The hot summer sun glistened off the cars overflowing the dirt parking lot. Polish gleamed off the paint of newer vehicles and chrome sparkled, but even the older rust buckets were freshly washed.
Men gathered in small clumps and spoke in hushed voices. They tugged at their uncomfortable ties and adjusted their suit coats in the sweltering heat. Sweat dripped from their brows.
Women fanned themselves with church bulletins, their long dresses hanging in the still air. Elegant hats graced their heads, some elaborately decorated with flowing feathers and thick veils.
A few children played unobtrusively under the ancient Live Oak trees providing the few shady spots.
The spire of the white clapboard church, the tallest structure in the community, soared over the covered front porch. The pair of entry doors were propped open, pews barely visible in the shadowy interior. The row of opened windows on each side of the sanctuary captured the miserly breezes, but the inside was too steamy for a service. Gathering clouds hinted at relief from an afternoon thundershower, but the thick humid air smothered for now.
In the shade of the church’s front porch, a gleaming white casket perched with its lid open, framing the guest of honor who lay still, the only one present not sweating. Every resident in the farming community had shown up for the funeral, too many people to fit inside the small church. Bible gripped tightly in one of his upraised hands, the minister shared his thoughts with the crowd gathered about.
Across the opposite corner of the crossroads, a Jeep idled in front of the ancient pumps of the service station. The driver stared forlornly at the sign taped to the darkened door of the sole fueling option in the small town. The shaky handwriting announced, “Closed for funeral.”
Would the owner of the gas station wander back across the street after the service?
I thought not. Southern funerals, particularly in small towns, could drag on for hours. When completed, the congregants moved to the home of the grieved, casseroles spread on tables to feed the hungry mourners. Iced tea and coffee would be served while a few of those men would extract flasks from their suit pockets and spice-up their colas with a little extra fire.
The low fuel warning light glowed its alarm on my dash, forcing me to debate my next move while the decisions of the last hour haunted me.
The first mistake was a trust in the GPS app on my phone.
The Grand Strand, centered by Myrtle Beach, accepted over 14 million visitors a year without having a single interstate. To get to the wide beaches, travelers had to navigate a network of rural highways. My preferred route, the one I had taken for decades, was clogged with traffic and accidents, so my trusty phone had suggested an alternative route snaking through the Low Country of South Carolina, circling the inland waterway near Georgetown and back up the coast to my destination of the fishing village, Murrells Inlet.
Following the glow of the GPS, I committed my second mistake—skipping the gas stations sprinkled along the beginning of my alternate route.
My original plan included a fueling stop, a favorite for years. Easy access. Enough pumps to handle the volume of tourists. And, most importantly to this reformed accountant, low prices.
My change of direction occurred well before that station and the prices in these smaller towns and backroads were higher. Over and over, I opted to travel a little further in search of cheaper options. When the warning light flashed and the alarm bell rang, I decided I would just have to accept my fate, spend the extra dollar or so, and fuel at the next town.
The church parking lot—flat, sandy, and expansive—was packed with cars. The overflow of vehicles stretched along either side of the road, a testament to the importance of the deceased. And the sign in the window of the closed business made the point emphatically—the “next town” wasn’t the solution.
Dismayed with the lack of fuel, I pointed my Jeep east on the two-lane road, my target a small town I had never heard of but its name prominently displayed on the screen of my GPS. Twenty miles later, we entered the town. The speed limit dropped. A cluster of mobile homes sat in weeds just off the asphalt. A car rested on cement blocks. And then the speed limit returned to highway speed. The town, such that it was and devoid of fueling options, faded in my rear-view mirror.
The warning light continued to glow.
In desperation, I looked back at the GPS, searching for another town on the route. The screen showed only an upcoming turn, from one numbered route to another. If two highways merge in the middle of nowhere, would a gas station exist?
The miles clipped by and telephone poles slipped past in a blur as I held my breath. The fuel gauge sunk lower, the E fully hidden behind the red needle.
Without the GPS, I would have missed the turn. The new road was narrower, its painted lines faded over the years.
Worse, the intersection held no gas station. No buildings for that matter. The four corners were occupied by crops, giant fields stretching for as far as we could see. Cotton at one corner, tobacco at another, and soybeans and corn completing the circuit. A plethora of agriculture, but no help for a fuel starved car.
I slowed and studied the GPS, hoping for a glimmer of civilization on the glowing screen. Instead, I realized that my little flashing dot had not made the turn. It sat still, winking on and off but not moving.
I thumped the screen, as if the vibration would shake the blip loose. It stubbornly remained stationary, blinking on and off like hazard lights on a broken down car.
The explanation for lack of movement rested in the top corner of the phone. No longer did the bars show signs of a cellular signal. Not even the phrase 3G or 1X, prehistoric technology of the last decade, glowed. In its place, the ominous phrase “No Service” caught my eye. We had officially lost contact with the world.
Writers are blessed—and cursed—with vivid imaginations. Images filled my head of me stumbling down the edge of the road, shouting to the empty fields in a desperate hope a farmer would answer my call. The only responding noise would be rustling in the rows of crop. Something slinking unseen in the greenery, stalking me as I walked further from my disabled car. The sun setting. Claws scraping the asphalt behind me. If they found my body, my future was a gleaming white casket on the front porch of a church.
For the record, as much as you might be amused by my conjured and twisted imagination, pointing out to my partner that the situation had the makings of a great story did nothing to alleviate the tension in the car. We writers suffer critics everywhere.
In this case, recriminations flew about my desire to save two cents a gallon. I didn’t feel like making a passionate defense of my penny-pinching ways at that moment, so I accepted the criticism.
Just when I was resigned to hiking through the country, the phone flickered back to life. A single bar of reception appeared on the screen. The GPS highlighted a gas station up ahead, a mere 15 or so more miles.
But would I get that far?
A silence descended in the car. We watched crops flash past the windows and the painted stripes on the road slip under the tires. Periodically, we glanced nervously at the fuel gauge. The E was now clear since the needle had dropped well past it. Prayers were uttered that the engine wouldn’t sputter and then go silent.
At last, a sign appeared on the horizon. A familiar logo glowed its beacon of hope. The station came into view. Vehicles, mostly pickup trucks, many with trailers, crowded the lot, patrons of the attached café. I pulled off the road, inched my way around the parked vehicles, navigated past a farm tractor fueling at the diesel pumps, and sidled up to an open spot.
Minutes later, with a full tank of gas, we returned to the road. In the next ten miles, we passed at least a dozen gas stations. All had lower prices than I had just paid.
I wisely kept that observation to myself.