John Birdsall is a food writer and ex-cook in Oakland, California. His work has appeared in Lucky Peach and CHOW.com, and he’s the winner of a 2014 James Beard Award for writing.
Gas station boys wear their uniform pants low. They have frayed black Keds and ball caps with the gas station name on them: Shell, Chevron or Phillips 66. They have greasy forearms, pencils behind the ear.
This is how it works. Your mom pulls her Impala up to the pump and a gas station boy comes out and she says, “Fill it up with ethyl and can you check the oil?” He lopes over to the hood and props it open laconically, double-dipping the oil stick like the last thing he’s in is a hurry—he knows exactly how long it takes to fill the tank. He gets his reading, tucks the oil rag back in his rear pocket and comes round and leans in your mom’s window. He tells her the diagnosis and waits for her order—top it with another can or no.
I tell my mom they seem nice, the gas station boys. “They’re high school dropouts,” she says as she pulls out of the station, tucking the crinkly charge slip in her handbag on the bench seat between us. “You don’t want to work in a filling station,” she says, taking a last glance in the rearview mirror as I strain to catch a flash of back-pocket oil rag disappearing into the garage. “That’s why you have to do good in school, honey.”
Bill is the friendliest guy at the Carlmont Phillips 66, a little older than the others. Bill likes my mom, always makes a point of dropping whatever he’s doing under a car in the garage to come pump our gas. Today he checks the oil but instead of coming to my mom’s side he leans in on mine. The dipstick rag’s still in his hand.
“Want a cookie?” He’s asking me but looks across at my mom. She’s wearing her blouse with the shapes like gold picture frames all over it. I like her in that blouse. “I just ate my sandwich and I’m stuffed,” Bill says. He’s grinning.
He shoves a crinkled wad of waxed paper through my window, tucks the rag in his back pocket. “Oatmeal.” He opens the waxed paper and the most beautiful cookie I’ve ever seen is there. It’s bigger than the store-bought ones, just cracking around the penumbra where the waxed paper’s bent it, studded with the juiciest-looking raisins and a blond scurf of Quaker oat flakes. I can smell the cinnamon. “My mom does a real good job with these,” Bill says.
Then he lifts it, to hand it to me, still looking at my mom. I stop looking at the cookie and focus on his fingers, which are smeared with auto grease. It’s wedged into the knuckle cracks. Above the sweetness of the cinnamon and brown sugar, I catch an acid whiff of the underside of cars. I want that cookie.
“That’s nice of you, Bill,” my mom says. She hasn’t noticed the grease. “Go ahead, honey.” I take it, feel the cobbled texture of the oats in my fingers, notice how it resists and yields to chew pressure. I’m smiling. My mom is smiling. And Bill, he’s beaming.
“Looks like she’s running a little dry,” he says, still leaning in my window. “Top it with a quart?”