It was just past nine at night and he was tired; today had been a double-shift, and Eric’s feet and calves burned from standing at the register. Cheek on forearm, he felt the uncomfortable chilled stickiness of his own skin, moistened by the humidity but also cooled by the air conditioning. Still hot outside, the soup of late summer, and here he was thinking about finding a sweatshirt to put on. Typical for this place. His eyes burned with dry, cool fatigue. He had his third Dr. Pepper open beside him. This last year, since he’d gotten serious about his grades and the idea of going to college, his life was a cycle of caffeine, homework, and work, caffeine, homework, and work. He wanted home, dinner, TV, instead. Just home, dinner, TV, and sleep.
After a minute with his head down on his arms, Eric peeked up between strands of his own dark hair and looked at his monitor’s readout. Outside, the temperature was holding at a hundred degrees. He closed his eyes again. All day he’d been watching people wander into the station from the pumps under the weight of the dense humidity, only to be zapped by the air-conditioning the moment they yanked open the door and crossed the threshold and started shopping for donuts and wiper fluid and whatnot. For some reason BP thought they needed to keep their stations at 66 degrees no matter what; once or twice, Eric had even thought it was maybe a way to make the customers bow down to the awesome power of big energy and climate control and buy more gas because of it, as though the ideas all worked together properly. You trust the company with the most air conditioning. Energy…everything was about energy. Newton’s. Activation energy. Kinetic energy. All the stuff he’d been reading. His physics book was in his backpack in the nook near his feet; he hadn’t come close to cracking it today, even though school was only a couple weeks away and he wasn’t yet finished with his summer homework. Energy. When anything falls it accelerates at thirty-two feet per second per second. He kept his eyes closed. Thirty-two feet per second per second…
Eric’s head snapped up and he had to reach forward and grab the counter to get his balance. He looked out through the front windows and yawned; there were no cars at the pumps, but there was a white sedan on its way into the carwash. He glanced at his monitor and saw the driver, a young woman, had paid for a manual wash, not the auto. She’d fed bills into the machine. He picked up his Dr. Pepper, sipped, considered, and then clicked on the camera inside the carwash. Always good to watch people try to wash their cars manually. There was something about it; it was just good TV. Some were experts and masters of efficiency. Others were less reliable. Once he’d seen a customer lose control of the long power-washing wand and have to run away, very fast.
The wand was the big wildcard. It was about a meter long and had a trigger-grip on it that sometimes stuck. It didn’t make much difference so long as you kept a hold of it. If you pulled at it, really pinched the mechanism between two fingers and pulled, you could turn it off. But the man who’d lost control had gotten the trigger stuck and had then dropped the wand while shaking it; the result was a whipping hose and violent laser of water loosed inside the small structure, something straight out of a cartoon, one long head and neck of a trapped, thrashing water hydra set loose upon the mortal human world. Eric’s boss Hubert had to go inside and do battle with the wild beast that day; Eric and Carl, who’d both been at the front counter, laughed themselves to tears watching the fat man grabbing at the thing, trying to snatch it to disengage the stream. Eventually he managed to do it. He gave the customer a free wash token as an apology. Then Hubert came back inside, drenched and a little bit thoughtful. After absorbing Eric and Carl’s laughter, just standing in front of them with his hands in his pockets, dripping, he finally said, “Laugh all you want, boys. Some day you’ll be tested, too.” That just made them laugh more.
Eric smiled at the memory of Hubert making his proclamation, finished his Dr. Pepper, watched the lady get out of her car. He hadn’t seen it on the other monitor, but there was a child in the back seat of the white sedan, and now the mother pulled the little girl out. Eric saw that the mom was madder than hell; she brought the girl out by the arm and now began yelling at her. The girl stood up against the wall with her head down, neither crying nor doing much to acknowledge her mother’s attacks. She was in a pair of little jean shorts and a white top; it took a moment of squinting at the monitor, but Eric realized the reason for the mother’s anger was right there in front of his eyes. The woman pointed a few times toward the girl’s crotch and Eric could see that the little girl had peed in her pants.
The yelling suddenly looked to be over with. The mother turned to the wall and examined the available tools of car-cleaning: big vacuum hose, the busted power-wash wand, and a few different kinds of soap. When the woman turned in profile to the camera, Eric saw she was pregnant. She was young, too—no more than 20 or 21, just a couple years older than him. She had dark hair pulled back in a greasy ponytail and was wearing an outfit a lot like her daughter’s; her jean shorts were a little longer, but the outfits were very clearly building off the same general concept. Eric had always found it a little strange to see parents dress their kids up in their own image; he’d always thought, Jesus Christ, they’re already dressed in the same face, hair, body, mind and soul. Don’t make them wear the same shirt, too.
The woman had the power-washer out, ready to start on the car. Eric yawned again and looked down at his bag. He’d do a little homework in a second, he decided. Just a few problems. There would probably be a test the first day of class, the teacher just making sure they’d done what they’d supposed to do. It would be easy. The mother was still talking to the little girl. The little girl said nothing in response, just looked down at her shoes. The mother shook her head. The girl stood still. The mother pointed the spray-wand at her daughter. Eric didn’t quite understand this development, tilted his head at the screen. The woman pulled the trigger and began to spray the little girl down.
There it was. The girl danced, screamed, cried as the beam of water struck her small body. Only about ten seconds, and before Eric even began to think about the broken trigger, to worry how it might make things even worse, the mother disengaged the water and stood before her dripping girl.
She said something. The girl was crying, head down. Eric felt his heart pounding. The thing, he thought, could peel the paint off a car if it was flaking badly, and this woman had just used it to teach her daughter a lesson. What kind of crazy bitch would do that? The size of it, the import of what she’d done to the girl, grew in his mind as he watched. This was not a garden hose. It hurt. It must have hurt.
Eric looked up, looked around the room, looked at the phone, thought about calling Hubert. Maybe the cops. Maybe his parents.
After a moment, he found himself looking at the cooler across the floor and at all the milks lined up inside. He looked back at the monitor; the woman wasn’t washing her car. The little girl was climbing back through the door. That was the whole task. Spray the girl. Didn’t even bother to actually wash the car. The mother waited until she was inside, waited for the girl to click her seatbelt into place, said one more word, then closed the door. Eric just watched.
He could see the car through the front windows as it crept slowly from the carwash garage to the gas pumps. He watched as the woman pulled up alongside #4 and again cut the engine. Eric thought: you fucking bitch. How could you have just done that? How did you make that choice? Because it took some imagining. His heart rate was going up, not down; he wasn’t tired anymore, and he wasn’t relaxing now that it was over. He was full of adrenaline, actually. The police, of course. This incident warranted police, there was no doubt. That was abuse and he had the video. He’d call the police. She’d go to jail. In a sudden frenzy he leaned over the counter, saw the plate number, scribbled it down on the pad beside the register. Jail. There she’d be. A year behind bars for what he just saw. She’d think about her choices in there. Meanwhile, the girl...
The mother was climbing from the car when another idea occurred to him. This could be more direct, more satisfying; he could shut down #4. He could shut down all the pumps. Fuck her. Yes, she would be able to go across the highway to the Mobil station and fill up, but at least then he would have done something to tell her that he did not condone her use of his carwash, didn’t condone what she’d done inside of it. There was a person inside of her, he’d seen, and it wasn’t okay. There will be no spraying of children in my gas station, Eric thought. Don’t ever come back here again or I’ll do the same.
He turned to the controls. It would be easy to shut it down. He watched her—she was adjusting the nozzle inside of the car. He would have to do it now, as she was lifting the lever. Eric watched her. She began to pump the gas.
What would the police do? Probably nothing. They probably wouldn’t even come out. Yes, he had the video, but they probably wouldn’t even come out. And turning off the gas meant nothing. She’d always be able to get gas. Also, it wasn’t his gas station. It was Hubert’s. And it wasn’t even Hubert’s, not really.
More than anything, he just felt the urge to say something, to note, to make sure this woman knew that people observed these things. That was the important feeling. One day it would all catch up to her without him playing God. All he had to do was remind her. On top of that, the little girl didn’t deserve punishment of that order.
He’d peed in his pants a few times. Of course he had. He could remember standing in his front yard, wearing a pair of sweat pants, looking at cars, then just deciding to pee, like that was the natural thing to do when you saw a yellow Volkswagen go by and were holding a kickball. Just pee. Let loose, stand there, feel it on your leg. Kids didn’t know. They just did things. He had to go out and say something to her. Because she was a kid, too, in her way. She wasn’t much older. So maybe she didn’t know. He wouldn’t be cruel about it, he’d just say, “Look, Ma’am, I saw that, and you shouldn’t do that to her. It was an accident. Think about it.” Then he’d go inside.
Eric took his hand off of the pump control, then absently picked up his empty bottle of Dr. Pepper and brought it to his lips. He was thinking of a boy from his old elementary school, a boy he’d known named Shaun Marino. That kid—that kid had pissed in his pants all the time. Not when he was tiny, standing in his yard, either. Up until about seventh grade. Right there at his desk, everyone knew it was happening, all the way up until the pool formed down by his feet and he raised his hand and asked the teacher permission to go to the bathroom while everybody was totally freaking out with laughter. It was almost a riot that day in class, Shaun sitting there quietly with his hand up.
Eric glanced down at the controls. She had thirty dollars worth of gas already. Her car was probably close to full. She’d swiped her card already, so she wouldn’t be coming inside to pay. Juliet. Juliet R. Downs. Eric wondered why she hadn’t done the gas first, then the wash. Probably anxious to prove to her girl that she’d meant the threat, she wanted to make sure her daughter understood she wasn’t full of hot air, not this time. Juliet Downs, Eric thought. Where’s the father? Sitting at home, waiting? Eric wondered whether he’d be the kind of father upset about what she’d done to discipline the girl or the kind of father who would laugh when she reported it. The two of them would laugh together in bed. Listen to this. I really taught her a lesson. Then again, maybe there was no father.
He wouldn’t say anything, but he would bring the little girl an ice cream bar from the freezer near the door. Really subtle. That way, the mom would probably get it, but it wouldn’t have to be this big confrontation, it wouldn’t have to be anything but a message he sent to her: somebody’s watching. This girl deserves an ice cream bar after what you did. He’d give her a look. He saw that she’d finished pumping the gas, and she was hanging up the pump. He came out from behind the counter and went to the freezer with all the ice cream treats. He opened the glass case, pushed a few bars around, decided on an ice cream Snickers. He loved them. Everyone loved them. The girl would like that. He let the top close. He looked up just in time to see, through the window, the mother driving away.
He was restless for the last hour of his shift. He ate the Snickers and worked on some gravity problems. A few customers came through. About fifteen minutes before he was done, he went outside, just to get a taste of the temperature. It was like going through a portal. He couldn’t believe how hot it was, still. The sun had been gone for two hours and the heat still sunk into him, pushed him down toward the warm concrete. There were Junebugs out. He stood with his hands in his pockets and watched a couple kamikaze right into the glass windows.
Carl was the next shift, the overnight shift. He was twenty-five, and really, Carl was a big dirtball. Right before ten o’clock, Eric went into the computer, clicked on the nine to nine-thirty file, and deleted the video. Best to have it gone. Best to have it out of the universe. He absolutely didn’t want Carl seeing the video of the mother and girl. Sometimes Carl did that when he was bored—he went back and just watched. But if Carl saw it—if Carl saw it, he’d laugh his ass off. There would be something wrong with that. He might even send it to his friends, or worse, put it up on the internet. To him it would be a big joke. He wouldn’t be able to realize that something significant had happened.
Of course Carl was fifteen minutes late. He found Eric asleep on his physics book. He ribbed him a little for it as Eric packed up his things. Eric ignored him. Carl was always that way. Crass and loud. An anti-intellectual. Basically a thoughtless person. In Eric’s eyes, Carl had never had the proper appreciation for learning.
© Patrick Somerville 2009
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Patrick Somerville 's first book of stories, Trouble, was published in September of 2006 (Vintage) and named 2006's Best Book by a Chicago Author by Time Out Chicago. His writing has appeared in One Story, Epoch, GQ, Esquire, and Best American Nonrequired Reading, and his first novel, The Cradle, is out March 2009 from Little, Brown. Right now he's serving as the Simon Blattner Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Northwestern University.
See also the author’s short story The Cold War from issue 57
Author website: www.patricksomerville.com
Book ordering for The Cradle at Amazon.com