Although French Calder’s Service Station and Ford Agency was a place everybody in town stopped by from time to time during the day, French himself was often lonely, especially in the dead hour between nine-thirty, when all those going to work had got there, and eleven o’clock, when the earliest lunch hours commenced. Even after nine years of tending station by himself, French still liked company. Some garage men feel at home with cars, but French said he’d rather talk to people any time. People said French should have been a doctor.
So he was glad to see the Nixon boy cross Route 328 and head for the gas station. Young Nixon was walking along the drainage ditch, scuffling his feet and dressed up in good clothes. “Hello, Jim,” French said. “How come you aren’t at work?”
“Quit,” Jim said, studying his knuckles and picking at one of them with a fingernail.
“Quit, you say?” French tried to keep his voice down, so the curiosity wouldn’t show. “And here I thought you were having a good time, learning a man’s trade. If I had learned a man’s trade now, I woudn’t be stuck here. My Dad, he always thought things would take care of themselves. ‘All things come to him who waits’, he used to say. So he just let me have my head when I was a youngster.” French paused and smiled. “What’d you quit for?”
When Jim Nixon frowned, his eyebrows seemed to get heavier and hang more over his eyes.
Jim thought slow. He was heavy in everything he did and always afraid of making a mistake. He never said much for fear of embarrassing himself. “I just quit.”
French ducked down and picked up an oily rag and rubbed around his hands with it. “Don’t think I can’t understand,” he said. “A young man right out of high school doesn’t care to work himself to death right off. Even a powerful boy like you gets tired. No need to apologize, Jim. I would’ve left this job many a time if my father wasn’t dead and it was either sink or swim with me. ‘Sink or swim’, my Dad said before he died . . .”
“I liked the work fine. I’m not afraid of any work.” Jim spoke a little louder than before.
“Must admit I thought you were getting along. Ben Youngers said he thought you were coming along. ‘The boy takes his time’, he said to me just the other day, ‘but what he does he does his best to do right’. He never thought you’d quit on him. But then, I know Ben Youngers, and I know he works his new men hard and wants them to measure up. That’s the way it is in any trade, Jim. They want you to measure up at first. Can’t say truthfully I care for Ben myself personally, but . . .”
Jim took a step forward and for a second stared French in the eye. “I like Ben fine. I didn’t quit because of Ben or, or anybody.”
“Then what did you quit for?”
“Look, French, I can’t stand here talking all day. Let’s go inside.”
“Sun getting you?” French asked politely. “Now, me, I work inside all day, sometimes until ten, eleven at night, and I’m always grateful for a chance to get outside in the air. But then, as you get older, the sun bothers you less. When I was your age, I wouldn’t’ve liked it either, all day in the hot sun, lugging boards and taking lip off Ben Youngers.”
“I like the work fine, and Mr. Youngers, too.” Jim touched his coat pocket and glanced toward the road. “I want a candy bar.”
“A candy bar! So that’s what you’re after. First time I ever knew you to have a sweet tooth. Doesn’t do your teeth good, you know.” As French walked into the cool of the garage, he noticed how close Jim kept behind him. The candy was kept in a glass case in the corner, beyond the grease pit and beside the rack for the tools.
“What kind do you want?”
“Anything? Wish all my customers were as unparticular as you. I could give you some Nibs, except they pull the fillings out of teeth. How about a Milky Way? They’re soft. Half is, anyway.”
“Anything. An O Henry.”
When French handed the O Henry to Jim, he saw Jim had a gun in his hand, an old-fashioned pistol, the kind that shot out of a cylinder, still wet with new oil.
Jim blushed and looked away. “This is a hold-up,” he said.
“Don’t tell me! A real hold-up? I’ve read about plenty in the papers, but this is the first time I was ever in on one. Want me to stick up mv hands?”
“Put your hands up.”
French stretched his hands toward the ceiling and wiggled the fingers a little. “How’s this?”
“Don’t reach for anything like that air hose overhead.”
“Jim, that’s shrewd of you. I wouldn’t have thought of that myself.”
“Cut it out. Just give me the money.”
“Why, you know I will. And there must be over three dollars change in the candy case. I’ll give it to you all, not to mention the nickel that candy bar’s worth.”
Jim threw the candy bar on the cement floor.
“I aways knew,” French said, “you weren’t the sort of boy to ruin his teeth on a lot of candy bars. Why, I bet that was just a whateyecallit, a subterfuge— that’s it. A subterfuge to get me inside.”
Jim Nixon waved the gun toward the tool chest. “Isn’t there some bills in one of them drawers?”
French beamed. “Jim, you really surprise me, you really do. Who said you were dumb? Lot of young men wouldn’t’ve taken notice where I keep the bills. Some of them could be in here a thousand times and wouldn’t know where the big cash was kept.”
Jim shifted the gun into his other hand and looked at it as if it was a puzzle he had to solve. Then he pointed it at French’s stomach and with some resolution said, “Get it for me, French. I don’t want to hurt you. Just get the money for me.”
“Jim, I’d like to. But my hands are still up in the air.”
A bell over Jim’s head rang. He wheeled around, letting the gun hand go limp but making a fist out of the other.
French said soothingly, “Just the bell that lets me know when a customer pulls up.”
“Don’t go,” Jim warned.
French smiled and stretched his hands still higher above his head. “Now that’s not using your head, Jim. Now you know that whoever’s out there’s going to come in here if I don’t go out. The thing to do is, send me out there to wait on him, but keep me covered with the gun, so if I do anything fishy, like trying to jump in the car, you can let me have it. Now isn’t that the sensible thing?” Without waiting for his captor to assent, French lifted the big drop door and walked into the sunlight, blinking slightly. The customer was Fred Snead. Fred married a wealthy widow from Maryland, so he didn’t have to go to work like most men. He didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to except listen to her. That’s why Fred could be around in the middle of the morning. He was probably on his way to Marty Kleinmetz’s Grille and Lounge downtown to watch television and drink beer.
“Ten of the regular,” Fred called. “Check the oil for me, too, would you, French? This damn lemon just drinks oil all day.”
“Buicks do that,” French said. When he lifted the hood to check the oil, Fred pushed open his door and squeezed out. Fred had gotten fat since he married the widow, not that he was any bean pole when he was single.
“And how’s Molly?” French asked.
“Like she always is,” Fred answered.
French laughed, because the widow was usually in a bad temper.
Sure enough, the Buick did need a quart, and while French was dribbling it through the funnel, Fred leaned over the fender, wanting to make conversation. To oblige him, French said, “I hear the Nixon boy quit his job with Ben Youngers.”
Fred picked a cigarette out of the pack in his shirt—it was one of those gauzy shirts so transparent you could read “Chesterfield” through the pocket—and said, “I bet it’s his mother’s doing.”
“How do you mean?”
“You know how she is. She told Molly Jim was picking up bad habits with Youngers and his men. Guess he sassed the old lady back once or twice. Guess he’s starting to think a little for himself.”
“You may be right there, about Jim wanting to get out on his own. He’s sitting in the station right now, trying to rob me with a gun.”
Fred laughed at the joke and asked how much he owed French. It came to $2.90, but Fred gave him three dollar bills and said, “Let’s call it square.” Some of these men, they get a little money and get the idea they’re really high on the hog. When French tried to force a dime on him, Fred Snead wiggled his fat white hand magnanimously and pulled out.
“WHAT took so long?” Jim asked shrilly when French returned to the inside of the station.
“I had to act natural, Jim,” French explained. “You don’t want Fred Snead smelling a rat and calling down a whole fleet of state cops, now do you Jim?” He snapped his fingers, as if he had forgotten something, then put his hands high over his head again.
“Come on,” Jim said. “Give me the money and let me get out of here.” He paused and thought, finally adding, “I’ll try to send it all back to you when I get the chance.”
“Why do you want to leave town, Jim? You belong here. People like you. I like you. The Nixons been living in this town ever since I can remember.”
“I hate this town.”
“You mustn’t hate this town, Jim, even if your mother . . .”
“It’s nothing to do with my mother. Forget my mother. I just want to get on a train and forget everybody in this town.” He lowered his voice, pleading, “But I promise I’ll get this money back to you.”
“Now, there’s no need to do that, Jim. You’ve held me up fair and square, and you don’t owe me a thing.”
Jim sucked his lower lip behind his upper and pushed it out in a pout. “Give me the money. Now. Please.”
“Jim, I’m at your mercy, and I’d like to get the key to the drawer with your money in it, but . . .”
“I can’t get it with my hands up in the air.”
“Oh, lower them, why don’t you? Just get the key.” He added, “Or I’ll shoot.”
French said, “Funny. The key doesn’t seem to be in the pocket.”
Jim lurched at him. “Dont’—”
“Try any funny stuff? Now, Jim, you know me better than that. I wouldn’t take any chances with a dangerous armed bandit. I just must have left the key in yesterday’s overalls, that’s all the trouble is. And they’re right in the closet over here, waiting to be washed.” As he walked to the closet and fished around for the overalls, he said, “Now that you’re leaving town, Jim, and I’m financing the trip, you might say, you might tell me what all this is about? Why you quit Ben Youngers and all.”
The boy thought a long while before admitting, “My mother made me quit. Said I was picking up bad ways.”
French held up the key for him to see. “Looks like it was in the pants I had on after all.” As he pretended to unlock the drawer, he said, “She has your best interests at heart, Jim. No matter what kind of women they are, our mothers love us. You have to admit that.”
“Yes, indeed, I remember my mom telling my father, ‘It isn’t right to let the boy run wild. He ought to be learning a trade’. She had my best interests . . .”
“What’s that you’re doing?”
French raised his eyebrows at the boy’s alarm. He had been carefully counting out the money into neat piles, now and then pausing to rub the wrinkles out of the older bills. “Don’t shout, Jim. I have your interests at heart. All I’m doing is sorting out the big bills from the little ones. You know these twenties and this fifty are big bills, with special numbers. They might be marked. They’re easy to trace. You must have thought of that. So rather than try to trip you up, I’m giving you the small stuff and you can spend anywhere you like in a pile, and keeping it separate from the big stuff you better keep and spend one at a time, each time in a different place, so the FBI can never track you down.
“While we’re at it, another important thing. In some towns, wear old clothes and grow a beard if you can. I don’t know why you can’t. You’re over twenty, and it doesn’t have to be a real thick beard. In fact, it’s better if it’s scraggly and common-looking. The next town you hit, shave it off and dress as snappy as you can. That way, they’ll never catch up with you, because you’ll seem to be a lot of different people. And can you fake a limp?”
“No.” Jim made a grab for the money, but French raised his voice so sharply it made Jim stop in surprise.
“You can’t! Why, Jim, I don’t believe you’ve put a speck of thought in on this, now have you? I don’t know what to think. Well, I can’t do everything for you, but sorting these bills this way should be help.” French touched his fingers to his forehead, shook his head, and looked Jim square in the face. “Jim,” he said “I’m sick of lying to you. I don’t have your interests at heart. The real reason that I’m playing with this money is that I’m stalling for time. I’ve been stalling ever since Fred Snead left. I knew you were watching all the time, so I knew I couldn’t get any spoken message through to him. But when I made out his receipt, I wrote across it, ‘Help. Police. Robbery’, So the State Police should be here any minute. I’m sorry, Jim.” French folded his hands before him and bowed his head.
“You must be lying,” Jim cried. “I didn’t see you write no receipt.”
“I’m sorry, Jim. Now that I see how bad you feel, I wish I hadn’t. But it’s the fact. Remember how the hood was up, so you couldn’t see me from inside the station? That’s when I did it. You should have seen Fred Snead’s face drop!”
Jim dropped the gun into his pocket and started toward the door.
“Where are you going now?” French asked.
“Out. Away, I guess.”
“Now, Jim, use your head. What you need isn’t a walk. What you need is an alibi. Go on home and tell your mother the whole story, and you and she can swear you’ve been at home all along. It’ll be your word against mine. Now get going.”
The boy moped out the door and turned toward home. He didn’t even say “thanks,” he was that tired.
Even before Jim had walked out of sight, the white and silver Ford of the State Police pulled up. Nicholson, the beefy corporal, asked for a full tank of gas and added, “Say, Fred Snead’s spreading the story downtown that the young Nixon held you up.”
French said, “You know Fred’s stories.”
“Yeah,” Nicholson said. He drummed with his fingers on the side of the door, then suddenly grinned and said, “Christ, I’d hate to be in his shoes if his mother ever finds out.”