“Helppp!” I screamed as I was running into the seemingly vacant convenience store. My heart was pounding and my arms flailing as I whipped open the glass door; I was so petrified that I had left my car door open and the keys in the ignition. I was shaking as I entered the store when an awkwardly thin man stood out from behind the cash register and offered his assistance. His lanky body and fragile stature left me anxiously questioning how he was going to help me. It was then, during our brief exchange at 4am, and surrounded by the murky darkness of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, that I felt as if I entered the Twilight Zone; the experience was so incredulous it felt surreal. I heard echoes of Rod Serling (Twilight Zone narrator) chronicling the scene: “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”
I had moved to Pittsburgh, to attend graduate school, just one week before I met the gangly man who appeared out of the shadows and rescued me. I already knew I would enjoy living in Pittsburgh; it appeared to be an interesting city, but I found it very different than northeastern New Jersey—where I was raised; and I hadn’t even begun to adjust to my new surroundings when I was already making my first lonely trip down the Pennsylvania Turnpike back home. My computer wasn’t working right — this was my excuse. I was going home to have it fixed, but this was a rationalization, and deep down I knew the truth: I was homesick. So after my last class, of my first week of graduate school, I loaded my computer into my little red Toyota and began the 7-hour long expedition across Pennsylvania to eastern New Jersey.
There were a few observations I had made about Pittsburgh in that first week. First, the people were really friendly; it seemed very strange at the time. People would be casually relaxing on their front porches and actually greet me as I passed by. It was very odd and unnerving at first, having come from a part of the country where people passing you on the street barely made eye contact. The first time a passerby greeted me with, “Hi, how are you this morning?” I actually felt uneasy and it took me a minute to respond in kind.
Second, the bagels were not really bagels. They were advertised as bagels; they looked like bagels; they did have the signature hole in the middle, but they didn’t taste like bagels. And third, I had to pump my own gas. In New Jersey it is illegal to pump one’s own gas. So it wasn’t until I was 24-years old and moved to Pennsylvania that I had come upon this new life challenge—I seriously had no idea how to pump my own gas. A friend helped me during that first week; she gave me a gas-pumping lesson, but I hadn’t gotten the hang of it just yet. I was slightly concerned about this situation, realizing that I would have to stop for gas at least once on my trip home. “Jacquie, stop being ridiculous, you’ll be fine. It’s not that complicated,” I reassured myself.
That evening I was driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, it was around 3am, and it felt like it had been evacuated. There were stretches of time where I was the only car on the road and the scenery was unchanging. I almost had the sense that I was treading along the same patch of road for hours. And being alone with my imagination I wondered if I had missed a warning to vacate the turnpike. I was blasting Pearl Jam, singing along and drinking black coffee as my thoughts vacillated between envisioning an alien invasion that left me as the sole survivor and a class I had earlier that day on Heidegger’s Being and Time, which felt like a religious sermon. Perhaps it was then that I really entered the Twilight Zone, but then things became even more bizarre.
About an hour later, around 4am, I realized that I only had about a quarter tank of gas left. I heard my Dad, “Jacqueline, never let the tank go below a quarter.” I needed to stop, so I was on the watch for a gas station. The road was so dark, almost empty and there was nothing for miles. Pearl Jam was still blasting and I was singing, “Even flooow…” It was so odd when I saw the gas station. It was a glow amongst the darkness giving it an oasis-like appearance; and it seemed to come from out of nowhere. “I hope they have fresh coffee,” I thought to myself as I got out of my car and was fooling with the gas hose.
I was fumbling with the hose; it was twisted around my leg and I was trying to disentangle it when a peculiar little man with a pot-belly, wearing a pin-striped suit, at the next pump, offered some assistance. His attire made him seem very out-of-place at the oasis-like gas station in the middle of nowhere. He seemed dressed for Wall Street, but his gesture appeared genuine, so feeling grateful, I handed him the gas hose.
The peculiar little man with the pot-belly grabbed the hose and then proceeded to grasp my shoulder and forcefully shove me up against my car. I had left the car door open, with my computer sitting in the passenger seat and my keys were in the ignition. He was pushing me using his body weight and for a moment we were nose-to-nose; I could smell his polluted breath as he mumbled something about getting in my car for ‘a little fun.’
I was scared; thoughts were flashing through my mind when, without conscious reflection, I raised my leg and kneed him in the balls. He made an awful sound, immediately hunched over and released me. I ran into the adjoining store screaming for help. At first it seemed deserted; I screamed again, my eyes darting around planning my next mode of defense, when the awkwardly thin man appeared from behind the counter. I was scrambling my words in agitation, “I…Ug…This man…outside he…he pushed up against me…He…he…I think he was going to assault me…my car…my car has the keys in it!”
The awkwardly thin man was calmly listening taking in the apparent situation. I thought he might lock the door and call the police, but he surprised me by offering to escort me outside, help me fill my gas tank and wait until I had safely departed back into the dark empty abyss of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Something about his presence — he seemed so confident and unruffled — composed me a bit. I stopped for a moment and observed the awkwardly thin man; he was so delicate in stature and manner. “Aren’t you afraid?” I asked, a little scared, and at this point additionally confused. It was then that the awkwardly thin man raised his right arm, the sleeve of his shirt scrunched down, as he motioned me to look at his hand, as he said, “Don’t worry I have this.”
My jaw dropped as I looked at the awkwardly thin man’s hand… It was a hook; where his hand might have been appeared a real steel hook. The awkwardly thin man’s hand was a hook. It took me a minute. I met his eyes and nodded; I was speechless, but was trying hard not to look astonished. The awkwardly thin man did just as he promised. He walked me out, pumped my gas, his hook glaring under the light as he stared menacingly at the peculiar pot bellied man, who completely backed off and drove off before my gas tank was even full.
I graciously thanked the awkwardly thin man over-and-over, even offering him a monetary tip, which he declined. I then got back in my car, my gas tank now full and continued my trip east on the dark empty roads of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Perhaps, I did briefly enter a different dimension, or maybe not. Regardless, I could hear Rod Serling echoing, “…it is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge…It is an area we call the Twilight Zone.”