Out for a Coke

The Shell station glowed yellow and red against the dark sky, and Louise pulled her car into the lot.  She was there for Coke, having gone out alone, leaving the guy in bed at the motel.

"They don't have what I want here," she'd told him on her way out.

They were traveling because of her step-father's funeral.  She and the guy were treating the trip like a vacation since she hadn't known her step-father well.  They'd planned a couple of stops on the way home—Graceland, the beach, anything that caught their eye off the highways—but it hadn't felt fun yet, or like a vacation.  The car was always too hot or cold.  The guy slept, his face pressed against the window, while she drove the highways.

After she parked, she got out and was careful about closing the car door because of its tendency to shock her.  A woman sat next to the convenience store's door on a lawn chair.  She had a box of puppies with a computer-printed sign taped to it that said, Free to a Home.  Her jeans were stonewashed, and she also wore Reeboks and looked alert and relaxed, as if she had no idea it was one a.m.  Her salt-and-pepper hair, curly and twisted back with a clip, reminded Louise of her mother.  Louise wondered how her mother was doing in these past few days since the funeral, now that all the visitors were gone and the business of arranging flowers and caskets was over; it would just her and the empty house.  Louise hadn't had a chance to call since they'd been on the road all day and she didn't have a cell phone; she wished she and her mother were closer. 

"Want one?" the woman asked, pointing to the puppies.

"I can't—I'm just traveling through."  She stopped and knelt down next to the box, peering in because it seemed like the thing to do.

"I'd keep them all," the woman said.  "I don't want to lose them.  I have to."

One puppy was on his back pawing up at another one.  One was standing on two legs and hopping backwards like he was about to do a flip.  Another slept in a corner; he looked warm, and his back moved rhythmically as he breathed. 

Louise thought about the guy.  She'd been with him longer than she'd ever been with anyone else.  Recently they'd started talking about marriage, how they wanted a house, a big bay window above the kitchen sink, the financial crisis that would probably prevent them from buying.  They'd decided they'd get a dog as soon as one of the kids asked for one, a big one or a small one, whichever seemed right at the time. 

These puppies were cute, shaggy white fur, brown ears, short legs and tails.  One was grabbing the newspaper from the bottom of the box with his teeth and making a mess with it.  Louise smiled at the woman and said, "They're cute but I'm really just here for a Coke." 

"Won't be long before they're gone.  If you come back through, it'll be too late."  Louise nodded and went inside. 

The store was dimly lit and she saw the Cokes lining the refrigerated case in the back, from floor to ceiling, nothing but Cokes, in cans and bottles.  She got a bottle, paid, and went out again. 

The woman was at one of the pumps talking to a trucker.  She'd left the box of puppies by the door, and she looked like she was about to get into the cab of the eighteen-wheeler. 

Louise stopped and knelt down by the box again, on the side by the sleeping puppy.  She set the cold bottle of Coke on the concrete.  She reached in and ran her hand along the puppy's tail. 

The puppy half-opened one eye, stuck out a pink tongue.  She picked it up.  She worried, remembering how her mother had sobbed that her step-father hadn't had his glasses on in the casket, something about how he wouldn't be able to see, and then afterward, she, Louise's mother, washed her face and served trays of crudités and Ranch dressing to the guests at the house. 

Louise brought the puppy up towards her face and smelled its fur.  She looked around.  Cars rushed by on the frontage road that ran alongside the highway, just next to the gas station.  She hadn't opened the Coke yet; it would have been her seventh of the day, just a habit.  She didn't want it.  

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