ME AND KIEFER PAUSTIAN
were sitting at the gray Steelmaster
desk in the office off the lube bay, playing gin rummy on this
little postage-stamp area of space we'd cleared of parts
catalogues and service manuals. It was cozy in the office, and we had
the coffee pot going while we waited out the storm.
We'd shut down the gas pumps and darkened the islands and
the Phillips 66 sign at eight o'clock, our regular closing time, but
I had decided to keep the office open until midnight. Snow
always brings calls for the tow truck, and, for certain, we had
the snow. There was wind, too, which, if you know anything
about Nebraska at all, goes without saying. It picked up in the
early evening, just impossibly cold, and turned the snow to the
finer, icier kind that blew in feverish little whirlwinds one
minute, then drove almost horizontally through the air the next.
And it was still blowing hard and snowing like crazy.
We were on our tenth or twelfth game, playing penny-a-point
and keeping about even. We weren't out for blood, mostly just
conversation and something to kill the time. Kiefer's a guy in his
mid-seventies, lean and fit as a marathoner. He's one of two guys
I hire part-time, the other being a high school kid who runs the
drive. He works any more just to keep occupied and a bit out of
loyalty to my father. For thirty years, he was our mechanic when
my father owned the station. My father died six years ago.
I came back from three years working on a mechanical engineering
degree at Lincoln and took over the station to help out my
mother, just until we could find someone to buy us out. Then,
two years ago, my mother died of a stroke, although I think she
died as much from missing my dad too fiercely. Anyway, I'm
still waiting for someone to buy us out. Kiefer works for me
For the past five minutes, I'd been sitting on a full hand, but I
hadn't gone down with it, because I wanted to see how long it
would take Kiefer to go down and then see what he'd say when
he found I had no loose points to give. I was bored with the
game, bored with the waiting, and was just looking for
something to end or start, other than this rut of win-a-few-lose-a-few
we'd fallen into.
"Gin-erino!" Kiefer said finally, plucking a jack I'd just
dropped on the discard pile and spreading his cards out.
I laid my own cards down. "You nailed me good that time,"
He looked at them, then looked at them again, scowling, to
see what he could count. I leaned back in my swivel chair and
clasped my hands behind my head.
When he finally realized that I was full, too, he said, "You
smartass cocksamasumnabitch, how long you been sandbaggin'
those?" Kiefer has a colorful way with language that usually
makes me laugh. But, in order to enjoy his reaction, I had to act
"I was tired of taking your money," I said.
He pulled all the cards together and set them aside. "That's
it, I'm through," he said. He began toting up the points on the
score sheet. "I don't have to sit around here holding your hand,
you know. I could be home safe in bed, where I belong on a
night like this."
"Can't go yet," I said. "I promised Irma I'd keep you here
tonight so she could get some sleep for a change."
"Huh, now I know you're full of shit." He slapped the pencil
down. "Buck fifty you owe me, turk."
I was digging for my wallet in my hip pocket when the fire
siren in the center of town cut in all of a sudden above the wind
and started its long, climbing wail. It's a painful, lonely sound
the way it echoes through the entire town, and even if you're not
a Volunteer--which I am--it makes you antsy to do something
in response, if only to howl back like a dog....
Reprinted with permission
from Beloit Fiction Journal, Spring 1992
Copyright © 1992 by Richard Duggin