5:45 A.M. Drizzling, nasty, dark, and humid. Her 2002 spray painted Accord accelerated in congested spurts down Peter’s Creek and into the 711 parking lot. Right on time. C.J., franchisee, was early- District was coming for a routine “Quality Check” which meant merchandise had to be stocked and shelved in precise, standardized formation; bathrooms and floors bleached; no spots on smocks and employee nametags accurate. It was “Slurpie Thursday;” Kyrian’s job to add orange cream mix to the machine. Her ghostly grey-splotched car sputtered and chugged into a parking space where she daubed out her smoke, brushed stray ashes off her pant leg, and watched C.J. teetering on a ladder, above slouching bags of mulch, jiggling the shorted out 711 sign, yelling in Indian on his cell phone. Double shift. It was going to be a long damn day. She wished to be back on the sofa with the cat as she drained her coffee onto the pavement beside a black banana peel, grabbed her handbag and a crushed soft pack. “YOU’RE LATE!”
“SORRY- I GOT PULLED OVER. BUT NOW I KNOW WHY THE ASSHOLE SPRAY PAINTED THE DAMN CAR. HE’S GOT WARRANTS!” Strands of cotton candy blue hair drifted over her shoulders, having weaseled out of a roughshod ponytail. Perfectly matching chipped turquoise nails didn’t take away from her unusual, iconic beauty that didn’t need cosmetics: eyes plucked out of a Vermeer oil painting, round and clear as the moon, but with a silent intent wisdom created an otherworldly aura. A very coy and seldom smile completed her mystique. Dean, the “National Enquirer delivery man,” always told her, “Like the tat!- an Egyptian cat laced around her upper arm, with neatly coiled tail and the phrase, “Nine Lives.”
The white, recently cemented sidewalk was littered with butts and chewing gum and pansies in matching cement urns, were in postmortem dyhydration. Wedged under the brown shrubbery: a flip-flop, a condom, and empty Clamato. Buttoning her smock, Kyrian surveyed the usual 3rd shift mayhem. She and Kim shared hungover nods and Kim dropped wet coffee grounds all over the floor.
“DAMMIT! Get me the broom, ok? You’re supposed to help me restock before Bozo gets here!”
“Well, fuck. Hold on. I just walked in the door.”
“Sorry- my back’s killin’ me…. I’ll take some Advil when I get home.”
Tommy walked in for his daily Bud Lite case, already smelling like jet fuel. “How’s the back?”
“Goddamn Mop n’ Glo! Slippery shit. Be nice if they gave us some fucking insurance so we could go to the doctor once in while. I’m probably walkin’ around with a slipped disc.”
“World ain’t gonna end. Jesus. I been walkin’ around with a plate in my head for twenty years.” He trembled counting nickels and dimes. His hand was bloated, red, and wrinkled from years hanging off the back of a garbage truck.
“Keep yourself away from magnets, Tommy. Paychecks come in?”
“Not unless CJ’s got ‘em locked in the safe. Restock the cigs- I didn’t get to it. I got the candy done.” Kyrian tore the top off a carton and shoved packs into their slots. .
The coffee machine gurgled to a stop and the aroma began to sink in. The damp mask over the sky was coming off, revealing a painful glare. Outside, the usual line up of picketers premiered at Planned Parenthood, the hearse and trench digging equipment stood patrol at “Amos’s All-Service Funeral Parlor” by the methadone clinic and Subaru dealership. Everything just where it was the day before. Roanoke was a predictable little town. In the lot, Larry, the Lay’s Potato Chip man told a dirty joke to Mitch, the Little Debbie man, who howled like a sick dog. They sadistically tag-teamed Kyrian about the sex enhancement pills at the checkout. She loathed them. One day she’d be able to tell them exactly what she thought, but for now, that would only get her fired-again. Karma, she reasoned. Must’ve been a man in her past life and enjoyed treating woman like shit.
Wheeling in his snack cakes, Little Debbie guy, Mitch, thought he was a big deal. Debbie Man had a white spot on his finger where he’d temporarily removed his wedding ring, for the day perhaps. About Kim’s age, shaved head, diamond earring, pigeon poop white teeth, he was dressed to impress. His Nikes, which he systematically switched out (depending on the day of the week,) were sterile- like he disinfected them; his creepy blue eyes glittered when he talked dirty, and a bundle of saliva built up in the corner of his mouth. When they left, the Kim and Kyrian ritualistically made up jokes about their sex lives. But the Debbie guys made good money- that was a fact.
Kim limped into the back room to check out. At 47 she’d managed to look unnecessarily old: red Nice n’ Easy, ‘80’s face contouring, K-mart stretch jeans. The over-applied makeup slurred into all the wrong places by morning, begging to be hosed off. The two kept conversations brief, knowing they probably wouldn’t be acquainted more than a few months. No one was permanent at the 711. Kyrian would no doubt meet a hundred “Kims” in her lifetime, and she was damn sure she wasn’t going to end up like one.
She felt shitty. It was the first day of classes at the Community College and, once again, she didn’t have the money. Once again, she was 19 classes shy of getting her horticultural degree-then she could get out of this dump, get herself a car that possibly worked, and maybe, just maybe, get off her friend’s couch. But instead of her hands diligently immersed in rich, organic soil, they were stuck halfway up a Slushie Machine.
The Budweiser guy pulled in at ten and rolled up his doors, making a racket that always seemed to shout, “WAKE THE FUCK UP!! I AM!” Shorts, knee socks, steel-toed boots, G.I. Joe physique, embroidered nametag, ‘BRAD’- he could have been a bookend with the UPS guy. He moved too neurotically fast to be friendly, which probably suited him, as it was clear he thought himself to be of ‘above average importance’ in the grand scheme of things….“Time is Money. Get the beer out early so these fuckers can drink!!” Now here was a guy who made the bucks. He’d just made a down payment in a subdivision, his girlfriend was pregnant, he had a pit bull, and a Jacuzzi. These four facts he made abundantly known. The scenario caused Kyrian abdominal upset, whose idea of success was a blissful mountain retreat with abundant gardens and a gurgling, meandering spring; hosts to her bevvy of felines companions. It was about the beauty of something emerging from the inside of the earth. Some great thing that remained unseen until it was nurtured.
The morning went by in the ordinary way, with its usual, confounding life challenges:
“PUMP THREE ATE MY CREDIT CARD!”
“What’s taking the Taquitas so long?!?”
“Why are the Taquitas still frozen?
“The nacho sauce is empty!”
“Can you make change for a hundred?”
“Hey, girl, when you gonna give me your number?”
“Can I use your bathroom?”
“Some dude’s passed out in the bathroom-call 911.”
District Manager, Victor, pulled up at 3:15 in his leased Lincoln Navigator. (The guy might have been 30.) Fake Fossil watch. Argyle socks. Latest Smart Phone. He brought his assistant manager, Susan, who wore an enormous navy pantsuit and overstretched kitten heels and was old enough to be his grandmother. Her hair had expensive highlights but her nails were home-glued. The bells on the front door jing-jingled and they made a beeline into CJ’s office as if hoping to catch him watching porn. Susan paused, ended an authoritative chat on her cell with a sanctimonious “well bless your heart,” and opened her Apple Notepad. At the same time, she managed disdainful looks at the walls and aisles, stopping to tap notes.
“Excuse me but I was wondering about my Customer Comment Cards….” Susan raised her painted brows in Kyrian’s direction, clearly annoyed. “I’ve gotten five positive customer ratings this week and I was wondering when I would get my bonus.” Susan shook her head as if Kyrian was speaking Yugoslavian. She turned away and continued to tap.
“Kayla, is it?”
“Kyrian. The Customer Satisfaction Cards.” I’ve gotten the five this week….”
“Oh. That was supposed to be five comments in a day, not in a week.”
“That’s not what we were told…” Susan looked over her readers and opened her mouth a bit. “Good work. But you have to have five positive comments per day, not week.” Kyrian’s cheeks boiled and her spine stiffened. A drip of sweat streamed down between her shoulder blades.
“That’s not what C.J. told us.”
“Well then he told you wrong.”
“So I have to start all OVER again?” A customer walked in and Susan looked back down.
“You have a customer. There you go.”
“Fifteen bucks on pump 1.” Kyrian shot a silent gypsy curse through her eyeballs into Susan’s brain. Then she thought about it. She had asked a stupid question- a fucking stupid question about how an employee could get a ten- dollar bonus. How had she gotten this low, she wondered? Antiquated school busses squealed to a stop at the red light, ancient engines chug chugging out black exhaust-their drivers anxious to get the little shits home.
“OH GOD FORBID the counter girl should get her bonus. Fucking bitch. She said FIVE POSITIVE CUSTOMER COMMENTS A WEEK!!” Kyrian, on break in the alley, leaned backward against the brick exterior of the store, illuminated in the moonlight and electric light; cell phone emitting a radioactive glow against her pale face and blue hair. Masses of bugs swelled and swarmed the streetlight over the dumpster, and the long, striding shadow of the Siamese tomcat floated down the alley. She knelt down and made kissing noises. He rubbed his dusty head all over her hands as he usually did (when he wasn’t on a mission of some sort) and purred like a cheap vibrating hotel bed. He wasn’t particular about who he chose to mark as his personal property. She offered him a bit of her Honeybun and he snatched with full entitlement, not unlike a shakedown mobster collecting his dues. She remembered her girlfriend was talking to herself on the other end of the phone call. “Yeah-manager’s been on my ass all day. And classes started today too. At this rate I’ll never get my fucking Associate’s. I’ll be stuck here with these assholes the rest of my life. You got weed, right? I’ll swing by.” She took a long drag of nicotine and exhaled into the full, much-awaited coolness of fall- seductive as flannel sheets. Her stream of smoke trailed off down the alley as if running to escape. An obnoxiously loud muffler startled her, and the BOOM BOOM BOOM of testosterone charged subwoofers.
It wasn’t just a predictable fate that had brought her to this place in her life-she’d had a lot to do with that too. She could choose to blame others for it-that would the easy way-. But it wouldn’t be true. She flicked the glistening; twirling, burnt hotdogs off the machine, throwing them like projectiles into the grey Rubbermaid garbage can. The machine sizzled as she wiped it down. Getting sleepy, well into her 2nd shift, her mind travelled overseas…. She was Chinese girl working on an assembly line painting landscapes on Dollar Store pottery. If she screwed up too many times, she’d be out on the street selling her body to overweight, white businessmen who all looked like Donald Trump. She pondered: did they send the reject pottery, the ones she screwed up, to the half-dollar store? Sigh. Until she got that degree, she’d have to be happy keeping the 711 shrubbery alive (and the bunch of cilantro she’d snuck in between the pumps.)
Mike and Doris came in for their nightly Good Humor bars. “Mike’s father had a tattoo of The Fighting Irish on his chest. After a few he’d take off his undershirt and show everyone.”
“You don’t have to keep repeating the story, Doris.” Someone in the lot was jogging around shoving fliers under people’s wiper blades. CASH OFFERS FOR YOUR HOME. Doris looked at the tabloids.
“See, Mike! I told you-Angelina’s giving Brad the kids. She’s such a skank.”
“You don’t know that, You’re just talkin’ out of your ass.“
“I heard it on Ellen!” A pack of high school brats were gathered outside vaping and waiting for an adult to take their money for beer. The jerk owner of the car dealership was parked in the lot with his mistress; Tuesday night as usual. Their animated argument penetrated the steamed up closed car windows. Dried leaves and fast food containers danced across the pavement lot as a breeze picked up. Kyrian slung another bag of garbage at the back door. The mysterious sun-glassed lady in a Ralph Lauren business suit came in for her nightly box of cheap Chablis, and hurriedly ran through her credit card as if being watched. A pickup truck piled high with junk furniture putted down Peter’s Creek and kept going after a queen-sized mattress flew out into the road. Normal Tuesday night. Truthfully, the last exciting thing that happened was the fox sneaking into the beer cave in July. It snapped at her then it took off like a missile across the street and behind the funeral home.
8:30 meant dumpster duty and clean out the Slurpie Machine time. The Orange Cream had done ok; not great, but ok. They’d switch to Root Beer next week, The chili dog chili needed to be tossed and the napkins and sporks needed restocking. Kyrian had only seen Denise, the new employee, once during the night as she never came back from the bathroom. Kyrian was surprised she’d lasted two weeks.
The Bronco pulled in at 9:45 pulling a rusty livestock trailer. Its headlights went out and car door thumped. The man that came in was dirty. Where was Denise when you needed her? His few hairs stuck to his forehead with sweat and a toothpick dangled between his teeth. Everything was put away and she hoped he wouldn’t ask for hot food. “Still got coffee goin’?”
“I can throw some on if you wanna wait- just cleaned up.” Guess he couldn’t take a hint. She grabbed a new bag of coffee and eyed the emergency button beside the register. She took her own Styrofoam cup from under the counter. It was ice cold and the cream curdled, but she wanted to look nonchalant and she drank it anyway. He was in his 40’s, about 5’10 at the front door, where a height measurement indicator was painted for times such as these. He had a modest beer belly and a greasy Nirvana tee. Identifying things she could tell the police. He pulled his Maga hat down hard on his brows and inspected the beer cooler while she made coffee.
“Gettin’ near Fall, huh?” he stated, going for a 24 oz. Best Ice. The refrigerator sucked closed with a “moof” sound. The man came down the candy aisle and grabbed a pack of Ding Dongs and Strawberry Twizzlers. When he got to the register she could see his face clearly. It was stubbly and his ears were sunburned. His eyes darted down at the lottery tickets as if he might be trying to resist playing. His toothpick went up and down and side to side in his mouth. “Whadda I owe ya?” He pulled out a beat up Harley Davidson wallet.
“9.87 with the coffee. Anything in the trailer?” He glanced out into the night and flicked a ten on the counter.
“Yup. Got an old horse in there. ‘Bout ta climb the Stairway to Heaven, unfortunately.” Kyrian looked directly at him then he nodded, sighed, grinned a little, and pulled the toothpick out of his mouth. “Know what I mean?”
“Cuz he’s old-no one wants him. Looks like he’s got a gimpy leg. Nothin’ but skin and bones. Gotta a ways to go to get to Charlottesville tonight.”
“Why Charlottesville?” The coffee slurped once more and signaled it was ready but she stood firmly in front of the man on the other side of the counter. A kid walked in the store and headed to the beer cooler. “FORGET IT. NICE TRY.” The kid, disappointed, smirked and walked out. She’d let him yesterday.
“Can’t blame him for trying!”
“So what’s in Charlottesville?”
“Auction. Slaughterhouse. Where ya think dog meat comes from? Good price per pound. Not much on that old thing- old as Methuselah. But I’m pickin’ up another down the road-that’ll make it worth it. Coffee ready?”
“What about the owner? They just get rid of them like that?”
“Not my business. I just pick ‘em up. But I think the story was the lady died. He was the only thing left in the yard. Actually, a real estate agent called me on that one- told me it had to be removed.” Kyrian looked out at the silent trailer in the lot. The only horse she’d ever ridden was bolted down in front of the Kmart.
“Can I see it before you leave?” She was surprised the question rolled out so easily. She’d never been one of those “horse-obsessed” girls.
“Don’t seem to be too many cars around. Get my coffee and I’ll back ‘er out for ya. No one else was in the store except for a guy looking at gun magazines.
The trailer gate banged open. There was the sound of shuffling hooves and then an appaloosa horse stiffly backed out. His eyes shifted nervously, lit up by the store lights. The 711 sign flickered. He trembled. Cars whizzed down the street not seeming to notice there was a horse standing in the parking lot at the 7-11. Kyrian went out. A customer was pumping gas and staring at the horse. The night smelled good- gasoline, asphalt and now, horse. It brought back some memory she couldn’t put her finger on but filled her with strange anticipation. The man cracked open his Best Ice and took a long draw, head straight up in the air, and let out a measured, satisfied exhalation, as if he’d done that a thousand times, and it always tasted that good. “I call him Freckles ‘caus of his spotted ass. The elderly horse looked around the lot, disoriented, rigid. Its white mane caught in the breeze and was beautiful. Its legs were swollen and scarred and her sides expanded and deflated with short, halting breaths as if she might bolt but knew it was useless. “Go on and touch her if you want. Here. Give her this peppermint- they love those. Just keep your hand flat so she don’t bite your fingers off.” Her breath was warm and her whiskers tickled asshe smelled the candy and rejected it. Sam, a regular, staggered into the lot with a brown bag.
“What the hell!”
“You need smokes? I’ll be right in.” Kyrian moved her hands over the horse’s rigid neck but its eyes remained terrified.
“I can’t believe she’s gonna be killed. Can’t someone take her? ” The man downed the rest of his beer and tossed the can in the planter.
“Sorry about that. Guess you gotta pick that up. They don’t feel nothin’ when they do it.” Kyrian’s felt the terrified animal’s fear shoot through her own body. The man shrugged and stuffed a wad of tobacco in his mouth. “Gotta get goin.’” He pulled the lead rope and the bony horse clomped back into the trailer. He dropped down the latch and climbed back into the Bronco.
She watched him pull out back onto Peter’s Creek. Back inside, the only thing waiting for her was a Slurpie machine, stale donuts, and a tom cat with no allegiance to anyone but himself. At closing time the Accord wouldn’t turn over. Sonofabitch. She started walking toward Williamson Road. Only a mile and a half. Her feet killed her from standing on linoleum all day. Lit cigarettes rocketed from car windows and hit the street like firecrackers. An unbearable feeling of loss wedged itself into the bottom of her stomach. Her heart physically ached every time it beat. Everything seemed ruined and ugly. And she wept.