ALL THE LOVE YOU WANT
by Katherine Riegel
(first published in the Cream City Review, Spring 2010)
I noticed him looking at me when I pushed through the door to the rest area, a man in his late forties with salt and pepper hair. I never notice people looking at me, but there was something in the man’s body language, in his face, that wanted to be noticed. He was on his way out. I went into the ladies’ room.
When I opened my car door, a piece of paper fell inside, onto the driver’s seat. I looked around; there were other people in the parking lot, but no one paying special attention to me. Beyond the rest area the highway arrowed across flat Midwestern landscape. I got in, locked the doors, and unfolded the note.
i never dun this befor u are so prety i wil pay u 1000 dollers for to our of yor tim. my cab is air-conditun i am 9 inc i ben fix so u dont hav to wory
Even as a part of me grew cold inside, I worked to understand the note as I would work to understand a freshman composition paper. “to our” must mean “two hours”; “9 inc” must be the size of his penis; is he really using “fix,” like a dog, to say that he’s had a vasectomy? I was baffled by the “so prety” remark—I was wearing my oldest, baggiest, most out of fashion jeans, a loose t-shirt, and my hair in a clip to keep it out of my face. And driving a station wagon. What was there about me to turn anyone on?
I accelerated onto the highway, composing the story I would tell my friends. The irony, I would say, of a graduate student in English getting a note written like that. Yes, it was unnerving, but also a bit flattering. I mean, I’m worth $500 an hour.
Half an hour later, my tire blew out.
I got out, opened the back hatch and looked for the spare tire. Surely there was some lever to lift the floor panel. I found a small side compartment with the jack, and nothing else. I couldn’t find the damn spare. I kicked the car.
A semi-truck pulled over in front of me. I knew before he got out who it was. I eyed the items in my reach: jumper cables, a briefcase, a hammer.
“Got a flat?” he said. He hooked his thumb in his jean pocket. His knuckles were swollen.
“I’m all ready to change it,” I said, “but I can’t even find the spare.”
He looked into the back of my car. “Looks like you got one of them cars with the spare underneath.”
“Could ya use some help?”
“That’d be great,” I said. I stopped myself from taking a step back.
He slid under the car, undid some bolts with the wrench I’d found alongside the jack, and came out with the spare. It looked spindly.
“Thanks so much,” I said.
He just nodded and worked. I stood by the back of the car, close to the hammer.
After a minute, he said, “Did I see you at the rest area back there?”
“I never go to rest areas,” I said.
“You can meet some creepy folks there.”
I could feel my pulse in my throat.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
“Oh, Monticello,” I said, naming a town closer than my real destination.
“You make this drive a lot?”
“Sometimes,” I said. Then, “I’m visiting my boyfriend. He’s a state trooper.”
It wasn’t an inspired lie. I had dated a cop a few months before, and he did live fairly close. But he wasn’t a trooper. And I wasn’t dating anyone. No one was coming to look for me.
He tightened the lug nuts and uncranked the jack. The car lowered onto the spare.
“I can clean up,” I said. “Thanks again. Thank you very much.”
“No problem,” he said, and put the tools into the back of the car, closed the hatch.
I was already moving towards the driver’s side when he looked into my face. I thought I had just turned away, gotten into the car, pulled into traffic. I thought I hadn’t seen his expression, blinded by my fear and my rush to get home and tell my mother about this frightening experience, where I would shake for another hour, eat a few bites of dinner, go to bed and slip into nightmare.
But I remember now, fifteen years later, what he looked like. He was hungry, and hopeful. He wanted me to know him. He wanted me to say yes, I’ll take that $1000, or better yet I’ll give you all the love you want for free. And he knew I wouldn’t, he knew before I started telling lies, before the cop boyfriend. He knew as soon as he got out of that cab and I wouldn’t acknowledge him. I can’t hate him now, even if he was responsible for the flat in the first place. He had a choice, then, and he chose to change the tire, get back in his truck, and drive away.