Jan/Feb 2014  •   Fiction

The Lady with the Red Van

by Lou Gaglia

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

Some guy with a televangelical smile and a red face leaned onto my gas station counter and requested a book of matches. I hesitated, having expected something more important, and slid the matches over to him.

"You know," he said, taking them up. "There's a law now against giving away free books of matches at stores."

"Oh," I said and stared at him, wondering if he was some undercover cop, but no. He smiled like a preacher.

"But then, where would a guy ever get matches," he asked, titling his head, "if they're not for free anymore?"

"Maybe the supermarket," I said. "Or maybe a guy could just look on the internet and do a search on where to buy matches."

He chuckled. "Or maybe a guy could do a search on how to get matches for free anyway." He squinted one eye at me and nodded his head like he'd made a point, and I faked a smile. He was about to say something else, but the bell on top of the door rang, and a middle-aged lady stuck only her head inside.

"You know, you didn't have come in here and take your sweet time!"

I thought it was the televangelist's wife because he heaved a big sigh, stuck his lower jaw ahead of his upper, and showed his bottom teeth.

"Lady... there are 11 pumps out there, all empty."

She came all the way inside and stood near the door. "You could have pulled up, you know. You left me no room."

"Holy crap, lady," said the preacher, giving her a wild look. "Eleven empty pumps."

"That's not the point."

"It is the point."

"You could still move up," she said, and stormed out.

The preacher stared at me wide-eyed. "You know, maybe I'll use these matches on her. Maybe I will."

As he strode away, I casually suggested lighting up ladies at gas stations wasn't cool. He smiled back at me as he swung open the door and headed for Pumps 11 and 12, where I watched him smirk at her and look her up and down while she waited, arms folded, for him to pump his gas.

He didn't grace the gas station with his presence again, at least not while I patrolled the register, but the middle-aged lady with the enormous hairdo continued to show up. I recognized her red van in the left turn lane a few times, and each time, sometimes twice in one day, she hurried to turn into her spot at Pump 11, and didn't even move up naturally to Pump 12 when the coast was clear ahead of her. It was Pump 11 all the way or bust.

Once, when someone beat her to Pump 11, she tore around the car and screeched to a stop long enough to glare at a big guy who was easing himself out on the driver's side with no idea he was being threatened by knit eyebrows. I laughed, so it became part of my 9 A.M. routine to watch her furious race to Pump 11.

One morning the match issue resurfaced when a skinny guy with yellow teeth and an unshaved face asked me for a book.

"What book?" I asked.

"Book-a-matches. Waddaya think?" he said.

"Oh. Matches... well, they're not free no more," I said. "They have boxes of them in the aisle there."

"What do you mean they ain't free? I been coming here for years, years (I'd never seen the guy), pal."

"Well, there's a new law—"

"I don't care about any damn new law. This is America, isn't it? I want a book of matches, toot sweet."

His face was all red, and so I drifted to where my ping pong paddle rested under the counter. When a guy that scraggly says "toot sweet" to you, you get your back up and your heart races a little.

"I want an answer, Punk," he went on.

The word "punk" made my belly shiver with adrenaline. "Bunk" or "junk" wouldn't have had any effect on me in the least, and "thunk" would have made me look around for what fell, but at the word "punk" I examined his forehead for a soft place to whack with my paddle if he got too close.

Over his shoulder I saw the lady's red van had pulled up to Pump 11, except some pick-up truck was in front of her at 12, so she had to angle her van to get the hose to reach. I shrugged to the unshaved face.

"I can maybe give you a light if you want."

"I don't want a damn light, one damn light. I want a book of matches, for free. Told you that. I told you already what I wanted."

Then a guy with a bushy white beard and wearing khakis, who'd been sitting at the lone table near the window having coffee, spoke up.

"Hey, it ain't his fault. It's the companies that sell lighters and are in bed with the whole state. They have conspired to manipulate the fire industry for their own profits and won't allow a struck match without it costing us taxpayers our hard-earned money which we have made off the sweat of our brows." This guy was talking slow and calm, and his voice was deep and gravelly, and his wispy beard made little jutting waves as he talked. The match nut frowned impatiently, and he glanced over like he wanted to get back to threatening me, but the guy in khakis went on after taking a short sip of coffee.

"It is our sworn resolve, then, to be kind and neighborly to each other, not always blindly obey the higher-ups in the upper echelons of society who want to control us and our matches. So, my friend, even though it cramps up your style to purchase some needed matches at a discount store, it is not the fault of this here fellow who is just scraping by at a gas station job. And you, my friend," he went on to me, "even though it is against the law, it wouldn't be any skin off of your considerable nose to give this here fellow a simple and free book of matches just this one time out of the kindness of your heart, for him to take and share with the bosoms of his family in his own home sweet home."

He stopped to sip at his coffee, and I fingered the paddle and looked for a soft spot on his forehead, too. Then in walked that lady, the bell over the door ringing behind her. Her mini-van was still at Pump 11, parked all crooked.

"Is that someone's truck out there?" she asked all three of us.

"It is the truck of yours truly," said the guy in khakis.

"You know, you didn't have to park so I can't pump my own gas."

"Well, that is neither hither nor thither, Mam," began the man, taking another sip.

"Oh, don't thither me. You are sitting here in cold blood having coffee while parked at a pump where honest people are trying to get their gas."

"Lady, it would behoove you to understand a man can park wherever he likes at this station because there are 12 pumps out there and no cars hardly never come in. Why don't you take your keys and get in your car and drive around to one of those empty pumps?"

The man who wanted free matches had been looking down at his feet, but he growled and stomped out like he couldn't take any more.

"You have interrupted my morning coffee in front of my favorite window, Mam," continued the man with his wispy beard, "and you are worrying me over a gas pump, while in other countries—Hawai'i, for instance—children are starving, and in some cities like California there is rioting in the streets and dogs roam around naked. It don't take no genius to figure out there are more important matters than your difficulties with my truck's parked position. So it behooves me to tell you—"

"Could you just move your car up," the woman said, biting on her full row of nails.

"I will take that request into consideration, Madame, but first—"

"Because you're really making me nervous—"

"First... like I'm trying to tell you, I will have to finish my coffee here and maybe have a crumb cake or two."

"Could you please stop talking and move that truck?"

I sat down on a red stool, away from the cash register, and watched her bite down on her nails.

"Well... " began the man in khakis, but she turned and burst out the door the same way the unshaved face had. Then she waited in front of her car for a while before getting into the driver's seat and gripping the wheel. The man in khakis continued to sip his coffee and then bought a crumb cake, and the lady sat there for another half hour while the man ate and drank a refilled cup. Some customers came in, and one of them asked for matches but only sighed when I told him about the new state law. Finally, the man in khakis left, but he edged his truck forward only little by little while she moved up, too, herky and jerky—letting out a murderous scream at one point—until I almost couldn't take it anymore myself and started outside. At last, though, he pulled away at normal speed and exited into traffic, and she hurried to pull up and straighten out so she could back up properly to her pump, but someone in a Corvette beat her there. She screamed out the window like a horror movie extra to a young woman sitting behind the Corvette's wheel, and then she peeled out of the station.

The next morning the man in khakis was back, his truck parked at Pump 5 this time. He sipped at his coffee and ate crumb cake and said nothing, and at nine o'clock the red van pulled alongside Pump 11. She hurried to pump gas and left, but she'd only been there a minute or two so I walked outside to check the pump. Two dollars showed. When I got back inside, I thought for a long time about asking the man in khakis what he thought, but I was quiet while he looked out the window and seemed to laugh.

At around 8:30 the next A.M., I grabbed two orange cones from the back and placed them in front of Pump 11. The man in khakis, parked at Pump 2, had just poured coffee when I returned. He sighed and sat down and sipped, and I waited. After nine I saw her red van pull into the turn lane and slow down hesitantly before turning into the station. The van idled in front of the first cone, and she sat with her forehead on the steering wheel for a good five minutes.

"She ain't leaving," coughed the man in khakis. "She'll stay there all day because she has a mission in life and this is it."

"How do you know?" I asked him.

"People are starving in Canada, you know, and this woman is making pumping a little gas her mission in life. It's a little like that guy the other day who wanted to kill you because of the matches."

"Kill me? No, he was just mad."

"He was mad you had put a crimp in his life, for no apparent reason except for some random law, but he was prevented from taking your life away because I was sitting here whilst he went off the deepest of ends."

"Well, maybe he would have killed you too, then."

"I am hard to kill, my friend, so that is highly doubtful, because I have a large belly and big old beefy arms, and so it would be hard to stab me through and through, but that guy would have drove a knife into you easy—like butter on popcorn and no problem—and then just strolled on out, if not for me sitting here and taking up precious space at this lonely table."

I pointed a rigid finger at him. "You need to leave."

"So the next time a guy asks you for matches, just give him his precious accoutrements, so you can make it home in one piece into the bosoms of your loved ones... "

"I'm calling my boss. You need to go," I said, and hurried outside. The lady in the van at Pump 11 was resting her cheek on the steering wheel, her arms at her sides.

"Lady," I said, "this was out of service, but it's okay now. Pull right up." I took the cones away and watched her trembling hands on the wheel as she pulled up, and then I stood nearby while she tried to slide her shaky credit card into the pump's slot. "It's all right," I found myself saying to her two or three times.

"There's all kinds of people in the world," philosophized the man as soon as I stepped back inside, and I rolled my eyes and frowned my way behind the counter. "Everyone's a nut about something or other." He sipped at his coffee. "A lot of people in the Andes Mountains, for instance, don't even know which end is up—"

"What people? What the hell are you talking about?" I sputtered and spotted the woman making her way toward the door.

"I'm talking about people everywhere... executives in banks, for instance... shed architects... erosion surveyors... corn syrup makers... scarecrow stuffers... sword swallowers... as well as other people from all walks of life," he concluded, and I pinched at the space between my eyes.

The bell rang above the door, and the woman entered.

"Could you put those cones down at my pump again tomorrow, about nine o'clock?" she asked me from the door, and I nodded automatically with a horrified, sidelong glance. She swung open the door and walked out, but then poked her head back in. "But could you move them up a little? Maybe about six inches, okay? Then my hose could be perfectly in line, and my spout could go straight into that, you know, hole in the tank."