© — The sky weighed gray and gloomy. Even the presumed tenderness of yet another soon-forgotten summer couldn’t break through the prospect of bad weather here. This was winter, slowly marching toward the promise of renewal that never came. This was Wendover, where only a thin, white line on an endless river of black separated the desiccated desert into bipolar spirits: Mormon and alcoholic. This was a purgatory served by a transcontinental bus. And it was here that an artificially illuminated refuge could be found behind pleading signs, frenetic within with bright shiny objects, and under the stock flag of orange, green, and red.
They were friends where it was mild inside at the video poker machines. The liquor they had to drink outside, around the corner, and out of sight. And with whoever had cashed out enough to buy. The fresh coffee and stale donuts were free for mopping the floor for the graveyard clerk. A cigarette you could find if you asked enough paying customers. And Jonny would be bringing his cell phone about 7:45 so they could check Gmail and Facebook. Life was better at the Sevie, and sleep better in the day.
Brit was pretty once, but time and booze had cut her face and bruised her temperament. She was right, though. Those customers in their fancy cars and new shoes didn’t really know what life was all about. They just fooled themselves thinking they were better because they weren’t like us. You get a job, wheels, grocery store food and suddenly you’re the prince of the pavement. It’s just not like that. Try living in the real world when nobody but your friends cares about you. You learn fast that lining up at the gospel mission is good eatin’, and free. You ignore all the bullshit that buys pride, and you got friends, and you’re doing fine. Besides, Chad just hit a jackpot, so the party was moving outside soon.
“Get a pint of McCormick,” Brit said calmly not bothering to look up from her two aces held.
“Uh, uh!,” Chad fired back, “I’m cashin’ out thirty-two bucks, and I’m goin’ for a pint of Fireball!”
Billy looked up just enough to jump in. “You can get a fifth of vodka for that. Better deal.”
“I’m getting Fireball. I like the cinnamon. You can all just sit here by yourselves.”
“Cinnamon does sound good.” Billy replied, “Cold outside anyways.”
The bell behind the counter alerted Carla as Chad hit the “Cash Out” button on the machine. The clean, pressed red 7-11 shirt looked handsome on her, and hid the minimum wage she was earning. She got off the floor where she was restocking the cigarettes, answered the slot machine till, and withdrew the $32.
“You said Fireball, Chad? Pint?” Carla asked.
“Yeah, and a paper bag, please,” Chad responded, smiling boldly.
“Hang on Carla,” Billy said, “I’m gonna cash out this $2.25 so I can go outside.”
Carla handed Chad his brown bag and change. “Might as well buy smokes now while you’ve still got money. I don’t want you hitting up customers later. Pall Mall Reds?”
“Yeah, suppose you’re right.” answered Chad, “Matches, too.”
“I’ll be right there,” Billy said.
Chad and Brit walked through the gleaming doors out into the winter air. Another Wednesday night, Thursday, maybe. It had been three days since Brit had made it all the way home to Wendover on the Utah side. The walk was too far, nd bus fare better spent on the slots. Her kids would watch each other. Her boy had a good job, and left for work late enough to get his sister up for school. He was really good at finding something in the fridge for her to eat for lunch, too. Besides, the free clinic was just down the street, and her appointment was Wednesday morning. Might as well stay. And West Wendover in Nevada had a 7-11, where she had friends, slot machines, and a warm place to figure things out. She must know someone who knew where the kid’s father was. He lied when he said he was going to the oilfields in South Dakota, where he would make bank as a welder. Unless he was working under the table, and he’d lie about that, too.
“I’ll take that!” Billy cried out to Carla. He collected his cash and was just in time for one good last swig, maybe two if Chad was feeling generous.
“Go slow, Billy, and I’ll give you a smoke.” Chad exclaimed, hoping for more of the good stuff, “We can each get some if we go slow.”
“That cinnamon is nice.” Brit smiled briefly. “Smooth liquor, too. Sometimes I have trouble holding that cheap vodka down, but I always manage to. Don’t want to waste it.”
“Yeah, smooth, but…” Billy paused for attention, “…not as good as shine. The best stuff is from Kentucky, ya know. Be nice to be back home. Get a jar of shine and a pretty girl and I’ll be set. If I get that work over at the new office they’re building in Bendover, I’m getting on a Greyhound and I’m out of this sorry place!”
Not only was Billy not from Kentucky, he had never been there, and his friends new it. Didn’t matter anyway with the booze settling in. Let him talk. Brit and Chad knew he was from Texas around Houston, and had met a girl there when he was 23 that actually was from Kentucky, and that had told him all about it. Billy had spent five years in a Texas prison for being caught with a half ounce of weed in his pocket, along with the earrings he had shoplifted for his Miss Kentucky. He never did see that girl again, but he sure talked her up to his cellies, along with his plans to move to the Bluegrass State and get married. Upon his release, he got a bus ticket to any nearby state, chose Denver, hitchhiked toward San Francisco, and got rolled at the Wendover truck stop as a skinny hooker distracted him. He just kept that Kentucky story, unless he was really drunk, and then he got angry at the shithead cops that harassed him his whole life in that pathetic, useless town outside of Houston. Chad and Brit had seen him really drunk often in the seven months since he’d shown up, and had heard both stories told way too many times.
“Hate it when the fuzz drives by slowly like that.” Brit grumbled, “Like they got nothing better to do than stare at us.”
“Let Billy have that last little bit, Brit.”, said Chad, “I heard a truck out back. It’s probably the sandwich guy and there were two tuna salad sandwiches still in the cooler from yesterday. Carla can heat up the ham and cheese for you and write them off as throw-aways.”
Billy swallowed and looked at Chad. “Can I get another smoke, Chad. Please?”
“Me too.” Brit added, “And tell Carla I’ll be in in a bit for that sandwich.”
“Yeh, here.” Chad shook his head and smiled. “And I’ll have the waiter bring you two moochers a bottle of fine wine.”
Jonny arrived as he did every morning for his coffee. His pickup bellowing country western, his beard with breakfast still in it. Jonny was doing all right. He got his act together. He had gone back to the Baptist church he had grown up in, and cursed at every Sunday for having to dress up and go to Sunday school. His father had been a deacon, so the older members took pity on him, let him sleep in the storage shed for a month, kept him fed, and got him a grease monkey job at the truck stop. The only reason he stopped by the 7-11 was to talk to his buddies, and show off. He hadn’t quite shaken that loser mentality, and he was going to prove to the old gang that he was now the best loser among them.
“Hey Jonny!” Billy shouted with a warm welcome, “How’s the truck stop business?”
“OK. Anybody win tonight?”
“Yep…Chad! Got a bottle of Fireball, a pack of smokes and enough to buy tomorrow!”
“Well, all right.” Jonny said slowly, “That’s not bad. Any of you guys working yet? Ya know, the Lord…”
“…takes care of those who take care of themselves.” Billy remarked, “And apparently takes care of those who can stomach church people. Heard it.”
“Can I see your phone, Jonny?” asked Brit.
“Sure. Watch the minutes.”
“Just gonna check Child Support Services.”
“Chad around?” Jonny asked. “Owes me five, and now I know he’s got it.”
“Think he’s…” Billy paused, “Oh, he left. Try the river.”
“Right. Up the creek is where he is.” Jonny was now irritated with them all. “If he manages to hide from me again, tell him I will find him, and get my money back!”
Chad was out back stopping Carla from throwing away the old sandwiches. He stopped all but the one tuna salad she tossed in the dumpster, but it was still wrapped and the dumpster was only half full so he didn’t have to jump in all the way. He liked tuna salad. He liked the way his wife used to make it for his lunch. He liked eating it in the company break room and talking about sports with the other supervisors. What he didn’t like was that his wife had a boyfriend. He didn’t like being beat up and peeing blood for threatening her. And he really didn’t like being told to leave town and never come back while staring at the barrel of a handgun. He still liked tuna salad, though, and his friends at the 7-11, and the clothes and bedroll that the church had given him, and his spot in the dry creek bed, with its dusty ribbon of sand just wide enough, and the red, baked clay wall for a backrest. He’d be heading down there soon, sleeping on the north side so if the sun came through he’d be warm. He liked his spot in the creek bed. He sure didn’t like being married to that bitch, though.
“Mornin’, Carla.” Jonny was not looking at Carla, but around the store, looking for Chad. “Seen Chad?”
“Yeh, he’s out back. How’s life? I mean, you with a job and all. Life must be sweet.”
“Sweet is right!” Jonny was always a sucker for Carla’s complimentary store clerk demeanor. And she was cute, too, at least the best he was going to talk to, except for the preachy women at church. “Thinkin’ about getting’ new rims for the truck this guy at work’s sellin’. Should ride nice in the dirt. Offer’s still open to take you out in it. Any time!”
“Thanks, Jonny. But you know how it is with the kids and all. Bring it back and show me when you get them. OK?”
“Will do!” Jonny said, having completely forgotten about Chad, who was polishing off the rescued tuna salad sandwich, saving the good one for the creek bed. “I will see you, Carla, tomorrow, as usual.” His smile doing nothing to hide the frosted corn flake hanging from his face.
As Jonny roared off much faster than was necessary, Mandy rounded the corner. A heavy woman, she wore shorts all winter long, showing the ankle bracelet the court had given her for selling meth to an out-of-town undercover detective. Her small world was now reduced further to her home, and walking the kids to and from school, on a set schedule, when she could swing by the grocery store and hang with the 7-11 crowd for no more than five minutes. That was her regular stop for human contact. She would talk fast and hard, as always, and by that time of day, the gang would passively pretend to listen. And she would make her pitch.
“Any of you want to come over and watch TV?” Mandy asked with a little bounce in her voice.
Without a better choice, Brit and Billy agreed. Brit would clean up a little in Mandy’s bathroom. Billy figured if he left his sunglasses on Mandy wouldn’t notice he was asleep, and she wouldn’t disturb him with questions because she just wanted to do all the talking, anyway. Chad showed up, and opted for the creek bed. He was too tired for Mandy today, and the stormy weather would bring only snow, and not a flash flood like the one that killed Gus two years back. And he had his tuna salad sandwich, which he liked, and an ex-wife, which he didn’t like.
Robert W. Hansen
Copyright – Robert W. Hansen – 2016
Relevant Links: Wendover
Image Attributions: 7-11