Paul, now an old man, would daydream at the 7-Eleven, think back to his auto shop in St. Cloud. There were three stalls, two with hydraulic lifts, high aluminum roofs with ribs for runoff. Just a wide open box, by and large, full of equipment he purchased, with a small office in the back corner. He tried to imagine every car he backed onto the long ramps: Mustangs, Corollas, Cavilers, Volvos, foreign and domestic, tune-ups and overhauls. Paul was a whiz, he could work on any make or model and never offered his customers a fix. He didn't know how to fix anything—he only knew how to repair. Paul would buy two of the same muscle car from the boneyard down the road, one that had been in a front-end collision and one that had been in a rear-end collision, and then he would cut them in half and weld the good ends together. "Had a Twin Jet Cobra," he said, "Couldn't tell you how fast I drove it because the speedometer only went to one-hundred-and-twenty."
The Cobra fastback, down I-94 or Highway 10 with North Minnesota pulsing outside. Everything in his periphery, the columns of spruce trees and ditches of canary grass became a wash, an incomprehensible blur while he barreled across the state. He was young, then. He was going nowhere except back home, eventually. Time slowed down at such a high rate of speed, and finally untethered from the day-to-day trenches of his life, he had certainty in what he actually owned. The service station he was just that, a place for service. The word resounded in each cylinder blast, in the even hum of the tires on the road. The road would make a bend and Paul would cruise over it; and despite the Cobra being a Frankenstein monster of a car, it navigated the road perfectly. Paul squeezed the vulcanized rubber steering wheel, and he saw the Cobra as a reflection of the spirit of service that he carried within himself, a reflection of his labor. "I like to think I helped people back then," he said, "I was sure of that much."
And it was the forfeiture of ownership that plagued Paul the most while he worked at the 7-Eleven. He was still a property owner, his long-term savings made sure of that, but something in Paul's mind had transcended money and property and nest eggs. He only knew how to work, and, more importantly, he only knew how to work for himself. He helped people, teaching and repairing, he was sure of that much, but he always did it on his own terms. He owned his workspace for lifespan of his whole career, even his vocational school classes were held at the shop. And in the 7-Eleven, people looked at him like he was just another sad old man living in a place where there were plenty of sad old men.
Mary's belly was swollen and her 7-Eleven work polo was stretched to capacity. She was nearing the end of her pregnancy. Paul stood near the drink counter and restocked Big Gulp cups. It was raining and midday, glistening outside, and no customers had come for nearly half an hour.
"Paul, you were a teacher, right?" Mary said.
"Yes, Mary. At a vocational college."
"Well, I've been thinking about after high school. I'm done in a few months. And I'm just worried about the baby because I'm keeping it."
"That's good. I'm glad you're keeping it. You should think about your kids, they end up being all you've got."
"But I've just been thinking about going to school. You know, so I can get out of working at this awful place. I don't think I can really count on the baby's dad, so I just want to ask you, do you think I've got what it takes to go to college?"
"I wasn't that kind of college teacher. I taught auto repair, so I can't really tell you this way or that. But I can tell you I think it's a good idea."
"Do you think I can do the work? That's really what I'm asking. It seems like so much work."
"The thing about work is ..." Paul caught himself in a moment of confusion, "... the thing of it is that work is just work. You just do it, that's all. Nothing fancy or smart about it, you just do the work and then you're done and you can raise your kids right and get them off to college. If you just do the work for its own sake, it gives you something when you're done. I don't really know, Mary, to be honest. I'm just working here with you."
He thought he should have been able to say something more directive, that he should understand the value of a hard day's work as well as anybody. But the 7-Eleven had muddled it, mixed up what he knew about labor, the value and richness, with pure banality. Paul looked down at the Big Gulp in his hand. He noted the curtained ridges on the stem of the cup, the stamped 7-Eleven logo on the side. Paul ran his fingers around the top diameter, felt the smooth lip fold under to a sharp edge. Paul thought about the factory that they must have come from, with drones or people or both standing dumbly, all but fully mechanized. Paul wondered if that was work, standing around like that, if it fit the definition he had built over a lifetime of labor. He couldn't be sure. Paul stood slack-jawed, gazing densely at the fountain drink.
"Are you okay, Paul?" Mary said.
"You looked like you were about to fall over! And did you touch the lip of that cup?"
"Oh, yeah. I suppose I did. I'll have to throw this one away."
About Iowa Writes
Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.
In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.
Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.
Find out more about submitting by contacting email@example.com
Bob Plantenberg is an MFA candidate in the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program.
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