trying to speak, but he wasn’t making any noise. Just mouthing. He began pointing to the hole in his throat, and mouthing the words I can’t speak, I can’t speak.

I nodded, to show that I’d understood. And when he saw that, he began to say gas. With some desperation, gas, it takes gas.

I looked at the man, who seemed both to have overheard Sam asking the cashier and to be very knowledgeable about cars, and I said are you sure? And he mouthed yes. And patted the bonnet of the car with such assured familiarity that we immediately trusted him.

Thank you so much, I said, entirely apologetic for having initially been so scared. The man smiled and walked back to his car, which looked very old and broken, and I watched him step into the driver’s seat underneath the large sign that said gas in unlit neon, which was blocking out the light from the fading sun. He seemed so happy to be of use.

The old man drove away, and Sam filled up the car and said that apparently when you have a tracheotomy, it’s the same hole you use for breathing, eating and drinking. He even saw a video one time of a guy smoking a cigarette that way.

Sam got back in the car, and then we drove out of the gas station, over the crossroads, back up the trail along the creek, and up into the foothills of the mountain. And when we got back to the cabin we left all the food on the counter and opened some beers and I took a shower, and when I came out in my towel, Guy and Sam were by the window, very quiet. They’d spotted a herd of deer. And we watched the six of them sloping along among the brown leaves and the lichen, until most of them had disappeared from view and we could only see one, grazing by a big tree, and when even that one went off behind the river, we picked up our beers and began putting the food in the fridge.

Photo: Sam Grabiner.

Jordan Mitchell is a writer based in London. He grew up in Croydon and studied Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. He is currently developing a number of projects for television.