An old gas station. They have the old pumps with spinning numbers. There is a handwritten sign on the front door: “No dogs in the bathrooms.”
I wonder how that sign came to be.
There are men sitting in chairs out front. One man holds a plastic Coke bottle full of brown spit. The other men are relaxing on the axis of the wheel of life.
There are two Auburn University caps, one Roll Tide, and a cowboy hat. A dog sleeps beside them.
“Howdy,” says one man. “How ya din today?”
It’s been a long time since anyone asked me how I was “din.”
My answer is pure reflex. One I can’t lose.
“Middlin’,” I say. That’s what old timers in my youth said. Phrases like that were used at feed stores, covered-dish socials, and in hardware store aisles, while weighing a pound of nails.
“How ‘bout y’all?” I ask.
One man spits. “If I’s din any better, wouldn’t be able to stand myself.”
I pump gas. When the pump reaches seventy dollars it shuts off. Seventy big ones. It feels like highway robbery.
Long ago, my daddy thought paying ninety-six cents per gallon gas was disgusting. He would mumble colorful words, then say: “When I was a kid, gas was only TWENTY-FIVE cents.”
My granddaddy would say the exact same thing. Only he would add: “I remember when gas was a DIME a gallon.”
And so it went. I come from a long line of old men who reminisce about the price of crude oil.
These were old-world gentlemen who carved pine sticks with pocket knives. Every day, a few more of these men disappear, and I miss them. When they’re gone, who’s going to complain about the price of gasoline?
Before the War, my grandfather pumped gas at a country store. He wore a ball cap and wiped people’s windshields. He spent days beneath the shade, holding a Coke bottle, telling travelers to “be safe” just before they drove away.
Which is the country way of saying “life is precious.”
The man with the spit bottle says, “You stayin’ outta trouble today, son?”
“No sir,” I say. “I’m always in trouble.”
“Must be married then.”
A good chuckle is had by all. The laughing wakes the dog.
I walk inside to pay for gas. There is a cardboard box near the counter. The box is filled with Ziplock baggies of boiled peanuts. On the bags are handwritten words: “P-Nuts $1.00.”
A dollar. You can’t even air up your tires for a dollar anymore.
“My son bulled them peanuts,” the cashier says. “His cajun ones always sell fast. He’s only fifteen.”
I buy three bags.
I walk outside. The men haven’t moved since I last saw them. The man with the spit bottle winks when he sees the peanuts I just bought.
The fifteen-year-old is his grandson. When he tells me this, I’m obliged to ask about the kid. Here in the country, it’s rude not to ask about someone’s grandchild.
The old man says the fifteen-year-old is brilliant. Funny. A fisherman. A musician. A cook. Faster than all boys in North America. More handsome than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
If there is anything more magnificent than a granddaddy bragging on his grandbaby, I don’t care to know what it is.
Our conversation ends. The man bids me goodbye. He says, “Be safe, now.”
Anyway, my highest ambition in life is to someday sit in front of a gas station, or hardware store, or courthouse, or barbershop, and smile at people. Maybe if I’m lucky, they’ll write about how they miss a slower era, when phones weren’t supposed to fit in your pockets. When people were nice. When gas was cheaper.
I’ve got a long way to drive. I’m due in Opelika tonight.
These peanuts are unbelievable.