Jul. 5, 2006

Service Is Our Business

by Michael McFee

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Poem: "Service Is Our Business" by Michael McFee from Shinemaster. © Carnegie Mellon University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Service Is Our Business

It used to be black as the insides of a Penzoil can
whenever we drove this ten-mile stretch of Highway 25
at night from lit-up Asheville back to our gloomy house
in Arden, no stoplights or streetlights anywhere, nothing.

And there's where (during the day) mom would stop for gas,
a Shell filling station in the curve at the foot of a long hill,
a couple of pumps and a little office and a double bay
over which "Service Is Our Business" shone in red plastic

as the smiling proprietor emerged, wiping his large hands,
looking like Glenn Miller on the 78-rpm records she'd play
(I still have them, maiden initials scratched on each label),
like some veteran still wearing his crisp khaki uniform.

He'd bend to the open window and speak to her, then us,
sun polishing his wire rims, starching his cursive name,
brightening the yellow scallop shell stitched to his chest
and the huge one slowly revolving overhead as he began

hooking the nozzle in the tank (gas rushing behind us),
checking (obscured but heard) the oil and radiator water,
cleaning each window (mom laughing loud through hers),
topping off (when needed) the fluids or the air in tires,

then lowering the heavy hood gently, not slamming it down,
and firmly replacing the gas cap behind the license plate,
and taking her offered bills with a thank-you and half-bow
before watching us drive off, shading his eyes as if saluting.

That was 40 years ago. Gas was 28.2. Now that I'm the age
she was then, I wonder: Who was that guy? A former boyfriend?
A harmless but steady flirtation? And what was she to him—
another nice housewife to flatter, to keep the business going?

Or were they just a couple of decent lonely people
who enjoyed each other's company for a few public minutes
before returning to work and turning up their tinny radios,
longing to hear "In the Mood" or "Moonlight Serenade". ...

That station's long gone. Now it's ten pumps and a mini-mart.
Service was his business. And service was her business, too,
a mother serving children every day for over twenty years
until they were old enough to drive their cars away from her.

I pump my own gas then climb into town past strip mall
after strip mall, this local branch of the Dixie Highway
lifting its newly affluent glare into the lost sky every night.
We used to look up at countless stars. Mom loved "Stardust."

I tidy my parents' graves at the cemetery behind K-Mart.
Dusk lurks. That man with the ovaled name might be here
on this hillside with my mother, just one of many customers
queued up in the darkest dark of all, waiting to be served.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day that in 1880 that George Bernard Shaw quit his job in order to write full time (books by this author). He followed his mother to London when he was twenty, hoping to make something of himself. His aunt got him a job at the Edison Telephone Company. He tried to write in his spare time, but eventually decided that he couldn't write and work at the same time. So on this day in 1880, when the Edison Telephone Company announced the consolidation with a competing firm, he used that as an excuse to quit. It was the last non-literary job he ever had.

At first, his decision seemed to be a disaster. He had to live on one pound a week from his father and whatever his mother could spare from her job as a music teacher. He spent his days in the British Museum Reading room, reading and writing, but his first five novels were all rejected. He caught smallpox while writing one novel, managed to complete it in spite of his illness, and then saw it rejected too.

He finally gave up on fiction and began to focus his energy on becoming a critic, and that was where he finally had some success.

On this day in 1954, Elvis Presley recorded his first rock and roll song and his first hit, "That's All Right, Mama." Elvis had wanted to be a crooner, and in his first recording sessions he only sang slow ballads. But then, in between takes, Elvis and the other musicians started fooling around and singing a blues tune called "That's All Right." Sam Phillips asked them to start over from the beginning and recorded the song. He then rushed the record to the biggest DJ in Memphis, and it became Elvis's breakout hit.

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