Chapter 1

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“And while I’m away,

Dust out the demons inside,

And it won’t be long before you and me run

To the place in our hearts where we hide.”

–Sir Elton John

 

 

 

Dan had always been a fan of zombies. Zombies, Elton John, and strippers, he thought bitterly, these are a few of my favorite things. He liked the classic, slow, lurching, brain-lusting type—never the flashy, running, tongue-in-cheek CGI-styled of the current generation. Crackheads reminded him of the slow zombies, soulless but strong, coming out at night in ill-formed packs, the doors of their dealers opening like gravestones. Heavy-hanging limbs drift from yard to yard of the trailer park, together but not aware of the others. Not interacting. Sedated. Quenched. But as the night wears on, the money runs out, the desperation—the hunger—emerges, and they swarm the bright lights of the gas station like moths. Dan employed the same strategy that he learned from the zombie movies: hide. Sit low behind the register. Stay still and quiet. Don’t catch their attention. Some try to shoplift what they can for a high—booze, Scope, cough medicine, Lysol. Mostly, Dan would let them. Put a few bucks in the till and the end of the shift. Not worth having words, or worse.

But tonight, this one was pointing a gun at his chest.

*

Dan had started his shift that day the way he did every shift for the last ten years—perched on a lopsided swivel-stool, counting out the register. Close enough, eh? A tiny black and white TV sat on top of a plastic milk crate playing Hazel inaudibly. Dan wasn’t sure if the TV had started black and white, or if it had gradually just faded to that over the years. It did have a dial for changing the channels. Sometimes he sat for hours and tried to picture if his thirty-something self watched it in color. He could never really remember. It had been a lot of years since then.

“Pee-yew! Why you smell like douche, Dan?” Mister Bub barged through the door.  “You got to leave them strippers alone. All the vinegar in the world can’t clean them pussies!”

“C’mon, I don’t smell like a stripper—yet. Where’d I put the strawberry urinal cakes? I’ll rub down with one of them,” Dan pulled out a pink disk from behind the counter and huffed it. “Mmm, vinegar and fake berry perfume. I’m getting a hard-on right now.”

“Gross, Dan!” Miss Evie called out from the rear of the store in an I-can-hear-you-back-here kind of way. Miss Evie had been best friends with Dan’s mother for years. Don’t forget I’m listening, her chiding tone seemed to say. “Actually, Dan dropped one of the pickled pigs’ feet when he was filling the jar. Again. Got the pickling all over.”

“And I ain’t cleaning it up,” Miss Evie said under her breath as she dusted the deer head hanging over the cooler of malt liquor. It was the October, but the antlers were still entwined with lights from Christmases past.

At the counter Mister Bub sipped his cup of coffee—too strong, a little tepid—while Dan rang up the few morning customers that trickled in: Miss Diet Coke and Tampax, Mr. Truck-Driver Toenail Clippers and a Red Bull, Mr. Back-to-Office Gas and a Slushie. When the store emptied again, Mister Bub moved to open his pack of generic “General Price Select” cigarettes, but Dan stopped him. Instead, Dan had a pack of name brand smokes at the ready. Mister Bub looked ready to protest—he didn’t want no charity—but his dismissals were half-hearted.

“Man, if you don’t mind my saying, you look rough,” Dan said, as his friend lit up a Camel.

“I am rough,” Mister Bub said, taking a sip of coffee. Mister Bub had been what Dan called one of his “coffee regulars” long as they could remember. The two men were friendly—close as anyone who knew Dan at work, anyways. Except Dan wasn’t sure what Bub’s real name was, and it was way past the time where it would have been okay to ask. Dan had, however, learned the origins of his friend’s nickname. At Bub’s job, folks didn’t know his name, so instead they got in the habit of saying, “Hey, Bub.” His response was always, “That’s Mister Bub to you.” Maybe, Dan thought with an inner chuckle, he didn’t even have a given name.

“Why do women always want to control every last little goddamn piece of our lives?” Mister Bub said.

Here we go again, Dan thought. He was the defacto bartender of the morning, the caffeine therapist. Tell me all your troubles. “Well, if that ain’t the question of the day,” Dan played along, wiping up the remaining pool of pickling that had gathered on the counter. He had to use nearly half the roll of the stiff, under-absorbent paper to sop it up; this sure ain’t Bounty.

“Every ounce of independence, every shred of happiness, they have to capture it, clean it up, embroider it with some fucking inspirational quote by Jesus or Oprah or Winnie the fucking Pooh,” Mister Bub grumbled. He still smelled of last night’s booze.

“I like her embroidery,” Miss Evie called out loudly from the back to no one in particular.

“She ain’t talking to me. None of ‘ems talking to me. Not even my boy,” Mister Bub’s voice trailed off.

“She’ll get over it. They always do, right?” Dan asked.

“Yeah, they do,” Mister Bub said. “Jest to go through it again tomorrow. I don’t know if I can do it anymore.”

“Being pussy whipped done got to ya,” Dan snickered. “Well about time.”

“Well, you’re one to talk,” Bub shot back.

“Ain’t me that pussy whupped,” Dan said, defensive.

“Yeah? Who cooked dinner last night?” Mister Bub asked.

Dan didn’t respond.

“Who woke up and made Sarah’s lunch today?” Mister Bub asked.

“So what if I like to cook?” Dan said, fishing around in his don’t-have-a-cigarette emergency candy drawer for a pack of Sixlets. He broke the seal and rolled a few in his mouth single file. Mister Bub gave him the look: you-know-you-don’t-like-to-cook.

And, in fact, Dan didn’t.

Long days and sleepless nights had piled up on him like the sink of dirty dishes that would be waiting when he got home, and though he wasn’t a talker, this once, Dan unloaded.

“I love those kids,” Dan said.

“I know you do, man,” Mister Bub said.

“I just thought it was time for me to grow the fuck up, you know?  I was tired of being ‘that guy,’ thirty-something in my mom’s basement. When Kathy got knocked up, I thought, This is it. This is what I’m supposed to do,” Dan said.

Dan picked up a framed picture off the top of the TV; two girls in their Easter best were looking for eggs in the back yard between two dead Chevys on cinderblocks. “Sarah and Jennie, they’ve made my life worth living. But sometimes when I lay down next to her in bed I wonder, Man, what were you thinking?

“You thinking about leaving?” Bub asked.

“And what if I did? I don’t make enough here to pay her some damn alimony.  Besides which, she needs me. The kids need me. They all need me. To make them lunch, and tell them not to leave their shoes in the middle of the floor, to wipe their asses, and teach them how to cut an onion. To make sure they didn’t leave the coffee pot on. Or bring home twenty stray dogs. Or have to sleep on the porch because they locked themselves out. They just need me, man. Maybe it’s no good for me… but it’s good for them.

Mister Bub nodded. The ash was gathering length at the end of his cigarette, but he didn’t remove it from his lips. “Sounds like you thought about it a lot. Leaving, I mean.”

“Yeah. Reckon I have. I don’t know if I love Kathy. I’m not sure that I ever did. But she’s manipulative. Conniving. Vengeful. She’s already got a lawyer in her pocket. She’ll use the kids against me. Deep down, no question, I know that.”

A man in dreads came in to pay for his quarter tank. “$7.75,” Dan said, took his twenty and gave him change. Miss Evie knocked something off of a shelf somewhere, and Dan remembered listening ears. “You know I’m just blowing off steam?”

Mister Bub gave a half-hearted chuckle, “We got to, right? Want to hit the strip club tonight? Go to ‘Fine Crystals’?”

“Naw. I’m closing tonight. Maybe Thursday?” Dan said.

“Maybe Thursday,” Bub echoed.

The two men sat drinking the last of the day’s coffee, talking shit about the handful of customers stopping for gas, half-assing a crossword leftover from the morning shift. Miss Evie left before three, hurrying off to watch her “stories,” Guiding Light and The Young & The Restless. Mister Bub didn’t stay much longer, leaving Dan to deal with highway rush hour traffic by himself, and he preferred it that way.

The Kountry Korner was a one-stop-shop of sorts in Tippashaw County. By day, a gas station off of the main two-lane. By evening, a laundry and tanning salon. By late night, the place for chicken on a stick, pizza rolls, Ms. Pac-Man. After the five o’clock rush faded, Dan broke open a few rolls of quarters on the side of the register drawer and prepared to make change. Aging dryers steamed up the glass walls between the store and the launderette as dusk settled in. Dan waited until the old lady doing whites had her back turned, and then he drew a big mouth and wagging tongue, Rolling Stones-style, in the fogged window above her head.

By ten, Dan was thinking seriously about closing early and just facing the consequences with his boss. Someone had taken a dump in one of the tanning beds, and Dan had hurled while trying to clean it up, so then he had to clean that up, too. This is not my night.

It wasn’t like the person had been sick, lost their bowels, and tried to cover it up. For that, Dan would have been pissed, but he could have at least felt some sympathy. And it wasn’t like there wasn’t a vacant, relatively clean restroom less than three feet from the bed. No, someone had made the choice to leave a neat pile of feces spiraled on the bulb cover like soft-serve. People are foul.

As he tied up the double-bagged biohazards, he heard the cowbell over the door chime. Bag in hand, he opened the tanning room door to find a man waiting for him. He looked like your typical trucker: white guy in a plaid, flannel shirt, cutoff sleeves and a hat that said “I LOVE TO FART” next to a curly-cued line drawing of wind. But his face was blanked by the pair of nude pantyhose covering his head, and his pocket showed the outline of a gun. No, Dan thought, this is not my night.

“Give me the money! Drop the bag! Get over here and git me the money!” The man seemed rattled. He was clearly strung out, shaking. Probably hadn’t expected him to be in the back room. Dan ran through scenarios in his head to use this element of surprise to his advantage, but the crackhead was blocking the only exit, and Dan wasn’t sure that he could knock the man out without getting shot.

He pulled the gun from his pocket. “Fuckin’ empty the fuckin’ register man! I ain’t playing with you!”

When Dan dropped the bag a wad of paper towels and turd rolled out. “Oh, you ain’t want to drop your shit bag, did you!” The crackhead let out a strange squeal of glee.  “I like that name! Shit Bag! This way, Shit Bag! Git over here!”

Dan walked calmly, holding his hands out to the side so they would be visible to the man. “No need for the gun, man,” he said quietly.

“Oh, yes siree, there shore is a need for the gun, Shit Bag!” The crackhead smacked his lips. “There shore is!”

Dan tried to open the register, but he couldn’t seem to get it open. Of all times for it to lock up. He sat down, took a breath, and tried the key again; the drawer finally popped free. He pulled out the cash in fistfuls—maybe it was a few hundred in there at best?—and shoved it at the man. The crackhead stuffed the bills into his pants pockets.

“That all, Shit Bag?”

Dan pointed to the empty drawer, and the man nodded. Dan moved his hand to the gun he had hidden beneath the counter, but hesitated. It was only filled with bbs. Wouldn’t it just provoke the man? Dan had been held up before; these guys don’t want cops on them for murder. Surely he will just take the cash and go?

But he did not. “Nighty-night, Shit Bag!” The crackhead, looking pleased, aimed and fired, hitting Dan in the center of the chest. Dan’s balance—already tenuous on the unsteady stool—was lost, and he fell to the floor. With the single shot, the crackhead turned and ran, a twenty from his fist landing on the welcome mat as he skipped through the door.

Later, friends and family would stand over Dan’s casket and console themselves: At least it was fast, they would say. At least he didn’t suffer.  But as Dan lay on the floor, suffocating in his blood and regret, his eyes fell to the photo of his two daughters. The realization ran cold through his veins; he wouldn’t teach them, hold them, protect them. Now that was left to others. It was brief. But he suffered.

Then the light went out behind Dan’s eyes, and the store remained in an eerie quiet broken only by the muffled laugh track of the black and white TV.

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