Al Ortolani

Gas as a Family History

I knew propane was connected to breakfast,

the blue flame that licked the frying pan

of bacon grease and sunny side eggs.

Grandmother had cooked on her mother’s wood stove

until grandfather couldn’t

keep the woodpile up any longer.

That was the story. Uncle Jim had been gassed

in World War One. Uncle Lee had driven

a tank with Patton in Africa. I wasn’t

told much of his story. Grandmother said,

he ran out of gas and had to come home.

During the 50s, Cousin Joe topped off his gas tank

while on leave from the Navy, and was killed

in a wreck on Highway 69. To supplement

the GI Bill, my father worked at the Skelly

station for a boss named Sarge.

Sarge let me sit in the office and listen

to the bell ring when cars pulled up to the pumps.

I was supposed to come and get him

if the driver was a dish. I pictured my mother’s

plates that she stacked in the drainer,

not the Blue Onion she kept behind glass,

but the ones with the knife scratches.

What I understood about gas stations

was that I was allowed one bottle of Coca Cola

each visit. Dad kept dimes in a piston paperweight.

The bottles hung by their necks in a red cooler.

If dad were out of dimes, Sarge would slip his hand

into his pocket and squeeze a rubber coin purse.

It was shaped like a mouth, the lips

would open, and there’d be a jingle of

nickels and dimes. Small change he called it.

I asked him once why the women’s bathroom

was on the side of the building, and the men’s

was just behind the rack of fan belts. Odd

that a woman might have to walk

through rain or snow just to pee.

Sarge said, no lady wanted a guy at a gas station

to know her private business.

We were gentlemen if nothing else.

Al Ortolani’s most recent collections of poems are The Taco Boat (New York Quarterly Books, 2022) and Swimming Shelter (Spartan Press, 2021) which was named a Kansas Notable Book. His poetry has appeared in journals such as Rattle, New York Quarterly, and Prairie Schooner. His novel, Bull in the Ring, will soon be released by Meadowlark Books.

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