I love hot dogs spun to plump, juicy perfection on the roller grill. Add a layer of melted nacho cheese straight out of the dispenser. Make it a meal with a 99-cent bag of Fritos, a fountain soda—half Hi-C orange/half Sprite in a Styrofoam cup—and a King-Size Kit Kat for dessert. That’s comfort food to me. That’s home. I grew up in a gas station.
My father owned at least one rural central Missouri convenience store—Leroy’s Market on Highway 52 and then Leroy’s (Highway) 63 Minimart—from the time I was four. My earliest memories were formed under a huge Phillips 66 shield, and many involved running barefoot up and down aisles. My first job was emptying the trash cans by the pumps (as nasty as you think). Eventually I worked my way inside, stocking shelves before graduating to cashier. It was a cushy gig compared to my friends’ jobs sweating in the hay fields or busing tables at restaurants in Jefferson City, but I had the tougher boss. My father was always hovering—in case someone wanted to buy a 12-pack of Natural Light (which I was too young to ring up), or in case anything strange appeared on the black-and-white surveillance monitor that was trained on the register.
These shifts were some of the closest hours I’ve ever spent with my father. “Don’t wish minutes of your life away,” he’d say when he caught me watching the clock. “Stupid people get old too,” he said after an old guy went off on a Red Scare conspiracy rant. I also learned how to take criticism. Every time sweet old Mrs. Snodgrass (actual name) came in for her pint of bourbon, as she dug into her coin purse, she’d mutter, “You know, C&C’s gas is a penny cheaper.” My dad never said a thing.
It was a common complaint. Nobody cared about the cost of milk or the cash they threw away on dollar scratch-offs. But how dare we mess with the big black numbers on the light-box sign outside? They put my father in an angry knot: If prices were too high, he was greedy; too low and he must be getting rich by pulling in so many cars. My father would smile and nod and say “Thank you” and “Come back soon.” “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” he’d say after they left. He appreciated his customers and didn’t lecture them on the fact that he didn’t actually make his living selling gas.
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