When I came down into the eastern valley, I drove for a long time completely alone on the road. Everything was far away. Then I came upon a little roadside station. It appeared out of nowhere like something from the past, run-down with faded advertising painted on the slat walls. I could make out the word Durham and what looked like a bull’s head. I pulled over and stopped. An old guy came out wearing overall grease pants and a baseball cap with an emblem worn away to obscurity. He stood there in the shade under the front door awning, squinting at me and wiping his hands with a black rag.
“What can I do you for?” he asked as I got out of my car.
“Hey, good morning. I’m just picking up a few supplies,” I said, walking towards him. Why did I feel like an intruder? He certainly wasn’t giving me a welcoming vibe. He nodded once, looked me up and down and then took a long hard look at my car. I had the feeling no one ever stopped here.
“Had many customers today?” I asked.
I glanced back at the road and thought that I may have made a mistake stopping there. If asked, he would certainly remember me. It was like he was studying me.
“You got a bathroom?” I asked.
“Round back.” He pointed with his eyes.
I went around the side of the station and found a sloping hillside junkyard surrounded by a wood fence covered with hubcaps. The lot was filled with old car carcasses rusting in rows. They had shattered bloody windshields and smashed up fenders and side panels. Some were stacked on top of each other. And along the back slope was a clustered tower of oil drums and vehicle parts in barrels and wheels and engine blocks sitting on sawhorses. It was a glorious graveyard of the road.
The bathroom was an outhouse there by the corner of the station, and when I went inside it smelled like the foul depths of perdition. I breathed short, quick breaths through my teeth, taking in as little air as possible inside there. When I came out, I noticed a bumper lying tilted against a smashed car, and on that bumper a license plate dangled by one rusty bolt. I looked around, didn’t see the old man, and kicked the license plate off. It was bent, and I stomped it flat and slipped it under my shirt behind my back.
I went up to the shop and pushed through the bell-ring of the door into an ancient mercantile store with stuffed fox and beaver pelts up on the wall and a big jar with amber liquid and a rattle snake floating in it. I half expected to see some old prospector emerge from the pulpy fabric of the hot air. I wandered down the rows of shelves looking at faded magazines and canned foods and dried foods and racks of sunglasses, thinking, what do I need? I grabbed a few snacks from the food aisle, some peanuts and beef jerky and beer, and I put them on the counter. The old guy stood there working that dirty rag around his grease-black fingers, squinting at me like he knew something.
“How much I owe you?” I asked.
“Lemme see here,” he said, and he rang it up. Then he looked at me with an odd expression and kind of worked his mouth like he was chewing on something and said, “What you done?”
“I said what you done, ya takin my license plate like that? You’re up to something.”
“Nothing,” I said. “I just wanted it for a souvenir.”
“Ain’t worth nothin.”
“Then it’s no loss.”
“Take it. I don’t care. Just seems like a strange thing to want for no reason.”
“You ever do anything for no reason?”
He smiled a bit, but he didn’t give me the impression he was on my side. He was figurin.’ Then he said, “S’pose so.”
“I’ll pay you for it.”
“Don’t want your money. Like I said. It ain’t worth nothin’ to me.”
“Well, then, thanks I suppose.”
“Don’t thank me. It’s between you and God.” I looked at him for a moment with an urge to explain, but what was I going to tell him? He was reading it just right. Then I wanted to ask him exactly which God he was talking about, but he turned away and went back into the shadows, which was a kind of answer, so I took my things and left.
Douglas Cole has published six collections of poetry and a novella. His work has appeared in several anthologies as well as The Chicago Quarterly Review, The Galway Review, Bitter Oleander, Louisiana Literature and Slipstream. He has been nominated twice for a Pushcart and Best of the Net and received the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry. He lives and teaches in Seattle. His website is douglastcole.com.