I grew up behind a counter.
In 1978, when I was 5 years old, my mother and stepfather, Kay and Charles Oates, bought a tiny, rundown gas station on the outskirts of East Texas in a little town called Silsbee. They had been married one year when they took ownership of the store. Or rather, as the worn cement flooring behind the register would attest, the store took ownership of them. They had left their respective towns and spouses to start a new life, and what little money they had was riding on the purchase of this dusty little outpost. Family friends for decades, they married within nine months of simultaneous divorces. To this day, you can’t pin them down about their whirlwind romance.
Oates’ Country Corner was open seven days a week and closed only on Christmas Day. The daily schedule was the same: We’d wake up around 4:30 a.m., and I would ride with my parents to open. The forested area in Southeast Texas known as the Big Thicket is a dark place, but probably darkest at this hour. Our two-story log cabin was located four miles into the dense woods, a red clay road the only access. Deep in the Piney Woods, there is no roar of a garbage truck or thud of the morning paper to let you know someone else is out there stirring in the world before the dawn. (On occasion, you’d hear the shot of a hunter’s rifle in the distance, but it was hardly reassuring.) There are few houses and certainly no buildings with one or two twinkling lights to indicate some unlucky soul who shares your early morning fate. It’s just your own headlights and what they strike on the winding dirt road ahead of you, like watching a scary movie unfold—in our case, with a soundtrack of ’80s pop music on the radio. Once we hit the paved highway, it was about a half mile to the orange Gulf gas sign. As a child, to me, it always looked like a giant moon, guiding us to the drive where we hooked a left off FM 418. If I was drifting off to sleep and missed the orange penumbra, the popping and crackling of the shells beneath the tires roused me. In the darkness, my stepfather would pull his truck up as close as possible to the front door of the small, dimly lit building, situated smack in the center of a half-acre clearing at the top of a circular drive.
The sides of the one-story structure were lined with white painted tin, faded and battered from 30 years of heat, humidity, and the occasional hurricane. It had a low-pitch roof, also tin, with serrated, curled edges that reminded me of starched ruffles. The big picture window in front was covered in steel burglary bars to prevent break-ins. The single entrance had a decaying screen door that always slammed shut with an angry slap. Half as tall as the door at the time, I liked to gently scratch at the screen and watch the fine wire collapse and blow away like dandelion seeds. (When confronted with the defacement, landing at my eye level, I’d simply shrug and blame birds.) Using his foot and the side of his body, Charles would sandwich himself between the yawning springs and the triple-locked door behind it, a nylon bank bag sagging with rolled coins in one hand, his keys in the other, and a .357 holstered on his hip in plain view. My mother and I followed in her car. She’d park facing the truck and point the headlights directly at my stepfather, chasing away any shadows on the sides. Another gun, a snub-nose .38, was in the glove compartment, propped open for her to grab just in case. Watching him turn the lock was always a breathless moment. Mother and I never said anything, but our eyes darted around every corner for someone hiding in wait. It was a moment we knew ended badly for a lot of convenience store owners, but one you didn’t talk about. Otherwise, you couldn’t do the job.
I remember the very day we bought the store. My parents stopped at the gas station with me in tow and began chatting with the man behind the counter, an older gentleman named Mr. Baker. It was the summer before kindergarten, and while I amused myself touching all the candy, they talked for what seemed like forever. As it turned out, they had been discussing the store with Mr. Baker for weeks. He and his wife had owned “Baker’s” for about 15 years, and now in their 70s, they were ready to hand it off to the two eager 40-somethings. Mr. Baker walked them around the store, opening cooler doors and showing them how to work the giant register, its automatic cash drawer so big and powerful you had to stand a foot back or it would punch you in the gut. After what seemed like days, as it often does when you’re a kid waiting for adults to stop talking, Mom and Charles finally shook Mr. Baker’s hand and said goodbye. “We just bought that store,” Charles told me as we loaded into the car. I swiveled around backward and got up on my knees to get another look at the place as we pulled away, now new and exciting with the shiny halo of ownership. Mom said it was their first anniversary gift to each other. I couldn’t be bothered with adult agendas. The little white building with its two gas pumps and faded red door was perfectly framed by the car’s back window. I touched the back glass as if to touch the store itself. All that candy is mine, I thought.
When Mom and Charles took the helm, they had their work cut out for them. Originally, the store catered to farmers—gasoline, tractor parts, and veterinarian supplies—but my parents wanted to make it a convenience store in every sense of the word. For years, they were the only store until you almost hit the city limits of Silsbee or neighboring Kountze. (Pronounced, as they say, like the sound of a large rock dropping in the creek.) They restocked the shelves to offer a bit of everything so, as Charles put it, “if you needed Calumet baking powder, you didn’t have to drive 10 miles into town to get it.”
My parents respected the customers and the business and dressed as such. My mother always wore full makeup, a nice dress, and managed to stock a beer cooler in stilettos. With auburn hair, pale skin, and warm brown eyes, she looked like a fall day. She was careful to dress conservatively at the store, but her effortless pin-up figure would make even church clothes beg to repent. My stepfather sported a crisp shirt and slacks occasionally topped off with a stiff cowboy hat and ostrich boots. On casual days when he wasn’t behind the counter, he would sometimes wear a nylon merchandise cap, sitting high and stiff on his head like a bishop’s hat sponsored by Budweiser. He was a handsome man with wavy brown hair, blue-green eyes, and a mischievous grin flattered by a wide moustache that made a lot of the female customers wish Mom wasn’t so close—or so pretty. Mom and Charles were affectionate and laughed easily. Neither had gone to college—few people there did—but they were well-read, whip smart, and hard working. Both soft-spoken, they were natural introverts but amplified their personalities to foster goodwill with their new customers. Contrary to the broad stroke that all Texans are friendly, the Big Thicket is not a trusting place. There is no air-kissing, and any spontaneous hugging is generally reserved for the church meet-and-greet. If passing on the road, locals might lift one hand off the wheel for a moment to signal hello, but one-on-one, if their family didn’t know your family for the last decade or so, you’d be met with a suspicious squint before any “how-do-you-do.” My parents understood this and gave the customers time to warm to these new owners attached to no place and no one. Their patience paid off. Before long, coffee was pouring, jokes were flying, and lines were forming.
Happy with their new calling, Mom and Charles never seemed to dread the early mornings. The official opening was at 6 a.m., but they liked to be there by 5:30 a.m. so the refinery workers could get their coffee and Skoal before the morning shift started at the plant across the street. Mom and Charles would take turns stocking the coolers, while I would pass the time rounding up cans of ranch-style beans, exercising my budding feminism by carefully scratching out the “husband pleasin’” banner on every label.
Through sheer curiosity, I had every short aisle of the 500-foot layout memorized. Although it wasn’t obvious, the store was a converted home from the 1940s. The back, where extra stock and the body of the coolers resided, was divided into three small rooms, including a kitchen we never used and a small bathroom with a shower that became a graveyard for broken neon beer signs. My mom designated one empty room as my playroom, adding a blanket on the floor and a black-and-white TV. But what little reception came over the tin-foiled rabbit ears was no contest for what came through the front doors. So I stayed close to the register, eyeing customers from behind Mom. She was in constant motion, sacking goods, running credit cards, and filling coolers any second she could break free. When the flow of customers would start to trickle, I’d make my way around the store to spot any new and fun inventory. There never was any, but I remained optimistic nonetheless. Goods were crammed tight on the white built-in shelves but neatly aligned. Dusting was constant but in vain. Mom and Charles didn’t like holes in the inventory, always instructing us to pull items forward. Staples like bread and milk and favorites like cold drinks and beer were organized on the back perimeter so people would walk in further and buy an extra thing or two. The freshest dairy items were placed toward the back of the cooler so the older stock could move first. (To this day, I always reach for the very last milk in the back of any grocery store cooler.) Candy was knee-high at the check-out for obvious reasons. Novelty items like lighters, bandanas, and caps were near the register for those battling impulse control; specifically, the impulse to steal. Occasionally, trucker caps with dirty sayings would sneak into the rotation, and my mother would make it her mission to bury them in the back of the stack. (And I would make it my mission to read every last one of them.)
After filling the shelves, Charles would then leave for his day job as a supervisor at the DuPont chemical plant in nearby Beaumont, and for the rest of the day, my mother would work the counter alone. On cold winter mornings, she and I would huddle by the one space heater behind the register while I waited for the school bus. I’d sit and eat Hostess cupcakes, unwinding my tiny pink sponge rollers and combing out blondish curls, the .357 sitting about a foot away. It was a gun my mother had to reach for only once.
She was alone one morning, and a guy came in flirting “and saying ugly stuff,” as she tells it. He asked her to make a key. The machine was located at the back of the store, and as she suspected, he moved in close. My mother ran for it. “He almost beat me back to the counter,” she recalls, “but I got my hands on that gun and told him to get back. He said, ‘Baby, your voice is shaking because you’re scared.’ I said, ‘My voice is shaking because I’m figuring out if I’m going to shoot you or not. Are you going to stick around and find out?’” He didn’t.
Fortunately, the store was rarely that exciting. Over the years, when the thrill of free candy had worn, it seemed even less so to me. As a pre-teen, when my before-school duties were done, I’d spend idle counter time escaping into fashion magazines. We didn’t have cable and my parents were too busy to ever indulge in a family vacation. Magazines were my windows to a life less ordinary. I remember particularly looking forward to the December issue of Cosmopolitan, and not just for the “101 Ways to Get on Santa’s Naughty List.” For me, the joy was the staff Christmas photo, a staple in the Helen Gurley Brown days. With the drone of the register in the backdrop, I’d carefully trace the numbered silhouettes of the staff to their corresponding photo and name on the masthead. In my 12-year-old mind, I easily determined these must be the luckiest people in the world. (Although I’d change my tune after working as an editor at that very magazine and others like it.) For the time being, I felt anything but cosmopolitan, stuck in a place where luck often ran out.
My parents understood this better than most. The Big Thicket area was hardly a boomtown, and they were frontline observers. Dense with refineries, its population was comprised of mostly working-class people or those who could not afford to live inside the city limits. But thanks to my mother’s no-nonsense business approach and my stepfather’s legendary thrift, the store became quite successful. My parents were happy to share the wealth with those not as fortunate. Often, they held post-dated checks or advanced cash for regular customers for days or weeks. They also accepted fresh vegetables and homemade quilts as payment for gasoline. As my parents saw it, these were hard-working people who occasionally fell on tough times. They knew every luxury they enjoyed came from the regulars, so it wasn’t a favor so much as doing one in kind.
This allegiance did not go unreturned. Along with honest folks, the area had its share of reformed and not-so-reformed criminals, and my parents were in as well with the outlaws as they were with the local sheriff. While they didn’t condone nefarious acts, they didn’t pass judgment either. They left that to the rest of the town. Whether you led the church choir or robbed the Silsbee State Bank (as one customer did) you’d still get a big smile on your way in and a “y’all have a nice day!” on your way out. When an overnight break-in occurred, a regular of both the store and the county jail helpfully offered his and his brothers’ assistance. “Well, Mr. Oates, want us to kill ’em for you?” Charles politely declined. Convicted murderers and robbers became courteous young men around my mother, taking off their hats, offering “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” in deference. The protective arm of these loyalists extended over my teenage sister and me. Our school bus rides and swimming hole visits were often overseen by an informal band of brothers, exiles quick to bare a fist or a buck knife if you “messed with them Oates girls.” To this day, I am convinced that our home, a sitting duck in those woods, was never burglarized because of this understood protective order over our family. To rob the Oates would have just been bad manners.
Even with so many good people around, dependable help was hard to find. People would deliver job applications barefooted or dripping wet from the nearby creek. Mom’s favorite was when a current employee of the store scrawled this note on an application: “I think she killed her cousin and stuffed her in an oil barrel.”
As it turned out, it was a case of mistaken identity. The candidate was a relative of the murderess in question. There was just a strong family resemblance. My parents hired the girl.
Even once I entered high school, I never officially joined the ranks of behind-the-counter employees, because you had to be 18 to sell beer. Taking pity on me after years of early morning openings, when I was 14, my parents wrangled a hardship driver’s license on my behalf. In exchange, I’d put away inventory each week and earn $10. Soon, my time at the store was competing with student council and the school paper. My restricted license allowed for only one strip of highway between my school and store duties, but that little stretch of road might as well have gone on forever. Flying down 418, the store farther and farther behind me, I felt free.
The family of customers was growing up, too. Over the years, my parents patted heads and handed out candy to little ones running in to buy mama’s cigarettes until before long, those same kids were old enough to buy packs for themselves. If these regulars graduated high school, Mom and Charles would offer free fill-ups or cases of their favorite soda as gifts. One young man had bought Skoal religiously since his early teens, so for his high school graduation, with some reluctance, my mother granted his wish: a free pack of Skoal every day for a year. “Dank you, Miz Os,” he said, hugging her, his cheek oozing menthol.
After I left the Big Thicket, the store continued to bestow its gifts. It paid in full for my books and tuition at the University of Texas and served as guarantor collateral to rent my first apartment in New York. As time marched on, the store stayed mostly the same. The more the landscape of my life changed, the more comfort I drew from its constancy. I began to appreciate what a unique upbringing it was, especially in contrast to my more privileged East Coast magazine colleagues. I’d haul in a box of Texas barbeque to the delight of staffers and sometimes share tales about growing up at the country store. My coworkers would eat up stories about my childhood along with every last rib, invariably expressing surprise at my rural upbringing. I had managed to put a thousand miles between me and the little store, stepping into the life I had dreamed about from behind the counter flipping through perfumed magazine pages. It took the big city lights to illuminate the wonder of the dark woods.
As my career demands in New York grew, I didn’t come home as often, but when I did, I’d make a point to swing by the store. On occasion, I’d take a turn behind the till, dressed up from my other life in the city, but not unlike a young version of my mother. My parents were there less and less over the years, my mother’s health eventually confining them to the house. But in those last fine days when they both still hovered around the counter, the celebrities of sundries, it felt like time had stood still.
I drive in to see my parents more often these days. They’ve retired to a cozy house on the lake, a testament to backbreaking work and the loyalty of the denizens of the Big Thicket. I now live in Austin, and I sometimes take the long way to their house to pass by the store. It was sold to a successful businessman who owns several service stations across the state. He quickly remodeled the 70-year-old structure, now bigger and brighter than it ever was under our family’s tenure. The only thing he asked in the sale was to keep the name.
A couple of years ago, my then 9-year-old daughter and I decided to stop in and see the new place for ourselves. She was about the same age as I was when I filled beer coolers. With our cokes in hand, we stood on the other side of the register as customers. The store looked completely different. The check-out was in the same spot, but the aisles were like little mazes. The coolers sparkled and the built-in wood shelves were replaced with flashy, product-sponsored ones. I continued to look for something familiar to anchor me to the memories, but the changes were so numerous it made me wonder if I had imagined it all.
Peering over the counter, I noticed the worn cement floor where my parents had worked, worried, laughed, and built a better life. I could hear the old register ringing and the slap of the tattered screen door. Like on the day we bought it, I was looking back to see it whole for the very first time. It was a place I spent years running from and now I was fighting the urge to stay just a little while longer. I wanted to tell the cashier that she was standing in the very spot where I grew up, but to impart its meaning seemed as futile as me pushing that big broom against the swirling dust.
Instead, I paid for the cokes, pushed the shiny, new doors wide open and drove away, the store disappearing behind me.
Illustration by Esther Pearl Watson
Cary Michael Cox:
Can't wait to see this staff and team in action!
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Cary Michael Cox:
What a great story and a wonderful tribute to his mother.
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