Harvey Collins excused himself as soon as he heard the pump shut down. He stepped to the side of the sedan where he pulled out the nozzle, and after replacing the gas cap, he turned to set the hose to rest before going back up to the driver’s window. Wiping his hands on his trouser legs, he leaned down to say the amount.
“That’ll be four-seventy, Bart.”
He dipped into his trouser pocket to fish out a handful of loose coins, and after handing the man his correct change, Harvey added the ten to his growing stack of other bills, and then folded and stuffed the money into his work shirt pocket.
“So Monday morning it is?”
Bart Jones gave him a casual nod, and then stuck his right hand out the window. The two men shook on the deal.
“Eight o’clock sharp.”
Harvey smiled broadly as he buttoned the pocket and waited for the car to leave the island. Another one drove in right behind, and then another customer’s window rolled down.
Harvey kept his smile in place.
“Fill her up, sir?”
These last two weeks at the station had passed by quickly. Harvey had caught on to the job fast. It wasn’t really all that difficult to do, he discovered. Just stay busy and smile a lot, and always act polite.
Service was key, his boss had pointed out on the first day. Gene had ran the business for years, and besides being an able teacher, he had an easy-going manner for a boss. It’s no wonder, some of the others on the shift pointed out. The man is getting rich off this place.
Traffic at the station seldom let up, Harvey noticed. Anyone traveling along interstate 95 from Miami to New York City had to pass by here, and being one of the easier access gas stations found forty miles south of the Washington beltway, the three-man crew stayed busy constantly. Harvey liked working both second and third shifts.
Cars with license plates from Maine, Pennsylvania and Vermont pulled in and waited their turns while others from North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida sat next to each of four pumps mounted on twin divider islands. Some drivers of the north-south corridor stayed seated behind their steering wheels, waiting bleary-eyed for their tanks to fill up. Mostly at night, passengers with heads propped against back windows and mouths ajar, slept throughout the noisy event. With all the bright lights and the constant activity going on, the place reminded Harvey of a sideshow or a circus, and he enjoyed every minute of it.
A steady stream of both children and adults walked the distance between the line of cars and a row of machines set off to one side of the lot. From there came sounds of soda cans sliding down chutes, and then landing at the bottom with a loud thump, as coin after coin was deposited into waiting slots by the thirsty mobs. Two machines filled with snacks brought in an abundant income for the station as well.
Gene had a wood-frame box installed just outside his office. Inside and behind a wire-mesh screen hung several Virginia smoke-cured hams. It never failed to surprise Harvey when, usually right around two in the morning, someone walking by the case suddenly decided that a big ham was exactly what they had been missing out on in life, but he would just smile and take one out for the happy customer. On average, he had been selling three a week.
Gene’s rules for Harvey and the rest was straight-forward and simple. All got paid a low salary, but everyone worked on commission.
He had leaned back in his swivel chair at his desk and put his hands up behind his graying head.
“You sell any of my oil or transmission fluid, or one of those hams over there, and I give you a percentage. Sell a new tire for me, and you get more.”
Harvey needed the money so he could move out and get his own apartment. By his estimation, it would take a month or maybe six weeks to accomplish, so he hustled to make his commissions. As soon as he got a gas pump going, he tackled bug-splattered windshields. His aim was to finish before the pump shut off. Then pitching the long-handled squeegee back in the bucket, he would next stoop down and ask the driver,
“Check under the hood for you, sir?”
Lots of his customers wore nice suits, although most had already abandoned their jackets at this point of their trip. Whether a doctor or lawyer or a regular businessman, most of the road-weary people behind the wheel usually stared blankly at Harvey after his question.
Full service in most gas stations had been steadily declining ever since the gas embargo of ‘73, and now, two years later, the request most often drew that vacant look, followed quickly by a startled smile and a permissive yes.
That was all Harvey needed to keep adding to his small paycheck.
Most motorists failed to check their own fluid levels. Harvey would try them all; even a radiator could use a shot of water. But windshield-washer fluid stayed at the top of the list of needful and expensive things. Next came motor oil, and on occasion, he would come across a transmission that needed extra fluid. No one seemed to mind having to pay the added charges after witnessing Harvey and his fast moves.
He never bothered pushing tires or belts, since their only mechanic worked during the daytime.
He did see great potential with the fluids, however, and with those sales he eventually learned to excel.
Several days ago, something happened that changed things for Harvey Collins.
One of the younger men he worked with during his first week had confided to him during a rare lull,
“You want to make some real money out there, then start doing what we do.”
Harvey stood next to Gene’s old desk, flicking his cigarette over a large metal ash tray.
“And what’s that?”
The kid took a drink from a Dr. Pepper bottle while he sized Harvey up.
“Gene only charges eighty-five cents for a quart of his washer fluid, right?”
He took a look out the plate glass window to see Gene, who stood out near the fence at far edge of the tarmac. He was busy putting a marker pole down into a hole to measure the amount of gas he had on hand.
“Well, charge the customer more for one, and you pocket the difference right there.”
Then the kid nodded out the window.
“Gene still gives you your regular commission at the end of the week…”
His voice trailed off as he watched Harvey for some reaction.
“You mean cheat him?”
“Hell, he won’t know the difference, so it ain’t like you’re cheating Gene or nothing.”
Before he could object, the kid continued.
“Look. Most of these people are from out-of-state, anyway. Plus, they’re all on vacation or something, and just itching to spend their money. Just don’t be doing it to the locals, though. That’s the way we work it here.”
The kid gave Harvey a self-satisfied smirk and took another swig of his Dr. Pepper when a huge, white Cadillac pulled along side of pump three and stopped.
“Go on. Try him next.”
That is how Harvey became a thief. By the end of his shift, he had a sizable amount of cash squirreled away in his back pocket. The kid nodded knowingly, too. The second day went even better.
The third day, he grew more confidant, and even charged one customer a dollar and a quarter for a quart of the blue washer fluid. The man never once acted suspicious as he handed over his cash.
But the next day went different. Harvey had both back pockets bulging by the time one bear-sized customer pulled into his lane. The fellow got out to stretch just as Harvey jogged around the front of the man’s car to greet him.
“Fill it up today, sir?”
The man showed Harvey a handsome grin as he twisted his tired torso about.
“And would you check under my hood, too?”
Harvey had the gas nozzle almost inserted by the time he replied, and he returned the customer’s friendly smile.
“Always do, sir. I always do.”
The man walked off to go get a cold soda from the snack machine area. By the time he returned, Harvey had the transmission stick out and laying across a rag he held in one hand. The man studied it briefly.
“I checked your oil, as well. Both look like they are down quite a bit.”
Then he smiled, enjoying all of this superlative attention.
“Sure. Go right ahead. Do whatever it needs.”
The traveler climbed back in his car, and while he sat studying a map with one hand and drinking with the other, Harvey got to work under the hood.
Harvey had lied to this man, though.
The transmission was low, as was the oil in the engine, but both items were only slightly off the mark. As the kid had pointed out earlier, here was one of those golden opportunities.
Gene sold his fluids in plastic quart containers. Harvey had since learned to take advantage of that fact.
After unscrewing the cap of any particular product, and while using the raised hood as a shield to hide his actions, Harvey would carefully pour a small amount into the proper filler tube. Then after tightly replacing the lid, he would toss the near-full container in a near-by trash can.
Retrieving it after a patron left was all too easy.
And reselling it later was a snap.
While smiling confidently, he would most often fill out a charge receipt next, and he would stand beside the driver’s door and wait patiently while the person signed their name to the form. It was an easy thing to later extract his illegal cut from Gene’s stack of bills in his shirt pocket and transfer that to his hip pocket.
No one ever looked at the amount on the form. No one ever asked to see any of his empties, either. Most seemed too anxious to get back on the road. Harvey understood this all too well.
After a partial quart of all three products went into the trash, he hurriedly filled out a credit receipt which he offered to his present satisfied customer.
The cheerful man handed the credit-card pad back to Harvey, along with a pen.
“Say, I just noticed…you did a terrific job on my windshield! That is the best it has looked in two days.”
Harvey beamed in appreciation.
“Also, I noticed how you hustle to get things done while I was over at the pop machines.”
A fancy car behind him honked impatiently.
“Well, thank you very much. I always try.”
The fellow glanced at his mirror, pulled down on the gearshift, and then he looked up at Harvey and smiled one last time.
“Have yourself a great day now.”
Harvey waved as the man drove off, and then he turned to face the next vehicle in line. It seldom happened, but Harvey had to come back to ask, after the driver requested a fill-up for his sports car.
“Where in the world is your gas cap located on this thing?”
And as he squatted at the rear bumper, Harvey got peeved. This time he had to keep his hand on the nozzle and wait for the tank to fill, all the while holding aside the car’s round insignia plate. This was messing up his routine.
It was then that he noticed his last customer returning on foot.
The man had parked his car by one of the colorful flowerbeds near the entrance, and the cheerful fellow was coming across the tarmac, heading in his direction.
Fearful thoughts began to flash through Harvey’s head, but they were quickly brushed aside after the man spoke his kind words.
“I forgot all about this. I meant to leave you a tip for all you did for me, so I wanted to come back just to make sure that you got it.”
The gentleman placed a ten-dollar bill in the flabbergasted Harvey’s free hand, and then he turned and walked away.
Now, Harvey had went to his friend's house that night in a funk, and he had told his pal later on about the entire incident.
“I just can’t do this anymore.”
“I can’t say that I blame you, Harvey. And that Gene is a good friend of mine, you know. Remember, I put in a good word for you down there at the station.”
Harvey looked into his cup.
“Man, what am I going to do now?”
The friend had looked at him hard, but he really wanted to help.
“I have another buddy up in Alexandria. I’ll give him a call tomorrow, if you want. His name is Bart Jones, and he tells me he is always needing new people.”
On this last Friday of having to pump gas, Harvey Collins smiled for real. The phone call had worked, and he would start the new job Monday. He inserted the nozzle into the tank of the next person in line, and as he pressed on the handle, the gas began to flow. Out by the road, Bart’s car waited for a break in traffic before pulling away from the station and heading back into the city.
To be continued