Chapter 14

Clara Mae pulled up to the Kountry Korner that morning, and as soon as she saw Bob’s car, she knew the day was gonna be a pisser.

It was early morning, a bit before dawn. Clara Mae checked the car clock—6:20. She should have been there twenty minutes earlier and she knew it. She braced herself.

If Bob was here already it meant he wasn’t sleeping again. The nights were long and by the light of day Bob was irritable at best. At worst he was paranoid, disheveled, emotionless. On those days he wouldn’t make eye contact with you, he would only look near your face, eyes locked on an earring or the part of your hair. And mad, whoo-mad! Convinced the world was after him.

The cowbell jangled as Clara opened the door, and it sounded louder than usual. Bob was inside, standing at the till, arms crossed and face soured.

“It is 6:30, Clara. The Kountry Korner opens at 6:00,” he frowned, tapping his watch. “What if a customer came?”

“Did a customer come?” Clara asked.

“That’s not the point,” Bob said.

“Nobody ever comes before 6:30,” Clara Mae mumbled. “And right now it is 6:20.”

“Watch your mouth,” Bob said. “Count yourself lucky that all I’m gonna do is dock today’s pay.”

Anger simmered in Clara, but she’d learned to keep her mouth shut over the years—learned to take it. Couldn’t risk the paycheck. She frowned and nodded.

The register was open, and Bob went back to pawing through it. “Dammit, I lost count.” Bob started counting again out loud, fast and awkward. “One eighty. I swear I’m being stole from. This register supposed to have at least three hundy.”

“That what the log say?” Clara Mae asked.

“That ain’t the fucking point,” he spat back. “The fucking register is always supposed to have over three hundy after close. I ain’t need to check no fucking log.”

Clara Mae knew before she asked that he hadn’t checked the log. She also knew the twenties the register was short were stacked in Bob’s wallet now. He’d never admit it—and he’d make her life hell from the guilt that ate him. So she best play along. “Who you think done it?”

“I might just think you done it, what do you think about that? Waltzing in here, twenty minutes late. You’re already stealing my damn time. Why not money?”

Not the first time accused, Clara Mae knew the line he awaited. “I didn’t do it, Bob, but go ahead and take it out of my check if that’ll make you happy.”

“What’d make me happy is to have my fucking employees do their job and not treat me like a chump. But okay, I’ll take out of your check. Let that be your incentive to make sure it don’t happen again, k?” He started toward the door, but turned back once more. “And drain the coolers, will ya? Scrub ‘em out while you’re at it. It’s a mess back there.”

As predicted. A pisser. The refrigeration units were a mess, old and broken. They were leaking in too many places to count, and she didn’t change the pans. They don’t pay me enough.

When they pay me at all.

Of course because she didn’t change the pans, no one did, and they were soured, filled with scum and mold. Clara flipped off her boss’s back as he headed to his car, middle fingers straining tall against arthritis. When she caught her reflection in the window—in between the sign trumpeting FREE POCKET TOOLKIT WITH TANK OF GAS and today’s price of Kool’s—she was struck with how her fingers looked small. Her reflection made her look old, weak, pitiful—not the imposing figure filled with rage in her mind’s eye.

Deflated and aching, Clara Mae went for the Aspercreme in her purse, and her hands glanced over The Doll. She had intended to give him back. She really had. And yet here he was—nestled in the same spot as before. Cedar chest, she appeased herself. I’ll just put him in storage later. It’s just a collectible, a memento, a memory.

She rubbed her knuckles and the in-betweens of her fingers. Clara preferred the warmth of BenGay, but it left the store smelling strong—like menthol and candy cigarettes—so she only used the odorless cream at work.

Clara Mae slipped back to clean the coolers early, before morning rush; she’d keep an ear out for the door. Windex, squeegee, paper towels. She dutifully complied with the order, pouring off the rancid water down toilets, scrubbing and scrubbing and angrily scrubbing, all the while knowing it was unpaid labor.

As she emptied the last tray, she lost her balance, sloshing water against her pelvis. Jesus! Of course it dried dark, like she’d wet her pants, crotch-stain clotted with chunks of mold that she just couldn’t get with a paper towel. What a crap day.

After the morning rush, when she was sure no one was coming, she had her early lunch. She knew how close Bob kept the inventory, so she didn’t risk it—went for her standard: mayonnaise sandwich. As she slipped a single slice out of one baggie, she thought, He can’t count the slices! Still, she was careful—only one slice per bag, carefully flagged with an extra price sticker. She got the mayo from the packets at next to the hot dog heater; she wanted to pluck one of the shriveled sausages from its cradle on the weiner ferris wheel—they would go on for the day untouched, getting more and more dry—but if Bob came back, today he might be crazy enough to count.

Clara Mae thought of him taking her paycheck, and she took a second pack of mayo.

Mama used to make mayonnaise sandwiches for Clara when she was growing up. She knew now that it was to save money, but at the time she pretended it was elegant, even fussy—like the type of thing a person in England would eat over tea. The other thing Bob couldn’t track was the Slushies, so she finished off her lunch with a half cherry-half cola mix, throwing the cup away in the outdoor trash can when she was done, just in case.

When he came in, she didn’t know anyone was even approaching the store; the cable had gone out, leaving the black and white tv snowy, and Clara had crawled under the counter to jiggle the cord. As she bent over she noticed the smell of her pants, sour and moldy from the drain water. When she’d heard the cowbells above the door jangle, she thought little of it. It took her a little while to get back upright, her joints fighting the move to stand, and her thoughts were with her aches and not the stranger she looked in the face. “Smokes?” Clara Mae asked, since he was just standing there. “Camels two-fer-one?”

He just looked back and her and didn’t answer. He was wearing a knit cap and sunglasses, but he looked young. Shaky. “Ain’t you too old to be getting a period?” The kid pointed at Clara’s stained pants and shriveled his nose. “Nasty.”

Maybe it was Clara’s humiliation, her flush of embarrassment, her stunned silence that gave him the confidence. He pulled a gun from his pocket. “Empty the register, lady. Now.”

She started to oblige. But looking back at the smooth of his skin, the smirk in his smile—cocky, entitled, smug—she hesitated, her gut welling with anger. Life was there for the taking for this young man, but the taking was all he could see. His smirk was familiar, not unlike Kathy’s, lips pursed, eyebrow raised, half-laughing but out of mockery—and absent joy. And—also like Kathy—the entitlement of expectation, hand outstretched, demanding—threatening—until it had what it desired. Then on to the next patsy. It was never enough for this type; they were never satisfied, never learned the beauty of making do with what you have.

As her fingers flicked over the top of the remaining twenties—and Clara knew there wasn’t much there over a hundred—she thought of Dan. He’d done as he should, handing over the money, no confrontation, no risk. What did he get for it? He lost his life. All for a few bucks. They seemed to replicate—a steady stream of the vapid, the lost, the greedy—there to torment, humiliate, and take, and take, and take.

“NO!” Clara Mae was surprised to hear the words as she slammed the drawer to the register. She felt The Doll between her fingers and her palm and she wasn’t sure how he’d gotten there. The kid looked back at her, and this time he was the one flushed with embarrassment. “No,” Clara repeated. “I ain’t gonna. Be ashamed. What would your Mama say? Your Granny? I ain’t gonna let you do it. Nope.”

“I’m gonna shoot you,” the kid said, but he inflected the end like it was a question. I’m gonna shoot you?

“No,” Clara Mae said again. “You ain’t. You’re gonna give me the gun.” She held out her hand to the would-be thief.

But instead of handing it over, he cocked the gun. “But I will.” But again it came out with a timid upward inflection, But I will? He pointed the barrel at her in a shaky stalemate.

“Oh, will you?” Clara’s eyes were locked with his until she broke the gaze, looking off to the side. The kid thought she was soliciting pity, backing down, go-ahead-and-shoot-poor-ol’-me.

And for that reason, he never saw it coming.

Clara lowered her head, focusing the heat in her belly, the motherly vengeance, vibrations of justice. She could feel it welling there at the tip of her gaze, the spark, the friction of atoms against atoms against atoms on the brink of the frenzy of spontaneous chaos. It was so quiet in that moment that all they could hear was the frustrated buzz of a fly against the pane of window, buzzing and buzzing as she gripped The Doll tighter—now she knew his name: Raw Gums—tighter and even tighter, until big fat fly fell quiet, quiet and dead on the windowsill, dead as a doornail, and the fuse on the firecracker next to her ignited with a tiny sizzle. It was Dan’s firecracker, fitting.

It was Clara’s turn to look smug, in the second before the bottle rocket spat across the room and into the kid, exploding in a fabric-searing pop. “Shit! Shit!” the kid squealed, dropping his gun on Clara’s counter. “What the fuck was that?”

The second rocket wasn’t far behind as the kid high-tailed it out of the store. A track of smoke was left in its wake as the firecracker careened into the sag of the back of his pants where it nestled, fuming briefly before erupting, fragments of ashen boxers spitting out onto the linoleum. He needed a blistered behind—and he got one, Clara thought as she called the Sheriff, watching the flash of raw, pink butt cheek dash into the distance as she dialed.

At that moment, Clara Mae would have sworn Raw Gums joined her laughing.

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