You hope not to hear voices from On High. You hope so long you forget about it. And then it happens one night as you're filling up your white Aerostar. You stand frozen in the island of fluorescent light, in the middle of the sleeping town, watching the edges of the night's shapes get sharp and glittery. You will remember a Chevron, of all things.
"Sir? This is the cashier."
Aha, jackass! He turns and looks across the parking lot at me, back-lit in my stucco display case.
"Sir, that pump's out of order. Can you pull forward to pump one?"
Still working on the intercom concept. "H-? Uh... O! K!"
He gets into the van and slinks it forward. Peoples' cars have a body language. His says indignation.
Maybe he'd rather he was being called home. No one likes talking to me. There are credit card machines on the pumps - I am meant to be a formality.
I am a nun in a no-scratch belt, devoted to all things automotive. I serve Our Lady of Holy Petroleum. I was the child on the Southern California freeway sign, flying out behind my mother as we darted across the lanes of cars. I reassemble the wreckage left behind when the accidents are cleared away and make art installations for high school driver's ed teachers.
A woman said it was my fault the nozzle jumped out of her gas tank, spilling a puddle on the concrete. Maybe it was. She boiled as I spread the sawdust over it, insisting she not move her car.
If I say there's no gas, that's it.
It's not so much the sudden authority that gives me this thrill when a pump goes down. It's the other stuff. The transformation. If I am a nun, the out of order pump is the apocalypse. The red hood over the nozzle is the funeral rite of our savior and now, in chaos, I can finally do what I am destined to. I herd the blessed. I am ready to press the big red Emergency Pump Shut-off button and dodge behind the car wash.
I make seven bucks an hour. Minimum wage is five. I'm told the extra is hazard pay. I'm told that, following police and firemen, gas station employees are the job class with the highest fatality rate.
I am ready for the red button. I am shepherding the minivans. I am earning my two bucks.
The pumps, a tiny oasis of industrial ambivalence on the main artery of this suburbia, look upset. The red bag seems to pulse, bringing attention to itself and the fact that something is not as it should be. The parking lot is clean. No cars pass. But there in the corona of my sterile domain is that aberration.
Rhonda has been called. She hasn't called back. There's a chain of command. I call and hear nothing for hours, then a man in a Chevron truck who looks as fresh as Sunday brunch pulls up, crawls through the giant hole in the parking lot that leads to the tanks, and fixes the problem. They don't tell me the problem, but the procedure is the same no matter what. A red hood over the face of the doomed nozzle, call the manager, wait. Be ready with the red button.
In back, between the shelves of candybar overflow and past the stacks of flattened cardboard beer cases, there's a surreally high tech panel. Amidst the chaos of the stock room it's like something out of Blade Runner. Its interface is limited without certain privileges of access which, of course, the teenage cashier does not have. But it will willingly print out a simple status report for each pump to anyone who asks. I do this. It tells me nothing. Corporate secrets, encoded.
The man in the Chevron truck appears shortly. So happy. So evasive. I shut the pumps off. He climbs down into our chemical oubliette.
Hot on his heels is a harried Rhonda, her pitiful battered pick-up clanking into the parking lot and making the doors swoosh. She glares at my print out. As though I understood it. She confiscates it and slams into the back room to kneel before the mysterious diagnostic panel.
In hindsight, I get the binder out and lay it on the counter, open to the relevant page.
She runs back out. She gives me a look that says now I do something. I place my hands flat on the counter, my feet together, my back straight.
"Is he in the tank?" She points toward the empty Chevron truck.
"Are the pumps off?"
"Then go bag them!" She wheels around and stalks back to the office.
I get the bags and head out into the crickety night. No one's coming. He'll be done before I even get the bags on, most likely. But Rhonda has a three ring bible of her own.
He pops out of the ground, brushing off his knees like something out of a safety video. Without acknowledging me, he struts toward the feeble glow of the store and disappears into the back. I stand in the middle of the pump island, all but one pump bagged. He returns moments later, hopping into his truck with a buoyance that, at this hour, is simply creepy. Rhonda's ten feet behind him.
"I'm turning 'em back on. You can take the bags off!" she yells across the parking lot.
I bring my impotent handful of plastic hoods inside and stow them again in the back. Rhonda is locking the office, leaving. She has not noticed my binder. She mutters a quick "Thanks" as she steps through the automatic doors, not to me but to the Chevron logo on the floor mat. And her truck rattles off and once more my view of the pumps is silence and symmetry.
Toward four in the morning another minivan comes in. He does not choose pump three. Now that it's fixed, it's a safe bet no one will use it all night.
He spins his head around, looking for angels or ghosts.
"Sir? You need to put out your cigarette."