A Christmas story: Weary travelers find rest at Joe’s
Joe’s gas station was located at the corner of South Main and Sixth Avenue. This used to be a bustling part of town but these days it was far from bustling and more than a little run down. There was a small grocery around the corner, a used bookstore across the street, several warehouses, empty stores, and a variety of absent landlord apartment buildings that had seen better days.
The gas station was an original 1950s sort of place with a couple of gas pumps out front and two service bays for oil changes, brake jobs, mufflers, and other minor repairs. It was nothing like the modern convenience store gas stations of today with their multiple gas pumps, groceries, snacks, coffee, a wall of coolers full of drinks, and, in some cases, even a Subway restaurant inside. No, there was just a small office with an old wooden desk with a matching wooden chair, a stained looking Mr. Coffee, papers scattered about, and out in the service bays an assortment of motor oil, tires, mufflers, and a variety of auto parts probably rescued from some junkyard. Like most 1950s-era gas stations, the rest rooms were on the side of the building behind a couple of battered doors with faded signs. An assortment of used tires and rusted auto parts covered with snow were piled behind the station. Inside, a layer of grease and oil covered everything, including Joe’s coveralls.
Joe’s wife had died two years ago and loneliness had been his companion ever since. He thought he should sell the place, but then he wouldn’t know what to do with himself. So, he spent his days sitting in the wooden chair listening to the radio balanced on top of the rusted red coke machine that no longer worked, hoping someone would stop in for an oil change or some minor repair so he would have something to do and someone to help him pass the time. Fortunately, old man Jones, who lived in one of the run-down apartments nearby, would drop by every once in a while for some conversation that would chase away the loneliness. Joe would sit in his chair while old man Jones settled in on a stack of tires in the corner. They would chat for awhile, solving the world’s problems and reliving the past.
It was Christmas Eve and cold and dark outside. Christmas was an especially lonely time for Joe. He was reluctant to close up and walk home to his small apartment. It had been a slow day; Christmas Eve was always slow, and it didn’t look like anyone was going to stop by and break the loneliness. Finally he turned off the gas pumps and the outside lights, switched off the heater in the service bay, turned off the office light and stepped out into the night.
As he started to walk down the block toward his apartment, something caught his eye at the far corner of the station next to the service bays. Two rusty old cars that couldn’t be fixed were parked there, but tonight it looked like there was another car there as well. He strained to see through the snow that had been falling most of the afternoon. Were his eyes being fooled by the falling snow and the flickering street light? He walked over to investigate and, sure enough, another car had pulled in next to the other two.
Joe wiped the snow off the windshield and peered inside. The first thing he saw was a small white plastic angel mounted to the dash. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw a young couple looking back at him with frightened expressions on their faces. He tapped on the windshield and motioned for the man to roll down the window. The young man hesitated for a moment and then began to roll down the driver’s side window. Joe looked inside and saw that they were wrapped in well worn blankets against the cold. The young man, seeing that Joe appeared about ready to ask what they were doing there, explained that they had very little money, were planning on sleeping in the car, and simply wanted a safe place to park for the night. Joe looked closer and saw that the woman was cradling what appeared to be a small baby in her arms.
The young man went on to tell Joe that he had lost his job and that he, his wife, and their 4-week- old baby were driving to Florida to live with his mother-in-law until they could get on their feet. Joe could see that they were cold and frightened and his heart went out to them. He thought he should help but was uncertain what to do. He could let them park next to the station but it was really too cold to spend the night sleeping in a car. He wasn’t sure if he should let them stay at his apartment. It was barely big enough for him, much less two adults and a baby. It would be taking a risk, but he could turn the heat back on in the service bays and let them park their car inside next to his. At least they would be warm and dry.
Joe made his decision. He told the young man he would open one of the service bay doors and instructed him to drive the car inside so they wouldn’t have to sleep in the snow and cold. The young couple looked uncertain but after talking it over thanked Joe and agreed to take him up on his offer. Joe went back inside, turned on the heater, opened the service bay door, and the young man drove his car inside.
Joe asked them if they had anything to eat. The woman responded, saying that they had some peanut butter and crackers and some bottled water. Joe thought that wouldn’t be enough and began considering how to find something more for them to eat. He remembered that the Wal-Mart out by the interstate had advertised that it would stay open late on Christmas Eve. He checked his watch, told the couple he would see if he could find something more for them to eat, backed his old Ford out of the service bay and headed over to the Wal-Mart. It was open and Joe bought some sliced meats, cheese, bread, fruit drinks, more peanut butter, and a variety of other odds and ends including a Styrofoam cooler and some ice. He also bought some diapers, baby wipes, and a small stuffed teddy bear to add to the supply of food.
Joe drove back to the station, parked his car inside, and gave the food and baby supplies to the young couple. They expressed their thanks over and over and wanted to know how they could pay him back. He told them the only payment he needed was their promise to help someone else someday. They thanked Joe again as he left the station. He looked back and saw that they were fixing something to eat and getting ready to settle down for the night. The snow had stopped and Joe looked up to see a sky filled with stars as he made his way down the block to his apartment.
Even though it was Christmas day, and Joe had not planned on opening the station, he did plan on getting up early and checking on his visitors. The alarm went off and, after hitting the snooze button a couple of times, Joe crawled out of bed, washed up, got dressed, and started up the street toward the station. It was a beautiful day, the sun was up, and the sky was blue.
When he reached the station, he found that it was empty. The service bay door was closed, the door to the office was locked, the heater was off, and the young couple’s car was nowhere to be seen. There were no food wrappers in the trash and no tire tracks in the snow. He walked into the office and sat down. Where had they gone? What had happened? Had he imagined the whole thing? Had it been a dream?
For several minutes he puzzled over the events of last night, the young couple, the baby, no place to stay, and suddenly it came to him! He remembered another story, a story about a young couple and a baby with no place to stay on a cold and starry night long ago. Joe hadn’t thought about that story in a long time. He hadn’t been to church since his wife died but somehow he felt church was where he should be this Christmas morning. St. Patrick’s was three blocks over, and if he hurried he could walk there in time for the 11 o’clock Mass. He wasn’t really dressed for church but that didn’t seem to matter. He got up to walk out the door and that’s when he saw it; a small white plastic angel sitting on top of the coke machine next to the radio. A tear made its way down his cheek and into his beard.