In rural Mississippi, gas stations spring up when least expected, on those stretches of highway where there seems to be no community, only houses and open road and so many damn pine trees. They’re bits and pieces of town shoved into buildings in the middle of the woods. Gas stations here are a necessity, less so now than they were twenty years ago, but still. They’re also more than gas stations. They’re convenience stores and delis. They sell gallon jugs of milk, loaves of bread, cartons of eggs; they have laundry detergent, toilet paper, soap and shampoo (no conditioner); they serve fried chicken and hot breakfast and pizza. Gas stations here sound normal enough, until you’re inside one. They smell like warm biscuits and stale cigarettes, because the cashier is probably smoking while eating breakfast. The goods lining the shelves are covered in dust because ever since the highway became a four-lane, people drive into town to shop. There is no need for old-world convenience when Walmart is only another ten minutes away.
When I was younger, I didn’t understand why there were so many. Two or three gas stations would cluster around intersections where traffic is so slow people hardly stop at the light. It seemed absurd, excessive. I didn’t understand how they stayed in business. I didn’t understand why people still stopped at these gas stations, given that another one (probably with cheaper cigarettes) was only a few miles east or even just across the road. But I learned, from watching my mom, that these one stop shops were necessary. I learned from my mom that every community needed a watering hole.
Our watering hole was a Shell gas station on the corner of East Lincoln Road and Highway 84 — Patel’s A-One-Stop. A small metal building, with yellow and red stripes inside and out. The brown tiled floors were perpetually sticky and I wondered if, at one point, they’d been white. There were two aisles of snacks, one wall of drinks, and a few heat lamps warming food that only truck drivers ever ate. Behind the counter stood either Jerry (the troubled twenty-something-year-old store owner) or Melody (the nosey cashier). The parking lot was holey, which looking back seems ridiculous, considering how much money Jerry made.
When I was young, we passed by it multiple times every day, stopping in at least once. In those years, my mom joked and said she was my chauffeur. In a sense, she was. She’d drive me to school, drive me to meetings, drive me to tennis games and tournaments, drive me to girls’ houses and middle school pool parties. And each time, no matter how late we were running, we stopped at Patel’s.
Looking back, I am sure that my mom spent over half of her paycheck at Patel’s, buying cartons of cigarettes and twelve packs of Coca-Cola. She had stopped drinking coffee twenty-something years ago (because Oprah said it was toxic) and switched to Coke. She kept the Cokes in her car, behind the driver’s seat on the floorboard. She left the house each morning with a clean glass, which she filled with ice at Patel’s and poured a can of Coke into. “It’s less fizzy,” she said, as if less fizzy were a good thing. On her birthday, Jerry gave my mom free Cokes. And on days that she came in and didn’t buy one — say she was in a rush, didn’t have cash on her — he’d often make her grab one. Either on the house or on her tab — my mom kept a tab at a gas station.
My mom spent so much time at Patel’s that she developed an odd maternal attachment to Jerry. Contrary to my mom’s wishes, he couldn’t stay out of trouble. When he went to jail for dealing dope in the parking lot of one of his gas stations (because he owned many in town and claimed ours was his favorite), my mom cried. My mom thought all of Jerry’s success were a result of her “motherly advice.” The failures — the DUIs, the nights spent in county jail — were, as she liked to put it, “hiccups.” When Jerry hiccuped, Melody worked eighteen hour days or had her kids come help. Jerry kept his girlfriends on call.
I remember seeing all of Jerry’s girlfriends working there at one point or another. They came and went, rotating with the seasons, seemingly random girls he’d met at god-knows-where. (I bet my mom knows where. I bet she talked him through many of the break-ups.) Eventually, the flux of different girls behind the counter stopped. One day, Melody told me that Jerry had left, had gone home to get married. “He’s left for India for the wedding,” she said, “his whole family up and went, because they found him the perfect girl.” After a month, he came back with his wife and she began to work regularly. I met her once. She rang up my candy bar and soda and told me my total. She was wearing heavy gold jewelry. She didn’t know me, didn’t know that it was my second time in there that day. If I’d told her who my mom was, though, I’m sure she would have recognized the name.
The relationships within this gas station were more than cordial — they were abnormally personal. The inner workings of my personal life were not private at Patel’s. My mom told Melody and Melody told Jerry and Jerry didn’t know who not to tell. Melody seemed, more often than not, to be in the middle of it all; every fight, every surprise, every please-don’t-tell-my-momma. She knew more than my momma and more than Jerry. She knew all there was to know about each and every patron — knowledge she accumulated from twenty years behind the counter. This was helpful to me as a teenager; I knew when my mom was home for the day, when my dad was at work, when my grandmother was at a doctor’s appointment. I knew who was engaged and who had up and ran off with their new lover.
The year before I left home our gas station routine was disrupted. My parents divorced. My dad and I moved into a house on the North side of town. A distance grew between my mom and me, more than just the stretch of highway and a few miles of trees. My dad bought me my own car — something that could get me to work, to school, and back home at night. I worked at a restaurant and fell into the nasty habit of smoking.
On my day-to-day drive, I no longer passed Patel’s, so I adopted a detour to accommodate my long-time watering hole. I drove through town, crossed the train tracks, down East Monticello Street and out the other end. This drive wasn’t unfamiliar, only backwards. I was going to Patel’s from the wrong direction. I bought the same things, filled the same tank, but couldn’t put it on the tab.
Jerry and Melody fed me information: Your mom came by this morning. This afternoon. She looked pretty good. She looked pretty rough. She’s getting a new lawyer. She was telling me this story. She was in a hurry. She said she is busy, busy, busy. I asked them not to tell her I came by, but I know they did. She left messages with them, messages to relay to me: I miss you. Come visit me. I love you, son. Jerry and Melody didn’t bat an eye. It seemed part of their job, as if this chain delivery of information was their job. I reckon that, to be a watering hole in rural Mississippi, you’ve got to offer more than gasoline and dust-covered conveniences.
Dustin Dunaway is an architecture student with the bad habit of writing. He loves extra shots of espresso and calling his grandmother. To ask him out or send him your screenplay, shoot him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.