It was one of those things, where one thing leads to the next thing and before you know it you’re on a one way trip to Nowheresville with a pit stop at the Gas Station From Hell.
Dave and I had dilly-dallied yesterday morning to the point where it was Saturday afternoon and we still hadn’t made like Elvis and left the building. I wanted to go buy some blue jeans in Barrie, a shopping metropolis an hour down the road from us, but it was one of those ‘wants’ that hadn’t really manifested itself strongly enough to get our butts into the vehicle.
“Well, are we gonna go?” This from Dave at 10 a.m.
“Sure,” I said, still lounging around in my pink muumuu nightgown, the one with funky black cats, birdcages and spilled coffee all over it.
“Are you ready to go?” Dave at 11 a.m.
“Sure,” I said. “But I have to have a bath first.”
“Have you had that bath yet?” Dave at high noon.
“Do I look like I’ve had a bath yet?” Still in muumuu only with fresh coffee stains and something that looks suspiciously like egg yolk.
In the bath, right after that, with much lolling about and snoozing in the warm water. Then hair brushing, cat brushing, laundry folding, blow drying, then wandering out into the kitchen with fabulous hair, still in pink muumuu.
It’s 1 p.m.
“Well, are we gonna go?” I say to Dave. He tickles me into submission so I go get dressed and dutifully meet him in the Jeep.
It is gorgeous outside. Blue skies, tons of sunshine glittering off fresh snow, warm enough temperatures to get the eavestroughs dripping and the snowbanks melting down into puddles on the highway.
“Geez it’s nice out. Why didn’t we get on the road sooner?” I say to my driver, who takes his eyes off the road long enough to glare in my general direction.
We’re heading south down Highway 11 (also known as Yonge St., the longest street in the world). It’s one of the main north-south arteries connecting Toronto to northern Ontario. As it travels through Muskoka, the cottage country area I call home, it is a four-lane divided highway cutting through the forest. The trees block the wind so, although we get more snow here than our neighbours to the south, we are protected from the blowing snow and white-outs that plague the Barrie area, surrounded, as it is, with farm fields.
I mention all this because the driving was messy. Melting snow combined with blowing snow meant the roads were slushy and nasty in some spots. We weren’t worried too much, though – besides having four-wheel-drive, our Jeep is equipped with studded tires and will take us pretty near anywhere we want to go.
However, all the studs in the world can’t help you if you run out of windshield washer fluid. (Unless they’re a different type of stud.)
Which we did.
And just like that, we were stuck on a snowy, slushy messy highway going 100 km/hr and unable to see anything in front of us.
“Keep your eyes open,” Dave says. “I think there’s a gas station up ahead, across from Webers.”
Webers, the Holy Grail of hamburger stands. The most popular burger joint in this whole province, bar none, and a regular must-visit for cottagers making their weekly pilgrimage from the Big Smoke to their cottage mansions on the Muskoka lakes. On any day of the summer, people are lined up outside this burger joint, lined up by the hundreds. Webers somehow keeps the lines moving, firing out burgers at ridiculous speeds, so no matter how long the line is, you’re not waiting long.
When the Ministry of Transportation divided Highway 11 in June 1981, people took their lives in their hands in order to cross the road for a Webers burger. In 1982 the ministry put a chain-link fence up to discourage people from crossing the road, but still they came. In 1983, Webers bought a chunk of a pedestrian bridge from the CN Tower in Toronto and erected it over the highway. It became the first and only privately owned bridge built over a public highway in the province of Ontario.
Those must be some amazing burgers. I don’t know because I’ve never been. I think I’m the only Ontario resident who hasn’t. Dave has and he says they’re nothing to write home about. Merely “OK,” he says.
Still, there must be something special about them to draw gazillions of people there. It really is one of the busiest pit stops along this busy highway.
Right across the road, however, is one of the quietest spots along the highway.
The Cardinal Motel, Store & Gas Bar. A rundown mom and pop operation with nary a customer in sight when we pulled in to buy windshield washer fluid.
Rundown is perhaps too nice a word for it. Scary is more appropriate. It’s the kind of gas station you see in horror movies. Right away I knew we shouldn’t be stopping there but hey, we’re not 18-year-old sex-crazed cheerleaders so I figured we’d be safe from chainsaw-wielding guys wearing hockey masks.
Besides, we couldn’t see diddly through the windshield. We needed washer fluid, no two ways about it. And Dave decided to get gas while we were there. He pumped $58 into old Bessie then headed into the store. No “pay at the pump” pumps here. These babies looked like they'd been there since the ‘70s. Even weirder, there was a pile of abandoned gas pumps piled next to the store. They looked like corpses, stacked like cordwood in the snow.
I decided to follow Dave into the store to get a coffee. I know any coffee they might serve would probably be as old as yesterday’s newspaper but I was thirsty and, despite what you might think, there isn’t a Tim Horton’s on every street corner.
We went through the screen door and were immediately greeted by a high-strung border collie, who was intent on escaping and getting run over on the highway. We managed to get in without facilitating his demise. There was an elderly Asian woman behind the till listening to an Asian program on her little TV. She looked like she was about 100 and she gave us a suspicious look when we went in.
The place stunk. Kinda like a combination of basement earth and Javex. Still, I was relieved to see those instant coffee machines - Keurig, I think they’re called. We have them at work and I’d love to have one at home. So I got busy putting the little cup inside the machine and finding cream and sugar, while Dave searched the store for windshield fluid, chocolate milk and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (the only thing he loves more than me). He got to the counter and handed over two jugs of fluid plus the chocolate bar and the carton of milk, plus the $58 worth of gas.
The old woman tallied it up and said, “$78.67.”
“Really?” Dave asked. “More than 20 bucks for windshield wiper fluid, a thing of milk and a chocolate bar”
“$78.67,” the lady repeated. She sounded anxious and angry and muttered something in a language we couldn't understand.
At heart, Dave is an easy-going guy. He doesn’t like trouble. He held up his debit card, she passed him the machine. He swiped it, punched in his pin number and waited. “Approved,” read the machine display.
Dave went to put his debit card back in his wallet.
The old lady tried to grab it away from him.
“Need card,” she said aggressively. “Need to do again. No paper.”
Dave was like, wha? He was caught off guard. She reached for his card again and he held it back.
“I need card. Didn’t go through. See? No paper,” she pointed to the machine and its lack of receipt.
Easy-going Dave was now getting angry. He said, “Just charge me for the gas. I’m putting everything back.”
I looked at him blankly. The coffee, which was finally ready, smelled incredible. But I abandoned it to the counter. Dave took the milk and the fluid back to their places and put the chocolate bar back on the rack.
He said firmly, “Just the gas.” She punched in the transaction again and he swiped the debit card.
Again, no receipt printed out. But Dave’s machine clearly said approved. He had now paid twice for the gas as well as the other things he returned.
“Need card. Still no paper,” she said, trying to grab his card.
“No way,” said Dave. “I’ve already paid twice for this gas. See? It says approved.”
“No paper. Need card,” she said angrily.
Dave crossed his arms and stood his ground. “I am not going anywhere until you give me back the money you owe me."
This is where I got all freaky. I hate scenes. Hate, hate, hate 'em. The minute things start getting ugly, I’m outta there. The old flight or fight syndrome always leans towards flight with me. Yeah, in retrospect, I should have stood by my man but I didn’t.
“I’m going to wait in the car,” I said, and I practically ran out the door, leaving Dave and the old woman to hash things out.
I waited. And waited. Twenty minutes went by. I couldn’t see through the store’s black windows and had no idea what was going on inside. I kept thinking, he’ll be out any minute, but the minutes disappeared and no Dave.
A snowmobiler pulled up to the pumps, filled up his machine and went in to pay. He came out shortly. No Dave.
I was getting scared.
As a fan of #fridayflash, I have read way too many stories about guys getting cut up into little chunks by insane gas jockeys at lonely stations. OK, maybe I haven’t read that story exactly, but I’ve read a million just like it and I’ve got a vivid imagination to boot.
I was actually thinking that maybe the old lady had attacked Dave, or sicked her dog on him and he reacted by strangling the dog and then pounding the old lady until she was a bleeding mush, and he was, right now, stuffing her in the freezer with the ice cream and the frozen peas.
When a pick-up truck pulled in with a trailer of snowmobiles, I decided I’d go in the store when the guy went in to pay. That way if the old broad had a cleaver ready to stuff into my head, she’d get the guy first.
He went in, I followed, and there was Dave at the counter talking to a younger Asian guy, who was plonking around with the debit machine.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
Dave’s red face meant he was angry and his blood pressure was peaking but he looked alive and so did the old lady and the dog was still prancing around with his head on straight so I figured things weren’t desperate.
“Yeah,” he said. “We’re figuring this out.”
The old lady said, “Machine broke. No paper.”
Dave said to the pick-up truck driver, “I hope you got cash. I wouldn’t be using their debit machine if I were you.”
What had happened was she did charge him twice and was perfectly willing to charge him again and again until the machine printed out a receipt. Which wasn't going to happen anytime soon because the machine was out of paper. When Dave said no, she pointed to the store’s ATM machine and insisted he get cash out to pay her.
Dave said he wasn’t paying her another cent and was gonna stand there until she paid him back.
Flustered, she called for back-up and a 50ish guy who looked like her son came out of the back room. As soon as she saw him she let loose with a torrent of Asian language and pointed at Dave. The guy, whose English was barely better than hers, asked Dave for his side of the story. When Dave explained what had happened, the son lit into his momma and gave her what appeared to be proper hell.
The son said to Dave, “When you get statement, you bring it to me and we’ll settle.”
“No,” said Dave. “I’m not leaving without my money.”
The guy mumbled something but called the debit machine company who told him, yes, Dave had paid twice. The lady looked defensive. Her son looked frustrated and Dave looked mad. Finally, a correction was made to the debit and Dave started to leave, without the windshield washer fluid we needed so desperately.
“You pay for coffee!” the old woman exclaimed.
Dave tossed some pocket change on the counter, picked up my cooling cup, and went outside. He scrubbed off the muddy windshield as best he could and we headed down the road. There was a Canadian Tire just a mile or so away, so we pulled in and got the windshield washer fluid without incident.
Well, I did catch hell for hiding out in the Jeep while he wrassled with the old lady. Other than that, the rest of the day went smoothly.
On the way home Dave said, “I want you to blog about that place. That guy on the snowmobile? He must live around there. He told me if he had a choice he’d go somewhere else but he doesn’t. He had the same problem with them and their debit machine so he always pays cash. Me, I’m never setting foot in that place again.”
Dave has never asked me to blog about anything. This was obviously important to him.
Considering all the things he’s done for me over the years, it seemed the least I could do.
The moral of this story is, always check your fluid levels before heading out for a trip and never, never go to the Cardinal Motel, Store & Gas Bar on Highway 11, across from Webers. If you do, take cash and a hidden weapon. Just in case.
That old lady freaks me out.