Afew nights ago, coming up the Harrietta Hill on the road between Cadillac and Caberfae Ski Area, we came upon a battered SUV with its blinkers on. Steve pulled up next to the driver’s window; I rolled down my window and asked if they needed help.
The man said they’d run out of gas.
No problem, Steve said. We’ll get you some gas.
There was a woman in the car, too, and a baby. It was cold, so we suggested that they come along. She brought the car seat, then the baby—and buckled him into it. She went back for the gas can.
“I’m Mary,” she said, closing the door. “This is Finn. He’s one and a half.”
We introduced ourselves, said we were from Indianapolis.
“Where’s that?” Mary asked.
“Indiana,” I said. “You know, just south.”
“Is it warm there?” she asked.
“Maybe a little warmer than Michigan, but not much,” I said.
They were from Manton, she told us, which we knew was about thirty miles away. They were on their way to pick up a friend who worked at the ski area because his car had broken down.
We chatted along the way. They had eight children between them, Mary told me. All grown. Finn was the child of a friend who they were raising as their own because she couldn’t care for him.
“You missed having little ones,” I said.
“Yeah,” Mary said, a smile in her voice. “I did.”
Fin was fitful, crying earnestly at times, then that tired, cranky kind of crying, then crying for his daddy. Mary soothed him.
When we got to the gas station, Steve said he needed to fill our tank (which he’d actually filled earlier that day), so there was no need for her to get out. He’d fill her gas can at the same time.
“Can I write you a check for that?” she asked, when he got back in the car.
“No,” Steve said. "Don't worry about it."
She thanked him quietly, we drove on back to the Harrietta Road in silence, but for Finn’s moaning, “Daa, Daa, Daa.”
We pulled up in front of the SUV and Mary got out, unbuckled Finn, and handed him through the open window to her husband, a gargantuan, bearded guy, who engulfed him. She put the car seat back into their car, then went back for the gas can.
“Are you guys going to be okay?” Steve asked.
Her husband nodded. He put a happy Finn up to the open window. “These are good people,” he said.
And we went on our way, back to our cozy cabin, to our dog and our books and a fire.
"We're so lucky," I said.
The thing is, though, if you asked Mary I'm pretty sure she’d say she was lucky, too. She loved her husband, loved her children. Times were tough, but—
I keep thinking about them. They had to know how low their gas tank was and how few gas stations there were in the thirty miles between home and their destination, yet they set out to pick up their friend, who needed help. They were several miles from the ski area when we came upon them. It was icy and dark so walking there was unlikely—not to mention dangerous. I have no idea how long they sat there, getting colder and colder. Almost nobody travels that road, especially at night.
My point? I wish I knew. I keep thinking a lot about Trump voters, who they are, how they live. Why they chose him. Were Mary and her husband Trump voters? Did they even vote? I don’t know. But I suspect that there are a lot of Trump voters who are like them, living on the edge, doing the best they can.
The gas can: one of those “telling details” fiction writers talk about. People don’t carry a gas can when they have enough money to fill up the tank when it nears empty.
When I was a kid, my dad would put a dollar or two, at most, in the tank. I thought everybody did that. Only rich people told the gas station attendant, “Fill ‘er up.” I couldn’t imagine what that would be like.
Now I hop out of my car, fill up the tank without a second thought. But I don’t ever want to forget how many people can’t do that. It seems like a small thing. But the world is made of small things, which, when put together so often make a picture that will break your heart.