John Gallagher

The Filling Station



I

In the field by the twin oaks, Billy Ayres figured to get a jump on clearing the land by burning off the overgrowth instead of cutting it away by hand. Billy never did more work than he could avoid. The smoke billowed, smelled acrid in his nostrils, and the oak trees swam in the wavering air. As he squatted there, Billy’s glance took in the can in which he had carried the gasoline from town. It had a sinful aroma, this new gasoline, sweet and treacherous; it reminded Billy of a woman’s perfume mingling with whiskey. Billy in his 33 years had known enough of that particular blend of scents to be broke and still working his uncle’s land instead of having his own place.

This gas can was red, and it could hold two gallons; it had a spindle handle of wood, and it hefted nicely when lifted. He held the can up to eye level, and the brown letters told Billy gas was DANGER and required CAUTION and was HIGHLY FLAMMABLE. Well, damn sure it burns; that’s why I got it. Folks sometimes used kerosene to start a clearing fire like this, or they just sparked some matches if the grass was dry enough. Billy was always ready to try something new, a new bottle at the roadhouse, a new woman.

The fire burned, and Billy squatted there on the edge of his uncle’s field thinking about gasoline. Automobiles were still new enough around here. Plenty of folks had bought one of Mr. Ford’s new Model Ts, but a lot of people didn’t have one yet. Billy sure didn’t. He walked into town when a need arose, or hitched the draft horse to the wagon to haul something.

But the more he squatted and thought, as the licks of flame consumed the scrub brush, the more something slow-burning stirred deep inside Billy. Automobiles were new, but more were coming, and every one of them would need this gasoline. Right now, folks visited the druggist’s in town to fill a can like this red one from a tank that Mr. Bissel kept back of the store. But Billy had heard of a new kind of store, one that sold nothing but gasoline. They called them filling stations, and they made money slick as a pig. Money just for pumping gas! He’d heard about it from the bartender at the roadhouse. No more mucking around with spring planting, no more breaking your back in the fields at harvest. Stand there, pump gas, take the money of fancy folks. How do, ma’am? Yes, sir, it sure is hot, ain’t it?

Billy Ayres stood up. All around him the blackened fields smoldered. Little wisps of smoke trailed up here and there. The earth felt warm under his feet. He nodded. After a moment, Billy put the gas can in his wagon and set out to learn what more he could about filling stations.



II

Billy’s uncle sat in the wheelchair that was as much a part of him as the gnarled hands twisted with arthritis and the scar on the neck where a bull had horned him and nearly killed him a quarter-century ago. Billy couldn’t say how old his uncle was now. Maybe fifty-five, maybe seventy-five. Billy remembered him looking always the way he did now, gray and silent, his beard shot with white and yellowing tobacco stains. But there was no mistaking the raw power in that hunched frame. Uncle Morgan sat in his wheelchair like a bear facing the dawn, immoveable and fierce.

For all his new ambition, Billy found himself mute before Morgan. But already his uncle had divined the purpose of the visit. Billy never understood how his uncle knew such things, how a man with kids and grandkids and nephews and nieces all throughout this county could keep track of all of them and their business, or how he held his land together from that chair and the porch. But Morgan did all that and more. You needed something in this county, you came to see Billy’s uncle.

“It’s about time,” Morgan said.

“Uncle?”

“That you found something, Billy. Something that lights a fire under you. Something that takes what you got inside and organizes it, puts you on the road to something good. Almost too late for you, Billy. But I see you got it now.”

“Well….”

“Don’t matter what it is sometimes.” Morgan could have been smiling behind the beard, but it was hard to tell. “So long as it’s something besides liquor and the girls at that damn roadhouse you frequent.”

Billy nodded.

“So I’ll stake you,” Morgan said. “I been looking into these new filling stations since I heard you was after one. Know what they cost to build, where you get the gas.”

“I been looking into that too, Morgan,” Billy said. “I think—”

But Morgan had cut him off with a nod. “That’s good, Billy. Do as much as you can on your own lick, hear? That’s the way. And I’m willing to bet you don’t touch a bottle again for a good long while.” It was as much a warning as a prediction.

“Haven’t had a drink since I got this idea.”

Morgan nodded. “Even know the right spot, too,” he said: “that crossroad over by the ox-bow in the river, by the Aubrey place.”

“Why there?”

“State’s fixing to build a new road right through here, good surface and all. Going to tie up with that stretch headed to Ashley. You put a filling station there, you can sell your gas to everybody on the state road.”

Abashed, Billy realized he hadn’t even thought about where to build a station. He nodded, humble and grateful, keeping his mouth shut.

“You may think you know why I’m doing this,” Morgan said. “Just ’cause you’re my sister’s boy, I’m looking out for my own. But that ain’t it.”

Billy waited.

Morgan turned to face the west so that the sinking sun bathed him as with a fire within.

“This is my county, Billy. It’s a good place, too. People here know when you’re sick, and they care when you die. There ain’t many places like this left.”

“No, sir, there ain’t.”

“These new automobiles coming, they gotta gas up here, I guess. Don’t know much ’bout that. But I do know I don’t want no son of a gun from outside making money off us. I want one of our own boys. You asked me first, and I can see you want it bad enough, and you sure God need a thing like this. So you get the chance.”



III

It took six weeks. Billy thought it was his doing, getting the builder to put up a filling station with a pretty glass window in front and the red lettering AYRES GASOLINE in a half-moon across it. But he knew it happened too easy for his own hand; he didn’t even follow the cost, for the builder dealt directly with Billy’s uncle.

The little country crossroads wasn’t much of a draw at first. Mostly Billy’s relations came by, then a couple of local farmers. Often as not, they just brought a can to be filled instead of their cars.

But Billy knew patience for the first time in his life. He hadn’t taken a drink since before he lit the clearing fire in the twin-oaks field. The state road would be right through here soon enough; he could hear talk of it taking shape down by Percy.

Every night, Billy closed up the station and went to sleep on a cot in a little shed he himself had added to the back of the store. And every night, amid the critter sounds from the piney woods and the slowly thickening humidity of a Southern night, his last conscious thoughts were of automobiles coming down that state highway to his filling station, the sun glinting off them like gold coins tumbling from a chest.



IV

By the time the road-building crews were just south of town, Billy knew something was wrong. The men pounding the sticks into the red clay to mark the way were bypassing Billy’s crossroads. The rows of sticks and flags stood some little distance away, beyond a stand of white pines, marking out a route that would leave Billy’s filling station isolated. When the road gangs with their shovels and rakes started to smooth out that path, Billy decided it was time to hunt up somebody who knew what was going on. It took him a whole day.

The engineer was a younger man. Other than a doctor or a vet, Billy had never seen a college graduate before. This one wore a tie and horn-rimmed glasses and carried a roll of blueprints under his arm, and his fedora looked clean and new, not sweat-stained and dirty and shapeless like Billy’s own. There were damp circles under the engineer’s armpits, but even those looked neat.

“Why? I’ll tell you why,” the engineer said, as if even talking to Billy was a favor. “That creek up there floods every spring, doesn’t it.” The engineer made it a statement, not a question.

“Well, sure, but that ain’t in here.”

“But if we come through here, it means we’d have to bend the road again to avoid the flood plain up ahead. Don’t you see? It’s easier to just cut it over that way to begin with.”

“If you do that, how can cars get to my filling station?” But Billy was already talking to the engineer’s back, and the road passed him by.



V

Billy had never felt the want of a woman more than he felt the loss of the cars motoring by on the new state road. On the morning the road opened to traffic, Billy stood along the shoulder, gazing down to where the new pavement shimmered and glistened like a lake in the distance. A little lozenge in the mist gradually solidified into the shape of an automobile. It seemed to take a long time getting to Billy, but when it passed, it was moving so fast the trailing wind hit him like a slap. It wasn’t long before the cars were coming and going both ways, burning up that new roadway; and, if sometimes the drivers glanced his way, Billy perhaps just imagined their laughter and their scorn at his predicament. With every car that passed, Billy counted another one of those tumbling gold coins falling into somebody else’s pocket.

He turned around and looked back through the piney woods toward his filling station. The neat, trim, whitewashed building was just a hundred yards or so distant, but it might as well have been miles away, invisible through the dense woods. Billy squatted on his haunches, right there by the roadside, trying to pierce the veil of pines, not minding nor even hearing the cars passing at his back. He grabbed a handful of the red clay and squeezed it until his wrist ached and the tendons in his arm seemed to pop. He dropped the little ball of clay and wiped his palms absently across each other. It was like a benediction. Like a promise. The man who stood up was not the same one who had squatted down. Billy set off for town to borrow some tools.

He was up at four the next morning. He took the borrowed saw, a two-handled model that he figured he could operate alone, and slowly, in the bare light of dawn, set to cutting down one of the pines nearest his station. Even in the pre-dawn chill, Billy was drenched in sweat by the time he could push the gently swaying tree over.

He looked around. The trees had seemed to multiply even as he had cut down the first. “Lord Almighty, what am I doing?” he muttered. But he shook the sawdust from the blade and went right on to the next one.

Working in the cool of the early morning and the heat of the day, Billy kept at it, doubling up with working the station itself. He’d scamper back to fill up a customer’s car, then hurry back to this new mission, this life. One goal seized him, the clearing of a connection from the state road to his station.

People who came by regular, the nearby farmers and folks who knew Billy, marveled at the change in him. His hands, already calloused from labor, became like leather mitts; his arms, like cables. The work whittled down his frame to sinew and bone; his face grew so thin it might have chopped trees itself.

One morning, he stumbled in the dark as he felled a tree and its branches slashed his cheek as it fell, giving him a nasty wound. Even with work gloves, his hands cracked and bled. Food became something tasteless, without identity, something he shoveled in as fuel. Sleep became a deadened release from labor; his dreams were filled with pine trees not yet felled; most nights he didn’t even undress in the shack behind his station. His world had shrunk to the station and the trees.

A month or more into the work, Billy sensed he was halfway; he could see the state road now through the remaining veil of pines; he was closer to the road than to his station; the sound of automobiles passing had grown louder. He felt his eyes tear up. He wiped away the salt water with the back of his gloved hands, smearing dirt on his face, and set once again to his saw.

When he felled the final tree, there was a moment of triumph—but then he plunged into despair, thinking of the acres of stumps. Billy rented a tractor for two weeks, fixing a tackle, one by one, to the stumps and yanking each to a slowly growing slash pile in the nearby field. Then he attacked the scrub brush, cutting, ripping—all with a fierceness that grew as his path from filling station to state road took shape.

The final step, laying down gravel, was hardest of all, his back straining as he smoothed out truckloads of crushed stone. As an afterthought, Billy pounded in half-a-dozen signs at points along the road a mile or so to either side—proclaiming Gas Water Coke and the distance to his turnout.

When he was done, Billy stood in the early-morning light by the side of the state roadway, feeling shy, like a virgin bridegroom waiting for his new wife. He admired the work of his own hands, the clean, almost carpet-like bed of gravel he had put down, the whitish stones catching the glint of the morning sun. His station gleamed like a mirage at the end of the roadway. The morning air was cool and as fresh as it ever got down there this time of year; it carried a promise the day would probably never fulfill, but, just the same, it felt sweet and pure. When the first car turned off the highway and headed toward his station, Billy was so surprised he had to hot-foot it back to pump the gas lest the customer drive off.



VI

In the weeks and months that followed, trade from the new road grew so brisk that Billy hired first one new employee and then a second. The first, suggested by his uncle, was a lumpy older man named Lucius, who had lost his farm to the bankers; he knew nothing about cars, but he pumped gasoline all day long with no complaint and almost no words. As for the second new employee—after enough motorists had asked for help with an engine running rough or an overheated bearing or a fanbelt slipping its track, Billy took on Jake Byrne, a whip-thin young man with longish hair and sleepy eyes, who knew everything there was to know about motor cars. Like any farm hand, Billy himself could puzzle out a balky tractor if the need arose, but young Jake came to his knowledge by pure instinct. It was a gift. He could listen to an engine missing from twenty yards away, mumble in his lazy way something like, “Might be a hairpin in the crank case,” and proceed to poke his head under the hood and emerge a few minutes later to the low purring of a perfectly tuned machine. Billy found Jake a mixed blessing, though. He was happy to have his skill (and the extra dollars it brought in) but something about the boy’s sleepy grin always made Billy feel inferior to his own employee.

For months, Billy had operated the filling station by himself, and so he had grown accustomed to a solitary life. Now more people were stopping by. It was not just the surge of new customers off the state road; there were young people, too, friends of young Jake, who came by just to pass the time in the mysterious ways of youth. Most of these hangers-on were like Jake himself and seemed to know things that Billy did not. They had their own language and jokes. Billy felt uneasy about this invasion, but the younger men mostly stayed out of his way and treated him with respect. Once, they got underfoot, and Billy growled at them, but Jake apologized, and the place quieted down for a while.

Then one day a young woman showed up. Billy knew her vaguely, had seen her in town; he half-consciously put her in the category of women he used to see at the roadhouse. Her name was Eunice Barker, and she came along with Jake’s friends a time or two, and then came by herself, talking in low voices with Jake and asking Billy if she could help out at all, maybe straightening up the place.

“She your special girl?” Billy asked Jake late one afternoon.

“Oh, Billy, don’t you see? Eunice ain’t interested in me. It’s you she’s fixed her sights on.”

This assertion shocked Billy. He knew he must be close to twice the girl’s age, and his months of monkish living and sobriety had driven low any desires not connected with the filling station.

“Me?” Billy said. “Me? What for?”

“Sweet Jesus, Billy, you are a modest man! She likes you, Billy. She goes for you.”

Billy was so flummoxed by this intelligence that he spilled some gasoline for the next customer and made incorrect change.

By the time Billy locked up for the evening, his old self, the roadhouse Billy who never had much control over his wants, was stirring. That Billy was under better control now, harnessed by several months of hard labor and awareness of a dream larger than mere physical desire, a goal of financial success and respectability that drove him long before dawn and long after nightfall. Yet, control or no, Billy was totally aware of Eunice when she came by the filling station the next day. Gone was his vague annoyance with Jake’s friends; gone was the sense that Eunice was underfoot. Now Billy observed Eunice’s every move, the way her dark-blond hair fell across her face as she moved, the way she would dart glances at him when she thought he wasn’t looking, the way her body moved in her loose shift dress, the way her breasts pushed against the fabric.



VII

Three weeks later, Billy sat at his uncle’s feet again and listened as Morgan tried to talk him out of marrying Eunice.

“I tell you, Billy, if I tell you anything, that gal is trouble, and you ought to know that by now. You knew roadhouse girls in your time, Billy. You want to marry one of those?”

“She’s different,” Billy said.

“Yeah? You mean she’s found a better sugar tit in you? That’s all it means, Billy. That Barker crowd, they ain’t good for nothing but bastard kids and grieving wives. Don’t marry her, Billy. Lord Almighty, I can’t say it no clearer’n that. Don’t marry that fool girl. You’ll live to regret it.”

The wedding took place in the local Baptist church. The Barkers, for all their Saturday sinning, never missed a Sunday service. The preacher joshed Billy for missing church, made him sweat through Bible lessons for a couple weeks, but pretty soon realized there wasn’t any more to do about it, that Billy Ayres cared about two things, his gas station and now this girl. For the wedding, Billy wore a tie for the first time since his mother’s funeral when he was 10.

That night, in a rented room in the town’s only hotel, for the first time Billy saw Eunice without any clothes on her. The sight of her slim body awed and thrilled him but produced a feeling of anxiety in Billy; he felt the years separating him from his young bride; he wondered if he could keep up with her. Such thoughts, natural enough in themselves, may have evaporated like soap bubbles once he took Eunice in his arms, had she been a different kind of woman; but when Billy held her, even then things seemed amiss, as if Eunice, approaching the lovemaking with a bawdy tone and a series of trite remarks, was going through the motions of love. She tried to get him to a climax as quickly as possible; it all seemed forced and contrived, so that an invisible curtain hung between them during the act. On subsequent nights, she either pleaded a headache or women’s troubles, or approached their intimacies with a perfunctory skill little different than the way she made change at the filling station.



VIII

Once they were married, Eunice began to complain, in minor ways at first, but then with more directness and anger, about old Lucius. She argued that, with Jake fixing folks’ cars and her working at cash register, Billy could give customers their gasoline, and what did they need Lucius for, anyway? He was hard of hearing, she told Billy, and, when he made change for customers, he often made mistakes.

There was more of the same, a lot more. She didn’t like the way Lucius wouldn’t mind her when she told him to do something. Lucius distracted Jake from his work in the shop.

When none of these complaints turned Billy against his old helper, she began to hint that Lucius looked at her in a way that wasn’t proper; that he even found a way to sidle against her in the narrow space by the cash register. Billy was taken aback by all these assertions; he had never noticed that Lucius made the wrong change or that he couldn’t hear; and the old man certainly seemed to keep to himself. But as Eunice worked on Billy, at first only during the day at the filling station but soon at night in their bed together, he began to assume that his young wife must be right; certainly he was puzzled and then alarmed at the way she withheld intimacies and pouted until at last Billy began to wonder if there wasn’t something to her charges after all.

So he promised Eunice he’d keep an eye on Lucius; and, having won this much from Billy, Eunice bored in during the weeks that followed, building up ever greater doubts in her husband’s mind, until at last, befuddled and not quite sure why he was doing so, Billy told Lucius he would have go. The old man took it without a word of complaint, and slowly walked down the lane and away.



IX

If Billy imagined that getting rid of Lucius might prompt Eunice to show her gratitude toward him in bed at night, he was wrong: she continued just as before. In their room at night (Billy rented a small apartment over a store on the edge of town), Eunice seemed by turns eager for what Billy could give her and yet not very interested, as though he were a handy convenience for her. Their love was never tender. It was Eunice who fell asleep immediately after, and Billy who lay awake and wondered what he had done wrong or why he felt so alone.

After a few weeks of marriage, Eunice began to vary their routine, leaving the filling station early (to take care of things at home, she told Billy, although their living space was so sparse he couldn’t imagine what needed tending), or skipping a day now and then to visit her mother.

About that same time, Jake Byrne sent word a time or two that he couldn’t come to work that day, for he had come down with the croup; this surprised Billy, since he had never seen a more rudely alive young man as Jake, and, when Jake returned the next day, he always displayed no aftereffects of his illness.

There came a day when Billy turned from a customer and glanced over to the repair bay and saw that Jake and Eunice were standing together and laughing, and, as Eunice turned back into the little office, she squealed as Jake flicked his rag at her behind. Billy reddened, stalked over, asked Jake what the hell he was doing treating his wife that way; and he might have punched the younger man right there had not Eunice begun to berate her husband for making so much out of nothing. Couldn’t he see that everyone was just friends, and friends joke now and then, and why was he being so peevish about nothing? Billy’s anger wilted in the face of his wife’s criticism; he began to wonder if he had perhaps mistaken the gesture; he went back outside, his face red with embarrassment.



X

“Billy,” Eunice said one morning over coffee, sliding up to him and putting her arms around his neck, “you know what we need to do?”

Surprised by this sudden and unexpected intimacy, Billy was suffused with a desire to please her. “What’s that, hon?”

“We need to think about expanding the business.”

“Expanding? You mean adding on to the shop?”

“No, silly. I mean building another filling station across town.” Now she was all movement, her face scrunching up through exaggerated emotions. “I’ve been thinking about it. Jake says it’ll work, too. You build a new station over by the crossroads near the reservoir, and we’ll do twice the trade.”

Billy was surprised, even confused.

“Why, that’s less than a mile away, Eunice. We’d compete with ourselves, wouldn’t we?”

“Now, Billy,” she said, not breaking eye contact and holding herself a little closer to him, insinuating her body next to his, “Jake says twice the stations means more’n twice the money, because people will find it so convenient. Right now, they don’t buy gas from us unless they really need to drive over our way. But with one on t’other side of town, they could buy gas any old time. See?”

He didn’t, not really, but, as with the firing of old Lucius, Eunice’s daily entreaties, bolstered by the cooler arguments of Jake, came to have a weight against which it was impossible to stand.

So Billy took out a bank loan against his receipts and bought the corner parcel across town, and there he began to erect a second filling station. He thought to hire a good foreman to build it, but Eunice and Jake advised him, with many strenuous words, that nobody should oversee the work on the spot but himself. “That’s the only way it gets done right,” Jake told him. Eunice concurred. “Those pikers,” she said, referring to the honest laborers Billy had engaged, “they’ll steal you blind if you don’t stand over them every minute.”

So Billy left Eunice in charge of the filling station with Jake to help, and spent all day on the new location. Almost as soon as the new filling station started going up, Billy noticed something odd. The cash receipts from his first place started going down. Each evening, after leading the construction of the new station, Billy caught a ride back to the other side of town to check on his day’s trade. And straight away he noticed less money in the till than just the week before.

“Gee, hon, it do seem a little slow lately,” Eunice said when he asked her about the shortfall.

“But it can’t be, Eunice,” Billy said, more confused than angry. “Why, the new state road’s busier than ever. We’ve got to be doing better.”

“Maybe there’s a new filling station on up ahead you don’t know about, Billy,” Eunice said. “What do you think, Jake?”

“Sure enough, Billy,” his young mechanic said, “I think Eunice has put her finger on it.” Billy noticed Jake was wearing a new belt buckle, a big shiny thing, and a new pair of boots, intricately tooled with little licks of flame embossed on the sides. Eunice noticed Billy staring at Jake’s boots and stepped in to touch her husband’s face.

“Now, Billy, this just proves what I said was right, hon, that you got to get your new station up and running! Otherwise you’re just leaving money on the table!”

So the next morning Billy went back to the other side of town, urging his builders on, and receipts at his first filling station returned to normal for a couple of days. Then they started dropping again, and, no matter what Billy did, he couldn’t understand where the business was going. Especially since he had to take delivery of as much gasoline as ever. He tried asking Eunice how they could be selling as much gas as ever but not have the money in the till afterward.

Eunice told him he was making a mistake in his calculations, that when she counted the cash it was all there. So, when Billy counted it again in front of her, Eunice hesitated a moment and then clapped her hands together.

“I knew it!” she said. “I knew that kid robbed us!”

“Robbed us!” Billy said. “Hell’s fire, Eunice, what are you talking about?”

“This kid was hanging around today, saying he wanted to buy a Coke, and, when I went out to sell some gas, the kid stayed inside. Later I thought the till looked a little light. I bet that damn kid took our money.”

“Who in blazes was this kid, Eunice?”

“Gee, hon, I never saw him before.”

“We’ll I’m going to get the sheriff out here.”

“Now, Billy,” Eunice said, putting her hands on Billy’s arm, “let’s not do that.”

“Why not?”

“We don’t know who this boy is, honey, and he’s probably long gone now anyhow. Won’t do any good, and, if he shows up again, then we can catch him in the act.”

Billy didn’t buy all his wife’s arguments, but, as usual whenever he talked with Eunice, she won out in the end.



XI

There came a day, when his new station was almost finished and two of his workers were joking over their noontime sandwiches, that Billy, coming around the corner just a moment later, overheard two names linked with a sly tone and ugly words and an answering bark of laugher. The names were Jake and Eunice. Billy rounded the corner and started angrily toward the workers, who suddenly looked away and busied themselves with their Cokes.

Try as he might, Billy couldn’t stop the memory of that sly laughter and the implication behind it from burning at his gut all the rest of that day. After work ended at dinnertime, Billy turned down his usual ride to the other side of town. Instead, he walked over to the local roadhouse, a place he hadn’t visited in many months, and, sitting on the same stool he used to occupy, Billy ordered a whiskey. The fiery liquid fanned the flames inside him even as he tried to drown them with another whiskey and another and another. He stayed quite awhile, well past dark, not speaking with any of his old friends, just losing himself in solitary hate.

By the time Billy had walked out to his filling station, it was full night. He came in by way of the state road and the little bypass he had carved out and built with his own hands. He saw that the lights were off in the station, and that the glass window with the big stenciled Ayres Gasoline in red lettering shimmered in the starlight. The front door was open, and Billy stopped there, listening, staring into the inner darkness toward the little shack at the back, the room he had used before he and Eunice married and got their place in town. Billy had never cleared out the little bed in there that he had slept on during his bachelor days, and now, listening from the doorway, he knew the bed had found a new use and new users. The low moans coming from the inner room scorched his soul the way a brush fire leaves the land bare and blackened.

Billy always kept a spare can of gas in the shop’s repair bay. Now he retrieved it. It was the same can he had once used to burn the debris off his uncle’s field. He could tell by its heft that it contained enough. He splashed the contents around the station, onto some papers on the counter inside, near the doorway to the shack, all the while trying to shut out the tormenting sounds coming from that darkened room. Emerging back into the open air, Billy stripped off his shirt, wadded it with quick flipping motions to create a torch, found a match, struck it, lit the shirt ablaze. Tossed it just inside the door of the station, stepping back to avoid the rush of fire flaring back up at him.

Billy was already halfway up the lane to the state road when the flames set off the main gas storage tank. A motorist driving past about that time told the sheriff later that, although he couldn’t be sure, he thought he’d seen a spectral figure striding away in the red and rippling air, a figure bound for Hell.



XII

Billy was back at work building his new filling station when the sun burned over the horizon. It was there that the sheriff gave him the news of the fire and deaths. Billy took the news with unnatural calm; the sheriff attributed it to shock.

There were whispers, of course, but a coroner’s jury ruled the fire an accident, a tragedy caused by the carelessness of the two young victims getting drunk and smoking without regard to their surroundings.

Billy Ayers opened his new filling station a week later. It did a brisk trade. Within a year he had two more filling stations up and running in the county. In five years he had a couple dozen, plus a new car dealership, and he was buying land all over that part of the state.

He never did rebuild his original place, though, just cleared the debris and let the pines reclaim the land.

When his uncle died, Billy inherited the house with the front porch. On Sunday afternoons, he sat there in his uncle’s rocking chair, dispensing wisdom and favors to all who came.

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