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In 1997, I was 18 and working at the only gas station on Texada Island, a little West Coast island where I grew up. The station had a small laundromat and for $2 a bag we’d wash, dry and fold for locals or anyone staying at the island’s only hotel. One of the days that I provided this service stayed with me forever and changed my perspective on the people we randomly meet in life.
Early one morning, I arrived at the station, unlocking doors and pumps, and brewing oily coffee that would inevitably taste faintly of the island’s ever-present limestone dust. I surveyed my surroundings: a grimy, wall-mounted Jackalope (a comical amalgamation of a stuffed rabbit’s head and deer antlers) stared back and I skimmed a shelf of used books situated below a mishmash of air filters and auto parts no one was ever going to buy. My fingers traced spines as broken as the grass-covered, derelict vehicles surrounding the shop. Stephen King, Louis L’Amour, Harlequin romance.
A melodic double ding announced the first customer of the day as they rolled across the pressure sensor. Chicken Coop Bob, named for his chicken coop turned residence, wanted $3.64 in gas and wasn’t going to pay one cent more. He just needed enough to get to the liquor store and then home again. He had a healthy respect for his budget if not his liver. I wasn’t that quick on the draw, so Bob triumphantly departed with four cents of gas he didn’t pay for as a dirty, battered crew cab pulled up to the pumps in his wake.
The driver asked me to fill the tank. I unscrewed the gas cap as a giant man, with a shaven head and abundant tattoos climbed from the passenger seat and asked where he could leave a bag of laundry. I said he could drop it at the front counter, and it’d be ready for pickup by day-end. He tossed his washing through the door like an inconsequential bean bag and folded himself back into the truck. I took an imprint of the driver’s credit card on a carbon copy receipt and headed inside to pour a coffee and start the giant’s laundry. I opened the bag. White, long underwear and T-shirts – easy. Taking quarters and detergent from under the counter to run the washer, I threw in the load and pressed start.
The phone rang. No, I didn’t know if the ferry was late. No, I hadn’t seen any traffic go by yet. No, I hadn’t seen Carl. The bell dinged again and this time it was old man Brian who I never once saw without a cigarette hanging from his mouth. I reminded him that he couldn’t smoke near the gas pumps, so he exited his truck only to immediately have his pants drop down around his ankles. Clad in a T-shirt that said, “It’s not a beer belly it’s a fuel tank for a sex machine,” he desperately scrambled to pull up his pants and not drop his cigarette while anxiously stammering that his dog had chewed the drawstring off his pants on the drive into town. An explanation that honestly raised further questions. With $10 worth of gas in his tank, Brian and his pants-nibbling Jack Russell were on their way.
Throughout the day, customers rolled through the station. There was Big Al, who was around 6-foot-8 and always walked theatrically tilted to one side and slightly backward as though in an invisible windstorm. Yucky Stinky Frank dressed like a 1930s train engineer who was neither yucky nor stinky and who communicated mainly through occasional grunts. And Richard, who looked devastatingly like Sean Connery and who I had a bit of a crush on, in part because he apparently worked on movies and told me that if I wanted to be an actress, I should not fix my crooked tooth as it would be my signature “look.” They all required the same repeated small talk. Yes, the weather was nice. Yes, my parents were well. No, I didn’t know what the special was at the café today. No, I hadn’t seen Carl.
Catching a break from fill-ups, I stole inside to move the giant’s laundry into the dryer. I grabbed a basket, opened the washer and … no … no! No! Every item I pulled from the machine was bubble-gum pink. My heart hammered in my ears. I couldn’t breathe. The tattooed giant was going to kill me. I would be executed (or realistically fired) because some random red sock was left in the machine and because I hadn’t thought to make sure that it was completely empty before I threw in a new load. I shoved everything into the dryer (minus the rogue sock) and hoped it would all look less vibrant when dry. It didn’t. It looked much worse.
The rest of the day passed in a blur as I conjured up vivid potential scenarios resulting from the tattooed giant coming for his laundry. Eventually, the crew cab carrying my fate returned. The giant pressed himself from the passenger seat and lumbered toward the office looking terrifying and impossibly stern. When he ducked to step inside, I almost threw up on his work boots. I broke down. I burst into tears. In heaving, panic-ridden sobs I confessed my tragic mistake and swore I’d pay for his clothes. Blubbering and rambling and ready to accept my fate, I showed him his newly pink wardrobe.
He took one look at the pink pile, looked at me and then exploded with laughter. His face lit up like a sudden sunrise as he told me that it was fine, no worries. He put his baseball mitt of a hand on my shoulder and asked if he looked like a guy who anyone would dare make fun of for having pink underwear. I let out the world’s longest exhale and watched as he continued laughing all the way back to the truck. They pulled away heading toward the Broken Arms pub where the giant and his crewmates would surely spend the remainder of the day’s hours drinking cheap draft and laughing over the silly little island girl who’d cried over pink long johns. I looked down at the $5 tip he’d placed in my hand. He’d tipped me for ruining his laundry. Carl drove by.
That day I learned that – like the mutilated head of a dead rabbit masquerading as a mythical creature – no one and no thing is ever quite what it seems. Giants can be gentle, inconsequential characters can be remarkable, and a dusty little gas station in the middle of nowhere can be the unlikely birthplace of many a memorable story.
Jenessa Blanchet lives in Cochrane, Alta.
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