When I walked back into the Sunoco station, the clerk was still reading his newspaper. Following his now established pattern, he made every effort to avoid acknowledging my presence.
I was in no mood to beat around the bush. Moreover, I would be late for my shift at McDonald’s if I dithered much longer.
“Excuse me,” I said.
The clerk sighed, as if greatly put upon, and lowered his newspaper.
“I know this might sound like a strange question,” I said, “but have you seen any horses around here?”
You would have thought that I had just called the clerk a four-letter word, or insulted his wife (assuming he had one).
I watched as a range of emotions crossed the clerk’s face. First there was shock, then an attempt at denial.
“Get the hell out of here, you little punk!” he erupted.
“Whoa, whoa,” I said, holding up my hands, in an attempt to calm him down.
Maybe I was trying to calm myself down, too. Something strange—something that I couldn’t quite identify—was happening here.
“I asked you a question,” I said. “I asked you if you’d seen a horse around here. Because I saw hoofprints out there in the grass near the park—”
“What the hell kind of question is that? You’re bein’ a real smartass! Aren’t you?”
“I’m not being a smartass,” I fired back. Before I could try to tell him about the hoofprints, he cut me off.
“Sure you are! You had an attitude when you walked in here. ‘Gee, thanks a lot!’” he said in a falsetto voice, throwing my earlier words back at me.
“Okay,” I said. “Maybe we got off on the wrong foot, and maybe that was partly my fault. If I offended you, I’m sorry. But there are some very unusual hoofprints in the grass beside the parking lo—”
The clerk stood up suddenly from his stool. He slammed his newspaper down on the counter. “Damn kids! I see what’s going on in the news. Hell, it’s been going on for a good ten years now! All you kids are on drugs! You’re protesting, and burning the flag, and—!”
I was taken aback at his sudden ferocity, but I was also determined to defend myself from this barrage of accusations. I stopped him. “Listen, Mister. I’ve never taken drugs, and I’ve never taken part in a protest. I was still in grammar school when most of that was going on.”
“I said get outa here! You’ve got your oil. Now go!”
I decided that in this case, discretion was the better part of valor. I might have stood my ground, but my objective in coming back in here had been to gather information. It was obvious that this fellow had absolutely no intention of telling me anything helpful at all.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll go.”
I backed up slowly, the clerk’s dagger-tipped stare following me all the way.
When I estimated that I was close to the door, I turned around.
I slid into the Bonneville and started up the car’s ignition. At least the oil light wasn’t lit up anymore, but I knew that wouldn’t last for long.
I was puzzled, and yes, more than a little troubled, by the clerk’s response.
The clerk couldn’t have been that mad over the content of anything that I had actually said.
I’d had my share of interactions with adults who believed that all Americans under a certain age were hippies and antiestablishment flag-burners. If the clerk had adopted a condescending tone, and dismissively called me an idiot, I could have squared that reaction with my previous experiences. (I wouldn’t have liked it, mind you, but I could have squared it with past experience.)
But not that sudden rage. When I’d asked him if he’d seen a horse, I had forced him to think about something that he didn’t want to think about.
The clerk had indeed seen something, I concluded. Something that he wanted to forget, something that he wanted to pretend he’d never seen.