by Richard R. Barron
“Life is like a really expensive cut of beef that you’ve just overcooked.”
At 9:30 p.m. Greg was just finishing his shift, and Shelly was about to start hers. He removed his grubby red polyester smock and tossed it in a ball on the floor under the cash register. As it was most nights, it was spattered with grease from the fried chicken bin. Greg hated that smell, and its ugly polyesterness made it that much worse, so he almost never wore his smock home.
“When you use profanity, you are being something rather than saying something.”
Shelly looked at him enviously. Eight hours of uninspired boredom lay ahead for her. She buttoned her own red uniform shirt. Over the pocket it read “Shelly” in script letters, the stitching a reward for six whole months of faithful service to Texaco and Big Bad Bob’s Quick Country Mart.
“Church keeps God and man from ever meeting.”
No one named Bob had ever owned, or had anything to do with, Big Bad Bob’s, but the name seemed to fit, so no one changed it.
“The most real feelings are hate, fear, and nausea.”
It was cold out. Shelley found it refreshing, in the same way one might find narrowly escaping the swing of a wrecking ball refreshing.
“Cold world. Bundle up.”
“We’re outta premium unleaded,” Greg said, leaning on the door on his way out. Removing the tattered red work shirt now revealed a tattered green camouflaged “Nugent Rules” T-shirt. “Truck’ll be here in the morning.”
“Don’t resist change. It’s the only thing you’ll always have.”
With the quiet hissing of the hydraulic arm of the door closing, he was gone.
“Food is the opiate of American simpletonhood.”
Shelly took a deep breath. How she ever ended up in this dumpy convenience store baffled her. And she was stuck on the night shift. Six a.m. seemed an eternity away, and not just tonight, but every night.
“Some things you never get over, and love takes even longer than that.”
She looked around the store. Spread before her was the peeling dirty white countertop, worn from years of service and lack of maintenance. It formed a ring around her seat, with the cash register at one end and the beef jerky rack at the other. It was a barrier, her protection, she imagined, from would-be bad guys. Under the counter near where Greg had tossed his shirt was a .41 Magnum that belonged to the owner. It too, she imagined, was her protection.
“Inspiration never really comes to you. You must come to it.”
Outside her little haven stood the usual convenience store shelves filled with Mars bars, liquid smoke, Vienna sausage, and motor oil, all of which was priced about three times higher than anywhere else in town.
“Happen to life. Don’t let it happen to you.”
Shamrock, Texas, wasn’t that big a town, but it did have a grocery store and a Wal-Mart. Most of Shamrock’s existence centered around its proximity to Interstate 40, just half a block from Big Bad Bob’s, and from Shelly.
“Overpowering fear overpowers overpowering rage.”
With no customers currently in the store, she pulled out her ragged paperback, The Complete Philosophy of Hampton Simple, and continued reading…
“Is the inherent knowing of knowledge the result of the seeking of that knowledge, or the result of the pre-knowing of the known, of knowing to know, or otherwise having known, or to know, or having to known the known knowledge?”
Shelley squirmed a moment in her seat. It seemed that when she read this book, given to her by her half-sister Regina at a Christmas party, the lines got smaller and began dancing around on the page until nothing made sense.
“An army is basically a tool designed to target the flow of adolescent anxieties, passions and unconscious homosexual desires into a killing juggernaut.”
Unknown to Shelley, the book was a gag gift. But when no one laughed, Regina decided to keep the gag to herself. Shelley had drawn the name of her ex-boyfriend Steve. It was the seventh Steve she’d known romantically, and the only one with whom she remained friends. Shelley gave Steve a hand-bound volume of her own poetry written under the pen-name S. S. Minnow. Shelley thought that was really hilarious.
“Giving love to another person is like giving lettuce to a cat.”
Shelley wished, passingly, that Hampton Simple would explain his thoughts just a bit more.
“Blood is thicker than water, but less useful around the house on a day-to-day basis.”
Moments later, the heavy glass front door opened and in strode her least-liked beast-like best friend Lilac. Lilac seemed to be hanging her head a bit. And, Shelley noticed, she wasn’t wearing her favorite tattered sweatshirt. Unknown to Shelley, Lilac had given it to her mother to try to get some of the lint balls out of it.
“Hi, Lie. Where’s your old faithful sweatshirt?”
“I gave it up for lint,” Lilac answered, a sheepish grin of someone trying to be clever growing on her round face.
“Oh, you’re right,” Lilac answered, “I lent it up for lint.”
“No. ‘I gave it up for lent.'”
“Did you really?”
Shelley suddenly remembered why Lilac was her least-liked beast-liked best friend.
“HEY!” came an angry voice from outside, “turn on the damn gas pump!”
In her effort to ignore Lilac, Shelley also ignored the beeping of pump number one. She looked up abruptly, wondering for an instant where she was, what she was doing, what year it was.
It was still 1984. “Sorry!” she said. All the man outside saw was her mouth move and her hands frantically scramble to turn on the pump.
“Lilac, I’m busy. Can we do this later?”
“Do what later, Shel?”
“Um, uh… this. You know.”
“Yeah,” Lilac said and headed for the door, “I know.”
FFFFMMMMOOOOSSSHHH… the door closed. Shelley picked up her book and again tried to read.
“Essentially, all solid matter is nothing more than empty space and magnetic fields. The actual material that makes up our reality isn’t really real in it’s reality.”
Really? she wondered.
The man who had yelled at Shelley opened the door, catching the sleeve of his maroon letter jacket on the metal handle.
“Son of a bitch!”
“It is only in utter, abject ignorance that we can believe we have any grasp of reality.”
Shelley could see that it was Bobby Thomas, a senior football player at Shamrock High School. “Hey, babe, why don’t you get that thing fixed?” Bobby paid for his fuel, and left, vanishing into the quiet night.
“If your life is threatened, you’ll take steps beyond your imagination to preserve it. Your instinct for self-preservation is the ultimate driving force in your being. Forget love. Forget the soul. Forget belief. When it all comes down, all you are is the instinct to survive.”
Bobby Thomas was not just an offensive lineman. He was an extremely offensive lineman. At 314 pounds, he was almost exactly three times heavier than Shelley. In fact, no woman in Shamrock weighed more than 110 pounds.
“When teenagers complain, it’s ‘growing pains.’ When adults complain, it’s complaining.”
Shelley had never seen a picture of Jesus laughing.
“Just getting through alive doesn’t count for much. Almost everybody can do that. There’s got to be more.”
That’s when I came in, I guess. She had dark hair and blue eyes, and sat behind a pile of books. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus by Carl Jaspers. The Koran.
She hid behind them.
“And isn’t it ironic that the only true driving force in your being is the one that will most certainly be taken from you one day?”
And of course there was The Complete Philosophy of Hampton Simple.
“What you are thinking is what you are becoming.”
I on the other hand was in no mood to wax metaphysic. I was five hours out of Albuquerque, where I’d spent four days in Motel 6 trying to console my girlfriend, whose elevator, it turned out, didn’t go all the way to the top. She was so moved by my kindness and compassion that she dumped me on the spot.
“The beauty of egg nog: You take the last drink and set it down, but five minutes later you have more egg nog because it slowly drains from the sides of the glass.”
I was still trying to pick up the pieces of a broken heart. They were so squishy.
“Time goes on, unaware it swallows you like some beast.”
I had spent the last hour and a half or so listening to the National League Championship Series on the radio, but if Shelley had asked me who was winning, or even who was playing, I couldn’t have told her.
“When you kill time, all you end up with is dead time.”
Dairy cow. That would be the life, she thought. You get to sit around and moo, eat grass, and wear a cool polka-dotted jacket. Every morning you get your breasts sucked by a machine. Yea, she thought, I want to be a dairy cow.
Really, though, this isn’t my story. But I’m in it, since there I stood with a bag of chips and some chocolate milk in one hand and my wallet in the other. Shelley peered out from behind Hampton Simple.
“99% of failure is fear.”
She rang up the stuff… I always got the same thing on the road…and sighed. “One eighty one sir.”
I could tell she hated her job. I could tell she thought she deserved better. I could tell she had a heart and a brain and hunger for more in her heart. I could tell not from her voice or her manner or her eyes. I could tell from the way our hands touched when she handed me the nineteen cents.
That was it for me. I pushed the heavy glass door open and stepped into the night. I was gone.
“Everyone gets what he deserves, but no one thinks they deserve it.”
She fancied herself to be the philosopher as well. She pulled one of her own stories from under the cabinet…
It was her favorite story.
Trust: The five-letter four-letter word.
Sometimes she felt like a swimmer. Her life was a pool, shimmering below her, waiting for her. Then she would dive in, and instead of being beautiful and peaceful, it consumed her, surrounded her, devoured her.
“Get your mind on the present. Eventually your heart will follow.”
…she was feeling the way a kid feels about numbers before a math test…
L Y I N G
L 0 N E L Y
A L 0 N E
0 N E
“Nobody falls in love on purpose. It just happens to you, like an industrial accident.”
On the drive to work just hours before, she held her hand out the window and thought that the wind felt the same on the hand of the driver in front of her, but everything else was different. She imagined not being blown by the wind, but being the wind itself, moving in swirls above the trees.
“What is loss? Loss is not getting your way.”
She believed she was not the body she saw in the mirror, nor the soul the church said was inside her. She was all the things she said, and all the things she failed to say.
“Let go of boredom. It’s not really necessary in order to accomplish things you might otherwise find boring.”
She wanted to be loved, but knew that being loved wasn’t about who she was, but about who she wanted others to be.
“The basic emotion of the public is fear.”
Pain, she thought, is the perfect pet. You never need to feed it, because no matter how much you give it, it will still be hungry.
“The future is exactly like the past was before it happened.”
She could hear God say, “One, two, three,” and blow into Life’s microphone.
“Blankets are cold. You are the warmth.”
She had truly twisted dreams, or so she believed. Once she dreamed of some men playing football on the edge of the world above an eternal abyss. One of them went out for a long pass and fell off, but they kept playing until two plays later, when the ball fell off.
“Sympathy is not understanding. Perception is not imagination.”
Shelley considered herself to be both an optimist and a pessimist. An optimist says a glass is half full. A pessimist says the glass is half empty. Shelley says it’s both, and yes, thank you, she will have a drink.
“The biggest lie you’ll ever tell yourself is that other people are judging you as harshly as you are judging yourself.”
Shelley and her next-best friend Herman, a 350-pound man with the world’s largest collection of meat loaf recipes, were confident of the notion that there was something fundamentally wrong with the Universe.
Special emphasis should be placed on the last of these, as when it is seen in a socio-industrial dynamic, the nature of things just sort of falls apart.
Life is a story problem.
Beep beep. Midnight. Two hours had passed. She straightened her neck, stretched a bit. It was going to be another long night.