Written by Bill Vernon
Art by Atefe Maleki Joo
As I started dragging the hose, a woman appeared and handed Bill a cup on a saucer. “With cream and sugar,” she said. “Just the way you like it.” A pretty lady about Bill’s age wearing lipstick, rouge, dress, sweater and flowery apron.
I inserted the nozzle into the tank by her house and let the fuel oil flow. She led Bill inside and closed the door.
Just how well did they know each other? I listened to the liquid pouring. Many women customers invited Bill into their home, but this lady’s coffee suggested a closer association, you might say, than he had with the others.
When the gurgling changed its tune, signifying an overflow was near, I turned off, reeled in, printed the bill, took it to the lady, then sat in the cab and waited. After 15 minutes, Bill returned nonchalantly, started the engine, and stuffed the new check with the others in the open black satchel hung on the dashboard.
I looked over at him. “That took a long time.”
He shrugged. “I had trouble getting away from her.”
“She seemed real friendly.” I watched for a smile that might give something away.
He backed onto the road and started toward Goshen. “Yeah, but she always offers me something fattening, like today, a slice of cherry pie with a gob of ice cream.”
“I bet some of your women customers give you more than that.”
“Oh, yeah. Cookies, cake, usually something sweet.”
“And your wife doesn’t mind?”
“Mary?” He glanced over at me, then shook his head. “You sure have a dirty mind.”
Then he clammed up, which was unusual. Maybe he was mad. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Sure you did.” He smiled. “I remember how a boy’s mind works at your age. Let me tell you something. That lady’s stuck alone all day in that big old house with nothing to do but clean it. She had a miscarriage and said she can’t have a baby and her husband won’t adopt. What should I tell her? Huh? She’s very unhappy.”
I stared out at the farm lane we turned onto, cows in the field chewing their cuds, watching us go by. “I guess she ought to do something.”
“Hey, you’re smarter than you look!” He slapped my leg. “Everybody has to do something to be proud of. Women like her are caught in a funny kind of limbo.”
I couldn’t blame the housewives for coming onto Bill. Peripheral vision allowed me to study him as we circled around the barnyard to a gasoline tank set off beside a holding pen away from the buildings. He was handsome and his friendliness seemed honest, not as if he were setting you up to get something. Still, would Bill engage in extracurricular sex?
This was my third Saturday working for him, and last week I’d satisfied my suspicions about his interest in me. We were just neighborhood acquaintances before my father died, but right afterwards he’d asked me to work for him for the outrageous salary of $20 for an 8-hour day. The minimum wage was $1 per hour. Two years ago I’d made just 60 cents per hour selling shoes at Kunkle’s. I was afraid he saw me as a charity case. Last week I realized that my work set him free to talk to his customers, like this lady today. He liked people. That was all.
I dragged the hose to the tank, Bill switched the feed to the gasoline delivery valve, and I said, “I bet you’d have to use the ladder to reach this one. It’s on a little rise.”
He stood by the 150-gallon tank. “I’ll take that bet. How much?”
“Better be easy on yourself. A dollar.”
He crouched down, then flat-footed, without a run, leaped almost chest high to insert the toes of his heavy, oil-stained boots between the top strut of the scaffold and the tank, grabbed the scaffold’s side bar, and raised up reaching back for the hose with his other hand. He said, “You lose,” and standing on the metal rung, wrapped himself around the side of the tank, switched his grip to the lidded fill pipe on top, inserted the nozzle, and turned on the liquid. Very acrobatic. I’d seen him do it on other tanks and still couldn’t believe it.
I said, “Everyone else would have to climb a ladder to get up there.” I’d tried leaping onto a tank myself and couldn’t get close.
“I always could jump,” he told me. “Plus I pole vaulted in high school.”
He stayed up there until the tank filled, handed the nozzle down to me and dropped off the scaffold. I turned on the spool and reeled in the hose. He printed the farmer’s bill, separated the pink, blue and yellow copies, handed me the yellow one and said to stick it head high between the side door and the door frame. The other copies were for his office and Standard Oil.
When I returned from the farmhouse, he said, “You got me thinking about the women. They’re basically lonely. I’ll let you in on something. Sometimes I feel like I’m one of them.”
“You do?” I grinned. It was a weird comment.
“I had breast cancer in the 40s.”
“Oh? I thought only women got that.”
He shook his head. “Men too. I was never so afraid, but I was lucky. Army surgeons saved me. Look here.”
He raised his shirttail to his shoulders and revealed an ugly semicircular scar around his right breast.
He stuffed his shirt back under his trousers. “That experience made me realize how vulnerable women are and how we men have it made.”
It convinced me that Bill was true to his wife Mary. It also made me feel guilty about a secret I kept from Bill. Mary was pretty and would lie in the sun for hours on a lounge in their yard, wearing a modest bikini that was daring in those days. Face down, she’d unhook the bra so its snaps dangled at her sides. Straining our eyes, we neighborhood boys passed by much more often than necessary. Mary was one of the sirens tempting us from the rocky shore of our adolescence. Maybe I was dirty minded like he said.
Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances. His poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN in 2005. Current publications include stories in bioStories, Bordercrossing, Crunchable, Infinite Press, The Glass Coin, Loose Leaf Tea, Gravel Magazine, Wednesday Night Writes, and Elohi Gadugi Journal.
(Updated Mar. 2014)
Born in 1977, Atefe Maleki Joo, is an Iranian illustrator. She has illustrated several children’s books and she also works for a number of children’s magazines. She has won several national and international awards, including the 16th Noma Concours for Picture Book Illustrations, 2008, and 4th CJ Picture Book, Korea.
(Updated Mar. 2014)