My knee-jerk response was to just get in the car and drive away. But out my side view mirror I noticed I'd left the little door to the gas tank open. At that moment I decided I'd help her if she came my way. I saw the two older white women in the car at the pump in front of me shaking their heads, not rolling the windows down, not getting out to pump their gas.
"Excuse me sir," she said as I clicked the gas hatch closed, her voice loud and rough but articulate. "Could you give me a ride down to where Main Street intersects with River Street and Augusta Road? It's down toward St. Francis Hospital."
"Sure!" I replied with a smile. "Let me get my stuff out of the front seat."
"Thank you sir! You're so kind," she gushed as I gathered up my guitar, backpack and jacket and threw them in the trunk and she climbed in the passenger seat. "This old body is worn out."
"You don't look old," I said, drawing a warm, closed-lip grin. She was an older black woman, pear shaped with straightened and permed salt and pepper hair trailing halfway down her back and cut into blunt bangs in the front. She had on a plaid flannel shirt, unbuttoned, with an old t-shirt underneath and white jeans and carried a big, stuffed shoulder bag. I immediately noticed a strong odor. Was she homeless?
"Did you just get off work?" I asked as we pulled out of the filling station into 5:30 traffic on Rutherford Road.
"No, I was just at the Salvation Army." She was polite and well-spoken. "I tried to pick up some clothes for my friend, but they said I needed a voucher. She's got a job interview tomorrow. She tried to interview last week but they didn't give her the job."
I swung a right on Stone Avenue and then another on Townes. "Are you from around here?" I asked, just to make conversation.
"No, I'm from Memphis, Tennessee. It's beautiful this time of year." She wasn't very talkative. We sat silently as we rode past St. George's Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Oddly, she took out a lidless stick of deodorant and began sniffing it and rubbing it onto the right leg of her jeans. I took the initiative to talk and try to get her to open up a little.
"I've gotta pick my kids up from my mother in law's after I drop you off. I'm already late picking them up thanks to all the traffic on 85. You got any kids?"
"No. I've never had any children. I've never even been married. I was engaged twice."
I turned left on College Street and then left again on Academy, a bit fuzzy about the particular intersection she'd described but headed in the direction of the hospital.
"Could you tell me where the main bus station is sir?" She asked. It felt odd to be called "sir" by someone who was at least 60 years old.
"Oh, it's right over that way," I said, gesturing to the left as we drove past McBee Avenue downtown. "It's right across from that church. Downtown Baptist Church."
"That's where I need to go," she informed me, seeming a little confused. I started to feel tense as I took a left on Congaree and turned around, headed back towards the station. "I was there earlier today. I just don't know my way around here very well."
"I'll let you off there," I said, thinking about the kids and about my mother-in-law, who was surely wondering what the hold up was. I made a left on McBee and pulled into the station, even though a sign was clearly marked "DO NOT ENTER."
"Oh they've got Greyhound and local busses here? It didn't look like this earlier today. Is there another main bus terminal around here?"
I hadn't a clue.
"I'm sorry," I said, feeling defeated and truly apologetic for what felt like a spurious attempt to be a do-gooder. "I've got to let you out here. I've gotta go pick up my kids."
"Wait, wait, wait!" she cried, upping the volume of her voice a bit. I felt the tendons in my neck tense up and my breathing get a bit shorter as a bus pulled up behind us, waiting for my wrongly positioned car to get the hell out of its way. "Can you tell me where Main Street is?"
"It's right over there."
"That's where I need to go. Can you take me there please?" Her manners were impeccable.
"Sure. I'll let you off on Main Street."
I turned left on Main and traffic was backed up. It was perfect opportunity to let her out of the car since we were stopped on a crosswalk.
"Sir, I just have to tell you to beware of the federal government; they defrauded me out of 900 million dollars."
The cars in front of us pulled away. A line of cars waited behind us.
"I've gotta let you off here. Please."
I noticed a cheap plastic bottle of vodka peeking out of her oversized bag as she opened the door and got out.
"You have to keep your eyes open, sir. They put implants in your penis region!" she shouted as she closed the door.