When the big sedan pulled to the pumps it concluded a half hour of inactivity consistent with this time of night at the quick shop. It was an older car, American-made with an inefficient gasoline engine, and beige. Out of it stepped a beige man; big, older, American made. The clerk watched him study the gasoline pump as though it were modern art. ‘Just swipe a card’, the clerk thought to himself. He hit the ‘Pay Inside’ button instead.
The clerk had come back to town after his mom got sick, his dad having passed some years before. Nobody wanted this shift because it was, indeed, so boring. There was enough small industry and service business on this side of town that the quick shop saw good traffic over the workday and just after, but the evenings were near deserted. Few lived close by and there weren’t any fast-food places; there was just no reason to come over here. But this was where the two-lane came into town from the west, so there were sporadic travelers coming in or going out who needed a fill-up who rationalized staying open. Like the beige man.
As he finished and walked slowly towards the quick shop a pick-up pulled in. Beige Man studied the driver as he deftly worked the controls of the pump and swiped a card. He reached the door as a little electric car also pulled in and plugged up to one of the new charge units. Beige Man watched that too before finally pulling the door open and entering.
“Evening”, the clerk said cheerfully. He didn’t really feel cheerful; he just said it that way. But at least, he thought, he was interested in this guy.
Beige Man nodded, mumbled what might have been a ‘hello’, announced the price indicated by the pump as if asking a question.
“Okay,” the clerk said.
Beige Man slowly took cash out of an old wallet and handed it to him. He handed him his change back. Beige Man seemed to be eying him as he folded it into his wallet, then asked, “Could you help me with some directions?”
“Sure, I’ll try. Where are you heading?”
“Well … there’s a town I’m looking for. I lived there once when I was young. I just can’t recall the name.” Then he proceeded to describe the town. He described a village with several churches and unmarked streets where everybody knew everybody, and nobody felt a need to lock their doors. All the businesses were owned by local guys and everybody worked somewhere. “We could get two TV channels, but later a third one came in on the UHF band, so we had all three networks then.”
And the clerk thought, ‘Networks?’
He talked about some of the buildings that were there, a railroad that came through regularly, how people went about their day. “There wasn’t any of this,” he swept a hand back outside.
“Any of what?” the clerk asked.
“Well,” Beige Man tried to explain, “Those crazy pumps with all the buttons. Or any of that,” he seemed to point at the guy finishing with his pick-up. That guy was not beige. He was a different shade.
“What d’ya mean”?
“Are you sure he paid for his gas?”
“Sure, he used a card.”
“How do you know he didn’t cheat you?”
The clerk checked his monitor. “Shows right here that he paid.”
“Yeah, but how do you know?”
“Doesn’t happen that way,” the clerk told him.
Beige Man shook his head. “And I don’t know what the heck that is,” he nodded at the electric car where the driver, not a guy, shade indeterminate, stood checking her cell, waiting the 15 minutes it would take to get back to a 75 percent charge.
“You’re sure this town is around here?” the clerk asked, attempting to pull the conversation back towards relevance.
“Yeah!” Beige Man replied, by now a little more excited. But then he seemed to retreat into confusion. “I actually thought it was just back up the road,” he pointed west down the two-lane. “That last town, or maybe the town before that.” He tried to fill in with more details, hoping it might jar the clerk’s memory. He talked about family gatherings and reunions in the park. He talked about Fourth of July celebrations and a big Christmas tree on Main Street everybody drove around, no problem. No traffic lights anywhere. One municipal police officer, who rarely had to do anything but give out a warning ticket. No one out of place.
The clerk thought, as Beige Man talked, that he’d heard his mom talk about things like that, about how things were as a girl when the town was smaller. He thought of her laying in her room where she spent most of her time now, and how he’d sit with her when he wasn’t working. He’d moved his computer there and turned it so she could watch him make art using a graphic drawing tablet. Seeing his abstract art emerge on his monitor seemed to spark her thoughts, but her recollections were not pleasant. What Beige Man described fondly, she described as ignorant and backward.
“Tell me,” the clerk interrupted Beige Man in mid-sentence. “Are you looking for a place, or a time.”
Beige Man stopped talking. A hopeful expression became slack-jawed and he broke eye contact. He looked back outside; the other drivers were gone. A few seconds hesitation before his head and shoulders drooped and he mumbled a ‘thank you’, then moved somnolent out the door.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.