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Staircase Wit Leaves Us All Cold

Snow had fallen through the night, blanketing the mountains with an inch or more of glistening white. It was the kind of day best spent at home, but an appointment required that I drive to town.

I stopped at a gas station along the way. The station is near the corner of where my parents almost bought a house and not too far from where they actually did. It's open most hours of the night, perhaps even all 24 of the day, and is thus one of my regular stops.

A young man wearing an oversized black jacket and black knit hat pulled tight over his heat was standing directly inside the store's double doors, talking on his cell phone, as a middle-aged, female attendant mopped up melted snow from entryway. I grabbed some Reese's Cups and went to the counter to pay.

The attendant put her mop and bucket away, came to the register, opened the drawer, and began to count her cash. There wasn't much there—a twenty or two and a dozen one dollar bills for which she ran a receipt that she tore from the register and slipped inside a clear envelope along with the bills and then deposited the sum in a dropbox on the counter behind her. The young man walked outside. The attendant looked past me through the glass door. She apologized for making me wait, but the young man on the phone was having trouble. He needed kerosene, presumably for a heater, given the weather; however, his bank card wouldn't allow for an overdraft to buy it, she told me as she rang up my Reese's Cups. The young man had said something about needing the kerosene badly enough that he might "have do something he shouldn't do" in order to get it.

I pondered the attendant's words for a few seconds. At first, I imagined she meant the young man would fill his kerosene container and drive away without paying. Then I realized that she feared the young man would try to rob her. Rather than call the police, rather than lock the door behind the young man after he'd walked out, she simply had emptied her register so there wouldn't be any cash for him to steal.

"I'll stay here with you if you want," I said.
"Nah, people are still coming in," she said, once again looking past me out to the parking lot where the young man was sitting in his car, still talking on the phone.

I paid for my Reese's Cups and walked to my car, which was parked next to the young man's. I took my time buckling my seat belt. I peeled apart the crinkly, orange candy wrapper and slid a single peanut butter cup into my palm. I peeled the dark brown liner away from the chocolate. I took a nibble, and I watched. The young man appeared, more than anything else, cold. The attendant opened the store's front door and leaned against the stuccoed wall as she took a nervous drag off a cigarette. In my review mirror, I could see three other male customers busy gassing up their pick up trucks or cleaning salt from their windshields. Slowly I backed out of my parking space and headed on up the road.

As I drove, I contemplated what it must feel like to be a woman working alone in a place that's prone to draw criminal behavior. Though the gas station was in a good enough location, working as an attendant hardly qualifies as low-risk employment. There's a reason those places have security cameras and it's not to make sure the Little Debbies don't run away with the Slim Jims.

I also contemplated the small yellowish deposits on the station attendant's eyelids and whether or not I should have asked her if she knew about her hypercholesterolemia and should probably see a doctor about it.

And I thought about the weather. It was 18 degrees in the sun, and anyone without heat indeed would be desperate enough to do something stupid.

I was probably a mile down the road when I realized that I had the power to diffuse the situation and possibly impact the future. Though not well off, I certainly had $25 I could use to buy the young man some kerosene. I could do it quietly—just walk inside, tell the clerk to ring up the purchase, pay for it with my debit card, and walk out. I could wave to the young man in his car, tell him he could get some kerosene, and that I hoped it helped keep him warm. I imagined this little act of kindness would teach the young man about compassion and life choices. I imagined that the attendant wouldn't feel as afraid.

Although I was three-quarters of the way home, I turned onto a side road, hooked a sharp left, and headed back to the gas station, peering through my increasingly obscured and salt-speckled windshield. Traffic was slow through the wintery slush, and as the minutes ticked away, I became increasingly certain that the young man either would have gone ahead and done something stupid as the attendant feared he would—or just driven away.

And I guess that's what he did. When I pulled up to the gas station, the young man's car was gone. The scene seemed undisturbed. I was relieved, yet I regretted not having turned around sooner. No one needed to be without heat. No one.

I circled through the parking lot, and I imagined the attendant looking up from her register, past whichever customer was at the counter, and through the glass doors at just the right moment to see me slowly driving past. Would she think I had come back to save her or only to save myself the guilt of having walked away?

I doubt either one of us knows.

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