By Cousin Wayne
Saturday evening at the Neenah Zephyr station, and not a zephyr in the air. Around the wide of the station by the canal, Bill Stommel is sitting on the edge of the cool concrete sidewalk that leads back to the bathrooms and hoping for one of those thunderstorms that roll up late in the day.
Dave Zweifel is out in the last rays of July sun, squatty and energetic, moving quickly from pump to pump, taking down the numbers that record the gallons sold. Big sweat soaks darken the back and underarms of his light blue work shirt. On the front of the shirt is the Zephyr logo and “Dave.” Bill is wearing a larger version of the same shirt, and his says “Bill.”
Cars pass on Main Street out front, their tires peeling like scotch tape along the hot asphalt. Bill looks back at the canal and goes into a gaze, thinking about the girls that Larry said were coming tonight. They would do stuff, Larry said.
In the air above the canal, Bill is seeing himself with both of those girls at once in a motel room and handling the situation manfully. He doesn’t notice the string of firecrackers landing next to him until their explosions send him jerking to his feet.
Inside the big windows, Russ and Vaughn are howling, falling against the walls and bending down to laugh. Bill stomps around to the front door, his head pounding. He has a bad case of the shakes.
“Wake you up?” asks Vaughn.
Vaughn doesn’t even work here. He used to work here before he got drafted, but now that he’s out he keeps coming back and hanging around, usually when Russ is on shift, bragging about his adventures overseas. Vaughn went to Okinawa instead of Viet Nam, but in his mind he has just returned from the war. He still wears his camouflage pants and black army boots.
“I guess the kid started his day with a bang,” Vaughn says to Russ.
“I almost had a heart attack,” Bill says, still angry but trying hard to be a sport.
Dave comes through the front door with his clipboard. “Take your firecrackers and git,” he tells Vaughn good-naturedly. “Jesus, don’t you got a job yet?”
“You give me one and I’ll have one,” Vaughn says. He thumbs at Bill. “How about this guy’s?”
“You graduate high school like he just done, and maybe somebody will give you a job too,” Dave says, winking at Bill.
“I am gonna get my certificate,” Vaughn says seriously.
“You give Vaughn a job, and I’ll quit,” says Russ, but he is joking.
Russ is always in a good mood, even when he’s tired. Right now he’s just finishing a 12-hour shift, having been here since 7 a.m. pumping gas and doing the dog work while Dave took care of the cars that come in Saturday mornings for mechanical. Russ looks like an albino, his crew-cut hair is so white and his scalp beneath it is so pink from the sun. His face is also pink, and lightly sprinkled with pinpoint pimples.
A car eases up to the pumps and honks, but it’s only Dave’s wife Sherry come to fetch him home. “Bill,” Dave says. “There’s paint and brushes in the back. Come here. Look. Right here, see? It’s all white. If you get time tonight, would you paint in here?”
Bill’s heart sinks. He was looking forward to an easy sail through the wee hours. “Sure. What, the walls?”
“Maybe the ceiling too. It’s getting kind of shabby. Russ, you want a ride?”
“Thanks,” Russ says. “Vaughn’s giving me a lift.”
“Oh, one other thing,” Dave says to Bill. “That old gas tank I took off that Chevy, it’s on the garage floor next to the tool bench. Throw it in the canal when you get a chance, but wait until after dark.”
“In the canal? Can’t we put it in the garbage?”
“It’s too big. Just make sure nobody sees you.” Dave’s wife honks again, and he hurries out.
“Sherry’s pretty fine. I wouldn’t mind posting her,” says Vaughn thoughtfully as the car disappears on Main Street.
A pickup truck rattles up to the gas pumps, and Bill goes out to deal with it. Russ and Vaughn are calling after him as they head for Vaughn’s car, pretending to be bullfrogs croaking, “Fillerup. Fillerup. Fillerup.”
Traffic starts rolling in heavy with the evening rush, people coming back from Saturday fishing jaunts and water skiing, pulling boats, going home from work, heading for dinner or softball games on lighted fields.
On this end of Main Street, the downtown is a quarter mile away. There’s just the gas station, the high brick wall of the paper mill north across the street, a vacuum cleaner and sewing machine repair shop on the station’s east side toward town and, across the canal to the west, some old residential.
But Main Street connects the downtown with Highway 41, and Highway 41 runs north through Green Bay to Lake Superior, and south to Illinois. Bill has heard, in fact, that it goes all the way to Miami. Sometimes when the traffic is slow, Bill daydreams about setting out on that road to Miami, but right now he is hopping at the pumps. People buy motor additives and cans of oil, wiper blades and oil filters and air fresheners with pictures of skunks and pine trees and girls in bikinis.
Pretty soon the streetlights come on, and Bill turns on the station lights and the sign out front, then the floodlights above the station lot and the strings of light bulbs decorated with red and white pennants. Shine and sparkle slide over the surfaces of the cars rolling in and out. The skeeters are starting to get bothersome, so Bill greases up with Cutter’s.
By 9 o’clock the traffic has slowed again. Two grubby kids ride their bikes in circles around the pumps, bumping over the hose and dinging the bell inside the station until Bill chases them away. A retiree named George, a regular customer, stops in for gas and an oil and filter change. Bill directs George’s car into the garage and onto the lift, and then George walks down the street to get something to eat at the Busy Bee. Bill figures that this is probably old George’s big Saturday night outing.
“Dream Weaver” is on the radio, and Bill turns it up and goes to work. He has the car up and the oil draining when somebody outside starts leaning on the horn. It’s Vaughn in his old Pontiac Catalina beater, with his chubby girlfriend Kelly in the passenger seat. They’re both grinning as Bill walks up. Vaughn honks the horn.
“Gimme a quart of 25-center,” Vaughn shouts out the window.
Vaughn could do it himself just as easy, but he likes to play the fool. Bill works the handle on top of the drum of bulk recycled oil, pumping it into a quart bottle, then raises Vaughn’s hood and leans underneath. He jumps as the horn goes off next to his head. “Goddammit,” he yells, glaring around the hood. “Don’t do that again.”
Vaughn leans his head out the window. “Gimme one gallon of gas, too,” he says, and Kelly giggles.
After Vaughn drives away, Bill goes back to finish the oil change. Out the front door of the garage, he keeps seeing Vaughn’s Catalina pass the station, cruising. Every time they pass, they yell something foolish.
Between customers, Bill installs George’s new filter, pours the old oil into the waste barrel and lowers the car. He gets a cup of coffee and has just sat down on the stool behind the cash register anticipating a rest when an old brown sedan bounces onto the lot and brakes with a screech in front of the garage door. Bill stands up to get a better look.
A little fortyish man with a big, baggy jacket and greasy, jet-black hair puffed around his head like Roy Orbison climbs out and comes into the station. Bill is wondering why the guy has on that big jacket and why he is holding his hand inside it when the guy comes up to him at the cash register and pulls out a pistol. It looks like about a .38, a beautiful, shiny gun that Bill can’t help admiring because the man is holding it so close to his face.
“This is a stickup,” the guy says, grinning.
“A stickup,” Bill repeats appreciatively, and waits to see what’s next. If the guy says to hand over some money, Bill plans to cooperate. It’s not his money. But stickups are something that happens on TV, as far as Bill is concerned, and he isn’t ready to believe it yet. The gun is still his main interest, though he almost has to cross his eyes to look at it.
“That sure is a beauty,” Bill says.
The man seems disappointed. He lowers the gun. “Just kidding,” he says. “I just thought it would be funny to say this is a stickup. There’s no bullets in it, anyway.”
Bill realizes that he is disappointed too. He had begun to fancy the excitement of calling the police and telling people about the holdup and maybe getting his name in the paper.
“Just having a little fun,” the guy says. “And you weren’t even scared? Dang!” His expression is downcast.
“Oh it was a pretty good joke okay,” Bill says. “I bet it would have got some laughs if other people were here to see it. Hey, can I hold it a sec?”
Bill takes the gun and hefts it, turns the cylinder; no bullets all right. He puts his nose to the barrel and enjoys the good smell of gun oil. He wishes the gas station was farther out in the country so maybe the guy would let him take the gun out back and shoot it. The little guy meanwhile is walking around and looking things over, peering into the back room like a curious gerbil.
“Hey is the owner here?” the guy asks. “What’s his name, Tom?”
“Dave, right, I always mix him up with another guy I know. Hey, I just need to get some Motor Honey.”
“Right there,” Bill points at the pyramid of Motor Honey cans on the ledge below the front window, but the guy says, “No, I tried that stuff. The other stuff. Dave keeps it in the back there. What’s it called?”
Bill is damned if he knows what it’s called. He thought there was only one kind of Motor Honey. He hands back the gun and pops into the stock room to look around. Sure enough, he can’t find more than one kind. When he comes out, the guy’s car is squealing into the street and away. Standing in the doorway and watching the car leave is old George, a six pack in his hand and a toothpick in his mouth.
“That guy had the cash register open when I came in,” George says. “I must have snuck up on him. You should have seen him jump.”
Bill checks the cash register, counting the bills while George eases down in the folding chair by the stock room door and breaks the six pack. Bill satisfies himself that nothing’s missing, but he’s a little queasy. Maybe it really was supposed to be a stickup. Still, a gun scares him less than the idea of all the extra hours he’d have to work to pay Dave back. “Here,” George says, handing him a beer.
During the intervals between cars, Bill drinks beer and chats with George, mostly listening to George talk. George used to work at the John Strange Paper Company. Bill was at the big fire that burned down the company’s old mill in ’65. So was everybody else within 10 miles. The whole sky lit up, and from across the Fox River it was so hot that you kept having to turn your face away, and you could see the sections falling and steel beams melting like caramel. George was on shift inside the mill when it started. Bill gets the story in bits and pieces between cars.
Finally, George hauls himself up with an old man’s groan and goes home; Bill has become too busy to pay him any attention. The late evening rush has begun, and the high spirits and bad influences of Saturday night are starting to bounce over the dip at the front of the driveway and swing up to the pumps, and Bill is hopping.
About 11 o’clock, Bill is gassing a car full of loud guys in softball uniforms when Larry comes roaring up in his muscle car. Larry works weekdays, but like everybody else here, he stops by when he’s cruising. His car is a ’56 Plymouth that hardly looks like a `56 Plymouth anymore, all candy-apple green and jacked up on big mag tires with a supercharger sticking out of the hood. The inside is all white plush.
Larry stalks into the station on high-heeled cowboy boots covered to the ankle by stove-pipe blue jeans. Bill takes the money from the softball team and finds Larry waiting inside. Larry unrolls a big ball of rags to reveal a greasy wad of metal. All aglow, he shows the wad to Bill. “Pulled my tranny,” he says. “You got to see what the Plymouth can do now.”
Bill has already had the hell scared out of him riding with Larry, the Plymouth doing 130 on Highway 41 at three in the morning and Bill expecting it to flip and tumble and bounce and burst into flames and disintegrate over half a mile of pavement.
“Here they come,” Larry says.
Two cars converge in front of the garage. Russ jumps out of one car and two girls get out of the other car. Larry walks out to meet them. Just then another car pulls up to the pumps, a station wagon with its hind end full of camping gear and more piled on the luggage rack. Bill heads out to fillerup.
Bill takes the station wagon’s money, steps between the pumps and starts filling up the next car, a really sweet Corvette, not looking up until he sees one of the girls walking over, followed by Russ. “This is Bill,” Russ says.
She stops in front of Bill with eyelids at half mast in a deadpan face and gives Bill a dull “Hi.” Her voice is deep for a girl and sounds like a lot of cigarettes.
“This here’s Donna,” says Russ from behind her.
Donna’s black hair is puffed up in a Jackie Kennedy do, and she’s wearing a man’s white dress shirt with the tails hanging loose. The shirt hummocks out over her chest. Her white shorts are dirty around the bottom rims, and her white tennis shoes are scuffed, but the young legs in between are clean, thin and soft. She’s chewing gum slowly, watching Bill like she’s thinking about something.
Bill is at an angle, one hand holding the pump nozzle as gasoline races through it into the tank, his other hand on the trunk, propping him up. He’s looking at Donna sideways. He snaps the clip on the handle so the gas will go by itself and straightens up.
“Hi,” he says in what he hopes is a jaunty manner. “What’s on the pudenda for tonight?”
When he read that line in a story in one of the porno magazines he stole from the railroad cars by the paper company and looked up the word pudenda, he thought it was wildly funny. But Donna just says, “What’s on the what?”
“What’s on the agenda?” Bill says. “What’s up?”
“We’re going to take a little ride,” Donna says. Bill can smell her through the gasoline fumes, a sweet mixture of sweat and perfume and God-knows what-all coming from beneath her clothes. He finds himself suddenly short of breath. One side of her mouth flickers, the ghost of a half-smile.
“Want to come?” she asks.
Gas wells up from the filling tank and shuts off the nozzle. Bill swings the nozzle to the pump, rams it in and tries to think of something to say. She’s still standing close to him, heat coming off of her, right there close. She’s staring into his eyes, waiting for an answer, chewing her gum slowly, her wet mouth glistening in the station lights.
This close and standing, Bill realizes that Donna is much older than him, maybe even in her late 20s. Maybe she’s even been married, or is married. Another quick glance at the other girl tells him that she’s older too. These are women, not girls.
Donna’s eyes are questioning and amused. Bill realizes suddenly that she knows a lot more than he does, and he doesn’t know jack, that she’s done a lot of men and he’s never done anything. Bill looks into those eyes and sees that she is smarter than him, a lot smarter. He has a momentary image of himself as a dumb grazing animal stalked by a predator, being taken down and dragged to a dark place in the pasture woods.
Bill exhales a barely audible groan. He didn’t think the guys were serious about him being a part of this, but now he has to say it. “Geez, I wish I could,” he tells Donna in a pained voice. “I got to watch the station.”
“I’ll take over for a while,” says Larry. He is still standing back by the front of the station with the other woman, who is smaller and stockier than Donna but also wearing a white shirt with even bigger hummocks. Her blue jean cutoff shorts are so tight they make a crevice between her legs. She sips a beer, watching Bill and Donna, and then she calls, “Come on. Let’s go party.”
“Come on,” Donna says.
Larry could take over for a while. Bill knows that, but Vaughn and Russ can’t keep their mouths shut. Dave would probably find out, and then what? Dave is a great guy, but he’s paying Bill to work.
Bill puts a hand to his head and rubs his hair with his fingers. “Damn,” he says. “I don’t wanna lose my job. I’m supposed to stay on duty. Anyway, Dave wants me paint the station tonight.”
“Oh for Christ sake,” Russ says. “You don’t have to paint the fucking station.”
“Nah, better not,” says Bill, and then he is surprised at the sudden cold vacuum inside him when Donna says, “Okay, whatever,” and walks back toward the car and says, “Well let’s go then,” and then the girls are back in one of the cars, Donna at the wheel and lighting up a cigarette.
“Try to do a guy a favor,” Russ says to Bill. “Geez.”
Larry and Russ go into the station’s back room, emerge arms full of brown blankets and head for the car.
“Hey bud,” says an impatient voice. It’s the Corvette’s driver, craning out his window. “The gas free tonight?”
“Oh, sorry,” Bill says. “Nine bucks even.”
“Have fun!” Donna yells back as she drives into the street with Larry and Russ and the other woman, and they all laugh. Donna squeals the tires and then honks the horn for several blocks up Main Street, dwindling beneath the streetlights toward Highway 41.
Traffic is moderate over the next couple of hours, and Bill keeps feeling that cold vacuum. He looks at himself in the windshield of a car as he applies the squeegee, then realizes that he is angrily mouthing the words, “You goddamn moron,” at the half-seen faces of an elderly couple in the front seat. They seem nervous when he takes their money.
Donna’s car comes back about 1 a.m. Bill is too busy to pay much attention, because the bars are letting out. Cars are lined up and Bill is into a good rhythm, moving quickly under the hood and across the windshield and back to shut off the pump, collecting the money and bouncing to the next car. His pockets both full of hastily shoved-in change and greenbacks, Bill’s act is hitting on all cylinders, and he feels like he is chatting fluidly with the customers, his words clear and rapid and his voice supercharged with all the pep of a professional salesman.
Leaning across another windshield, he notices Russ coming over and Larry going into the station with the blankets. Russ leans on the pumps, looking sleepy, while Donna’s car takes off honking down the street into town. Russ starts gassing one of the cars on the other side of the pumps, helping out. Larry climbs into his Plymouth and calls, “Take er easy,” as he heads out. Russ finishes his first car and moves on to the next. Between the two of them, they empty the lot.
“You really missed out,” Russ tells Bill in a fatherly tone.
“Yeah, heck,” Bill says. “Wish I didn’t have to work tonight.”
“Yeah-boy,” Russ says.
After Russ leaves, there’s a new surge of traffic. While Bill is servicing one car, another pulls up alongside it, the engine gunning, a tough-looking ducktail behind the wheel resting a gorilla-sized arm on the windowsill. The two cars have a shouted conversation. Both cars pull over to the side of the lot by the canal. Maybe ten people climb out and stand around shouting and laughing and drinking over there on the edge of the light while Bill is pumping gas.
Every now and then Bill can hear empty cans clanking and bottles smashing on the rocks, and then there’s a big splash in the canal and a girl screaming for help and a lot of laughing from the bank. The canal is only four feet deep what with all the garbage piled on its bottom.
A police cruiser pulls up to the party, and the cops stand around until the party gets back into its cars and leaves. “Everything okay?” one of the officers calls to Bill, who is trying to find where to put the gas under the hood of a foreign car.
“Sure is,” Bill says. “High spirited bunch.”
“I know ‘em,” says the cop. “I told ‘em it was time to go home,” he adds, like maybe Bill is wondering why he didn’t breathalize them.
Bill remembers the guy with the gun, and tells the cop about it. The cop takes some notes before he leaves.
Suddenly all the traffic is gone. Bill stands at the pumps, listening to the crickets, the faint buzz from the neon lights and a hum from the mill across the street. He can see light from the moon that is slipping up behind the vacuum cleaner and sewing machine and repair shop and tinting a few wispy clouds on that side of the sky. He thinks about painting but decides to rest for a while first. The heat of the day is gone, and the air is at a temperature that doesn’t feel hot or cold. Just right and absolutely motionless, it feels like the air inside somebody’s living room. Clouds of bugs are whirling around the station lights.
Back inside the station, Bill retrieves his bag of lunch from the stockroom. He notices that George has left three cans of beer for him. He sits on the stool behind the cash register and sips a beer and eats his sandwich, watching a June bug. It keeps flying against the plate glass and falling to the floor, rearranging its splayed wings and trying again.
Just after 2:30 a.m., when the moon goes behind some clouds, Bill decides he’d better throw that old gas tank in the canal like Dave told him, before the moon comes out again. Dumping the gas tank in the canal seems like a scumbag thing to do, but Dave is the boss. The canal is already a garbage pit anyway.
Bill lands the gas tank perfectly in the middle of the canal. It hits the water with a splat and floats on top so high and obvious that it might as well be a lighthouse. Bill looks around for a stick big enough to reach it and pull it back so he can hold it under until it fills with water, but he can’t find a stick long enough. He climbs down to the edge of the water and squats on his heels, staring at the tank, listening to the whine of the skeeters from the stagnant water. He’s thinking about Russ saying, “You really missed out.”
“You loser,” he tells himself.
Bill imagines himself climbing out of Donna’s car by the pumps while Larry is working, just smiling when Larry asks him what he got. Drifting above the water down in the dark dream world of the canal, the dream image suddenly erupts like horns going off in Bill’s head. He claws in a panic back up the loose rock of the canal bank to see who’s making all the noise at the pumps.
Vaughn is looking around, and he peers at Bill’s face when Bill comes walking over. “What’s the matter?” Vaughn asks.
Bill thumbs at the canal. “Trying to get that gas tank to sink.”
Vaughn strolls over for a look and then comes back. “You better get that thing out of there,” he says. He fills his own car this time. His eyes are bleary and he seems kind of tired when he replaces the nozzle. He gives Bill some money, then lifts a pack of Newports from his shirt pocket.
“Must have been nice on Okinawa,” Bill says. “Isn’t that one of those tropical places where you can go fish and swim in the ocean when you’re off duty? Do they have some good beaches there?”
Opening the pack of Newports, Vaughn regains his normal smug expression. He hands a cigarette to Bill, lights them both up and looks into the distance as he exhales, expansive and knowing. “Not much to Okinawa,” he says. “Plus you have to work all the time in the service. Shit, man, they got hurricanes, too. You ever been in a hurricane?”
“You never seen anything like it,” Vaughn says wisely. “You don’t think you’re going to come out alive. You don’t know shit until you been in a hurricane.”
After Vaughn leaves, Bill drinks another beer, buys himself a pack of cigarettes from the machine and smokes them while he drinks the last beer. Now he’s woozy from the cigarettes and beer. He keeps thinking that he sees things moving beyond the windows, things like bats flitting by in the air, little people the size of cats scampering at the edges of the light, but when he tries to see, he can’t see anything. The faint neon buzz and the hum from the mill and the whining bugs make it more silent than no sound at all.
Bill perches on his stool like he’s suspended in space, blowing smoke rings into the air and watching them melt. Too late to get started on the painting, he decides. First too busy and now too late. Sometime next week for sure. He’ll tell Dave. He feels pretty relaxed, but it takes a minute to get steady on his feet when he goes out to service the car that has just pulled in.
A guy in suit pants and thin-soled shoes, a silk tie loosened at the neck of an expensive white shirt, climbs out of a big new Oldsmobile sedan and stretches and says, “Fillerup, would you?” He’s got the look of somebody from Chicago, and sure enough, there’s Illinois plates. Bill’s not one of those people who yells “Go home” at Illinois plates. Bill believes in hospitality, and he says, “My pleasure.” He puts the nozzle in the guy’s tank and turns it on, squeegees the windshield and raises the hood to check the oil.
“Hey,” the guy says. “Am I on the right road to the Twin Cities?”
Boy is this guy lost, Bill thinks. “You’re in the Twin Cities,” he says. The guy gives Bill a startled look, then a longer look, like he’s wondering if something is wrong with him. “I’m in them?”
“What are you talking about? If this is St. Paul and Minneapolis then I must be nuts. I thought I was in Neenah.”
“Oh, that’s right, they do call them the Twin Cities,” Bill says, suddenly feeling like one of those cartoon-character hicks he’s always imagined himself meeting in a small town somewhere on that long highway down to Miami. “No,” he says, “this is Neenah all right. Neenah and Menasha are Twin Cities, too. They’re called the Twin Cities.”
“No kidding,” the guy says, looking around. “Well, you learn something new.”
“You go out this end of town,” Bill says, pointing, “and you get on Highway 41 north to Appleton, then take Highway 10 west for Stevens Point. Sorry, I thought you were nuts.”
“I thought you were nuts,” the guy says, and they both laugh.
After the Illinois slick pulls up Main Street for St. Paul, Bill keeps on chuckling for some reason. The moon is heading down in the west, there’s a bit of light in the eastern sky behind the mill, and the air is cool and sweet enough to drink and full of singing birds. Feeling newly-wise, Bill stares thoughtfully at the mill across the street, and it seems to him a friendly old mill. He figures it must have seen a lot of foolishness in its time. “I must BE nuts,” he says good-naturedly to the friendly old mill.
Goose bumps on his arms tell him it’s time to put on Dave’s red and white nylon jacket with “Neenah Zephyr” on the back, and all of a sudden he’s feeling real peppy and wishes he had time to start that painting. He goes around sprucing up, filling the windshield washer buckets on the light posts between the pumps, doing jumping jacks in the empty lot and doing the locomotion to music in his head, then going around the clean the bathrooms.
By the time Dave shows up at 7, Bill’s mind is way back behind his eyes, and nothing can touch him. He’s working the early cars like a robot. “Hey,” he calls pleasantly when Dave shows up.
Dave parks his car around back of the station by the canal and looks agitated when Bill finishes the last car and meets him at the station door.
“Jesus Christ,” Dave says, “First thing I saw coming across the bridge was that goddamn gas tank floating on the canal. We got to get that thing out of there before a cop comes by.”
“It wouldn’t sink,” Bill says helplessly.
“You should have filled it up with water or put some rocks in it or something,” Dave says. “Jesus. Go around back in the bushes and cut something long enough to reach it and pull it in, and then sink it. What the hell,” Dave says suddenly, looking around the inside of the station. “I thought I told you to paint this place. What have you been doing all night?”
Dave seems greatly put out, even though he only told Bill to paint if he had time. Bill didn’t have time, but he guesses he could have made time. He recognizes that there’s a difference of viewpoint here and makes his face apologetic, but back behind his eyes he’s feeling really happy, really comfortable and good.
“A guy came in and stuck a gun in my face last night,” Bill says, enjoying the sudden concern on Dave’s face.
“There were no bullets in it,” Bill says. “He was only kidding. Had me going for a minute, though.”