Tim looked up from filling his tank and saw a middle-aged man.
Tim’s mobile phone rang. Damn, it was his secretary again. “Yes, Sylvia… The meeting’s at three.” He sighed. “Can’t you do anything yourself? … No, you can’t leave early to get your son… No, we’re not settling. They don’t get to call the shots.” He hung up. “What?” he asked the stranger.
The man smiled behind mirrored sunglasses, the fancy kind actors wore. His polo shirt had “Walter” stenciled below the Raleigh Gas logo. “It’s customer appreciation day,” he said.
Tim loosened his tie. God, it was hot. “Okay…”
Walter sipped from a quart-sized Slurpee. “Come around back and have a hot dog on the house.” He pointed past boxes stacked near the restroom.
Tim shrugged. “Maybe.”
“They’re great dogs, bossman.” Walter rapped the pump.
“Uh huh.” Tim topped off the tank.
Walter paused beside a yellow mop bucket across the cracked parking lot. He peered around the corner. “Lisa, customer!” He raised his Slurpee in a toast before returning inside the convenience store.
Tim had to be across Raleigh by three for that workers compensation case that wouldn’t die. After two years the deadbeat still claimed it was the employer’s fault that the company truck had crashed.
A tempting whiff wafted across the lot. Tim had skipped lunch. A hot dog would hit the spot. He had just enough time for a bite.
Wearing a Raleigh Gas polo shirt, Lisa huddled over a rusty charcoal grill. She was maybe thirty with purple-streaked blond hair. She leaned away from billowing smoke. With tongs, she grabbed a couple of scorched dogs and dropped them into a battered aluminum pan, the sort used for church socials and then thrown away.
Tim stepped over an old tire filled with oily rainwater. “Can I have a hot dog?” he asked.
With a tattooed arm, Lisa swatted away a fly. “Help yourself.” She sipped a soda. Her Raleigh Gas Styrofoam cup showed a gas-pumping caped superhero with RG on his chest. “The bugs only showed up when I started grilling.”
“They leave me alone,” Tim said. “Professional courtesy.”
She put the cup beside a bowl of slaw. “Huh?”
Tim wished he hadn’t made the joke. Some people hated attorneys. “I’m a lawyer,” he muttered, as if it were an apology.
The woman’s chuckle was polite. “Okay.”
Tim unclasped a plastic bag and pulled out a flattened bun. He selected a jet-black dog and studied the dozen condiment bottles. He slathered the dog with jalapeño Dijon.
“Don’t forget chips,” the woman said.
Tim selected barbecue chips from a bowl of assorted flavors.
The woman wiped her brow with her sleeve. “My Dad calls a day like this a scorcher.” The wind shifted and blew smoke into her face. She coughed.
“Guess it doesn’t make sense to put the grill out in the sun,” Tim said.
She laughed. “The boss didn’t think this through. Sometimes I think the person running this place isn’t all that bright.”
Tim bit into the hot dog. It was smoky and succulent, not some cheap store brand. It reminded him of baseball and July Fourth picnics. When was the last time he went to a picnic? “Your boss did a good job picking the hot dogs.”
Lisa plopped down on a faded blue lawn chair with a bent umbrella duct-taped to the back. She pointed to the bin of burnt hot dogs. “I get to take these all home. Nice perk.”
With her slack attitude, she was lucky to have a job at all. “Sure,” Tim said.
She fanned herself with a credit card application. “Take a cup off the table and get a fountain drink inside.”
Tim took a cup. “Okay.”
She pointed to the dogs. “Want another one?”
“The boss bought too many.”
Inside Walter sat behind the counter, still nursing his Slurpee. He put down his Sports Illustrated. “Did you get a dog, bossman?”
“It wasn’t bad.”
Walter patted his stomach. “I’ve had a few myself.”
Tim held up the cup. “Your employee said I could get a drink…”
“I work for her.” Walter pointed to the soda fountain. “Have a drink.”
Tim filled the cup with diet cola. He slurped the drink down a couple of times before finally filling the cup. “Lisa’s your boss?”
Walter squinted. “I’ve worked for her for about a year.”
Tim took long swallow of soda and set the cup on the counter beside the lottery ticket display. “Really?”
“She owns three gas stations. Smart woman. Good boss. She insisted on doing the grilling herself. Said it was too hot for employees to be outside.”
“She takes the crappy jobs?”
“Yeah. She says there’s more to being a boss than bossing people around.”
Tim’s mind wandered back to the last job he really enjoyed. “I used to work in a gas station in high school,” he said.
“What a coincidence. I quit high school to work in a gas station.” Walter picked up the magazine.
Tim felt like a pompous jerk. He didn’t mean to strike a nerve with the guy.
“Sorry, man,” Tim muttered.
Walter studied his magazine.
Outside Lisa fed bits of hot dog to a ragged-looking cat. She waved to Tim.
Tim waved back and called the office. “Sylvia, hey, I’m really sorry about snapping at you. I was a real jackass. Go pick up your kid. And, take the rest of the day off.”
She seemed surprised and mumbled a thank-you.
“Could you have my three o’clock call my mobile? We’re going to settle.” He hung up.
Instead of ramming his proposal down the other side’s throat, he’d try to find something they’d both like.
But first, he’d get another hot dog.
Peter Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina where he lives with his surly cat and patient wife. He has had stories published in Asimov’s, Daily Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories and Every Day Fiction. Pete was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be Customer Appreciation Day at his local gas station one day last July. He enjoyed a hot dog with all the fixings.