(This is an expanded version of a short story I posted earlier with a different title.)
My name is Charles A. Rilke. Some people call me Charlie but mostly I’m known as just plain Charles. I had been married for twelve years and had two children. We lived the American dream in a mortgaged-to-the-hilt ranch house in the suburbs. I had a job I didn’t like very much as an editor at a publishing firm. I had been with the company for seven years and had been passed over for promotion in favor of younger, less-experienced people. I hated every minute I spent in the corporate world. I wanted to throw everything down and become a writer. Not practical, you say? You’re probably right.
Every morning I got into my aging Pontiac and drove the twelve miles to work. The morning drive could be fraught with drama, depending on the weather, time of year and traffic conditions. A sudden thunder storm, a little bit of rain or unexpected snow flurries? A cardboard box fell off the back of a truck onto the highway? Any ugly and unexpected occurrence might make me up to an hour late for work. Late again? Don’t worry about it. Make up your time at the end of the day.
My gas tank was nearly empty, so on Monday morning on my way to work I stopped at Gus Gray’s to fill up. Right away I saw there was a new attendant manning the pumps. He smiled at me as I pulled up and rolled down my window. His name, stitched on the pocket of his shirt, was Colton.
“Fill it up?” he asked as I rolled down my window.
“I don’t see why not,” I said.
After he pumped the gas, he cleaned my windshield.
“New here?” I asked.
“I started last week.”
“You like it?”
“Who likes pumping gas?”
“Probably nobody,” I said.
I didn’t think about Colton again until the next time I needed gas and stopped in at Gus Gray’s. He was standing beside the pumps as if I was the only customer all day. He put the gas in my car and cleaned my windshield and before I left I asked him to check the oil.
As he raised the hood, I got out of the car and stood beside him. I watched him as he bent over under the hood. He checked the oil and said it was okay and closed the hood.
“You’re not like the others,” I said, saying what I was thinking without considering whether it was appropriate or not.
“How’s that?” he said.
“You don’t look like you just crawled out of an oil can.”
He laughed. “Nobody notices.”
“That’s not true. I notice.”
“People just want their gas. They don’t care about the person pumping it.”
He was about thirty or thirty-two. He had brown hair, what little I could see of it under his cap. His face was covered with brown-blond stubble, just enough to look good on him. He was trim-waisted, shirt tucked neatly into his pants. He wore new-looking work boots.
“Gus Gray knows who to put out front to attract the customers.”
“Are you flirting with me?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said, embarrassed.
The next time I went into Gus Gray’s was for an oil change. I hoped Colton would be there. It was raining, so he was inside at the cash register. I gave him the keys to my car and sat down inside while he went to move my car. When he came back in, he seemed to have forgotten I was there. I got up and bought a soda out of the vending machine.
“Slow day?” I asked.
“What?” he said.
“I said it’s a slow day because of the rain.”
“Oh, yeah. People don’t get out if they don’t have to.”
“Then why am I here?” I said.
He smiled and shrugged and I felt like a babbling fool for trying to be clever.
I sat back down with my soda and, after I had drunk about half of it, he said, “Gus is off today so I have to take care of any customers.”
“It’s always nice when the boss is gone, isn’t it?” I said.
“Yeah. Gus is all right but he runs a tight ship.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”
“You know what they say, though. It’s a job.”
“I don’t like my job very much, either,” I said.
“What do you do?”
“I work for Ellis and Peacock downtown.”
“What’s Ellis and Peacock?”
“You’re a publisher?”
“Just an editor and a junior editor, at that.”
“What does an editor do?”
“I make sure copy is ready for publication.”
“Stuff that other people write.”
“Why don’t you write it yourself?”
“I’m lacking in ambition and enthusiasm.”
“Why don’t you quit, then, and do something else?”
“It’s not that easy. I have a mortgage and two kids.”
“And a wife?”
“Yeah, a wife, too.”
“Most people have at least one wife running around,” he said.
“How about you?” I asked. “Do you have a wife?”
“Not me,” he said.
Over the next three or four months I saw Colton every time I stopped in for gas. We usually exchanged a few words of no importance that I recalled over and over in my mind until the next time I saw him. I wasn’t looking for any hidden meaning; I was only remembering the way he spoke the words and the look in his brown eyes as he spoke them.
I wished that I might come to know him better, to talk to him away from the station. Would he think I was a lunatic if I asked him to meet me in a bar or a restaurant somewhere? Would he tell Gus Gray and have me banned from the station? Would they call the police and have me arrested?
And why Colton, you might ask, out of everybody else in the world? Being drawn to a good-looking younger man was not a habit for me; it had never happened before, not even in my younger days. Hadn’t I always gone out of my way to fit in with the herd and not draw attention to myself?
On a Friday morning, looking forward to two days at home doing as I pleased, I stopped in for gas. I had finally decided to ask Colton to have lunch with me one day or to meet me after work for a drink.
He wasn’t waiting at the pump as usual and he didn’t come bounding out of the station. The weasel they called Johnny Walker Red was there instead. He had long red hair that made him look like Rita Hayworth. I was sickened at the thought of having anybody but Colton pump my gas.
“Where’s Colton?” I asked Johnny Walker Red.
“Don’t know no Colton.”
“He works here.”
“Oh, yeah! I forgot his name. I think Gus said he’s sick or something. In the hospital.”
“What’s the matter with him?”
“When’s he coming back?”
“I dunno. I ain’t his keeper.”
I paid for my gas and went on to work. I felt low and unhappy all day long. I only wanted people to leave me alone. I couldn’t wait to get back home in the evening so I could be alone with my thoughts.
I waited a few days and went back to the station, hoping Colton would have returned. This time Gus Gray waited on me.
“What’s happened to Colton?” I asked him.
“He called and asked for a few days off. He’s been sick. In the hospital, I believe.”
“Do you know what’s wrong with him?”
“Is he coming back?”
“I guess so. He didn’t say.”
It was about this time that I started having trouble at work, which involved enforced overtime. We had missed a couple of deadlines recently and the boss was ready to bring out the guillotine, set it up in the lobby, and start chopping our heads off. We were all going to have to knuckle down and work extra hours every day just to get caught up. It moved me one step closer to quitting but not without punching a few people in the nose first.
Days passed and I avoided Gus Gay’s. When I needed gas, I drove to another station farther away. If I didn’t see Colton, I reasoned, I would stop thinking about him and eventually forget about him altogether and go back to being the fatherly drudge I had been before, the same as everybody else, with none any the wiser.
After two weeks, I couldn’t hold out any longer. I had to know that he was all right and hadn’t died or anything. The next time I stopped in to fill up at Gus Gray’s, he was standing at the pump. I was so happy to see him I could have jumped out of the car and embraced him.
“May I help you, sir?” he asked, as I rolled down my window.
“You’ve been gone,” I said.
“They said you were sick.”
“I’m all right.”
“I missed you.”
“I missed you, too, sir,” he said.
“Fill it up.”
When he brought me the change from the twenty-dollar bill I used to pay for my gas, he gave me one of Gus Gray’s business cards. He had crossed through the print on the front and written his name and phone number on the back.
“If you ever want to talk,” he said.
I drove on to work, happier than I had been for long time. The good feeling lasted through the entire day. I was kind to my co-workers and felt calm and relaxed. I took an extra long lunch, by myself, and walked three blocks away from the office and had a good fish dinner at a better place than I usually go.
That evening, while my wife and kids were watching TV, I went to the phone with the card in my hand. Heart pounding, I picked up the receiver and then put it back again. I hadn’t planned on calling him at that moment; it was only a dry run to show myself I could do it if I wanted to.
On top of all the overtime at work, I began having trouble at home. My wife and I began arguing about small things. She had a biting tongue and so did I. A lot of the self-restraint I prided myself on had left me. I hated arguing and bickering but I couldn’t seem to help myself. My parents had had a miserable marriage and I seemed to be following their example.
The fight of all fights came on a Sunday. I had been hoping to have a peaceful day at home, resting up for the upcoming week of hell at work, but my wife and I started arguing at the breakfast table. After several hours of anger and tension, I packed a bag and went to a motel so I could be alone.
After I checked into the motel, I had a nap and then a quiet meal in the motel restaurant. After dinner, I sat down on the bed and called Colton’s number. He answered on the third ring.
He knew from the first word who I was. I didn’t have to explain myself. He said he was expecting me to call any time.
“Gus fired me,” he said.
“He thinks I’m too slow. I spend too long with each customer, while other customers are waiting, and I’m not assertive enough. He wanted me to push products to customers. Spark plugs, fan belts, wiper blades, motor oil, and all that kind of stuff. I told him I’m not a salesman, so he fired me.”
“I’m going away and I want you to go with me,” I said.
“I’m going to quit my job in the morning. I hate it and I’m tired of being unhappy. I’ll pick you up wherever you say at nine o’clock, so pack a bag.”
“That’s a little impulsive, isn’t it?” he said.
“Probably, but I don’t care.”
“Where are we going?”
“I don’t know.”
“How long will we be gone?”
“I don’t know.”
In the morning I was up at six o’clock. After breakfast, I called my place of employment and instructed the secretary to tell the boss I was quitting. I’d never have to see or speak to that evil son of a bitch again. I’d mail in a letter of resignation later if they had to have it in writing.
I put my stuff in the car and checked out of the motel. I stopped at the bank and withdrew eight hundred dollars in cash from my savings account and arrived at the address Colton had given me at ten minutes to nine. He was waiting outside with a small suitcase. I asked him how he was, but he didn’t seem to want to talk so that was altogether fine with me. I didn’t feel much like talking in the morning either.
I didn’t know where I was going. I went out through town to the highway and headed west.
At lunchtime I had driven a hundred and twenty miles. I stopped for lunch at a restaurant on the highway at the edge of a small town. Colton and I sat across from each other in a sunny booth.
He told me a little bit about himself. His parents, both dead, had been alcoholics. His mother kicked him out of the house as soon as he graduated from high school. He had had an older brother who died from a drug overdose. He had been married briefly at twenty-one to a girl he hardly knew. The marriage lasted less than a year. For the last ten years or so he had gone from job to job, looking for something, he wasn’t sure what.
“A life of failure and unhappiness,” he said.
“No worse than anybody else’s,” I said.
I asked him why he had been in the hospital and reluctantly he told me. When he was three years old, he had rheumatic fever and it left him with rheumatic heart disease, from which he would probably die by the age of forty. He made it clear he didn’t want sympathy or pity.
“When it comes, I’ll be ready for it,” he said.
I drove all day in a westerly direction, stopping only at mealtimes and to fill my car up with gas. Neither one of us talked about where we were going or what we’d do when we got there.
At eleven o’clock that night, after driving for fourteen hours, I had to stop. We found a quiet, inviting-looking motel with red-and-green neon signs just off the highway and I engaged a room.
We talked for a while and watched an old black-and-white movie on TV. When the movie was over, he wanted to take a shower. When he came out of the bathroom, he got into bed naked. I got in beside him and held him in my arms and kissed him. As he kissed me back, I realized I had, finally, the thing I had been dreaming about for months. If I died right at that moment, I would die happy.
After a long silence, he asked, “What state are we in?”
“Does it matter?”
“No, not as long as we’re together.”
He surprised me by taking my hand and entwining his fingers through mine.
“Do you want to go back?” I asked.
“Nothing to go back for. No home to speak of. No job, either.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll find another job.”
“I don’t want another job. I’ve had plenty of jobs. I think I—I think I’ve come to an ending.”
“What are you saying?”
“Ever thought about suicide?”
“I’ve thought about a lot of things.”
“I read a story once about a suicide pact between two men. It seemed like a good idea.”
“Why?” I asked, only because I thought I knew what he’d say and I wanted to see if I was right.
He thought for a moment and then said, “If you do it with somebody you care about, it’s not so lonely.”
I showed him the gun I had in my suitcase.
“I have two bullets,” I said.
He smiled as if he thought I was making a joke and then he knew I wasn’t.
“I see,” he said.
“Is it what you want?” I asked. “Truly?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You have to be sure. No regrets.”
“I’m sure. I don’t have any regrets. Have you ever fired a gun before?”
“Make sure the bullet does its job.”
“Wait until I’m asleep.”
“You won’t feel a thing. And know that I’ll be right behind you.”
I sat there in the chair beside the bed with the gun in my right hand. He turned over in the bed away from me and pulled the blanket up under his chin and went to sleep.
There was just enough light coming in from the window that I could see him. I watched him all night, listening to him breathe and sigh, and I knew he was the only person in the world I had ever loved in the way that I always knew was possible but had never experienced before.
He slept through the night and when he woke up a little after daylight he turned and looked at me.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“Still in the motel beside the highway.”
“What time is it?”
“Time to get up and get dressed.”
We were on our way again in a half-hour. We crossed one state line and then another with dizzying rapidity. I planned to keep driving for as long as I could and for as long as my car and my money held out. When it was time to stop driving and do something else, I’d know. Until then, nothing much mattered except my feeling of being free and the happiness I felt when I looked at the person beside me.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp