“Regrets and Broken Gas Pumps” is a short short story written by Sydney Burr, age 13. It is written in close first person and is in the present tense. The first half of the story is in italics and is from the point of view of someone pumping gas. It is very hot, and the narrator is talking about how she cannot think. The pumps are not working and she’s extremely frustrated. She reveals that she can’t afford to send her daughter to Disneyland.
In the second half, we switch perspectives and realize that the narrator is now Anna, the daughter of the original narrator. The writing is no longer in italics. From the car, Anna watches her mother pump gas and tells us about her family—how her parents got divorced and how, before that, her brother Joel had died when his bike was hit by a car.
How does this writer choose words thoughtfully?
Throughout the story, both mother and daughter speak pretty much exclusively in run-on sentences. Though a run-on sentence seems uncareful at first glance, in this case, the writer is playing with usual notions of grammar and style to craft a more vivid character.
Throughout the story, the writer thoughtfully conveys an incredibly realistic (and heartbreaking) internal monologue. There is a complicated grammatical definition of a run-on sentence, but a good way to check is to try reading a sentence out loud. If you have to stop to breathe midway through, you might have a run-on sentence on your hands. Anyway, the story is written this way and it creates a really interesting stylistic effect—almost like listening to someone’s thoughts. Anna talks about this in the second half of the story:
Ms. Hawthorne always pointed out that I write a lot of run-on sentences but my mom says that’s okay because most people think in run-on sentences and writing is supposed to express thoughts.
Perhaps Anna’s mother is right. Writers often use run-on sentences to put us right into the narrator’s head. But it’s interesting that this was Anna’s mother’s idea, not her’s. Maybe this is a clue that there might be another reason Anna uses run-on sentences. And sure enough, in just the next sentence we begin to see the other power run-on sentences have.
I don’t know if she’s right but I do know she was right when she told Joel not to ride his bike in the street and I think she was wrong when she said some things I won’t repeat about Dad.
Here, Anna starts out by talking about her teacher’s critique of her grammar and quickly lands, via run-on sentence, in things that speak to more difficult aspects of her life than school or grammar: her mother’s futile warnings to her brother, the fighting that led to her parents’ divorce. Run-on sentences let the narrator reveal the undercurrents—what’s going on behind the scenes—while maintaining this narrative of the car. They allow her to flit between past and present, sometimes staying for a long time in difficult details and sometimes entering and exiting them quickly.
Like any good pattern, the writer sometimes changes it up:
He had dark eyes like mine and Mom’s but that was before he got mowed over by a pickup truck which was before the divorce back when Mom made a lot of jokes and still loved Dad and me. The driver was texting. I don’t have a phone and I don’t want one now anyway.
In this passage, a short sentence follows a very long and painful one. Though at the point where we land on “The driver was texting” we are two-dozen words past the discussions of Joel, the short sentence pulls us back to that story, and its brevity is cutting. Finally, the narrator retreats to a slightly safer topic: “I don’t have a phone now and I don’t want one now anyway.”
- Why do you think the writer chose to open the piece with the mother’s perspective?
- How are the mother’s voice and the daughter’s voice similar and different in the piece? In what way do the writer’s stylistic choices reflect these similarities and differences?
Regrets and Broken Gas Pumps
I’m pumping gas in the summer sun but the only gallons I can think about are the gallons of sweat that I’m sweating although it doesn’t make a difference anyhow and there are no good movies out and the flock in the sky has wandered to float far away above the mountains so there’s nothing to stop anyone from frying an egg or themselves on the sidewalk. The dull lifeless hot air is not stimulated until a breeze awakens but the breeze is even hotter and the skating rink is closed for refurbishment and the darned pump isn’t working so I collapse into the driver’s seat and pull forward to try the next pump which I don’t think is encouraged but I’m too hot to think. The blue of the sky is a hazy blue because of the smog and I’d get an electric car because I don’t want to contribute to the pollution or keep dealing with this pump which isn’t working either but I can’t afford one and I can’t afford Disneyland but I couldn’t really send Anna there anyway in this heat plus there’s no one to send her there with either.
My mom is outside cussing at the gas pump like it’s Dad and I’m in the car and can almost hear my skin sizzling because the car is like an opposite freezer in the summer when the sun is shining and the air conditioning is off and my life stinks. Ms. Hawthorne always pointed out that I write a lot of run-on sentences but my mom says that’s okay because most people think in run-on sentences and writing is supposed to express thoughts. I don’t know if she’s right but I do know she was right when she told Joel not to ride his bike in the street and I think she was wrong when she said some things I won’t repeat about Dad. Joel looked just like Mom and so do I but I wish I didn’t and she spends most of every summer trying to figure out how to get me out of the house because I’m always home then since I have no friends to hang out with but she doesn’t really care about that. Or me, for that matter. She fought hard for visitation rights and won them but I can’t help but think that it was only out of spite because she was so angry at Dad. I think she still is but she hardly ever talks about him and he doesn’t talk about her either when I come on weekends. I don’t think either of them really, truly miss Joel, but I do because he understood me and we could share a look every time Mom made a lame joke. He had dark eyes like mine and Mom’s but that was before he got mowed over by a pickup truck which was before the divorce back when Mom made a lot of jokes and still loved Dad and me. The driver was texting. I don’t have a phone and I don’t want one now anyway. I saw what was left of Joel’s bike after the collision which was just a mess of twisted metal but I didn’t see Joel and I didn’t want to anyway. There were only a few people at the funeral because Joel and I have only one aunt and one uncle and one cousin and Joel has no friends which just goes to show how much we have in common. Had, I guess. He was nine. I was eleven, twelve now, lonely and very, very hot, baked by California sun like a few million other fools.
I wonder when Mom will give up on kicking the pump.