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Jonathan Nelson


readingExpired Candy

“Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.” – Roger Miller

It was the only day of the week that I woke up before my parents. I’d get dressed in clothes that were comfortable and “okay” to get dirty. Also, no shorts. I learned that lesson the hard way.1 Even though I thought I was getting up early, the newspaper would already be on the front steps and I would feel bad about feeling bad for myself when I thought about how early the paper delivery person had to get up. If I were them, I would probably just stay awake until it was time to deliver the papers. That way, when I got done, I could just go home and go to sleep. That’s probably what they did…

After grabbing the paper and clumsily brewing some coffee in the form of whatever phase of coffee creation we (as a family) were in,2 I pulled out the Variety section and began glancing at the comics. Pouring the coffee into my favorite mug, I realized that this cup would need a little extra cream and sugar to temper the “muddiness” of overly strong coffee.  

Sitting in my dad’s comfy armchair, I looked up from the comics for a moment to look out the window. The morning was still dark and the barely visible limbs of the oak tree across the street swayed wildly in the wind. My mind automatically imagined being caught in a gust like that on a cold November morning such as this one. I shivered and held the mug of sweet, creamy, muddy coffee against my chin. I thought about my friends and classmates being able to sleep in on Saturday morning, all warm and cozy in their beds while I had to go to work.  

“Another day with Mr. Uncrackable,” I quietly muttered into my mug. I looked up the grandfather clock. Half hour until I need to be at work. I went back to my comics.

I was an employee of Wally’s Service Station, a small gas station with three bays for automotive repair and service. Thinking back, I’m not exactly sure why I had the job. I didn’t really need the money. Still being in high school, my parents supported me: put a roof over my head, fed me, and occasionally bought me something I couldn’t live without.3 I think it mostly stemmed from a desire to be earning some of my “keep,” a solution to the financial anxiety that was continuing to build within me as I got older. One day, at the suggestion of my dad, I walked into the office of Wally’s and simply asked, “Do you need any help?” I was given an application, walked home, filled it out, brought it back, and, without much review,4 was told to show up after school the next day. On a typical day, I came home from school, inhaled some dinner, put on some old jeans (which usually meant not changing) and walked to work. Wally’s was just down the road. Saturdays though, that was an all-day affair. No plans could be made for the daytime on a Saturday because I was dutifully at work.5

I stepped out the door to start walking to work. Even though I had my driver’s license, it never felt right to use a car to travel just a couple of blocks. The cold morning air descended upon me like a torturous death. I tried to mentally relocate myself back into my warm bed, with more hot coffee pressed against my chin. It didn’t work.  

Since it was early on a Saturday, not many other people were out to see the sun peek over the trees and hilltops that peppered my walk experience. The old station didn’t look too bad in the morning light and…from a distance. The closer I got, the more I could see the flaking paint, chips of it littering the parking lot and tumbling in the gusts of wind. In its glory days, the station proudly wore the colors of a Mobil 1. The red, white, and blue colors, religiously clean, must have had a feel-good quality of care and pride. When people saw these bright colors gleaming in the sunlight, they probably marveled at how the station could stay so clean when they work done there could be so messy. But now, Wally’s look like a faded photograph of its past self.

My boss, Rick, wasn’t there yet. His forest green Audi wasn’t parked out front in its usual spot6 and, honestly, I was somewhat relieved.  Our relationship wasn’t bad, it just had a debatable existence. Hours were spent in silence when we worked together.  

Rick was Wally’s son. Yes, the Wally. Wally was still alive and living a well-deserved retirement earned by a time when his business was one of the only auto service shops in the town. Wally left the family business to Rick, and it wasn’t long after I started working there that I understood I had a front row seat to see what happened to a business when the American Dream realized was passed down to someone who wanted no part of it (or, at least, that version of it anyway).  Wally’s wasn’t doing nearly as well now.7 Rick would receive numerous letters from developers who were interested in buying the land that Wally’s decomposed on. I had seen a couple of them as I stood next to Rick while he worked at his cluttered desk. I waited for customers who never came, and Rick opened the mail. In the silence of the small office, Rick’s eyes would slowly glide over the offers, giving me just enough time to get the gist of it in a couple of quick glances, but he never responded to these proposals. He would fold the letter back up, place it in the envelope, and gently place it on the corner of his desk. The growing stack would eventually end up in the garbage.

Approaching the front door of the station, I fished the key out of my pocket. Rick had given me a copy after about two weeks on the job. In addition, I also had the combination to the floor safe and knew how to activate all the gas pumps.  The key had a flimsy ring attached to it and nothing else. I thought about putting it on my own key ring, but whenever I thought about the amount of energy that goes into adding a key to my stiff keyring which hadn’t had much experience getting new keys put on it, I just felt like it wasn’t worth it. I unlocked the front door and went inside.

The first thing that greeted me was the time-clock.8 The minute hand clicked loudly every, well, minute. It would be clicking 540 more times before the workday was done.  I couldn’t keep myself from grimacing. This simple time-clock marked time assertively and it could rub my nose in boredom’s effect on time. But this was familiar territory for me. My brain knew what to tune out. I locked the door behind me. We wouldn’t officially be open for a few more minutes.  

The office was small. Upon entering, customers would find themselves with their belly almost right up against the large desk which was also just tall enough to alienate small children unless they jumped repeatedly. The desk took up most of the space in the room and, like the outside of the building, its color had faded to a boring reddish pink. To the right of the desk were two chairs9 that were never used. To the left was a shelf filled with candy that no one ever bought. Further left and towards the back of the office was another shelf that displayed motor oils of different varieties and weight which, again, no one ever bought.  

I approached the time-clock and found my punch card filed beside it in a small tray. I slid my card into the slot, and it violently stamped the moment in time in blotchy black ink. I looked at my card, 6:56AM, and then I checked it against my cell phone, 7:02 AM.  

“You’re late, Rick,” I thought.

I tossed my time card back into the tray with the others. There were only two other time cards which belonged to the two mechanics. They wouldn’t be coming in today. They only ever showed up on Saturdays to work on their own cars. It would just be me and Rick unless he was planning on taking his racecar to the track and failed to mention it to me this past week. He wouldn’t have to be cooped up with some strange high-school kid, looking out the large front windows at all the people (literally) go by.  

I stepped through the doorway to go into the garage bays. I walked up to the first garage door and grabbed the rope that was tied to the bottom of the door. A solid tug was enough to make the coiled spring near the ceiling do the rest of the work. Flinging open the large garage doors was, in my mind, the strongest signal to people that we were open and eager for business. Next was flipping the circuit breakers in the back room. They were all labeled, and I knew which ones to flip and which ones to “leave alone.”10  

I got to the fuse that would turn on the giant air compressor (also in the back room, looming in dark corner) that powered the car lifts. I always hated getting to this switch because as soon as I flipped it, the engine on the compressor would kick into life and start downing gulps of air into the tank until it was so full of air that it could literally lift a sedan just by releasing some air.11  

I emerged from the back room and saw Rick’s Audi parked out front. Rick was still sitting in it, slowly trading his prescription sunglasses for his regular glasses. As nonchalantly as possible, I got back to my “spot” so that if Rick looked inside, he would see me being a good and ready employee. Then I realized that I hadn’t unlocked the door again. There was no hiding my idiocy, I just walked over to the door and unlocked it. But Rick was still sitting in his car, just staring ahead into the distance. I lingered at the door for a moment and turned my head to see if I could see what he might be looking at across the street. Nothing of interest. Just a couple of shops that weren’t open yet.

I unlocked the floor safe and took out the lone cash bag. I placed the bills into the register starting with the ones, then the fives, and then the tens. The twenties stayed in the bag because Rick didn’t like the idea of the register being filled with enough cash where someone would want to rob us. I had to wonder, how in the world would anyone know that we leave the twenties out of the register at the beginning of the day? The amount of planning that went into robbing a small gas station wasn’t quite to the scale of some “Ocean’s Eleven” heist. The drawer shut with the sound of an unconvincing lock. I looked up from the register and my eyes again fell on the shelf of expired candy that no one ever bought.

Finally, the door opened and in came Rick. He paused when he was just a step into the office and looked about as if he were inspecting the place with a dull dread. His scanning eyes eventually got to me and his bushy eyebrows perked up as a greeting.  

“Mornin’,” he said, but partway through his eyes broke away and he turned his entire body to set his things on the desk.  A briefcase, coffee cup, and a paper bag that appeared to be from a bakery.  

Rick was not a particularly large person, in fact, he was kind of small. He lived for few things. His cars, his cat, an occasional good joke,12 and on every second Thursday of the month: swing dancing at Patricia’s BBQ. That last one wasn’t because he enjoyed the occasional do-si-do, but because he had a few friends who played in a band, and he enjoyed their sound. Occasionally a widow or sympathetic young lady would try to raise him from his folding chair and get him to dance but he always managed to stammer a haphazard but acceptable excuse.  

It never took Rick long to get himself situated and settled in the office. After all, he had been doing it nearly all his life. He sat down at his desk which was right next to the cash register where I was expected to remain standing during business hours if there wasn’t any cleaning up to be done.13  

The typical silence fell upon the room as we both looked out the front windows of the office. Straight outside were eight old gas pumps divided into two islands. I wished for a car to pull up soon. Not just to give me something to attend to but also for Rick, something to break his staring out of the window.  

I couldn’t help but be somewhat fascinated by Rick. I wanted so badly to ask him about what it was like to have a business passed down to him.  A business that had seen much better days in the past. Is it what he wanted? Did he ever talk to Wally about the letters from the developers? What would Wally think of his son selling the family business?  But I kept these questions to myself.    

Wordlessly, I backed away from the register to find something to do in the garage. Rick continued to stare out the windows. I had learned that I could always occupy my time at the station with cleaning. That usually meant cleaning things multiple times, sweeping multiple times, nudging things out of place only so they could be straightened right again. I grabbed a rag with relatively few oil stains and set to wiping down the work benches and putting away the tools that the mechanics had left out the day before.  

It didn’t make sense to me why this place kept up its beleaguered existence. Sure, it gave me a job, but I was beginning to feel that the only reason I had this job, or more truthfully, was given this job, was to do the day-to-day grunt work that Rick could no longer bear.14 I looked through the window that was typically for customers waiting in the office to see the mechanics at work and instead saw Rick just quietly sitting at his desk, gazing out the front windows, probably miles away in his own head.

The day dragged along. Only on occasion did I notice the thudding clicks of the time-clock notifying me that a single minute had passed. Occasionally, the compressor in the back room turned on to top itself off with freshly squeezed air. I cleaned the bathroom, which didn’t really need it. I swept all the floors again and meticulously arranged the tools in their drawers even though the mechanics would probably find it bizarre rather than at all impressive or helpful.

Periodically, the old Milton’s bells would ding twice to signal a customer driving up to a gas pump, and I would return to the office to activate whichever pump a customer wanted to use. I was thankful that there was plenty of gas to sell that day. Sometimes we would get tapped dry and while, in a way, it was a good thing to sell out of your product, it was always a strange experience going out to people at their cars who were confused about why the gas pump wasn’t working and tell them that, unfortunately, like their cars, the station’s gas tanks were also empty.15 And rather embarrassingly, I would be forced to direct potential customers to where they could go to actually get what they wanted.

Many of the customers that day weren’t much for chitchat. They only wanted to fill up their vehicle’s tank and move on with their lives. Too many remarked on how “it must be a slow day for you fellas” as they looked around at all the inactivity in the station. In a moment of shared incredulity, Rick and I could only nod at the obviousness. At least we had found common ground in the somewhat ridiculousness of customers.

An hour before closing time, it started to rain. A hesitant trickle began to pepper the cracked cement outside. I was in the garage patching a tire for a woman who unfortunately ran over a nail when she drove past a construction site. The telephone began to ring and I poked my head into the office to see if Rick was going to answer it. Rick was holding the phone in both hands, staring at it, letting it ring, and ring, and ring. Frustrated, I was about to answer the call from the phone that was in the garage when Rick finally pushed the answer button and brought the phone to his ear. The small beep from the phone was followed by obnoxious silence, a time-clock minute slammed, silence again. Rick spoke.

“Hello?” His voice had risen slightly at the final syllable to seemingly connote a strained cheeriness. “Yes, this is he. Uh-huh. Okay, thank you. Bye.”  Rick cleared his throat, set the phone down, and returned to the work on his desk. Outside, the rain was getting heavier.

I finished patching the tire and placed it back on the beige Toyota Camry. Just as I was about to process and charge the standard $10 patch fee, Rick interrupted and told the woman that it was on the house. The woman had been a customer before, I recognized her but didn’t know her name. She brought her car in for its usual maintenance so she was one of the regulars who probably remembered Rick when he was a little boy. I figured she got this freebie for her years of dedicated patronage, a nonexistent punchcard that was now paying off.  The rainy weather was beginning to blot out the sky.

The woman departed, which left Rick and me alone again in the small office. We watched as the rain continued to build into a full-on downpour.  Now no one was going to be buying gas from us because the station didn’t have any shelter over the gas pumps.

“It’s really comin’ down,” Rick suddenly said.

“Uh, yeah, I think people have been saying that we’ve really needed a good rain for a while now.” Which was true, it hadn’t rained in weeks.

Rick said nothing in reply but simply continued to gaze at the falling rain.  

I wanted Rick to say something. Something like, “Bah, the rain is late to the game when it comes to causing us pain!” or “This place has been a money-pit for years.  I’m surprised you haven’t realized that yet.” But no, I thought, Rick remained unknowable.

Each minute dragged on as the closing time approached. I heard every slam of the time-clock’s minute hand.  I couldn’t ignore the progression of time ceaselessly marching on with indifference to its own consequences.

While Rick finished the last of his paperwork, I ran the day’s register totals and began locking the station up for the evening.  After emptying the cash register, I was about to put the moneybag into the floor safe when Rick stopped me.  

“I was thinking that I’d just take that home with me tonight and then bring it to the bank in the morning,” he said.

“Tomorrow’s Sunday, Rick.  Bank’s closed,” I said with a quizzical look.  

“Oh, right…” Rick stared at the air in front of him and blinked a couple of times in apparent disbelief at this mistake.  “I must’ve…lost track of the days.”

“No worries. Time does kind of blur around here,” the words tumbled out of my mouth.

“What?” Rick replied, but in a way so that I wasn’t sure if he was confused or shocked by my comment.  

“Never mind, it’s not important…uh, have a good night, Rick. Is everything done?”

Rick closed his briefcase with a snap and smiled.  “Yes. It’s all done. Thank you for your help.” He lifted his briefcase off the desk and started heading for the door.

“Oh hey Rick, it’s no problem, I like learning all this old stuff like changing oil and patching tires,” I said as I opened the door for Rick.

“Old stuff, eh?” Rick said with a note of surprise and he chuckled.  “I suppose that’s what it is, isn’t it?”

Before I could even respond, Rick had turned and kept walking to his car, leaving me standing there with the door still in my hands. Rick made no effort to shield himself from the frigid, heavy rain and, in fact, walked as if he didn’t even notice it. As usual, his old Audi turned on without argument and Rick drove away from Wally’s Auto Service another time. I quickly went back inside and punched out. I locked the door, peered in to the dark office through the window, and felt, for some inexplicable reason, I be wouldn’t be working here for much longer.

When I got home, soaked to the bone, and feeling down for some reason I couldn’t figure out, I saw both of my parents in the kitchen.  

“How’s Rick doing?” my mom asked with a concerned look on her face.

“Oh, you know, he’s just usual ol’ Rick, not much of a talker.”

“Did he not tell you what happened?  Wally passed away this afternoon. Was Rick at work the whole time?  Did he know?”


There was considerable amount of debate about what would become of the station. A lot of ideas were proposed: level it and put in some apartment housing, a Jamba Juice, even the idea of a small park came up. But every proposal that required tearing the station down (which was the first step to a lot of them) was ultimately rejected because the surrounding neighborhood wanted to preserve the old building. They felt like it was a part of the community.  In the end, it became “Town Hall Station,” a brewpub that, according to my parents, has good walleye tacos.  

1 The very quick story is that I showed up for work in a radically awesome pair of camo cargo shorts (I could carry so much) and simply got told to go home and change into something that would give me moderate protection in case I spilled hot motor oil on my legs (which, by the way, never happened…I only ever got it all over my hands).
2 At this point in time we were debotees of the French press.
3 Usually a video game. I liked to frame my argument in the belief (sincere belief, I wasn’t a conboy!) that the game was a “breakthrough” in art and storytelling.
4 Literally just to see if I checked the box which admitted past felony conviction. That box was not checked which was nice because then I got to skip the question providing details and explaining why I had a felony on my record.

5 The advent of texting and easy communication among friends made this an especially sad situation. For example:

            “Do you work today?”
            “Yeah :( why?”
            “We’re all going frisbee golfing and then grilling afterward!"
             “Please don’t send pics.”

6 However, his other Audi (much newer, track-ready, sexy blue), was parked inside the third garage bay. Vanity plate read: THERAPY.
7 Curse you, Midas, and your golden touch. Curse you!
8 Acroprint® Model 150 in Appeasing Green (color name my own imagining).
9 Our waiting room was more of a waiting corner.
10 Which, of course, only made me want to flip them to see what happened. But I never did.
11 [Insert fart joke here?]
12 I did manage to get Rick to laugh one time. I can’t remember the joke but I do remember that he laughed like Winnie the Pooh.
13 We probably looked like a still frame from a Wes Anderson film: aged but functioning machine (cash register), awkward and gangly teenager, sullen and quiet old man. That’s all you need.
14 Which I think is how jobs for teenagers are usually made.
15 I was always afraid that someone who get extremely angry. “Whaddya mean you’re out of gas!?  You’re a gas station!” Fortunately (and unfortunately) most people reacted as if I told them I had a terminal disease.  “Oh…that sucks.” And then they left.