There are nights when I'm driving my Fiat 124 along the turnpike, and I've got the radio set 'way down near the end of the dial where the Cuban and the Puerto Rican stations come fading in and I'll pick up WWVA in Wheeling. I'll be driving along in the dark, along the 'pike, and there, drifting through the Birdies and harmonicas of the ghetto end of the radio dial, the sad, mournful wail of Merle Haggard sings about that good ol' hoy _ pumping gas at Harold's Super Service. Sometimes M'erle barely makes it through the hellfire and damnation barrage being laid down by Oral Roberts on a station riding fight in under WWVA.
"Last night I dreamed l died and went to Heaven . . . To that big Super Service in the sky . . ."
Harold's Super Service is a-country western song above a guy pumpin' gas at a place that specializes in "'service all the way.'' But there's one thing that bugs him; this guy that shows up in a "stripped-down Model A" who demands: "Gimme fifty cents worth a'reg'lar, check the oil too, if you don't mind, put some air in my tires would ya mister? . . . And wash my windows too, when you get time.'' Well, it seems that when this pump jockey dreams he died he was quite happy in the great bye-and-bye. His pump was right near the Pearly Gates, where he could see the new arrivals check in every day. He was happy pumping gas throughout all Eternity, when one day, as he was changing the plugs on Moses' magic carpet, who shows up chuggin' through the clouds but that big old boy in his stripped-down Model A. - "Gimme fifty cents worth a'reg'lar.
I don't know whether Haggard ever pumped gas in his life, but as a guy who once, in his 15th year, spent four hellish weeks pumping Esso in a sun-baked pit stop on US 41 in the shimmering heat of an Indiana summer, I know well what the poor son-of-a-bitch in Harold's means. An afternoon in the grease pit, draining scalding oil out o( the guts of GMC tractors while the rest of the world sings and dances all about you, is enough to put the good old iron in anyone's soul. Sometimes I watch those Amoco or Shell commercials on TV with that legion of square-jawed, trimly-uniformed, sparkling eyed attendants briskly shining windows, and polishing headlights on an endless succession of what appears to be showroom models, and think about the times I was alone at that station. Elmer Lightfoot; who owned the station, was off making it with the blonde. And there I'd be, left with those goddamn pumps, and the ultimate cross: the grease rack.
Elmer, on those days when the blonde was in season and he was coming into rut, - and her old man was in Logansport trying to peddle pianos or bugles or whatever the hell it was he sold, would say to me about 10:30 in the morning, "She's yours, kid.''
He'd toss me the keys to the register and take off in his bored-out, chopped-down, high-assed Hudson Hornet which he raced at Crown Point on the weekends. That Hornet was so mean that it'd sit out there in the back, with the key off, burnin' rubber standing still. In fact, that Hornet was a lot like Elmer himself. You know the old crap about how people who own dogs get to resemble their-mutts. Well, I think cars are even more so. Square-looking chunky guys who wear white-on-white ties, always buy square-looking chunky Chryslers; and Elmer was a Jot like his Hudson Hornet; ugly, hard to handle, and at times as mean as cat dung. And as he rocketed off to his tryst, Elmer would scream out the window, "Keep an eye on it, kid, and watch them crappers. I don't want no winos from Cal City boozin' it up in there, y'hear?"
"Yeah, Elmer;" was all I could say, because he was right. The first time I had been left in charge, this guy had come in driving a Studebaker Champ with the back stove in and the windows held together with white adhesive tape. He fell out of the car while I was trying to fish out the rag he had been using as a gas cap. I gave him the keys to the john; and three hours later we had to call the Sheriff to bust down the door and drag him out, drunk as a skunk. For the rest of the day I mopped up vomit and tried to get the plumbing working again.
"Okay, Elmer, I'll watch it."
There was one day in particular that sticks in my memory as exactly what old Merle means. As usual, the Hudson had left me standing there in the heat amid clouds of blue exhaust and burnt rubber. I hadn't had anything to eat since six that morning and my stomach was growling like a flat head Ford about to lose its main bearings so the first thing I did was look for something to eat. All I could come up with was a Butterfinger which was under the counter where Elmer had his leather covered jack handle, in case of trouble. He had covered the thing in cowhide himself, with neat stitching, and his name burned on it in fancy lettering. Elmer said he learned leathercraft in the Scouts and it come in handy when you're makin' a blackjack." He also kept a .38 Police Special stuck in the back of the shelf, under some rags; but I never saw him do anything with it except to take it out once in a while and show it to friends of his from the softball team. He mentioned it to me once.
"See this, kid. Won it in a raffle in Muncie. Bought this ticket from a guy in a bowling alley and doggone if I didn't win. Shows you never can tell."
He could spin it on his finger like Gary Cooper, and once it flew off and busted the mirror on the cigarette machine, which made Calvin the cigarette man mad and Elmer had to buy a new mirror, so he didn't play with it after that, except he did show it off now and again. He never said whether it. Had shells in it or not, but knowing Elmer it must have had.
After Elmer left me with the key and nothing to do but wait for trouble to drive in and squirt "Flit" at the bluebottle flies and the hornets which kept coming in to the office to get out of the heat, I squatted down at Elmer's desk, wearing my Esso cap square on my head, and tried to look official.
Elmer kept his library for dull moments between grease jobs, in the bottom drawer, along with a couple of Salvation Army coffee mugs and a jar of mustard. He never changed the books as long as I was there, and he never got tired of reading them. There was the July issue of Spicy Western, which featured pornography on the range where there is never' a discouraging word, to say the least; three little blue books graphically detailing the sexual adventures of Maggie and Jiggs, Winnie Winkle and Tillie The Toiler; a Western Auto catalog; and the National League Yearbook, which was referred to constantly during heated arguments on Saturday mornings with his friend Swifty and a guy named Leo who sold grease fittings.
Well, I sat there for a while reading Spicy Western and this story about a guy named Luke who had this pinto horse named 'Paint,' and one day he and Paint got caught in this bad thunderstorm and they had to spend the night in a deserted cabin with this .strange girl who came galloping in out of the rain, and Luke got to sweating and wondering about whether her mammoth bazooms were going to pop right through her leather jacket when somebody started to honk out by the gas pumps.
I picked up a rag, which most pump jockeys carry around like Linus' security blanket, and drifted out into the heat waves to go to work. It was .a bile-green Oldsmobile. Back then, I was convinced that someone at the Olds plant was either color blind or had" a sneakily malevolent sense of humor in foisting those curiously depressing colors off on the public. This one was in that metallic bile color so favored by the same crew that loads up its lawns with concrete nymphs and plastic ducks. The Olds was piled high with luggage, topped by a green canoe with an Indian head on the bow.
"What'll it be?" I said out of the comer of my mouth, aping Elmer who at that time was the model for my life style. Elmer had at least 34 variations of "What'll it be?" ranging all the way from mewling servility to an outright challenge to a bloody fistfight. It was all in the tone of the voice and the way you wore the bill of your cap.
"Uh .. . Do you have any Kentucky maps?" The driver, obviously Daddy, sweating as he struggled to open the door, his red plaid sport shirt-rumpled and dripping, bunched up around his neck like a soggy noose. His wife, a thin wiry lady in a pink flowered housedress swatted at a wrestling mob of greasy kids in the back seat with a tennis shoe.
"Now stop it!" she yelled, "I SAID STOP IT!" She slugged away at the moiling mass.
"Y' got a map of Kentucky?"
The old man battled free from his screaming brood.
"Kentucky?" I asked, stalling for time since I knew what all grizzled pump jockeys know, that when a guy asks for a map and gets out of the car it's nothing but trouble . . . And no sale. I started back toward the office to get him his Kentucky map when the back door of the Olds slammed open and three grubby kids wearing Popeye T-shirts and carrying rubber daggers poured out, yelling, The tar on the driveway was so hot I could feel my feet sinking in, and the smell of used oil made my eyes water as I grubbled through our supply of maps.
"How 'bout West Virginia?" I asked.
"We're heading to Corbin. I gotta have a Kentucky map," was all he said, mopping away at his sweating forehead.
"I got an Ohio map that shows part of Kentucky, but that's all. We run out of Kentuckys."
"Fer Chrissake, what kinda station is this? No Kentucky maps!"
"All I got's Ohio."
Behind me I could hear the kids flushing the john over and over, and squirting water around the walls.
In the meantime a Pontiac convertible and a Chevy station wagon had pulled in and begun to honk.
"I'LL BE RIGHT BACK," I hollered at the Kentucky traveler. The girl in the Pontiac wanted to know what that squeak was up in the front . . . And if Elmer was going to be around.
"It's probably your fan belt," I yelled above the din of Route 41 traffic and screaming kids. The guy behind her in the Chevy was putting out so much steam that it looked like any minute he'd blow his hood clean off. "HEY, I'M HEATING UP," he bellowed.
The girl kept gunning her motor, trying to make it squeak. The guy who wanted the Kentucky map was now in the office, rummaging through Elmer's desk where he kept his Winnie Winkle books. It was getting out of hand, going downhill fast. I ran back into the office and shoved an Ohio map at the bird in the plaid shirt.
"We only got Ohio maps!" I could see he was already halfway through Tillie The Toiler and couldn't care less. Thank God, his wife started to toot.
"Your wife's tooting."
"Yeah, I know." He sounded mad. He clutched the Ohio map and herded the kids back into the car. They were playing soccer with a wad of rolled-up paper towels. He finally cleared the driveway and headed for Corbin, Kentucky.
In the meantime the girl with the Pontiac had driven off in the direction of the Shell station, and good enough for 'em, I thought. The Chevy, in the meantime, had all but exploded.
"TURN IT OFF," I hollered through the roar of escaping steam.
"What?" The driver, for some reason, kept racing the engine.
"TURN IT OFF," I yelled. He cut the switch, and that damn Chevy was so hot she kept running for five minutes on self combustion alone. I saw the guy behind the wheel was some kind of minister or something. He had one of those reverse collars and a black suit, and again I knew from experience that this was bad news. Preachers hardly ever buy more than three gallons of regular and tend to sponge a lot, figuring the Lord, and Jersey Standard, will provide. I finally got the hood open, and sheets of searing heat curled my eyelashes.
"It's empty. How come you didn't put no water in it?" I asked, peering into the radiator, which was coughing and panting faintly, and seemed to be crying.
"Water?" the preacher asked, as if he were above such mundane, earthly considerations as water in the radiator.
"Yeah, it's empty, fer Chrissake . . ." The words got out before I could stop it.
"Excuse me, son?"
"It needs water. We'd better let it cool off 'cause if I put water in it now she'll crack a block or something."
"Very interesting." The preacher gazed around the premises with the serenity of the man who habitually leaves the scut of life to the others.
A kid on a Harley boomed down to the end pump. I sold him 1.3 gallons of High Test and a half pint of upperlube, a total sale of a buck thirty-seven and I'd been toiling, totin' barges and liftin' bales, for over three hours and the day was just starting. I got back to the minister, who somehow didn't seem to sweat. He asked me what church I went to arid before I could answer a guy in a Chrysler Imperial steamed in and asked if I knew where he could get a used generator. I said I didn't know, but I'd keep it in mind, which was a lie, and . He drove out, leaving a trail of oil on the driveway. The minister gave me a track entitled Are You Prepared To Meet Thy Maker? Which he said was very interesting and could change my life forever. I filled the Chevy up with water, screwed the cap back on, and he said "Thank you, my son," got in and drove off.
After that it was quiet for a while. I went back and started to read about Luke and old Paint when the Coke man drove in and asked how come Elmer hadn't left the money for him and why were we short eight empties in one of the cases? I said I didn't. know, but I'd ask Elmer, so he said he wasn't gonna leave no Coke unless he got his money, unplugged the machine and drove off.
I figured it was no skin off my nose, so I sat down again, waiting for more action. A Scoutmaster drove in with an open-bodied vegetable truck loaded with Cub Scouts wearing baseball suits.
"How do I get to Black Oak?" he asked.
"You mean over by Griffith?" I asked. He said yeah, I told him and off they went. Another big 'deal. All the while it was getting hotter. My stomach was growling even more. When the Good Humor man came in to use the john l bought a Raspberry Swirl fudge sickle from him and he drove out, ringing his bell. The phone rang. It was Elmer.
"How's everything goin', kid?"
"Okay" I answered.
"Keepin' them drunks outa the crapper?"
I could hear a jukebox or something behind him, and a lot of laughing.
"It's okay, Elmer."
"Just hang in. I'm almost on my way."
A 'couple of crummy-looking dogs must have heard Elmer and had decided to couple right next to the High Test pump. I ran out and kicked them in the butts, figuring it didn't look so good for the customers, especially when the Cub Scouts came in.
And so the long hot summer went in Elmer's Esso Station, the motorists' haven on US 41, and late at night when Merle Haggard's keening wail battles the heavyside layer and Oral Roberts sings about that Great Super Service in The Sky, and about changin' plugs on Moses' magic carpet, and that guy comes toolin in and says: "Gimme fifty cents worth a 'reg'lar . . . Check the oil too if you don't mind . .. Put some air in my tires, would ya mister? . . . And wash my windows too, when you get time . . . " my back begins to ache 'way down low, from all that bending in the grease pit, and I know that Elmer is out there somewhere in the American night giving service to those blondes and holding off the Coke man, and keeping those drunks out of the crapper.