The Summer I Had a Gas by
Nick Dronen • Longmont, Colorado
"I am no doubt not the only one who writes in
order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain
the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that
our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we
– Michel Foucault
I think I worked in the kitchen at the resort for six weeks the summer I ran
away from home. On the first day of summer, I woke up, sat at the desk in my
room, and wrote a letter to my parents on the back of the graph paper tablet
from my drafting class.
Dear Mom and Dad:
I'm going somewhere for the summer. Please don't bug my friends trying to find me. I haven't told them where I'm going. I don't even know where I'll be, but I'll be back in August.
P.S. Dan told me that he'd mow the lawn for $4 while I'm gone.
I took a shower and got dressed. I had an envelope in my desk where I kept the
money I saved from my job working at the concession stand at the bingo parlor
that year. I put it into a backpack along with some clothes, a cowboy hat,
and my sunglasses—a pair of Ray-Bans that were a little too big for my
head. When I finished breakfast, I set the letter on the kitchen table, went
out to the garage, got on my bike, and set sail. Riding along County Road 1,
which was also Main Street, I passed the mechanic's shop that my dad's friend
Larry owned. I waved a big hello to Larry on the way by. At the west end of
town I stopped to put on the cowboy hat and Ray-Bans. Then I zigzagged through
the back streets until I reached the opposite end of town. I rode east on CR
1. I didn't want anyone to see me going that direction, so as soon as I could
I got off CR 1 onto a gravel road.
Gravel roads are not fun to ride on, even with a banana seat. Bike tires are narrow and dig into the road where the gravel is deep and soft. When that happens, you have to swerve a little to unrut yourself. And sometimes the road has a washboard shape. If you say a vowel for a long time while you're riding over that, your voice wobbles like a person with one of those electric voice boxes. And if you're wearing sunglasses and a hat that's too big, the washboard will make them fall off. That's what I learned about gravel roads. Anyway, it was a good thing I packed light.
I made it to Hillsboro in the afternoon. They had a good football team. They usually beat us, sometimes not. I stopped there for a grilled cheese sandwich and a Coke at the Dairy Queen down by the swimming pool. I set sail again. I crossed a bridge over a river that must've been the Red at sundown. I was in Minnesota, sixty or so miles from home.
That night I slept in a ditch next to my bike. The cowboy hat and raincoat kept the mosquitoes off, more or less. The grass was soft to sleep in. I woke up once in the middle of the night when a muscle car, with something or another blasting through its open windows, whooshed by me. At sunrise I heard a tractor. As it passed I could see it from under the brim of my cowboy hat. It was rigged with a plow that was folded up on each side. The last I saw of it was the black metal teeth sticking out high above the road. When I got up I was covered with dew.
It was still cool so I kept the raincoat on. I dragged my bike out of the ditch and pushed down hard for the first pedal of the day. In a few minutes I figured out that I was sore from all of the yesterday's riding. I kept going. The first paved road I found I turned onto it for easier going. People towing fishing boats and speed boats passed me. I stayed on the shoulder. There were more and more lakes the farther east I went, and it got hillier and hillier, too.
I rode for a few hours and came into a town whose name I don't remember. I stopped
at the cafeteria next to the gas station. The waitress did something with her
face when she saw me. (I think she was impressed by my cowboy hat and Ray-Bans.)
I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich—"Double the cheese," I said—and
a Coke. She was really friendly. My chest swelled with pride when I left a
quarter for a tip.
I met Leroy, the man who made me a dishwasher, early that night. I was having fun going fast down a hill and I didn't notice there was a bend in the road at the bottom near some gravel driveways. I knew I was going too fast when I got to the bottom. I pedaled back to lock the brake and tried to skid to a stop, but I completely lost traction because of the loose gravel from the driveways. My bike just went flying out from under me. I felt the gravel and pavement tear at my body. It felt bad.
So I was lying there on my back, crying, when Leroy came trotting out from one of the gravel driveways. From where I was on my back he seemed upside-down, like the sky and the earth and vice versa. He ran to me and knelt next to me and eventually coaxed me to stand up. I breathed through my teeth to squelch the pain. He took me inside his cabin and cleaned my cuts with tequila in the kitchen. When he got up to get bandages from the bathroom, he put a bottle of blackberry brandy on the table. "You'll need some of this," he said. It made me warm. He made some macaroni and cheese. I slept well.
The next morning he took me to the resort where he cooked and introduced me to Manny the manager. He was a short man with a hazardous medicine-ball belly. After asking about the bandages and making me take off my hat and Ray-Bans so he could look at my face, he hired me right then and there. I even got a little cabin to stay in behind the resort. Leroy had to work right away, so Manny showed me to the little cabin. He wheezed a little as we walked up the trail. I walked around the forest and the lake for a while. Then, I got my bike and backpack out of Leroy's pick-up truck. Around lunchtime I went back to the kitchen where I found Leroy in the break room. He gave me a glass of orange soda and passed me a cigarette. "Gotta smoke if you're gonna work here, kiddo," he grinned. I wobbled a bit on the trail back to my cabin. I started to like cigarettes.
I washed dishes on the dinner shift. Where I worked was at a stainless steel station in the back, next to the walk-in. When I got there in the afternoon, it was dead; but it gradually picked up. Usually, by seven or so, there was a steady stream of bus boys heaving black plastic dish tubs onto the counter of my station. Except for breaks, I was usually at my station in the back until I clocked out. Then I would get a towel and a flashlight from my cabin and go to the cinder block shower building to wash the greasy film that felt like wet food off my body. By then it was dark.
My cabin was tucked far into the woods amidst a persistently moist blanket of fallen pine needles. At night, exhausted from a day of moving and lifting, I left the windows open, rain or no rain, and stared at the ceiling until I fell asleep.
Leroy, who was fond of not working, was usually in the break room smoking Lucky Strikes and drinking orange soda. When I'd take a break, he would convey to me in loving detail the amounts and kinds of booze he drank the night before, and their often novel means of delivery. He partied like a god would party. Once he bragged that he didn't remember driving back to the resort. "I blacked out for two hours last night," he said, spanning his hands to show how much he didn't remember.
One night at work he started spiking his orange soda with vodka at the beginning of his shift. At about eight o'clock, he cut the edge off of one of his fingers. I was in the break room he came in with a roll of gauze and the chunk of finger. Just before nine, he dropped a knife on the floor and managed to step and slip on it, propelling it down the cook's line, where it firmly embedded itself in someone's anklebone.
When this happened, Manny got royally pissed-off. He and Leroy ended up shouting at each other for a while, back in Manny's office. Leroy was back at work the next day.
The week before, Manny had called me into his little office right after I punched in.
"Listen, you're a good worker and I don't want to make a big deal out of this, but I know what you've been doing with the whipped cream," he said. Now this is going to be interesting, I thought.
"Okay, what have I been doing with the whipped cream?"
"The laughing gas," he said, holding his hand to his mouth like he was giving head.
"I thought this had something to do with whipped cream?"
"It does," he insisted. "You've been huffing the laughing gas out of the whipped cream canisters."
"Whipped cream canisters?" I was genuinely stumped.
"The ones in the walk-in cooler. You huff them and the gas is gone so you can't get the cream out. We got a new box last week and on Friday all of the canisters, twenty of them, were useless."
"Bummer," I said sympathetically, "but honestly I haven't been huffing the whipped cream."
"Sure as pie," I said. He gave me a look for a while under his overgrown eyebrows.
"Okay, I believe you," he sighed. "Listen, you're always back by the walk-in,
and I'm sorry for thinking it was you, but I thought that because you're the
closest one to the canisters—so if you see who's doing this, let me know,
"I promise. We done?"
"Yup," Manny said. He absently tapped the Enter button on his ten-key calculator and it burped out some paper.
The next morning I was eating breakfast in the staff break room, my cereal bowl and coffee cup competing for table space with overfull ashtrays and half-empty soda cans, some doubling as ashtrays themselves, when I heard a massive, walloping thud. I went to see what happened. Leroy was lying on his back on the floor near the door of the walk-in.
"Oh, God," he said.
"What happened?" I knelt next to him. "Are you okay?"
"Jesus, that hurt," he moaned. He sat up, put his right hand on the back of his head, and slowly massaged himself.
"Did you trip?" I asked. He looked between his legs at the floor. His hand stopped moving.
"No. No, I didn't trip." He looked up at me suspiciously. There was whipped cream in his moustache.
"Were you just huffing whipped cream?" I asked as he glared at me.
"Yeah," he sighed. "I guess I blacked out when I came out of the walk-in. Shit. Want one?" he asked, referring to the cigarettes he had taken out of his shirt pocket.
"Sure." We were both sitting on the floor in the narrow hallway in front of the walk-in smoking. He started to rub his head again with his non-smoking hand.
"Listen," I said, "Manny knows about the whipped cream, but he doesn't know who's doing it. He blamed me for it last night. I told him I didn't know anything about it. He asked me to promise to tell him if I found anything out."
"Yeah, but I wasn't serious."
"So you're not going to tell him about this?"
"Nope. It's no big deal. Just be careful. He's on the warpath."
"Cool," he said. "Man, I'm going to have a huge bump on my head."
I suggested that he get a huffing helmet and we finished our cigarettes in silence.
"Well, back to work," Leroy said.
"And back to breakfast," I said. We got up.
"It's quite a trip, you know," he said. "The whipped cream. You should try it sometime."
"It does sound like a good idea. I wish I'd thought of it myself."
Later, Lisa, one of the college-age waitresses, took me to a party at a nearby lake house, some getaway owned by someone from Minneapolis. Leroy was there. He was really trashed. After arranging for someone to drive him home and pick him up for work the next day, I took his keys from him and told him I'd give them back to him tomorrow. I think he was too drunk to care. I stole a bottle of whiskey from the liquor cabinet in the lake house and Lisa and I left, she in her car, me in Leroy's truck. Back at my cabin, we smoked and drank. By then it was raining really hard. Lisa opened the window and took off her clothes and showed me how to have sex for the first time.
When I got to work the next day, I heard Manny wheezing through the open door of the walk-in. He came out and stopped when he saw me at my station.
"Did you hear what happened to Leroy last night?" he croaked.
"Oh, no. What?"
"I'm sorry to tell you this." He looked down. "A bunch of them were racing around the lake. He fell out of the boat that was ahead and the propeller of the second boat sliced open his head. Leroy's dead."
Manny stood there for a minute looking at his belly and wheezing a little. I think I saw a tear slide down his cheek. He looked up at me, and our eyes locked.
"You gonna be okay?" he asked. I must have been in shock, because I didn't know what I was going to be.
"I think so," I whispered.
"Let me know if you need anything," he said, and patted me on the shoulder.
Manny let down his eyes and walked to the break room. He came out wearing a cook's apron and walked around the corner to the line. He was filling in for Leroy.
That night, after finishing the dishes and running the garbage grinder for a while and mopping the floor clean as it could be for a greasy tile floor, I went home. Manny was in the back room running the numbers, and the cooks and waitresses were up front at the bar, having after-hours drinks. There was a checkered tablecloth in the closet where they kept the Sterno. I wrapped two whipped cream canisters in it and tucked the lump into my backpack. As the loose-hinged door closed behind me, I heard Manny tapping away at the ten-key.