I did something really stupid the other day. I can’t stop thinking about it. I pulled off I-64 at the mile 37 rest area west of Charleston, West Virginia. The restroom building stank, the map display was illegible, I was road weary from not sleeping well the night before and simply from driving the interstate. Mostly I stick to back roads driving across country, but sometimes interstate is the only remotely efficient option.
As I hesitated at the map display a pleasant young woman approached and engaged me in conversation. That’s a really neat camper, I’ve never seen one like it. Etc. I responded with my usual candor that it’s great, but hard to drive in the wind, Oh, yeah, any vehicle is hard to drive in the wind, we stayed off the road yesterday too. Said they were from Kentucky, heading to visit his mother in West Virginia. She disarmed me. Though she did have a certain look I should have caught as she blew cigarette smoke toward me and didn’t flinch when I backed out of it. She gauged me as vulnerable.
So I wanted to say what a neat camper, and also my husband noticed something dripping under your driver’s side.
Why was my instant response panic instead of suspicion? This whole trip I’ve contended with an elevated anxiety level, with no obvious source. (Except potential tornadoes, sub-freezing nights, all that could go wrong with winter travel.) The young man got out of their car. Let me get my dogs out first, I said.
Even though something inside me was asking What’s really going on here? Are these people for real? I let him crawl under the van to look. All through this trip I’ve felt unusually insecure, I’m too old to do this alone anymore, it’s exhausting.
Yeah, you’ve got a broken line here, I think I can fix it. You definitely shouldn’t drive this. Oh thank you! Why was I so quick to believe that there was a broken line? About an hour earlier I’d heard a pop that sounded like something had fallen off the counter onto the floor. I glanced behind but saw nothing. A couple of times on this trip, including at a traffic light that morning, the engine idle sounded too loud, knocking, but it wasn’t constant. Also, there was that time when the other garage in town had overfilled my oil because they guessed at the capacity instead of checking the manual. The light had come on startling me into stopping along the road home, granted only ten miles from the scene of the crime. This trip I’d driven fifteen hundred miles, hours and hours without incident. But I was so quick to take the persuasive, concerned, friendly helpful stranger’s word over trusting in my mechanic, who knew me, who gave me a big hug goodbye and said be safe, whom I knew would have done his best to make sure that everything was shipshape on my van.
You might need a part, he said.
I did hear a pop earlier, I said. What kind of pop? Was it loud?
She continued to chat with me, holding the dogs’ leashes while I opened the hood. I was reluctant to hand them off to her. I was both suspicious and trusting. He spoke with a serious country twang. I didn’t want to suspect him just because of that. My friend David speaks with a similar southern accent, and David would have done exactly the same thing. He’d have gone out of his way to protect a lone woman traveling, to fix her car. With David in mind I was inclined to trust them. Though just glancing underneath I didn’t see any dripping.
They said one thing just right, the next a little off, then back on track. I thought fast but they worked faster. You’ll definitely need a part, Advance Auto is just down the road, I can run get it and be back in half an hour and fix it for you.
He’s always working, she said, seven days a week, I have to drag him away even for a day to visit his mama. He pulled out his phone and I heard Advance Auto answer from the other end. She spoke again. Yeah, and have it ready, he insisted. I didn’t hear what part, he said there were two options, gave me prices. Whichever you think is best, I said. There was more talking. I did ask questions. But not enough. I didn’t want to turn my back on them to climb under the van myself. There was definitely fresh oil underneath, which of course had already been there. They’d been lying in wait for an easy mark to pull into one of those spaces.
Seventy-three dollars, he said. Oh, I don’t have that much cash. I did, but knew better than to give it to them. I’ll call them and give them a credit card. I wouldn’t give them a credit card over the phone, he said with deep concern. My thoughts whirred. Without words I thought he must know people there, not trust them. We can take you down to the store, he said. Oh no, I can’t leave the van and the dogs. They were so smooth. God bless the dogs.
I can write a check, I said. What harm could that do, I thought. I can always stop payment if they don’t come back. I’ll bring you the receipt. I reached in to get my checkbook, and noticed my toothbrush on the counter. That right there should have ended the whole thing. The pop, something small landing on a hard surface…
I wrote a check to Advance Auto and left it blank. He started to the car, came back. You need to make it out to me, he said, I’ve got my ID, blah blah. By that time I was shutting down, in some trance. There’s no excuse. They played me skillfully. I knew something was wrong but squashed that voice. She was so sweet, so friendly.
My parents were alcoholics. There, I’ve said it. As an adult child of alcoholics I’ve been wrestling the past few years with the recognition that I quail in the face of authority, whether it comes in the form of a uniform, a flashing light, or just a firm voice proclaiming I need its help. I submit easily to the perception that someone knows more than I do. But what really gave me up to them was my absurd innocence that this was actually something that people do. I’m on to the tech scammers that call and say they’re the Microsoft engineer, to the phone scammers give me final notice from IRS, Internal Revenue Services. But I’ve rarely been a good judge of character when I first meet people, and haven’t yet learned to trust my intuition.
They were horrible people, and I was horribly gullible to fall for them. As they were leaving with my check, I thought to get their phone number, stopped their car, told them I get anxious, and if they didn’t come back right away I’d need to call them, punched it into my phone, called them. Now you’ll have it in case you get delayed and need to let me know. This is what saved me, this last minute grasping at my intuition: They had snowed me but not entirely without my recognition. I was just a few minutes too late, and they were so quick to get in their car and leave. I even offered to make the wife a sandwich while he went for the part, No that’s ok, I haven’t eaten yet either, we’ll stop at Hardees, as he got in the car. Wait a minute, if they were going to stop at Hardee’s before they came back with the new part… They were gone.
I stood looking around the rest area. People came and went, people were all around. Not a lot, but people. I’d seen them all along. Nobody looked our way. I called my cousin whose home I’d left that morning. The couple called me back and said We can’t cash this check, blah blah, if you want to try to make it down to the next exit maybe you can buy the part and I’ll try to fix it. Uncertainty now in his voice.
You just tear up that check, I said. I’ll call my insurance company. I have roadside assistance, I’d known that all along, but the thought of waiting there an hour or two for a tow, being stranded in Charleston, finding a place to stay with the dogs… And, I keep coming back to this, it all happened so fast, he was so authoritative. I called Geico. It began to sink in that I’d been scammed. I approached a truck driver outside his cab and told him what happened. He started shaking his head early in my tale and I tapered off. Is that even a thing? I asked him.
This is America, he said, everybody steals from everybody. It’s the American way. I nodded. Fuck all, I’ve been had. Cancel that check right away, he said. Now he was someone I could trust, and I felt the difference clearly. I called the bank. He looked under the hood. I don’t see anything leaking, he said. I called 911. The dispatcher asked a lot of questions: what did they look like, what were they wearing, what kind of car? They’ve been there for two days, he said finally. Do you want an officer to respond or can they just call you if they need to?
Eager to get back on the road I said they can call me. Feeling foolish, shaky, ashamed, I hit the road again. She was so open and pleasant; only in retrospect could I really assess what the girl was doing, playing off of whatever I said, asking open ended questions, making the most of my propensity to speak into a friendly vacuum. I felt stupid and unclean. I berated myself.
The lesson, I decided, was don’t accept help you haven’t asked for.
And I tried, in my rage driving up the highway, to find compassion for people so low that they had to resort to scamming befuddled old ladies traveling alone out of a hundred dollars here and there. And that effort wrestled with a dawning fear: my address, my bank number, were on that check. How far would they go?
And why am I putting my shame out in public for everyone to know how stupid I was? A cautionary tale to anyone else too naive to be allowed out on the roads alone.
The next day I arrived at Amy’s house in time for lunch with her parents at their farm. Virginia never looked so lovely. Her father, who has teased me mercilessly since I was twelve years old, was oddly quiet for the longest time. Judy mentioned what happened to me. How much was the check for? he asked.
Here is the worst part. It was blank, I admitted.
I don’t even want to talk to you! he said, reeling away as if I were contaminated, too dumb to even be in his presence. I laughed out loud and slapped his arm. Finally! I cried. What took you so long? I was getting worried! And normal returned to embrace me in the laughter at that table, the love and comfort that surrounded me.