The Big Waitress

My three best friends in high school were older and a bad influence. There was Pile, who loved Led Zeppelin and Hostess Twinkies. Then Slocomb, who was tall and sluggish and a champion of the proletariat. And there was Battery Acid, the instigator. Acid had a wispy moustache and voice that hit you like ground glass. They were all going to enlist in the army the day after graduation. This was more of a default position than patriotic calling. By then everyone could see Vietnam was ending badly. But that last winter we really didn’t think much about that. What we thought about was a girl known as the Big Waitress. She worked at the Steak Pit Restaurant off I-95. The Big Waitress was six feet five inches tall with a perfect figure, only super-sized. She had long blond hair and the pocked yet pretty face of a Roller Derby queen. At the Steak Pit she had a dramatic way of parting the air as she passed your table at speed. On a colorless afternoon in February we stood outside in the parking lot near her pink Ford Pinto and considered our options.

“That’s her in the window,” said Acid. “See the satin shorts?”

We all stared.

“You think maybe we should go in and buy a steak or something?” said Pile.

“Those cost, like, ten bucks,” said Slocomb. “We’d have to split it.”

“Lovely,” said Acid. “All of us feeding off one plate like hyenas. What a wonderful impression that would make. She’d know right away what we were doing.”

I raised the collar of my leather jacket.

“And what are we doing?” I asked. “I mean, exactly?”

The three of them looked at me like I was from outer-space.

I was sixteen. Which can be very confusing. A girl told me I had dreamy blue eyes and a nice face but then she described this crush she had on a senior who rode a motorcycle and had cheeks cratered with acne and basically looked like a big gargoyle. Which only deepened the sense of mystery haunting everything in those days. I suppose it was this, as much as anything else, that inclined me to take chances.

“Don’t be a douche, Eugene. We have to explain everything?”

“Yeah,” said Pile. “It’s like we have to explain everything.”

“Patience,” said Slocomb. “He’s of the uninitiated.”

“Right. Eugene Wolcott the III. Not just virginal. Pre-virginal.”

They started laughing. They thought this was hysterical.

“Let’s wait until 4:30,” said Acid, hunching his shoulders in his Levi jacket. “She usually comes out for a cigarette break sometime between 3:45 and 4:30.”

“Jesus,” said Slocomb. “You live out here or what?”

“And she always stands right there by her car. Those cigarette butts on the asphalt? They have lipstick on the filters, man.”

“Holy shit,” said Pile. “He’s right.”

Acid smiled.

“I do my research. This must be strategized. It’s all quite scientific.”

“Did you really talk to her?” said Slocomb.

“Absolutely. For about fifteen minutes at the 7-11. She was buying Mountain Dew, a box of tissues and rat poison. She’s real nice. She wants to move back to Ohio. That’s where she’s from. She hates it here. She doesn’t like the way the snow gets sooty. Classy lady.”

“Wow,” said Slocomb. “You two are practically married.”

“I have it on good authority that she gives hand-jobs for twenty bucks,” said Acid.

“And what authority might that be?” said Pile.

“That bald guy over at the Esso Station with the tattoo on his head.”

“That guy is delusional.”

“No way. She’s building a nest egg so she can move back to Ohio.”

“Twenty bucks?” said Slocomb. “That’s a pretty sweet return, you know, from a risk-reward perspective.”

“I figure all we need to do is get her out to Duchess Woods,” said Acid. “That spot underneath the old railroad trestle. Then it will just naturally come up in conversation.”

“You serious?”

“Absolutely.”

“Since when do hand jobs naturally come up in conversation?”

“Under the trestle in Duchess Woods, idiot.”

“What if it doesn’t?”

“There’s only one reason anyone goes out to Duchess Woods, okay? If she agrees to go with us for any reason at all I figure we’re in.”

“So how do we get her to go with us?” said Pile. “I mean, us?”

“I’ve got that figured out. All we need is the right car.”

“Huh?”

“She has a thing for muscle cars. The guy at the Esso Station told me. It’s like a sex-switch. She gets all crazy in a sweet ride. She’ll do practically anything because she can’t help herself. And that’s a lot of woman. I mean, think about it. If she gets real excited she could dislocate your hip or something.”

We all pondered that thought for a moment.

“So how are we going to get the wheels?” said Pile.

“That’s where Eugene here comes in.”

I looked up.

“Wait. I do?”

“Yes. It’s time for your trial by fire, son.”

“Why do I need a trial by fire?”

“Listen. Do you want to be – well, you, forever?”

“Of course not.”

“Then just do what we say.”

“But I don’t even have a car.”

“No. But your neighbor, the mean guy who lives with his crazy mother, he’s got a cherry 65 Mustang. Red with white interior. That car is death.”

“Everyone knows that car is death. So what?”

“You just got your license, right?”

“Yeah?”

“So you’re going to borrow your neighbor’s car for a little while. That’s all.”

“Why would he let me do that?”

“Because you’re not going to tell him you’re borrowing it, dummy. Do I have to explain absolutely everything?”

“You mean I’m going to steal it?”

“Now did I say that? It all comes down to a question of perspective.”

In the dusky light the clouds began to spit out fat drops of rain seconds away from ice. They smacked the asphalt and hoods of cars and the backs of our necks. Four-thirty came with no sighting of Big Waitress. Then the rain came harder.

II.

The next day at 3:30 we were back at the Steak Pit. It was unseasonably warm. The sky had cleared and the sun felt good on our faces. We unzipped our jackets and sidled up to the pink Pinto. This time at 3:45 sharp Big Waitress appeared at the doorway, just like Acid said she would. She wore gold shorts and a blue t-shirt and was pulling her fake rabbit-fur coat over her shoulders while holding a pack of Virginia Slims. She started for her Pinto but slowed when she saw us gathered there.

“Hey,” said Battery Acid, walking up. “How ya doing?”

“I know you?”

“Sure.”

She squinted at him.

“I don’t know you.”

“I’m Battery Acid. Remember?”

“You kidding? A girl would remember a name like that.” She held an unlit Virginia Slim between her fingers and gestured toward the rest of us. “Who are these guys?”

“These are my friends.”

“Well why are your friends standing around my car?”

“We were, you know, taking the air prior to dining.”

“Huh?”

“So how you doing, anyway?”

“Cheeky.”

Big Waitress leaned against the hood. The car dropped six inches. She flicked her lighter. Then flicked it again.

“Please,” I said. “Allow me.”

I took out my Bic Click. That’s the other thing. I was trying to figure out how to smoke cigarettes that year. I figured it might be helpful.

She squinted at me.

“How old are you, sweetie?”

“Sixteen.”

She ran her tongue across her bottom lip.

“Who are your friends?”

“Well, that’s Pile. The tall one is Slocomb. And I guess you already know Battery Acid.”

“So he says.”

“C’mon,” said Acid. “You really don’t remember me? We’re practically engaged.”

“I talk to a lot of people, honey.” Big Waitress turned her head so that her cheek was nestled in the rabbit fur and looked back at me. “So what do they call you?”

“Eugene.”

“Eugene Wolcott the III,” said Slocomb.

The three of them cracked up like this was the first time any of them had heard my name out loud. Big Waitress just kept staring.

“Sixteen and never been kissed, I’ll bet.”

My face flushed.

“Oh, I’ve been kissed several times.”

“Grandparents don’t count, sweetie.”

Battery Acid stepped closer.

“So how the heck are you, anyway?”

She pulled on her Virginia Slim.

“Stop yelling, okay?”

“Sorry.”

“So why do I have the feeling you boys were waiting out here for me?”

“Listen. We were wondering. You want to take a drive with us sometime?”

“A drive?”

“Yeah.”

“With all of you?”

She looked from one of us to the other – Slocomb, shoulders hunched in his army jacket decorated with the peace buttons; Battery Acid with his baby hair moustache; Pile with his Song Remains the Same t-shirt and mashed Twinkie which he believed would reconstitute once the air hit it in the summer months; then me.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“C’mon. It’s not like we’re asking for hand-jobs or anything.”

Her eyes flared.

“Hey,” she said sharply. “What the hell?”

“We didn’t mean anything. Honest. We just thought you might like to take a drive with us out to Duchess Woods. It’s pretty this time of year. You know, with the foliage and everything.”

“It’s February.”

“We just thought it would be a pleasant excursion,” said Battery Acid. “And if we were talking about hand-jobs, which of course we’re not, we’d pay fifty dollars each. Cash in advance on a minimum of four.” He glanced at me. “Well, three at least.”

“Fifty?” said Pile.

Battery Acid slugged him in the shoulder.

“Hey,” she said, pushing out smoke. “Who you been talking to?”

“No one. Honest.”

“Well it sounds like you’ve been talking to someone.”

“Nope. Scout’s honor. Definitely no one over at the Esso station.”

“What about the Esso station?”

“Listen, we’ll bring the refreshments.”

“Yeah? You got any scotch?”

“Sure. Lots of it.”

“Well I don’t believe you got any scotch or fifty dollars each, either. So I guess you’re out of luck.”

There was a pause.

“Did I happen to mention the car?”

“What car?”

“Well. It’s no big deal, really. But we happen to have access to a 1965 Mustang. Red with a white interior. It’s cherry.”

She looked at him, her mouth open a little.

“With the 289 V8?”

“Absolutely.”

“How do you guys get a car like that?”

“Well you can take that up with my friend Eugene, here. He’s in charge of the transportation for the evening.”

“Yeah? That true, Sweetie?”

Then they were all staring at me.


III.

Everyone knew about Odie Crumble, the guy who owned that car. He lived with his mother in the house he was raised. He couldn’t work anymore in the stock room at Caldor’s because he’d lost half his foot to diabetes. Or something like that. Now he lived on disability and her social security check. The Mustang had belonged to his father and Odie kept it parked in the driveway all waxed and shiny like some kind of prop. Meanwhile his mother’s dementia kept getting worse. At night she sometimes got loose and wandered through the neighborhood where she was drawn to lamp-lit windows like a big moth. Odie would come get her in his fancy car. Then he would start yelling at her. This always made Mrs. Crumble cry. It was the kind of crying very little kids do which is especially awful coming from an old woman. Also, Odie had a gun. A little pistol he kept close for cats he didn’t like.

So I guess I didn’t feel bad about borrowing his stupid car.

That night I walked up his driveway and bits of gravel crackled beneath my shoes. I was sure everyone on the street could hear. Maybe even everyone in the whole neighborhood. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath even though I hadn’t been running. Just creeping along the edges of lawns… Acid had said, There’s nothing to it, man. My Uncle showed me how one Saturday afternoon. I think it’s why he got arrested that time. You stretch out a coat hanger and ball up the tip with a rubber band. Then you take a door-jamb and widen the space where the car door meets the body. Once the gap is big enough you slide the wire in and poke it around until the rubber tip hits the latch for the door lock. Then presto! You’re in. It’s far out. We broke into his Buick Skylark about twenty times. Now, hot-wiring the ignition is a little bit trickier….

I peered over the top of the car to the house. The shades were drawn on the big living room window. A television was on behind it. The glow alive-looking. I was surprised how fast I got the wire in the passenger door. I started stabbing around and wondered if anyone could see my breath dissolving in the air above the car. Then something strange happened. Now that I was actually stealing Odie Crumble’s Mustang, I felt much more relaxed. I started to laugh, although nothing was funny. The truth was I liked being in that dangerous driveway. Even though the car was only for Big Waitress and I’d be bringing it back eventually none of that mattered the moment I forced the rubber wedge into the door. I had crossed a line. The person who would actually do something like this was pretty much a whole new acquaintance – I liked him.

It fit in with trying to smoke cigarettes.

Then my focus returned to the wire that wasn’t hitting any latch. So I reached up and tried the handle. The door popped open. The car had never been locked.

Doofus.

I slipped inside. Checked the house one more time. Saw that the curtains were still closed. Then I stretched out across the seats and felt under the steering wheel for the access cover. Found the bundle of wires below the steering column. I pulled away the two red wires, stripped them, then twisted these together to join the power supply for the ignition switch with the car’s electrical circuits. Next I located the brown wire. I would not strip that one yet. First I would roll the car down the drive and onto the street as far as its momentum would take it. After that I would touch the brown wire to the red. Then…

I wasn’t cold anymore.

With the big engine rumbling and the car picking up speed there was really nothing to do now but deepen the night. This was good. This was living. Even then I could sense how the roads

you found on nights like this dissolved at sunrise just like dreams.

The Big Waitress was waiting at the Steak Pit with Pile, Slocomb, and Battery Acid. She stood under the floodlight that sharpened the contrast between her mascara and her pocked skin. The Steak Pit was closed so there was only her pink Pinto and Slocomb’s Plymouth Fury in the parking lot. The Fury was a mess. There were holes in the muffler, rust in the wheel wells, and the front bumper hung in place with fence wire. Big Waitress’s expression changed when the Mustang rumbled to a stop. Low-slung. Ominous.

“Where you been anyway?” said Acid, his voice screechy.

“Yeah,” said Pile. “Where you been?”

Battery Acid flicked his cigarette to the side and sauntered up to the car like he wasn’t the least bit impressed. Pile followed. Slocomb thrust his hands into the pockets of his army jacket and squinted in the direction of the dumpsters as if he couldn’t be bothered with whatever might happen in the parking lot.

“It better have a cassette player,” said Pile. “I brought Houses of the Holy.”

“Hey,” said Acid. “The car’s cherry. There’s no cassette player in a cherry Mustang for God’s sake.”

Pile looked horrified.

“But I got Houses of the Holy I said.”

“You can listen to the radio this once. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”

“Yeah,” said Slocomb. “Maybe you’ll get lucky tonight. Ha!”

“Wow,” said Big Waitress, who had walked up to the Mustang and was running the strawberry colored tips of her fingers along the edge of the hood. “You guys weren’t kidding about this car at least.”

“Of course we weren’t kidding,” said Acid. “Do we look like men not to be taken seriously? We’ve got scotch, too. Remember?”

She shrugged and sauntered over to the driver’s side window. For a few seconds her thighs where eye-level with my face. Then she leaned in the window, her fingernails bright. She smelled like skin cream and laundry detergent and A-1 sauce.

“Calm down, Sweetie,” she said.

“I’m calm.”

“You’re all sweaty and it’s winter.”

“Perhaps the heater is malfunctioning.”

“So, was I right? You never been kissed?”

“Yes. I mean no. I have. Obviously.”

She smiled real slow.

Which was kind of mesmerizing, I’ll admit.

Then Mrs. Crumble sat up in the back seat.

“God!” yelled Big Waitress. “Who is that?”

She swatted at herself like there were bugs.

I turned to all the way around. Then I was pretty much eye-level with the gray face and the milky eye-balls sort of floating there in the gloomy parking lot light.

“Good evening, Mrs. Crumble.”

“Hello.”

“How are you this evening?”

“I’m fine. And you?”

“Very well, thank you. Will you excuse me for a moment?”

“Certainly.”

I fumbled with the handle and climbed out of the car.

“Jesus Christ,” said Battery Acid. “You stole the guy’s mother, too?”

“I didn’t mean to.”

“Jesus Christ.”

Mrs. Crumble peeked out at us from just above the door lock.

“Look at that,” said Slocomb, tilting his head. “Like a big bug.”

“This is bad,” I said.

“What were you thinking, anyway?” said Battery Acid.

“I didn’t know she was in there.”

“How could you not know?”

“It was dark. She must have been underneath a blanket or something.”

“Well now she’s in the parking lot of the Steak Pit.”

“Wait a minute,” said Big Waitress. “This is getting kinky.”

“Maybe if we just let her out she’ll find her way home,” said Pile. “You know. Like a spaniel.”

Acid turned to Big Waitress.

“Perhaps you’d like to have some scotch while we sort all this out?”

“Are you mental?”

“Everyone wait a minute,” I said.

I went over to the car.

“Mrs. Crumble?”

“Yes?”

“May I ask what you’re doing in this car?”

“Well, I was waiting for a ride.”

“To where?”

“The Shaddock Fair.”

“Ah.”

I closed the door again, put my hands in my pockets, then walked back to

everyone else.

“What’s happening?” said Acid.

“She wants to go to the Shaddock Fair.”

“Is she crazy?”

“There’s something else.”

“What, for God’s sake?”

“Smells kind of bad in there.”

“Bad?”

“Old lady bad.”

“Oh gross,” said The Big Waitress.

“C’mon,” said Battery Acid, faking a smile. “It’s no big deal. These more mature adults emit all kinds of odors. It’s quite natural.”

“I don’t care,” she said. “I’m not getting in that car now. No way.”

“Hey,” said Slocomb, grinning. “Anybody ever watch monkeys at the zoo throw their shit at little kids?”

We all stared at him.

“Thanks for sharing, Slocomb. That was very helpful.”

“All right,” I said. “I’m the one who stole the car and accidentally kidnapped Mrs. Crumble. You guys should go on to Duchess Woods in Slocomb’s Fury. I’ll take care of this.”

“What’s he mean, stole the car?” said Big Waitress.

“He didn’t mean that exactly,” said Acid. “It’s more like borrowed. No one’s keeping anything. When you take something and bring it back it’s called borrowing. Anyone who would consider this car stolen is just being picky. Same thing applies to the guy’s mother. Basically we just borrowed her too, when you think about it. However I do think it would be a good idea if we all got going, and soon, given this unforeseen turn of events.”

“Could we get in trouble?” she asked.

“Naw,” said Acid. “We didn’t take anything. He did.”

 


IV.

I turned out of the parking lot and kept an eye on the old woman through the rearview mirror. She sat there, content, gazing out the window. I decided then and there that maybe getting old wasn’t such a good goal to have. Maybe it was better to die early and all at once instead of late by inches. She caught me looking at her through the mirror and smiled. By then she was probably kind of used to me. After all, I’d already been driving her around most of the night.

“Could you please roll down the window,” she said.

“But it’s cold out, Mrs. Crumble.”

“I like listening to the cicadas.”

“There aren’t any cicadas. It’s winter.”

“Oh. Well that certainly makes sense.”

I steered around a pothole.

“It’s late. You should be home.”

“Oh I don’t much like home. And automobiles go such interesting places. We had a yellow Studebaker growing up. We called it Daisy.”

“Daisy. That’s a real nice name.”

She squinted her eyes at the road.

“Remember to go straight through this light.”

“That’s not the way back to your house.”

“We’re going to the Fair.”

“What?”

“The Shaddock Fair.”

“But Mrs. Crumble…”

“Just go straight down Old Mill Road. Pretty soon you’ll see the lights in the trees. You always see that first. Don’t worry. We won’t have to stay long.”

I remembered the Shaddock Fair. Everyone who grew up around there did. It had always been held the last week in August and was one of those old fashion country fairs with pies and horse-pulls and a Miss Shaddock beauty contest. Even though a shaddock is a fish. Then the town sold the grounds to a developer who had plans to build outlet stores. At the moment there was nothing out there except an old Ferris wheel rusting in the sky. No one had bothered to take it down. I was about to tell Mrs. Crumble all that. Then I changed my mind.

“Lights in the trees, you say?”

“Oh yes. All different colors. Can you imagine?”

“Maybe so.”

Her rheumy eyes were fixed on me.

“Okay, we’ll stop there for a little while. But then I have to take you home. All right?”

“That would be lovely.”

She bounced her hands in her lap and turned back to the window.

I thought to myself – who am I to say what this old woman saw and what she didn’t see? Who am I to say there are no lights in the trees when lights like that might be the clearest thing there is in someone else’s night?

 


V.

From down the road I saw the police lights flashing. Two cops were standing outside the house with Odie Crumble. He was wearing sagging khakis and a white wind-breaker stained with mustard. He lolled his head back and forth like a cow in a field when I pulled into the driveway. The two cops converged, one keeping just behind the other resting his hand on his gun like on one of those stupid TV shows.

“Out,” said the stocky one. “Now.”

Odie Crumble stared at me with dull eyes.

The other cop opened the passenger door.

“You all right, Ma’am?”

“I’m perfectly fine. Thank you for asking.”

“Here. Let me help you out.”

She put one little pointed shoe on the asphalt, then the other. Leaning on the cop’s arms, she rose to her feet.

“What is all this fuss about?” she said.

“We’ll let the kid here answer that.”

I had dressed for adventure. Leather jacket over an old white t-shirt. Jeans. Frye boots. My hair had grown out since last summer. But it was just kind of poofy and stupid. It occurred to me that I must have looked pretty much like a real punk to these cops. And who knows? Maybe I was.

“I took the car,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because it’s mint.”

“What kind of reason is that?”

“The one I have.”

Then Odie Crumble spoke up.

“This is why there’s a second amendment, you know. So people like me can protect their property from kids like this. All my life I paid my taxes. My mortgage. I went to church regular. Kept my yard nice. Now I got hardly any heating oil in my house. You think anyone is going to fill my tank on credit? On top of everything else I got her to worry about. You think I can afford a rest home? A place with music coming out of the walls and puzzle games and trips to the aquarium? No sir. My father gave me that car. Handed me the keys after he got the cancer. He could have sold it, you know. Paid for a private nurse. Would have gone a long way with him, having just a little comfort for a little while. But he handed me the keys instead. Now this damn kid comes along and steals it. Good thing I was busy tonight watching Bonanza, because this is exactly why there’s a second amendment…” As I stared at Odie Crumble the outline of a skull floated to the surface of his skin like an underwater face. Then it floated back. And I suppose I felt sad.

“I get you were out joyriding,” said the stocky cop. “But how come you decided to take this guy’s mother along? That your idea of some kind of joke?”

“That was an accident. She was hiding in the back.”

“Hiding.”

“Yes, under a blanket. I had no idea she was there.”

The cop turned.

“That make any sense to you, Mr. Crumble?”

He glanced away for a second. Shrugged.

“She gets out now and then.”

“And how come she does that?”

“Who knows.”

“She make a habit of crawling under a blanket in the back of this car?”

“It’s where she always goes first. That’s why the car was unlocked. Why I put blankets in there. Most nights this car is as far as she gets. Especially in the winter. It saves me a lot of time and aggravation when this car is as far as she gets. It’s not like I can afford one of those places with music coming out of the walls.” He turns to his mother. “Get inside and wait for me in the laundry room. I can tell from here you’ve messed yourself again.”

Instead the old woman came up to me.

“Having things worth missing… that’s the whole point. You must always be paying attention. Otherwise you might never notice the lights in the trees. But this is not a young man’s notion. And you are young.”

 


VI.

A few years later, that last summer before college, I had a job in the pharmacy. It was all right. Most days I worked with this girl named Janis who had blond hair and glossy pink lip stick. We liked to make fun of the pharmacist who had a haircut like one of Nixon’s lawyers and carried a 38cal. revolver because he was so scared of the teenagers who hung out in the shopping center parking lot after dusk. We have drugs in here, he would say, peering out the big glass door with his stupid gun sticking out of his teal pharmacy shirt. The other person I worked with was this lady named Geneva. She was matronly with a shellacked beauty-parlor hairdo. She never seemed to get any older than fifty. For thirty years she’d been fifty. If Geneva hadn’t been a cashier at the pharmacy she would have been a guard at a woman’s prison. Anyway, I liked how Janis’s lipstick made her mouth look. I figured she kind of balanced out Geneva. Neither of them came in Sundays. I was by myself from opening to the early closing. I didn’t mind, though. Nothing much happened on Sundays after everyone bought their papers.

I unlocked the rear door and turned off the alarm before switching on the lights inside the store. It was 5:30AM. A white glow splashed through aisles of blue utility carpet. Then I went to unlock the front door where the Sunday papers were piled up outside the front entrance. These came in sections tied with string and they had to be assembled before the store opened at 6:00. It was a pretty big job. I sighed and grabbed the first bundle. Then there was a voice in the pre-dawn dark.

“Hey there, douche.”

I dropped the bundle.

“Who’s there?”

“Bat Man. Who do you think?”

Then Battery Acid stepped out of the shadows with his hands deep in the pockets of his army jacket. No one had seen him since graduation. No one had seen any of them.

“Acid?”

“In the flesh, man.”

“Hey! Acid!”

I stepped toward him but stopped when my old friend flinched.

“So,” said Acid, voice scratchy as ever. “How you doing, anyway?”

“I can’t complain. Going to college soon.”

“College?”

“It’s a pretty good option for a writer.”

“Sure, I get it. Hemingway and shit.”

“That’s right.”

“I guess they found a college that would take you, huh?”

“Yeah. It’s a miracle. So where you been for God’s sake?”

“Oh, you know. I had to put in some time at the VA Hospital.”

“What for? You get hurt?”

“Naw, nothing like that. They just had to make sure I wasn’t a head case or something. That’s all. It’s no big deal. It just took a while.” Acid hunched his shoulders and glanced at the light coming up like it was dangerous.

“So what are you doing out here?” I said.

“Just making sure you’re working for a living.”

“You could have done that in the daylight.”

Acid shrugged.

“Yeah, well, I’m up nights a lot. It’s this thing I have.”

“Like insomnia?”

“Something. I don’t know.”

“So you want to help me with these? I got to get all these newspapers put together before we open. Some of these old guys get here at 5:59 sharp for their stupid papers and start pissing their adult diapers if I’m a second late.”

“Yeah, sure. What the hell.”

We hauled the stacks inside. Acid’s face looked pale and washed out in the pharmacy light – lips gray, eyes sunken. Older. Much older.

“Can’t believe people actually read all this shit,” said Acid.

“Yeah, well, I guess there’s not much else to do around here.”

“Seeing as how it’s all nothing but lies.”

“Yeah?”

“Bet your ass. Lies crammed into all this tiny print on all these pages. Enough to choke on. Enough to make you sick.”

I cut the string with box cutters.

“All I know is five seconds late and they pelt me with laxative jars.”

“And I thought Nam was tough.”

Acid started passing the sections of newspaper to me and that’s when I saw that tops of his hands weren’t right. They looked mottled and shiny. Stretched over. Fake.

“So what happened, man?”

“Huh?”

“Your hands. You said you weren’t hurt.”

“Oh, you know, they got burned and shit. It’s nothing much.”

“They look reupholstered.”

“Hey,” he said, pulling at another stack of newspaper sections. “Want to hear something funny? My first day, man. This Sergeant Major pulls me aside. Says, Son, now you listen to me. There ain’t nothing in this fucking country worth dying for. Understand? Your only job here is to not get killed. My job is to get you home. Forget all that rah rah shit you came over here with. Got it? How about that? You ever hear anything so hysterical? I still had starch in my shirt, man, and this guy is telling me to lay down in every fire-fight that might be coming my way. Sheeew. It’s because we got there late.”

“Walter Cronkite said it was over after the Tet Offensive,” I said.

“The news. Yeah. We all kept hearing about the news. One time I spent the night in an irrigation ditch with this other guy. In the dark anything we heard moving was the enemy. That’s what we decided. We just let everything we had go at every little noise. Had to, you know? Cause you never knew. Not over there. Then in the morning there were all these dead cattle. Water buffalo. They were all over the place. I didn’t look too hard to see what else. Fucking sunrise, man. Never good. The guy I spent the night with didn’t even tell me his name. How about that? I hope you’re not pissed because I never wrote you or anything. Cause I never wrote anybody.”

“It’s all right, Acid.”

“I hardly wrote my parents, even.”

“What about Pile and Slocomb?”

But Acid was shaking his head.

“The news, man,” he said, staring at the paper. “Doesn’t tell you how things smell. You wouldn’t believe what it smells like when a guy bleeds out. Blood has this iron smell. You know? Real strong iron smell. It’s awful. Once it’s all in your nose and head you don’t ever get it out. It’s like a stain or something. But on the inside. We never learned nothing about that kind of thing in basic. Nothing about how everything was going to stay in your head, one way or another.”

“The guys never wrote either,” I said, voice low.

“Who?”

“Pile and Slocomb.”

Battery Acid let go of the papers and leaned back a little.

“Slocomb deserted, man. He deserted and decided to stay in-country. He’s with a girl. Binh Chau something or other. Where Slocomb is the US Army don’t go and won’t never go. I don’t know anything more than that and I don’t want to know. Pile jumped out of a Jolly Green and killed himself. Officially he fell. But no one falls. They jump. I’m pretty sure he’s going to get a medal. You know, retroactively. Weird things happened like that over there. Guys getting medals for jumping out of helicopters.”

I stood up.

“Pile’s dead?”

“Yeah. Not like he was the first. Just one of the last.”

I looked around the empty pharmacy. I stared down the aisles as if daring my old friend Pile to appear and come strolling over making all of this a big joke. Pile with the Twinkie in the chest pocket of his stupid Led Zeppelin t-shirt. But there were only the long lights humming above the empty rows of carpet.

“Listen,” said Acid. “I came here to say goodbye.”

“What?”

“I’m leaving town. For good.”

“Why?”

“I got me a kid in Ohio.”

I stared.

“A kid?”

“Yeah,” said Acid. “I know. Pretty wild, right?”

“When did that happen?”

“The Big Waitress. Remember? Duchess Woods? I only found out a little while ago. His name is Sammy, I think. Or maybe Benjamin. I’m not entirely sure. I figure he’s probably mine, like she said. It makes sense when you consider the odds. I mean the odds are pretty good, right? Anyway, now I got veteran’s benefits. That changes things. I got a shot at being a decent provider and all that.” Acid rose to his feet. He looked toward the pharmacy door. The glass now bright with dawn. Then he nodded toward the unassembled newspapers. “Hey. Sorry man. I guess we never quite finished, did we?”