By Julia Douglas
The memories are bittersweet but she has to go back
Last gas for 100 miles. The sign was faded and rusted to lace along its lower edge. Beside it was a long-abandoned Ford sedan with no windows and a roadmap of bullet holes along its sun-blanched side.
There’d never been much for kids to do around Clayton, New Mexico, except shoot at things and drive too fast.
Both the car and the sign were dwarfed by a shiny billboard advertising three hundred new houses and apartments Coming Soon!
Lauren could hardly believe how far the city was expanding. When she was growing up, Clayton had been in the desert. Soon it would be a suburb.
The road ahead swam emptily in the heat haze as she swung her Toyota off the highway and onto the forecourt of a filling station that would never pump another cent’s worth of gas.
She parked near the exit, where Dad used to sell second-hand cars. She pictured them clear as day: big curvy Buicks and Studebakers lined with chrome and painted in the old two-tone colours of red over cream and sky-blue over cloud-white.
Drive safely, indeed!
Lauren grumbled as her wizened fingers fumbled with her seatbelt.
How dare that cop pull her over back there! And for what – apart from looking old?
Sitting at the wheel, she’d fumed while the baby-faced upstart inspected her licence as if he suspected it was fake.
Secretly, she’d felt a little anxious about making such a long drive on her own. And maybe the cop had seen her weave onto the shoulder as she peered at the signs. But when she’d seen the piece on TV about the new houses going up, she knew she had to come out and bid the old place farewell.
Lauren felt faint as she stepped from air-conditioned cool to the heat outside. She steadied herself against her car. She shouldn’t have stood up so quickly.
As her breathing calmed, she gazed at the pumps that had stood dry for years. Until recently, the land hadn’t been worth developing. It was the same story across the road, where the old diner stood boarded up.
On the way in, she’d passed an abandoned general store and motel. The whole place was a ghost town, fit only for the bulldozers that were already parked up, ready for work.
How different things had been before the interstate bypassed them and the whole world had come through Clayton on its way to Arizona and California.
For a second, Lauren could see her young friend Dolly, waving happily at her from a busy diner.
She saw her dad walking from the office to a Plymouth Fury parked at the pump. The creases in his cream pants and white shirt were as sharp and clean as the car’s lines. A red cap and black bow-tie completed his immaculate, freshly laundered look.
“Regular or Premium?” he hailed the driver. “Going far? Like me to check the oil and water? Here, let me give that windshield a wipe.”
When she hit her teens, Lauren took over the routine.
There were places she knew where the attendant would use his thumb to stop the dipstick going in all the way. Then he’d walk back to the driver’s window, show him the stick and say, “Looks like you’re half a quart low,” before selling him a “top-up” from an empty can. Dad didn’t allow tricks like that – and there was no need for them in the days when gas was cheap, people had money and were happy to tip.
A lifetime on, Lauren walked stiffly to the repair shop. Once it had been full of tyres and exhaust pipes. Now the open front yawned like an empty cave.
In her mind she saw Clark, curly- haired in bib overalls, changing the shocks on a travelling salesman’s car.
There wasn’t much Clark couldn’t fix, except the timing of her heart, which ran way too fast every time he smiled at her.
It beat even faster when he took her along to the drive-in movie in his souped-up hot rod.
“Are you gonna keep me waitin’ forever?” He grinned as he revved the engine at the foot of her drive. Then he had spun the wheels and they took off, laughing and screaming.
Her mistake was telling Dad how fast he’d driven…
The next day, Clark was out of a job and she was forbidden to see him – although she did, in secret, when she could.
“One day,” said Clark when they parked by the dry creek, “I’m gonna pull up at your dad’s gas station in a brand new Cadillac and you and I are gonna take off, heading for the promised land!”
“I don’t need a Cadillac.” Lauren snuggled closer. “Just another year to pass – then we won’t need Dad’s permission to marry.”
Lauren felt a clutching pain in her heart as she recalled the day Dolly came across from the diner, tears streaming down her face, to break the news. A truck had lost control and hit Clark’s hot rod as he headed back from town.
“Uncle Pete found this in the car.” Dolly handed her a paper bag. In it was a boxed diamond ring and a store receipt.
Blaming the sun for feeling so unwell, Lauren headed past the air pump to an office adorned with rust-spotted adverts for oil and tyres. The door was unlocked and she sat gratefully on a battered chair behind a dusty counter.
After Clark’s funeral, Lauren had been an empty shell. She worked blank-eyed at the gas station. She and her father hardly spoke.
It was soon afterwards that construction began on the interstate bypass. The day it opened, the traffic through Clayton dried up as if someone had turned off a tap.
The cars flew by a mile north and the only drivers that pulled into the filling station were locals, or lost.
The diner closed within six months, the general store soon after.
Dad hung in there, mostly fixing cars for a few loyal locals, but Lauren knew there was no future.
Hoping for a new life, she moved to the city and trained as a secretary.
A lifetime on, she gazed at walls once lined with radiator hoses, fan belts, headlight bulbs and maps. It was all gone, like the dreams they’d once shared.
“Oh, Clark,” she sighed.
Exhausted, she closed her eyes and let her head fall forward.
The young cop frowned as he recognised the old lady’s car, parked in the disused gas station. Concerned, he circled his Harley off the road and rode by the Toyota, confirming it was empty.
What on earth would she be doing out here? he wondered.
Slowly, he rode past the repair shop, scanning the dark shadows within. He paused by the office and glanced through the grimy window.
At first he saw nothing. Then he leapt off his bike and ran to a small, crumpled figure that lay beside the counter.
She wasn’t moving… but when he turned her gently she was smiling.
Honk! The blast of a car horn jolted Lauren awake…
Through the dirty window, she saw an enormous dark blue car parked out by the pumps.
What the heck? Surely they could see this place hadn’t been open for years?
The car’s domed roof, tail fins and chrome told her it was a 1956 Cadillac, polished like it had just rolled out of the factory. There wasn’t so much as a speck of dirt on the whitewall tyres.
The second impatient call for service shook her to her bones.
She sprang up, not noticing the lack of pain in her knees and hips. Only as she hurried across the forecourt did she falter, as she noticed a reflection in the Caddy’s gleaming side: a young girl with blonde hair, a long red swirl skirt and white bobby socks.
Puzzled, she glanced over her shoulder… and her reflection did likewise. She shook her head.
It must be a trick of the light, she thought.
Then the window rolled down and the handsome, curly-haired young man at the wheel flashed her a grin.
Lauren covered her mouth as tears sprang to her eyes.
“Are you going to keep me waitin’ forever?” he joked.
Seventeen again, Lauren shrieked with joy and ran to the passenger door. She slid onto the leather bench seat and they hugged and kissed.
Then the Cadillac rolled out onto the highway and vanished into the heat haze, heading for the promised land.
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