She didn’t notice at first. Those songs were everywhere. She heard them all the time, had heard them all her life. They had the familiarity of a parent’s voice, hard to hear musically, and although she knew they were great songs, it was just that they were worn slick from constant play. So the first however-many-times she stopped in for gas or a Gatorade or sometimes one of those not-too-shabby white bread sandwiches the old guy sold on the front counter, she nodded along to “The Rain Song” or “Over the Hills and Far Away,” paid the man, stepped back out into the day, got in her car and drove off. Maybe the sixth or seventh time was when she noticed. If it hadn’t happened that “No Quarter,” with its heavy vibe, its portentous grinding threat, was playing three times in a row, she might have gone a long time more not noticing. But, finally, she did notice—it was always Zeppelin, always Houses of the Holy playing in this little no-name gas station at the intersection of a county road and a rural highway surrounded by fields with pump jacks rising and falling in the near distance while wind turbines spun their big robot arms farther off on the slopes of the Wichita Mountains and all around.
She found herself in these parts every couple of months checking on well sites for the oil and gas company she worked for, showing up unannounced and unwelcome to run the numbers against the surly reassurances of the guys that worked the sites full time, her gender a constant source of amusement to them. The job’s for a Land Man—man, you understand? No such thing as a Land Woman.
Good one, she’d say. Land Woman, yeah.
So she was usually frustrated when she stopped at the gas station and the old guy usually commented on the fact. His sun-damaged skin would stretch red and hard across his face and he’d look up from his paperback and smile at her, ask her if she wanted him to start a fresh pot of coffee. She’d be on her guard from dealing with the assholes at the well sites and have a minute where his benevolence registered and she could slow down and breathe.
“No, thanks,” she usually said, but this day she said, “You know what? I would. Cup of coffee sounds good.”
His blue eyes widened under the bill of his Dolese ball cap and he pressed his palms together like a chef about to prepare a special meal. “Coffee it is!” he said. He disappeared behind the racks of vape paraphernalia, beef jerky, and ball caps with glittery rhinestone crosses on their fronts before hustling out from around the front counter, heading to the coffee counter, which was toward the back, between the coolers and the white plywood door with a hand-printed sign that said Restroom is for Customers Only!!!
She’d never been there during a song change, but “No Quarter” gave way to “The Ocean” while she stood on the immaculate white linoleum floor and watched his wide, low-slung figure dash an old coffee filter against the edge of the trash can and reach for a clean one. “You’re playing Houses of the Holy,” she said. “The whole album?”
He glanced back over his shoulder at her and beamed approval. “Somebody raised you right.”
“You play it a lot, don’t you? Seems like I always hear it when I come in here.”
“What brings you to this lonesome part of the world so often?” he said. He pressed the red button on the coffee maker and it began to hiss. “You don’t live here, or I’d know you.”
She told him about her job in oil and gas, how she liked driving out in the country, all the alone time, but never knew what to expect at the well site. “Sometimes it’s perfectly fine,” she said. “Sometimes they’re really cool guys. Maybe even some Zeppelin fans.”
He grinned. “If that’s your definition of cool then I guess you’re the real Zeppelin fan.”
“Sure,” she said. “I don’t understand how anyone wouldn’t be, but I’ve noticed how Zeppelin is one of those bands that’s got a boys’ club around them really bad. Guys act amused when I say I like them, like it’s cute. Makes me so mad I could spit. What’s with that attitude? In old concert footage that audience is full of women.”
“I saw Led Zeppelin on the Houses of the Holy tour in ‘73. Saw them in Dallas at the Convention Center one day and then the very next day at the Tarrant County Coliseum in Fort Worth.” He shook his head, whistled. “Two nights in a row. Two great nights in May.”
“You must’ve been a baby. Just a kid!”
He laughed, “Don’t I wish? I was back from Vietnam, did two tours over there. Hell, I was married with a baby of my own on the way.”
“Did your wife go to the shows with you?”
“My lord, yes! That woman had such a thing for Robert Plant it about made me jealous.” He pulled the ball cap from his head and ran excited fingers through thick gray hair. “We had bets about the encore. We both won. She said they’d play ‘Dancing Days’—no way they’re not playing ‘Dancing Days,’ she said. I said ‘The Ocean,’ they gotta. We were both right.” He handed her coffee in a styrofoam cup after fitting a plastic lid over it.
“Two nights in a row!” she said.
“Two nights in a row.” He nodded. “I guess I ought to play something different around here sometimes. I like other stuff. Hell, even if I stuck to Zeppelin I could play their other albums. If somebody like you, who only comes in every now and again is noticing, I might ought to change it up.”
She blew into the hole of the to-go lid and took a tentative sip of coffee. “Play what you like. Suit yourself—this is your place, isn’t it?”
“Mine and hers, yeah.”
“I think you should stick to it,” she said. “If anybody asks about it, just tell them, sorry, The Song Remains the Same.”
He leaned against the counter and took a toothpick out of the top pocket of his plaid shirt. “I like that,” he said. “That’s what I’ll do. And you, too. Stick to it, that is.”
“I sure will. What do I owe you for the coffee?”
He waved away her offer to pay and for awhile they debated what Houses of the Holy meant, with him insisting that Plant had been referring to the big stadiums themselves and her insisting she’d heard he meant human beings—“like we’re all houses of the Holy Spirit, sort of.”
Who could say? “The Crunge” was playing now. They agreed that either interpretation made sense and she told him she’d see him in a couple of months.