Avatar photo

Down in History

The man who drives the gas truck is built like a fireplug. He’s got a shaved head and goatee. He paces in front of his rig while it idles. I’m in his way. I’m parked over the underground tanks, filling my tires with air. Not only do I drive a Prius, but I look like the kind of guy who would drive a Prius, which is to say I look like the kind of guy who might be afraid of him. Regardless of what he thinks, glaring at me will not speed up the process. I’ve been browbeaten by tougher looking men. I take forever in tightening all four stem caps.

“Any day,” he shouts.

I look around like I’m not sure where his voice is coming from. The gas station is on the corner of a busy four-way intersection next to the highway. It’s early morning and the sun is in everybody’s face. Nobody is slowing down. Nobody is giving anybody an inch.
“Nice car, buddy. You tryin’ to save the world?” His voice sounds like gargled steak.
I set my sights on him as if finally realizing something painfully obvious.

“Save the world?” I ask. “Do I look like Jesus? I’m just trying to put the likes of you out of business.”

He gives that a ridiculing laugh.

“It’ll never happen,” he pipes up. “The price of oil will go down and people will go back to not giving a shit. We’ll make sure of it. We’re too big to fail.”

He’s the kind of guy who talks at you with his chin. He rolls the sleeves of his New England Patriots sweatshirt and folds his arms across his chest like it’s supposed to scare me. I am somewhat intimidated, but not by his hairy forearms. It’s his confidence that frightens me. He’s absolutely sure that he’d kick my ass. I don’t have that kind of esteem so I fear his. I often resort to this kind of cowering and sometimes hate myself for it. One of my knees, I can’t tell which one, has already started shaking. It’s not the usual fear. There’s some anger in there as well.

“Sure you’re big, but I’m too small to step on.” I say this with my head slightly turned from him, kicking my driver side tire for good measure.

He coughs up a wad of phlegm and launches it in my general direction. It lands a good distance from my Prius, but insultingly close to what little ego I have left. He’s really taken me for a wimp. He can’t see past my brown corduroy blazer and matching Italian loafers. I can’t say that I blame him. The costume that I wear is a convincing one. It has thus far kept me safe from maniacs like my father and blowhards like the fireplug.

I get in the car and look down at my lap. Both knees are shaking. Maybe one with anger. Maybe one with fear. I drive over to pumps. There’s only one available. I pull up to it, kill the engine, and reach down for the fuel cap switch. I flip it and the hatchback opens. I still do this from time to time, especially when I’m distracted. As I get out of the car, the fireplug shouts something else at me, but I can’t hear over the television screen mounted atop the pump. They’re everywhere these days, waiting rooms and checkout lines. It’s not like they’re showcasing classic cinema. Exxon never plays Antonioni. Neither does Stop & Shop, nor your primary care physician. Would it kill them to show something artistic while bleeding us dry? It doesn’t have to be high-minded. There are commercial masterpieces like The Godfather. Instead, they got some plastic blonde julienning vegetables for a pasta primavera recipe. I try ignoring her, but she’s louder than the morning commute itself.

I swipe my debit card. After considerable delay, the computer asks me to see the teller. It says please. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, I have sufficient funds. This particular gas station doesn’t always agree with my magnetic particles. I often take this personally and why shouldn’t I? They’re suggesting a metaphysical flaw on my part when in fact the misconception belongs to them. There’s no excuse for it. They’re too big for shoddy equipment, but they can afford to belittle me. They’re the only gas station on this side of the road. It’s not like I’m going to cross two lanes of rush hour traffic just to make a point. Location, location, location, and individuals somewhere between.

I don’t want to see the teller. I know what he looks like. He’s tall and gray with a big round pregnant stomach. Every time I see him, he’s wearing a blue Exxon sweatshirt with Earl embroidered over his heart. Earl never looks at me when I pay. He never mutters a sorry when their state of the art technology rejects my existence. He sits on a stool and listens to talk radio. I can well imagine his outlook on things. Tom Brady is God. Barak Obama is the Devil. If he can’t be swayed by runaway icebergs crashing into Australia then what good will getting in his face do? I press cancel and swipe my card again. The shaking has traveled up to my hands.

While the pump re-processes my data, I watch the fireplug open valves and lift lids. He dips a long measuring stick into the gas tanks. Something gets into me. I refuse to give him the inch.

“Don’t let that ruler get to your head, pal. It’s not that big!”

He holds his hand to his ear feigning deafness, daring me to repeat myself. I don’t look like the kind of guy who would smash his head in with a tire iron. My father looks and acts like that kind of guy. He was born in Quindici, a small town in the province of Avellino. At twenty, he immigrated to Boston in order to pursue a career as a union laborer. People have always said that he looks like Sonny Corleone. My father has never seen The Godfather. It’s a three hour film. He’s never sat down that long. James Caan has twice won Italian-American of the year for his performance as the hot-headed oldest of the Corleone brothers. James Caan is not Italian. He is the son of a Jewish butcher. It’s never made sense to me. How can my father look Jewish? Is there something about my lineage that I don’t know? People also say that my father has the body of Hercules. Sometimes they say he has the body of the Incredible Hulk. In this case, I know what they mean. They mean he has the body of Lou Ferrigno because nobody has ever seen Hercules or the Incredible Hulk in real life. They’ve seen Lou Ferrigno with a beard and club or they’ve seen him painted green. Hercules was not Jewish and neither was the Incredible Hulk. Sonny Corleone had a Herculean temper and I’ve read stories that the real James Caan is a black belt in judo. Put it this way, I wouldn’t be surprised to someday find out that I’m part golem.

The pump has rejected my existence a second time. The fireplug uncoils a large hose. With both hands, he holds it between his legs while filling one of the tanks. More wishful thinking on his part. He continues to glare at me. I blow him a kiss. He removes both hands from the hose and sculpts them into a makeshift megaphone.

“Stick around so I can put my foot up that candy ass of yours.”

He has hit a soft spot. I do have somewhat of a sugarplum ass. I’m not fat by any stretch of the imagination. I’m 5’9”. I have a 34 waist, but my ass is full and soft. It’s my mother’s ass. I am built like her. I also have her long eyelashes. Personally, I think she bears a striking resemblance to Marisa Tomei. Nobody else sees it, not even my father. Marisa Tomei has a brother Adam. I once Googled Adam’s image wondering and inexplicably hoping that we’d look alike, but it wasn’t meant to be. In looking like my mother, I look more like Adam’s sister Marisa. I also inherited the Oscar-winning actress’s angelic countenance. In all my thirty years, I’ve never struck another human being. Growing up in East Boston, I never had to. My father’s reputation and stature protected me from those who might capitalize on my Christly nature, but he’s not here anymore. He’s hiding somewhere in Italy. The authorities spend more money than he’s ever made trying to find him.

I swipe my card a third time. The plastic blond dispels the myth about adding oil or butter to your pasta water. Doing so coats the pasta and will prevent it from absorbing the sauce. They’re divulging our secrets. They’re reducing all of our worldly contributions to a few cheap and easy clichés. They will leave us with nothing. It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business. They say this and the most inhumane acts become wildly practical.
“Come over here and I’ll beat you down to size!” It’s the loudest I’ve ever yelled.

Holding up his index finger, the fireplug signals that he’ll be right over. Customers stop pumping. Some head into the store with hurried footsteps. Others duck into their cars and lock the doors. They see it coming before I do. The voice of Earl comes over the intercom system.

“Knock it off,” he says.

I look towards the store, but can’t see Earl. The morning sun is setting the windows ablaze.

“He started it,” I say aloud, not really sure if Earl is listening.

“I don’t give a rat’s ass. Either come inside and pay or get the hell out of here.”

“Whatever happened to the customer always being right?” I quip.

“I ain’t selling nice sports coats. You’re not a customer until you come in here and pay for gas.”

I take my blazer off and throw it to the ground. If it was up to them, I’d be playing Sonny Corleone my entire life. I’ve seen footage of Robert De Niro trying out for the role of Sonny. He doesn’t pull it off, which is somewhat surprising given his Oscar winning performance as Sonny’s father, Vito Corleone. You’d think traces of Vito would emerge in De Niro’s performance of the Sicilian Don’s son. Every so often, when the feds coming knocking in regards to my father’s whereabouts, they’re always surprised by our unlikeness.

“Earl, climate change isn’t a fairytale. It’s real and you’re one of the primary contributors. You’re also responsible for both wars.”

There’s some crackling feedback before he responds.

“That’s it,” he says. “I’m calling the cops.”

I’ll never know for sure if my subconscious purposely popped the hatchback instead of the fuel cap. I never did reach back inside to correct the error. Having the hatchback open made my next move all the more accessible. I unbuttoned my shirt cuffs and lifted the hatchback open. I removed the tire iron from the spare tire compartment. It wasn’t like the weighty tire irons of old. It was made of some cheap alloy but heavy enough for the job at hand. I had no intention of hitting him. I just wanted to leave an impression. I wanted to raise it above my head and see him cower. Put the fear of Jesus into him and the anger of the Hulk inside of myself.

The fireplug had turned his back to me while coiling the hose. I wasn’t looking for a cheap shot. I wanted him to see and understand my frustrations with the world. I wanted my frustrations to appear relevant and powerful. In my best Hercules pose, I raised the tire iron above my head and tapped him on the shoulder. He didn’t think twice about spinning around and catching me in the chin with a wild right hook. My head barely budged. All the shaking in my limbs stopped. I was tougher than I’d ever thought, but my arm panicked. It swung with the tire iron in hand—a kneejerk reaction some thirty years in the making.

I stuck the fireplug just above the brow, knocking him to one knee. He pressed his hand against the wound and whined profanities. There was lots of blood and so forth. Everything was going horribly wrong. This wasn’t what I had wanted. He looked terrified. He seemed to resent my existence, which was exactly how I had previously felt about him. He wanted to stand up and kill me. I could see it all over his face. I had no choice. I had to hit him again. I wouldn’t place the full force of my anger behind it. Just a little something to keep him down, as my father had always told my deaf ears.

The fireplug’s eyes were shut tight as if making an excruciating wish. I wanted him to see it coming. It was the decent thing to do.

“Look at me,” I said. “I want you to see me.”

He refused. He shook his head. He didn’t understand so I tried explaining it to him.

“It’s personal,” I said. “No more business as usual. I want you to see me. I’ve taken you personally, and now I want you to take me personally. It’s common courtesy. We all deserve to be taken personally. The world would be a better place.”

He still couldn’t understand. I didn’t understand either, but it was my job to make believe. This is the role of those in power.

“See that car over there?” I pointed to my Prius with the tire iron. “It gets forty-seven miles to the gallon.”

“Your fucking car? Is that what this is about?”

He wasn’t very happy. He took a pitiful swing and missed by a mile, nearly falling over in the process. Of course it was about my car. It was about global warming. It was about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was about the BP oil spill. It was about James Caan breaking Gianni Russo’s ribs while filming their Godfather fight scene. It was also about me defining myself in the absence of my father. But I wasn’t going to tell the fireplug that. I had to keep a few secrets for myself while I still had a self to save, before I turned green or grew a beard. I heard sirens. The fireplug heard them too. They gave him the courage to look up. The second blow caught him just above the left ear, a few inches shy of his temple. And it had come to me just like that, from somewhere way back when, just as I’d always anticipated.

Join the conversation