I pull into a filling station before dawn. It’s a true filling station, with a tiny service garage, tires and maps for sale. At least I want to believe maps are for sale. And pressure gauges, too! No convenience store selling nachos, energy drinks or Lotto tickets.
Aaron works the morning shift and commutes 40 miles along Highway 101 to open the filling station at 6:00 a.m. Aaron wears a smart uniform right out of the heyday of filling stations. The era where you bought milk, collected Green Stamps and purchased a Christmas album if you patronized Texaco during the holiday season. Yeah, an oil conglomerate used to be a record producer and distributor. My mother still plays her two albums. I still listen to them on cassettes I made 35 years ago.
I’m here at 6:22. I always get out of my car and greet Aaron, my 50-something gas man. He fills up my tank and washes my windows with a smile. We talk about the weather and strange people wandering up and down 101 that he daily encounters at the station and always engages in conversation, if that’s possible, which sometimes is not for these people.
Standing near the pump, I stretch a bit, throw away some trash. Some light is starting to show in the sky. Aaron says it’s going to be a beautiful day.
I hear a howl in the distance, a human howl. The howling transforms into screaming. An unseen man somewhere nearby in the darkness, presumably on 101 is screaming something angry and unintelligible.
The screaming moves closer to the filling station. I look at Aaron. He answers me before I can ask the question,
“What’s going on with him?”
Aaron hesitates for a moment, sighs then launches into John’s story and it goes something like this:
John’s mother had recently died. He lived with her in a low-income, elderly, housing complex and had served as her caregiver. Now that she was gone, he was going to be kicked out and become homeless. He didn’t have a job and wasn’t employable due to mental health issues. A short while ago, he started to lose it and was now walking the streets in the early morning, screaming. He often walked into the filling station and Aaron always made time to talk to him and listen. John told Aaron he was considering suicide and Aaron talked him out of it. But John was getting more and more delusional and distraught and, well, that’s where the story ends.
It ended right up to the moment Aaron puts the nozzle back into the pump and John walks past the station screaming and gesticulating. I look at him but can’t discern a face. He is just a mass in a big coat.
I say goodbye to Aaron and tell him to keep up his good work. I tell myself the same. There is so much good work all around us to be done.