Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Have You Got the Time?

We had been working for about an hour at my father’s gas-station and general store when Mr. Eustace pulled up to the outermost gas pumps in his old station-wagon. I pulled open the door leading toward the gas-pumps and approached the car. There was so much of a difference between the air-conditioned temperature and lack of humidity of the interior of the store and the sweltering, near tropical conditions of the outdoors in southeastern North Carolina, that it seemed my glasses had wandered into a thick fog from which they weren’t able to extract themselves. I had to pull the glasses from my head and wipe them on my oil-stained t-shirt in order to see anything at all. I wiped the lenses and returned the frames to my head. Everything was surrounded by a halo of multiple colors seen through a thin film of motor-oil.

I was greeted by the smiling face of Mr. Eustace, poked through a narrow 2-inch gap between the window and the door frame of his car. On either side of his head, there was a snarling chihuahua striving with every sinew in his little body to squeeze through that window and eat me alive. Mr Eustace, continuing to smile, asked me to "f-f-f-f-fill her up". I smiled and asked, "How are you, Mr. Eustace." He said he was doing f-f-f-fine and thanked me for asking. I wandered down to the rear side of his car where the gas tank was located. Each step I took was followed inside the car by the chihuahuas in a manner that would have suggested that I was made of iron and they, to my dismay, had become magnified at the tips of their snarling little snouts.

I felt around the fake wood veneer that covered the majority of his wagon and found the outline of the door that covered the gas tank. Pulling it up and out, I found the gas cap and turned it, setting off a loud whoosh of pressurized gasoline vapors. The smell of gasoline soon filled my nose. Inserting the tip of the gas hose into the tank, I swung around, pulled the handle toward me to clear the previous sale from the tank’s registers and then engaged the on-mechanism in order to pump the gas automatically. As I washed the windshield of Mr. Eustace’s car, the chihuahuas inside bit at my hand and chased it around and around the glass.

About 8 gallons were pumped into the tank before the pumping mechanism kicked off. I came back to top off the tank and close it up. I walked toward the driver’s door. The chihuahuas slid down the windows of the car as I approached Mr. Eustace and stuck themselves to the door on either side of his face once again. The old man possessed a verbal delivery that was impeded by a slight stutter, but a physical accompaniment that clearly displayed an amazing depth of charm and absolutely no lack of self-esteem. He looked off to one side and then directly into my eyes, slight grin on his lips, and he said, " Th-th-th-ey like you. C-c-could you figure up my bill and include the gas with it?" He handed me two-twenties and a ten. I looked up to see that several cars had pulled up and were waiting their turn at the tank. I looked back to the twinkle in Mr. Eustace’s eyes.

"Mr. Eustace? Would you mind pulling your car over into the shade there while I go inside? I will be right back."

"OK, but do hurry. You know how much my chirren hate to sit in a hot car."

"Yes sir. How is Ms. Arletha doin’?"

"She’s fine. I’ll tell her you asked about her. She will like that."

I went inside the store and noticed that Mr. Howard had come around and was inside talking to my Daddy. "Ah, Daddy? Mr. Eustace wants his bill figured up. Do you want to do it or do you want me to do it?"

"What, that old liar is here?," grinned Mr. Howard. He clapped his hands together and leaned forward as if taking a bow that seemed to carry him off his center of gravity. Having regained his footing, he was by now laughing with great anticipation.

Mr. Howard was a lean, tan, well-maintained fifty-ish man with wife, kids and a beautiful home with a clay tennis court for his personal enjoyment. I had once made the mistake of telling him that I had taken tennis as a Physical Education requirement at the University of North Carolina and he challenged me, despite knee-casts on both his legs (those were from an incident in which he saved a life), to an afternoon of tennis. He won the first match 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. I decided that was all the tennis I needed and never played again. All I can say is that he had a wicked serve.

"Go tell him that your Daddy needs to talk to him," Mr. Howard said to me.

"I can’t do that, Mr. Howard. He’s got those dogs with him."

"Aw, come on, I just want to get his goat for a minute. Go on and get him!"

I went outside to find Mr. Eustace and asked him if he could please come inside. I told him I thought my Daddy had a question for him.

Mr. Eustace got out of the car with care while holding back the chihuahuas, and closed the door, making sure to retrieve his cane. He and I then walked slowly into the store. As we crossed through the door’s frame, Mr. Howard jumped out from behind the cookie jars and shouted out "LIAR!"and followed that up with another clap of his hands and uproarious laughter. Mr. Eustace got a peculiar look on his face and said, "Aw, Lawd! Here we go again!"

Mr. Howard then launched into the story. "Remember that time you promised me your pocket-watch, you old liar?"

Mr. Eustace just grimaced. He began to stammer. "I-f-f-f-f I had known, I...I…I promise you, I never would have made that bet with you, b-b-b-boy!"

"But you did, didn’t you, you old coot! Give me back my watch!" Mr. Howard then made a big show of grabbing Mr. Eustace by the arm and pretending to wrestle the watch from his wrist. They danced around each other for a second or two, pretending to fight over a wristwatch, all the while, Mr. Howard making sure not to let Mr. Eustace fall.

Everyone one in the place who had not already heard this story was about to get the official two-sided version of the tale from the principal characters themselves.

Mr. Eustace started, "You see, I had just got me this f-f-f-fine watch. It was a pocket watch, all shiny and engraved with b-b-b-beautiful images. I was proud of that thing, yassir! I showed that watch to everyone I met. They would say, ‘That’s a f-f-f-f-fine watch, there, Eustace.’ One day, I was out working in Mr. Plato’s fields and old Howard there come a-struttin’ out into the f-f-f-field where we was suckering tobacco. He said to me, ‘Mr. Eustace, I hear you have a nice watch. Can I see it?’ I didn’t much want to pull my watch out and get tobacco gum all over it, but I did anyhow since the boy wanted to see the watch."

"Now see, there you go lyin’ already. I came up to you and you pulled that watch out and you were flashing it all around me to get my attention," chimed in Mr. Howard.

"Nawsuh, that ain’t how it happened! Why you always got to tell it your way? I think I am the one telling this story. You just hushyomouth." The last 3 words were delivered more as syllables than as words.

Mr. Eustace continued, "So little old Howard, there, come a-runnin’ out there into the field, fresh from swinging on a tire swing or whatever it was you white chirren did back then, and he goes ‘Whatcha got there, Mr. Eustace?’"

"‘It’s my pocket watch, boy, what do you think I got here, a twenty-dollar gold piece?,’ I said to him. Lawd knows, I was sassy about that watch. I guess I deserved what happened after all, but I swear, I’ll deny saying that if anybody asks me later!"

"Go on, Liar!" said Mr. Howard.

"Whyont you jest hush! Mr. Eustace cut his eyes sharply at Mr. Howard.

"So skinny little Howard come a-flyin’ out there fresh from his lunch and cold drink, I am sweating in the afternoon sun. When he saw my watch, and made such a f-f-f-fuss over it, I couldn’t help myself. I reckon I was flashing him pretty good with it."

"He said, ‘A watch? Well then, what time is it?’"

"That is when I messed up bad. I said to him, ‘If you wants to know so bad, why don’t you guess what time it is. If you get it on the dot, I’ll give you my watch!’"

"Ole Howard cocked his head back, looked up at the sun and said, ‘I imagine it must be, oh, let me think….about 1:36’. I laughed at the boy, ‘cause I had been out in those fields all morning, I knew it had to be at least 3 o’clock. I pulled out my watch and looked at the time, and damn if it won’t 1:36. I musta made a real funny face, ‘cause Mr. Howard started jumping up and down and screaming, ‘I won it. I won it.’ and all I could do was lie and say, ‘Naw, b-b-b-boy, naw you didn’t. It’s later than that!’"

"’Give me my watch!’ he started shouting. The more I refused, the more he screamed. It won’t long before he beat it off to his daddy to tell on me. A few minutes later, Mr. Plato come walking up to me."

"’Eustace, son,’ he said to me. ‘Did you promise my boy that if he guessed the time right that you would give him your pocket watch?’ "

"I was busted, won’t nothing I could do, so I said ‘Yassir, Mr. Plato, I did, but I didn’t ever expect he would guess right!’"

"Mr. Plato stood back and said, ‘Eustace, let me see that watch.’ I handed it to him and he looked it over with a grimace on his face, telling me that it was a f-f-f-fine watch. He then said to Howard, ‘You can hold the watch for a minute, Howard, but then you have to give it back to Mr. Eustace.’"

"Well, Howard got to screaming good then, I tell you. He threw my watch down into the wet sand at his feet and started to run off on his barefeet, crying like the baby he was. Mr. Plato picked up my watch, brushed it off, and then said to me, ’Eustace, don’t never promise nothing you can’t pay up. Take your watch and be careful from now on.’"

With that, Mr. Howard said "Uh huh…liar! I ought to take your watch right off your arm! Because of you, when my daddy caught me, he gave me the whippin’ of my life for throwin’ your watch on the ground!"

Eustace shook his cane at him and said "You can try boy, but you’ll have a fight on your hands!" The men looked seriously at each other, then laughed and came as close to hugging as a middle aged white man and an older black man could do in eastern North Carolina in the early 1970s.
Once again, Howard clapped his hands in front of him and bent over with a huge laugh, before he walked quickly out the door to leave.

I figured up Mr. Eustace’s bill and gave him the change from his $50. As we walked back to his car together, he said, "Of course, all that was a lie. You know that don’t you? I have just learned it is better to let Mr. Howard think he done won. Just don’t tell nobody or I will have to deal with him again, you hear?"

"Of course, Mr. Eustace! Don't forget to say hello to Ms. Arletha for me. You have a good day!" I said as he slipped in between the snarling dogs and closed his door.

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