Maybe it’s post-bad-date heartache. Maybe it’s because you’re sitting in a burgundy convertible, a vintage ‘67 Mustang, top down, parked in the gas station’s only handicapped spot, June bugs butting the red and yellow Kangaroo sign above. Because it’s minutes until midnight. Because it’s only you and the pencil-necked attendant who watches you through the glass, sneering.
Maybe it’s because you want to call your ex-wife, call your daughter, call your son, despite the late hour, or because you’d like them each to call you. Because a few days ago, not even aware that they both were still attending the local university, you saw your children, twins, both walk on a public broadcast replay of their recent graduation ceremony. And here’s one from decades ago that scoots in rather randomly: Maybe it’s because the only family pet, a feisty Dotson that ripped apart a hornet nest in the copse behind your house, died yelping in your children’s laps, head swollen like an eggplant. Maybe it’s because, while driving around town searching for a vet, you told the dog to shut the fuck up and your ex-wife mistook the comment as being directed toward your crying son and daughter. Or maybe it’s because your date tonight told you that your new convertible looks like an eggplant. Because you met her on a senior internet dating site “made easy, just for old folks like you!” called “Young at Heart, Old to Start.”
Whatever the reason, you’ve decided to pull over, a detour on the way back to your brick split level just across the Florida border, to sit at this deserted gas station, an oasis of light in these South Georgia backwoods.
The Kangaroo employee continues to stare, flexes his forehead so his unibrow does the V. If he only knew you when you were around his age, the most vicious grade-school bully anyone ever met in Nassau County. You also had the hairiest arms, even at thirteen, like the back of Landon’s hands in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Once, your grandfather came at you with the thin black hairs caught in his beard clipper’s teeth and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Then, maybe feeling guilty about scolding you into further self-consciousness, “You’re too young to be caring about a little hair on your arms and chest, and anyways, the hairier the better, once the girls start noticing.”
One time, in tenth grade, you resorted to your mother’s medicine cabinet, an expired bottle of Nair, but your peers only ridiculed you more. You cranked this kid’s neck in a headlock so fervently that something snapped under your clean forearm. You let the victim go and he flopped to the ground. You thought of the displacement of vital bones, snapped spinal nerves, ground vertebrae, hangman’s fracture. You imagined yourself responsible for paralysis, or at least the twerp stumbling around in a halo brace, for endless hospital bills, for litigation that called your mother, your father, your grandfather to court on gray mornings. You thought of a future behind bars, bunking with men who admired you for your hairiness, guards who called you names like your peers in high school did (wolfman, dogboy, the human wig), but in tones suggesting sincere awe, empathy, even gratitude that you act so reasonably despite your grooming. But then the twerp sat up and rubbed the gold hairs on his nape and said, “You might have a bright future as a chiropractor.”
But you didn’t get a Ph.D. You never locked another kid’s neck in your arms. You married young, had children who were gloomy and distant, divorced before they reached high school. You left them alone once they were old enough for college educations, hardly spoke to them at all by the time they were both pursuing their third degrees. Never bought another dog after the Dotson. What was its name? Sally? You just had your third and last date with a Thomasville woman who wore coral lipstick to match her blouse and shoes, someone who said you pushed the gas pedal of an eggplant.
Now, the Kangaroo attendant shakes his head and trudges out from behind the front counter. He stands at automatic doors, speaking to you from under the sensor so that the entrance remains open, as though he’s too lazy to finish the distance or too afraid to get close to your hairy arms and your burgundy convertible.
“You can’t just sit in your car out here, mister.”
“Look, there’s a sign right there about loitering. Same as any other place in the world, you should know that.”
“Have you been to every part of the world?”
The attendant steps forward. The automatic doors slide closed behind him, the muggy night croaking with brown toads in the nearby woods.
“Look, don’t give me a hard time here, mister. I’m just doing my job.”
“You keep calling me mister. Why is that?”
He’s got braces, this attendant, a flashy sneer that seems luminous under the buzzing Kangaroo sign.
“I don’t want any troubles here,” he says. “Security cameras are taping you sitting there.”
“What color is my car? Tell me that and I’ll leave you alone.”
He takes a moment to answer, thinking. Then he throws the word at you like a brick.
You step out of the car, slam the door a little harder than you intended, the original paint job, not like an eggplant or a fine wine at all, but a deep bruise. What did the shark who sold you the car say? Dames young and old flock to a car the color of fine wine, especially one like this.
“I don’t know what you’re on, mister, some kind of power trip or something, but you need to get back into your car and drive on away.”
You move toward the attendant. The automatic door doesn’t swoosh open. He doesn’t take any steps back.
“I’ve gotta warn you, mister. With a brown belt, I won’t hesitate to knock an old guy on his ass.”
The braces glint as though he might be able to chew bones and then spit out pulp and splinters. He wears white jeans buckled with a white belt.
“But you’re wearing a white belt.”
You and the young attendant stare at one another. Moths the size of rifle casings beat their heads against the red sign glowing above. The attendant bursts out laughing. And you start cackling, too, the amusement so infectious, and soon you’re laughing so hard that your abdomen begins cramping, making you clasp both hands over your kneecaps. The attendant staggers to the right and leans against the wall. If any cars were to pass, the drivers would look and wonder what could possibly be so funny. These two lunatics laughing so hard that tears stream down their cheeks, are they friends, relatives, strangers?
The laughing subsides in a few minutes. You turn to the burgundy convertible that you bought last month, just after your first visit to “Young at Heart, Old to Start.” You ask the young attendant what made him say pomegranate, and he laughs again.
“Shit, we sell pomegranate slushy, is all.”
His voice is pure drawl, like he’s finally let down his guard now that he’s confirmed that you’re more a joker than anything else.
You say to him, “I think that I’ll take one of those, yeah.”
The attendant nods gratefully and says, “And you’ll get it on the house.”
You follow him in. The drink that he mentions sits in a tall vat behind the counter, a silver-armed hub spinning within the plastic receptacle to keep the ice from congealing. The attendant asks what size you want, and while beginning to look toward the stacks of cups next to the drink dispenser, he does a double take of your arms, the tufts of hair that, though nearly white, now seem alarmingly conspicuous in the store’s florescence, the young man turning his mouth’s corners down like he will soon start talking about brown belts and kicking old men’s asses again.
You tell the attendant that you want the biggest slushy that he sells. He tops off the cup and places it before you. You ask whether the camera up behind the counter is real. The attendant looks over his shoulder and then he looks at you, blinking distastefully. Yes, you’ve circled back to that earlier dynamic of crazy old guy and youthful-though-wise Kangaroo employee.
“Of course it is,” he says, the brown belt back in his voice. “Just like the ones outside.”
“You better charge me for this, then,” you say.
He nods and starts tallying on the register with a careful index finger.
“Seven o’ five,” he says.
“That’s right,” you say, getting ready for what you’ll do next.
And maybe you’ll pay. Or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll lock his neck, pull him down to the counter, and make him drink the slushy until a brain freeze chills him from temple to temple. Or maybe you’ll go back to the toiletries section and pick out a bottle of Nair. Pour the burning lotion onto the sheep wool of your arms. Rub it in until you think it’s going to burn through to the bone. Let it scald until you need to upend the pomegranate drink onto all those places. Watch the smooth skin reveal itself from under the melting red drink, hairs dripping off and collecting on the counter in clumps like commas, apostrophes, quotation marks, all those bits of punctuation framing the personal witticisms of Old to Start’s most eligible. Because you’ll never hear from the woman with coral-colored lips again. Because your son and daughter don’t want to hear from you. Because you’ll wait for this young Kangaroo employee to laugh, to say something. Anything. Wait for that moment when you will both double over again, tears streaming from the laughter. Wait. Keep on waiting, because now is just too late for anything else.