Monday morning, 12:00 AM: Just onto my shift. My last graveyard at the I-29 Interstate Standard, an isolated outpost on the very western edge of Grand Forks. Eight pumps, two diesel. Two service bays, one lift. A convenience store the size of my dorm room lit with flickering and buzzing purplish fluorescents and stocked with everything from aspirin to dirty magazines. Restroom around back. Single seat. Ask for the key first.
I’d been soloing nights, four on, three off, since the end of spring semester. The hours weren’t bad once I got used to living like a vampire and it was pretty good money for a College Boy, but fall semester had just kicked off and I had to get back into the school thing full time. That meant accepting my professor’s offer to work in his freezing-cold basement laboratory doing experiments on giant white rats that involved giving them treats if they did well or electric shocks if they didn’t. My first Real Psychology Job.
12:45 AM: I snuffed out my Marlboro. Had calmed down a bit. Finished cleaning up the mess Vince had left me after his evening shift. Both soda coolers had to be stocked and so did the freezer. The floor looked like it hadn’t been mopped in a month. Garbage was overflowing. I thought for a minute about griping up the ladder about him but knew it wouldn’t matter. His dad owned the place.
So I tuned the battered black AM/FM in the shop to some rock ’n roll and turned it up. The Doors. “Riders On The Storm.” Perfect. Music to be lonely by. Made a fresh pot of coffee and poured myself a cup. Grabbed an Eskimo Pie and pulled down the new Road & Track. Settled in behind the counter to read about the new Z car. Lust after the new 944.
1:30 AM: A white Renault Alliance weaves in and four hammered Alpha Chis hop out. Only want smokes and Cokes. I should card them for the smokes but I don’t. One of them is cute and I toss her a pack of matches and make a joke about lighting her fire. She smiles and asks me for a pen. Writes a phone number on the inside of the matchbook and tosses it back to me. I put it in my pocket and grin. Think I’ve scored big until the next day when I dial it and some dude at ‘Shakey’s Pizza’ picks up.
I’d like a large pepperoni. To go, please.
2:15 AM: A semi creeps into the yard. Plates from South Dakota. Driver climbs out. Six foot six. Seventy-three pounds. Jittery. Hits the convenience store and comes to the till with an armful of Mountain Dews and mini donuts and Bayer aspirin. Asks me for three packs of Camel straights. Pays for everything with ones and fives. Mumbles something about making sure I watch out for the government. I nod. Tell him I sure will. He takes his change then gives me a long cold look through wild black eyes. Moments pass. Silent moments. Uncomfortable moments. I clear my throat and ask if there’s anything else I can get him and he cracks a jagged half-smile and laughs a laugh that gives me goosebumps. Tells me in a low and quiet voice to have a good night and wanders out the door. I heave a sigh of relief. Didn’t want to have to deal with a lot of crazy on my last night.
2:30 – 4:00 AM: The Dead Zone. The perfect time to take care of things around the station so I stroll out to the islands and empty and fill the bug juice reservoirs. Restock the paper towels. Wipe down the pump faces. Give the shop a good sweep. Wash the store windows. Clean the toilet. Then I light up a smoke and head out to the far end of the lot to lay back on the flatbed and stargaze for a bit. See a shooting star. Make a wish.
4:30 AM: Edwin shows up for our gin rummy game. My regular opponent since I met him the first week I worked at the station. Drives into town for his janitorial job at the mall every morning and always stops if he spots the ‘B to see if I’m up for a hand or two. I always am.
He drives a Mustang. Boss 302. Older and a little rusted and dinged and dented, but always washed and waxed. Bought it from his neighbor. Saved for it for years. His dream car. Put on a new set of wheels over the summer and I’d never seen a man so happy.
He never knew his mom. Died when he was born. Grew up with his dad who loved him but was always at work. No brothers. No sisters. No friends. Was a Special Ed kid in school. Got teased. Bullied. Beat up. Always played by himself at the edge of the playground and ate his lunches alone until one day in eighth grade when his shop teacher took an interest. Asked him if he wanted to stay in during recesses and over lunches and after school to help him restore an old Mach I someone had donated. Edwin jumped at the chance. That’s how he caught the Mustang bug. Nothing like a good teacher.
Edwin’s not a bad card player but I usually just let him win no matter what. Always fun to see his face light up as he counts up points then takes a bite of his Twinkie and a long draw off of his chocolate milk. We finish our game and he gathers the cards and shakes my hand. I tell him it’s my last night at the station. Give him my phone number. Tell him to be sure to give me a call so we can keep in touch. Maybe play some more gin rummy. He tears up and gives me a hug. Tells me I’ve been a Good Friend. I tear up. Hug him back.
So have you, Edwin.
5:30 – 7:30 AM: The Morning Rush. Nothing but Karens and Kevins. Each wanting what they want and wanting it now so I hustle around trying to keep everyone happy. A couple of them say “thanks” as they leave but most don’t. I don’t care. Love all the action after the slow night. Busy is always Best.
8:00 AM: I hang my shop shirt back on the hook in the manager’s office. Lay my keys on his desk. Leave him a note thanking him for the job. Say hello and goodbye to Stan the morning guy who gives me a wave and a wink as he turns up Paul Harvey. I walk out to the ‘B but before I climb in turn back to look at the little red, white, and blue station one last time. Catch myself wearing a bittersweet smile.
I’ll miss everything about it.