by Louis Gallo
One of the finer moments of any journey is pulling off the interstate into a pristine Shell station glowing in the pitch black of nowhere. I proudly pat the Trooper as I pump lead-free premium into the tank, whiff the residue of dinosaurs gushing from the hose and listen to the digital rush of my money whirring through the meter. I am in good stead with Shell, my revolving account paid up to date, recipient of many tempting offers from the Merchandise Center. Browsing through the three or four aisles of the food mart before presenting my card at the counter is a real treat.
Who could not admire the buyer’s savvy or not envy an intuition so attuned to public desire that stock turns over daily with minimal surplus, that entrepreneurial waste deleterious to the free-marketing spirit. I pluck from the freezer a thick, gelatinous chicken-salad sandwich and from the Planter’s display a cellophaned package of cashews, confident that preservatives will spare me an all-out assault of rancid free radicals. The preservatives are probably more insidious than the free radicals, but what the hell? You can’t worry about everything. I wouldn’t mind worrying about everything but I’d need more time and a better deal than I have now—more money, tropical beaches and immortality. Get me such a deal and I’ll worry for everybody.
Boxes of treats on the counter—Batman bubble gum cards, old-fashioned wax whistles full of juicy corn syrup, snazzy key chains, buttons depicting unicorns and polar bears, Life Saver Holes, colorful polished pebbles—and they all remind me of my daughter Chloe who always cons me into getting her something at every stop when she’s with me. When she is not, I wind up buying the treats anyway as a kind of vestigial gesture. This time it’s a pack of cards depicting a Batmobile from varied angles. On our last trip to the Charlotte airport we stopped at every toy store and K-Mart in a futile attempt to find the plastic Batmobile she could not live without.
A rheumy, hacking cashier takes my card, runs it through a machine, packs my purchases into a plastic bag and bids me a vague good night. I am reluctant to leave and step over to the magazine rack where hot rod, biker and weight lifting numbers prevail. It is possible in America to stop way after midnight in a place such as this and satisfy all needs, perhaps even cultivate some new ones. I walk to the men’s room, put my sack atop the hand-drying wall unit and get down to business. There is a quaint graffito etched into the wall above the urinal: ETHEL GIVES VOO DOO HEAD. Rather chilling when you think about it. No phone number listed, so we travelers will have to proceed gris gris-less so to speak. Yet I can imagine Ethel sticking a pin into my effigy, and I, perhaps thousands of miles away, savoring the delirious pleasure aforementioned. Delight at a distance. Why not? Just hope it’s not too drafty . . . all that prairie-like open space. And I hate drafts.
I want to sit in the car and eat my sandwich beside the gas pumps. How comforting to park beside a row of immaculate, illuminated electronic pumps and eat pre-packaged chicken salad sandwiches as you glance again at the Rand-McNally road atlas propped on the steering wheel. It would be a perfect moment except that someone in a vehicle hoisted at least three feet above the roadway has pulled in behind me and wants access; his tires are about the diameter of small redwoods and a small Confederate decal throbs above the inspection sticker. Growing up in the Deep South teaches you that it is unwise to tamper with those who display inordinate reverence for the Confederacy. Imagine returning to the Interstate only to be pursued by a crazed Johnny Yuma!
So I pull up near the phone booths at the farther end of the station lot and decide to give Wendy a call, to let her know I’m ok and somewhere between Roanoke and Charlottesville. The last time I made this trip Wendy and Chloe were with me and I miss them badly. It’s when I introduced Chloe to Roy Orbison and we all wound up singing ‘Crying’ as Roy soared beyond us in range and pure beauty. But it was great anyway. I miss them. I miss Roy. I miss myself.
So I’m back in the car eating and sipping fresh coffee roasted directly from ground beans when suddenly there comes a rap on my half-rolled up window and I recognize the cowboy hat of the driver of that monster vehicle. Is that really a small oval portrait of J.E.B. Stuart affixed to the brim?
‘Got change for a fin, buddy?’ the driver asks. He looks middle-aged and wiry with worrisome facial erosion and scar tissue across his cheeks and forehead. A fine golden silt covers every inch of his body as if he happened to be in close proximity to some heavy-duty sanding. ‘Got to call the old lady,’ he says.
‘Yeah, let me check,’ I say, rooting around in my bag. ‘I can just give you two quarters if that’s all you need. No big deal.’
‘Nosuh,’ the driver waves, ‘don’t take nothin from nobody. Bad policy, right? Then you wind up owing. Me, I don’t owe nothin and I’m keepin it that way.’
‘Ok,’ I say, ‘but I don’t think I have change’—I’m frantically searching, believe me—‘so I might have to give you the quarters anyway.’
The man seems mortally offended. ‘Nosuh,’ he repeats, ‘don’t take no quarters for nothing. I ain’t no parasite. Worked all my life so I could say, me, Kyle Brister don’t take nothing from nobody. Now, son, you jus git me that change.’
I’m worried now. That last utterance verged on threat. Out here in the darkness it’s only me and this eroded Kyle Brister and the cashier, a rather short lady with peroxided hair seriously into bronchial disorder and crosswords. The earth could explode and crossword addicts would still look up in a daze to ask if you know a three-letter word for barbed wire.
‘Well,’ I say to Kyle, ‘I guess we’re at an impasse. I don’t have change but I have two quarters. You won’t take the quarters because it would make you a parasite. What do we do?’
Kyle Brister scratches his chin and spits a wad of brownish fluid from his mouth into the shrubbery beside the booth. ‘It’s only that you gotta call the old lady for me, that would make it all right, I guess,’ he sighs. ‘You call the old lady and use your quarters, then I ain’t no parasite and you go free. Cause the only option is I gotta rob you. You don’t give me no other option, right? I mean if you ain’t got change and all.’
‘Yeah?’ I ask, ‘then how’d you plan to pay for the gas that’s being pumped into your truck at this very moment?’
‘Got credit,’ he says proudly, ‘I’m American. Got a Shell card when I was twenty-five and had it ever since. I pay my bills, yesuh. But sometimes a man needs to rob another man to call his old lady.’
Do I want to call Kyle Brister’s old lady? I haven’t even finished my sandwich. I consider arguing but Kyle looks like a man who would have no trouble wasting me and then demolishing the entire station to destroy evidence, so I get out, the disputed quarters between my fingers, and deposit them into the slot. I notice someone has scratched Ethel’s name into the black paint on the phone.
‘What’s the number?’ I ask.
‘Dunno,’ he says, ‘got to call the operator down in Pulaski County.’
‘You don’t know your telephone number?’ I ask.
‘Why should I know that? Ain’t we got enough to know without knowing something like that? You just dial information and get that Pulaski operator and say you want the number of Dolly Brister down in Hillsville.’
Mine is not to reason why, so I connect with the operator, get the number and dial, Kyle Brister looking on with nodding approval. The phone rings for quite a while.
‘You let it ring. Takes Dolly some time to answer if she’s watching a program. Might have to wait for the commercial.’
So I let it ring and ring, and finally a throaty, effluvial ‘yeah?’ comes my way. I must say I’m impressed. I’d expected a chirp or squeak. What a voice on Dolly in Hillsville. Verging on Lauren Bacall back in the days.
‘You say Kyle is calling from he don’t know where and wants to tell her everything’s fine and how is Scooter?’ Kyle says.
‘Uh,’ I say, ‘Kyle is calling from he don’t know where and wants to tell you everything’s fine and how is Scooter?’
‘Who is this?’ Dolly asks, more than a little puzzled.
‘This is Jake—you don’t know me—calling for Kyle because he doesn’t want to be a parasite, which he would be if he took my quarters.’
‘Put the moron on,’ she orders.
‘She wants to talk to you,’ I offer the phone to Kyle.
No no no, he waves his hands.
‘He won’t talk,’ I say.
‘Tell that jerk he ain’t using your quarters no more, that this conversation is being paid for on this end by me.’
This I do and add, ‘Kyle, Dolly has a point. You only used my money for the Hillsville operator.’ I reach into the slot to retrieve them. ‘See?’ I beam, ‘here they are. Dolly’s paying for the call now and that means you’re not a parasite.’
Kyle scratches his head and deposits more brownish liquid into the shrubbery. ‘Lemme think about it,’ he mumbles. ‘Yeah, I guess that’s so. Ok, podner, you done your duty, now get lost so I can talk to my woman in private.’
I hold the phone at arm’s length. ‘Kyle, I hope you don’t plan to talk long. I was here first and I want to call my woman too. Somebody ripped the headpiece from the other phone. Fair’s fair.’
‘Gimme ten minutes,’ he almost pleads. ‘Then you can come back and talk to your woman. I ain’t seen Dolly for two weeks and I’m crazy about her, and me and her got to talk. You understand?’
Of course I understand. I admire Kyle immensely at the moment and would have waited hours until he finished to shake his hand. I imagine Dolly, another Wendy, comforting her soul mate in his time of troubles. He seems the kind of man trouble clings to like algae. You don’t worry about owing someone when life spreads easy as whipped cream.
Louis Gallo’s work has appeared or will shortly appear in Wide Awake in the Pelican State (LSU anthology), Southern Literary Review, Fiction Fix, Glimmer Train, Hollins Critic, Rattle, Southern Quarterly, Litro, New Orleans Review, Xavier Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Missouri Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Mississippi Review, Texas Review, Baltimore Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Ledge, storySouth, Houston Literary Review, Tampa Review, Raving Dove, The Journal (Ohio), Greensboro Review, and many others. Chapbooks include The Truth Changes, The Abomination of Fascination, Status Updates and The Ten Most Important Questions. He is the founding editor of the now defunct journals, The Barataria Review and Books: A New Orleans Review. He was awarded an NEA fellowship for fiction. He teaches at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.