after “Filling Station” by Elizabeth Bishop
There’s a filling station down the road, a lone storefront off the old highway. Its sign dangles from rusted chains, ready to fall at the slightest touch. I went there last week when the new Shell was overcrowded only to be reminded of why I’ve taken my business elsewhere. My mistake was in forgetting: Every time I go to Johnson’s, I swear it will be the last time. They close earlier than they should, they forget to give you receipts for your purchases. Worst of all, they never apologize for their mistakes! Once I had them order a new tire for me. It took ten days, and then they replaced the wrong tire. How do you run a filling station and not know which tire is the flat one?
Johnson’s violates all kinds of codes, I’m sure of it. I don’t know precisely what constitutes a violation, but there must be many. Oh, it is a dirty, ugly place. The asphalt needs repaving. The pumps sit on nothing but crushed black rock. There are leaks in the overhanging roof, so you can still get wet in a downpour. And if you look down at the puddles gathered at your feet, you’ll see ribbons of oil curling and twisting across their surface. Light a match and watch it all go boom. I just pray I’m not there when it does.
The oil is everywhere—the ground, the pumps, the porch. Like grease on a frying pan, the thick kind that needs a good soak before you can clean it. The Johnson men must roll around in it for fun or use their clothes to mop it up, because they all have black and brown smudges on their skin. They look like cake bakers in loose overalls, but their hands are too dirty to be bakers’ hands. I’ve never seen Johnson’s—the station or its workers—without that shine or smell. In the summer heat, it’s enough to make you dizzy. That’s a violation, I know it.
The Johnson family has owned and operated that filling station for as long as anyone can remember. I think they might actually live there, behind it or above it. Imagine that: waking up every day, putting on those greasy denim monkey suits, slick as sardines, and being a Johnson at Johnson’s. Time and time again I’ve said those people need some common sense. If that place catches fire, it will spread to them like the passengers on the Hindenburg. And those poor people weren’t covered in oil.
I once tried asking if they had ever considered what would happen if a fire broke out. One of the younger boys told me that in his ten years of working at the station, he had never smelled even a hint of smoke. (His voice was slow and deep. I can remember when he was a little thing, fresh-faced, running back and forth to collect change.) He pointed to the rightmost edge of the windowsill that runs the length of the porch. “Well, ma’am, you see that over there?” he asked. I already knew where he was pointing. “That there’s a fire extinguisher,” he continued. “If we ever see a fire, then one of us’ll grab that extinguisher and put it out.”
Next I asked what he would do if the fire were near the extinguisher. He looked down for a moment, running his thumbs under his overall straps. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he mumbled. After another pause, he cheered up and told me that he had come up with a solution: They could move it somewhere far from the pumps where there would never be a fire. I smiled politely, waiting for him to spot the irony. He never did.
I had hoped the new Shell would force the Johnsons to straighten up a little: make them pave the lot, mop the oil, just clean the place. No, the only difference in the time since the Shell opened was a begonia situated on the windowsill next to the extinguisher, more flotsam in a sea of oil. Nothing about Johnson’s—not the new plant, not the wicker furniture on the porch—makes sense.
I wonder how long the plant will survive in a place like that. One of the daughters probably waters it—oils it, maybe—once a week. As far as I know, there are three Johnson girls (there are too many boys to count). There’s Rosemary, of course, who goes to school with Teddy (All-State this year, can a grandmother be prouder?). Last fall, we were a little worried about the two of them, the things people were saying. But Teddy’s father got through to him. Now he knows better, though I doubt he’ll be the last. These days, that kind of girl parades about so openly, so brazenly. But what can you expect with some of the parents of this generation? Rosemary’s father, Mr. Johnson, has twice been arrested for drunk driving. He once even crashed into the parking lot of the YMCA.
Robert doesn’t like to talk about the Johnsons. He says they’ll keep running the station until some company offers to buy the business and they retreat into obscurity. I think they’re already pretty obscure. I rarely see them outside of their business, and when I do, there are no courtesies or hellos. Usually they pretend not to know who I am, though the younger son, the fresh-faced one I used to tip with a penny or two, acknowledges me with a little tilt of his head.
Robert is always telling me to take my mind off that filling station. When I told him about the time I saw an older son arguing in town with a cashier about expired coupons, Robert just shook his head and pointed off toward the kitchen. He’s mostly quiet these days. My sister says it’s dementia. I’m not sure there’s a name for it. Most of the time, I just sit by him, chatting or reading aloud to fill the silence. Things have become quiet these days. Too quiet, I think, too one-sided. I can’t really tell what he’s thinking, though he’s never been much of a talker anyway. He still knows how to give me one of those looks, though, angry enough that it makes me blush behind my makeup. When we were younger, he had a bit of a temper. He could shout the roof off the house, break china almost by looking at it.
Robert and I met when I was a secretary in the History Department of the local college. He was working at the electrician’s (he fixed a flickering desk lamp for me) but wanted to take some classes on the side. I helped him register for a few courses, even though he was older than most of the other students. He served in the war but was never sent to Europe. In his twenties, he was big and strong, the kind of man who took pride in being a soldier and serving his country, who liked the idea of war, of pitting two nations head-to-head and seeing who came out on top. It wasn’t long after fixing the lamp that he asked me on a date. How brave I was to say yes! My friend Betty had gone to the diner with a boy once or twice. She was always reading magazines, listening to the radio. She told me that if a handsome man offered to buy you dinner, then you’d be a fool to say no.
At the diner, Robert talked about the people and distant places he was reading about: Otto von Bismarck, Berlin, Prussia. He was quiet and spoke quickly. He said that he was glad he didn’t get injured in the war, but that he still wanted to go to Europe. Europe was the center of history, he said, the axis around which everything else turned. I said that was silly. Americans had won the war, after all.
On our first date, Robert made a joke that the black dress I was wearing, with its pleats and white trim at the sleeves and hemline, matched the checkered pattern of the diner floor. He made little comments like that the whole night and had this silly grin, too boyish for his age. I held on to that dress, hoping to pass it along to a daughter one day. I’ve kept it since for sentimental reasons. It’s buried at the back of my closet. The moths value it more than I do now.
Robert kissed me at the end of that first date. I remember the smell of cigarettes in his shirt pocket, the crunch of paper against my shoulder. On our third date, after the movie (silent in those days), he told me that he wanted to do what the rest of the guys were doing. I remember trying to pull away, angry that he would expect something like that from me, thrilled that I was someone from whom he could have such expectations. I said that I wasn’t that kind of girl. The next week, he told me he wanted to get married. We argued whether he had asked me just to speed things up, to pass the point of no. To this day, I’m not sure if he convinced me, if I ever believed him, or if I really needed much convincing.
There was something about Robert that silenced me when it finally did happen, something suffocating. We did it before we were married, though I didn’t have much choice in the matter. He was a person on top of me, a grown man, somehow heavier than I expected. I remember pressing against the stiff mattress in his little apartment that was too small for the both of us, wondering if I would flatten into the padding if he pushed hard enough. I closed my eyes and waited for something to happen, for the room to collapse around us or a stranger to barge in. Robert kissed me up and down my neck and told me he loved me. I wanted him to feel encouraged, so I told him that I loved him too. I didn’t love him then and there, and I don’t think he loved me, either. But I knew it would happen soon enough. We’d be married, and the words would come to mean something.
Tonight’s dinner is no special occasion, just John and his family, a get-together. The tenderloin should be enough for all of us—Debbie and Teddy included, though now that he’s a senior, he eats more than his father. Fortunately, he isn’t picky. Football in the fall and wrestling in the winter means he’ll eat whatever’s at the table.
Maybe it’s because I now have time on my hands, but I’m much more aware of Teddy as an only child—an only grandchild, for that matter—than I was when John was growing up. When John was born, Robert and I were at our happiest. We had just bought the house, fixed up the kitchen, repainted the walls. Soon after, I remember being content with the idea (so the doctor said) that we were never going to have a big family. But by then, even one son felt like all the work in the world. One son, one grandson. I suppose only-children are a tradition for us.
Debbie and I talk about it from time to time, why we could only have one child when our friends and family members had children by the dozen (in Debbie’s case, the doctors found a cyst on her ovaries). We don’t like each other very much, Debbie and I, but our accounts of motherhood are not so different. On this subject, there is an intimacy, an empathy. Debbie was sure that she’d have at least three children—two girls, a boy, she once told me. She used to buy baby-girl clothes and hide them from John, hoping for the best surprise one day. She began giving the clothes as presents when it became clear that Teddy would be her only child. Some items she donated to charity, a few others she threw away. Last week, when dropping by to say hello, I saw that she had a box labeled “Church Sale” pulled from the closet. There was a pair of pink shoes inside, tiny ones that fit in the palm of my hand. The front strap buttoned to the side with a bow made of suede. They were for Helen Perucci, who recently had another baby—at thirty-five. There was no jealousy in Debbie’s voice, just flatness: “I need to wrap them,” she said. “That’s the last of it.”
Teddy doesn’t have book smarts like his father. He’s more like me, sociable, instinctive. And he seems to find himself at the center of things, waiting for people to approach, ready to make them matter. What a man he is for his age. Debbie described the way girls come up to him, as though he’s the thing they’ve been learning about in songs. I’m not at all surprised; he’s always been like this. When he was six or seven years old, he used to play with one of the neighbors’ daughters. The two of them were the cutest things, making up games, fighting for attention. I remember one day he cut her face while they were out in the woods and some blood got on their clothes. Poor Teddy cried the entire afternoon, apologizing and apologizing, telling and retelling how it happened, changing the story so many times we never got a straight answer.
Teddy reaches for the lemonade. “Anthony Perucci isn’t actually hurt, Grandma,” he says, his mouth half-full of food. “His mom just likes to pretend he is so he doesn’t have to come to practice.” Debbie insists that Mrs. Perucci would never do something like that, and that it’s rude to gossip. John tells Debbie not to work herself up—it’s a sensitive subject for her. She dislikes football because of the injuries, the very idea of her son wearing a cast or walking with crutches. “A boy Teddy’s size has nothing to worry about,” John says. “Certainly not compared to Anthony Perucci.” I don’t much care for the sport, but I can understand a boy’s passions. “The pansy didn’t even get hit that hard!” Teddy says.
Robert makes a sudden movement and knocks over his water glass, all over his pants and place setting like a day of rain. I run to the kitchen for some towels and notice that the oven is still on. The pie has gone from buttery to brown, and that burnt smell is unmistakable. By the time I’m back in the dining room, John is using it as an excuse to leave. Putting on her coat, Debbie says they shouldn’t have to rely on my cooking every week, that it’s an imposition, and Robert and I are welcome at their house anytime. “At the very least,” she says, “let me make dessert.” She doesn’t mean to sound so brash, but her words are a little off-color.
I tell her to come back later in the week and to bring a pie if she wants. She tries to invite us to their house instead, but John gives her a look—more obvious than one of Robert’s looks, though not as cutting.
John, Debbie, and Teddy look exhausted. They’re distracted by something. They were reluctant just to come. Probably fatigued by the weather we’ve been having all week. Not to mention they were late in getting here—John had something work-related to take care of—though I appreciate Debbie calling ahead.
I ask about Wednesday’s game. “Our first loss,” he says, less disappointed than nervous. It’s best to leave it at that. I know how it affects him. I tell Debbie how I saw Helen Perucci at the specialty store this afternoon. I mention the bags under Helen’s eyes, bruise-like smudges that seemed almost permanent. After a year, she still hasn’t lost the weight from pregnancy. It must have been taxing for her to become pregnant again in her thirties. God only knows how some women do it as they get older.
Helen was reserved at the store, just yeses and nos. I caught her in the checkout aisle, a few items in-hand, and I don’t think she expected to see anyone. Her hair was frizzy, and before she straightened up I noticed her using the stroller for support. Her newborn was asleep, the little folds of her face twitching almost imperceptibly.
I ask Debbie whether she’s given Helen the baby shoes. She looks up and says, “Oh?” as though I’ve told her something interesting. I repeat myself. Debbie gives a little laugh and nods. After dinner, she helps me clear the table, I set out the cake she’s brought over. It looks delicious, but even with a bit of fanfare, lifting the glass cover slowly and adding a little Ta-da!, Teddy just gives a faint smile. I’d offered to make a pie, but Debbie insisted.
John’s been awfully quiet, playing with his food, not saying much. I can see the gears turning in his head.
“John, what are you thinking about?”
“A case,” he says, and after a few seconds: “A tough case. But we’ll get it right.” That’s my last attempt at conversation. I might as well have spent the entire meal by myself. I’m exhausted anyway. There’s only so much you can do after five layers of cake and the dreariness my family dragged through the door. I hate to say it, but it’s almost a relief to have the place to ourselves after they’ve gone.
Later, in front of the television, Robert taps his finger to the beat of an ad for Pepsi. “Big night tomorrow,” I remind him. He grunts a little, and it’s just enough to make me laugh.
Richard and Milly Smith moved across the street about ten years ago, their turquoise Cadillac replacing the noisy Chevrolet that left tire marks that only recently have begun to fade. The Smiths threw a party to celebrate the move: bottles and bottles of wine, jazz music, canapés. It’s become a tradition every November since. Richard is the county commissioner, so the party—“our little gathering,” Milly calls it—tends to be one part political, one part social. Some guests fall in and out of favor, a few are never invited back. Robert and I always receive an invitation. We’re close with the Smiths, close neighbors, closely aligned in the way we see things. For the occasion, Robert always wears his tweed jacket, chocolate brown with red checks. I tend to use the party as an excuse to buy something new. Tonight is no different: a dark green dress, scalloped at the hemline, cuffed at the sleeves. The woman at the shop said it looked smart on me.
Milly answers the door, and the colored girl takes our coats. Milly escorts us into the sitting room, and the commissioner—I like to tease him with his title—hands Robert and me a glass of wine. “Now you two,” he says, eyebrows raised. “I better not catch you drinking so much. We wouldn’t want any trouble out on the road!”
“Our walk home gets farther and farther every year!” I reply, almost scripted.
Milly answers the door again, leaving the three of us in the sitting room. I ask Richard about the bypass proposed for the other side of town. The commissioner knows something about everything. He’s not a gossip, nor a politician walking a fine line, but someone who likes you to know he’s listening. He’s a presence in any room. I have great respect for him. He was a lawyer once, like John, and I’ve often wondered what it would be like if my son set his sights on a position like this. Of course, I would never say something so direct, but I’ve hinted at it in the past—Richard is going to retire soon, after all. Milly thinks it’s a marvelous idea.
The house fills up, the commissioner makes his rounds. I find Robert on the sofa— velvet and expensive, but well worth the cost. I squeeze his knee, gently, just to remind him I’m there. He’s been staring at the same corner of the room for the past five minutes, and if I don’t physically move him, he might stare forever. I miss him. Very much. I wonder what he’s thinking, whether he still has ideas worth writing down, ideas about Germany and war and empire. Sometimes I do things at home that used to annoy him, just to see if I can get him to react. I’ll leave my shoes in the hallway, forget to fill the car with gas, the little things that used to set him off, that made the walls shake. Maybe he’s in there, far away, watching it all happen but not altogether present, going through the motions because he still cares enough to be here with me, but not enough to talk about Cuba or the Russians. We sit in familiar silence, allowing the hustle and bustle of the rest of the house to speak for us.
An hour later, Richard sits beside me and leans forward with sudden urgency. His breathing deepens and his breath smells strongly of red wine. “Please have fun tonight,” he says. He looks out to the rest of the room and smiles. As I begin to tell him how much I’m already enjoying myself, he turns in again, interrupting as though remembering the punchline to a joke. “Don’t worry about Teddy,” he adds.
I pause mid-sentence, my mouth still open, my lower lip stuck in place. I take a sip of wine and look ahead. I can see the family portrait above the fireplace. Linda, the Smiths’ youngest, is just a baby, her bright eyes almost out of focus. Finishing the wine in his own glass, Richard tells me that he and John are working something out. Again he looks outward, as if a noise in the other room has his attention. “That Johnson girl,” he says finally. “You know how it is.”
He gives me a squeeze on the shoulder and rises to greet the Andersons, just back from Italy. “Who wants wine?” he asks. My hand starts to shake a little, so I set down my glass. The crystal is cut with angular lines and indentations, its base trimmed with gold.
At the front door, I slip past Milly, who’s still welcoming late arrivals, explaining that I’ve forgotten something back at the house. Someone calls out my name from a car. I don’t bother with the lights. Debbie picks up on the fourth ring.
“No, nothing is the matter,” she says. Has she just woken up? I smooth the folds of my dress, waiting for her to gather her thoughts. There is a burgundy stain the size of a pearl on my white-satin cuff.
“Mr. Smith said something about ‘that Johnson girl,’” I say. “What did he mean by that?” There’s a long pause, and I hear static through the phone line. Little crunches of foil fill the silence. “Debbie?”
She repeats herself, that nothing is the matter and that she really should be going. I raise my voice at her, not quite meaning to but not wanting her to get away either. I drop the phone, the plastic earpiece clapping on the floor. “Teddy is fine,” she says, and then another pause. I hear her breathing change, a murmur as she searches for a thought: “It’s not Teddy I’m worried about.” She speaks quietly, as though talking to herself, the words so faint I nearly miss them.
I start to say something, but Debbie’s had enough. I hear the clack of the phone on her end and then the tone.
Sitting doesn’t seem to help, so I pour a glass of water with Alka-Seltzer. The pellet fizzes violently and vanishes in a reaction that still fascinates me, not because I will never understand it, but because the little tablet always does what it is supposed to do. I push against my stomach with each sip. My insides are doing something silly.
Robert is exactly where I left him, waiting for me. The house is filled with people standing a foot apart, laughing and smoking and anxious for the commissioner to return with more wine. They’re such kind people, the Smiths. You want to know people like the Smiths, whose parties brighten the year, whose daughters marry the right men.
Richard pours me another glass, though I really shouldn’t. The Andersons greet me on the couch; the Millers are next, insisting I not get up. There’s a certain age—I reached it a few years ago—where you can sit in a party by yourself and not come across as standoffish. Being older means that people come up to me to say hello but without any expectation to keep a conversation rolling moment by moment. It’s a mutual understanding that perhaps I’ve been to enough parties and spoken to enough people. And I’m not sitting in the corner of the room! I’m sitting on the couch where Milly always brings guests for tea or coffee. Everyone can see me, say hello, and then move along. I suppose they’re all wondering why my son and his family aren’t here. “I’m wondering about that myself,” I want to say. Are there others, besides the commissioner and Milly—Milly must know—who could catch me in a lie? Does Helen Perucci know?
Once, when he was still in high school, I picked John up at the police station in the early morning. He and his friends had been drinking, making noise, pulling pranks in the way that teenagers do. The sheriff called our home and I answered without waking Robert. John was so worried about my telling his father that I made a deal with him: If he really listened like his father and I wanted, if he flew straight, then I wouldn’t say a thing. I probably held it over his head longer than I should have, but it was so effective! It was one of the few times I actually lied to Robert. I remember one morning he looked at me and said, “The boy’s alright, isn’t he? He’s improved.” I never wanted the drama, the screaming, the ear-pulling, the beating. Sometimes it’s best to let a mother take the lead.
“Teddy will be fine, Robert.” I tap his knee twice. “You’ll see. You know how those girls are.” But the light in his eyes has gone out for the day, his energy sapped by the whirl around us.
It’s past midnight by the time the commissioner escorts us across the street, walking between Robert and me, the three of us arm-in-arm. Fortunately, nothing embarrassing has happened tonight. Maybe I’ve eaten too little, or drunk too much, but nothing improper, and goodness knows those things can happen. We say our goodnights and the commissioner tells me not to worry about a thing. He strolls slowly, crookedly, toward the yellow light of his home, his shadow bending up the street.
John sometimes goes to the office on Sunday mornings, but maybe I can catch him before he leaves the house. It’s cloudy and still dark outside when the car door clicks shut. Halfway down the street, I notice the fuel gauge: I’ve forgotten to fill up.
I hope Teddy slept alright. It’s important for him to get enough sleep; young men need their sleep as much as they need their strength. Debbie should be taking good care of him, and it disappoints me that I should even have to doubt her.
Rosemary. Will she awake this morning with a heavy heart? Has she slept, or was she up all night grieving? Children don’t know what it means to have regrets, I suppose, not real ones anyway. They don’t know how it feels when a stone has dropped inside. They don’t know what it feels like to be humbled. She is young. Young enough to get away with it but old enough to know better. I can see her: leaning on Teddy after a game, pecking him on the cheek, in that skirt, craving his attention, whatever it takes. Her freckles—they make her look boyish. And those stockings, the cigarettes between her fingers…filthy, probably, like her brothers. She will not bake cakes, but I wager she’ll have many children, maybe many children by many men. And they will work at that filling station, as greasy as they come. Will this be the first? What a funny world we live in.
There are several police cars parked at the Shell, the whole place cordoned off by tape. Somehow I’ve missed it: The scene looks like the set of a picture, all black, the building hollowed out. Dust and soot cover the sign above the entrance door, curly wires drape from the overhanging roof. The glass display window is gone, and I can see directly into the store, which looks like the inside of our attic with the lights off. I can smell burnt wood, burnt rubber, burnt plastic. I roll down my window and yell to the officer—is everyone alright? “Yes, ma’am! Everyone was home for the day,” he shouts.
“What a relief!” I call back. The fire must have started in the little convenience store, because everything else, though blackened, appears intact.
What should I do? The car needs gas, but just the thought of Johnson’s embarrasses me. But then why shouldn’t I go? I’ve done nothing wrong, and I can’t avoid the place forever. They won’t even know who I am—just the lady who complains about the wait, who grins at the grocery. They know nothing about me. But I know exactly who they are. Nobodies, godless, loveless people who choose to be left behind, who will no doubt be surprised to learn that when you give nothing, you get nothing.
It’s a quiet mile all the way there. The crushed stones kick up underneath. As usual, no one comes out to help. At Johnson’s you must always go inside and ask for service, as if they’re doing you a favor.
The cement porch is dirtier than usual. The begonia plant still wilts behind the window. At the door, something catches my eye, a note of color—comic books. Comic books stacked on a white doily. Why that plant? Why, oh why, the doily? Cans of Esso stand side-by-side on the ground, almost decoratively. Someone else—a child?—has spilled them in the past (there are cloud-like stains on the concrete). I spy the fire extinguisher inside. The door creaks, of course.
No one is at the counter, just a small box. How long will I have to wait today? I peer into the back, through the rusted door that leads to the garage. I’m all alone. I lift the cardboard flap. Inside are a pair of pink shoes, baby shoes, a bow on the side made of suede. I turn the box: “Church Sale.”
Somebody embroidered the doily, bought the comic books. I can make it home or come back another time. Maybe I can ask John to come back instead. Somebody should be here by then. I cross the porch, stepping carefully: Somebody arranged the aluminum cans.
Somebody loves us all.