Holiday Detour

By Carla Osborne

“You broke down, Honey?” cooed Edna when I walked into the Exxon station. She sat in an enclosure behind the cash register, cigarette dangling from her mouth. It was fairly busy now that it was later in the morning. My thoughts of home were suspended as I sat down on the duct tape covered school bus seat in the makeshift waiting area. A wire rack stocked with Lance snacks, a Coke machine, and some old magazines rounded out the decorum. My little red Plymouth sat where the tow truck had unloaded her, the timing belt having given up the ghost early on a cold, wet morning smack in the middle of a construction zone.

This was not where I had planned on being Thanksgiving morning. Having left Raleigh well before daylight, I had expected to already be home in the mountains. Usually, everyone assembled early Thanksgiving morning at Granny Ethel’s house. Ethel was the matriarch of the family, and whatever squabbles or hang-ups we had with one another were checked at the door, an unwritten rule that was simply not contested. The drive was filled with dread due to my grandmother’s declining health. No one in the family was having an honest discussion about what was to come. We were all busy pretending traditions would remain intact, that nothing was going to change.

Granny Ethel was a child of the Great Depression. She knew better than anyone how to be frugal, how to squeeze the last bit of usefulness from things. Undoubtedly the strongest woman I’ve ever known, had she been born in a different time and place, she would have been the hard driving CEO of a successful company on the cover of business journals and magazines. Granny Ethel tolerated no nonsense and knew how to get things done. She took care of generations of people, from her grandparents to her great grandchildren. We all knew the time was fast approaching when we’d return the favor. It was an arrangement for which no one in the family was prepared, especially Granny Ethel. The breast cancer we thought she had beaten was back, and it looked as if it had the upper hand, and she had made a decision to forgo additional treatment. So, that Thanksgiving morning, my heart was heavy as I merged onto I-40 West. But my journey had been interrupted — or at least that was my perception — leading me to Edna.

A steady stream of people came in to the store after fueling to tell Edna their total and pump number, and between transactions, we began to chat. A lanky fellow with thick gray hair who was wearing an old work uniform at least two sizes too big flitted nervously in and out of the waiting area of the station. One trip, he carried a broom and dustpan, and the next he toted a mop. He was clearly taking orders from Edna. She would nod her approval to him, and he seemed eager to please her. When he was out of earshot, she whispered, “That’s Jim, bless his heart. The owner lets him hang out here and do odd jobs.” It dawned on me that Jim was homeless.

As customers continued to come and go, Edna chatted more and eventually moved from behind the enclosed counter over to one of the worn out chairs in the waiting area. She would talk awhile, get up when a customer would enter the store, then settle back in and pick up her story where she’d left off. She told of vacations in Myrtle Beach, her brother up at Black Mountain, the time she lived in Nova Scotia. “Let me tell you,” she said matter-of-factly, pointing at me with her cigarette, “they didn’t have cornmeal worth anything up there. I had to get my mama to send me some through the mail.” The stories came forth fluidly, and they were entertaining and down-to-earth. Before I knew it, we were on our second cup of coffee.

As Jim became more comfortable with my presence, he would stop between chores to converse. He’d been a truck driver at one time, hauling freight all over the country. Once, when he was in New Orleans, he picked up a hitchhiker, something that was not uncommon in the 1970s. “He started actin’ strange,” said Jim. “I stopped ‘cause I got nervous.” His intuitions were right. When he pulled into the nearest truck stop, police were waiting, weapons at the ready. His passenger was wanted for murder. It was a close call Jim would never forget.

They asked me about myself, and I told them how I had just been to Scotland with my job, how I hoped to go to graduate school and continue my education. Yes, I enjoyed being an artist; and no, I didn’t have a boyfriend, but I had a cat, and that was fine with me for the time being. Mostly, I sat and listened and they took turns telling me about their lives. The store was warm and comfortable. I could see the kindness that drew Jim here. Edna and Jim looked out for one another—theirs was a genuine friendship. Jim would get a little fidgety, and Edna would create a task for him to keep him busy. When he was out the door, she’d talk about how she worried about him, that there was this woman that was shady. Edna didn’t like her and knew she’d only come around when she thought Jim had a few dollars. When Edna was waiting on customers, Jim would say he fretted over her working late at night at the station. Edna returned and began another story. She stopped mid-sentence to address a handsome man with an olive complexion and deep brown eyes who came in to pay for his gas. “Could you tell me, please, where is the flea market?” he asked in accented English. “Oooh, where are you from?” asked Edna, raising one eyebrow. “Italy,” he responded, adding somewhat impatiently, “Where is the market?” “Well, if you’re from Italy, you should get to know this little girl. She just came back from Scotland,” said Edna with a sly grin. The man politely smiled, turned, and without saying another word left the store. Edna muttered something about him not being my type anyway, and continued her story. Edna, you little match maker, I thought. As the stories flowed forth, I got the impression that Edna and Jim hadn’t had many customers hang around as long as I had that day.

At one point, Edna got up and returned to her spot behind the counter. Jim was telling a story about his trucking days, so I couldn’t hear what Edna was saying, except that some “sweet little girl broke down and she’s waiting on her parents.” For some reason I didn’t mind being called a little girl by Edna. Actually, I kind of found it endearing. About ten minutes later, a woman with a sequined Christmas sweater entered the station and introduced herself as Edna’s sister. She carried three heaping plates of food, covered with saran wrap: our Thanksgiving Dinner. “I’ve got to get back to the house,” said the sister, heading out the door, “but I hope your car is okay.” I marveled over the generosity of these people whom I had never laid eyes on before that morning. My day had unfolded in a delightfully unexpected way.

As we were chowing down on our Thanksgiving Feast, my parents arrived. Seeing the cornucopia of food before us, Mom chuckled and said, “I don’t know why I was worried. You seem to be doing just fine.” Before leaving, my new friends and I shared good wishes and gave one another hugs. After all, we had bonded. We were practically family.

I spent Thanksgiving evening with Granny Ethel, returning for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. On my drive back after Christmas, I decided to stop in for a visit with Edna. Not wanting to be rude, I brought a gift: a six-pack of Heineken beer. She was touched I had remembered that was her favorite, something she mentioned in one of her stories. However, she had bad news. The shady woman had returned, causing trouble, resulting in the station owner telling Jim he’d have to leave. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to him,” Edna said sadly as she shook her head.

Trips to the mountains became a weekly affair as Granny Ethel’s health became worse and Hospice was called in to assist. Neighbors brought food. A hospital bed was set up in the living room and oxygen was delivered. Friends came by to reminisce and hold her hand. Relatives called for updates. The pastor paid regular visits. Silently we prepared as best we could. Granny Ethel slipped out of consciousness on a beautiful, warm Sunday in May. She died the following morning surrounded by her daughters and us grandchildren.

Time marched on, and I was accepted to grad school. I married and had a beautiful daughter. Years passed and life became busy and hectic, but I hadn’t forgotten about Edna and Jim. It seemed I never had time to stop at the particular exit where their Exxon station was located, but I thought of them each time I drove through Greensboro. Returning from one visit home, I recounted the story to my husband and asked him to stop. “Won’t Edna be surprised? I thought, expecting to find everything as I had left it, hoping that Jim would have returned.

We arrived at the station to find it closed. Grass grew between the cracks in the pavement, and a rusty chain stood guard against intruders. The worn, but comfortable seats sat empty in the waiting area inside. The windows that Jim washed so carefully for Edna were dirty. “I’m too late,” I sighed. As we pulled away, I was angry with myself for not making time for these two souls who had provided a much-needed diversion one Thanksgiving morning years ago.

My hope is anyone that kind would surely be okay, if for no other reason by virtue of the universe repaying good deeds. Not a Thanksgiving goes by that I’m not thankful for a faulty timing belt, and I remember with gratitude those strangers who quickly became friends and that fine Thanksgiving dinner at an Exxon station.