Avery pulled Ruth’s van into Cooper’s gas station. Kori sat in the passenger seat; Gil and Max were in the back reading comic books. Kori slunk down in her seat, pulled her hat low over her brow and bit her nails.
“You guys wait here, okay?” Avery said.
“All right, already. Just hurry up,” Kori snipped.
Avery blew out of the car as if he’d been sand-blasted, rolling down to the pavement and out of sight before Kori had a chance to change her mind. Max’s ears pricked up, but Gil made no move to indicate he was even listening.
Avery crossed the parking lot as if he owned the place, a walk he’d been practicing for weeks in anticipation of this meeting. He could see Mr. Cooper’s bald head through the window, bent in concentration over a stack of papers. When he got to the door, though, Avery wavered, and rather than boldly stepping into his future, he knocked lightly, the little bell over the door tinkling as he entered. Mr. Cooper didn’t look up, but continued reviewing the stack of papers before him, initialing them one at a time as he placed them into the “completed” pile.
“Lazy bastards,” Mr. Cooper said, not quite under his breath.
“Excuse me,” Avery said, half-turning to leave. Not the welcome he expected.
Mr. Cooper’s head, gleaming like a cue ball in the florescent light, popped up to greet him. “Oh for Chrissakes. Avery Tirabi. I thought you were one of my employees in here for another cup of coffee.” He stood and offered his hand, recently washed, but still bearing the grimy remnants of what looked to be a mid-morning oil change. Avery gave him a firm shake and Mr. Cooper’s round belly, stretched over the limit’s of his size forty-two pants, jiggled in greeting.
“Sit down. Have a cup of coffee.” Mr. Cooper motioned toward the “Mr. Coffee,” formerly white plastic, now oil-stained from years of dirty, grease-stained hands. A few stacks of Styrofoam cups and a shaker of sugar sat next to the pot. Avery looked at the whole ensemble and grimaced.
“Oh, no thanks, Mr. Cooper. Don’t drink the stuff,” he lied. When he did drink coffee, Avery needed tons of sugar and milk, the latter of which was no where in sight. Instead there was a liquid plastic known as “non-dairy creamer”on the table. Avery never understand the American penchant for creating fake substitutes when the real thing was so readily available.
“So what’s up? Did you come to sell me some more of that lovely gas and oil?”
Avery brightened. Mr. Cooper was interested before he’d even opened his mouth. “Actually, I did. I’ve got a few fifty-five gallon drums outside.”
Mr. Cooper raised an eyebrow. “How’d you get them in the car? They’re monsters.”
Avery shrugged his shoulders. “I rigged a ramp.” Avery waved a hand in dismissal as if the feat were no big deal. “Car was dragging a bit on the way over though. Hell on the suspension.” Avery felt like an adult, using the word “hell” without coming off like someone who regularly used vulgarity. Mr. Cooper tried to suppress a smile, but Avery caught it. Right where I want him . “So, Mr. Cooper, you said before you’d take all the gas and oil I could deliver. Are you still thinking that way?”
“Absolutely. Finest product I’ve come across in all my thirty years of running a service station. Your father made a fine product.” A shadow crept across Mr. Cooper’s face. “Tragedy,” he said, shaking his head. “Terrible tragedy.”
Mr. Cooper shot Avery a half-smile, half-grimace, walked over and clapped him on the back. “What are we waiting for, my boy. Let’s go unload. Same price as before, I presume?”
“Actually, Mr. Cooper, I need to raise the price about 10%,” Avery said. “Overhead.”
Mr. Cooper assessed Avery for a few moments. “Anything I can do to help old Marty. Cold as he may be personally, his legacy lives on.” He squeezed Avery’s shoulder. “Your father’d be proud of you boy. Well. Why am I saying, boy? You’re not a boy. You’re a man. And a heck of a fine one, too, I might add.” Mr. Cooper opened the door and held it for Avery who was still seated.
“Mr. Cooper. There’s one more thing.”
Mr. Cooper closed the door and stood, hand on the doorknob.
“No one can know where you got this stuff.”
Mr. Cooper raised himself to his full height of five feet, nine inches and sidled up close to Avery, whispering. “What’s happened? Something else?”
Avery shook his head. “No. It’s just my sister’s still freaked out about the porch. She thinks it’s all tied together. So if anybody comes around….”
“I’ll just tell them that I’ve started buying from a competitor who wishes to remain anonymous.”
“You think that’ll do it?”
Mr. Cooper rubbed the stubble of his unshaven face, deep in thought. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll handle them. Haven’t been in business for thirty years without some savvy of my own, eh?”
“Thanks, Mr. Cooper.” Avery stood and they shook hands.
“Okay, let’s walk. We’ll talk turkey on the way.”
Avery stepped into the garage, abuzz with the whir of motors and power tools, and thought of Robbie’s penchant for mechanics. He should be home running a place like this. Maybe if I sold enough oil….
They walked out into the parking lot where the noise level dropped substantially. Mr. Cooper’s step was quick and light for a man with so much girth, and Avery had to walk fast to keep up with him.
“So how much more of this you got, and more importantly, can you make some more?” Avery was about to answer, but Mr. Cooper continued. “Frankly, I’d be happy to tell all these oil guys to go to hell. They’ve been gouging me for years. Government’s no help. Let’s ‘em get away with murdering, thieving and stealing from the American public. They say they’re a unified front to help with the foreign competition, but I call it price-fixing.” He poked Avery in the ribs. “You know what I predict? I predict it’ll come back to bite ‘em in the ass someday. I just hope I’m around to see it.” He chuckled, then laughed full out, exposing a mouthful of metal. Now standing at the back of Ruth’s minivan, Mr. Cooper lifted the hatch without waiting for a signal from Avery.
Mad Max greeted him exactly like Cerberus would have had someone tried to breach the gates of hell, green eyes ablaze and barking for all he was worth. His singular head moved so fast that he very well could have had three. Mr. Cooper jumped back a quarter mile.
“Gil! Get him under control!” Avery shouted.
Gil’s eyes peered out, an iridescent green gleaming between the barrels. He grabbed Max by the collar and pulled him down to the sit. “It’s okay, boy,” he said sweetly, rubbing Max’s ears. Max settled his head onto Gil’s lap, calmer, but still growling. The sound rolled around in his massive jowls before ricocheting off the front seat and out to Mr. Cooper who stood immobile and at a safe distance away.
“It’s all right. Gil’s got him.”
“I hate dogs,” Mr. Cooper said. “Scared to death of ‘em.”
Max barked once as if to say you should be , but Gil tugged at his collar and he relaxed again.
Mr. Cooper signaled for one of his employees to bring the hand cart. Gil gave Max an ear rub so thorough that he could do little more than roll over when Mr. Cooper’s guys unloaded the van.
to be continued. . .
jump here to read what came before. . .