FICTION | Living to Die at the Cheap Butts Filling Station
Every Sunday the cashier at the Cheap Butts Filling Station gets all shot to dead.
This is news to me. I thought I was just bad with names.
The article in the Monday paper reads about a special corner of the graveyard asided for these folks at the Reverend’s ask. Every cashier seems to have been the last of their living kin.
A picture depicts the manager hanging a “Now Hiring” sign in the front window. That sorta thing’ll think a man ideas. My luck to not know till now—all the wasted hours. Coming off a year’s unemployment, my resume reads spare—I admit it—but I figure beggars and choosers they can’t be when there’s a good chance you get shot facewise, best case.
Rusty’ll piss his balls if he sees me with a job, smokeshort as it may be. Though I sure as hell ain’t telling him where. Churchfolk only believe in death-at-own-handedness for saints and martyrs—the article hears some have demanded Cheap Butts close down—and I don’t want to shoo his moment of pride, his first chance to see me as more than toilet spit.
Five years ago, Rusty married my mom and they moved here to Port St. Joe, Florida, before those menthols she smoked like OJ painted tumors across her lungs like barnacles on an oyster shell. He took me in after my accident last year, planning for just a few months.
So now it’s just me and Rusty, Rusty and me. Rusty and me and this studio apartment. Rusty and me and Mom’s old ashtray. Rusty and me and everything that peoples the space between us. He wants to move north and learn taxidermy but can’t afford to on account of supporting me, his thirty-year-old dipshit stepson.
The Cheap Butts’ manager says, “You’ve got the job!” all favor-like after we barely interviewed five minutes. The store is a mess: racks knocked over, torn chip bags spilt. A bullet-ridden freezer drips off-brand orange soda to a fly-stained puddle. The bathroom: out of order.
I can’t help myself for saying, “It seems you’ve got a high employee turnover rate.”
“And how!” the manager says.
He hands me my uniform. There’s a tattered hole through the middle, stomach-where.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “I hosed it off.”
“Mind if I color in a bullseye?”
“A sense of humor!” he says. “Never lose that, Charlie! Never change.”
I don’t know where he found the name Charlie because it sure as hell don’t mean me and mine.
“The most important thing,” he says, “is that you pay for everything you drink from the soda fountain and that includes refills and that includes just ice. You start tomorrow.”
“How many sick days I got?”
“Twelve. I don’t know. Seven.”
“I’m not feeling very well,” I say. “Maybe I’ll just start on Sunday.”
“You’re in what we call a ‘probationary period.’”
“What if I’m sick now?”
“Then you’ll work sick.”
I’m back in bed when Rusty comes home. I had been starting[MB1] at wondering how long those orange boot prints been on the floor. I sit up fast at the doorknob turn, leaving a shadow in my mattress.
Rusty repairs air conditioners.
“What a sight unseen,” he says sarcastically from the doorway. “Take a break. You’re working too hard.”
Looks-wise, Rusty appears a retired boxer, ex-navy seal, or convict. He has tired, blue eyes, buzzed hair, and lean arms that coil like snakes when his elbow moves. He dresses always in full camo.
“Hey Dad,” I say.
“Hup-two,” he says. “We’re going to protest.”
He sniffs the air. “Something sour in here?” He sniffs some more. “When’s the last time you vodka’d the sheets?”
“Dad,” I fiddle with mom’s old ashtray. “I’m trying to say I got a job.”
“I said get your butt up.” He takes a plastic bottle of vodka off the shelf, walks over, and pours on me. Rusty cleans everything with cheap vodka, the Reverend’s cure for drunkenness; he says it makes hooch a mundanity. But now Rusty drinks rubbing alcohol.
“I can’t.” It stings the cuts on my arm. I roll off the bed, still wrapped in a sheet. “That bites.”
“Goddamn your can’t,” he says. “And goddamn your sheets. You sweat and piss in them all day till I can smell it from the goddamn door. The gosh damn door, I mean. The gosh darn door.”
“Did you hear what I said?”
“Darn Freon killing my nose hairs each by each, and the last smell I’m ever to remember is your sour reek. And call me Rusty, darn it. My name is Rusty.”
“I got a job, Dad,” I say. “I’m trying to go back to work. I’m trying.”
“I’ve died over and again for this country, and this is what they do with me. This is where they put me. A tiny apartment with my dipshit stepson who won’t vodka his sheets every few weeks to spare my nose the extra miles. If I’d spent my twenties lying in bed—”
“Well,” he says and starts to walk in circles. “Well, well, well.”
“Well’s for horses,” I say.
“Give me a cigarette then, come on, gosh darn it.” He squats and hugs his knees.
“Carton’s fresh out.” I shake the hollow thing.
“Let me smell your fingers.” He crawls toward me.
“I didn’t smoke any. I swear.”
“Let me smell.” He grabs my ankle. I kick, taunting, “Goddamn, goddamn, goddamn.” He pulls at my leg but it slips out, so the blanket just bunches in his arms, still damp with liquor. He gums at it then inhales and rolls over. His tears start to cry.
The story with Rusty is he’s got PTSD from being an extra in war movies. His twenties were spent dying in the deleted scenes of History Channel dramatizations. He’s fought in every war there was—the good ones, at least.
He claims they gave him a real, loaded M-16 during Vietnam—his last—and because of this he accidently killed someone.
Now he keeps the gun under his bed. I’ve always ignored the urge to go pick it up, feel its weight, learn its truth.
The story with me is two years ago, I dropped out of Tallahassee Community College to become a door-to-door cell phone salesman. It was never but old folks home, and you gotta chat an hour before they’ll buy anything. I would hit the same houses every month. They’d talk and talk then buy the cheapest phone I had, letting unopened boxes pile in their kitchen. This one lady did nothing but complain about the grocery store that fired her. “Alcoholism is a disease, right? So how come I can’t use sick days to get drunk?”
I was cleaning leaves from her pool when something shiny looked up from the deep end. I walked to the edge.
“Be careful,” she called from the back door. “My husband drowned in there.”
“Your husband ain’t a leaf, is he?” I leaned over, peering. It looked like a necklace, someone’s dog-tags. I was underwater four minutes before they pulled me out.
Tuesday morning, I place two packs of Kool’s on Mom’s grave then walk around to see plots of cousins, aunts, uncles.
I move to graves I don’t know, the clichéd epitaphs, sticky weeds nobody cares to pick. I see the section for the dead gas station cashiers, cramped together crosses that stitch over scabs of grass. I lose my breath and don’t peek closer.
Watching the mist flicker across mom’s grave like a lake at dawn, I pretend that it’s cigarette smoke floating through the roots.
The Reverend every night props open the front door of his house outside the Church and ties himself to his bed with piano wire. He lays a scythe by his feet in preparation of the devil come to disembowel him. He thinks himself a martyr. But the Devil never comes—nobody comes. Nobody except a cloud of mosquitoes and Rusty—the next morning—to untie him in time to preach the morning service, ashamed of his still-beating life.
“Where do you keep the communion wine?” Rusty says. “I need to do the dishes.”
“One of these days,” The Reverend says, “I’m beginnin’ to believe you’re Godsent to sacrifice me.”
“What would that make me?” Rusty says.
“Consider it from my perspective,” the Reverend says.
The next day, I drop by the funeral service for the Cheap Butts attendant who preceded me. Protest signs lean against the Church exterior. I’m wearing the shirt he died in, which feels wrong in ways I wouldn’t have predicted. Everyone seems to think I’m playing some tease. One woman stops the Reverend from speaking—I was showed up halfway through—and throws her left shoe at me, then the right. Then her husband takes off his shoes and throws them at me. Then everyone throws their shoes at me. I stand there for a pause and let the shoes bite me, looking to see if Rusty is in the crowd before stumbling out.
“The Devil,” the Reverend shouts, following me to the parking lot. “The Devil he trots before us.” He looks much shorter out here, even though he’s still wearing his heeled shoes. I’ve never seen him this close. He’s younger than I always assumed, only a few years older than me, with sharp widowing hair and a face that’s all cheek.
“Martyr me,” he whispers and sits on the asphalt. He tosses a switchblade onto the ground, lifts his chin and pulls down his collar to expose his throat, closing his eyes.
I walk off, wondering if they finished the ceremony in their socks.
On Thursday, Rusty sees me going into Cheap Butts. It’s early and most of the protestors are toeing around, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, both bought from inside. He lets his sign sag and yips at me. Everyone looks over then back down, but he keeps yipping. I try to ignore him, but when my hand starts pulling the door he hollers to wait and jogs over.
When I turn, he says, “Bang,” then laughs and backs away.
On Saturday, the Reverend comes in. He’s wearing Bermuda shorts, flip-flops, and a baggy fishing shirt, sunglass tan nested between his ears and eyes. The protestors took the day off.
“You don’t look too well,” he says. “Peaked.”
I wipe my brow. “What can I do for you?”
“I’d like some mint Skoal, please.” He has the tired voice of a man near his end, a man who’s lived a life longer than his age. This we have in common.
I place the green ring on the counter. He has the exact cash and coin in his pocket.
“Keep the change,” he says.
I stare dumb.
“A joke,” he says. “It’s Charlie, right? I’m sorry I called you the Devil, Charlie.”
“My name’s not Charlie.”
He looks down at my name tag, then back up at me. “What brought you to this job?”
I check if there is anyone in line behind him.
“I’ve been seeing the Devil everywhere it seems,” he says. “But you know what they say.”
“Always in the last place you look.” He winks. “Fresh coffee?”
“Brewed a pot ‘fore you walked in.”
“How is it?” he asks.
“I’m drinking it,” I say, then drop my voice to a whisper, “even though I’m not supposed to.”
“We all do things we’re not supposed to, now and then. Is it strong?”
“Bitter?” he asks.
“Good,” he says. “I like it strong. I like it bitter.”
“Me too,” I say.
“‘But I like it, because it is bitter, and because it is my heart.’ You ever read Stephen Crane?”
“We have a twelve ounce, a sixteen, and a twenty-four.”
“Twenty-four ounces of coffee in one cup,” he says. “See what I mean about the Devil everywhere?”
“The twenty-four is a dollar seventy-five.”
He says, “I’ll take the twelve” and sets a dollar on the counter. I slide a penny back.
“Pot’s over there.” I motion with my forehead.
He taps his penny twice on the counter, gets his coffee and leaves.
After walking home that night, I dream about work the next day. In my dream, Rusty comes through the clasp of gas station doors in his usual camo, baring doggish teeth and a paint-struck face. An M16 decorates his hands; dog-tags depend from his neck. He makes signals to his left and right, even though nobody else is around. He runs through the whole store, taking cover behind racks then shouldering them over, somersaulting across the ground.
“Rusty,” I say.
Outside, the protestors appear bearing torches. They circle the store, edging it with kerosene. The Reverend and owner are with them. The Reverend shouts: “You look peaked.” The owner: “You’ll work sick.”
Rusty kicks down the bathroom door and I hear him stomp and fire. He reemerges. I feel something in my pocket and pull it out. Mom’s old ashtray. I finger the rim.
“Rusty,” I say.
His forearm is scraped and broken by a porcelain shard. He pulls out a flask and dumps vodka on it. Fire trims the store, clouding shut the windows.
Finally, he walks calm to the cash register and stands in front of me, rifle pointed at waist height, orange and green soda patterned bright across the floor like exotic mold.
“Rusty,” I say. “What are you doing?”
“You Charlie Son of a Bitch,” he says. The only line from his entire career. In the movie, you can see him take a hair too long to pull the trigger. The Vietnamese actor had already started to drop before Rusty even fired. The look on Rusty’s face in that moment is the look of someone who knows what bad is about to happen.
The fire sneaks inside. Its heat pulls sweat from my skin. Smoke puddles in the roof.
“Rusty,” I say.
What makes me different from the past cashiers is that I’ve seen the scene before. I know the role. I bend my knees and start to drop, cry a fake death cry. Rusty stills his finger on the trigger, unsure if it’s better to do it again different or the same.
Jason Namey is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he edits prose for Permafrost Magazine. His stories appear or are forthcoming in Juked, Hobart, Moon City Review, NANO Fiction, and elsewhere. He is from Jacksonville, Florida.
Photo by ToxWiller.