The needle had been threatening to drop below E for a half hour when Jared finally saw The Oasis. He relaxed as the sight of gas pumps shimmering under the heat banished undesirable outcomes from his mind. He glanced over at Tina, who would not have hesitated to make everything his fault in a dilemma. But even she seemed tranquil, so he exhaled again and pulled into the station. The station looked about thirty years old, free of trash but devoid of life. Despite the lack of a canopy, Jared eagerly hopped out into the withering sun to start pumping. As he approached the handle, a voice stopped him.
“Hold on there, sir, you’re at a The Oasis and we are a full service station.”
An almost smiling man separated himself from some statues near the door of the adjacent store and came over. Dressed in cowboy boots and jeans, his steady glance seemed to barely regard Jared much before he remarked, “We don’t see people from the city here often. You folks lost?”
“No, we’re heading back home the back way,” said Jared, hoping to avoid the stereotype of the millennial seeking an authentic experience.
“Well you won’t see much this way, just oil fields and scrub brush. You better get some water while you’re here, too.” Walking a short distance away, Jared took another look at the sign. After wiping the dust from his eyes yet again, he noticed an interesting message painted just below The Oasis. In faded green cursive letters, it promised “Free Lunch When You Fill Up.” Tina probably wasn’t hungry, but when else would they ever try the cuisine of this dried up county? Reassured that this whole venture might yet yield a drop of authenticity, Jared approached the pump and, despite the attendant’s ignoring him, asked, “So is there lunch available today?”
“Fresh out of lunch, sorry bud.”
“That’s a bummer. But is there any food at all?”
“We have sodas and soft pretzels for two dollars each. There’s cigarettes and other snacks too. Go ahead in and have a look.”
Walking into the store, Jared passed between two wooden statues: one of growling bear standing on two legs and the other of an Indian casually looking toward the horizon. The two statues threw a shadow over the attendant’s chair. Jared emerged with two bottles of water, disappointed by how boring his idea had turned out. He thanked the attendant and asked his name to be polite.
“I’m Ray James. Thanks for stopping by The Oasis. Have a safe trip.”
“I appreciate it. Before I go, is there anything worth seeing around here?”
“The old Stevens family oil fields are off to the right a few miles down the road. They slowed down fifteen years ago and haven’t produced a barrel in five, but they sure used to be worth seeing.”
“Sounds good, thanks Ray. Take care.”
Back in the car, Tina remained as unenthused for this stage of Jared’s plan as she had for each previous stage. He offered to get on the highway at the next opportunity and that at least got a nod of approval. The engine started and Jared’s stomach sank as the reality of work on Monday mingled with three more hours of flat interstate. But as he pulled off the lot, he heard something snap in the engine and the car stopped accelerating. Tina looked beside herself as Jared stared perplexed at the dashboard of the stopped car.
“I told you this car wouldn’t make it all the way. We should have rented a car,” she snapped, putting in headphones and refusing to say another word. Figuring it would be unwise to point out that it was lucky to have a breakdown at a gas station, Jared just hopped out again to ask Ray to help him push it back onto the lot. Once it was safely in a rare shady spot, Tina turned up her music and checked out. Ray took a quick look at the car and saw which belt snapped.
“That’ll do it,” he said. “It might be a little while before we can get one like that in here. I’ll go make a call though.” Waiting for Ray, Jared glanced at the statues again. The bear looked characteristically savage, while the Indian looked dimly aware of the world’s existence. It looked like he knew something but that it was too late. Ray came back out with his calm fully restored.
“McIntyre Auto Parts will be out here in two hours with the belt you need. They’ll check everything else too. It’ll be $15 for the belt and $15 for the service.”
“Thank you, that sounds amazing.” Work on Monday was beginning to sound increasingly pleasant. Ray grabbed an extra chair and then sat down.
“So, Ray, do you see a lot of business out here?”
“Back when those oil fields were operating you had to get here early just to get gas. The vehicles filling up here in the morning ran us dry a few days a week. The Stevens family operated the fields and their kid ran this station. He got kicked out of school so they stuck him here to grow up a little. They came up with the free lunch idea to try to get people to wait until the lunch break to mob this place. But that kid didn’t care. He resented his parents for something but really only had one way to get at them. He never ordered enough lunch stuff so after a few free sandwiches, the counter had to close down. He would stand out there himself to personally tell the oil workers that there wasn’t any lunch today. I think it was the only part of life he enjoyed. And he enjoyed it for fifteen years. It took that long for them to give up on him.”
Ray fell silent as stronger curses festered unsaid. Bitterness and dusty heat flooded Jared’s mind. Ray’s eyes and lips may have forgotten the feeling of humidity, but Jared’s protested constantly. Time started to slip away. The lines on the Indian’s face deepened as Jared imagined the Indian gazing at the old boss abusing his tiny authority to irk those around him. The bear, mad as always, held no specific grudge. But the Indian had identified the problem. As Jared gazed off into the distance, he was startled by a door opening.
“Visitors! What can we do for you today?” A man wearing a polo shirt tucked into khakis stood before them. He went straight to Jared and introduced himself as Ryan Woodley, the manager. “So you guys had a breakdown, huh? Well I hear Ray took care of it for you. Rachel McIntyre is the real deal, I’ve never had a complaint. She’ll get you back on the road.” Ryan might have had something to say about belts, but Jared cut him off.
“So after this oil field dried up, what happened to this place?”
“Well I wasn’t technically here at that time, but it certainly had a slowing effect on the local economy. We hadn’t seen a regular tourist presence here in decades and with the oil workers gone, well, it just all dried up. But here we are today, reinventing ourselves again!” Seeing a chance to poke at Ryan’s façade, Jared posed another question.
“Did you take over for the previous owner’s son?”
After a pause, Ryan erupted again. “Technically, Mr. and Mrs. Stevens handled the affairs of The Oasis for a few months after the oil field shut down. But their son and I were friends back in school, so when they ran into me at the town parade that year they offered me this position. I had recently left a job and gotten divorced, so the opportunity was much appreciated. I moved in to help my parents out and then I got a job right here in town. What a gift. They’re great people, the Stevens’.”
As Jared nodded, Ryan’s phone went off. “Oh! That’s Mr. Stevens. I’m going to have to take this.” Ryan walked back into the building, discussing the latest dilemma facing The Oasis. Glancing at Ryan’s back as he disappeared, Ray spat on the pavement.
“That man is either deaf or stupid,” he snapped. “Anybody with a round head around here knows that that kid was stealing from the drawer to buy cocaine for his girlfriend. She got him kicked out of school in the first place. But he never got over her. Back when she had something going for her, she would lead him on for fun. But then her life fell apart and the two of them collapsed back together. She never quit the cocaine though, and maybe got him to try it too. When the oil workers stopped coming around to ask about lunch, he started disappearing for days at a time to go to Vegas with her. It spiraled from there, until the fields stopped making money and he was stealing so much out of here that his parents told him to go to hell and took the place over.” He spat again, adding, “But I’ve been here for it all. Every damn minute.”
Silence fell again, but not for long. McIntyre Auto Parts showed up, opened the hood and had the problem taken care of in twenty minutes. Ryan came back out to see if they needed anything else, and Ray sat there the whole time doing nothing except quietly chatting with the mechanic and confirming that their lives remained the same.
The car started up again. Tina had taken a nap and seemed satisfied with Jared’s desperation to just get back on the highway and get back to work on Monday. Jared went out one last time to shake hands with Ray, back on duty in his chair. Next to Ray stood the bear and the Indian. The bear looked mad as always. But now he saw a trace of a smile on the Indian’s face.