By James Bates
"Well, thanks for meeting with me. It was good talking to you." The realtor took out a business card and gave it to Charlie Swant who glanced at it, already having forgotten the guy's name.
Then he aggressively extended his hand and Charlie reluctantly shook it, "Well...Okay then," Charlie said, not knowing what else to add. He certainly wasn't going to lie and tell the realtor that, "Yeah, it was good to meet you, too." Or, "We'll talk soon. Thanks for stopping by." Or any other pleasantry that most people would have responded with.
The realtor just looked at Charlie, getting the hint. The old man was nuts anyway. Who wouldn't want to take the one and a half million dollars he'd offered to buy the decrepit gas station the guy owned? Swant's Service. What a stupid name. No one he knew ever took their cars there anyway. Why trust their precious Porsche or BMW to a grease monkey like Charlie Swant when they could just as easily go to one of the luxury car dealerships ten miles down the road? The realtor waved and turned away. "I'll stay in touch," he said over his shoulder while stepping into his Cadillac, "But I'm never bringing my car here, no matter what," he muttered as he drove away.
Charlie watched him speed off, noting the almost inaudible high pitched squeal in the engine that was probably a bearing in the water pump starting going out. Good riddance, he thought to himself, and turned to go back to work. He had an oil change and a tune-up waiting and the day wasn't getting any younger.
Swant's Service was built by his dad Clarence in 1942, the same year Charlie was born. Clarence suffered polio when he was young and was unable to serve in World War II so he decided to do the next best thing, serve his country on the Home Front by doing all he could to keep America's cars and trucks running. "I'll provide my customers with the best service I possibly can," he said when asked about the name of his gas station, "We'll sell more than just gasoline. We'll sell reliability and dependability. Our customers will never be dissatisfied with the service we provide, I can promise you that. In fact, they'll probably tell their friends." Which they did, and Swant's Service was off and running.
The station stood on a small piece of property on Willow Way, a quiet shady street that was one block off Orchard Boulevard, the main road through the small town of Long Lake. Across the street from the station was the cozy, well maintained home Charlie shared with Martha, his wife of fifty-two years. He had a good life: a home that was paid for, a wife he stilled adored and a business that was all his own. Plus, he was doing work he still enjoyed. Why would he consider changing things right now by selling out to some fly-by-night realtor with a fancy car and too high an opinion of himself?
Well, his daughter Janet could think of a few good reasons, telling her dad he should get rid of the station and use the money to, as she put it, "Retire or travel or something." Charlie Swant couldn't see himself doing anything like that. Not on your life. Not right now, anyway.
He had just entered the service bay when his phone buzzed. It was a text from Larry, his oldest son. Kids on the way. Charlie texted back that he'd be waiting for them. He went to his work bench and checked his tools. Everything was in order. The Kids were a group of eighth graders from Riverside Middle School where Larry was assistant principal. It was located twenty five miles east in downtown Minneapolis, and they were considered high risk students, having had trouble adjusting to life in Minnesota. To try and help them Larry and Charlie came up with a plan: Charlie would mentor the kids. He'd also teach them about taking care of cars, sort of like the automotive maintenance shop classes that used to be offered in junior high schools back in the fifties. Times were different now. Budgets were tight and shop classes weren't around anymore. The kids were attending by their own choice, having given up a study period to learn what went into taking care of an automobile.
In the beginning Charlie was under no illusions about what he was getting himself into. He knew most of the kids just wanted to get away from school and Hang out, as they were apt to say, sneak cigarettes, and goof off. But from day one Charlie wouldn't have any of it. Not on your life. Twelve had started the class. He was strict but fair yet a few just couldn't handle the discipline. He was down to nine now, having weeded out those who wouldn't abide by his simple rules: treat others with respect, work hard, and don't be afraid to ask questions. He didn't admit it very often, but he thoroughly enjoyed being with eager students, giving the kids a two hour block of his time every week. During the first meeting he'd written their names down. In retrospect he was glad he had because he'd needed to refer to his list often in those initial weeks. It had been challenging back then, but he'd worked at it. Now, of course, he knew them all by heart: Abshir, Amir, Cabdulle, Daleel, Fuaad, Gaani, Idiris, Kaahi and Kamal. They were young Somali's living in a high rise housing complex in the heart of Minneapolis. Today they'd help him with the oil change and then he'd supervise the project they were working on, restoring a 1957 classic Chevrolet, getting it ready for Long Lake's Fourth of July parade. Charlie would drive and the young Somali's were going to ride with him. They were excited and so was he. It would be fun. He couldn't wait.
Charlie whistled to himself, using his shop cloth to wipe down his tools. Sell his service station for a million and a half dollars? Never. Not on his watch.
A beeping horn interrupted his tool cleaning. Charlie turned and saw Jerry Larson the school bus driver pulling in to drop off the kids. Charlie grinned and waved and walked out to greet them. Jerry opened the door and Fuaad and Kamal and the rest of the kids tumbled out. Charlie called out, "Hey, guys. How's it going today?"
A chorus of voices came back to him, all on the order of "Just fine, Mr. Swant, " or some variation thereof.
"Good to hear it," Charlie says, "Ready to get to work?"
"You bet," came back another chorus, this time more eager than the first.
"All right, then," Charlie turned and led his young students toward the service bay, "Let's get to it."
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