Joseph’s – by Jack Emerson

Betty Joe walked out the door of her daddy’s gas station and the sun shot down on her like a spotlight. The air was hot and still. She sat down on the step in front of the door and played with her hands and tapped her feet. The sun was on the side of the sky, beaming down hard on her and the dirt parking lot. The empty parking lot was connected to a beat-up highway that disappeared into the horizon in both directions. The only things you could see from her spot on the step were two filling stations in the lot, some corn across the road and a big field next door full of long grass. Betty Joe squinted down at her hands. A rusty sign creaked above her. Joseph’s Gas & Market.

“Hey Betty Joe,” said her daddy from inside.

She ran back inside. The dangling Joseph’s sign whipped behind her. The air inside was suffocating. There were a couple rows of food. Sweaty refrigerators lined the walls. Her daddy was behind the counter, sort of crouched around a shaky old fan.

He looked up from his newspaper. “What time is it?”

She pulled a brown wristwatch up to her face then looked up to her daddy and put four fingers in the air.

“Okay.” He wiped the sweat off his forehead. “I need to go up to the house for a couple minutes. You alright here?”

“I’m alright.”

“Alright.”

Betty Joe was eleven years old. She was wearing dirty white tennis shoes, blue jeans and a big white t-shirt with a blurred, red racecar and “DAYTONA 1979” in big black letters on it. She had short brown hair that never got in her eyes. She liked looking at the sky and working the gas pump.

She walked back outside and sat down on the step. Her daddy yelled good-bye and walked through the back door of the station whistling a tune. She sat with her hands in her lap and watched the sun fall down with a hard squint. She did a lot of thinking and a lot of counting. Every day in her head she counted how many cars came by the station. Today was forty-four.

Exactly thirty-two minutes later – she had just checked her watch – a gust of wind swept through and jolted her. She sat up. A car was coming down the road. As it got closer, Betty Joe saw it was a white pick-up with the windows rolled down. The truck turned into the station lot and a cloud of dirt erupted from the tires. It pulled next to filling station number two and stopped. Its white paint shot the sunlight off it like a mirror. The man inside turned off the truck and climbed out. Didn’t roll the windows up. He slicked the ass of his torn up blue jeans and tipped his black hat to Betty Joe, shielding the sun with her pale little hand. He made his way over. He was old-looking and had a thick, white mustache that looked like a rattlesnake. He had massive boots whose spurs jingled and jangled with every step. Betty Joe saw he was hobbling a bit, but she didn’t think anything of it. He didn’t seem to either.

The rusty gas station sign above her waved in the sudden wind. The tall grass flowed in the neighboring field.

“Afternoon, miss.” He stopped about ten feet from her and wiped the sweat from his face with a sleeve. “How’s things?”

“I’m alright,” said Betty Joe. “Sun’s big today.”

“Sure is,” he said. He pointed at the building behind her. “This your station?” He grinned.

“My daddy’s.” She smiled big back.

“You think your daddy could get me some gas?”

She shook her head. “He’s up at the house. But I can do that.”

“Yeah?”

She stood up and flattened her jeans.

He handed her two twenties and sat down on the curb.

Betty Joe skipped inside. The hanging Joseph’s sign swung with the door. She clicked some buttons behind the counter, put the two bills in the register and skipped back outside to the pump. She opened up the truck’s tank, took out the nozzle and pulled up the lever. She walked back to the tank and pushed the nozzle in. She squeezed the handle and felt the gas start flowing into the tank.

After five minutes of standing there and squeezing, the gas stopped and Betty Joe pulled out the nozzle. She went to put the nozzle back and the lever snapped down hard into her arm. She jumped back quietly and the hose fell to the ground. She looked at her arm. There was a cut just above her wrist about two inches long and already bleeding badly. Breathless, she walked over to the curb. When she got close enough the man saw the blood, yelled Oh Shit and did a hobble run to his truck. His spurs jangled. Betty Joe sat down on the curb and stared at the red. It was dripping onto the dirt and her blue jeans.

The man came back with a rag and threw it over the cut. He put the rag in her hands. “Press down on it.”

She pressed. “It hurts.”

“Keep pressing.”

“It hurts bad.” Now she was breathing heavy.

“You’re gonna be okay.” He sat down next to her. “I’m Paul. Okay?”

“Okay.” She grimaced. “Hi I’m Betty Joe.”

“Do you need me to go get your daddy?”

“I’m okay.”

“Have you got hurt like this before?”

“Not like this I haven’t.”

“Is it bad?”

She nodded. “But I’ll be okay I think. Like you said.”

“Okay. Try to slow down your breathing.” He turned away and looked out. “You’re very brave miss.”

“Thank you.” She turned away with him.

They sat in silence looking at the truck and the nozzle in the dirt. Betty Joe held the rag on her arm. It hurt, but not as much as she’d thought it would. And there was something calm about the old man.

She turned back to him. “You don’t have to stay if you don’t wanna.”

He looked at her. “I’m not gonna leave you til you stop bleeding. Or if your daddy comes back.”

Betty Joe leaned back and gave the best smile she could. “It might be a while.”

“No problem.”

“Sure?”

“Sure.”

Betty Joe was bleeding badly but the cloth was working. She winced up at the man. He was staring across the road. She turned back and stared with him. Another gust of wind hit and the pain started to go away. They sat there just breathing and listening. She could hear the hum of her daddy’s fan inside. Every once in a while, in the corner of her eye, she saw the man biting his nails. After about ten quiet minutes the pain was almost gone. She started to feel comfortable again and her breathing slowed down.

The man seemed to notice and broke the quiet. “Have you ever watched The Shining?” He was still staring off.

Betty Joe looked at him. “What’s that?”

“Nevermind. It’s an old movie.”

She sat up. “What’s it about?”

“How old are you?”

“Eleven.”

“Eleven, huh.” He looked at her. “What’s your favorite movie?”

“I like Gremlins.” She grinned.

“What’s that?”

“I asked you first!”

“Nevermind,” he said. “I can’t tell a eleven year old about The Shining.”

“Okay.” She squinted. “Tell me about something else then.”

“What you mean?”

“Tell me a story or something.” She held up her arm. “I’m still bleeding.”

He laughed. “You’re a smart little shit.”

She grinned again. “I’m waiting.”

“You’re putting me on the spot.”

“I didn’t put you anywhere!”

“Okay, okay. Let me think for a second.”

Betty Joe rolled her eyes.

He snapped his fingers and pointed to her. “Okay! I’ll tell you about the first time I remember gettin hurt bad. Just like you today.”

She carefully turned her whole body to him and crossed her legs. The grass next door was whistling.

“I was at a horse race with my family.” He looked back at the corn across the street and leaned forward. “I forgot most of that day. Actually all I remember is a couple seconds. I was probably about your age, maybe younger. I was going around the stadium and there was this flight of stairs and I started walking down. Don’t remember where I was coming from or where I was going. All I remember is somehow tripping and falling down the whole thing. I smacked on the ground and my whole leg was red. Had to go to the hospital. Missed the rest of the horse race.” He looked at her. “Not much of a story.”

“You don’t know why you were going down the stairs?”

“Guess I forgot.”

“That’s not a good reason.”

“I think it is.”

“I haven’t forgot anything about just now.”

He smiled to himself. “That so?”

She nodded firmly. “Do you think you could remember if you tried hard enough?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You don’t even remember the horses?”

The man didn’t say anything. He started drawing in the dirt with his finger.

Betty Joe uncrossed her legs and turned back facing the parking lot. “Well is your leg okay now?”

“Oh it’s fine. Not a scar or nothing.”

“Is that why you limp all the time?”

“No, no. That’s from something else.”

“Do you think I’m gonna get a scar?”

“Maybe. Not for certain.”

“It hurt pretty bad.”

He looked up from the dirt. “Seems that way.”

They looked down at the dirt together. The sun was shooting down so hard they had to squint. The Joseph’s sign waved in the wind above them. Betty Joe squeezed the bloody cloth around her arm and tapped on the ground with her foot. The grass next door was dancing and whistling.

He drew a circle in the dirt with his finger and looked at her. “Please don’t ask your daddy about The Shining.”

“I wasn’t gonna.” She looked down at the rag, then looked up at him. “I think I’m done bleeding now.”

“Alright.” The old man stood up and looked down at her. “You can keep that rag.”

“Alright.”

He turned around and started walking to his truck. The field of grass next door swelled in the wind.

Betty Joe stood up. “Where are you going?”

He turned around and put his hands on his hips. “My truck.” He was staring off above her but he was smiling.

She smiled back.

He looked down at his boots. “I’m going to California.”

“I don’t think I ever been there.”

“You’d likely know if you had.”

Betty Joe looked at the bloody dirt under her feet then squinted at him. “Are you gonna forget about me like you forgot about those horses?”

He laughed to himself and looked at her. “You don’t got much to remember, do you?”

She looked at him with bright eyes.

He waved Bye, then turned around and walked to his truck. He pulled the lever down, picked the nozzle up off the ground and shoved it back into its place. Betty Joe tapped her foot on the dirt and watched him.

He opened his truck door and looked at her one more time. “You better wash your arm off or something.” He climbed into his seat and closed the door. The engine roared and the truck started moving. The tires picked up dirt and threw it in the air. He blew his horn at her, and then he turned onto the highway and drove away.

Betty Joe was sitting on the curb again now and could see his shiny truck even when it was at least a mile away. Kept her eyes on it as long as she could. She could hear her daddy’s fan still shaking inside.

She tapped her tennis shoes on the dirt and tapped and tapped. The wind was gone now but the sun was still shining hard. She put her hands in her lap and whistled along with the rusty sign swinging above her. She and the grass next door never knew anything else.