Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I told the little wrestler to watch out when I saw the three men pull up to the pumps. They’d ripped me off the week before, played me for a sucker on a frantic snow-blowing night, when I was all alone at the station, cars backed up honking at every pump. “Those guys,” I said to the wrestler, “bought two dollars’ worth of gas and then kept asking for change.” The tall, thin driver got change for a twenty, I told him, then asked to change the ten I gave him into fives, then to change the fives for ones.
All the while the driver was talking, talking, to divert my attention. I’d been working the pumps for almost two hours straight by then, my fingers freezing, flurries stinging my face, the terrible blue lights of the station shining down cold as I kept dropping coins into the oily snow at my feet. I knew what he was doing, but couldn’t stop handing the bills over to him, all those car headlights catching me blind and stupid like a deer on a country road. Meanwhile the two others stood next to their station wagon watching the game, smiling, the station lights slick on their snow-wet hair. I was in ten dollars deep before I finally snatched back what was left and yelled, “No more! You want change, go to the 7-Eleven down the street!”
“When I counted the money that night,” I said to the wrestler, “I found they’d ripped me off for ten dollars.” I told him to pump what they wanted but not play any change game with them; I’d be out as soon as I could. Then I went to the bathroom and left him there alone with the three in the station wagon.
I had to admit to myself that I was afraid of them. I stood there over the toilet bowl crammed into a corner of the bathroom between boxes of oil and paper towels. It scares the hell out of me whenever someone lies to me and smiles, knowing I know they’re lying. What was I going to say to them when I went out there? They knew I knew what they were doing. They must have known. Yet they were back. And there were three of them, only two of us.
When I came out of the bathroom the tall, thin driver had little piles of bills laid out on the hood of his car. The little wrestler, already knee-deep in the shit, was frowning down at the bills while the driver moved his quick hands, talking his quick talk. I don’t know if I was more disgusted with the wrestler, the driver, or myself right then. Who were these clown con artists who didn’t know enough to stay away from the last place they’d played? Then again, maybe they did know enough: I wasn’t doing anything to stop it.
I walked toward the beat-up station wagon, wondering what I was going to do. One of the driver’s goony sidekicks slid off the hood and blocked my way. He said he needed oil. I could see in his eyes that he wasn’t going to let me pass, so I led him into the office and pointed at the stacked quarts of oil gathering dust next to the desk. He started asking what kind of oil was right for his car, launching into a stupid story about a friend of his who had bought the wrong kind. I wasn’t listening. I kept looking out the window at the station wagon so he’d know I knew what was going on. I stood with my hands in my coveralls, nodding at his nonsense about oil, both of us knowing what was happening out there on the hood of the car, both of us knowing that the other knew but acting as if we knew nothing.
This is the whole human world, I thought then: two men facing off under the dismal, yellow light of the station office, pretending not to know the truth, knowing full well that the other is pretending.
When the driver with the magic fingers took the bills off the hood and shoved them into his jacket pocket, the man in the office with me said he thought maybe he’d wait till some other time to buy oil. I followed him out to the station wagon. Mr. Magic Fingers was shaking the wrestler’s hand and the little wrestler was smiling as if he still didn’t know what had happened. All three waved goodbye as if we were just friendly gas-station attendants who’d pumped them a friendly two dollars’ worth and they were just friendly customers. I found myself waving back.
The wrestler blew on his hands, watching the station wagon disappear down the street. I asked him how much he thought they’d taken him for.
“They didn’t rip me off,” he said.
“You think they did that elaborate change game with you for fun?” I asked. He shrugged. I could see the fear in his eyes. I knew he wouldn’t pull out the money and count it, for the same reason I’d gone to the bathroom when I’d seen those three pull up at the pumps again.
The little wrestler looked cold, his cheeks splotched red and white. A blue Lincoln Continental pulled up. I told him I’d take care of the car. He went back to the dusty warmth of the office to sit and stare at his reflection in the glass.
The only thing I liked about the job was being out there all alone. It made me feel like I was back living outside again.
The man in the Lincoln, like the thousand people I’d seen at the pumps before him, had no idea where he was. He rolled down the window and stared straight ahead into the cemetery across the street, thinking, thinking. A busy mind, a car mind. I moved softly, carefully, toward the car. How could he not see me out of the corner of his eye? He was oblivious to what was going on outside of his car. Why did he need to be aware of anything? Everything he needed was taken care of. The car was there to take care of his transportation. I was there to take care of gas. The radio was there to take care of his time while his thoughts rose and fell, taking care of business. The street lights raining down everywhere were there to take care of the dark.
I stood at the window. He sat waiting, seeing nothing. I leaned in close to his ear and said, “What can I get you?” He jumped clear off his seat, hit his head on the ceiling, and turned to me, eyes wide, stammering, “Goddamn! You scared me! I didn’t even see . . . where the hell did you come from?”
“What can I get you?” I repeated.
“Five dollars, unleaded.”
I pumped the gas and smelled the rain coming.
I looked at the little wrestler, his head down on the desk. He was exhausted from a high-school wrestling match earlier in the day. I decided to shut the station early. I wanted to go out walking before the rain hit to clear my head of those men and the smell of gasoline.
I sent the wrestler home, shut down the lights, and counted the money in the office. A few cars pulled into the darkened station, cruised past my window, and disappeared. Sure enough, those bastards had ripped him off for fifty dollars. Fifty bucks. How was I going to explain to Mr. Richards? “See, I knew those guys were going to rip the poor kid off, so I slunk off to take a scared piss in the bathroom and avoid the whole situation.” No, I’d lie and say something like, “These guys came in and shortchanged the kid while I was in the bathroom.” It made me sick to think about it.
I locked the door behind me and checked the sky. The last leaves were blowing off the cemetery trees, crossing the street, and skidding over the oil slicks next to the pumps. I took a deep breath. Whenever the ground is expecting, I like to walk. I can feel it reach right up through my legs to meet the sky. The blood of everything rises to meet the tension of the coming clouds before a good rain.
Behind the station was a small plot of woods. I peed against the back wall, watching the leaves scatter. Everything is possible before a storm. In the light from the street, cut by wild branches, it seemed even the worms might become angels, cast upward, spinning. I felt cut loose, cast adrift. It had been a long time since I’d felt that way. Months. Still, the image of the three con men hung in front of me, blocking my path. I hated them. It wasn’t about the money — money comes, money goes. It was about lies, masks, endless posing, grasping for tiny, insignificant things. I hated them for forcing my fear right up in front of my face. And I hated myself for forcing it right back down again as if it didn’t exist, pretending right along with them that I didn’t know what was going on. This is the human world, I thought.
I like to believe I was raised by cats. As soon as I could walk I began following them around, watching them. As a boy, I followed them out to the edge of the woods behind my parents’ house and crouched with them there in the dark, waiting. What I learned from cats seemed infinitely more important than what I learned from any person.
The first thing I learned from them was how to wait; how to wait until what you are looking for is revealed to you. They taught me that usually what you’re hunting for is right there all along; you just need time to see it. I must have spent years waiting at the edge of the woods in the dark with those cats before it finally dawned on me that they weren’t looking at anything. They just sat there letting the eyes of the forest watch them. And when the forest had had enough of them, they would slip into the darkness, padding off, silent on brittle leaves. That was the second thing I learned from cats: how to walk without making noise, without scaring everything back into its hole.
I moved through the woods along the edge of the coming storm. Worms and clouds flew by, mixing and making angels. Leaves leapt from the ground and turned in small whirlpools where the woods opened out to a field of tangled wild rosebushes. I made my way through the thorn patches to a group of trees that ended against a chain-link fence. I jumped it. In the strange whirl of the coming storm I moved quick as a ghost through dark yards, while the rest of the world closed its windows and shut itself deep into the television light. I wanted to go looking for cats.
I ran across the back yard of a dingy apartment building. Tricycles and plastic sandbox toys moved back and forth on their curves, rattled by the wind. I stopped next to the sandbox and turned in a full circle. Wind chimes rang, over and over, against the gutter above me. I knew there was a cat somewhere; I could feel her eyes on me.
The first few drops hit the grass. Where was that cat? The wind chimes spun crazily. I crouched down to look underneath a scrawny bush in the corner of the yard, and sure enough, green eyes flashed, catching the light from an apartment window the same way a cat catches a dying mouse in one talon.
That was the third thing the cats taught me: you must watch death to understand it. It’s why they played with their still-living prey, flipping it into the air like a ball, catching it in their mouths. When a cat eats the eyes out of the little mouse head, it is death. It made me look at my own food and realize that I am also death. If you watch death enough, you know that it is not something that comes before or after you. Death is right now, my mouth.
The cat blinked back at me, suspicious. She darted out from under the bush and disappeared over the fence, into the woods. The scent of those men must still be on me, I thought. I looked up into the sky. More drops.
I rounded the corner of the building and walked down the middle of a lit street. Balls of water, colder than snow, exploded here and there on the pavement. An orange-and-black cat crossed my path and slipped quietly beneath a parked car. I got down and looked under the car, knowing she’d be waiting there for me to pass. But she wasn’t. Strange. I moved across a nearby yard, crouching by a hedge beneath a picture window. Nothing. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move. I headed for the side of the house.
The cat burst from under a bush and ran toward an open garage door. I followed her across the patch of light from a second-story bedroom window, into the garage. She turned and faced me, her eyes wild for that moment when my mind would relax and she could slip through the hole in my concentration. Just one second, that’s all she needed.
What was I doing? I backed out of the garage and stood leaning against the wall of the house, out of the bedroom light. More drops hit the pavement.
I listened to the rain, but it wasn’t close the way it used to be; so close I could fall with it, feel it falling everywhere at once, touching the tips of leaves, rolling over green stones, hanging in beads from webs crisscrossing blades of grass. It was hitting me now, but it was still far away. I raised my face to the rain, forcing myself to feel it. But that was the problem, trying to chase things down, instead of waiting, patient. I knew what was wrong and still couldn’t get it back.
I took off running down the drive as the full force of the storm met the ground. In an instant, small rivers were running down the gutters, washing away the leftover snow. I took off my work boots and ran barefoot through the puddles, hair plastered to my forehead, water in my ears, in my mouth, down my spine. I ran straight for Amy’s apartment, where I’d been living ever since coming down from the mountains.
I lived in the mountains seven months, spring to fall, camped near a small glacier lake off the Appalachian Trail, just north of the Delaware Water Gap. Every morning I would get up, pray to the rising sun from a slab of rock overlooking the flat-glass surface of the lake, then dive in, my thoughts dissolving into bubbles that rose past my ears. Every morning I would be a colony of organs in the cold water, coming alive, the thoughts left behind on the surface nothing more than hungry messages sent across cells, down the lines of blood. I would feel all the creatures that make up the total of my mind talking to one another as the colony propelled itself through the water. Every morning I would come out of the water naked of thought, like the first fish that climbed onto a rock and smiled, feeling the heat of the sun warm its new fingers.
I was alone up there most of the time, except at the height of summer when hikers began passing closer and closer to my camp. At first they didn’t bother me, and I didn’t bother them. Then one day I came back to camp and found some things had been stolen from my tent: a pocketknife, a tin mug. I was outraged. I started thinking about moving someplace more remote. Someplace colder. Alaska. The Yukon. For the rest of my time up there I rolled my tent every morning and hid it a hollow stump.
When the frost returned, the people stopped coming, and I dropped the idea of moving until one morning in late September when I broke through the surface of the lake and heard the thump of a bass guitar over the soft ripples of the water. On the other side of the lake, a group of boys emerged from the trees, peeled off their clothes, and dove in. They swam and wrestled and ate and drank beers from a cooler they must have lugged from the nearest highway, at least ten miles down the trail. They poured beer over each other’s heads and tossed the cans into the grass. I swam closer. When they left, I followed. They took a branch of the main trail down to a little creek. I waited in a grove of trees on the hill above them, watching. Before they left, they took out cans of red spray paint and burned their names on the rocks. When they were gone, I made my way to the creek. The paint dribbled down the beautiful rock skin into the water. That afternoon I came down from the mountains and hitchhiked south toward Philadelphia. When I got to town, I called Amy Lisbon.
Amy was the only person I knew who might put me up. She lived on the edge of the city. We’d met five years earlier in a monotonous technical-writing class at Bucks County Community College. Neither of us liked school. Neither of us finished. At the time, she was working as a secretary for some pharmaceutical company. When she got a raise and a promotion, she quit school. She’s been a secretary ever since. I quit right after she did because I wasn’t learning the kinds of things I wanted to know. What college professor can teach you how to interpret water smoothing down stones?
That first time I slept on her couch, my first night indoors in months, I woke up to the sight of her ironing a skirt in her underwear, getting ready for work. I covered my eyes and apologized, but she said if we were going to be comfortable living together we might as well abandon any notions of modesty. So I got out of my sleeping bag, stark naked. She gave me a quick once-over, and we both started laughing. But after her first glimpse she didn’t look again until I’d put on my clothes. We pretended it didn’t happen.
She kept walking around in her underwear or naked beneath her loose robe after that, but I slept in my shorts.
I climbed the stairs to Amy’s apartment and let myself in. Her bedroom was dark. I threw my rain-soaked clothes in the bathtub and, naked, went to the kitchen for something to warm me up. I found a bottle of cheap peach brandy in the cupboard and poured myself a glass. Back in the front room, I sat down on the couch and pulled my sleeping bag around me. I could barely hear the rain through the walls. A dead silence closed in around me the way it always did when I slept too long inside. Furniture silence, carpet silence, refrigerator silence. A vacuum. It drove me crazy not to hear what was happening in the outside world. I once told Amy how, after living outside, a closed room could be very frightening. I think she thought I was joking. She said she thought spending the night in the cold dark would be twice as bad.
I still wondered why she agreed to put me up for the winter. We went out a few times when we were in school together, but all that ended when I told her how I believed I’d been raised by cats. It scared her off a bit. She’d come from a large family where she didn’t get much attention or many personal possessions, so she felt she’d been missing out on some promised good life. She wanted everything I wanted to give up.
In the years since I’d last seen her, she’d accumulated quite a few things, while all I had to show for where I’d been and what I’d done was an old tent and a stained sleeping bag. I was paring down, she was building up. I looked around the room. Framed paintings of idealized sunsets. Shells collected on some Florida beach. Halloween decorations still up in the window. Endless knickknacks from her trips to the Caribbean, California, New Orleans. In the center of the silent room, a huge, black TV set.
I was sitting in the dark, staring at the blank TV, when Amy came into the room. She stood there in her bathrobe rubbing her eyes. She told me she was having trouble sleeping. The rain was pouring over the gutter outside her window, splattering the ledge near her bed, keeping her awake. She sat down next to me, oblivious to the part in her robe. She hadn’t even tied it off. She was naked beneath it. She asked for a sip of brandy, then asked how work was going. I told her about the con men in the station wagon, how they’d ripped me off the week before, then ripped off the little wrestler for fifty dollars that night, even though I’d warned him who they were. She was silent, her face turned toward the ceiling, eyes closed, breathing evenly. With each new breath the opening in her robe widened, falling away to her shoulders.
I kept talking about the con men and the little wrestler as if it was the most important thing in the world and all the while the rest of me wanted to fall toward the heavy-breathing beauty of her round belly sloping down to the dark hair between her thighs, crushed flat against the edge of the couch seat. I talked on, not knowing if she was awake or asleep, not wanting to bring on the moment when she would realize her robe was open and close it.
I told her about the cars that pulled into the station, how they just waited like robots to be filled up, the drivers always pretending they were somewhere else, further down the road. I kept talking, but what I wanted was to put my hand out and stroke her belly down to the hair between her legs. I wanted to kiss each breast pointing east and west, to kiss the creases on the insides of her thighs. She asked for another sip of brandy, her eyes still closed. How could she not know that her robe was open? She drained the glass and handed it back, empty.
Round belly, dark nipples, soft thighs. I kept talking. This is the whole human world, I thought: both of us pretending nothing is happening, waiting for something to happen.
I was a fool, I told her, to think the little wrestler could hold his own with the men in the station wagon. That same night he’d been asking me about college. “Is it hard? Is it hard?” he kept asking. He told me he wanted to major in business. He said business like it was some country he’d heard about, across the sea. Shangri-La. He wanted to major in business and be rich before he was thirty, he said. He wanted a pool, a BMW.
Amy laughed, her eyes still closed. I told her how the little wrestler thought all he had to do was pass a few business courses. No product, no company; he thought the degree was all he’d need. There he was talking about what he was going to do with all his money in The Land Of Business, I told her, when he was unable to make simple change for the customers.
She smiled but her eyes remained closed. I wanted to lean down and kiss her breasts and have her open her eyes as if she had wanted that all along. I wanted more brandy but didn’t dare get up and have her adjust her robe, bring her back to the room by my naked buttocks flashing in the dark, reminding her that I was a body, that she was a body.
“You know,” she said, opening her eyes, “this might be a funny thing to say, but listening to you . . . it’s as if you’re looking at the human race like you’re a cat looking in someone’s window.”
I looked into her face. She didn’t adjust the robe. She looked down the length of her body, then back at me. “What do you mean?” I said.
“You really don’t like people, people in general,” she said. “You’re like a cat, like you said. You come home for a while to get fed, and then . . .” She waved her hand in the air, finishing the sentence with a flutter of fingers.
I asked quietly if I could kiss her mouth and she said yes. I asked even more softly if I could kiss her breasts and she said yes. We made love and she fell asleep beside me on the couch. I listened to her breathing while my arm went to sleep underneath her head. I couldn’t move, but I was alive — alive the way I’d been out on the lake at dawn, climbing out of the freezing water.
Fifteen minutes later I stood at the door, body humming, mind still, watching her breasts rise and fall. Then I blew her a kiss and headed back to the place where I’d chased the black-and-orange cat.
I slipped through the shadows of parked cars, crept across sleeping porches, and felt the cold stinging the sweat on my skin, knowing, finally, that cats move gracefully through the whole night, not just the parts they like.