Streetlights in Rome

by Aaron McQuiston Read author interview March 15, 2004

The kid comes up to the gas pump island every night almost like he is formed by the layers of darkness and animated by addiction. I can recognize him from the edge of the lot. The unruly hair and stutter step limp give him away. Sometimes when I tell him to get the fuck out of here before I call the police, he comes up to the bulletproof glass that I sit behind and says that I have no right to be angry because he’s never been here before. Over the intercom, I say that he’s a liar, and he’s been wearing the same Cowboys t-shirt, dirty blue jeans, and duct taped sneakers every night the entire three months I’ve been working here. He just shakes his head and pulls out the filthiest rag I’ve ever seen. It could have been red at one time, but now it’s black, like it was found in a puddle of oil.

I know his routine. He lifts the nozzle on the farthest gas pump and squeezes the trigger. A little spurt of gas might land on the rag. He goes around to each pump and only leaves when he has hit them all or if the rag is soaked. Sometimes I yell at him, tell him to get the fuck off the property before I call the police, but he knows I’m lying. I can see by the way that he gives me a rotten toothed smile that he knows I’m no better than him, that I’m just as addicted. Tonight I don’t yell at him at all. While he goes from pump to pump, I put five cents worth of gas on the last pump he will check and dig five pennies out of the free penny container for the register. I am the one smiling when he raises the nozzle and squeezes the trigger. Gas soaks through the cloth and over his jeans and tennis shoes. He looks at me with vacant eyes. I smile and press the intercom button. “Today must be your lucky day.”

He runs to the grassy median between the last pump and the street, holding the rag over his mouth and nose. Instead of running away like normal, he stops and looks back towards me. He is inhaling deeper and deeper, and I have to watch. The brain cells are dying every time he does this, but he continues as a testimony to how bad his life has become. He drops the rag at his feet and fumbles in his pocket for his cigarettes. I want to press the intercom button and tell him to stop, but I am not quick enough. As soon as he flicks the lighter, his hands turn into flames. He drops the burning lighter, and it hits the rag. The fire jumps from the rag to his sneakers and races up his body within seconds. The kid darts into the street and collapses in the middle. While I am dialing the police department, I think about Nero Caesar using Christians for streetlights in Rome.

About the Author:

Aaron McQuiston is a twenty-six-year-old business owner, factory worker, union member, writer and professional slacker. His small list of credits includes writing commercials, articles for the Central Indiana Professional Writers newsletter and grocery lists.