It was August of ’76. I had put myself on a strict regimen of reading a hundred pages a day if I were to even have a prayer of completing my summer reading before school began. I moved around, room to room, sofa to chair, driveway to grass, trying to keep myself awake, yellow-highlighting my way through Dickens’s Bleak House.
This particular evening, I was lying on top of the deep freezer chest in our back kitchen. It was remarkably uncomfortable, just the way I needed it. An air conditioner had been installed in the window above the freezer, in an effort to keep the kitchen cooled off during the hotter summer months. The dial was forever set on high. The combination of the freezer’s stainless steel pressing against my back and the chilled air blasting over my body made it not only morgue-like, but also nearly impossible for me to drift off into a Bleak House–induced nap.
Lola had just finished up the dishes from supper and was getting her things together to go home.
The pantry was off the back kitchen; it’s where Lola kept her purse and other personal items she’d bring with her to the house. She mentioned that she hoped she’d make it back across town to her filling station before they closed for the night.
“My car is running on fumes,” she said, laughing, “but I didn’t want to be late this morning because I knew your mother was counting on me to get things ready for her garden club meeting this afternoon.”
I eagerly suggested that I follow her to the “bottom of the hill station” to make sure she didn’t run out of gas on the way. There was an Esso filling station about a half mile from our house, downhill all the way.
I was sixteen years old, newly licensed, and bored out of my mind. So, naturally, I jumped at any chance to get out of the house—the benevolent twist was simply a bonus.
She insisted she would be fine. I insisted I would follow her. I am guessing my sixteen-year-old self insisted harder.
A family of men ran the stations, a father and his two sons. Mr. Harper, Bob, and Billy, the younger and the bigger of the two boys. Mr. Harper spent most of his summer fishing and hunting, trying to fill up their freezer for the winter, leaving the boys to run the station. Both of the sons were huge. Both were basketball stars on the high school team. They sported crew cuts during the basketball season, but let their hair grow out through the summer, since that was the fashion at the time.
They drove a big red tow truck around town with “Harper’s Auto” painted in white on the doors. The white paint was fading right along with the red paint in the hot southern sun, and the dashboard was covered an inch thick in matchbooks, half-empty packs of Winston cigarettes, and scraps of paper with notes and numbers written all over them. The ashtray had only spare change and ashes in it as the boys had a habit of putting their cigarette butts in a Schlitz can that sat perilously on the floor of the truck. It smelled up the cab pretty good, but in those days none of us seemed to mind it much, not like we do today.
I had a little blue FIAT (an acronym for Fix It Again Tony, my daddy used to say when he’d have to go by Harper’s to write a check for the seemingly endless repairs). When I’d take my car in for service, the Harpers would drive me to my destination and I’d climb out of the truck and say “thanks for the ride, Tony,” before tapping the cab of the truck a couple of times as a send off. They’d honk the horn in response making, in my mind at least, our unbalanced exchange a little less awkward.
Looking back, who knows what they really thought of my attempts at being familiar. I went to a small school, halfway across town, and if it weren’t for their service station, it’s unlikely our paths would ever have crossed.
There had been a Mrs. Harper, of course, but she died of a brain tumor years earlier. Apparently Mrs. Harper had been sick for months before she’d gone to see daddy and when she finally did, there wasn’t much point in operating. Daddy felt a kinship with the family after not being able to do much of anything to help Mrs. Harper. We became loyal customers.
With her keys in her hand, Lola was either too tired or too polite to say no to me. Or maybe on some level I don’t want to examine even today, she didn’t think she could, although I can tell you she never had trouble telling me to do this or not to do that. She’d taught me right from wrong. She was always teaching me, in her own quiet way.
I was confused. I was embarrassed. I was seeing the world, possibly for the first time, as it really was.
I told Lola I was two minutes behind her; I’d get my keys and my shiny new license and be on my way down the hill. If she didn’t make it to the station, I’d pick her up on the way. Otherwise, I’d go into Harper’s to say good night. Any excuse not to read Bleak House.
When I pulled into the driveway of Harper’s, I parked right by the service bays. Lola’s aging black Ford sedan was parked in front of the gas pumps, untended. I saw Lola standing inside the doorway of the station, the rattling fan whirring away above her head, not moving much air from what I could see. She appeared, to me, to be as untended as her car.
Bob and Billy Harper were sitting on an old car seat they’d ripped out of an unwanted Chrysler. It’d been in front of the station for as long as I could remember, and it was covered in cigarette burns. They weren’t five feet from Lola but they acted as if they didn’t see her or her car, right in front of them, plain as day.
They were flicking pull-tabs they’d taken from the soda machine into a rusted coffee can, which was set up across from the old car seat, yelling louder each time a tab hit the mark. One would flick tabs into the can while the other would take a drag from their shared cigarette, snapping his jaw, trying to better the now barely visible smoke ring his brother had produced half a minute earlier. The Harper boys were always competing, it was in their nature.
My mind was racing as I got out of my car, searching for a reason for what I was seeing. Other than the only possible one.
The moment the Harper boys saw me, their six-foot-three and six-foot-five frames moved swiftly. Bob stamped out the cigarette and came toward me, brushing his blond hair out of his eyes, smiling.
“What can we do for you, Miss Alexander? Is the FIAT giving you trouble again already?” Bob asked, laughing a little.
Tears stung at my eyes.
I asked them if they hadn’t seen Lola standing there, waiting to be helped.
“Uh, sure. We were just finishing up our game.” Bob’s voice trailed off as Billy did a one-eighty and made his way over to Lola’s car to begin filling the tank.
I stammered as I tried to get the words out. I was desperate not to sound like a whiny teenager, but the air had to work mighty hard to get past the massive lump in my throat.
“Please help Lola,” were the only words I could manage, as I pointed in the direction of the doorway. Bob joined Billy under the hood of Lola’s car, their heads close together, whispering.
I was madder than I’d ever been. I was confused. I was embarrassed. I was seeing the world, possibly for the first time, as it really was.
I walked over to the entryway, using the back of my hand to wipe away a tear before Lola could see it.
If Lola was aware of what had transpired, she didn’t let on. Her eyes were fixed on the field across the street from the filling station. She stood still—dignified and full of more Christian kindness and forgiveness than I will ever understand.
I didn’t know what else to do with myself, so I did what I’d been doing since I was a very little girl. I leaned on Lola.
I stood next to her and laid my head on her shoulder. Stuffing my hands into the pockets of my jeans, I pulled my elbows in closer to my body, trying somehow to make myself smaller.
I looked up at her face, at the darkness of her skin. It was a face I knew as well as my own.
I could smell that night’s supper still clinging to her grey uniform. But the sweet smell of Lola, which was so familiar and so comforting to me was there too, and I was grateful for that.
“I love you, Lola,” I said.
“I know you do,” she answered, looking straight ahead. “I love you too.”
When the Harper boys had finished cleaning the windshield, checking the oil, and filling the gas tank, Lola walked toward her car. I was a few steps behind her. She took out her wallet, but Billy Harper held up his hand. “There’s no charge, ma’am,” Billy said.
“Now don’t do that,” Lola said, sternly. “That’s not right and you know it. You’ve got to take my money.” I knew that voice well; she was exasperated.
Lola held out the cash but Billy hesitated. You better take her money, Billy, I thought, or we are going to be here all night.
Finally, he reached into his coveralls pocket and took out a rag. He wiped the grease from his hands before accepting the dollar bills.
“Thank you,” he said, looking down at his dirty work boots.
Lola got into her car and in my adolescent attempt at standing sentry, I closed Lola’s car door and did not move until she was well out of sight. When I turned to walk back to my car, the Harper boys were nowhere to be seen.
Lola and I drove away from Harper’s that night in opposite directions. Lola to her world and me to mine. Neither of us ever spoke of what happened that evening, and I never again went back to the station at the bottom of the hill.