Howard Kogan was going to have to answer some questions when he got home, and the first would be: Were the driveways, grounds, and islands neat, clean, and litter free? Howard was pulling into a remote service station in Liberty on his first assignment as a confidential shopper for Buy ’n’ Spy, an outfit headquartered in Indianola, Miss., that hired individuals like Howard to transact business at the most unsophisticated level with its corporate clients and to report back on the conditions of the store locations, the attitudes of the employees, the availability of the merchandise, the quality of the goods and services. The corporations themselves prepared the questions that they wanted answers to; the first thing that the Bullnose Petrol Co. wanted to know about its 353 Folkoff Road, Liberty, New York, service station was whether the driveways, grounds, and islands were neat, clean, and litter free.

There were twenty-six more questions on the two-sided purple report form Howard would have to fill out after the shop and a space for Howard’s own comments to Bullnose Petrol. Howard had been up until three that morning studying the form, memorizing the questions, quizzing himself on what he needed to pay careful attention to and what he needed to remember. Howard could not go in with his purple report form and he couldn’t otherwise take notes in any obvious fashion. But the first ten questions all asked about the physical conditions of the location, so at least Howard could drive slowly into the station and look at everything in sight.

Item: There were outside trash receptacles available, but they did not look able to hold additional trash. Item: The fuel dispensers and dispenser handles were not especially clean. Item: It looked as if air and water for cars were available, but Howard was specifically supposed to ask if he did not see an air hose or a water hose (or spigot, or if a spigot appeared unusable). Item: There was no soapless hand cleaner dispenser on the island with hand cleaner in it. Item: There were windshield cleaning supplies available. Item: The building windows and doors were not exactly clean, but they weren’t dirty enough that Howard would mark the station off for it. Item: There were no island planters. Item: The Bullnose Petrol sign pole was plainly visible. Item: All other advertising signs were clean, for the most part, and all pumps, buildings, and fences were free of graffiti.

Howard was certain that he could remember all of that as he pulled up next to the pump island, turned off his car, and got out. Howard Kogan was thirty-two years old and thought that he had to be able to remember all of that, and more, if he was ever going to get in to the FBI. He was running out of time, since the Bureau was no longer taking in anyone older than thirty-five, and every year that he had applied, Howard had been turned down. He didn’t have the usual things the Bureau looked for: no law degree, no accounting degree, no facility with foreign languages. But if he could demonstrate a skill at investigation and observation, if he could show total recall, then just maybe he’d get his foot in the door. So Howard had applied meanwhile to become a confidential shopper.

He’d had to provide the Buy ’n’ Spy recruitment office a recent photo, a copy of his driver’s license and proof of insurance, an employment history, and a brief essay, in his own handwriting, stating reasons why Howard felt he would be a valuable shopper to Buy ’n’ Spy, all besides the usual basic personal and demographic survey information. Eventually, Howard was contacted by a Field Coordinator and was then given this, his first assignment.

“Fill ’er?”

A man was coming out of the service station building—a small convenience store with cash register and a one-car garage with a hydraulic or pneumatic lift. Howard didn’t know how to tell if a car lift was hydraulic or pneumatic, but he made a mental note to learn. The man, Howard began committing to memory, did not have on an approved, clean, and neat Bullnose Petrol uniform. The man did not have a nametag or sewn-on name badge or name embroidered on his uniform. The man did make eye contact.

“Fill ’er?” the attendant asked again.

Howard’s preparation took over. “No,” Howard said. “Four dollars’ worth, please.”

The attendant just looked at Howard a moment. “Come again,” the attendant said.

“Four dollars of gas, please.” His assignment instructions were clear on this point: Purchase $4.00 in gas. Ensure that your car can hold that amount! Do not use a diesel vehicle! Do not use a truck or van!

“That’s a funny number,” the attendant said. “What’s funnier is that maybe every three months someone comes in for four dollars of gas.”

“Really?” Howard asked. “Do you serve coffee?”

The attendant smiled a little smile. “That’s another funny thing,” he said. “Whenever someone comes in for their four dollars of gas, they want a cup of coffee, even though there’s a diner up the road.”

Howard just waited patiently for an answer to his question.

“The coffee’s inside,” the attendant said, finally. “Help yourself. And the restroom’s in there, too. Says ‘Employees Only,’ but feel free. Even though there’s a shopping mall about two miles from here, I understand if you’ll want to use my gas station restroom after you drink my gas station coffee.” The attendant tossed Howard a key.

The attendant began pumping four dollars of gas into Howard’s car. Howard went inside the station store.

Were there city/vicinity maps available? Howard saw some.

Were floor, shelves, and products clean and neat? Not really.

Were merchandise shelves full and aisles free of obstacles, all interior lights working? No.

Were the sales counters clean and free of clutter with about a two-foot clear working area? No.

Were vending machines, dispensing equipment, and food preparation areas and coolers clean and neat? No, no, and no.

Were supplies such as napkins, condiments, utensils available? This place is disgusting, Howard thought, then chastened himself for making judgments rather than pure observations. Still, he didn’t want to drink the coffee. But when he looked outside he saw the attendant looking in at him, and when the attendant saw Howard looking out, the attendant made a grand gesture, as if to say Cheers! Howard poured himself half a cup of coffee and took his time to drink it down black. Then he went with the attendant’s key to the restroom clearly marked ‘Employees Only.’

Howard opened the door and gagged. Was there something dead in there? Howard would use the restroom at the diner, or the mall, or he’d wait until he got home, the shop report be damned…. If Howard had gone in, though, if he’d been able to stomach the stench, if he’d braved the odor, crossed the threshold, and turned on the light, he’d have seen that, of course, the restroom was not clean. There was no baby changing station stocked with liners. The restroom wasn’t stocked with paper, soap, and other supplies. The restroom fixtures (sinks, toilet, urinal) were not in good working order.

What’s more, Howard would have seen that one wall of the restroom was papered with purple Buy ’n’ Spy report forms identical to his. Some were hung with the front page showing, others reversed. There were dozens of them, probably one for every three months going back six or seven years.

And whatever was in the several heavy plastic bags in the corner was probably what smelled so bad.

But Howard pulled the restroom door shut, turned around, and looked outside for the attendant. The attendant had disappeared. Howard’s car also had disappeared. Howard was rushing to the door he had come in when he heard the attendant call from the garage attached to the service station store. Howard changed direction and headed past the register to the side exit that led to the garage, and in the garage Howard saw that the attendant had brought his car in from the outside.

“I found something, Mr. Kogan,” the attendant said by way of explanation, “that makes me uncomfortable letting you get right back on the road. Would you mind getting in and revving the engine?”

Howard guessed he didn’t mind. At least, he’d sooner breathe in the fumes of the garage than those of the restroom. Howard got into his car, started the ignition, stepped on the accelerator several times, and also leaned over to close the glove compartment, where he had secreted his purple Buy ’n’ Spy confidential shop report form. It wasn’t there. As Howard was looking for it, he realized that he was going up. His car was getting higher.

Howard sat up and looked out of his car window to see the attendant growing smaller below, as Howard’s car was being raised by the hydraulic or pneumatic lift. Howard pulled his door closed and rolled down his window to shout to the attendant, but the attendant was already shouting up to Howard.

“Fair is fair, Mr. Kogan. You won’t be driving out of here tonight, Mr. Kogan.”

Did the attendant work quickly? The Bullnose Company would want to know. Yes, Howard thought. Very quickly.

Did the attendant give a polite verbal closing? The attendant had called Howard by name.

“Service Station” appeared in Popcorn Fiction.