The Writer stopped in front of the pile.
“Miss, are you okay?”
Nothing. He waited. On TV, a Fox News blowhard said Democrats trucked with the Devil.
“Can I help you?”
He surprised himself by saying it. He hadn’t asked the question in…years? Ever?
The woman arched and pulled the hood tight around her head, smashing red hair to both sides of her face. The Writer noticed a tattoo of a cobweb on her neck that trailed down her sternum and disappeared.
“I need new tires and don’t got no money. I just came in to get a flat fixed but they wouldn’t fix it.”
She was crying out the words in almost a whisper from the floor of the tire center. The girls never moved.
“Why?” said the Writer.
“They said it was too dangerous. The tire was too worn. All of them are.”
“Let me take a look. Where’s the car?”
What? The Writer didn’t know anything about tires! He surprised himself with his pretense of tire knowledge, but recognized he had to do something.
“It’s right out the door in the handicapped spot. The green Honda,” she said.
He headed for the door but turned around.
“C’mon let’s get you up to the chairs. The girls, too.”
He held out his hand. She took it and he winched her up. She whispered something to the girls and the pile lumbered to the chairs.
“There’s coffee,” said the Writer. He dug into his wallet for a few dollars and gave them to the woman.
“These are for the vending machine, for you and the girls.”
“Thanks. Much obliged.” She withdrew the hood when she spoke.
Obliged? He hadn’t heard the word used in years, if ever. It was certainly out of favor in American speech. It sounded strange, but not unpleasant. He thought about what the verb oblige really meant.
“I’m Stephen,” he said.
She said her name without intonation.
They shook hands. She barely exerted grip. One of the girls shrieked and she let go of his hand and turned around sharply to attend. As she turned, he heard cracking and it seemed as if her body might snap in half.
A crackling announcement came over the PA: The center will close in one hour because of freezing rain. Only vehicles still being serviced in the bays will have repairs completed. Everyone else should leave and drive safely. The center will reopen the day after Christmas.
A collective groan rose up from the customers. Some bolted to the counter. Others left.
The woman eased around and faced the Writer. Her face had registered the announcement. “I don’t have nowhere to go,” she said.
Her eyes met the Writer’s eyes. He couldn’t read an atom of nuance in them. There wasn’t a hint of a suggestion of an inner life within her that the Writer could detect but what did he know about a woman like this in such a precarious situation. Can a marginalized American have an inner life while struggling to survive? Surely, they need one. Don’t we all?
He walked over to her. “Where were you going?” he said. His curiosity jolted him. He had forgotten the last time he was genuinely curious about something directly in front of him. Was he ever curious about such matters? Was he truly curious about anything outside of the need to access the Internet to craft an essay that would reveal what a profoundly curious person he was.
She delayed in responding. “I was driving north and left Coos Bay this morning. I used to know some people in Tillamook but I don’t know if they still live there. Shit.”
“Can you call them?”
“I don’t have no phone.”
He almost asked about her family, but caught himself. He didn’t want her to have to explain the absence. Sometimes, too deep a dive into backstory undermines the ability to move forward. That’s not what the therapists say, but then again, they say those things for money in an office and not a tire center on a freezing night.
She slumped down on the floor. The girls came over and they formed the pile.
“Let me go check the car,” said the Writer.
What he really wanted to do was check himself. He didn’t know what to do. It would all be so simple if he could sit down and write up an ending where it all turned out well, or at least poignant. They call it fiction for a reason.
The Writer walked to the door. He stepped outside and almost lost his balance. Freezing rain stung his face. Everything looked sheathed in glass.
A vibration in the pocket of his Western shirt alerted him to an incoming text message. He pulled out the phone and read that his Yoga girlfriend wasn’t coming. The Coast Range was impassible. They could Skype later and wish each other Merry Christmas.
He didn’t respond and stashed the phone. He saw the Honda: scratched, sagging, passenger side window covered in cardboard and duct-taped to the frame. It was coated with ice and he could barely see through the window, but could see enough clothing, blankets and pillows crammed inside to know they were living out of of the car. It was a familiar sight along 101 these days, with men and women of all ages and makes of vehicles, but it was the first time he’d noticed, although he had written some blurb about noticing the homeless for a special edition of an Oregon humanities magazine that appealed to less than half a percent of the Oregon population.
The right rear tire was flat, flatter than he’d ever seen a tire. He slid toward the vehicle and braced himself against its side. He inspected the front tire and it wasn’t really a tire, just strands of fraying steel and rubber that somehow clung to the rim.
A siren wailed in the distance. He glanced at Highway 101 and saw vehicles inching their way forward. A few had been abandoned in the shoulders. Customers were leaving the parking lot. The sky was darkening with almost hostile speed.
The Writer looked up from the Honda and surveyed the immediate area. The Shore Pine Motel was adjacent to the center. On the other side stood Ocean Quik Mart, a convenience store. Both appeared open. Both had holiday displays twinkling as distress beacons. Both had gulls on the roof, angled into the sheeting ice.
He had to act—now—and that meant doing something other than phony writing and calling that action, like the city poet who composes a poem about the obscenity of clearcutting (yet has never stepped foot in a clearcut) and concludes her outrage over clearcutting with a single fake poem.