On Hallowe’en night I was buying gas near Aiken, South Carolina, and was deeply engrossed in washing my windshield when my peripheral vision caught a white mini-van coasting up to the adjoining pump. My attention was focused on a couple of stubborn bug streaks and I don’t generally spy on fellow customers, so I gave it little notice.
“Excuse me, sir,” came a voice from behind. My hearing’s not great, so he had to repeat it a couple of times to get my attention. A man was standing beside the van. He was small in stature, wearing worn jeans, a dark T-shirt, a blue-checked flannel shirt, and a nondescript ball cap with no logo. All were wrinkled and as scruffy in appearance as his beard.
But he was very polite. “Excuse me, sir. Could you spare a dollar or two? I’m trying to get home. I only have eight miles to go. My girlfriend just called and said supper is ready.”
What could I do? If I could drop a twenty on Hallowe’en candy to leave on the porch for neighborhood goblins, I could buy this guy enough gas to reach his warm supper and waiting girlfriend.
I handed him a couple of dollars and he thanked me, then warned me to watch out for strange things, like a werewolf on a bicycle. “I saw one just down the road,” he said. “Any other night and I would’ve shot him.”
He loped off into the store then, presumably to pay cash in advance for his gas, though I noticed he hadn’t stopped very near the pump. I finished cleaning the windshield and filling the tank, then walked inside to visit the bathroom.
I noticed that the guy had not returned to the van, and didn’t see him when I walked into the store.
You can guess what happened next: as I emerged from the grungy men’s room, he was standing at the counter with a fist full of ones and two Steel Reserve tall boys — 24 ounce cans of cheap “high gravity lager” (8.1 percent alcohol) that the Urban Dictionary describes as “the best bang for your drinking dollar.”
Can you guess that I was ticked? I don’t know what Jesus would have done — maybe turn the rotgut brew into a premium craft beer and have one with him, for all I know — but Jesus and he would both have been walking.
And I don’t know what I should have done, but what I did was walk straight to him and say “I thought you needed gas. I never intended to buy you beer. I’d like my two dollars back, please.”
He picked out two folded bills and handed them over. “No problem, sir,” he said.
I left with a divided mind. The man seemed to be beyond shame, but should I have caused potential embarrassment by confronting him in front of the cashier? Having been on the short end of a wreck with a drunk driver once before, and having considerable concern for whoever might end up in his path, I just couldn’t contribute to his getting behind the wheel with two oversized brain hammers.
If only he’d wanted a couple of foot-long hot dogs instead . . .
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.