I’m leaning against the ‘81 blue and rust Ford F-250 — Leaf it To Us painted in orange letters on the doors. (Dad started up this business after getting laid off at Geitner trucking last year. Bad economy. Problem is, a lot of guys started mowing lawns. One conflated our name and Toys ’R Us, calling his business Leafs Are Us, which doesn’t make any sense whatsofuckingever). My long legs — summer green with the pulverized chem lawn clippings of old money estates on Black Point — look like frog legs. My pump clicks off, I grab the nozzle, hop up onto the splintered wood deck of the trailer, start to fill the 42” walk-behind. In the polluted water of Snyder’s Pond, a quarter mile into the woods behind this EZ Mart and just a few flops away from the Fitzer pharmeceutical plant, they’ve found frogs with three legs. I look at my watch (it’s 4 already!) and wish that I had three or four legs. I finish the mower, screw on the cap, take the four gas cans out of the bed and place them on the concrete base by the pumps. I drop back down to the pavement, hold back the vapor guard with one hand and squeeze the nozzle trigger with the other. Last summer, at the 7-11 on the Shore Road, a woman died from burns she got when a can blew up in her face. That static electricity can be a killer. I imagine blowing myself up — legs everywhere, scattered across the lot and hanging from the sign: “Self Serve.”
Then this guy pulls in to the other side of the island, gets out, puts a latex glove on his right hand and starts pumping high test into his mint-looking old Jag. He keeps glancing over at me. I catch his eye a few times and he nods “hi” uncomfortably. Then I notice a little boy I take to be his son sitting in the passenger seat with the window open. The kid looks about eight, a towhead like I was at that age but tan the way only a stay at a beach-front summer cottage can make you tan.
Dad should be with me, but he’s at a follow-up appointment with the docs. I’m trying to keep what would have been his pace — I leave my door swung open so as not to waste the extra seconds of effort it’d take to close it and open it again. Or, what would have been his pace before he started losing his umpfh. I stop, reach in behind the seat and grab two oils, peel back the tops, pour them into the last two empty gas cans for the correct mixtures, spill some of the slick, amber-tinted stuff on my hand, wipe it on my shorts and start to pump again. I love the smell of gasoline.
I catch this guy looking again. Maybe his life has been full of soft work and he just can’t imagine getting this filthy. Or, maybe he just needs someone to cut his grass.
The other thing that could happen is that this fatigue thing could be the start of something serious. Maybe Dad has cancer. A lot of guys from that first Gulf War I’ve heard got cancer. I hope that doesn’t happen. What are the chances? The old goat won’t say much about it. He just keeps going, laughing raucously, everywhere meeting people he knows or people who know people he knows. Greeting them with big handshakes that send some of them right off of their feet as if they were cartoons. I’m more sullen. Not sullen, maybe “detached” is the word he used. Or maybe that other new modifier he stuck on me after the time I stuck that “Smash Capitalism” bumper sticker on the back of his truck: “Assholish.”
Anyway, I don’t think this guy is already one of our customers. There are a few from the past couple of years I wouldn’t recognize easily and a few I’ve never seen before. Occasionally a disembodied voice on an answering machine. And every now and then, lost in the dull, ear-plugged roar of the machines, I catch a curtain shifting or a quick movement from a window.
“Hey, Jonathan,” I hear him say. I look up; he isn’t talking to me, no, he didn’t think that I was a Jonathan, he’s talking to his son. “Look, Jon,” he says, gesturing at me. The boy looks at me and his eyes widen.
“Wow! He looks just like Trevor!” Jonathan exclaims, laughing to his father.
The guy looks at me and shrugs: “You look exactly like a good friend of ours. You’re not a Severenson, are you?”
“Nope. I’m a Conroy. Jim Conroy.”
“I mean, it’s incredible, Jim. You guys could be twins.”
“Oh, yeah?” I answer, feigning a laugh. “Poor guy.”
A few seconds of gasoline gurgling into tanks. Advertisements for electronic cigarettes and Twix blare from the little TV screens on the pumps.
“Of course, he’s a brain surgeon,” he says as he finishes pumping, trying to cut the awkwardness, but in the next moment his mouth twists and he tries to add quickly, “I don’t mean…”
“Holy shit!” I interrupt, now my eyes widening. “That really is a coincidence… You know, I just mow lawns on the side… I’m actually a brain surgeon too!” I leap to the back of the truck and grab the hedge clippers — “See? They let me borrow instruments from the hospital!”
Now I’m really laughing and it releases a big guffaw from him that seems out of proportion to his pale, timid frame — more like something that might come out of my old man. His son titters. I put the clippers down, finish pumping (120 bucks!), place the nozzle back, screw on the caps, drop the cans in the trailer. Then I reach over, grab his gloved right hand and shake it vigorously before running inside to pay.
Jon Andersen is the author of a book of poems, Stomp and Sing (Curbstone Press/ Northwestern University Press, 2005) and the editor of the anthology Seeds of Fire: Contemporary Poetry from the Other USA (Smokestack Books, 2008). His flash fiction “The Call,” appears in Sudden Flash Youth: 65 Short-Short Stories for Young Adults (Persea Books 2011). He is an Associate Professor of English at Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson and Willimantic, Connecticut.