Your last chance Texaco
He’d gotten a loaded shotgun, and he was aiming at no one in the room in particular. His arms were shaking and he was blind drunk. First, he shot the panes out of the second story apartment windows and when that wasn’t enough, he shot up the couch until it looked like a sponge large enough to absorb a life. He reloaded and took aim then at the fish tank—the fifty-gallon behemoth I’d won in a drawing at the hardware store but couldn’t keep in my small trailer—and he went fishing. And when he still had not been exorcised, when the dirty water and dull gold fishes rushed over his feet and angered him yet deeper, he turned the barrel on my daughter and that is how her son Poe, who’d been under a bed in the another room, came to live with me in Le Jeune—seven years to the day after the death of my wife.
We set out, my grandson and I, in the late afternoon. We walk down into the shadows of dying buildings and mournful storefronts that scream, “Everything Must Go!” Our small slice of the American pie has been eaten through fast—so fast, the junkyard I’ve owned most of my life is the only business left thriving. Duel, the old mutt dog I employ to protect gutted cars and trucks with dead engines, and refrigerators with large families of rats, is the happiest shareholder in town. His job is secure.
Poe turned fourteen last Thursday. He’s almost a man now and has taken to calling me by my nickname, Weeder. (In a younger day, I could mow a lawn with the flair of an artist.) I think on things Poe’s mother would have wanted to give him—I think on the man she would have wanted him to be—and so I do what I can to try to make that happen. It’s tougher work than I planned on. I suppose that when a boy becomes a young man there are deep mysteries and innuendo within him that even other men, grown men, cannot be fully prepared to comprehend. And so far, I’m not batting as well as I would like.
We head out every Friday to the Texaco gas station just a mile or a little more down the road from us. It’s been our habit coming on two years. We figure out a lot of things, me and Poe, when we make these journeys. He tells me about school, his grades that may or may not be good, and what girls he might favor, or he might tell me of a basket he made at the game the night before. He’s a fine ball player. I keep him in stitches, and sometimes amazement, with stories about his mother when she was his age. And just last month I finally told him a few bits and pieces of how she’d died. He’s asked after that story for years because he cannot remember it, hard as he tries, and it’s only lately that I’ve found words to talk about it myself—and even then only for a stretch of moments. I think at times that this gas station can never know what it’s done for two people just trying to survive, one way or another. And it’s not much of a station, the Texaco—just a narrow island with two pumps, unleaded and diesel. The young attendant, Sammy, asks Which way you gonna go? every time a customer pulls in for service, although he’s already got a good guess. He just likes to make sure, he says.
You can buy a soda water and a bag of chips from Sammy, but if you’re hungrier than that you have to move on to Maddie Harper’s cafe a block or so down or, for the essentials, you can drive to the Piggly Wiggly in Baton Rouge. The days are usually bright and hot in Le Jeune, although sometimes it rains, and other times, always to our surprise, it’s so cold we beeline it back to the trailer for a pair of gloves or a forgotten knit cap. But Poe and I are always sure to get to the Texaco every Friday—time enough to buy five dollars’ worth of tickets for Saturday’s state lottery. Let’s face it, you never know when it could be you—and I would really welcome the chance for “it” to be me. Some days are harder than others to scrape together five dollars. There have been a few times it’s all been in change. But this Tuesday I sold a used carburetor to a young man fortunate enough to come into town and break down not far from the junkyard, so there’s even a little money to spare this week. That gas station could be our ship out of Le Jeune.
This Friday is especially warm and sticky, hotter than usual for the time of year. I think this must be why Poe is so quiet when we start out, his face a near blank.
“Weather’s hot, yeah?”
I pat my pants pocket. “Got the money right here. We’ll get outta this town on Abe Lincoln’s back, yet.”
I use this line on Poe when there are clouds in his mood and it’s always worked. History has always been his favorite subject in school and Lincoln is his latest hero because he likes the sound of his name—Abe. It’s simple, he says. But today, his expression doesn’t budge.
“Somethin’ on your mind?”
I admit it: I have come to expect nothing short of light from Poe. He is a happy boy, so I think, comfortable with his young awkwardness even, and I suspect much of that has to do with the love he took from his mother during four years in her care. It’s not like Poe to watch the ground when we walk. Especially on lucky Fridays.
“You jus’ seem different today, is all.”
He stops then and picks up a rock, studying it.
“Weeder, we ain’t white trash, are we?”
What is that feeling, that breath pushing out of me like a sharp surprise? There are days when I learn more about a darker world than I care to.
“Well, Poe, what kinda question is that?”
“Ol’ Garrett there at school says we ain’t got a pot to piss in.”
Garrett Bartley lives in a high tone neighborhood in Le Jeune. His father owns the Bartley Ford Dealership in Baton Rouge and the Bartley family owns a good deal of property here in Le Jeune. Every town has two sides, you know. I used to tell Poe’s grandma a town is like the workings of a mind and a heart at their worst.
“Well, those are some words, that’s for sure.”
“It’s what he said.” He says it more like a challenge than a fact.
“That jus’ ain’t true, Poe. You know that.”
“Garrett says we live in an ol’ stinky junkyard and we ain’t got nothin’ but trash stacked up around us. That makes us trash.”
“No, now that don’t mean … ”
“He says he’s surprised we ain’t got a couch to sit on in the yard there, but where would we put it, so we was facin’ them old cars or them old sinks or stoves?”
“Well, that’s jus’ talk, Poe. Boy ain’t got manners, is all. That Garrett’s runnin’ wild half the time.”
“Ain’t it true, though? Tell me what we got ’sides nothin’.” He throws the rock hard as he can, so hard I hear it spit out of his hand. It travels until I can’t see it anymore. I think, he is getting stronger.
I stand a good three inches over Poe, and looking down into his face, I can see his mother there in his eyes, watching out for hope. He is waiting for the right answer and I don’t have it. I want to tell him that this wrinkled five-dollar bill in my pocket is the golden bridge that will carry us across the line and into the big city. I want to tell him that as soon as I have it, I’ll buy the best house a million dollars can buy. And I’ll send him off to a fine school if he wants. I want to tell him, too, that I love that junkyard. Instead, I turn away from the boy and walk. The Texaco is a big target in the distance and this is the first time I can remember wishing we’d hit by now.
“Well, we’re poor ain’t we, Weeder?” He is like his mother after all, I decide. He just can’t let a bad thing go.
I keep focused on the Texaco.
I stop and consider my next move. “Poe,” I say, without losing sight of that big Red Star, “we are sure poor. Dirt poor, I s’pose. You been knowin’ that a long time.” I start walking and hear him follow behind me. I wish I were still fast. He has the clear advantage at times like these.
“Well, I can’t see there’s much different in poor and white trash.”
I am not a man keen on many things, but I know that there are moments when there is no splendor in the truth. I swallow hard and reach into my pocket. I find the five-dollar bill with my fingers and I think on it, buying time. It feels gritty and useless. I decide to leave it in my pocket. I stop to face Poe.
“I’ve lived in this town all my life. All of it. Your mama’s the only one of us who ever did leave.”
“I know it.”
“I know you do. I’m just tryin’ to tell you that this is our way. I don’t think none of the fine people in this town’re white trash. Jus’ ’cause you’re poor don’t mean you ain’t got pride. That ain’t somethin’ you say about folks. Most ways not yourself.”
“I didn’t say it, Garrett said it. And so did his friends.”
“Well, you can’t carry ev’rything people say to heart, Poe. That’ll knock you down more times’n it’ll pick you up.”
He ponders this. His eyes dart over the ground, looking for reason.
“Poe?” I have no more let the word go than his eyes turn dry with anger.
“Why’re we always goin’ down there to that gas station, anyway? I don’t ever see nobody else walkin’ almost two miles for no lottery ticket that ain’t even gonna win. What’s prideful about that?”
That sharp surprise, again. How did I miss this turn in his life?
Had I been there to explain to Garrett that no, Poe and I are not white trash, we just have less, is all—had I been there to pull Poe behind my back to spare him the glare and menace of growing up with an old man who loves him but half the time can’t put two nickels together—perhaps my grandson would be racing ahead of me now, as he has always done, lucky numbers rattling around in his young mind. Perhaps.
“I didn’t mean that, Weeder,” he finally says, astonished himself, so I imagine.
I stare at Poe, wondering if I know him at all. He looks like someone I recognize but his face is different somehow. His voice isn’t his. “You did mean it, boy. And I guess you got as much right as anyone to be mad.”
“No, sir,” he says, walking now toward the Texaco station.
“You stop right there.”
I hear the breath he takes in, too deep, and I watch his shoulders slump. I reach in my pocket again for the bill. It’s damp with sweat.
“I didn’t mean it,” Poe says, facing me.
“Say what you want but you listen up first. You got a long way to go if you’re jus’ gonna be sorry for yourself. We ain’t got much in the way of things, Poe, but we ain’t no less than anybody else. Not even that boy with a car-sellin’ daddy. I ain’t trash. Never been. And you ain’t trash so you just get past this.”
“I ain’t fightin’ with you.”
“No, you ain’t. You fightin’ with yourself and you fightin’ the world. You ain’t unlike anybody else.”
He looks at me hard. Just then the shadow of a crow races over his face and for one second he disappears in the darkness.
“I know it ain’t easy bein’ with no money, Poe. But this is where we are.”
“I got it, Weeder.”
“So you say. I jus’ figured these Fridays was about more’n buyin’ old tickets. You think I got my heart set on an ol’ lottery ticket? That what you think?”
He says nothing.
“Well, I thought you was smarter’n that.”
“I’m sorry, Weeder. I didn’t … ”
“You ain’t got to say you’re sorry. All you got to do is get right with yourself. Never thought I’d see a day when my own kin took anything a Bartley had to say to heart. They ain’t the end-all, you know.”
“I … ”
“You think if that boy Garrett had any sense he’d be talkin’ like he does? Maybe I’m jus’ an old man, but the way I see it that boy ain’t got a lick’a luck goin’ for him. He’s right on one thing, though. He ain’t nothin’ like you.”
Poe’s face knots like a fist and I see the glint of tears in his eyes. “I get so mad!”
“But you’re mad at the wrong thing.”
He looks away and then comes back to me. “It’s so hard!”
I nod my head so that he knows I agree with him and I stare toward the Texaco station—we’re halfway there. I think then of Sammy, the attendant: Which way you gonna go?
I look at Poe, the character of his face almost a man’s. Now I see it.
It is a time of hard distinctions. I have been glad to love Poe, glad beyond telling. If I could I would lift him over this trouble and set him safely down on the other side of it. I heard someone say on television once that the last frontier is childhood and long after we pass out of that enchantment we are endlessly in search of who we really are, even as pieces of us peel away, lost for good. I don’t know if that is true or not. But I think about Poe, his knack for trust and heartbreak. I wish hard to know the right things to give him, as he will need them. I think now that it’s not so important that I find him a dream—even an unlikely one tucked away in a Texaco station—as much as I should find him a soft place for those times when he will fall.
Danielle Newton works full-time as a grant writer for the El Dorado Union High School District. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from CSU Sacramento and has won a handful of short fiction contests. In 1999 she sold a screenplay to a film company (which will go unnamed) in Hollywood. She considers her greatest accomplishment to be sharing a house with Spyboy, a golden retriever who has been known to steal Twinkies off the kitchen counter.