When I heard the rush of car tires outside, I tented my magazine beside the cash register even before the bell rang; my feet hit the floor at about the same time as it dinged above my head. My boss, Mr. Hoyer, is big on customer service. At his gas station, he wants the customers seen to in less than thirty seconds, or else you lose your job. He’s very serious about that, too; earlier this summer, I came out to the pumps one night to find him sitting there in his old Crown Vic, his thumb pressed on the button of a stopwatch.
“That was twenty-eight seconds, Faber. You’re pushing it. What were you doing in there? Have your nose in a Playboy?” he sneered.
“No way, Mr. Hoyer! I walked out as soon as I heard the bell ring,” I said.
“You don’t walk outta there, boy, you run
I sighed. “Okay, Mr. Hoyer.”
“All right,” he grumbled. “Remember - I’ll be coming around now and then just to check up on things.”
“I got it, Mr. Hoyer,” I said. He clunked the Crown Vic into Drive, and he was gone, having not even topped up his tank. The asshole had come by strictly to harass me, and had left me feeling jumpy and picked-on. The hell of it was, I had been at his car under his thirty-second service standard, but I still had the vague sense in the back of my mind that he didn’t think I was doing such a hot job. I knew I shouldn’t have felt guilty about it, but I still did all the same. Thanks, boss. Ever since then, I felt a little nervous anytime I heard a car roll up outside, and I imagine that's what the old bastard had wanted in the first place.
I could see though, I wouldn’t have to worry just now about a visit from Mr. Hoyer. The car waiting at the pumps was a smaller, foreign car, a dusty blue Volvo that had seen some hard miles and better days. Not beat-up or anything; just used, the kind of car that you would never notice unless it was part of your job to pay attention to cars.
I moseyed up to the Volvo (but still certain I was there in under thirty seconds), and craned my neck at the driver, a worn, weatherbeaten-looking guy on the far side of thirty. His blondish hair was pulled back from his face in a lazy ponytail, and his chin bristled with the eccentric beard of a mountain man. In spite of the warm evening, he was wearing a simple cotton jacket, a fuzzed elbow propped in his window.
“Hello sir, what I get for you?” I said.
The guy, he spoke so softly, I barely heard him. “Can you fill the tank, please?”
“Sure thing. Supreme?”
“Regular,” he said.
I lifted the hose, and flipped the pump on. Hoyer’s gas station was one of the few left where an attendant actually filled up your car for you. Almost every other gas station was self-serve now. Hoyer liked it that way too, because it meant his station was different from other places. Superior. Along with his quick-to-the-car rule, he wanted us to check the oil and wiper fluid levels and things like that for the customer. He was pretty old school that way. I didn’t know of any other station that did that, but I didn’t mind it at all, actually. It meant I had a job, for one thing, and the genuine pleasure the customers took in these little considerations was worth it, both in the smiles (from women, especially) and the extra lettuce they would sometimes press into my hand.
“Check your oil, sir?” I raised my voice over the hum of the pump.
“I think I’m all right,” said the guy.
“Wiper fluid? Tires?”
The guy smiled up at me, and the quality of the grin lit up his face. His eyes were arresting, blue gunfighter’s eyes that had the sudden ability to reach out and hold you in place. Between the lines around them, I saw the teenager he must have been, not so long ago. The difference in his appearance was so dramatic, I actually did a double-take at the sight of it.
“Naw, it’s cool,” he said, opening his door and easing out of the car like an old man. He stretched for the sky as he did, arching to his tip-toes in his clunky-looking shoes. He was pretty small, I noticed. Small, and thin.
“You don’t strike me as a Volvo kind of guy,” I said.
The guy gave me his million-dollar smile again. “Oh, but I am,” he said. “Volvos are practical cars. They’re unpretentious vehicles, and the safest in the world.”
“I guess,” I said. “But women don’t much care about those things.”
“Well, I don’t care much about women, either,” he said.
“Don’t care - why? Are you gay?” I didn’t mean to say that, but my mouth has a way of acting before my mind can stop it. I didn’t know what it was, but I noticed that sort of a vibe radiating from him, something out of the ordinary in the way he was standing there. Or maybe it was just because he was slightly built man with long hair. But I shouldn’t have worried, because he just laughed at me.
“Gay - no. But I’ve been called that before. No, I don’t care much about women right now because I decided to go on the road for a little while. I always liked doing it, and it’s been a few years since I’ve had a good trip in the car,” he paused. “Have you ever hit the road? You know, just taken a powder and gone someplace?” he asked.
“I don’t have my license yet,” I said. “But even if I did, I think I would want to go on a trip like that with my friends, not all by myself.”
The guy leaned on his fender, tugging a pack of Camels from the pocket of his jacket. He poked one in his mouth, and tucked a loose lock of hair behind his ear. “Yeah, but a trip like this, you need to do it by yourself,” he said around the smoke. A battered Zippo appeared in his hand, and he sparked up, pinching his face into the flame. He dragged deep, and blew a cloud into the night, tilting his head a bit to better hear the crickets out in the weeds. “A trip like this, you want some time alone, so you can figure some things out. Sometimes friends just get in the way,” he said.
“I guess,” I said. “Where are you going, anyway? Are you in a band?” I said, nodding at the large guitar case I could see in his back seat.
The guy stiffened a bit, turning to look at me. “I used to be - but not anymore. Not for a while. Are you a music fan?”
“No, not really,” I said. “I don’t have many hobbies at all, actually. I like watching movies and hanging out and things, but that’s about it. And reading, I do a lot of reading, too.”
He relaxed again, taking another drag of his cigarette. He closed his eyes as he did, the coal of the smoke brightening in the dark like a tiny toaster element in his lips.
“That’s okay, music isn’t very good anymore anyway," he said. "It’s all this processed MacDonald’s shit now, dreamed up by some suit in a boardroom for the teeny-boppers. ‘Are his jeans ripped enough? Is he dangerous-looking, but in a safe way?’” he waved his hand around in disgust. “They don’t even play guitars, most of them. American Idol bullshit. When I was a kid, at least the stupid hairspray bands could play instruments.”
He had this kind of sing-song voice that went up and down as he spoke, a sort of storyteller voice that made me think that he’d talked this way to people many times in the past. I liked listening to him. Just then, the gas pump dinged full, and I began to nurse a few more drops into the tank. Sometimes you can squeeze another buck or two into a supposedly full tank. I looked at the pump. “It’s going to be twenty-five bucks, sir,” I said.
The guy reached for his wallet. "Sir", he mused. "My old man made me call him that, I always hated it. I don’t look like a ‘sir’, do I?”
“I guess not,” I said. I thought he did, though. Anyway, I called everybody that who I didn’t know. In my hand, the pump stopped at last, and I flipped off the switch and racked the nozzle.
He walked over to me, holding the bills between his fingers. “Twenty-five,” he said, pinning me down again with his eyes. “And now, it’s time to rock and roll. How far am I from the I-96?” he asked, getting back into his car.
I folded the money into my overalls. “You’re almost there – it’s maybe a half-hour down the road,” I said. “Not too far. You didn’t tell me where you were headed.”
The guy settled in his seat, gripping the steering wheel for a moment with his fingers – remarkably long and thin, wrapping the wheel like tree roots. “I’m not sure yet,” he said. “That’s the other rule for a trip like this. You’re not supposed to know. It’s how I’ve always done things, and it’s worked for me in the past. But I do know I’m going to the South. I have an image in my mind, of a dream I had once,” he said, and now the gunfighter eyes were looking beyond me.
“There was this little bar - just a shack, really, beside a river someplace, in the South, and it was quiet, except for the water. You walked up to it, and all you could hear was wind in the sycamore trees around you, until you got to the door of the bar, and that’s when you heard the music playing inside. It was hot in there, and packed with people, like a religious-revival tent, with a bony waitress serving the little tables like a contortionist. These guys were onstage, like these 1950’s colored guys who looked older than Adam, their heads down over their instruments, and playing the Delta blues like all get out. They were sweating up there in their strappy tee-shirts, and the guy on bass was in his bare feet. And I wiggled in and found me a seat, and sat a while, drinking in the atmosphere just like corn liquor. And then sometime later, they let me play with them. I pulled out my guitar, and I played onstage, and one of the guys sang an old song I’d never heard of, but sounded familiar anyway.” He stopped, maybe embarrassed a little about what he told me.
“It sounds like a great dream,” I said.
“It was. I think about it all the time. Anyway – I’ve always wanted to head South, and find someplace where I can play barefoot on a stage. Someplace where nobody knows me, and it doesn’t matter to them that they don’t. And just play.”
“Why would anybody know you?”
He looked at me again, back from his daydream, and I squirmed a little under his long gaze. “Oh…I don’t know,” he said finally. “I guess what I mean is, some moments are better in front of total strangers, people who don’t have any opinions of you. You can just play for them…and if they dig the music…who you are won’t matter to them.”
“I guess I don’t understand. Nobody would know me if I played a song for them,” I said. “But yeah – the I-96 will take you south. A long way down, anyway.”
He reached for his keys. “Have a good night, man,” he said. He pulled his car away from the pumps, driving slow, the same way my grandmother would. He made the turn for the Interstate, and I watched his taillights blink between the trees until he was gone.
I went inside, and grabbed my magazine off the counter, intending to put it back on the display rack, when I saw something that stopped me dead in my tracks. There, peering over a Hot Rod
magazine, I saw the same sky-blue eyes looking into me that I had just seen out by the pumps – but that was impossible. I yanked the magazine – Spin
- from the rack, and read:Kurt Cobain 1967-1994
Ten years after his death,an intimate look at a troubled childhood and secret heartbreak that shaped a rock legend
It was him. "No way," I breathed.
But it was. Unmistakably, except in this idealized studio portrait, restored to the youth I had imagined in my mind's eye only moments before.
The customer bell rang again over my head, and by the time I made it outside, I knew that I had waited long past thirty seconds to get there.