Somewhere near Jonesboro, Arkansas 6:08 AM
It’s just too Goddamn early to be this angry.
Ronald John Washington, smelling like yesterday and the day before, slaps the charcoal colored security photograph on the table of the route twelve Exxon. Anger flushes his cheeks with dark water.
“You got me on The Front! That’s me? On The Front?”
Oliver, the morning cashier working his third double shift of the week, lifts his head. Well, shit.
Usually, the word that gets used for security photos is grainy. The kernels of visibility that are left behind by petty thieves. But this picture comes in clearer than the local cable station. There goes Ronald John; most people call him R.J., walking out the door. Carrying his married man’s weight in his divorced man’s clothes. Yep, that’s him, just two nights before, all two hundred and forty five pounds of him wearing the same overalls and jeans he was wearing now, with forty ounces of King Cobra in his right hand (the one that still has all five fingers).
The photograph had been pulled off of The Front, which was one of the less creative nicknames for the west-facing entrance of the Exxon. The God-only-knows-how-many-picture-monument to local shoplifters hanging under a marker-written plaque that read Our Hall of Shame. It had practically become a tourist destination, if there had been any tourists around here. You could be anywhere a bus, a supermarket or a movie theatre, and overhear it mentioned like the Ozark Wailing Wall.
“They got me on The Front.”
“I ain’t like that. I ain’t never gonna be on The Front.”
“They got all of them on The Front, Tony, Joe, Lil’ K.”
“Man, where we gonna buy our gas now?”
On windy days the flutter of the paper could be mistaken for a band of wild geese.
“Aw shit, R.J. need to talk to you about that.”
“This is some bullshit right here and you know this.” Ronald’s big face pulls away when he’s mad. Has ever since he was a child.
“Look man,” Oliver speaks slowly “I’m glad you come in because I wanted to talk to you about that.”
“Ain’t nothing to talk about. Why you glad I come up in here? I come up in here every day! I was up in here just the other night, I told you my disability check don’t come till the first. You said we was good. Said we could hold that shit till tomorrow. I come up in here, what was it? Last night and paid for it. Plus I bought fourteen in gas. Now, I’m’a ask you again, What the fuck is this?”
“You know I don’t own the store, R.J.”
The photographs on the outside of the Exxon came with captions. A little story with the image, for the more curious customers. The clear message being: steal what you want. But this is forever. They flapped in the spring. Froze in the winter. Crinkled in the summertime. A couple of boys had somehow even gotten multiple inductions, others had made it their Facebook profile pictures. There was even one kid, a local hip-hopper who rapped under the name Allday, who had come back to the store, stolen his picture (and two bottles of motor oil), using the security still as the cover for his bootleg album, which he occasionally tried to sell in the Exxon’s parking lot. A few locals had begun to refer to The Front as the Delta family album. Since sometimes it was easier to just go down to the gas station than carry all those pictures in your wallet. Underneath the photo of a husky white man in a bad-fitting hoodie, Sanjay Patel, the store’s new owner, had written This genius stole a six pack of Budweiser with a police officer in the store Lol. Another of a bulky black lady who had stored two pop bottles under her armpits was explained with Hope it was worth it. You go to jail for Red Bull that smells like death. But, The worst for R.J., the one that had made his blood sizzle and gut flip, was the picture in the corner. Lonny Horine kneeling on the floor, casually fetching a bottle of hot sauce that had rolled away from him back into his gym bag. Three years ago Lonny’s ninety-five year old grandmother had gone missing from her house out Route 598. Never had come back. Lonny had told police that his “Grandmommy liked to walk sometimes. Cleared her brain.” Lonny had the eyes of a school shooter and the teeth of a clumsy piranha. Before she had passed R.J.’s own mother had once said of Lonny “that boy is bad-hearted and stone blooded,” a condemnation she had normally reserved for kidnappers, gamblers, and her mortgage. There he was now, though, one space over from Lonny. R.J. Washington leaving the store with a glass of Hyper Viper, bout the only thing that had made Wednesday nights, marriage, and baseball season tolerable these last few years. The caption scrawled beneath his picture bleeding into the next hangdog, along with his slightly inaccurate epitaph: One Armed Bandit.
“So you can’t be up in the store no more, man.” Oliver’s voice breezes through the pre-dawn like the heartbeat of a shadow. Nothing much, really. Might as well have been asking him if the Grizzlies had won last night.
“The fuck you say? You know how long I been coming up in here?”
“Ain’t me, man. It’s Sanjay, He don’t play. He going through the tapes last night and yeah, this is my bad, but he watching the security and then checking it against what’s in the till. And we come up a few dollars light. Well, you know what his favorite thing to do is. Go ahead on and put more fools on that wall outside the store. Shit, and I thought I saw some hard-assed motherfuckers over in Tikrit. ”
“Son, I’m’a tell you how the cow ate the cabbage. I ain’t steal shit. And you know that. We talked about this.”
This goes on for a minute. R.J. squeals with indignation while the young clerk shrugs his shoulders. Oliver grew up here too. As far as he is concerned the word Arkansas may as well be Indian for, rotted cars, kicked in trailers and men with seven fingers trying to explain they had paid for their gotdamn malt liquor.
“You said we was cool. You said you could hold me till my check come. And I come back in and paid you.” The old owner, Bo, had always respected these kinds of arrangements for long-time customers. They even had a name for it: The poor man’s credit card.
“Yeah man, you said all that,” Oliver yawns.
“And now you got me up on the wall outside next to Lonny Horine. That man killed his granny.”
“Stole hot sauce too from the look of things. Now, I know what I said, but you asking me to lose my job behind this bullshit. I’m sorry R.J. but I ain’t fittin’ to do all that. I’ll tell you what. Couple of weeks I’ll tell Sanjay that you came back and paid for your shit. Make it like you just forgot. He’s mad now. But he’ll be cool.” R.J. ponders Oliver’s long arms splayed over the counter like thin dark waterfalls. His forearm is tattooed with the number of his Marine regiment and above that the name Kecia, his daughter, inked in soft blue letters.
“Don’t.” The word is a whip. It plunges like a hawk, calm, final and quiet as a mountain. R.J. takes another look at Oliver. Pretty boy. Back-from-Iraq-boy. Everybody-go-on-and-have-a-parade-for-you-and-your-two-good-hands-having-boy. Bet-your-youngun’s-still-talk-to-you-boy.
“You know what?” R.J. hisses. “Fuck your funny ass. And fuck that sandnigger you work for too.” The slur hangs between the two black men for an instant before it floats to the ground and wanders off lazily to the lottery tickets, the cash register, the coffee pot and the freshly born newspapers.
“Something else you needed to say, old man?” Oliver nods him towards the door.
Don’t. That had been Lorna’s word too. Made him ‘bout lose his mind, when she’d been on her way out that last night. He’d tried apologizing. Then explaining. Saying he’d only been on his ass for a little while now. And who was gonna hire a millworker with two fingers on one hand?
“We talking the economy out there,” he seethed. Then he quoted some statistics he made up. When that didn’t work he’d gone to begging. Him, who’d done every kind of trade work from plumbing to HVAC, he was pleading for a lady to stay. She’d looked at him then, pity in her startled, brown eyes.
“Baby, I can live with a handicapped. I can’t live with a cripple.” Some bullshit she’d probably heard in her worship group. When she’d been almost gone he’d tried to caress her. It had worked for just a second. The tremble in his touch had made her temporarily forget the trailer’s fried air and corrugated metal. She slowed, and then bent her head into the crook of his shoulder.
“Baby,” he had said, her hand in what was left of his, “do you remember when–”
“Don’t,” she whispered. And then louder, “Just fucking don’t!”
Someone had grabbed her then. Someone’s big hips danced her against the sink, accidentally knocking over a gravy boat on the way. He didn’t hit her. Not really. But, when he opened his eyes the back of his knuckles had tasted like blood, mascara and July.
“What’s the matter, Ronald? Ain’t I least worth your good hand, since you love me and all?”
R.J. sits in his truck in the gas station’s parking lot. Every wet breath chokes and rattles like a pound of nickels coming through his lungs. ”Man,” he whispers to himself again and again.
The murmurs of the gone echoing from the canyon in his hand to the baking soda in his empty refrigerator.
He stares at the field just across the highway. Him and all his brothers had worked land just like it. Snowtrash, they’d called it.
Everyone had always said Arkansas cotton grows meaner than anywhere else. The roots clinging to the earth like they knew what you wanted.
The spindle picker had passed through him like the night train used to pass through Little Rock when he was a boy. Just a quiet thing with a destination. Nothing personal.
The middle three fingers had been mashed into a stew. Blood, nails, and calluses painted into the concrete floor. The mill had been on the far side of the county and they had had him airlifted to the nearest hospital. Only time he had ever ridden in an airplane.
“How about that?”
Through the windshield he can make out the sun climbing over the delta. Another useless day bucking loose. In his rearview mirror he sees Oliver re-taping up his picture to the furious, burning glass. He mends the wrinkles from the paper with a religious devotion. Every blemish smoothed. Every crease healed.
Isaac Boone Davis is a manual laborer in the coal economy. His prose and journalism can be found in Writethis.com, Smokelong Quarterly, Everyday Fiction, P.I.F., The Blue Lake Review, Efiction, Jersey Devil Press, The Southern Pacific Review, The Bacon Review and Black Heart Magazine among others. He can be contacted at Isaacboonedavis@gmail.com