My Great-Aunt Meets Jesus at the Mobil Station in Montana

by Stephanie Johnson Read author interview June 15, 2007
story art

After entering the interstate against traffic—despite thunderous air horns and flashing headlights—my grandfather led our caravan into the filling station. My father, hotter than the overworked engine, slammed our wagon into park, slung obscenities through the open window of my grandfather’s U-Haul.

Midwest to West Coast round-trip in seventy-two hours, including packing and loading my elderly great-aunt’s possessions into the rental truck. Nonstop driving, greasy meals served on dashboards, consumed behind steering columns. No chance for relaxation, for a mini-vacation—no one even saw the ocean. Only four hours of rest in sleeping bags on a hardwood floor. A suicide mission, my father accused, his evidence endless.

My grandfather announced that my father was stupid enough to follow him down the wrong ramp, returning fire in a showdown of who could have hypothetically killed whom.

“Sleep,” my father demanded. “We need some goddamned sleep.”

My grandmother absconded on a pilgrimage for coffee and Tareytons. My mother leaned on the hood, vacantly chiseling dead insects from the windshield with her chipped fingernails. But my great-aunt took my hand and walked me to the deserted diesel pumps on the side of the station, acting as though she didn’t know our family was divided like the highway.

“Meet my niece,” she said once we stood on the self-service island. She gently nudged me forward to greet the middle pump. “Don’t be afraid,” she whispered. “Jesus loves children.”

When I didn’t move, she bridged the distance between the pump and me, an arm on each of us. “She’s shy,” she told the pump, assuredly wrapping failing fingers around his nozzle-thin arm, “but she’s a good, good child.”

The conversation continued. My aunt nodded, listening more than speaking, until my mother called across the lot, told us we were leaving. My father had conceded that the dangers of prolonging time on the road with my grandfather outweighed the hazard of pushing forward in a haze.

“Yes,” my aunt said to the pump before we rejoined our family. “I’m coming home—see you soon.”

In Michigan, my father let us use the bathroom at my grandparents’ house, but we didn’t stay for supper. We didn’t unload the truck. He drove three more hours through darkness, refusing to unwind until we’d left my mother’s family behind.

My aunt died, having been home for only forty-eight hours, giving us reason to argue over contrary names for the same situation—premonition, happenstance, God’s will, a transgression that should have killed us all.

Years later, while traveling alone, I still struggle to make good time, but back roads, alleys, dead-ends become sirens seducing me to shipwreck. Perhaps my aunt knew how many ways a person can lose faith, how she can push a pin in a map, say this is home, but never navigate the details. She understood how hazy safe harbors are anything but, and how I worry that if I fall asleep—stop paying attention to the road for even a moment—I’ll never escape being lost.

About the Author:

Stephanie Johnson lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and holds an MFA from Emerson College. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Village Rambler, R-KV-R-Y, Boston Literary Magazine, and Idlewheel. Her essays have regularly appeared in The Rambler in her column "No Do-Overs." Johnson's story collection One of These Things is Not Like the Others is available from Keyhole Press.