Nebraska Center for Writers


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 now.
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," I said.
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 serious.
"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

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The Rock

Nebraska Center for Writers