— Columbus, Mississippi,1973
For a long time now she has referred to herself in the third person, almost as if she were being interviewed by Barbara Walters. Except that she will never be interviewed by Barbara Walters, because she – not Barbara – pumps gas for a living. And because she – not Barbara – is fat. Of course, television can make people appear in ways they are not. It has that power; she knows that much. So Barbara Walters may very well be fat. Perhaps she has grown fat during her television years. Or perhaps Barbara and she have been fat all along, but it is Barbara who has learned to sit in just such a way in front of the cameras, has learned to sit at just such an angle, has been made up for thinness, has had slenderizing outfits custom made and chosen just for those cameras with their special lenses and angles.
She watches as a late model Ford pulls up to where she, nozzle in hand, stands in the line of gasoline pumps: leaded gas, then two unleadeds, and finally the spot where she stands. She knows, as she gives this customer the Full Service he expects, that she, as always, will be seen yet unseen and that, fat or not, Barbara Walters will always look good to those who know her through television.
And, no, she will not be interviewed by Barbara. She will not have her turn to cry, to share emotional pain with the millions of Barbara’s viewers who care. And they all care because Barbara cares. Her issues – not Barbara’s – will remain her issues. Barbara has no interest in overweight women in polyester double-knit slacks split ever so slightly in the rear. Barbara is interested in finding and revealing the real side – the human side – of only those of us who are beautiful. Or handsome. And rich. And famous. Not those of us who have pumped gasoline for minimum wage for too many years at a local Gas N Sav. No, Barbara Walters is too busy discovering and focusing television eyes on the real sides of those of us who are unreal. She of the Gas N Sav – she is too real. Hers is a more common kind of madness.
Still, if Barbara does stop at the Gas N Sav one day – and surely if she does, she will pull up to the Full Service pump – they can talk, she and Barbara Walters. Perhaps as they stand there talking (actually, she, not Barbara, will be the only one standing), Barbara will see another side of her, will see the other side: the side that could make her someone you’d like to talk to, someone you’d like to get to know better, someone you’d like to ask out to dinner or take to meet your friends or introduce to your parents or slip a ring on her finger or at least desire for a night.
But what if Barbara Walters drives up to Full Service, chats for a few moments from behind a power window lowered half way and discovers no other side? Or worse, discovers that there never has been and never will be an “other side”? That this is it? That being fat and pumping gas at Gas N Sav and wearing slightly split-in-the-rear, double-knit polyester pants are it?
She’s already thought of what she’ll do. First, she’ll stick her head right inside that halfway lowered window to see if Ms. Walters really is thin – in real life, that is. Then, if she is not fat – if Barbara Walters really is her television self – she’ll squirt a gallon or so of premium unleaded under that wonderful car, stand back, light a Benson & Hedges, and flick it into the puddle right beneath Barbara’s exhaust system. She will blow Barbara into the tabloid headlines and onto the covers of People and Time. No harm in that kind of cancellation, she thinks. Television characters run that risk with every show.
If, however, she discovers that Barbara Walters is fat, is in some small large way a part of her Gas N Sav world, then she will just bring the revelation to Barbara’s attention by asking: “Tell me honestly, Barbara, what does Barbara Walters think about Barbara Walters being fat? In real life, that is?” And for that moment, with that single question, with her head still inside Barbara’s half lowered window and with her feet firmly planted on the ground on the other side of the pane, they – she and Barbara Walters – will ever so briefly become one person in this life.
She wonders why she ever began referring to herself – to her life, actually – in the third person. One day, as she topped off the tank of a new Chrysler convertible with leather seats, air conditioning, cruise control, and, she assumed, numerous other options, it just seemed natural to describe herself and her actions that way. For example:
She feels the handle of the pump click back, indicating the tank is full. But she pumps in another squeeze or two so that the change will involve pennies, so that at least a trickle of gasoline is left to drip down the white lacquer finish toward the left rear tire and the ground. She wonders, as she returns the hose and its handle to its receptacle, why she does this to the more expensive cars and to their owners.
She has her theories. Perhaps she now refers to herself as she and her in order to distance herself from herself, from the self that greets her in the mirror each morning, from the self she sees reflected at work in the puddles of gasoline she sometimes squirts on the asphalt next to the pumps. Of the two selves, she prefers the gasoline-reflected self. The distortions created and recreated by the fumes as they rise from the puddles allow a more imaginative, a more fluid self to emerge. They allow her the chance for change. Her bathroom mirror is too exact. At least when she sees herself in the puddles where she works she has some sense of possibilities.
But – and there is always the same “but” – these fluid selves emerging and reemerging from the gasoline puddles are also overweight; some barely, some grossly. Nevertheless, fat is the one common denominator among all of her realities, reflected or not.
She has found, though, that third person does help. Better to comment on the fat person than to be her:
She is bending over to unravel the air compressor hose. The rear of her pants, with its slight split surely showing, points in the direction of a Lincoln Town Car driver who sits waiting by the Full Service, premium unleaded pump. He has a beard, well trimmed. She wonders why she does this, why she does any of it.
She smokes too much. Fat people, of all people, she’s been told, should never smoke. Fat people, of all people, she tells herself, have the least reason to quit.
She sometimes smokes near the pumps. She can be bad. She’d like to be told that.
A car pulls up to the regular pump. Leaded gas. It’s almost extinct. She goes over even though it’s a Self Service pump. Regular gas to her often means “old car.” Usually an old, full-sized car. The people who buy them can’t afford them because they use so much gasoline. But they buy them anyway because they’re so cheap – because they use so much gasoline. And so on. And on. She quits trying to categorize who buys what kind of car and for what reasons. She knows that some people can’t afford to buy the car that would really define them, the car that would make a more suitable statement about who they are. She knows that some people are the chosen ones, chosen by the old gas-guzzlers they can’t afford to drive. She shakes it all out of her head and approaches just such a car.
She asks if they want a fill up. They, of course, will say that they want Self Service and that they’ll be pumping three dollars’ worth. Maybe four. Some money held back for cigarettes. She knows. She drives an ancient Olds 98 with rust holes around both rear wheel wells, beneath the doors, and across the trunk where a missing lock once secured someone else’s belongings. Now bungee cords secure the trunk lid from flying completely open. She tells them that Full Service is on the house today, and they – there is almost always more than one person in these cars – look directly at her for the first time. She likes that and lights a Benson & Hedges before pumping in three to four dollars. Light a cigarette around a BMW driver over at Full Service and see what happens. She laughs at what she knows.
The older, larger cars – like her Olds 98 – are always some shade of brown or dark green, like the slacks she wears to work. She notices this but tries not to think about it. So, of course, she does.
The driver of this car has children in the back seat and in the front. This is not unusual. There are no safety seats. There is sound inside the car. Activity. And spilled Cokes. And chips. And empty beer cans. And Snickers wrappers. And clothes. And bumper stickers on the rear, stating who the driver is and what she thinks and why she is who she is, or, at least, who she was, or thought she was, when she put the stickers on the car. She’s still pumping in the last of the three or four dollars’ worth; she hasn’t seen the rear of the car yet, but the bumper stickers will be there. She knows this. She will wonder, however, if the driver, the driver’s mate, or one of the previous owners put them there. And she’ll wonder if the bumper stickers’ messages still signify a part of who this driver is or if they’ve been stuck there so long that they’ve become just another expected option like the all-digital dashboard on the new Cadillac Eldorado pulling up to Full Service.
She hears her manager tell her to “get your butt over to Full Service” where the Eldorado and its driver sit expectantly. The kids in the front and back seats of the rust bucket continue to move about the car, but their mother is looking down now, perhaps into her purse. The situation at Gas N Sav has just changed. It has become the checkout line at the grocery store at that precise moment when the mindless pleasantries between customer and checkout clerk have ended and the food stamps must be produced. It is at just such moments that perceptions and realities rearrange themselves, she thinks. She takes the money – four dollars exactly – and gets her butt over to the Eldorado. She’s instructed to fill the tank; no smoking and no bumper stickers allowed.
Her manager raped her years ago. She knows he doesn’t think so, but she knows he did. And now she works for him at Gas N Sav. And sometimes she finds him attractive. At such times she berates herself and thinks of things she can do – will do – to her manager that will be painful and will change who he is and how he thinks about himself.
He was not her manager when the rape occurred. He seems to show no interest in her now, sexual or otherwise. In fact, he seemed to show no interest in her then. Rape is not always what television would have us believe it is, she has thought more than once. She sometimes thinks, as she is thinking now, that she was raped because she was there; because her body was in that particular space at that particular moment. No other reason.
“Get your butt over here.” She can still hear his words. Clearly. No soft lights or music surrounding this intercourse. He had said he was going to do her a favor.
He is standing now in the doorway of the small Gas N Sav store. It’s not even a real store, just enough room for the cash register, the rows of cigarettes, a few containers of candies and gum, and an attendant – or, in this case, a manager. He is looking in her direction, but she sees that his lust is for the Eldorado. She squirts a shot of premium unleaded on to the asphalt to be sure; he doesn’t say a word. He sees only himself – sitting behind an all-digital dashboard. The pump reads twenty-five dollars even. She reinserts the nozzle into the Eldorado. A second shot and the pump reads twenty-five oh three. She watches as the drips of gasoline run down the lacquered surface.
“Twenty-five dollars and three cents, mister,” she says. The driver presses a button on the inside and a window lowers a few more inches, enough for him to hand her a twenty and a five and to pause. She has until midnight, the end of her shift. Her open palm remains before him. He has not yet seen her, not really. She knows this as he fumbles for the change he does not have. Her arm remains extended, her palm open. Finally he produces a second five-dollar bill. It’s the best he can do.
No, to her manager the rape had not occurred. No, she thinks, moving behind him and removing four dollars and ninety-seven cents from the register, this rape had definitely not been the stuff of movies. She knew the police would likely speak with their eyes: Fat. Probably trying to catch the poor guy. Trap him. She’s lucky she got as far as she got. She ought to be thankful. Once she realized who she would become in their eyes, she knew she would leave the police station, charges not filed, her manager allowed to remain the person he’d been before the rape – a rape that, by interrogation’s end, had never occurred.
She had circled the police station twice, once slowly, before driving home.
“Get your butt over here” are the words she remembers the most clearly from that night. That would be the extent of their courtship. She remembers having put on cologne for the party. And a dress that would make her appear less large. She remembers looking into the mirror a long time and wishing for things she knew would not come true. She remembers going alone, meeting him there. And she remembers burning that dress the next night on the floor of her apartment and how the tenants raised a sort of confused hell when the flames got away from her and how rent jumped even further beyond her means when her lease was up and how she had to move to where she lives today and how he had, once she had “got her butt over there,” pushed her into the back seat of a car he no longer owns and how he had pulled that dress far enough up for what he wanted but not removed it and how he had laughed about that and how he said that she ought to be thankful he was going as far as he was instead of her screaming like that and that is why he hit her anyway and that she probably liked that, too.
She just kept crying. He said to get out of his car, that he had to go, that work came early the next day, and that she should come by Gas N Sav, that he knew she needed work from something she’d said at the party and that he could pull some strings and get her on.
And she had come by the next morning. And she wonders why. And she sees him, still standing in the doorway of the store, and she finds him attractive at times and she wonders why and she knows there is more to happen. Between them, she thinks.
There are times – moments really, when the sun catches her reflection just right in one of her just-made gasoline puddles – when she looks beautiful. Not OK or passable or not bad for her size, but beautiful. These are early morning moments, occurring at the end of night shifts. They never happen if she looks for them. Pump some unleaded onto the asphalt one morning as the sun breaks over the station and then check your reflection to find yourself beautiful? – no way. But be tired after an all-nighter at the Gas N Sav; be frustrated and angry because the same drunks and perverts and freeloaders will be back the next night and so will you; be ready to head toward your ancient car, with its rust and its tendency to stall at full stops, as a sun you’ve not yet noticed cracks early rays into the pool of gasoline at your feet and then see yourself – your face – tired and naked and numb in those first diffuse rays and see how you look in that brief moment before you become aware that you are indeed seeing your face, and realize that you have just seen yourself in that flash of first sun that exists before thinking. And see how beautiful you are.
And try to hold that beauty in your mind’s eye as a manager appears before you, violating the reflection, reminding you by his presence in the puddle that once again you’ve lost the beauty that was you by trying to hold it in your thoughts and freeze it in time. And shift your stare to his face in the puddle beside yours now large and real. Consider what must be done.
She allows herself such thoughts only on those rare mornings when the sun catches her by surprise.
She sometimes thinks she’s a man when she pumps gas. After all, it is a man’s job. And they are deserving of it, she thinks. But she’s too passive to be a man. That is one of her fears: that she acts too passively. Not in her mind though. She eyes the manager, now chatting with a lady in a red import parked beside Self Service. No, she thinks that mentally she is not at all passive. She considers this, how her mind may one day become a trigger mechanism for action. And she realizes that it is not the rape that will trigger whatever future actions are keeping her here at the Gas N Sav; that made her come here in the first place. No, it is not the rape. It is his face, a face that appears suddenly, reflected beside hers in a gasoline puddle on those mornings when she finds herself beautiful, a face that tells her suddenly who she is, who she’ll be, and who she has been.
She moves toward the air compressor hose and begins to unravel it. Her manager, now audible, is telling the lady in the red import about himself. Through his words she hears her manager becoming someone else. He is becoming more than a manager of a Gas N Sav. She struggles with a hose whose knots seem to lack direction and to go in all directions at once. Soon enough though, the knots give way to long even loops draped over her left arm. Her manager seems to own a series of stations according to the words that are passing from his mouth into the ears of the lady in the red import. He sounds authoritative, in control. He is not the kind of person who lets his not knowing something stand in the way of his knowing something. From the air compressor she can see the lady fairly well. She is slim and is wearing a cotton sundress with a bright floral print. With her, the driver of the red import, the manager will remove the dress completely, given the chance.
She has come to know him.
She listens to her manager explain in painfully great detail why she should not smoke, cannot smoke, at work anymore. She hears him discuss the flammability of gasoline; she hears him detail a fatal explosion at an Exxon station in another state, detail how the explosion eventually killed four members of a five-member family – “eventually killed” because one member, the wife according to her manager’s words, hung on for a week or two. She wonders if this wife had been fat, if she’d been fat when she first met the man who would become her husband and would father her three children. No, this wife would not have been fat, not at first.
She no longer hears her manager speaking, although his lips are certainly still moving, mouthing words and phrases that are either important to him or a way to pass time. The morning sun, she will realize later, is just starting to color the station. She wonders also if this wife had been conscious throughout the explosion and the immediate aftermath, if she’d felt the body that defined her burn away from her and be reshaped in the flames.
She becomes, for a moment, that wife, lying in her burn-unit hospital bed for the week or two before she dies. They share something for that moment: they share the secret that fat bodies and burned bodies know: that they, in their respective disfigurements, have become the invisible ones, the ones who will remain seen yet unseen, heard yet unheard.
She hears sound return to her manager’s moving lips. He has evidently progressed to a second or third story involving cigarettes, gasoline, and altered realities. This night’s shift has seemed especially long to her. The new day’s rays begin to seek out the puddle of gasoline that stands between her and her manager. She steps back to avoid her reflection and leans her body, perhaps seductively, against the unleaded pump, withdraws a Benson & Hedges from a gold-lettered box in her shirt pocket, and lights it, all in a single, natural motion. She hears her manager continue his message as she holds the cigarette lightly between her right index and middle fingers; she watches as he steps toward her. She brings the cigarette back to her lips so that it’s almost touching those lips. She pauses. Then places it firmly between them. She hears her manager continue as she inhales Benson & Hedges smoke deeply — slowly and deeply.
For a moment, that moment, she is posed – no, posing – in an advertisement on the inside front cover of Cosmopolitan. A slim, long black dress outlines the contours of her body; a breeze tosses her now long blond curls playfully across the page, toward the male model who shares her love of life and smoke. She sees herself blowing the just-inhaled Benson & Hedges smoke in the direction of this male model who stands, with expectation and hope, on the shared page. She makes sure that their eyes meet fully, that his eyes see hers.
Then, without thinking, I feel myself – I feel my plump right thumb and index finger flick the lighted cigarette outward, perfectly, arcing end over end toward the liquid space between my manager’s feet.