Green Pontiac ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
It was 1953. I don’t need to tell you the story of my life, except to say that I was married and had two children. We lived in a three-bedroom, mortgaged-to-the-hilt ranch house on a quiet street in the suburbs. I had worked five years at the same job as an editor at a publisher of text books downtown. Every morning I got into my car and began the slow crawl to work. It sometimes took me as long as forty-five minutes or an hour to drive the congested twelve miles. (I could never get used to all the cars and all the people in the world.) I couldn’t see myself going to work at the same job, year in and year out, until I dropped dead or until I became too old to do it anymore. What I really wanted to do was write my own books, but I was realistic and knew it was a difficult way to make a living.
I drove a three-year-old green Pontiac, a reliable car, if not flashy. I always stopped at the same gas station to fill up, several blocks from my house, on the way to where I got on the highway to go downtown. An old man named Gus Gray owned the station. He had been in a business so long that my dad and my grandpa had both known him and bought gas from him. Any time I pulled into his station, he stopped whatever he was doing and waved at me as if we were old friends.
On the Monday morning when I pulled into Gus Gray’s place of business, I saw he had a new attendant. It was obvious he was new because he wore a clean uniform, complete with bow tie and cap. He was just waiting there for me, smiling, as I pulled in. I told him to fill me up, and while the gas was flowing into the old Pontiac, he cleaned my windshield and while he was doing that I had a chance to see him up close.
He was maybe twenty-two or twenty-three. The tag on the pocket of his uniform said his name was Thaddeus. His hair, what wasn’t covered by the cap, was light brown; his sideburns ended in a straight line at the bottom of his earlobes. There was razor burn on his neck from shaving too close. The shirt of his uniform was tucked neatly into the trim waist of his pants and he wore a new-looking leather belt. He was different; he looked too good to be working in a gas station. As I handed him the money, I saw that his fingernails were clean.
“First day?” I asked.
“Been here a week,” he said, as he counted out my change.
“I never knew a Thaddeus before.”
He smiled and nodded, maybe a little pleased that I had noticed his name.
I could go for two weeks without filling up, as long as I only went to work and back. I forgot all about Thaddeus until the next time I needed gas.
He was standing next to the pumps, as if he had nothing better to do than wait there for me. My brakes squealed as I pulled up to where he was standing.
“Better have those brakes checked,” he said, as I rolled down my window. “They might need to be readjusted.”
“Oh. Sure,” I said. “I’ll do that.”
“Come in any time when the mechanic is here and he’ll take a look.”
“Will you be here?”
“I will unless Gus fires me.”
When I gave him the money for the gas, my hands were trembling. He counted out the change and when he handed it to me, he looked straight at me a little longer than was necessary and his brown eyes twinkled as if he and I had a secret.
I felt strangely happy as I drove to work. The happy feeling faded, of course, after I had been in the office for a while.
There was trouble at work. We missed a deadline on a contract and the boss, ranting as usual, threatened to fire all of us. I didn’t much care if he did. I was fed up with working in an office with officious assholes. I had a little money saved and some invested. If I had to do without a job for a while, we’d be fine.
In my head I had an idea for a novel. I had never written a novel and I wanted to see if I could do it. Working full-time, though, took all my time and energy and kept me from doing the worthwhile things I wanted to do. I dreamed about spending my days doing what I wanted to do instead of working at a job that had grown odious to me.
Trouble at home, too. My ten-year-old son was pushed down at school and broke two front teeth and had to have stitches in his upper lip. My twelve-year-old daughter was just coming on to her rebellious stage. She and my wife bickered all the time and I could see they would spend the next few years engaged in battle. Sometimes in the evening I’d lock myself in the den to get away from them.
I had never had what I would call a good marriage. I had faced a truth about myself a long time ago, and that truth was that I never wanted to be married in the first place. I got married because everybody was doing it, and my parents, who had messed up their own lives in their own foolish way, thought it was the only way I could be respectable.
I had known Katherine and her family since high school. I only ever considered her a friend, but when I saw she was serious about me, I figured she was the logical choice if I was ever going to get married. We had a fancy church wedding, which her parents paid for. In three years I was a father and then a father for the second time two years after that. After the second child, Katherine fixed it so there would be no more.
I wanted to try to make my marriage work, although at times I had my doubts. Katherine and I had few common interests and after a few years of marriage we each went our own way. She never asked me anymore where I was going or what time I’d be home. She didn’t care who I was with or what I was doing, and the feeling was mutual. We pretended at being husband and wife; we stayed together only because she was a Catholic and didn’t believe in divorce, and, of course, there were the kids to think about.
The next time I stopped in for gas, Thaddeus wasn’t there. I asked the greasy, plug-ugly attendant named Johnny Walker Red (red hair down to his shoulders) where Thaddeus was and he looked at me and laughed.
“I ain’t seen him all day,” he said. “What’s your business with him?”
“I just wondered if he still worked here.”
“Yeah, he still works here, as far as I know. If you really need to know, you can ask old Gus.”
Embarrassed, I said, “No, that’s all right.”
I drove on to work, feeling glum and disappointed all day. When the work day was over and it was time to drive home again, I barely had the will.
The next morning I called in to work and said I wasn’t feeling well and was going to work at home for the day. After the kids left for school and Katherine had gone off to I knew not where, I drove over to Gus Gray’s filling station. My heart sank when I didn’t immediately see Thaddeus. I parked the car alongside the building where it was out of the way of the pumps and went inside. I bought a pack of cigarettes, and when I went back outside, there was Thaddeus cleaning the windshield of a black Buick. I waited there for him until he was finished and the black Buick drove on.
“Missed you yesterday,” I said.
“I have a day off every now and then,” he said.
“You still look too clean to work in a gas station.”
“I’ll try to dirty it up next time.”
It was the first time I had seen him when I wasn’t sitting in the Pontiac. He was compact, about five feet, eight inches tall, a couple inches shorter than me.
My heart was pounding. I took a deep breath. “I thought I’d have the mechanic check my brakes if he has the time.”
“Sure,” Thaddeus said. “I’ll ask him.”
He went inside and when he came back out, he said, “It’ll be about ten minutes if you want to wait.”
I gave him my car keys and bought a Coke out of the vending machine and drank half of it in one gulp.
“There’s a chair inside if you want to sit down,” Thaddeus said.
“Can you sit with me?”
Another car pulled in to be waited on and then another and another. I sat on a hard lawn chair inside, smoked a cigarette and drank the rest of my Coke. I felt strangely contented sitting there because I could see Thaddeus out the front window if I craned my neck.
I waited about an hour for my car and then Thaddeus came in and handed me my keys.
“No more squeaky brakes,” he said.
I stood up to pay. He stood behind the counter at the cash register and I stood in front of the counter. He pointed at my wedding ring.
“You’re married,” he said.
I looked at my left hand as if I had no knowledge of how the ring got there. “What? Oh, the ring! Yeah, I’m married.”
“Too bad,” he said.
I smiled and looked down. I was too rattled to look at him as he counted out the change into the palm of his hand.
I began driving by Gus Gray’s service station every day to try to catch a glimpse of Thaddeus. If I saw him, it was like a good luck charm. If I didn’t see him, I was afraid he had left and I’d never see him again.
The next time I pulled in to buy gas, I was relieved to see Thaddeus. I had been thinking about what I would say to him when I had the chance. While he was waiting for my car to fill up with the old Ethyl, he came around on my side to clean my windshield.
I waved my hand to get him to look at me. “It doesn’t matter,” I said, loud enough for him to hear me over the traffic noise.
I held up my left hand so he could see the ring.
“Okay, so it doesn’t matter,” he said. “What do you want to do about it?”
After I left, I felt so foolish and embarrassed that I wanted to find a cliff and drive off it. What must he think of me? I must have given him a good laugh. I had completely misinterpreted an innocent little remark and read something into it that wasn’t there. I seriously considered calling Gus Gray’s and asking to speak to Thaddeus so I could apologize.
My job was making me ill. Two more people quit and I was being pushed and driven all the time to get more and more work done and it was beginning to take its toll. I was having nightmares, chest pains and digestive problems. If I had been the impulsive type and didn’t have two kids and a mortgage, I would have walked out and never gone back.
I was working overtime most days. The only good thing about that was that I had little time to think. When I got home in the evenings, Katherine and the kids had already had dinner and I would fix myself a sandwich, take a shower and go to bed to rest up for the next day of hell.
The next time I drove in to Gus Gray’s for gas, Thaddeus was standing at the pumps. He swiveled his head around and looked at me and smiled. My intention was to treat him the same way I would treat Johnny Walker Red or anybody else.
“Fill it?” he asked, as I rolled down my window.
“Haven’t seen you in a few days,” he said as he grabbed some paper towels to clean my windshield.
“Been busy,” I said, looking down at the steering wheel.
“Remember what you said last time you were here?” he asked.
I gave him the money to pay for my gas and he went inside. When he came back out and handed me my change, there was a little slip of paper with a phone number written on it. I looked to him for an explanation, but he was already off to wait on another car.
I called in sick to work for a couple of days. I didn’t care if they fired me. Good riddance. What a relief it would be.
For about three days, I didn’t have any time alone to call the number, but on Saturday afternoon Katherine took the kids to a matinee movie, so at three o’clock, I took a deep breath and picked up the phone and dialed the number.
A woman answered the phone. I asked to speak to Thaddeus. She clunked the phone down and in a minute he came on the line.
“Thaddeus?” I said.
“The green Pontiac man!” he said. “I don’t even know your name.”
I told him my name and then he had to put the phone down. I heard voices in the background and the slamming of a door.
“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t have much privacy.”
“Do you want me to call back?”
“No, it’s all right. Are you free tonight?”
“Yeah, I’m free,” I said.
“Can you come and pick me up around seven o’clock?”
He gave me an address and I told him I’d be there.
I had a little trouble finding the place and was a few minutes late, but when I got there Thaddeus was waiting for me. He got in and smiled at me.
“Where to?” I asked.
“I don’t care,” he said.
“Have you eaten?”
“Not since lunch.”
I drove to a steak place where Katherine and I had eaten a time or two. We went in and sat at a back booth that afforded some privacy. I didn’t ask him about his family, if he had a girlfriend, where he was from, or anything like that. I didn’t care.
“This is the first time I’ve seen you away from the station,” I said.
“Do I look different?” he asked.
“Handsome. As ever.”
“You must do this a lot,” he said.
“Pick up boys.”
“This is the first time.”
“I’ve been asking myself that question and haven’t been able to come up with an answer.”
“I’m nothing special.”
“I think you are or I wouldn’t be going to all this trouble.”
“Going out of my way to catch a glimpse of you at the station. Hoping that every time I stop in for gas you’ll be there.”
“You do that?”
“I’ll be quitting in a week or two.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“I won’t see you again.”
“I have to have a job where I’m not on my feet all day,” Thaddeus said. “I have a bad heart.”
“Rheumatic fever when I was little. Very tiresome. To me and everybody else.”
“I want to take care of you,” I said.
“You don’t know me. I don’t know you.”
“Don’t you believe in fate? Two people fated to meet?”
He laughed and shook his head because he thought I was making a joke.
He told me a little bit about his life while we were eating and I listened without comment. His mother kicked him out of the house right after high school when she discovered his sexual predilection and he had been living with his elderly grandmother since then, for about five years. It was his grandmother who answered the phone. His job pumping gas for Gus Gray was his fourth job in five years. He was having a hard time finding his place in the world, as so many of us do.
He didn’t ask me any questions about my life; where I lived, if I had children, what I did for a living, or anything else. He knew I was married, drove a green Pontiac, and bought my gas from Gus Gray. That was all. I didn’t tell him that I had been looking for something my whole life and had been telling myself for a while now that I believed he might be it.
After we were finished eating and had had a couple of beers apiece, I paid the check and we went back out to my green Pontiac. When I pulled off the parking lot onto the highway, I went in the opposite direction from home.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“Does it matter?”
I drove for hours, crossing the state line. The farther I got from home, the better I felt. I was leaving all the trash, all the baggage, behind me.
About one in the morning, I stopped at a motel. Thaddeus and I slept side by side through the night until eleven o’clock in the morning. It was the best night’s sleep I had had in weeks.
After breakfast in the motel restaurant, we continued on our way. I didn’t bother to ask myself where we were going. I would drive until I died or until I came to the place where land meets sea and, even there, I had no intention of stopping.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp