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Last week I passed the place near the Asbury Park railroad tracks again, the place where that gas station used to be, right down Main Street a few blocks from my family’s old apartment on Sunset Avenue when I was a little girl.
My father always took me there with him. That was where he got gas, because Mr. Saunders and Mr. Wyckoff, as he had me call them out of respect for my elders, were his friends. They were in charge; I guess they owned it or something.
Even when my father didn’t need gas, he’d stop at the gas station. It was certainly an exciting place for a 5-year-old girl. The ancient desk in the corner of the office overflowed with unmatched spare parts, old New Jersey road maps, obsolete engine diagrams. Curious and, even then, acquisitive, I’d stare at the contents of the desk until either Mr. Saunders or Mr Wyckoff would notice me, and then one of them would usually give me some sort of souvenir or trinket I’d then carry around with me for the next week.
One day we stopped at the gas station and found Mr. Saunders agitated. His eyes darted back and forth. He was talking fast and almost incoherently. Muttering something about “the value of money,” he walked over to the cash register, opened it up, and grabbed a fistful of bills. Then he went outside. Daddy and I, both mystified by this very strange behavior, quickly followed him.
Mr. Saunders stood oddly smiling in front of the gas station. My father started to talk quietly to him; I didn’t catch the conversation. A dutiful daughter even at that age, I stood about 10 feet away, knowing it wasn’t right to eavesdrop.
The casual observer would think this was merely a routine conversation between two people who obviously had a great deal of liking for each other, but I felt a premonitory shudder. Something was up. They talked. They talked some more. Suddenly, Mr. Saunders, who still held the money, flung it across the street in the direction of the railroad tracks.
A brisk breeze whipped the bills into the air and blew them across the tracks.
I ran to my father’s side and looked questioningly into his eyes. He had put his arms across Mr. Saunders’ shoulder in a gesture of comfort. Something inside me tried to make me go into the street after the scattered currency. I could not comprehend why a grown man would literally throw away his hard-earned cash. If he didn’t want it, I certainly did. As I broke into a sprint toward the street, the authoritative snap in my father’s voice calling my name made me stop reluctantly in my tracks. What could I do? I was just a little girl.
A train came. In passing, it obliterated all traces of the few crumpled bills remaining in its path.
My father trundled me back into the car and drove home. The next day, and several successive days, I took a walk all by myself down to the railroad tracks to look for the money. Of course it was gone.
A few weeks afterward, my father said Mr. Saunders and Mr. Wyckoff had to sell their gas station to the man next door who had a used-car lot. They were getting more money from this man than they made operating the gas station. I didn’t understand that either, because they always had told my father what a bad man this used-car dealer was; they even had called him a robber.
I missed visiting the gas station for a while, but then I forgot all about it. It was as if there had never even been a gas station, or a Mr. Saunders, or a Mr. Wyckoff. My father bought his gas elsewhere, and I had no occasion to go down that end of the street. I began to think of gas stations as smelly, greasy places for boys to hang out and shout rude things back and forth about girls and sports. A few months later, we moved away.
Last week I passed the place where they used to have that gas station. It was the first time I thought about Saunders and Wyckoff since childhood. Now I was grown up enough to call them by their last names. They’re probably dead, like my father. They deserved better. So did Daddy. As for the used car lot, I believe it outlasted all of them.