A guy on the local news said most gas stations lowered their prices at nine in the morning and raised them at four, something about fucking over people who’d already driven to work and drivers who didn’t leave their cubicles until dusk. He didn’t exactly use those words, but any rational cynic knew what he meant. I don’t think the guy was an economist or soothsayer, but he evidently worked honestly at something in between or no one would’ve interviewed him on Channel 4. I didn’t catch his name or occupation, but he wore a blue shirt and striped tie. He combed his hair. The guy seemed to know more about oil corporations than the rest of my friends, relatives, or instrument-needy prospective customers.
So on Friday morning I drove from where I live on the outskirts of Calloustown, and began circling a block that held a Citgo, a Sunoco, an Exxon, and a locally owned Rajer Dodger’s that had two self-serve pumps out front. I circled and circled, starting about 8:30. Each establishment sold regular unleaded for $3.65 a gallon, plus that 9/10 —twenty cents less than the national average, but like my friends, relatives, and instrument-needy prospective customers always say, “So what? It’s still fucking Calloustown,” though, again, not in those exact words.
Three-sixty-five, three-sixty-five, three-sixty-five, three-sixty-five. I rounded the block—this is the Columbia Road, over onto Old Calloustown Road, onto the Charleston Road, onto Old Old Calloustown Road particular circle. What I’m saying is, I circled the heart of town where supply and demand mattered. In between I noticed six or eight church signs, the funeral home, Southern Exotic Pets, Worm’s Bar, and so on. Worm had a new piece of plywood leaned next to his door that advertised topless, which meant he’d be in there behind the bar not wearing a shirt. He’d done it before, during lean times, like the last time gasoline prices reached $3.65 and people rarely left their houses. One of the churches had a magnetic letter sign out front that read SIN COOKS FRY LATER, which took me about sixteen right-hand turns to figure out, what with “cooks” being both a verb and noun, and wondering if someone forgot a comma. I thought, At least the preacher or signage person isn’t making me go to the library forty miles away, find a Bible, and look up what’s spelled out in a particular chapter and verse.
At nine o’clock, just as I was about to run out of gas, sure enough, assistant managers started coming out of the four stations and/or convenience stores. They took their poles and exchanged a 5 for a 3, bringing the price per gallon down to $3.63 plus that 9/10. I thought, They need to hire that dude on a permanent basis on the TV, the guy who figured out this raise and lower prices ruse. I thought, Fuck the weatherman, who’s never close to being right.
I circled around two more times, then pulled into Rajer Dodger’s only because I liked to hear the Indian guy in there yell things out to his wife in whatever dialect they employed. It didn’t matter to me much that they offered gas that came from one of the major oil companies, or that they charged an extra dime per gallon if one used a credit card, just like every other station on the block.
I pulled up to the pump. I got out and unscrewed the cap. I read PLEASE MUST PAY FIRST PLEASE on a handwritten sign taped to the pump’s torso and—although I wanted to say, “Oh fuck me give me a break what kind of gas station doesn’t have one of those fancy credit/debit acceptors plus a place to slide in cash a la any of the video poker machines up at Harrah’s Casino up in Cherokee?”—locked the door to my pickup and started inside.
This is when I noticed a white man, of the normal indeterminate age of these parts—which means between fifty and eighty—sitting in front of a 55-gallon plastic barrel, his legs splayed out with ten or twelve pints of blackberries in between. He said, “You need you some berries, chief. Keep away the cancer. Eat them on ice cream or whole under milk. Or by they selves. Keep away the cancer. You don’t want the cancer for you and yours, right?”
Remember that I said “dusk” earlier—about people leaving work—which means I’m talking winter. Blackberries emerge in July. No one has local fresh blackberries in November. They have spinach—which fights cancer, too, according to spinach farmers—but not blackberries. Hell, I’ve been around long enough to hear how everything fights cancer: radishes, peaches, cordwood, getting your driveway sealed.
I said, “You up early selling,” because I couldn’t think of anything else.
“I ain’t no worse than you,” the blackberry man said. He scrambled up without corrupting one of the cardboard containers. “You ain’t better than me, chief.”
I would like to say that the price of fuel caused people in my town to act all bowed-up and cocksure, but even if Rajer inside decided to sell his gasoline at pre—1979 prices and hand out wedges of free garlic naan, everyone around would still pick fights and scowl.
I said, “Just came in to fill up my tank, man. That’s it. If I come across anyone today looking for vine-ripened berries, I’ll send them your way.”
I walked into the store trying to figure out what $3.63 times twenty gallons would end up, because I didn’t want to tell Rajer I wanted seventy-five bucks’ worth and then have to go back in and get change if I filled the tank prematurely. Rajer yelled out, “Hello, Mr. Finley, how are you today, fine sir?”
I had told him not to call me Mr. Finley. Hell, he’d started off greeting me as Finley sahib, so I guess we’d made some progress over the last few years I’d known him. He’d gone from Finley sahib to Mr. Kay, to Mr. Finley Kay, to Mr. Finley. In a decade he might plain say, “Hey, Finley, what up, bro?” like any other American. I said, “Hey, Raj, I need to fill up. Or at least I need to get about seventy dollars.”
“Do not blame me for the price of gas! I make two cents only for every gallon. Two cents! Everyone think that we are setting the high prices, but it is the oil companies. And the Arabs. Mr. Finley, please—as you go about your daily duties—tell people that I am not from Arabia.”
I can’t say for sure if Raj Patel suffered from one of the more common forms of short-term memory loss—Korsakoff’s Syndrome, for example—but he found it necessary to explain the nuances of oil company/distributor/individual operator every time I walked in, fuel-needy or not. If I wasn’t busy and didn’t have an order to complete back home, I’d hang out with good Raj, look over his various Ganesh pictures and figurines, listen to his weird music, ask about the incense he burned. In time he’d explain what pathetic profits he received for beer, Little Debbie’s oatmeal pies, charcoal lighter fluid, white bread, daily newspapers, cigarettes, pickle relish, and so on. He must’ve been some kind of champion oratory/forensics/declaration contestant back in his Mumbai, Delhi, or Bangalore school days.
I said, “I’m not blaming you on the price of gas, buddy. I know.” I didn’t tell him how I’d become aware of every goddamn gas station in America dropping prices when fewer people pulled into stations, et cetera, when the “average price per gallon” people went around and concluded that things weren’t as bad as they seemed.
“You are my favorite customer, Mr. Finley,” Raj said. I’d heard him say it to people named Mr. Bubba and Mr. Larry, to Ms. Darlene and Ms. Tiffany, when I stood nearly out of earshot at the twelve-packs.
I started to say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I never see you giving me some lamb saag or whatever it’s called.” I started to say, “I sure could use a little of that good goat vindaloo that we can’t get around Calloustown.”
But I couldn’t, because the blackberry dude charged in and yelled out, “I can get y’all a deal on telephone poles! Who needs some beet sugar? I can get y’all sugar, beans, gourd birdhouses, snow peas, book matches, and rebuilt carburetors. Y’all in need of those things? I got a line on Royal brand typewriters. I got fescue, putters, fog lights, boogie boards, aluminum siding, fire ant killer, and plastic lifelike nativity scenes. Did I mention telephone poles? And blackberries.”
I stood there staring at him. He came across much taller inside the store. I’m talking this guy might’ve been six-four or six-six, tall enough to’ve played some basketball in his day. He should’ve been selling peaches, apples, or oranges, what with that height. I said, “I only need the gas.”
Raj Patel said, “Hello, Mr. Ruben Orr, how are you today, fine sir?”
“I got everything cheap and legal, as usual,” Ruben Orr said, “chief.”
“You got any ukuleles?” I asked him. If he did, then I knew he’d stolen them from me. Me, I had gone from being a normal luthier into specializing in ukuleles—an instrument that had become more sought after than most people believed, probably because of A.D.D.
“Little guitars? Ukuleles, like tiny guitars?” Ruben said. “I had me some sitars while back but Rajer here bought all them things up.”
“My nephews back home are very good sitar players. They are professionals!” Raj said. He nodded, and didn’t blink. “One of them is now the number one steel sitar player in all of India.”
I said “Huh,” handed Raj over three twenties and two fives, and walked out to pump my gas before it went back up in price.
I didn’t have my camper top attached—I’d only had to put the thing on one time in order to transport sixty custom-made Finley Kay ukuleles to a group of Hawaiian music enthusiasts who wanted to break some kind of world record in regards to number of people standing waist-deep over in Lake Calloustown while strumming and singing “Tiny Bubbles.” So it wasn’t difficult to see, in my rearview mirror, Mr. Ruben Orr tailing me on his moped. Six-four or six-six on a moped, is what I’m saying. I took some turns—there weren’t many options—onto Old Savannah Road, then Old Charlotte Road, then Old Myrtle Beach—and the guy stayed behind me. I thought, Fuck, do I want to waste all this cheap two-pennies-off-normal-price gas trying to keep a blackberry-to-telephone-pole-selling, moped-riding lunatic from perhaps following me back home? Maybe he actually lived on the route I’m taking, I thought.
I looked down at my gas gauge and noticed how I’d already spent a good eighth of a tank trying to lose the guy. I turned left, then right, then right again until I got on the road where I lived—where my ex-wife and I lived until she said out loud how she didn’t believe in a ukulele-making husband and took off for Raleigh, North Carolina, where, evidently, men have jobs that’re more secure and less suspect.
I checked my rearview mightily, and sure enough Mr. Ruben Orr continued behind me, scrunched down as if to be more aerodynamic.
I don’t know that this has much to do with my story, but I don’t believe in the NRA. I mean, I believe the NRA exists, just like I believe that the Bible exists, for I’ve seen it, but I don’t believe in those virgin birth, parting of the Red Sea, burning bush, dead guy Lazarus returning, water to wine kinds of stories. Anyway, I don’t believe that the Second Amendment allows all of us to carry little pistols around whenever we want, for the only purpose of shooting people we fear. No, I believe in taking care of things otherwise.
I got out of my truck, reached beneath my seat, and pulled out half a Louisville Slugger. I pulled out nunchucks I didn’t know how to use. Further back I found an old length of a telephone line, maybe eighteen inches in length, notch marks at one end for a better grip. In my pocket I knew there was a razor-sharp folding Buck knife, but that would be my last option.
Mr. Ruben Orr puttered up behind my truck. He smiled and said, “Hey, you remember me from Rajer Dodger’s?”
“What’re you doing following me, man?” I asked.
He set his kickstand and turned the ignition. “You never let me finish my sentence. I thought you’d be coming back in the station. Anyway, sure enough I do have a couple ukuleles back at the trailer. Well, back in one of the filled-up trailers I got to the side of my doublewide. I got kerosene lanterns, pup tents, crockery, model cars and airplanes in the box, alligator heads, a stuffed bobcat. All kinds of shit. And two ukuleles, but I imagine the catgut’s somewhere between compromised and useless.”
I said, of course, “Well I sure would like to take a look at the things.”
Ruben Orr said, “I tell you what, Finley. Do you mind if I call you Finley, or Fin? Raj told me your name. I tell you what. I’ll go home, get the ukuleles, and bring them back over to Rajer Dodger’s. I shouldn’t’ve left all my blackberries there in the first place. You drop on by later and I’ll have them there waiting for your inspection.”
I closed my truck door so that Ruben couldn’t see my nunchucks, sawed-off bat, or copper-wire-and-rubber billy club. I said, “I got some work to do around here, but I’ll come back on by about after lunch.”
“Sounds good,” Ruben said. He stretched his back. “You got a nice little setup here,” he said. “Damn, son, you look like you done good for yourself.”
“In a previous life,” I said, which was true, seeing as I’d married up. “Used to have a rich wife and a regular job.”
Ruben Orr straddled his moped and turned the ignition. “I hear that,” he said. He turned the ignition off and on again. “Same story as me, except for the rich wife and regular job.” He shook his moped, then opened the gas tank lid and peered down close.
I said, “Let me guess.”
“Goddamn it. This wouldn’t’ve happened if you’d’ve pulled over when I kept buzzing my horn and flashing my lights. Man, I took off following you before I could even fill up at Rajer’s. You know, they all drop their prices from about nine in the morning until when people get off work. I seen a thing on the news about it.”
I had zero cans of gas in my possession, seeing as I feared my ex-father-in-law showing up, spreading it around, and burning me clear out of the state. Or my own dousing the place and sitting in the middle of it all, surrounded by custom-made ukuleles that weren’t selling like a year earlier. I said, “Let’s get that thing in the back of my truck and I’ll drive you over to Rajer’s. I don’t have gas here, and I fear siphoning out of my own tank.”
“Goddamn it,” Ruben Orr said. “I hate to put you out.”
He picked the moped up by himself and laid it down on its side. Ruben strode over to the passenger side of the truck while I closed the tailgate. I said, “I’m not in a giant hurry today.”
“Hey, what are all those weapons of questionable destruction doing on your benchseat?”
I couldn’t lie. It’s a fault. Not being able to lie ruined my marriage. Making and selling ukuleles doesn’t require lying, since they are what they are. I dropped out of college first semester junior year because I enrolled in an acting class, and as it ended up I couldn’t conjure up a dialect outside the one I owned, or memorize lines I’d’ve never said in a social situation.
I said, “Well. I don’t own a gun. I don’t own rifles or pistols.”
Ruben Orr laughed. He banged his giant hand on my dashboard. “I had an old boy hit me upside the head with a two-by-four one time and I didn’t even swerve off the road.”
I tried to visualize a man getting whacked thusly while straddling a moped. I said, “I don’t even know how to use nunchucks, to be honest,” and backed out onto the road.
“I got this idea,” Ruben said. “I don’t live far from Rajer Dodger’s, and I got gas at my own home.”
I thought, A fireplace poker would fit nicely beneath my truck seat. I thought, Find a way to ask if he’s got fireplace pokers for sale when we get there.
“Mahogany’s good for a ukulele, isn’t it?” Ruben said as we pulled up to his mobile home, which appeared to be surrounded by four singlewides, two Airstreams, and two yellow school buses plugged without wheels into the clay yard. When viewed from above, I would imagine that his arrangement of aluminum abodes looked similar to ancient hieroglyphics, or one of Carl Gustav Jung’s mandala examples, or a cartoon character’s slit eyeball with crow’s feet. “Over the years I think I had a couple oak wood ukuleles. One time I had one built out of balsa wood but I had it outside on a windy day and never seen the thing again.”
I said, “If you have a mahogany uke—like a Gretsch, or a Harmony Company Vita-Uke signed Roy Smeck—I’d be interested. I’d be surprised, and I’d be interested.”
Ruben pulled his moped out of the truck bed, straddled it, turned the ignition, and rode it forward when it started. He steered it thirty feet to a four-foot-high, tin-topped, three-sided enclosure of sorts, and pulled the kickstand back down. “I’ll be damned,” he said. “I guess I had enough gas in it after all. Must be a jiggle-needy starter that’s the problem.”
I can’t lie, like I said. I said, “I think you brought me out here on a ruse. I’m thinking that my ex-father-in-law hired you out to kill me.”
He smiled. “Man. You got you some kind of paranoia going for you, son. Look. I will confess to a thing or two, Finley Kay. First off, I know who you are. Two, I’m about broke. I just thought that if I could get you over here, you’d be the kind of fellow who’d appreciate my collections and possibly want to buy something. Everybody knows how much money you getting for custom-made Finley Kay two-tone soprano ukuleles, plus that monetary award you got from the arts commission for Craftsperson of the Year, beating out all the basketweavers down in the lowcountry. That’s it, I promise.”
I believed him, I suppose. A mixed breed dog came out from beneath the livable trailer, stretched, then slunk back in. “How come you didn’t just show up at my house and ask me, then? Have you been hanging out at Rajer Dodger’s waiting for me? Did someone say I could be lured by thorny-vined fruits?”
Ruben Orr pulled a ring of keys from his blue jeans and opened the door to the closest storage trailer. He propped the door open, then walked counterclockwise to open the other ones on the property.
I closed my truck door, finally, after feeling for my knife. “You start rummaging in that first one. Yell if you got any questions. I’mo go inside and make us some special old-fashioneds. I hear you got a thing for the bourbon.”
Fuck, I thought. I thought, Who drinks old-fashioneds these days, outside of ninety-year-old Kentucky women and twenty-six-year-old hipsters nostalgic for Brylcreem, money clips, cuff links, Vitalis, manual typewriters, turntables, cat eye eyeglasses, and vintage paneled station wagons? I thought, My wife somehow got ahold of Ruben and told him how I never understood the notion of moderation, except in matters of love and mother-of-pearl inlay.
“I hope you don’t have any raccoons holed up in here,” I said, but Ruben had already entered his abode. I said to myself, “Go in, pick out a couple things, pay for them, and get the hell out of here.” I walked up three concrete steps to what had once been a classic, off-silver and aqua singlewide, probably one of the remaining few manufactured circa 1960 that hadn’t uprooted and flown away via tornadoes. I thought, Pick two things, pay what he asks, go home, and call somebody to install a home security system. Call up Rachel and tell her I’m not planning any surprise trips to Raleigh, should she worry, unless a knot of ukulele troubadours request some specialized instruments worthy of viable amplification.
I looked back at my truck to make sure there wasn’t a visible bomb strapped to the undercarriage. And then I turned my head to inside the trailer: stuffed bobcats, coyotes, wild turkeys, hawks, owls, coons, skunks, a river otter, maybe a badger, groundhogs, one small pony, a nutria, foxes, two armadillos, and coiled venomous rattlers roamed the floor. I’m talking, again, that this was a 16x80-foot trailer. Mounted heads of deer, wild boars, one moose, and a two-headed calf adorned the upper parts of the walls. I saw no ukuleles, for one, or anything else I might be interested in transferring to my own living conditions. I should say that, in between, there were stacks of Popsicle stick baskets, tools, single- and double-tree yokes, a history of the boom box, and enough vacant wasp nest stucco apartments hanging from the ceiling to satisfy a homeopathy-leaning Chinese woman masterful in ancient reliable tonics and salves.
So I ventured over to the next trailer—a perfect Airstream—and looked in to find plastic bins of ashtrays, bottlecaps, rocks, peach pits, and car cigarette lighters, among other things. Hubcaps covered the walls.
I thought, You need to call up that TV show where pickers come in and relieve people of their relentless habits before they end up on that other TV show that delves into people who won’t ever discard anything, including trash.
“You found anything yet?” Ruben Orr yelled from the doorway.
I jumped in a way that didn’t make me proud. I might’ve blurted out, “Not now!” or “This isn’t how I’m supposed to die!” like that. I said, “Man, I’ve never seen anything like this. Do you have a website? You need to have some of your stuff listed on eBay, or craigslist, or something like that.”
Ruben Orr handed me a delicate glass with a slice of orange hanging on top. He said, “What?” He held out his own glass to clink. “Now, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill old-fashioned.”
I waited for him to drink first, of course. I even thought to ask that we switch glasses, seeing as mine might be poisoned, but then I remembered a psychology course I took one time. Evidently people can smell paranoia, and they hold poisoned drinks in their own hands knowing that they’ll be requested to switch, et cetera.
My own ex-wife Rachel said that I let off distinguishable pheromones right before I admitted how I never wished to move out of Calloustown, work a regular job, have children, vote Republican, join a gym that offered spin classes, and promise that we’d one day own a timeshare in Myrtle Beach. That “vote Republican” part seemed to be what ended our marriage. Listen, I could’ve gone into the booth, come out, and lied, but it didn’t occur to me until she’d already settled down doing whatever she found necessary.
“Cheers,” I said, and we drank simultaneously. I took one gulp, and Ruben drank his. I didn’t care that I might be poisoned, understand. Indeed this drink wasn’t the traditional old-fashioned I’d ever read about. I said, “Goddamn, Mr. Ruben Orr, what is this?” for I’d never tasted anything such.
“I normally don’t tell people my secrets,” he said. “Hell, I’ve had Worm down at Worm’s place offer me thirty-three dollars for this recipe, but I wouldn’t give it to him. I might have to in time, what with my financial state, but not so far.”
We stepped out from the Airstream and moseyed over to one of the gutted buses. From the opened door I could view what looked like an entire room of wooden finials. I said, “How come you and I have never run into each other? Calloustown ain’t exactly a metropolis. How long have you lived here? I’ve been here my whole life, except for a couple years.”
“The ukuleles ain’t in this bus, I know. Let’s go on to the next one,” Ruben said. He said, “Hold on right here,” and ran back to his trailer, opened the door, reached in, and retrieved an entire pitcher of his old-fashioneds. “Here you go,” he said on return, filling my glass. He pulled out an orange slice from the pitcher and floated it atop my drink.
I said, “I might be interested in a finial or two. I don’t have a staircase in my house, but I got a thing for finials. Maybe I could make a ukulele with a finial at neck’s end.”
“Most people insist on a couple dashes of bitters per glass. Me, I use muddled unripe raspberries. Most people insist on a maraschino cherry. I use a blackberry. See, I muddle blackberries, a lemon rind, a cube of brown sugar, the unripe raspberries, and I use rye whiskey instead of regular bourbon. I use a half and half mix of spring water and club soda. And then I put a taste of good moonshine in there—it’s not more than a thimbleful per glass, you know. That’s all I can tell you. There are two other secret ingredients I won’t tell.”
I finished my second glass. Ruben and I passed the fourth outbuilding, and then 5 through 8. We went by number 1 again, and kept circling. I kind of forgot that we meant to find a vintage stringed instrument formed of pure mahogany.
“We’ve seen each other,” Ruben said. “I guess you weren’t paying attention.”
He and I rounded his place another half-dozen times, high-stepping over broken glass, weeds, pottery shards, old vaccination tags, deteriorating tennis balls, broken bottles, doll limbs, and what appeared to be the sun-bleached skulls of songbirds. I tried to pace myself. I tried to convince myself that it was okay for one of America’s premier ukulele luthiers to partake of something other than straight bourbon or rum or vodka. As a matter of fact, I rationalized, a premier ukulele maker might want to drink nothing but cocktails that required an intense, precise, and specific muddling process, garnished with paper umbrellas. I said, “I’m not the first person to say that I’m self-absorbed. I’m the second. Rachel used to say it all the time. I think that’s what she kept saying. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention to her, either.”
“I knew Rachel. She bought some Fire-King from me. As a matter of fact, I believe Rachel met my daughter one time. My one daughter. I believe you met her one time, too, son. At least one time.”
I picked up on all the repetitive words. It didn’t take a master’s degree in psychology to understand that he wanted to make some kind of point. I looked into Ruben Orr’s face and, sure enough, recognized the resemblance in his eyes of a woman named Mayley I’d once known. Fuck, I thought. The one local ukulele-lesson-needy woman who required private lessons that I’d ever fallen for and—in my inability to lie—told Rachel, “Um, I met a woman I’m attracted to,” et cetera. She wasn’t even local officially—just someone taking care of a sick relative for the summer months, as I recalled. Mayley’d signed up for the ukulele class over at the Calloustown Community Center, where I taught a six-class course. To Ruben I said, “Mayley Orr’s your daughter?”
I guessed at the last name—our affair didn’t last long enough for us to know family names. Well, I guess she knew mine seeing as she strummed a Finley Kay ukulele.
“So. What do you think about buying a little something I got taxidermied now? Mayley’s little boy ain’t interested in animals at the time, but I bet he will be one day.”
I had read somewhere along the way that owning a pickup truck between the ages of twenty-two and thirty created a number of inescapable furniture-handling weekends for friends and strangers alike, and that ownership past the age of thirty brought about requests from friends and strangers to borrow the truck in order to haul firewood, mulch, and potting soil. Whoever came up with this little truism needs to update his or her adage to include a menagerie of rabies-worthy stuffed animals. Well, not quite true: I felt obligated to buy every available bobcat, fox, raccoon, and beaver that Ruben Orr needed to evict from his storage unit.
“I’m going to use this money to start my grandboy up a college fund so he can be like you,” Ruben said as I tried to drive off. He said, “You know what his name is?” I didn’t say No, for I felt pretty certain it was Finley. I stared at Ruben Orr. He said, “That’s right, you know.”
I said, “I’ll get you the rest of the money when I can,” for, even though he offered me a deal—we went inside and looked on his Mac at various stuffed mid-size mammals for sale on eBay, craigslist, and some kind of Mountain and Lake Cabin Interior Decorator’s site—we wanted to make sure that neither of us over- or underpriced the value of a beaver.
I began driving home, careful not to veer across lines that weren’t even painted on our back roads, my eyes in the rearview mirror. I didn’t want my animals to topple roadside, for one, and I feared that Ruben Orr might follow me. What would I do if, as I pulled into my own driveway, he puttered up to tell me how his grandson kept asking who his father was? Would I reach beneath my seat and pull out one of my so-called weapons? Would I cry? What kind of explanation could I summon up honestly should he bring along a lawyer, social worker, or Mayley Orr herself?
I looked down at my fuel gauge and noticed how I no longer owned a seven-eighths-full tank. My truck missed twice, and I said to no one, “That fucker siphoned gas when I wasn’t paying attention.”
Rajer changed the price back up to $3.65 as I coasted into his convenience store. I looked at my wristwatch to read that, just like the smart man on TV pointed out, it would be between four and five in the afternoon. I looked over to check on Ruben’s blackberry cartons, which seemed to be undisturbed. Rajer yelled out, “Hello, Mr. Finley, good to see you again! Are you going to construct a humorous diorama so that those weasels hold your special ukuleles? Very good! Very funny, when animals look like they possess musical abilities. I have seen many, many animals playing music on the Internet. Always good. Bullfrog with banjo!”
I said nothing to Rajer for two reasons. Later on I would fret endlessly that he considered it a snub. I didn’t respond to him because I pictured all those stuffed animals actually holding ukuleles for some kind of promotional advertising, maybe in the back of Taxidermy Today or Yuke and Yours. Secondly, beyond the sparse afternoon Calloustown traffic I detected the faint sputtering—at first not unlike a brave gnat entering the ear canal—that turned to distant chainsaw, then unmistakable poor cousin of a Honda 150, or Yamaha 175, or Japanese electric turkey knife.
I said, “I know the trick y’all are playing on people, Raj. The noon news can do some kind of survey saying gas prices are low, but then y’all jack it up crazy when most people need to fill up.”
Ruben Orr neared. I imagined him riding that moped with sawed-off shotguns swathed around his back. Rajer got off his ladder. He didn’t smile. “You shouldn’t drive all day long. You filled up this morning! In my city back in India, gasoline costs $5.03 all the time, no $5.01 between nine and four.”
I started to say something about how my previous purchase must’ve gotten siphoned off, but Ruben Orr veered right up beside me and skidded to a stop. He cleared his throat hard twice, unstraddled the moped, cleared his throat twice again, bent over, banged his right knee with his right palm, straightened up, walked two steps toward my truck’s bed, and pet the bobcat. He said, “I can’t leave you, Robert. I’m sorry.”
I held the gas nozzle in my right hand. I’d already clicked down that little metal arm, so I was ready to look like I could pump either in my tank or toward a possible villain. I said, “You stole gas from me.”
Raj said, “Hello, Mr. Ruben Orr.”
“I made a mistake,” Ruben said. He touched every stuffed animal, and called their names: Ringo for the raccoon, for example, and Slappy for the beaver. “Oh, God, I made some mistakes.” He looked like he might cry. “This would be a good time for you to say how you, too, have made some mistakes in your life, both personal and professional.”
He didn’t look six-four or six-six anymore. As a matter of fact, he looked like the kind of man who could be a good grandfather to a ukulele-making man’s bastard child. I said, “I have sure enough made some errors.” I said, “I know this won’t make anyone involved feel better, but my own father thinks I’m screwed up, too.”
Raj went inside. I looked at what I carried in the back of my truck. Ruben Orr said he didn’t want to go through with our original plan, and gave me back the cash I’d handed over for starters. “These are like children to me. You can’t just sell off or abandon children, right?”
I got it. I understood Mayley’s father’s less-than-subtle allusion.
I said, “I might want to rent out some of the animals in the future. I could use them for promotion, you know. We can talk about it after the blood tests.”
What else could I say? I foresaw our odd future connection. He asked me if I wanted Mayley’s phone number right before I asked for it. I said, “I swear to God I was just about to ask for it.”
He said, “We should all get together some time, before and after, no matter the results.”
I believed him, and put the nozzle in my tank. I looked into the store to see Raj giving me the go-ahead to pump. I pulled the trigger and thought about what I rightly owed a lot of people. What a bad person I ended up truly, I thought—I needed to call Mayley, my ex-wife, and anyone I had deceived into thinking he or she could achieve peace when strumming four strings on a miniature instrument.