State of Desire ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
My name is Charles R. 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 falls off the back of a truck onto the highway? Any ugly and unexpected occurrence on the highway might make me up to an hour late for work. Late again? Don’t worry about it. Just make up the 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 Ian.
“Fill it up?” he asked as I rolled down my window.
“Why not?” I said, devil may care.
After he pumped the gas, he was cleaning my windshield.
“New here?” I asked.
“You like it?”
“Who likes pumping gas?”
“Probably nobody,” I said.
I didn’t think about Ian 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 different,” I said, inclined to engage him in small talk.
“How’s that?” he said.
“Your fingernails are clean.”
He laughed. “Nobody notices.”
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 become 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 would never do that,” I said, embarrassed.
The next time I went into Gus Gray’s, it was for an oil change. I hoped Ian 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 to wait while he went to move my car. When he came back in, he didn’t seem to notice I was sitting there. I got up and bought a soda out of the vending machine.
“Slow day?” I asked.
“What?” he asked.
“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.
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 a publishing company downtown.”
“You’re a publisher?”
“Just an editor.”
“What does an editor do?”
“I make sure copy is ready for publication.”
“Stuff that other people write.”
“If you don’t like it, why don’t you quit?”
“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 said. “Do you have a wife?”
“No,” he said. “No wife.”
“Smart man,” I said.
Over the next three months or so I saw Ian every time I stopped in for gas. We usually exchanged a few words of no importance that I remembered days later.
On days I didn’t need gas, I usually drove by the station just to get a glimpse of him. Why Ian, out of all the people I knew and saw every day? I wasn’t sure. There was a spark there, a connection. Yes, he was handsome and I was physically attracted to him, but it was more than that. On his part, I knew he recognized me from other customers, but other than that I didn’t know what he thought of me or if he thought anything at all. I was behaving like an immature high school student and I needed to snap out of it before I made a complete fool of myself.
One morning on my way to work I stopped it at Gus Gray’s. I hoped to have a few words with Ian, maybe ask him to have lunch one day or a drink after work. 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 Ian pump my gas.
“Where’s Ian?” I asked Johnny Walker Red.
“Don’t know no Ian.”
“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 by myself.
I waited a few days and went back to the station, hoping Ian would have returned. This time Gus Gray waited on me.
“Where’s Ian?” I asked him.
“He called and asked for a few days off. I think he’s been in the hospital.”
“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 and start using it. 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.
On Monday it was time to fill up my gas tank again. When I pulled into Gus Gray’s, Ian was standing at the pump. I had never been more happy to see anybody in my life. It was all I could do to keep from getting out of the car and embracing him.
“May I help you, sir,” he said, as I rolled down my window.
“You’ve been gone,” I said.
“I missed you.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“Fill it up,” I said.
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.
“In case 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 how easy it would be.
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 Ian’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.
“I’m too slow. I spend too long with each customer, while other customers are waiting. Not only that, 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 wasn’t hired to be a salesman, so he fired me.”
“We’re going away together,” 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 son of a bitch ever again. I’d mail them 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 Ian 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 two hundred miles. I stopped for lunch at a restaurant on the highway at the edge of a small town. We 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.
“So is everybody else’s,” I said.
He told me, reluctantly, why he had been in the hospital. 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 time he was 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 were going or what we’d do when we got there.
At eleven o’clock that night, after driving for about fourteen hours, I had to stop. We found a quiet, inviting-looking motel just off the highway and I engaged a room for two.
We talked for a while and watched an old black-and-white movie on TV. When the movie was over, he said wanted to take a shower. He came out of the bathroom naked and got into bed. I got into bed wearing pajamas. We kissed. Finally I had the thing I wanted since the first time I saw him.
After a long silence, he turned to me and asked, “What state are we in?”
“Does it matter?” I said.
“I don’t want to go back,” he said. “I don’t want to go on.”
“You’ll find another job,” I said. “Don’t worry about that.”
“No, I don’t mean that,” he said. I don’t want another job. I’ve had enough jobs. I think I’ve come to the end. Of something.”
“What do you mean?”
“Have you ever thought about a suicide pact,” he said. “With another person, I mean.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve thought about a lot of things.”
“It’d be better,” he said. “If two people did it at the same time.”
“Why better?” I asked.
I knew what he meant, but I wanted to see what he’d say.
“Not as lonely. To be able to show the world at the end that you’re not such a loser that you have to do it alone.”
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 can’t think of anything better,” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“Make it quick,” he said.
“Wait until I’m asleep.”
“In the back of the head,” I said. “You won’t feel a thing.”
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 in a couple of minutes I knew he was asleep.
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.
He slept through the night and when he woke up a little after daylight he turned and looked at me.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“It’s time to get up and get dressed,” I said. “We’ll get some breakfast.”
We were on our way again in a half-hour. We crossed one state line and then another and then another. I would keep going for as long as I could or until I ran out of highway.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp