Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Service Is Our Business

It used to be black as the insides of a Penzoil can
whenever we drove this ten-mile stretch of Highway 25
at night from lit-up Asheville back to our gloomy house
in Arden, no stoplights or streetlights anywhere, nothing.

And there's where (during the day) mom would stop for gas,
a Shell filling station in the curve at the foot of a long hill,
a couple of pumps and a little office and a double bay
over which "Service Is Our Business" shone in red plastic

as the smiling proprietor emerged, wiping his large hands,
looking like Glenn Miller on the 78-rpm records she'd play
(I still have them, maiden initials scratched on each label),
like some veteran still wearing his crisp khaki uniform.

He'd bend to the open window and speak to her, then us,
sun polishing his wire rims, starching his cursive name,
brightening the yellow scallop shell stitched to his chest
and the huge one slowly revolving overhead as he began

hooking the nozzle in the tank (gas rushing behind us),
checking (obscured but heard) the oil and radiator water,
cleaning each window (mom laughing loud through hers),
topping off (when needed) the fluids or the air in tires,

then lowering the heavy hood gently, not slamming it down,
and firmly replacing the gas cap behind the license plate,
and taking her offered bills with a thank-you and half-bow
before watching us drive off, shading his eyes as if saluting.

That was 40 years ago. Gas was 28.2. Now that I'm the age
she was then, I wonder: Who was that guy? A former boyfriend?
A harmless but steady flirtation? And what was she to him—
another nice housewife to flatter, to keep the business going?

Or were they just a couple of decent lonely people
who enjoyed each other's company for a few public minutes
before returning to work and turning up their tinny radios,
longing to hear "In the Mood" or "Moonlight Serenade". ...

That station's long gone. Now it's ten pumps and a mini-mart.
Service was his business. And service was her business, too,
a mother serving children every day for over twenty years
until they were old enough to drive their cars away from her.

I pump my own gas then climb into town past strip mall
after strip mall, this local branch of the Dixie Highway
lifting its newly affluent glare into the lost sky every night.
We used to look up at countless stars. Mom loved "Stardust."

I tidy my parents' graves at the cemetery behind K-Mart.
Dusk lurks. That man with the ovaled name might be here
on this hillside with my mother, just one of many customers
queued up in the darkest dark of all, waiting to be served.

Michael McFee

9:48 AM