Mark checked the meter on the gas pump for the third time in five days. Still fuel in the tanks. He closed the hatch and pocketed his screwdriver and looked out into the woods across the swath of tall grass that grew by the station. Evening was coming on, and he rarely got any customers after dark. He kept the place open until eight o’clock, and his wife chastised him for it, but there was always the chance of that evening traveler making his way down one direction or the other, and Mark’s was the only pump for thirty miles. He liked to think of himself as a man of service, even as the times had stripped everyone’s pockets and kept down unnecessary travel. 1933 was a hard year, but he got by.
A gust of wind blew the reeds beyond the small asphalt lot and a pair of birds jetted off across the nearby road. The man in the blue suit came from the trees and walked with a swift step through the grass, not running so much as jaunting over to the station. Mark used a rag to wipe the grease from his hands and looked at the man with a cocked eyebrow before putting on his usual warm grin. It was an odd sight, true enough, but he strived to maintain good manners at all times.
“Hey there, what can I do ya for?” Mark asked.
The young man smiled and wiped a curl from his face that had come loose from the slick of Sweet Georgia Brown pomade that coated his hair. He walked a bit bow-legged and kept one hand in his pant pocket. His suit was a few sizes too big for him and the pant legs flopped back and forth with every stride.
“You’re open late, I suppose?” the man asked, his voice boyish and his words hurried with a rural twang.
“Yes, I keep her open a little after sundown,” said Mark. The man nodded and walked past him into the store. Mark followed him and noticed that his shoes were field boots covered in dirt, while the suit looked new in the indoor light with the exception of a few scratches and stains that could have been inflicted by branches and leaves.
Mark stepped behind the counter and lowered the volume a little on a radio that played a slow dance tune. “Got anything in particular you’re looking for?” he asked.
The man kept a hand in his pocket and looked around the store at the shelves of canned peaches and pickled eggs and Hudson motor oil tins. He whistled and patted his coat. “Got yourself everything you need here, huh, mister?”
“I try to keep her well-stocked,” said Mark, trying to sound hospitable.
“Got any money ‘round here?” asked the man. It was spoken like any other question, and it took Mark a moment to grasp it. He adjusted his glasses and cleared his throat. Without realizing it, he took a slight step away from the counter.
“I’m sorry, young fella, but are you asking for money?”
“I ain’t asking,” said the man, still glancing over the shelves. “I said do you got any.”
Mark looked down at the baseball bat he kept below the register. It was all he had since he’d sold the shotgun to buy his wife a new dress for Christmas a few months before, and his arthritis made it hard to swing.
“So I suppose this is a robbery,” said Mark. He clenched his fingers and tried as hard as he could to look composed.
“Folks may tell you I hurt somebody,” said the man as he continued looking about the store. He turned sharply and pointed a finger right at Mark’s face. “But I didn’t hurt nobody. Not a soul.”
“I understand,” said Mark. “The Crash has been rough on everyone. A man has to get by.” He began to sweat as the man pulled his hand out of his pant pocket along with a small silver revolver, which he held in a loose grip at his side.
“You got a nice store here, mister,” said the man. “I don’t mean to be rude about all this but they’re following me and I need to be on my way. I’m not a criminal, mister. You tell ‘em that.”
“How about I just give you some money,” said Mark, stepping closer to the register. “To help you on your way. Just a gentleman helping another gentleman, like the Bible says. Don’t need to be calling it bad things.”
The last rays of sun faded outside and the world beyond the glow of the station’s lights disappeared into black. The man scratched the side of his head with the barrel of the revolver and glanced at Mark with eyes fearful and unsure even as he maintained his grin. “I didn’t hurt nobody. You believe me, right?”
“All a man has is his word,” said Mark. “I believe it if you say it. I wouldn’t help a man who hurt someone.”
“You gonna tell ‘em I came through here?” The man stepped up to the counter and leaned over. “Gonna tell them I robbed your nice little store?”
Mark couldn’t help but back away further. He shook his head and managed to look the young man in the eyes. He didn’t see malice and he didn’t see aggression. The man appeared lost, as if pleading, as if desperate for the right direction down the right road. But as the young man leaned over the counter, Mark smelled the cordite on the tip of the revolver, fresh and pungent, and without staring he noticed the dark stains on the lapel of that new blue suit.
“No,” said Mark. “I won’t tell them. But you need to be on your way soon before they come by here.”
“You have a car here?” the man asked.
Mark almost tripped over his own feet as he took another step back. “No, I walk to the store,” Mark lied. “Keeps me healthy.” The garage was closed up, but if the man asked for a tour there might be more trouble. Mark made the mistake of looking over at the garage door.
“I could take a look around,” said the man, his voice steady and cold even as his own little trickle of sweat made its way down his cheek. He turned and made a motion toward the garage.
Mark felt his knuckles crack as he clinched his fists tighter. “You could. But I thought we were trusting each other, is all.”
The man in the blue suit stared him down for a moment, his shoulder still turned toward the garage door. He twisted his lips into an odd grin and came back to the counter. “Alright then. I’ll just need that money.”
Mark nodded and took about forty dollars from the register, all there was.
The man grabbed it like a hungry animal and stuffed it into his suit. “And this stays between us, right?”
“I gave you my word,” said Mark. “That’s all I have left to give you.”
The man nodded and brushed the stray curl from face again. He took a couple steps backward toward the front door but kept his eyes on Mark. “Yeah, I guess that’s all I got too,” he said with a smile as he palmed the weapon and placed it back into his pant pocket. “You believe I could hurt someone? Hurt ‘em bad?”
“I suppose any man could, if dealt the cards a certain way,” said Mark. “That’s between you and God.”
The man nodded. “You’re a good man, mister. I trust you. It’s a good thing I trust you, too.”
With that the man in the blue suit kicked open the door with his dirty boot and left, his bowlegged trot carrying him into the dark. The station lights flickered for a moment, and the sultry female voice on the radio leaked out the open door and followed him away.
Mark didn’t move for a full five minutes. He just watched the night and steadied his breath and waited as the strength returned to his hands, then he closed the register.
* * *
A child of the beach, James Elens grew up in the Florida Panhandle. After working as a video editor and scriptwriter, he returned to school and now attends the M.F.A. Program at Florida International University, where he is the editor of Gulf Stream literary magazine.