Gas Station, Oscar Zenteno
“Please choose your payment type,” said the voice from the self-checkout machine. The letters blinked at Fatima. The store, alive with noise a few moments before, now seemed to be silently staring at her. The thunderous downpour of the rain outside drowned out the blood rushing to her ears. Under the glare of the fluorescent lights, beads of sweat slid down her back. Fatima felt ill, lightheaded, her stomach icy and oily all in one. Another crack of lightning slashed across the sky. A purse sat slumped at her feet, its contents scattered around her—a container of Tic-Tacs, numerous tubes of lip balm, appetite-suppressing gum, a crumpled color-coded list.
Fatima hopes it’s just getting darker outside. Hopes he’s just driving slowly. Hopes the cashier doesn’t grow suspicious and come over. Hopes he comes back. Hopes she just misplaced her wallet. Hopes he comes back. Please, come back.
Not long ago, Fatima’s father had stumbled his way back into her life, landing on her front porch. He had an old bottle of wine and a wobbly smile as an offering of good will. Even after two years gone, he looked just the same. He always looked just the same. Jolly, good-looking, and a little burnt around the edges. A hint of roughness, a wisp of emptiness.
There he was, in a crinkled blue shirt, standing outside of Fatima’s tiny rented rowhome. She kept the screen shut between them, already regretting not checking the peephole before swinging open her door. She’d thought it was Lita stopping by to apologize, in the way that Lita did. Their argument the night before had been nastier than any of the others. Fatima hadn’t even cleaned up the broken picture frame yet, having crawled into bed after Lita rushed out the door.
Luckily, today was Saturday. Fatima wouldn’t need to face her at work. Lita worked in HR at the insurance firm, Fatima as a receptionist. Lita joked about how they really should’ve switched jobs. Lita was more personable, Fatima more meticulous. A bit too meticulous, Lita had said, too secretive, too controlling.
At one in the afternoon, the knock-knock-knock at the door had woken Fatima. She had dismantled herself from her nest of blankets, disoriented by how late she’d slept in. Stomping barefoot downstairs to her front door, she hurriedly unlocked it. A whiff of cologne hit her, jolting Fatima awake in disbelief. Her eyes snapped open.
Her father, donning his signature toothy grin, was alive. Alive, after all.
“What are you doing here?” she choked out.
“Well hello to you too, Tima,” he said, “Just as beautiful as I remember.”
“Please answer my question or I’m calling the police,” Fatima said as evenly as she could. Neither one of them believed her empty threat.
“I’m here to visit you,” her father said, rather triumphantly, as if he were stating a fact.
He held up the ancient-looking bottle of red wine to Fatima. There was a faded, pink tag on it that said Congrats Mr. Madani!
“Dad you can’t just drop in unannounced—”
“I can explain—”
“I have a lot going on right now.”
“Let’s talk inside. I thought we could catch up. Your mother would’ve—”
Fatima swallowed the rest of her words, turning her head away to drown out the rest of his sentence. Her father always won these battles of talking over each other. He knew which words to toss in that would stick to her like leeches.
“Fine. Fine, come in,” she said in a grimace, unlocking her screen door and walking away.
Her father stepped inside. Fatima’s house was clean and compact. The living room bled seamlessly into the kitchen and dining area. A mishmash of thrift store furniture sat on scuffed hardwood floors. Dark curtains cloaked the bay window. The wallpaper was a green floral print, matching a pillow thrown on Fatima’s couch.
Fatima’s father sat down on the couch, sinking into it. He set the bottle of wine on the coffee table before moving it underneath the table. Fatima returned with two tall glasses of water.
“No ice?” he said.
“No ice,” Fatima said, setting down the glasses on a set of coasters on the coffee table.
“Glad to see you haven’t changed.” His eyes gleamed.
Was he laughing at her? “As opposed to never changing?” She sat down on an armchair directly across from him, crossing her arms.
“You know, exacting, I mean…precise. You’ve always been precise. Not a hair out of place for my little girl.”
He chuckled a little before he gulped down his water, very carefully setting the glass back down onto the coaster.
“Dad. Why are you here? Don’t tell me that you’re ‘sober’ this time around.” Fatima saw pain flash over her dad’s eyes. His hair was combed back and his face cleanshaven. She felt the immediate stab of regret.
Even though last night Lita had accused her of feeling nothing, Fatima really had the opposite problem—feeling everything. On the outside, Fatima appeared immovable, calculating. She had long since conquered the art of revealing nothing. For her, a reveal of vulnerability meant a submission to those who could hurt you. She’d had enough of giving people the power to break her, was tired of feeling that same disappointment and betrayal.
“Ever since I started sleeping over here, it just feels like I’m lying next to a spider!” Lita had spat out. It was then that she’d picked up the picture frame and thrown it against the wall, trying to get a reaction out of Fatima. Fear, rage, heartbreak, anything. Fatima only sat stone-faced, watching as Lita stormed out of the house. Fatima had crept from the living room into the bathroom, shut the door, and emptied her sorrow into the toilet bowl.
“That’s rather harsh, Tima,” her father said, jolting her back to the present. “I wouldn’t have come back if I wasn’t in a good place, a really good place. I’ve tried to be here only when I’m good.”
“Oh so that’s your excuse? How convenient. What about when I was taking care of Mom? When she was sick?” Fatima could feel herself summoning some deeply buried feeling.
Her father sighed, then said, “I haven’t…always been great. But you can’t expect me to be able to pull myself out of it at the snap of your fingers, Fatima!”
Tears pricked at her eyes. She couldn’t let him see her like this. She looked away, and a glint of silver caught her eye. The broken picture frame. The photo of Lita and her at some corporate picnic, arms wrapped around each other, beaming. It seemed so long ago, Lita so far away. Fatima wondered if Lita had gone back to her apartment, if Lita was safe. She also wondered if it was safe to believe Lita’d be back, like she always has.
“I was an alcoholic. Would I be able to say that if I was the same man from two years ago?”
Fatima turned her head back to face her father, who was picking at the skin around his fingernails. She stared at his hands, unable to bring herself to look him in the eyes again. “She was dying. I was all alone, trying to help her, to take care of her. I didn’t know what to do,” Fatima spoke in a low voice. “But all she wanted, even after everything, she still asked for you.”
Fatima wiped her eyes roughly before wrapping an arm around her stomach. She instinctively brought her free hand up to hide her mouth. Her nails dug into her bottom lip. She saw her father shift in his seat, rubbing his hands.
“She left you the house and you didn’t even have the courtesy to show up to the funeral. When you—!” Fatima stopped herself, the words lodged in her throat. She shuddered, taking two shaky breathes while straightening herself up. “I have to go grocery shopping,” she said, smoothing her hair back. “You’re coming with me.”
Fatima, along with her color-coded shopping list and reusable bags, climbed into her old green sedan, her father trailing behind. He hesitated to sit up front with her, then clambered in. Their car ride was quiet. The radio was busted. It was uncomfortably sticky and humid outside. Her neighborhood was in the bad part of town, but Fatima didn’t care since the rent was cheap and her neighbors didn’t talk. Fatima liked being in places where people minded their business. She made her way out of her neighborhood, heading towards the local grocery store.
She parked far from the entrance. Her father grabbed a cart for her. Fatima set up her list and purse in the top section of the cart, tossing her reusable bags in the main section, and they entered the store. As everything clanged and beeped around them, Fatima and her father glided around each other like cold fish in dark water. She filled her cart with bagged salad mix, ninety-nine cent packets of lunchmeat, store-brand dish liquid detergent, a gallon of milk. Her father followed her around the store.
When they reached the frozen food aisle, Fatima broke the silence.
“Have you ever had these before?”
Her father bumped into the cart as he moved to look over Fatima’s shoulder at the frozen dinners she was holding.
“I don’t think so.”
“Would you want to try them?”
“Oh Tima, I’m fine really. I won’t be staying for long—”
“Don’t. It’s fine. I wanted to try some too,” she said, placing the dinners in the cart.
Her father placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, which caused her to flinch. “Thank you.” He quickly removed his hand, and she started to stray away from the cart, gazing at the frozen displays.
“Where have you been…I mean, where are you staying at?” Fatima asked, keeping her eyes on the bags of frozen chicken tenders and pizza bagels.
“I’ve been at the house.”
Fatima turned to give him a hard look. “The house? I thought you sold it.”
“No, that’s what you said I was going to do with it, Fatima,” he replied. “We had our…argument after I missed the funeral. And I just decided to just stay there. I thought you were going to come back, eventually. But…you never did.”
He twisted up his mouth in a way that made Fatima feel guilty, again. She pushed the feeling down, returning to her cart to push it forward.
“You could’ve called me. Written me. Visited me sooner. It’s not like I moved or anything,” she said, gripping the handle.
“I told you, I didn’t want to do any of that until I was in a good place.”
Fatima pictured her father in the house she’d grown up in, tidying up the mess it’d become over the course of her mother’s illness. Her father, sturdy and tall, sweeping the floors while her mother’s ashes remained in an urn in the living room. Her father, clear-eyed, pouring whatever liquor remained in the house. Keeping only an old bottle of wine from his days as a teacher, before it all had gone wrong. She saw her father putting himself back together over the course of two years, while she’d slowly unraveled.
Fatima felt sick. “I didn’t want to come back anyways.”
Her father nodded his head, the two of them falling back into their silence. They reached the self-checkout line. Outside, a rumble of thunder roared alive. Hard rain pelted down in a rush, muffling the store in a humming sound. The cashiers moaned gloomily. The bright fluorescent lights inside glowed more harshly as outside grew darker and darker. Fatima cursed herself for not checking the weather before she left. She looked at a woman in front of her in line, clutching an umbrella and a basket full of cream soda.
“I can bring the car around,” her father suddenly croaked.
Fatima turned to stare at him.
“What? What did I say?”
She almost laughed aloud. “As if I’d trust you to take my keys.”
“Tima, just let me help you. Stop overthinking things!”
She didn’t recognize the look he gave her. It unsettled her. She wanted to hold on to whatever control she had left. She dug out her keys and shoved them into his hand. “Fine, here. Take my keys. Bring the car around, then come back in to help me bring these out.”
The line inched forward, and the woman with the basket of cream soda scurried towards an open register. Her father shuffled away, expressionless, examining her, before turning and walking away.
Once Fatima reached an open register, she started scanning her groceries, separating the items into their individual bags. Fatima had to flag down a cashier for a bushel of bananas she’d picked up that were missing a barcode sticker. As she set the gallon of milk into the cart, she glanced at her wristwatch. Five minutes had crept by. A customer next to Fatima was scanning a jar of pickles and dropped it on the floor, splattering pickle juice and glass all over himself. Seven minutes. Fatima watched out of the corner of her eye while slowly scanning the last of her groceries, another three minutes gliding by. She snorted to herself as the customer began to argue with the cashier about getting another jar for free, tapping the “PAY” button on the self-checkout screen. She reached for her purse, digging around in it to find her wallet. Digging, digging, digging. Nothing.
Cold sweat starts to bead at the back of Fatima’s neck. A familiar feeling claws at her heart. Fatima is shaking. A crack of lightning explodes across the sky, the light illuminating the inside of the store for an instant, and she drops her purse to the ground. Tic-Tacs. Tubes of lip balm. Gum. A color-coded list.
Fatima’s throat constricts, but she could feel the vomit rising. Her body was used to this cycle, knew what motions to go through by now. But she isn’t crouched on her bathroom floor in the dark, she’s standing at a self-checkout register in a grocery store that’s growing more and more conscious of her.
Please come back. Please come back.
The glossy magazine covers flash. The rows of brightly colored candies and chocolate bars swirl together. The scent of cleaning supplies and damp produce thicken into a heavy cloud. The same cashier argues with a different customer over the price of a bag of bruised apples. The grocery store doors open. Ding! The squeak of wet shoes. Welcome! The jangle of keys.
She looks up.
About the Author
Anastasia Farley · Susquehanna University
Anastasia Farley is a junior Publishing/Editing and Creative Writing dual major at Susquehanna University. When she isn’t writing or reading, she can be found roller-skating, running, or gardening. She hopes to be an editor of her own literary press one day.
About the Artist
Oscar Zenteno · Christian Brothers University
“Gas Station” first appeared in Castings.