Monday afternoon a relentless, soaking rain whipped the vacant streets and, once the sun dropped below the horizon, business at the Texaco Gas Mart died away to nothing. In the office Ava Frick pulled a Kierkegaard reader from her handbag and flipped to a page flagged with a scrap of torn paper.
What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain knowledge must precede every action...
A metallic blue, Dodge Caravan pulled up to the full-service pump. “Oh, crap!” Ava groaned. “Not this asshole again!” Throwing a windbreaker over her shoulders, she trudged out in the sleeting rain. Ava worked second shift at the Gas Mart two blocks up from the Brandenberg Public Library. When the three-bay repair shop closed down around five p.m., the pumps stayed open until midnight. Since leaving high school, Ava drifted through a series of odd jobs before settling in at the gas station. It wasn’t that she particularly liked pumping gas and cleaning fly shit off of windshields; the work was simply less offensive than the other jobs she was fired from or quit on short notice.
The driver rolled down the window. “Fill it with regular.” The middle-aged man was dressed in a black tuxedo. Through the open window, she could see an electric piano and pair of Xantech speaker columns stacked on the floor of the minivan.” He quickly rolled the window shut.
With the rain slashing her face, Ava held her ground until the tank was full. “Could you also check the oil?” His eyes grazed her sternum never quite reaching the face. The glacial smile hinted at what was to come.
Ava lifted the hood. Pulling the dipstick from the crankcase, she wiped it clean and returned the narrow finger of metal back into the engine. “You’re down a quart.”
“Yeah, well... I’m in a bit of a hurry,” he responded with an ingratiating smile, “so why don’t we take care of it next time?”
The rain, which had momentarily abated, suddenly picked up again. Ava rested her elbow on the window, dripping rivulets of water into the car. “You wouldn’t want to blow a piston over a silly quart of motor oil.”
“No, that’s okay.” He thrust an American Express Platinum credit card at her and leaned away from the wetness. “I’ll just take a rain check, no pun intended.”
Was he being intentionally sadistic? “That’s what you said last time.” Ava pulled her soggy arms free of the car.
The musician screwed up his face and jutted his chin indignantly. “What was that?” She went off to process the payment.
Back in the station, Ava rubbed her stringy hair dry with a wad of paper hand towels. This was the fifth time the pianist had pulled the check-my-oil-but-don’t-add-a-single-drop ploy. Never once had he purchased a quart. Ava was certain that the stingy louse had a case of Valvoline 5w30 neatly stacked in his garage. In the morning, after a cup of mocha latte cappuccino with a hint of cinnamon and a flaky, buttered croissant, the limp-wrist bastard would sashay over to the garage and, without even bothering to inspect the level, add a quart of motor oil.
What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain knowledge must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. ...
Ava wrestled with the Kierkegaard reader but lost interest after only a few, meager paragraphs. Her cell phone twittered. “Do you need anything?” Ava’s father sputtered in a gravelly monotone.
“Weather’s pretty crappy. Maybe I could swing by with a spare raincoat and dry shoes.”
“Actually I’m in pretty good shape,” Ava lied, “but thanks just the same.” Click. Mr. Frick hung up. The man never said I love you or resorted to mushy sentiment. That wasn’t his style. Rather, he would drive cross town in a driving rainstorm with a plastic bag full of dry socks and rain gear, throw them down on the counter, grunt some unintelligible farewell and hurry off.
Around eleven, the rain picked up again. A young man with hair down to his shoulders and a wispy beard that petered out over his freckled cheeks filled his gas tank, bought a half dozen, instant-win lottery tickets and a can of Skoal chewing tobacco. “That stuff causes cancer,” Ava noted shoving the round, metal container across the counter.
“Got to die of something.” The man scraped the tickets with the edge of a nickel. A minute passed. No luck! He crumpled the stiff papers in a ball, tossed them into the trash and made a run through the pelting rain toward a rusty Subaru docked at the farthest pump. When he was gone, Ava noticed suede, pea-green pouch sitting next to the cash register. The bearded man set it on the counter while scratching his lottery tickets. She lifted the pouch, which was about the size of a small book and shook it. A metallic tinkling sound filled the room. Ava shook it a second time and the musical clatter repeated. “Strange!” She tossed the sack into a bottom drawer labeled ‘Lost and Found’ just as a Ford pickup truck pulled into the station.
When she got home later that night, Ava was too wound up from the crazy weather to sleep. She fixed herself a burrito in the microwave and settled in with the Danish philosopher.
Humans cannot think our choices in life, we must live them; and even those choices that we often think about become different once life itself enters into the mix through pure subjectivity. Instead, they find it through passion, desire, and moral and religious commitment. These phenomena are not objectively provable—nor do they come about through any form of analysis of the external world; the type of objectivity that a scientist or historian might use misses the point...
Ava understood that she was doing a relatively poor job ‘living her choices’. She had put her education on hold so she could pump gas in a driving rainstorm while ‘normal’ people hunkered down at home doing sensible things and structuring their lives in a manner that, like a well-managed stock option, provided the maximum return on investment.
Eight o’clock the next morning, Ava Frick’s father shuffled into his daughter’s bedroom, eased down on the comforter and whispered, “The wallpaper hanger is steaming the vinyl paper from the sheet rock in the living room, so don’t go wandering about in your underwear.”
There was no immediate reply. Ava was resting prone under the covers, a pillow propped over her head. Though she couldn’t physically see her father, the girl could smell his tart, Old Spice cologne. Mr. Frick, whose salt-and-pepper hair was thinning away to nothing on the top, would be wearing an ivory, brushed cotton, Van-Heusen dress shirt with khaki, polyester slacks. The pants were a bit out-dated, but with eighteen months to retirement, there was nobody in the business community the man needed to impress. Mr. Frick rested a hand on the small of his daughter’s back. “You got in late last night.”
“Trucker pulled in at quarter to twelve. After he topped off with diesel fuel I still had to cash out and close up.”
Her father lifted the pillow. Leaning forward, he kissed Ava on the nape of the neck then placed the pillow back again. “See you later.” He disappeared out the door.
From the early sixties, Ava’s father sold washing machines for Sears Roebuck. He won salesman-of-the-year awards back-to-back more than a dozen times. The man was honest to a fault, never exhibiting the slightest compulsion to lie, exaggerate or misrepresent the product line in order to to close a shaky sale. During the Vietnam War, he wrote letters to the presidents – first to Lyndon Johnston then later Richard Nixon, demanding that they bring American troops home from Southeast Asia. Ava vividly remembered ferrying envelopes with the sixteen hundred Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. address down to the mailbox. “You really think that fascist jerk is gonna read your stupid letter?” The fascist jerk Nathan’s teenage daughter was referring to was Richard Milhous Nixon. Ava was going through a difficult adolescence. Everyone over the age of thirty was a bona fide jerk; thirty-somethings weren’t much better.
Mr. Frick’s anti-war, protest letters were quite verbose, sometimes running three pages single-spaced and typewritten on an old-fashioned Smith-Corona electric model. Ava read through several in which her father argued passionately against the domino theory, suggesting all of Southeast Asia would fall to Communism once the puppet regime in South Vietnam collapsed. The war was unwinnable. American soldiers were dying, cannon fodder for a lost cause.
Mr. Frick churned out, on average, two protest letters a week. And that didn’t include the endless barrage of postcards mailed to congressmen, senators, and Joint Chiefs of Staff. The soft-spoken reformed Jew with the chicken neck and graying sideburns protested the war while raising a family, selling Kenmore-Maytag appliances and teaching aerobic exercise Thursday evenings at the Brandenberg Community Center. Following the freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Mr. Frick petitioned his records from the federal government and discovered that his subversive activities during the Vietnam War had been closely monitored as ‘a potential domestic threat’ by both the FBI and CIA.
Subversive activities. Potential domestic threat. Did the government imagine that, when he wasn’t selling top-loading washers at the department store, Nathan Frick was hurling Molotov cocktails and inciting civil unrest? “If J. Edgar Hoover comes for supper,” Ava quipped one night when her mother was still alive, “do we put out the good China or go with the everyday dishes?”
After her father went off to work, Ava never budged. She could hear a radio tuned to a country and western station purring softly in the living room. In a creaky falsetto, the wallpaper hanger was crooning along to a Kenney Chesney ballad. Ava drifted back off to sleep. An hour and a half later she finally threw the covers aside. Pulling a sweatshirt over her head, she wriggled into a pair of jeans but couldn’t negotiate the button on the waist. No matter - the baggy sweatshirt would hide her late-night escapades with pasta and breadsticks. Truth be told, a nineteen year-old women with a little extra flesh on her bones was more voluptuous than slovenly. Her olive skin was still flawless, the breasts and hips in perfect working order. Ava dabbed Origins Winterbloom number-two eye shadow on her upper lids, applied a fine dusting of hypoallergenic powder over her throat to merge the real chin with its significant other and shuffled into the living room. “Good morning.”
The wallpaper hanger, who had his back to her, was pressing the flat surface of a steamer up against the far wall. Lowering his arm, he pulled the tray away from the paper and a burst of scalding steam puffed up toward the ceiling. The man was tall and wiry with a droopy moustache and wire-rimmed glasses. The slender nose arched with an aristocratic flair. Like a rust-pocked car where the odometer has seen the hundred-thousand mile mark come and go, the face was pleasant enough but well-traveled. “I’m Rufus,” he smiled, turning back to the work at hand.
“Can I get you anything?” Ava offered.
He reached up with a putty knife separating a swatch of soggy paper from the wall. The sheet lifted away in a jagged heap. “Cup of coffee would be nice. Milk no sugar.”
Ava headed toward the kitchen but pulled up short. “You remind me of someone, a writer from the psychedelic sixties by the name of Richard Brautigan. You’re his spitting image.” In high school Ava had read Brautigan’s A Confederate General from Big Sur. With the droopy moustache, lanky, angular body and bittersweet smile, Rufus, the wallpaper hanger, was a dead ringer for the minimalist author who was all the rage when Ava’s father was still a relatively young man. “Unfortunately,” Ava added as an afterthought, “Brautigan was a hardcore alcoholic who drank himself to death.”
The man repositioned the steamer at the highest point where the wall and ceiling converged and leaned slightly forward, trapping the steam against the paper. “I got plenty of vices,” Rufus drawled cryptically, “but liquor ain’t one of them.”
Ava retreated to the kitchen. She fixed herself an asiago bagel with chive cream cheese. When the coffee was ready, she poured two cups and went back out to the living room. “Your timing’s perfect.” Rufus pulled the plug from the wall outlet and removed the cast iron venting plug from the top of the steamer. “The water’s pretty much run out so I have to break anyway.” He sipped at the coffee.
“What branch of the service were you in?” Ava was staring at a tattoo on his right arm.
“Grunts. US Army infantry.” He eased his rump down on a step ladder and nestled the coffee between his wide, calloused hands.
Ava nibbled at the bagel. The pungent aroma of the asiago cheese titillated her senses. “Where were you stationed?”
“Afghanistan. A godforsaken dump called Helmand Province in the southwest of the country. It’s the world's largest poppy-producing region, responsible for forty-two per cent of the world's total heroin production. We actually pay the local war lords not to grow the stuff.”
“It’s always nice to know how the government manages out tax dollars.”
Rufus grinned darkly but had nothing more to say on the matter. Putting the coffee aside, he went and filled a bucket with cool water from the kitchen tap. Funneling the liquid into the steamer, he put the bucket aside when the water gauge read full. The wallpaper hanger plugged the electric chord back into the outlet and, while the metal plate was heating, moved about the perimeter of the room stuffing trash in a plastic garbage bag. “Got discharged from the army a couple years back but developed some problems associated with the war so I had to go for counseling.”
“What sort of problems?”
Rufus grabbed a pile of sticky paper and wedged it at the bottom of the bag. “Anger management.”
She nodded her head up and down digesting the information. The stoop-shouldered man who resembled Richard Brautigan seemed utterly harmless, like an overgrown teddy bear. “But you’re okay now?”
“Oh sure! Once I got to the root of the problem, it was just a matter of making a few minor adjustments,... tweaking my psyche, so to speak.”
The steamer was beginning to sputter fitfully now, alternately dribbling then spitting small streams of tepid water from the vent holes. Rufus ran a palm over the orange rubber tubing feeling for the steaming as it crawled blindly through the coiled hose in the direction of the perforated metal tray. “With the help of Dr. Jacoby over at the Veterans Administration Hospital, I learned about my problem and how to cope.” Rufus reached into a leather tool bag and pulled out a foot-long brush with stiff black bristles. “What’s this?”
“A tool for smoothing wallpaper.”
“Animate or inanimate?”
“Definitely inanimate,” Ava replied.
“Ten months of therapy taught me that I am basically an incorrigible misanthrope who relates much better to things than people.” He said this in an affable, low-keyed drawl. “So I subsist off my veteran’s disability check, do odd jobs under the table, and pretty much sidestep the rest of humanity.”
Ava kept to her room for the rest of the morning. Around one in the afternoon, Rufus tapped lightly on the open door. “I’m finished stripping the paper. Going to grab lunch.”
Ava nodded. “Okay.”
“When I get back, I’ll size the walls and spackle any cracks or holes. Get everything ready for tomorrow.” Ava gazed down the hallway. All the old wallpaper had been stripped away and neatly bundled in trash bags. “You live here with your father?” he asked.
“Yeah. Grew up in this house. I work second shift over at the Gas Mart on County Street.”
“The one with the blue and white sign?”
“That’s right. I was planning to go to college last September, but then my mother died and I decided to take some time off.” The gangly man smiled and scratched his earlobe. He would have been modestly handsome ten years earlier, Ava mused. Rufus still wasn’t bad looking for a working stiff in his late twenties.
“What were you planning to major in at college?”
“Philosophy.... existentialism mostly.”
“That’s out of my league.” Rufus yanked his car keys out of his pocket and headed for the door.
After lunch, the paperhanger ran a bead of dark blue masking tape around the baseboard and with a fine-nap roller began coating the walls with sizing. An hour later, Ava came back into the living room dragging a Hoover carpet cleaner behind her. “I was trying to steam the runner in the entryway, but the machine doesn’t work right.”
Rufus put the paint roller aside, dropped down on his haunches and inspected the undercarriage. “There’s your problem,” he said, indicating a flat piece of plastic which extended across the front of the vacuum. “Someone must have whacked the front carriage and loosened the screws holding the squeegee plate in place.”
“Can it be fix?”
The man ran a thumb and index finger over his droopy moustache. “Just tighten the screws or drill pilot holes on either side,” he tapped the plastic unit where the new holes needed to be positioned, “and that should do the trick.” He rose to his feet. “If you got an electric drill and small bit I can save you the bother and take care of it right now.”
Ava got down on her hands and knees. Now she could see the problem along with the potential solution. Without the plate wedged firmly against the floor there was no suction to pull the sudsy grime out of the rug. Her brother, Gary, had borrowed the machine a month earlier to clean his rugs. Did Gary know the machine was broken yesterday when he returned it? Probably. He had a disconcerting habit of borrowing things without asking and returning them damaged, empty or otherwise nonfunctional. “No, I’d rather do it myself.”
Rufus’ face melted in a broad smile. “Like I said earlier, I’m real good with machinery and dead things. It’s just people I can’t manage.”
With a Phillips head screw driver Ava fixed the carpet cleaner. She didn’t need to drill pilot holes as Rufus suggested. Locating a container of stubby, sheet metal screws under her father’s work bench, she simply replaced the rusty old screws, firming them hand tight. The new fasteners pulled the faceplate into proper alignment and, when she brought the machine back upstairs from the basement, it worked like new, sucking the wet sludge into the waste tray. Ava washed the front hallway runner and entryway rugs before heading out to work.
The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. ...
Ava didn’t know if fixing the carpet steamer qualified as a sublime truth that she could structure her life around, but it certainly made her feel just a little bit more in control of things. Later that night around two in the morning, Mr. Frick got up to use the bathroom. Seeing the light on in his daughter’s room, he stuck his head in the doorway. “How was work?”
Ava put the Kierkegaard reader aside. “A lot drier than yesterday.”
“Your brother stopped by.”
“Yeah, I know. He dropped off the rug steamer.”
Mr. Frick shook his head. “Gary came back again earlier this afternoon.” He pawed at the oak floor with a leather slipper. Ava noticed that, since her mother’s death, her father had begun to look frailer, withered and parched as an autumn leaf. “Apparently, your brother, the investment counselor, made some bad decisions in the bear market and needs to borrow money.”
Ava cringed. “How much?”
“Quite a bit,” Mr. Frick remarked opaquely. “Problem is, I love your brother dearly. I just don’t trust him. Never did. I told Gary no. He would have to look elsewhere.”
“And what was his response?”
Mr. Frick’s features contorted in a melancholy grimace. “Not to be denied, he wanted me to take out a home equity loan... sort of a cash advance on his share of the inheritance.”
Ava felt a tightening in her chest. Her breath was coming in shallow, choppy gasps, and the young girl had to pause while the rage subsided before she could respond. “The man has no shame.”
“In my will,” Mr. Frick spoke with brutal authority, “you’re the trust, the sole beneficiary. I’m leaving you everything - the house, furnishings, whatever remains from investments and retirement savings.”
Ava stared at him in disbelief. “Is that fair?” She wasn’t thinking so much of Gary, the scheming schmoe, but rather her sister-in-law and two nieces, the oldest of which was just entering middle school.
Hoisting his flannel pajama bottoms up higher on his skinny waist, Mr. Frick gazed at his daughter somberly. “Du weiss nit fun kein hochmas.”
The boiler clicked on in the basement and Ava could hear the water pump pushing the heat through the house. “Unlike your brother,” the older man translated, “you don’t know from any funny stuff”. “Gary, the high-roller, drives a Cadillac Seville, vacations in Acapulco twice a year and wears custom-tailored suits,” he added coldly. “Let him reevaluate his present circumstances and learn to live within his means.” The widower trudged back to bed. When he was gone, Ava breathed in deeply and let the air stream out of her lungs in a barely audible groan.
How much did her father know?
Not terribly much apparently, and Ava wasn’t about to spill the beans. The other day when her troublesome brother returned the rug cleaner, Ava was fixing herself a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich. He looked distraught, utterly exhausted. “When the hell are you going to get a real job and move out on your own?”
“Nice way to open a conversation.” Ava smeared mayonnaise on the bread then arranged the cheddar cheese and tomato slices. Since the late fall, native-grown tomatoes were hard to come by and prices had skyrocketed ridiculously. Ava paid seventy-nine cents for the plump, vine-ripened beauty she was positioning on the sandwich. She only needed half. Her father could chop what remained in a salad with his supper.
“Well it’s true, you know,” he shot back petulantly. “You’re almost twenty years old and act like some shiftless eccentric.”
“Being shiftless doesn’t imply dishonesty,” Ava replied. “Shiftless people may be lazy freeloaders and hopelessly ineffectual. It doesn’t automatically make them disreputable.”
Gary squirmed uncomfortably and gazed out the window at the bare trees. A blue jay was picking through the empty seed husks on the metal feeding station in search of the last few bits of edible protein. Ava kept a stash of sunflower seeds and cracked corn in the basement, replenishing the feeder on a weekly basis from late November through March. “A person can be shiftless,” she continued, “and still maintain his personal dignity. Of course that presupposes the individual in question does nothing flagrantly dishonest.” Ava watched as a pad of butter melted on medium heat. She lowered the sandwich into the Teflon pan and pressed down with a spatula. “Exactly how much of Mrs. Sardelli’s retirement savings did you squander?”
Earlier in the week, an article had appeared in the Community Section of the Brandenberg Gazette: Local investment advisor indicted for misappropriation of client’s funds. Gary had covertly moved an elderly woman’s entire life savings from government-backed securities to a high-risk hedge fund that relied aggressively on selling short, leverage, swaps, derivatives and arbitrage. Three weeks into the transfer, the fund tanked and investors lost everything. Now the district attorney was indicting Ava’s brother for fraudulent misappropriation of funds.
“Does dad know?” He brushed her original question aside.
“Not yet.” She flipped the sandwich over and pressed down with the spatula again. Gary sat down and massaged the back of his neck distractedly. “You could sell your house,” Ava suggested, “and try to negotiate with the authorities for a reduced sentence.”
“And where the hell are my wife and kids gonna live?” He whined with unfocussed rage.
Ava wasn’t about to suggest that he move back home. The disgrace would kill her father. And anyway, adding Gary, the flimflam artist, and his nuclear family to the mix would turn their idyllic existence upside down. Try as she might, Ava couldn’t muster a grain of sympathy for her brother. “I’m the job Gypsy,” she muttered.
She removed the sandwich from the pan and sliced it at a diagonal. Placing a dill pickle on the side of the plate, she brought the meal to the kitchen table. “When I finished high school last year and couldn’t find steady work, you used to ridicule me. ‘Ava’s a brain-dead, job gypsy - can’t settle down, score a husband and make a normal life.’” “I’d rather be a shiftless job gypsy living at home with my widowed father,” she observed, raising the pickle to her mouth, “than a two-bit crook.”
In the morning, Rufus arrived early and began cutting the wallpaper into seven-foot strips. With an aluminum square, he marked the pattern repeats, trimming the paper at a right angle. Using a plum bob, he determined the placement for the first sheet. “How did you make out with the carpet steamer?”
“Great!” Ava was sitting on the third riser of the stairs leading to the upper level, nursing her morning coffee. “Once I got that vacuum plate screwed down, it worked like new.”
Rufus rolled a sheet of prepasted wallpaper inside out and submerged it in a plastic tray of lukewarm water. Beginning in a corner near the picture window, he positioned the sheet against the wall. Mr. Frick had chosen a sedate fruit pattern in pastel green and gold hues. The cream-colored background caught the early morning light brightening the room while creating the illusion of more space. “Nice choice,” he said with genuine enthusiasm. Rufus brushed the wet sheet out with the bristle brush, smoothing in both directions from the middle toward the outer edges. When the first piece lay flat against the wall, he ran a small tool with a serrated, metal wheel over the bottom edge trimming away the excess and pressed the paper snug against the baseboard molding. “These older houses,” Rufus noted, “got character. The high ceilings and ornate cornices – you don’t see that anymore.”
“Yes, the place has a special warmth.” The girl was still in shock over recent, domestic developments. Ava and her father had their own, separate agendas. Days could pass without seeing one another. And yet, their mutually exclusive lives intersected in random, unforeseeable ways, which is to say, they loved each other at a safe and manageable distance. Mr. Frick never questioned what Ava was doing with her botched-up life. For sure, her father was going through his own dark night of the soul since losing his wife.
Du weiss nit fun kein hochmas. The pithy, Yiddish adage left nothing unsaid.. Ava would get everything, while Gary received a lengthy prison sentence and the Bronx cheer. “Are you familiar with the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard?” Ava asked.
Rufus chuckled in a gruff, throaty manner. “I quit high school in the eleventh grade. Outside of an occasional Playboy or Hustler, I haven’t read a goddamn thing since then.” He grabbed up a second sheet and soaked it in the tub. “Why do you ask?”
“Since high school, I have been trying to structure my life around Kierkegaard’s guiding principles.”
“And how’s that going?” Rufus eased the dripping sheet in place, butting it firmly up against the first.
“Hard to say. It’s not the sort of thing where you go to sleep in a metaphysical quandary and wake up the next morning thoroughly enlightened.” The wallpaper was coming nice. “Hopefully, before I’m carted off to a nursing home in geriatric diapers, things will fall into place.”
Ava went to the market. When she returned Rufus had already finished two walls and was trimming the paper over the fireplace. “My father left a check for you. I’ll place it on the dining room table, if I leave before you’re finished. Rufus, who was balancing on a ladder, grunted something unintelligible. “You’re doing a swell job!” Ava waited a discrete interval, but there was no reply.
In December the weather turned sharply colder with temperatures dipping well below freezing in the early morning hours. Ava began dressing in layers. At the Emerald Square Mall just over the town line in North Attleboro, she bought a pair of fleece-lined snow boots, thermal underwear and a week’s worth of heavy-duty, woolen socks.
Snow came down the first week in December. From the relative warmth of the gas station office, Ava watched the fluffy whiteness envelope the blacktop. An hour later with the snow already several inches deep, a metallic blue dodge Caravan pulled up at the last row of pumps. Ava traipsed out to car. The driver didn’t even bother to roll down the window. Rather, he cracked it open, an infinitesimal sliver, and barked, “Fill it with regular. Check the oil.”
Thump! The hood of the minivan lurched upward as the driver pulled back on the latch release. Ava loosened the gas cap. She topped off the tank, raised the hood vertical and pounded on the driver’s side window with a gloved fist. “We need to be clear about something.”
Reluctantly, he lowered the window. The man’s pleated tuxedo shirt was outfitted with shiny black studs, a cummerbund encircling his waist. “Is there a problem?” The tone was shrill, petulant. “I’m in a bit of a hurry.”
“Problem is, you’re always in a hurry.” Ava leaned her elbows into the van depositing a clump of dry, powdery snow in the man’s lap, “As I recall, every time I fill your gas tank you ask me to check the oil but never purchase anything else. If I didn’t know any better …” She didn’t bother to finish the sentence.
The man shoved a credit card through the window. “Forget about the stupid oil.”
Ava processed the card and brought it back to the car. The fellow mumbled something angrily under his breath. “Excuse me?”
“Just close the hood so I can get back on the highway.”
Ava gazed out across the whiteness. The dry cold didn’t bother her. The new woolen socks and fleece-lined work boots kept her feet toasty warm. If anything, the crisp, early-season snow was invigorating. She bent down and stuck her nose up against the frosty glass. “Not this time.” She strolled back to the office, turning around in time to see the Caravan fishtailing crazily out of the gas station.
A steady flow of customers passed through the Texaco Gas Mart up until dusk, when the streets became completely deserted except for an occasional snow plow. In the cramped office, Ava flipped the space heater on high to take the chill out of the air. Around eight-thirty a foot of snow was already blanketing the ground. A lone pickup truck skidded around the corner and pulled into the station. Rufus, wearing a stocking cap and green plaid jacket, slogged through the packed snow toward the front of the building. “Any of that wallpaper fall down yet?” the tall man inquired with a sly smile. He had a face like a lopsided, weather-beaten pair of shoes, the heels worn away at a perverse angle.
“It’s still where you left it,” Ava grinned back at him.
“Hell of a night to be pumping gas.” Rufus arranged himself in a chair and extended his damp boots toward the heater.
“I might not be long for this job.” She told him about the musician floundering around in the snow.
Rufus made several vulgar references regarding the piano player’s parentage then cracked his knuckles. “That Danish philosopher you mentioned the last time I saw you...”
“That would be Soren Kierkegaard.”
“What would Mr. K say about the bonehead in the blue Caravan?”
Ava thought a moment. “‘Think of a hospital where the patients are dying like flies. Every method is tried to make things better but it’s no use. Where does the sickness come from? It comes from the building; the whole building is full of poison.”
“Society is morbidly sick, and the piano player is Typhoid Mary.”
“In a matter of speaking, yes.”
Rufus let loose a throaty chuckle, the steamy air floating toward the ceiling. “At least you turned the tables on the creep by refusing to do his bidding.”
“If he complains to the boss, I could lose my job.”
“Do you care?”
Ava grinned brazenly. “No, not at all.” A car pulled into the station and the girl went out to pump the gas. “Why did you come here in this awful weather?” she asked when the customer was gone.
“I like talking to you.”
“But you hate people. You’re a self-proclaimed misanthrope.”
“True enough,” Rufus returned, “but you’re the exception that makes the rule.”
“I’ll take that as a backhanded compliment.” Ava slid open the ‘Lost and Found’ drawer and pulled out the velvety, pea green pouch. “What do you make of this?” She emptied the contents on the table.
Rufus stared at a ratty-looking book, the cover of which had been completely torn away, and three brass coins. “Are these subway tokens from another planet?” The three coins were about the size of quarters but thicker with square holes in the center. The surface of each was inscribed with an exotic script.
“This,” Ava picked up the frayed manuscript, “is a copy of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Change, and the coins are used to predict the future.” She told him about the fellow with a penchant for lottery tickets and chewing tobacco who ran off in the rainstorm. “A week ago Tuesday, was the two-month anniversary so I decided to open the bag and take a peek.”
Rufus gazed out the window. The snow was leveling off now with no additional accumulation; like a Frost poem, the pristine whiteness exuded a certain picaresque serenity. “Do you understand how it works?”
Ava held one of the queer coins up to the light. “Assign the value ‘three’ to each head result, and ‘two’ to each tail, and then add the values. The total will be six, seven, eight or nine. A chart in the back of the book explains how to interpret the numbers and construct hexagrams from the bottom up.”
Rufus picked up the book and thumbed through the tattered pages at random. “Have you tried it yet?”
“No, but my brother got himself in a legal mess. My family has been going through a difficult time lately, so I thought I might give it a whirl.” Without further explanation, Ava reached for a switch on the wall and the huge, fluorescent display sign over the diesel pumps went dark, shrouding the entire front lot in silvery shadows. “My boss called just before you showed up. He said I could close early with the snow.” She threw a separate switch that killed power to the individual pumps then reached for the three coins. “What do you think, Rufus?”
The man smoothed his droopy moustache in a repetitive, soothing gesture. “Oh, why the hell not!”
Ava tossed the coins up in the air and watched them clatter onto the Formica surface of the counter. She added up the numbers, which came to six, took a piece of paper and drew a broken line.
“Old yin.” Ava threw the coins four more times and each throw produced another broken line.
“Strange!” Rufus muttered. “How come everything keeps coming out the same?”
Ava shrugged. “I keep getting six or nine,” she explained, “which is a broken line.” On the final throw, the coins added up to seven.
Ava ran her finger down a glossary of all sixty-four symbols in the front of the book until she reached the twenty-third. “The Po hexagram indicates,” she read from the accompanying text, “that it will not be advantageous to make a movement in any direction whatsoever. The first six divided, shows one overturning the couch by injuring its legs. The insult will go on to the destruction of all firm correctness, and there will be evil.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Rufus growled.
Ignoring the questions, Ava returned to the text, but all the remaining broken lines leading to the top held an ominous message. Finally, she pointed at the topmost solid line. “The undivided line becomes the prominent or principle one,” she was reading from a separate commentary printed in smaller script toward the lower portion of the page. “Decay or overthrow has begun at the bottom and crept up to the top. Small men have gradually replaced good men and great until only one remains; and the lesson for him is to wait. The power operating against him is too strong.”
Agitated, Rufus rose to his feet. “For God’s sakes, what question did you ask?”
Ava’s face was ashen, her lips compressed in a tight band. “Can’t say.” She slammed the book shut and returned it to the suede pouch along with the brass coins. Putting her hat and gloves on, she said, “I’m going home now.”
“Did you get the right answer?”
“Right answer, wrong answer... You don’t necessarily get what you’re looking for,” Ava replied evasively. “The I Ching doesn’t work that way.”
Rufus held the door open for her. “Would you mind if I stopped by again some time?”
“No, not at all,” she replied, pulling the door shut and checking to make sure it was properly locked, “though, like I said, it’s a contradiction in terms, for a misanthrope to want to spend time with anyone.”
Around two in the morning Ava called Rufus. “You got home safely in the snow?”
“It was a little icy, but other than that… How’d you get my telephone number?”
“It was on the wallpaper receipt. Would you like to go out with me?”
There was a short pause. “What did you have in mind?” he stammered.
There’s a Brazilian film playing all week over at the Avon Cinema on the east side of Providence. The movie is in subtitles.”
“Yeah, I’d like that..”
“I’m through messing around with the I Ching,” Ava blurted, almost stumbling over the words. “Finished. Caput. I’m returning the green pouch to the Lost and Found drawer.”
“Okay.” Rufus seemed mildly confused by her persistence. “Whatever you think is best.”
“I brought it home and, about an hour ago, flipped the coins one last time.”
“And how did that work out?”
“A hell of a lot better than the first time.”
“So you got an answer you liked?” It was the same question Rufus raised back at the gas station, just worded differently.
“I asked two completely different questions,” Ava qualified so it’s not a fair comparison. “Let’s just say I’m rather pleased with the way things turned out in both instances.”
There was a protracted silence. Ava had the distinct feeling that Rufus was mulling over what she had just told him. “More recently,” he pressed, “what question did you ask?”
“It’s a long story. Tell you about it when I see you.”
Tag der Veröffentlichung: 05.08.2010
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