"Won't you have anything else, mister?" asked the short, engaging boy who had just finished filling the gas tank of the stranger's car. The boy then wiped the gas nozzle across his overalls, replaced the nozzle, and gazed down the gravel road in the direction from which the stranger had come.
Hearing himself referred to as "mister" caught the stranger off guard, for he was only eighteen, not much older than the boy who had just offered him that token of respect. In no hurry for a response to his question, the boy took a clean rag from his hip pocket and dunked it in a bucket of water he brought to a weak froth by wringing out his rag in it. Leaning over the hood of the car, he took one corner of the rag and flung it over to the far end of the windshield, and then he slid up on the hood, on his belly, and wiped that far half thoroughly. Then, emitting a groan that made him sound older than his fifteen years, he eased back down and went to work on the driver's side of the windshield.
He stood back and admired his effort. With his thumbnail he removed the only bit of gunk standing between him and a job well done. Then from his other hip pocket he took a second rag and dried off the windshield, once again slithering over the hood to reach the far side.
"Won't you have anything else, mister?" he asked again.
The stranger wondered what more than gas there could be to the place, but his upbringing and good sense kept him from saying as much. But it did feel good to the stranger to be out of that stuffy car for a minute. He reached into his shirt pocket and took out his cigarettes and lighter.
Impressed with the stranger's fancy cigarette lighter, the boy stepped up for a closer look, sending wafting into the stranger's nostrils the harsh scent of the gasoline embedding itself in the boy's overalls, causing the stranger to fear that the boy might be combustible. The stranger put the lighter safely back in his pocket, the still unlit cigarette behind his ear. He asked the boy if there was anything to drink inside.
"Sure there is," said the boy. "I"ll let you have a cold drink for nothin'."
How lonely this kid must be, thought the stranger. He followed the boy up to the building.
It wasn't a service station by any stretch of the imagination, just a frame building with a corrugated tin roof, from which one or more of the boy's relations observed the gasoline pumps every day... every day each year. What a racket a Texas hailstorm must make of that place in the springtime, was the stranger's reaction to the structure.
Before the building stood a vertical water tap beside which lay a pet's overturned plastic bowl. The industrious boy took the minute it took to rinse the bowl and refill it, and then he carefully placed it in the shade of the building, accidentally sloshing some of the water on his put-upon overalls.
The boy held open the screen door for his guest. It was a sparse room filled with nothing but two chairs, a table, a large soda case, and a box fan on the floor, into which was fixed the staff of a tiny American flag that was now only hanging horizonatally from a thread or two, flapping madly.
A black cat was resting curled up on top of the soda case. With one sweep of his arm, the boy sent the startled cat hurtling; but, as all cats do, this rudely awakened one landed on four padded paws, stood there stunned for a moment, and then wandered over beneath one of the chairs and massaged its back against the chair bottom, his tormentor forgiven.
The boy then took a chilled bottle of soda from the case and used the opener hanging from a wire tacked to the ceiling. He held out the bottle, saying, "Here you are, mister. You just sit down and drink this. You can have it for nothin'."
The stranger thanked him. Not wanting to disturb the cat, the stranger hopped up on the soda case and leaned against the wall. After setting out an ashtray for the stranger's use, the boy had gone to sit behind the table, so the stranger felt he was at a safe enough distance to light his cigarette, which he did, with three smooth and practiced motions of his quick fingers, all of which were noticed by the boy, who was duly impressed by them because there were no smokers in his family, and if there were, certainly none with such a fine lighter, which disappeared back into the stranger's pocket after its brief performance.
"What's the name of your town?" asked the stranger, more for something to say than to learn the name of the place.
"Why, this isn't any town," said the boy, laughing, slapping the table. "This is just a few houses alongside the highway. Town? Ha! That's a laugh, mister. Nearest town's Hyde, two miles on down the way you were headed. My daddy works out there."
Though curious, the stranger didn't have the strength just then to ask the boy what his father did in Hyde, so he just nodded his head in comprehension and shut his eyes. The stranger had been driving since dawn, and it was now 1:00 p.m., so he was rightfully tired.
Having scratched its back thoroughly, the tomcat eased out from under the chair, stretched itself on the cool, vinyl floor, and, in one smooth motion, gracefully leapt up and lit on its favorite spot beside the young man on the soda case, taking care to leave itself in range of an outstretched arm should the visitor take a notion to stroke him. But the only movements the man made were ones involved with smoking his cigarette. At last the cat rose up and crept over beside the man, making contact with his blue-jeaned thigh, causing the man, still not bothering to open his eyes, to grope for the cat's head and scratch between its ears, causing the cat's motor to run as if they were old familiars.
On the opposite wall from the front door was the back door counterpart, left open, as was the front door most years from March to October, creating a fairly reliable draught that aided the box fan in keeping the still, heavy air moving in that close room. A screen door kept out the insects.
Suddenly the back screen door was opened silently, and in stepped a young lady. She accidentally let the screen door get away from her, and it slammed with a clap that would have awakened any dead within a dozen miles, and then she looked up and spied the stranger on the soda case. In a wordless expression of OOPS!, she lifted her fingertips to her mouth in surprise.
Because of the murderous reflection of the sun given off by the windshield of an old pickup truck parked just beyond the back door, the stranger couldn't make out much besides the girl's splendid form beneath her back-lit daisy-print dress. It wasn't that she had forgotten her slip; she just never bothered with one when she wasn't going into Hyde. She stepped out of the light and into the otherwise poorly illuminated room. The visitor leaned forward and let his eyes adjust for a better look, but then he remembered his manners and slid down off the soda case and took a blind man's step toward her; he nodded his head to her.
"You've gone and woken him up, Taffy," said the boy. "Just look what you've gone and done."
The girl smiled a wicked smile and then closed the two steps between her and the stranger. Balancing herself by placing her hands on the stranger's shoulders, she stood up on her bare toes, saying, "Here's for that," and kissed the surprised stranger full on the lips. Stepping back away from him, wiping her lips with the back of her hand, she said, "Well, I think that should make everything about as all right as before I let that door slam." She crossed her arms over her chest and, without knowing it, arranged her bare feet in perfect third position ballet.
Not knowing what to say, the stranger said nothing. He just watched the girl, standing there with a look of expectation all over her face, an expectant look she augmented by beginning to tap her right foot.
The stranger's ears were ringing. He detected a metallic scent to her perspiration when she kissed him, and some of that perspiration and scent was left upon his upper lip -- and it wasn't unpleasant; he found it outdoorsy, natural. He stood there, his weight back on his heels.
Finally the girl bent forward at the middle, causing the stranger to shift additional weight to his heels. Turning to her brother, she said, "This one talk, Franky? Have you heard a word out of his head since he pulled up?"
"Sure he can talk," said Franky. "Me and him's been talking about all kinds of things."
Then the girl seemed to have lost all interest in the mute stranger, who, by this time, had managed to go back and lean against the relatively safe haven that was the soda case, and she went and sat atop the table, before her brother; she gazed out the window.
"I thought you said you'd be pickin' weeds till dinner," said Franky to his sister.
"Oh, I picked a trayful, but then I saw your gabby friend here pull in and not drive on, so I thought I'd just come in and see who was passing through. Anyway, you can't get any sun; it's all clouds out there now except for the sun shining through a pretty circle in the clouds. Come see it."
She got up, and Franky followed her to the back window just in time to see the last sliver of sun become overrun by black rain clouds.
"Oh, shoot," she said. "I should have shown you right when I came in."
Then the two of them went and took their places at the table. Moments later the first fat raindrops began to sound on the tin roof; the brother and sister looked at each other and smiled. Franky stood up and edged around the table and stood by his sister. The racket on the roof increased, and lines of water limned from the eave above the back door. Then the girl hopped off the table and slowly straightened up to her full height beside her brother. "Shelter!" she cried. Then she gave her brother a firm shove, and the two of them raced past the stranger and out the back door, allowing it to slam freely.
The slamming of the door took the stranger's mind off the girl's kiss, and he found himself alone. Beyond the walls he could hear the boy and girl's whooping and hollering, and it was plain they were making their way around the house. They weren't outside for more than two minutes when they came clamoring back inside, panting for breath in between the general hilarity of their laughter.
Shelter was a game they played on rainy days. The two of them would run around the house, clinging as best they could to the walls beneath the eaves, and the winner was the one who was driest after making it around the house. Soon followed the usual argument about which of them had won.
"Oh, then, let's ask him," said the girl, turning to the stranger. She led her brother by the wrist, and they stood before the stranger.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"Joe," he said softly, the first words to pass his lips since the girl first barged through the door and cast her spell upon him. "Joe Bragg."
"Well... which one of us looks the driest?" she asked.
Joe knew that she and her brother had been disagreeing about which of them was driest, so it wasn't necessary for the girl to explain to him her curious question. He quickly looked Franky up and down and then lingered some over the girl. Joe decided the girl and her brother were equally sopping, so the contest was declared a tie. The girl then got a disgusted look on her face and said that only someone with no guts would say it was a tie.
And then Joe Bragg said, just as gamely, "I think that someone with no guts would have said you were the winner."
"Oh, you do, do you?" she said haughtily. She stared at him for a moment and said, "I do, too." She smiled for him. She was lovely, even in her disheveled state. Her nose was freckled, and her hair, though rendered brown by the rain, he knew from before was blonde and straight, and that, though now it clung like some serpent round her fine neck, its usual nature was to rest softly upon her shoulders, just as it had done when she had kissed him. He admired her spirit, but he was pleased that she was showing signs of warming to him.
"Taffy's not really crazy, mister," said Franky. "It's just that she's got no manners."
Taffy had moved toward the back door, leaving an unsteady and diminishing line of raindrops to mark where she had passed. "Just see how it's coming down now!" she said, causing the others to join her at the back door.
And the rain was surging in its intensity, raising a terrific clatter on the roof. Then, following one last increase in its strength, the rain began to let up and then stopped altogether. Calm was restored to the room, and the three held their breath, better to appreciate the subtle sounds resulting from the brief storm: the clink, clink of drops falling from the roof and striking against the blade of a shovel left leaning against the back wall of the building, and then bursting into a fine mist and falling noiselessly into a trickle of runoff passing the width of the building, on its way to the swollen creek ranging east and west beneath the highway bridge just down the way; the thwack, thwack of drops on the rim of the plastic cat dish out front, now murky and undrinkable to a picky cat that was often treated as royalty -- when it wasn't being swept to the floor from its perch on the soda case.
Like the rainstorm itself, these remnant sounds of it soon abated and were forgotten when the three young people resumed their places--brother and sister at the table, Joe Bragg atop the soda case.
The girl asked Joe where he was from. He said that he was from Oklahoma, and that he was driving through Texas on his way to Mexico, where he would be spending his spring college break.
"How long are you off for?" asked Franky. "Seems like you'd just have to turn back by the time you got down to Mexico."
Though Joe considered his days as a college man behind him, for he didn't plan on going back, he said that the holiday was nine days long, plenty of time to see some of Mexico. "What are you studying up there at college?" asked the girl.
"Oh . . . business," he said.
"Business?" she said, not approving. "If I was in college, I'd be taking something fancier than that. I'd be in music or art, something like that. Business. That sounds as dull as anything I've ever yawned over."
Joe hated hearing that, because he had lied to them about what he was studying. Truth was, he had been taking art--painting--but he thought people at this lazy Texas stop would find that sissified, and not something with which a real man would be involved. He wished he had back his statement about what he was studying in school. Then he thought he saw an out to his mess:
"Oh, business isn't all I'm taking. I'm taking painting, too."
"Painting!" said Taffy, her interest piqued.
"Sure. My trunk's full of all my gear. I'm going down to Mexico to paint."
"Oh, I want to see it! I want to see all your gear!" said Taffy, hurrying over to the front door, holding open the screen for the two boys.
As if negotiating stepping stones, they stayed to the few patches of grass while traversing the yard. The going became messy as they neared the car, for the dirt running alongside the gravel road had become slick with sucking mud. Taffy didn't care. Without hesitating, she went on tough bare feet to the rear of the car and stood there with her expression of expectation on her animated face, while the two boys fretted at the mud for a second prior to leaping over it, Taffy steadying Franky after his rough landing.
"Oh, lift this thing," she said of the trunk, wringing her hands impatiently.
Joe found his keys and opened the trunk. Taffy leaned over for a glimpse at what an artist's tools of the trade might look like. It wasn't much: a box containing three sketching pads, four sketching pencils, an unused sandpaper pad, and one tube of paint missing its cap.
"What's this ol' junk?" she demanded, lifting out one of the pads, fanning through it and finding only blank pages. "You said you were going down to Mexico to paint." She picked up the paint tube and gave it a squirt; nothing came out. "I don't see any paint here but for this dried-up tube of it."
Joe was embarrassed. Thinking quickly, he said, "Don't you think they've got paint down in Mexico? I'm just sketching stuff along the way down there."
Then Taffy asked him where he kept his sketches since, by now, she had looked through all of his pads and found nothing.
Before Joe could answer, Franky, peering through the back window of the car, said there was another pad on the back seat, adding that he was sure that one was filled with sketches ("masterpieces" was the term he used).
Taffy saw Joe's face fall when Franky said that, so she raced around the car and, finding the back door locked, opened the driver's door and unlocked the back one. She opened the door and had to wrestle a bit with Joe to be first to the pad. He released her when he found his arms around her waist and her frowning at that. She opened the pad and found a charicature of Joe's denim-covered ankles and his shoes. Then she fanned the pages, and the rest were blank. She saw the shoe sketch for what it was: something done by a would-be artist grasping at straws, one not knowing what to draw or paint.
"Here's what I think of this," she said, taking the tail end of his drawing, letting the rest of the pad dangle, then tearing the drawing in half vertically, handing the torn-off half back to its owner who stood still with it for a moment until it gave way and fell into the mud and gravel, one half of the abused drawing still in his hand, showing his ridiculous left shoe and pantsleg.
With a vengeance, Joe wadded up that half a sketch and flung it into the trunk. He slammed it shut.
Still thinking the best of the stranger, Franky knelt down and retrieved the pad from the mud. As he rose up to hand it to Joe, his sloppy sneakers slurped in the mud. Joe looked down with disgust at what the boy offered him. Half the pad was sopped, and the chocolate liquid ran off the cover as if ashamed at what it had come in contact with.
"Aw, that won't be any good now," Joe said resignedly. "Get rid of it."
Franky looked all around. He wound up slinging it beneath the car, for it was plain Joe was right, the thing would be useless.
Taffy had stood by, watching the boys, her arms crossed over her chest, shaking her head at them--mostly at Joe, who had begun to disappoint. She walked up to Joe, and he gave her an embarrassed smile, the kind a child might wear if he had just been caught weighing and shaking wrapped Christmas gifts.
"Well, I can see it all clearly now," said Taffy, gazing knowingly into Joe's eyes. "You're only a pretend painter."
"I am not," said Joe. "I just haven't seen anything worth sketching yet. I drove half of Oklahoma and half of Texas, and I still haven't seen anything worth sketching."
"Half of Oklahoma and half of Texas?" demanded Taffy.
"That's right," said Joe.
"And you think drawing your old shoe was better than drawing all the pretty things you must have passed on your way here? That doesn't seem like much to show for it"
"What of it?" said Joe.
"Well," said Taffy, "if it wasn't for your car sitting here, I'd say you must have sleepwalked the whole way."
"Oh, go on. You don't know anything about it," said Joe, his self-confidence long lost, his self-respect going into hiding.
Taffy regarded him closely and began to take pity on him. Then she had an idea. She told him to open the trunk back up, which he did, and then she took from it one of the sketching pads and a couple of his sketching pencils.
She said, "All you need is a little inspiration. Come on!"
She took him by the hand and led him through the building and over the stepping stones to the small garden she kept behind the building.
Joe looked at her garden. There were tomato plants of various shades of wilted brown and green lynched on wooden stakes, none of them bearing fruit. All that could be said for the garden was that it was void of weeds; and there in the middle sat the stool Taffy sat on to pull them, the seat sheeted with rainwater.
She said, "Isn't it just so much prettier than anything you could ever even have a dream about?"
She went to the back of the house and took from there a folding aluminum chair she sat in every evening so she could admire her garden. She walked the chair over to Joe, set it down for him, and handed him his pad and sketching pencils.
Joe sat down and began to sketch.
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