It’s late. She’s standing on a curb at the gas station, waiting. She’s wiry. Her neck is gaunt. She’s having a smoke.
When she finishes her cigarette, she touches the ember to a fresh one.
I’m filling my truck. It’s cold outside. She’s bundled. Whenever a gust blows, she pulls her jacket tight.
The weatherman is calling for snow.
I break the ice. “Cold, isn’t it?” I say.
She makes a familiar remark about a witch wearing a brass bra, and I love her.
She looks old, but is younger than she looks. She clocked off work an hour ago. Her daughter was supposed pick her up, but there’s a problem.
“Our car don’t work so good,” she says. “My girl’s gotta call her boyfriend and borrow his car.”
So she waits.
I wait with her for a few minutes. She’s cold and alone; I need something to write about.
So meet Karen. She raised her daughter on her own. It’s always been just the two of them. They’re best friends.
Her daughter is an honor student. A senior. The girl has been looking for colleges all over the U.S. She has scholarship opportunities.
There is sadness in Karen’s voice.
“All them colleges she’s looking at,” she goes on, “they’re outta state. That kid’s been my whole life for eighteen years. I can’t bear the thought.”
I offer her a ride. She refuses. I insist. She only laughs. Laughing leads to coughing. Coughing leads to hacking. Smoking hasn’t been kind.
Her daughter has taken a few road trips with her boyfriend to visit universities. One trip took them to Philadelphia.
“Fifteen hours away,” she says. “Might as well be Mars. Every time she leaves to visit a college, I see what it’s like without her. God, it’s so quiet. Don’t know if I’m strong enough.”
Strength. This woman has plenty.
Her husband died of a heart attack when he was thirty-six. She was only twenty-nine. She raised her child, living on minimum wage, long hours, and too many cigarettes.
Her whole life has been for that honor student. That’s what makes women like her tick. Family.
Women like her would give it all for those they love, and do.
They make fried eggs at midnight because that’s your favorite. They’ll exhaust their own coin purse to buy the three-hundred-dollar guitar you always wanted. They’ll pray for you until their knees are skinned. They’re mothers.
“I pray she picks a college that’s close,” she says. “Don’t think I’ll make it if she leaves.”
More laughing. More coughing. The laugh isn’t real. The cough is.
“Ah, but I’m proud of her,” she goes on. “She’s so smart it ain’t even funny. Not at all like her mama. I’m just so proud.”
A vehicle rolls up while we’re talking. A Dodge Durango with dents. A girl jumps out. They hug.
“I’m sorry, mom,” the girl says.
Mama steps on her cigarette. She pets the girl’s blonde hair. She kisses her forehead. She says, “It wasn’t so bad, sweetie. Besides, I made a friend while I waited.”
Friend. I’m honored.
She crawls into the passenger seat. They drive away. She waves at me through the window. There goes one incredible woman. I’m lucky to have met her.
The weatherman is predicting snow tonight. And I’ve got four hours of driving ahead of me.
Dear Lord, I know you’re busy. But if you’re listening to me…
Let that child pick a college close to home.