BREEZING THROUGH BECKETT
Was Allen watching us the whole time? Penny couldn’t escape the thought as she sat at the battered oak desk behind the candy counter at Waring’s Mobil. She chewed a pencil, twirling it with thumb and forefinger until her tongue felt unblemished wood. A copy of Waiting for Godot sat opened on the desk, not one of her favorites, another one of those books nobody read outside of Honors English; although, Estragon and Vlad did remind her of quite a few townsfolk—and classmates too. Christ, this place sucks, she thought, and if Allen saw us he might never speak to me again. Shit.
The station bell clanged her out of the daze.
Her grandfather’s brown pickup rolled past the office window and stopped alongside the station’s garage. Penny met him at the door.
“How’re you holdin’ up, Penelope?” Like a ventriloquist, Grandpa Ernest could talk as if no pipe dangled out the side of his mouth. She wasn’t about to admit she felt nauseous.
“Grandpa, you know you’re the only person who calls me Penelope?” She’d always be a little girl to him, and somehow, the thought always brought a smile.
“Well if I didn’t, folks might forget that’s your name.” His dark and crevassed face brightened. “That’s why it’s stitched on those coveralls, so you won’t forget either.”
Penny looked down at the red script letters threaded through the blue cotton above her chest.
“And you’re the prettiest gas pumper in all New Hampshire,” he added, nodding his head with certainty.
Yeah, like that hasn’t gotten me in trouble, she thought. “Come on, Grandpa, you know I’m the only pretty gas pumper in New England.”
“That you are, dear, that you are. You know I still have those white coveralls you wore as a little girl?”
“Oh, Grandpa,” she chuckled. It wasn’t like she could forget; he kept the damned outfit hanging in the garage closet, right where the shop mechanics could see them when they grabbed their own after each linen service delivery. Countless times she wanted to make them disappear, but Grandpa would know, and it would break his heart.
“I really appreciate your helping out, Penelope.” He rested a heavy hand on her shoulder. “I know you’d rather be off with your friends.” No doubt, but maybe she didn’t have any left. “We’ll approve the budget at next week’s meeting, then I can get away from Town Hall for awhile.”
She bent her head against his hand and tears started to build. Damn it, not again. She hugged against her grandfather’s green-plaid flannel shirt, squeezing her eyes to discomfort. That stopped them.
“I’m just going across the street for a bit,” he looked away from her, sheepishly, “then it’s back to the millstone, but I’ll be back before you finish your homework.”
Yeah, right, he wouldn’t say that if he’d ever tried to breeze through Beckett.
Penny watched her grandfather stride underneath their lofty red Pegasus sign, its rotation motor long since retired, and on across Route 17 to the far sidewalk heading toward Memorial Park. She knew where he was going, and when she was younger she went too; but now…now she found it best to stay away. Her father would’ve understood. Hell, he had obviously wanted to get out of town, that’s why he joined the Army. Would’ve worked, they said he was a natural leader (she was glad she never saw him pump gas), but a folded flag and Twenty-One Gun Salute marked the end of that. It was enough she thought of him whenever driving by the park, and that she did at least twice every day.
Penny turned back toward the office door, almost made it too, but a loud honk and squealing tires turned her back around. The exhaust rumble told her all she needed to know: Jeff’s Impala was nosing into the station—whether she liked it or not.
He stopped hard, as if to make the front suspension bounce on purpose, and scooted over to roll down the window. “Hey, babe, I’ve been lookin’ for ya.”
What a lunkhead, he could fail a multiple-choice test even if all options were correct, but goddamn he was cute. “Well you didn’t look too hard now, did you, Jeff?” So much for finishing with Beckett.
He pushed open the door, stretching as if on a couch. “Come on, Pen. Let’s sneak off for a bit.”
She chuckled, thinking, how does he keep those teeth so white. Even that crooked nose, earned from a pounding junior year sack, just added to the appeal. “Do you really think I want to be here?” she said indignantly.
Uh oh, he was sliding out the door; and as he did, Penny saw a car blur past on Route 17. Damn it, she recognized the weathered blue Pinto; it was Allen and he had to have seen her talking with Jeff. He wouldn’t understand. She knew he’d hoped their friendship would change, they’d been inseparable since kids, palling around, studying together (Allen was reading Godot too), he secretly put a stuffed animal toy in her book locker after her father was killed in Vietnam—but she knew all along it had been him, and she cherished it still. They talked non stop about college and moving out of town, maybe to a big city, someplace where you saw something new every day. But, shit, if Allen thought they were a couple, he never made a move—not that she knew how she would’ve felt about that—and she just didn’t have much willpower to resist Jeff.
He straightened up into all his keystone-shaped glory and reached out to her. She crossed her arms, but all that did was scrunch up her chest. Jeff stared at her neckline—hard. “Penny, you know I can’t resist you in those coveralls.” He squeezed her hips with both hands, her arms uncurled and in reflex circled his waist.
“Stop it, Jeff,” she said, but didn’t mean it, blood warming her face and elsewhere. “Grandpa’s over in the park, and he’ll be back any minute.”
He looked across Route 17, but turned back with a devilish grin. “We only need a minute.” Jeff pushed his hips against her, corralling her into the office door.
She held the doorjamb but reached her lips to his; that’ll slow him down, she thought, but hell, his lips were full and firm and smooth, and all she could do was close her eyes in retreat.
A dump truck rumbled and honked past the station. “See,” she said, pushing away. “You just want to get me in trouble.”
“Well, yeah.” And there was that smile again.
Penny hurried behind the store counter, and when Jeff tried to follow she put out her arm. “Employees only back here.”
“Right,” he laughed, but stopped. Both of them saw Penny’s grandfather approach the pump island.
“Well, what do you know,” Ernest Waring bellowed and slapped Jeff firmly on the shoulders. “How’s our star quarterback? You boys taking us state this year?”
“We’re mean and angry, Mr. Waring, just like coach wants,” he answered.
“That oughta do it.” Penny’s grandfather turned to her, and she could see the sadness in the downturned corners of his eyes. “Penelope, dear, I promise not to get stuck at town hall; you can lock up if I’m not back in an hour.”
She kissed his cheek and he patted Jeff’s shoulder as he headed to his pickup and motored down the street.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” said Jeff, once her grandfather was gone.
“That’d be a first.” She widened her eyes to soften the barb.
“No, really. When you’re done, let’s meet again up at Settle Crest.”
Penny smiled knowingly while shaking her head.
“Come on, I seem to remember you liked it last time.” He reached across the counter and stroked her arm.
She blushed. “Yeah, I did…” Penny pointed to the book on the desk. “But I’ve got to finish this—some of us want to go to college you know.”
“You’re not going to college,” he chuckled.
“Yeah, why not?” She put hands on her hips.
“’Cause you couldn’t live without me.”
Penny smiled, opened the counter and pulled out a Hershey bar. “Here…” she held it out in his face. “Chew on this.”
Jeff grabbed the candy bar and, grinning broadly, said, “You know I’m right.”
“Don’t push your luck. Now get outta here.” She grabbed a broom, feigning to whack him.
“Okay, okay, but think about it.”
“No, going back up to Settle Crest.”
She swung the broom and they both laughed as Jeff slid back into his Impala and drove off with a honk.
Of course, she’d been thinking about Settle Crest a lot lately.
Penny sat back at the desk and stared at the open book. Christ, was it worth it? The endless studying, the lab experiments, the tests, those endless, fucking tests—could she really move away, away from her grandfather, away from her father’s headstone? Maybe it was all Allen’s dream, and she’d just been only humoring him all along. No, that wasn’t right either, and the thought twisted inside her like a cramp.
It’d only been a few weeks since she agreed to ride with Jeff up there, to the abandoned development south of town, with its unpatrolled access-road leading to isolated and splendid views of the distant lakes and mountains. They had parked under a maple with purple and red leaves. It sure didn’t take long for the windows to fog, and she sure didn’t mind that Jeff knew what to do. Any discomfort was short lived, he knew how to hold her, and soon the leaves covered the windshield and she felt warm, and full, and contented. As they rolled back down the road, the leaves drifted off in the slipstream, and she turned to remember the moment.
Only then did she notice Allen’s blue Pinto parked, nearly out of sight, behind a stand of rhododendrons.
Penny tried to concentrate, but damn if the odor of oily rags and grease wafting in from the garage made it hard. Hadn’t noticed it earlier, yet now her sense of smell seemed in overdrive, and she felt like crap. Penny opened the garage door. She could see her little girl white coveralls peaking out from behind the closet rack filled with pairs freshly washed. She slammed the door shut, pulling against the knob as if that would help.
She smelled another scent, wholly different, thick and sweet: chocolate. Penny slid open the counter doors and kneeled. She tore open a bag of M&M’s, pouring a handful from palm to mouth. A few dropped and skittered under the counter. She twirled the candy with her tongue, letting it melt into crunchy, thick syrup, then swallowed with a moan. Two more handfuls and the bag was history. Then she snatched a Mounds bar and ripped off the wrapper. Her fingertips sunk into the soft chocolate, her hand trembled, but the bar disappeared in two, maybe three bites. She grabbed another, her chest raced, and breathing through her nostrils, she let saliva wash the last of the candy bar down her throat. Her fingertips were covered in melted chocolate, and she wiped them across each sleeve of her coveralls. Now, she thought, was a good time to cry.
But her insides heaved, more fiercely than before, and Penny slumped into the desk chair, holding the chair arms, waiting, hoping for the sensation to pass.
The station bell clanged, and through blurry tears, she watched a small blue car pull to a stop.