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A chilly January night in Roswell. Joe Bauman has discovered that’s normal for eastern New Mexico. It gets hot here in the summer, but winters can be a son of a bitch. That Roswell’s high up—3,600 feet—only makes the cold colder. Makes the sky clearer, too. A million stars shine down on Joe.
One of those stars is his: the big red one marking the Texaco station at 1200 West Second Street. He nods to himself in slow satisfaction. He’s had a good run, a hell of a good run, here in Roswell. The way it looks right now, he’ll settle down here and run the gas station full time when his playing days are done.
Won’t be long, either. He’ll turn thirty-two in April, about when the season starts. Ballplayers, even ones like him who never come within miles of the big time, know how sharply mortal their careers are. If he doesn’t, the ache in his knees when he turns on a fastball will remind him.
He glances down at his watch, which he wears on his right wrist—he’s a lefty all the way. It’s getting close to nine o’clock. He looks up Second Street. Then he looks down the street. No traffic either way. People here make jokes about rolling up the sidewalks after the sun goes down. With maybe 20,000 people, Roswell seems plenty big and bustling to Joe. It’s a damn sight bigger than Welch, Oklahoma, the pissant village where he was born, that’s for sure.
He could close up and go home. Chances that he’ll have any more business are pretty slim. But the sign in the rectangular iron frame says OPEN ’TIL MIDNIGHT. He’ll stick around. You never can tell.
And it’s not as if he’s never done this before. Dorothy will be amazed if he does come home early. He’s got a TV set—a Packard Bell, just a year old—in a back room, and a beat-up rocking chair she was glad to see the last of, and a shelf with a few books in case he doesn’t feel like staring at the television. He’s got an old, humming refrigerator in there, too (he thinks of it as an icebox more often than not), with some beer. Except for a bed, all the comforts of home.
When he goes in there, he ducks to make sure he doesn’t bang his head. He’s a great big guy—six-five, maybe 235. Maybe more like 250 now, when he’s not in playing shape. Lots and lots of afternoons in the sun have weathered the skin on his face and his forearms and especially his hands.
He leaves the door to the back room open so headlights will warn him in case anybody does come in. When he turns on the TV, the picture is snowy. He needs a tall antenna to bring it in at all, because Roswell doesn’t have a station of its own, though there’s talk of getting one. It isn’t nine yet. Milton Berle isn’t on. Joe can’t stand the program that runs ahead of him. He turns the sound down to nothing. He doesn’t turn the set off: then it would have to warm up again, and he might miss something. But he does ignore it for the time being.
To kill time till Uncle Miltie’s inspired lunacy, he pulls a book off the shelf. “Oh, yeah—the weird one,” he mutters. Something called The Supernatural Reader, a bunch of stories put together by Groff and Lucy Conklin. Groff—there’s a handle for you.
Brand-new book, or near enough. Copyright 1953. He found it in a Salvation Army store. Cost him a dime. How can you go wrong?
Story he’s reading is called “Pickup from Olympus,” by a fellow named Pangborn. The guy in the story runs a gas station, which makes it extra interesting for Joe. And there’s a ’37 Chevy pickup in it, and damned if he didn’t learn to drive on one of those before he went into the Navy.
But the people, if that’s what you’d call them, in the pickup . . . Joe shakes his head. “Weird,” he says again. “Really weird.” He’s the kind of guy who likes things nailed down tight.
He puts The Supernatural Reader back on the shelf. With a grunt, he heaves his bulk out of the rocker, walks over to the television, and twists the volume knob to the right. When he plops himself down in the chair once more, it creaks and kind of shudders. One of these days, it’ll fall apart when he does that, and leave him with his ass on the floor. But not yet. Not yet.
A chorus of men dressed the way he would be if he really spiffed himself up—dressed like actors playing service-station jockeys instead of real ones, in other words—bursts into staticky song:
Oh, we’re the men of Texaco.
We work from Maine to Mexico.
There’s nothing like this Texaco of ours;
Our show tonight is powerful,
We’ll wow you with an hourful
of howls from a showerful of stars;
We’re the merry Texaco-men!
Tonight we may be showmen;
Tomorrow we’ll be servicing your cars!
Joe sings along, even if he can’t carry a tune in a pail. Texaco is his outfit, too, even more than the Roswell Rockets are. If you’re not a big-leaguer—and sometimes even if you are—baseball is only a part-time job. He’ll get six hundred dollars a month to swing the bat this year, and a grand as a signing bonus. For a guy in a Class C league, that’s great money. But a gas station, now, a gas station is a living for the rest of his life. You get into your thirties, you start worrying about stuff like that. You’d goddamn well better, anyhow.
Out comes Milton Berle. He’s in a dress. Joe guffaws. Christ on His crutch, but Milton Berle makes an ugly broad. Joe remembers how horny he got when he was in the Navy and didn’t even see a woman for months at a time. If he’d seen one who looked like that, he would have kept right on being horny.
Or maybe not. When you’re twenty years old, what the hell are you but a hard-on with legs?
Uncle Miltie starts strumming a ukulele. If that’s not scary, his singing is. It’s way worse than Joe’s. Joe laughs fit to bust a gut. He hope the picture stays halfway decent. This is gonna be a great show.