I eased my car to a stop by a rusty gas pump and took a big breath. I could relax now and take a moment to catalog my morning of mistakes: first, passing up rows of neon signs that shouted multiple gas opportunities to anyone paying the slightest attention; then, in near panic over the prospect of missing another department meeting, skipping a half dozen exit ramps that surely led to more hopeful roads than the one I finally took; last, after a long half-hour with the fuel light shouting, taking an exit to a road that disappeared into the hardwood forests of North Carolina’s Piedmont, offering little more promise than a few scattered fields of tobacco. I vowed to never let this happen again.
I had decided to try something new. I would bank on faith. A station was going to appear. With an egg-shell touch on the gas pedal, holding my breath like a worried child, I had babied the car through three long miles of unlined two-lane inside a tunnel of trees, certain in spite of my new-found faith that the tunnel would outlast the tank. Now, at a no-name station under a stifling mid-day sun that had turned the sky pasty white, I felt saved. My kind of being saved. More than an hour remained to reach Durham in time for my appointment at three, surely a comfortable margin for a car that would no longer be sucking fumes. I stopped cursing myself for not filling up at the gas arcade, thanked whatever for its possible blessing, and opened the window.
A giant spreading oak at the edge of the station's asphalt shaded my car. Across the blacktop, not thirty feet away, a low-built one-story cross between a home and a gas station crouched at the wrong edge of the oak's canopy. Its tarpaper roof pulsed waves of heat. To the left of a well-holed screen door, a bald-headed old man sat statue-still in an out-of-place plastic deck chair. Rivers of creases lined his forehead, and a thin white beard scragged off his chin and cheeks. With bony fingers laced around the wooden end of an inverted golf club, he seemed stuck in a forward lean that could outlast the narrow, crumbling veranda. His eyes were as motionless as the rest of him.
A heavyset young man appeared at the door and crossed the veranda at a pace to fit the oven heat. With surprising care, he came down the only step and began a labored walk toward my car. Dragging his right foot along the asphalt before barely lifting it off the ground, his step from that side could not match the length of his stride from the other. His hands hung away from his hips as if he were waiting for something significant to happen, like an athlete anxious for the play to begin. When he reached the side of my car, he supported himself by stiffening one arm against the backside window, politely out of my line of sight. I had to twist around to see him. From below, his round, unblemished face seemed as innocent as a shy teenager’s. In spite of its puffiness, it was a handsome face.
"Wha for ya?" the young man asked in a toneless voice, his words spoken to the roof of the car.
"A full tank," I said. "It should take more than fourteen. You can top it off. I want to see how much."
"Yessir," he said without looking down. He practically whispered it.
"Coming down this road was an act of desperation. Can't tell you how relieved I am to find you way out here in the forest."
With the air-conditioner off, the heat quickly became too intense to remain in the car, even in the shade. I got out as the young man rotated himself toward the pump as if he were tethered to a post by a short brace.
"This heat's like being in the bottom of a fish tank," I said. "I bet it's ninety-five in the shade and the humidity's got to be near a hundred. Might as well be India."
"Is…only…reglar…we got." His words lacked the musical rise and fall I had learned to love about Southern speech. "Low…for engine like this'n."
"Gotta take what you have," I said. "Thought I was running out for sure. The needle was an eighth of an inch below empty and the fuel light was on for half an hour. I bet I missed a dozen stations, and then there was nothing. Carolina's funny that way. Lots of everything that's anywhere else and in a blink it looks like you'll never see a sign of life again."
He pulled the nozzle back, drawing a slow circle wide around him. The back of his tee shirt said, "Schlitz, The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous." A sweating brown bottle of cold beer, its icy contents about to pour onto County Stadium’s bright green turf, got me wishing for relief.
"Where'd you get that shirt? Schlitz hasn't been around since the Braves moved to Atlanta. I'm sure it never got all the way down here."
He pointed the nozzle toward the closed door to the gas tank. "I…need ya…t'open that."
I reached into the window and yanked the latch beside the bottom of the door. "Sorry. I'm still thinking about getting stuck out here in all these trees. So many trees."
He looked out over the top of the pump.
"I went to Milwaukee once,” I said. “Had a Schlitz in that ballpark."
"Oh, up North."
He turned toward me. "Y'all… ferget…to fill up there?" A big grin filled his face.
"No more than anywhere else, I hope," I answered with a chuckle. "It's just me. I forget things when I'm in a hurry. Almost paid for it, but you're here, so I got off lucky.
He looked over his shoulder. A second gas pump stood in a sideways tilt at the back end of the asphalt. It was more rust than paint and had no hose or nozzle. Most of the glass was gone, and a tightly knit pattern of bullet holes filled its chest.
"Once Uncle Eno…dint leave nuff time, an' he paid a lot." He did a quarter turn back and gazed again over the top of the car, at the stiff old man called Eno. "There he set…thirty year."
"Really?" I asked.
He nodded in long, thoughtful ups and downs, full of effort.
"Can I get to Durham by 3:00?” I asked. “I have an appointment I can't be late for."
"That’s what I figured. So, maybe an hour?"
With effort the young man twisted away from me, keeping his hand on the nozzle grip, one of those ancient ones lacking a trigger latch. Bending toward the pump, he propped his free arm against it and squinted, seeming to measure the distance to Durham. He turned back scratching an armpit. His shirt there was more hole than material.
"Might could," he said, turning back toward the pump and watching the tenths of gallons creep upward as if studying them mattered. After nearly half a minute, his gaze turned down toward the nozzle, and he concentrated on it in the same way. I knew then for sure that he could only do one thing at a time.
"Uncle Eno's backhoe,” he said, “…it took a month a minutes fer fillin'…ovah there at the Diesel." His arm, thick and round and brown as link sausage, swung rigid as a mechanical gate toward the discarded pump. "Momma say…he nevah hurry….always pay attention…till the bad day. Aftah that….went back to not hurryin'…right quick, they say. Now he still as a cat that's full. Go in fa breakfast…supper… night fall. That's all. Nothin' but."
"Only thirteen nine," he said when the numbers stopped. The cadence of his speech changed as he got into a story he must have known too well. "After he gas, Uncle Eno always went reverse first…to clear the store on his turn'. Backhoe too big. Seat on it can turn clear roun' if you want it to, but he dint. Nary look back. Dint go slow like suppose, and poorly for not lookin'. He still payin'. Settin' an' leanin'…eyes on the spot where he done it. Cain't run anything down…sittin' agin a wall. Thirty year, my momma say. I don't rember. Was a tyke."
The young man returned the nozzle to its slot in the pump. He turned his back to me and faced the spot he was talking about as if he had been there watching whatever had happened thirty years before. I decided that it was mostly the heat that made him move and speak like a lugging car, or I wished it, and I tried not to worry about my appointment. Turning to look at the old man, I noticed that he, too, was staring toward the dead pump, or off to the right of it. I couldn't tell for sure. Something was out there for him.
I drew a twenty from my wallet and extended it toward the young man.
He began rubbing his index fingers with his thumbs.
"Willa Jane behin'. Pullin' at her skirt…stuck in the bike. Chain, probly. Only five. Singin', momma say. Nursey rhyme. Uncle dint see. Might should, but should ain't seein'. Big wheel squashed Willa Jane top to bottom. His only granchile. Momma say she still looked sweet, but that's what she wants ta hold."
The young man turned and took the twenty. I felt sure he was reading its numbers.
"Quite a story. Do you tell it to everyone?"
With his customary carefulness, the young man stuffed the twenty in a pocket of his baggy trousers. Through pursed lips that struggled to hide a wiser smile than the innocent grin that had brightened his face before, he stared at me, eye to eye, as if he understood something he thought still escaped me.
"Not….everyone,” he said. Then he turned and hobbled off. "Have….a good day now."
I looked toward the sagging veranda for a last glimpse at Uncle Eno holding himself up on his inverted golf club, and at the young man walking with an effort that matched his words. I followed the old man's frozen gaze to the spot that had demanded his attention for thirty years and tried to imagine him hurrying, for the first time, at backing up to make the turn in the too-small space. That's all I tried to see. Back in the car, the digital on my dashboard announced that I had only forty-eight minutes to get to the north side of Durham. I cranked up the engine, and with it running, lingered there thinking of the faceless gas stations I had passed, anyone of which would have gotten me to my meeting on time. I saw the more promising turns I didn't take off the big road and the tunnel of trees on the small one I finally tried. I had never expected it to save me, but now it looked like it might. The frozen old man loomed over the asphalt. Then the young one replaced him. I decided that he had stayed with Uncle Eno for quite some time and had as much patience as it would take to remain there for a long time more, and to tell the story of Uncle Eno’s bad day to people like me. I backed out from under the deep, broad shade of the oak and turned onto the two-lane, into the uncompromising sun, without looking back. The digital gave me only forty-five.
Jim Steinberg a writer, mediator, and rose gardener. His work has appeared in The Greensboro Review, The New Renaissance, Sensations Magazine, Cities and Roads, The Bishop's House Review, and Voices From Home - A North Carolina Prose Anthology. He is currently working on Ben And Sydney, his first novel, the story of a lawyer and a client in an unusual interstate custody case. He has been a lawyer, middle school teacher of English and Social Studies, legal instructor and program director in community college, blacksmith, and gardener. He has lived Beyond The Redwood Curtain in beautiful Humboldt County, California, close to his son, grand daughter, and step kids. He is a Fellow of the Redwood Writers Project of Humboldt State University and a staff member of the Lost Coast Writers Retreat, a five day gathering of writers, teachers, and presenters on the lovely, remote Mattole River near Petrolia, California and an empty, spectacular stretch of the Pacific Ocean.
He wrote “Uncle Eno’s Bad Day” in North Carolina, where he lived from 1992 through 2001. Jim says “Uncle Eno’s Bad Day” is a testament to his warmth for the sweetness of the South.