“Other than his tea, he doesn’t buy stuff, Chris.”
“Hon, don’t you think I know that?” Chris threw his arms out at his side. “Why else would he be known around town as Squeeze a Dime John? He must be sick. He’s getting up there, ya know? Maybe he’s just found out he’s got cancer. That’s how his wife died, ya know?”
“Of course I know, darling. I’m the one who found her obituary and read it to you, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. You think it’s his heart?”
“Honey, it’s not like you to get this worked up. We don’t know that anything is wrong yet.”
“I’m not worked up, Soph. It’s just, ya know, it’s John. I’ve grown kinda fond of the ornery old fart.”
Sophia placed a hand on her husband's forearm. “Tell me again. What is he buying?”
“So far, one of those old looking gas pump toys. The heavy kind, ya know? Metal. And a little toy guy in mechanics overalls to go with it. He just set them on the counter and went back to wandering the aisles. Maybe it’s a wasting disease or Alzeimers.”
Sophia patted Chris’s cheek. “You’re the strongest man I know.” Holding the cheek in her hand, she kissed the other. “And the weakest, but only in a good way. Here.” She handed Chris a sealed bag with Japanese symbols on it. “Take this out with you just like it’s any other time he’s come in to pick up his tea. I'll explain later how, when he was late coming in for his order, we opened the other bag for one of our customers who needed it more. I think I’ll go see for myself how ol’ Squeeze a Dime is doing.”
Sophia found John Westlake on his hands and knees pulling items off one of the bottom shelves on the Hidden Goodies aisle. His head was out of sight as he reached for something and his lower body and the several dozen items he’d already strewn over the floor made an effective roadblock to any who wanted to use the aisle.
“John?” Sophia spoke softly but the upper shelf rattled violently and a crystal hummingbird lost its beak when it fell off and onto the floor.
Extricating himself from his burrow, John sat rubbing his head while glaring at Sophia as if she was some strange alien lifeforce. He shook his head and his eyes cleared. “Oh, hi, Soph. Sorry about the mess. I’ll put everything back. And I’ll pay for the little birdy thing too.”
Sophia’s eyebrows grew together. Pointing at the man, she said, “You are offering to pay? John, what’s going on? Are you okay?”
“Yes, yes. Fine, fine. I’m looking for something to go with a couple of other items I’m buying.”
“A couple of antique toys? One a gas pump, the other a mechanic?”
“Right. You wouldn’t know where there might be a toy gas can to go with the other items would you? One of those old style gas cans? Round top and none of that safety nonsense the new plastic jobs have.”
Not sure how serious the matter was, Sophia tried a final test. “How about a cup of tea, John? I have a nice Ceylon I’d like you to try.”
“Fine, fine. Sounds wonderful.” He removed an item from one of the shelves and put it on the floor.
Sophia put both hands on her hips. “John. Stop. You never drink anything but bancha. What’s going on?”
Still holding a Woody Doll from Toy Story One in its original and never opened packaging, John froze. “Huh?”
“Help me clean this mess up,” Sophia said. “Then you need to take a break while I try to remember where I saw a gas can like the one you want.”
John cocked his head. “You think you have a gas can like that in here somewhere?”
“Just give me a chance to think about it, okay?”
Nodding quickly, he started replacing items back on the shelves.
Sophia, shaking her head, bent over and picked up the two pieces of the hummingbird.
Sophia leaned forward from one of the two plush chairs in the Staff Only room and extended a brown clay pot. John leant forward from the matching chair and extended his cup. “Okay, Sophia, you got me. The Ceylon is really excellent tea, although usually a black tea is not my thing.”
Filling John’s cup, Sophia said, “I thought you might like it. It’s got something of a mild, almost sweet, aftertaste, don’t you think?”
“I guess so. Any more thoughts about my little gas can?”
“Not really. You do realize, don’t you, that in such a huge store we rarely have time to inventory everything?”
“I doubt that’s true,” John said, taking a sip and smacking his lips. “You seem very comfortable with technology. I suspect you already know the answer. You’re just stalling so you could get me back here and ask why I’ve got this sudden obsession with these particular doodads.”
“Busted,” Sophia replied after taking a sip from her own cup. “What gives?”
“None of your business.”
“True. But you would like my help wouldn’t you?”
“I can just take my business elsewhere.”
“That’s true also. It won’t make any difference to our bottom line to lose your business, John, but would leave us with a deficit in the emotional department. Chris and I have grown fond of, as Chris puts it, the old fart.”
Laughing, John put his cup on the table. Folding his hands, he began twiddling his thumbs and studied Sophia for a full minute before he said, “If Chris isn’t too busy, ask him to join us please. I don’t want to tell my little story more than once.” Picking up his cup, he said, “In the meantime, I’d have a bit more tea if you wouldn’t mind.”
Several minutes later, Chris had joined them, accepted a cup of tea from his wife and leaned against the door jam where he could keep an eye on the store.
John took a noisy slurp of tea and, after he swallowed, asked, “Have either of you ever wondered how I got the name Squeeze a Dime John?”
“Could be all kinds of reasons, I suppose,” said Sophia.
“What I’m about to tell you never goes any further, right?” said John
“We’ve never violated a confidence, John,” Sophia replied.
“And never will,” added Chris.
Nodding, John took another sip of tea and sat silently for a moment before clearing his throat and sitting a bit straighter in his chair. “I started the service station decades ago, as a young man, before this town became the tourist mecca it is now. The business was really built on my father’s shoulders. He had supplemented his sawmill income to make ends meet as a mechanic working out of our little one car garage. There wasn’t any internal combustion engine that he didn’t instinctively know and understand better than the people who had designed it. I never did approach his ability but I was pretty darn good too and, just as important, knew my way around a profit and loss statement. So, after he died, I started my own business. Two gas pumps. A two bay garage.
“Highway 101 was not as busy in those days. Not much traffic from Portland this far south.. But, I watched my expenses and treated people fairly. I gave nothing away but the extra sweat of my brow that made sure people got a good enough deal they would come back. Seven days a week, six in the morning till six at night or until the job got done. After hours, people had my home number and my tow truck made many a middle of the night run to pull someone out of a ditch.
“Her name was Donna. I was a goner the first time she showed up at my garage. She’d never stopped at my place before. My little two pump station three miles out of town was not a place people with money bothered with and she’d married money. She said she liked to support local businesses and apologized that she hadn’t noticed my place before. I was embarrassed by my sudden awkwardness in front of her but she never let on. She stopped in several more times but the last time, she had a mark on her face that no amount of makeup could hide. She told me she wouldn’t be by anymore. Her husband was running for a seat in the state legislature and needed the support of a family that has dozens of those big stations with, like, a dozen pumps or so. I didn’t see her again for six months.
“Then, there was this rainy day. Nothing special, it's the coast after all. But she’d had too much to drink already that morning and, in the drizzle and fog, had hit a tree. Crunched the front fender of her fancy car. She was terrified. I suppose I should have called it in but no one else was involved. I told her to sack out on the bed in the back room. I’d spent many a night there myself on bad nights when I expected calls from the state troopers or local cops about someone in trouble. I kept it clean. I think she was out before she hit the mattress. Do you know how hard it is in a small Oregon coast town to find a right front fender for a classic Mercedes? I called in every favor I could and found one down in Medford. I had a friend of mine run down and pick it up in his Chevy truck but there was no way I was going to get that car ready by the time her husband was due back from Salem. So I called my sister.
“Neva came up from Coos and took charge. She’d learned herself from her first marriage what living with an abusive man is like. She cleaned her up and had her at her house sober enough that the self-righteous sonofa . . . “ he paused and looked at Sophia, “gun . . . never had a clue. Told him the Benz was making a funny sound in the engine as she drove by my shop so she had no choice but to leave it with me overnight. I worked all that night and most of the next day. By the time I was done, you’d never guess that car had ever even come close to a tree.”
John gulped down a large drink of tea and, closing his eyes, leant back in the chair. “Every job after that, whether lube or a full overhaul, it’d stop and see her right there with me. I’d get lost in her eyes. I’d touch her hair. Run my hand down the soft skin of her upper arm. And I’d think of her in that back room . . . on that cot.”
Sitting up, John’s eyes brightened. “She was killing me and then she saved me. I’d heard of the divorce. His dalliance with a fellow politician’s wife had ended two marriages but created a merger of two political families that made them a force to be reckoned with in state politics. Good for them. Good for me because Donna was glad to be out of it.
“She started coming in regularly but I was . . . “ John tapped the side of his head, “an absolute idiot at just the sight of her. At first it was capri pants but then jean shorts that got shorter with every visit. My God that woman had legs. Every single time I would swear to myself that the next time she came in, I was going to say something. Something suave, something that would sweep her off her feet and into my arms. I think that a few more visits and those shorts would have gotten her arrested.”
Putting his cup down, John bent over laughing. “No charge. That was it. That’s what I managed to say after all the times I had practiced saying such beautiful words. I had topped up her car for her. She didn’t really need the gas. It only took a gallon after I’d filled it up the day before. She’d let the creep off easy to get out of the marriage and was driving a Corolla. Practical, you know? Dependable. Great mileage.” He started laughing again. “So there I was just staring at those legs and I only managed to say, no charge.
“She put her hands on her hips and said, ‘John Westlake, you’re an idiot. Are you going to ask me to marry you or not?’
“I started bawling right there. I kid you not. Tears just ran down my cheeks. She said, ‘I’ll take that as a yes.’”
“And that was that. For 25 years I was the richest man on the planet. Any time I wanted, I could reach over and feel the softness of her arm or thigh. I could watch the gentle rise of her breast in the morning light on the rare morning we could sleep in. I could smell her hair. I could watch her eyes pop open and light up just to know I was there. And then that damn cancer.
“She was only 50 and me five years older. It was hopeless they said but there is no such thing when everything you’ve ever wanted is on the line. The savings vaporized and soon there was only the station.“
“The gas can,” Sophia said.
Nodding, John said, “The gas can. I had used that little round topped can hundreds of times to put enough in some stranded person’s tank so they could get to the next station even if it wasn’t mine. Now that can was going to save my baby. But it didn’t, nothing could. Any hope of keeping Donna alive went up in smoke along with everything I’d built up in my life. I’ve never stopped mourning the loss of the love of my life and the little station along 101 that made it all come together.”
“The place just south of town a few miles?” Chris said. “Heck, if you don’t look, you wouldn’t know that it had ever been there. It’s just some charred pieces almost completely overgrown with brush.”
“Yup,” John said. “They’re out there now, excavating it for a new truck stop that will be part of the empire Donna’s husband inherited when his second wife died. It’s been 30 years now but it feels like they’re ripping up something sacred and hauling it away truckload by truckload.”
“That’s why the old toys,” Sophia said.
“Right,” said John. “The mechanic in the blue overhauls reminds me of my dad. The old style gas pump with the round company logo on top reminds me of the one I'd found in a dump when I was building my own station. It wasn’t working anymore so I had it sitting by the door as a memento of a simpler time. I had modern pumps, of course, for the customers.”
“Just a second,” said Chris. He rose and entered the store.
“So you squeeze a dime because Donna’s cancer bankrupted you,” Sophia said.
The old man smiled. “Not exactly but it suits my purposes to let people think that. Truth of the matter is that Donna died almost at the same time the fire department snuffed out the last ember. It left me with a very large insurance payout. But, you see, Donna had taught a lonesome man to see beyond himself. We were in the habit of traveling the state together and making anonymous donations. Mainly to foodbanks. I still do that with her, in a way. As weird as that sounds. Her generous heart was made plain to me when she brought up the tea.”
“Yup. You see, when she was with the rich creep, she had developed quite a taste for the finer things including the best teas. She hadn’t a problem at all giving up the clothes and cars and all that other stuff but the tea? That was a different matter altogether. Oolong, Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon, matcha, the list went on and on. Different grades, Different harvest times of the year. But above all, she loved a high grade shincha. The first flush, the earliest harvest of Japanese tea. She followed the season from the first of the harvest in southern Japan onward north. Then, one day, she said that we could do even more for others if we switched to a mid grade bancha she had found that she thought was pretty good for the price. That became our tea of choice from then on. She couldn’t bring herself to go to a grade lower still though. She could taste the most subtle differences of a brew. The right temperature and steeping time. You should have seen the look on her face whenever a friend offered her a cup of tea who didn’t know the difference and, frankly, no one did. The effort it took for her not to scrunch up her face when she took a drink always made me laugh. More than once I had to make the excuse I was laughing about something that had happened that week at work.”
“And you continued the tradition.”
“Not at first. Too much grief to think of things like that. I had to wallow for quite a while. Then it dawned on me what she would do with the money. It was quite a lot, as I’ve mentioned. I’ve held back enough to pay for my own cremation. Don’t need more than that. No kids or anything. But I’d forgotten about the tea. Then I walked in here and nearly wept when I saw on your shelf the same grade of bancha Donna used to get. I bought all of it you had.”
“And now I get regular orders of that tea from you and keep our daily ritual, just Donna and me. I brew a pot and we share it every evening. With every sip, I see the look on her face that tells me she has found everything that contentment can be with me and a pot of tea. Her eyes light up just as they did the first morning of our honeymoon together and later that day when we shared our first cup of some expensive tea as husband and wife. The bancha came later. I still see her as clearly as I do you now and all the love in the world comes bursting out of every pore of my being. We’re newlyweds again, Sophia. Now, as she did then, she fills me with life.”
Chris reentered the staff room and placed a toy on John’s lap. The old man’s sudden eruption of grief and gratitude was enough to shatter Sophia’s heart into a million pieces.
“See?” said Chris. “The pumps are the old style like you said. The hose is running from the old style pump to the car. The three guys are rushing to wait on the customer like they did in your father’s day maybe. Yes, yes, I know your father never had his own station but isn’t this what you always wished he’d had and what you tried to make for yourself and Donna after he died?
“One guy is cleaning the windshield and one’s checking the tires and the other is checking the oil. And notice the two garage bays and the guy in there with his head under the hood. Is this enough, John? Cuz I don’t think we have one of those little gas cans with the round tops. I’ve checked the computer and not much gets in here that isn’t in the computer. But if this doesn’t work for you, I swear we’ll call every shop in the country and find you the gas can you want.’
“No,” John said. “It’s perfect. I’ll pay whatever you want.”
“It’s yours, John,” said Sophia. “But, please, if you don’t mind, leave a note or letter somewhere that you’re giving it to us when . . . you know.”
“Done. I’ll take my tea with me too. And then I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Well about that, John,” Chris said.
“I had someone in here just the other day, John,” Sophia said. “And, at that time, I made the snap decision to use some of the bancha you hadn’t paid for to, um, make her realize what was really important in life. It worked too. Sorry, John but . . . “
John held up his hand. “No worries, Sophia. I trust you. I’ll take the unopened bag and, while you're at it, could you get me a pound of this Ceylon tea to take with me? I’ll brew us up a cup this evening. Donna’s going to love it. But,” his face split into a huge grin, “I’m not going to pay you anything extra.”