Our MC, Beckman, finds himself on a desert road and needing petrol. The character he meets leads to a conversation which kicks off the main themes of the book – honesty vs dishonesty, and the world not being a black-and-white place. Whilst Beckman can only see in monochrome, circumstances are seldom all-or-nothing.
It also introduces the first in a series of quirky characters.
Mercifully, before long, a shape rose from the heat haze. A stationary shape. A building-shaped shape. A gas station-shaped building shape.
He exhaled theatrically and slowed the car. Deliverance.
He hoped there would be no banjos.
Out front, a tall pole reached for the clear sky. At its summit, a sign bore the legend, “REGULAR $2.00”.
Two bucks a gallon?
Suddenly, less pitiful.
He coasted up to the single pump and killed the engine. Emerging from the lone wooden hut came a guy straight out of a movie.
‘Bet his name’s Earl,’ Beckman mumbled to himself, clambering out into the shrouding heat. ‘Morning,’ he offered.
‘Morning.’ Possibly-Earl scratched his stubbled chin.
‘Sign says two bucks a gallon.’
‘Then fill her up, I guess.’
“Earl” thumbed a dungaree strap further onto his shoulder, unhooked the pre-Springsteen pump, and proceeded to give the Buick a drink. He locked off the handle, happy that his part in the process was done (and he couldn’t have been making a wafer of a margin to live off at two bucks a gallon, Beckman considered).
Possibly-Earl surveyed the customer and his steed and clocked the license plate. ‘Guessing you’re a technical guy, musician maybe?’
‘Sound engineer, Mr Beck?’
Beckman shook his head. The guy stared at “12 BECK” again, then the penny dropped.
‘It’s not one-two, it’s twelve. And it’s Beckman.’
‘Ah. Ah.’ Possibly-Earl nodded. ‘Where you from, Mr Beckman?’
He let the misunderstanding slide. Hell—everybody assumed it was a surname.
Possibly-Earl’s eyes narrowed. He mistook Beckman’s honesty for chain-yanking.
‘Like Frankenstein,’ he said.
Beckman gave a faint smile. ‘From all over.’
The pump handle clicked. The ageing attendant holstered it, checked the pump display, flicked his eyes to heaven for a ready-reckon.
‘Forty-seven twenty. Keep the dimes.’
Beckman checked the towering sign. It still said $2.00 a gallon. ‘Sign says two bucks a gallon.’
‘In black and white.’ Even Beckman knew it was black and white. Not maroon and cream, or navy and beige, or any other pair of well-contrasted colours.
‘So why forty-seven bucks for—,’ Beckman looked at the weather-beaten analogue pump display, ‘—sixteen gallons? You said it was two bucks a gallon.’
‘Nope. The sign says it’s two bucks a gallon. Sign ain’t been changed in years.’
Beckman opened his mouth to vent but instead sighed and fished out some bills. ‘False advertising, that’s what it is,’ he grouched to himself.
Possibly-Earl eyed him up and down. ‘Salesman, then, are you, Mr Beckman?’
They have irony out here.
‘Uh-huh,’ he replied warily.
‘Reckon you know some about false promises.’
‘Saint in a world of sinners, huh?’
He shrugged. ‘Something like that.’
‘You want me to take the gas back out?’
‘No, thank you.’ He handed over fifty bucks.
The attendant brightened a little. ‘Want me to wash the windshield for you?’
‘Water’s three bucks?’
Their eyes met. Would Possibly-Earl be cordial or go postal?
‘Water’s free. Labour’s a buck,’ he said with a whisper of a glint in his eye.
Beckman smiled. ‘Labour’s a buck or sign says labour’s a buck?’
The man turned, located a nearby pail of post-Springsteen water, and began the task. ‘Back aways, some suits stopped by. Said they were looking at getting the road blacktopped. I said, that’s great. They said they knew it was. I said, great. They left.’
‘How long ago?’
‘Five, six years.’ Possibly-Earl squeaked the rubber squeegee across the glass. A myriad of dead wet flies left their graves.
Beckman looked down the line of the road. The surface, as he’d found, mimicked a teen’s face.
‘So, what happened?’
‘Like I say, they said they were looking at getting it fixed. Looking. Not getting.’ He dumped the squeegee in the bucket with a sploshing flourish, jammed hands on hips, and proclaimed, ‘Selling dreams. Bringing nightmares.’
‘More sinners, huh? You still the saint?’
‘Something like that.’ A full glint appeared this time.
Beckman scanned the windshield. ‘Thanks.’
He slid into his seat and fired up. ‘Have a good day.’
‘Back at you.’
‘Earl. Name’s Earl.’
Beckman flashed a smile. ‘Full service next time, Earl.’
He eased in the gas and re-joined the road, checking the rear-view mirror as the antiquity merged back into the anonymous landscape.
‘I’ll be a son of a gun.’