Back then, you worked third shift at a gas station, slumped inside a little hutch while pickup trucks backed in and out on balmy spring evenings, clicking the pumps on and off, while the whole world slept except for third shift workers commuting, and you, then me, an insomniac willed awake by the moody moon. Diesel fumes weaving dream sequences around sedans and hatchbacks, you grazed convenience store snacks and stacks of Ferlinghetti and Sexton while the night draped willow-limbed arms over the earth. What did your English professor say — that he admired your intelligence but didn’t respect it? — because you wouldn’t turn in the work, even though you did work hard, while other undergrads filled up their tanks at your pumps on the way to three-day parties, sloshed and slapping at your booth, puking in the turquoise waters of windshield washer buckets, your young sobriety a stone fortress in the dark. I never slept, scuffed my heels by the air pumps, hot-inflated with desire, fussed with the tire gauges, desperate for you to feel me up on the propane tanks, wondering if you liked me at all. You had other concerns. Beyond a cross-hatched window, an ugly economy organized under your hands: oil-smudged receipts, mislabeled inventories, finger-flipped cash stacked backwards then frontwards then backwards again, coins clattered in their slots then rolled tight, that god-awful credit card machine cranking loud like chewing nails. We did talk, of course, through that staticky loudspeaker, even one-way: Pump Two. Unleaded is empty. Try another spot. Maybe I should have taken the hint there and then. I hid instead, behind the tire rack, crouching down to watch you stare at the road. When you couldn’t see me anymore, your face turned sleepy and peaceful. You lifted one of those used poetry books, cracked its bare spine, turned on the loudspeaker, and read verse after verse to the customers as they drove in and out of the lot, romancing them across the wire.
Tonight, I bit at you: you don’t have the courage to write poetry. What I meant was, you don’t have the courage to read poetry. What I really meant was, you don’t have the courage to read poetry to me. We have eaten dinner. Morsels half-chewed. Glasses half-full. Curtains half-closed. Your jaw works hard, rearranging an empty mouth. You work hard, still, all day. You made dinner, too, and you gather the plates, forks, glasses, condiments, wipe the crumbs, and deliver them to the kitchen. I am searching for poetry in your walk, in your words, but you are silent. There is no loudspeaker in our home, except for me: I am loud, crackling with interference. Maybe it is one-way. This is the argument. Talk to me. I am still sitting behind a tire rack, observing you. I still do not sleep well. Fitful, instead of insomniac. But you have a day job, so I press my face into the pillow and wait for sleep to drive me off while you snore peacefully on your side. I wake up yelling, Help me, or Empty, or Try, and your hand circles my back, because I am an ugly economy now, deflated under your touch. Your palm is a poet, gasoline puddles shimmering on blacktop. When we were young, you knew I hid behind those tires. We are used vehicles now, worn by endless miles, filled and emptied and filled again, still so afraid of combustion.
Erin Vachon is a gender-fluid writer and editor living in Rhode Island. Their multi-Pushcart, Best of Net, and Best Microfictions nominated work appears in SmokeLong Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Pinch, and Brevity, among others. They are a Recipient of the SmokeLong Fellowship for Emerging Writers and an alum of the Tin House Summer workshop. You can find more of their writing at www.erinvachon.com.
Photography by: Erik Mclean