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Things that Never Happen

 

 

I.

Observations from the Oasis (4 a.m.)

 

Time does not exist in places like this. People have misplaced their entire lives here in the summer furnace, with its tumbleweeds and strange gunshots heard in the night. After enough years, a kind of atrophy sets in and at some point, she began to think about time less and less. Eventually, she didn't think about it at all. If you did, out here, you'd go mad. Hell, a lot of people do, and nobody knows this better than Ginny, since all news reaches her ears most times before it reaches its intended party. This might've been a perk of serving these people for so many years, except that all the stories are boring.

For such a dead hour, four customers officially makes this place the busiest business in a fifty mile radius. The first came in at the top of the hour, and took a booth near the counter, ordering coffee with a wave that Ginny didn't need to come over and take his order. He's the kind who can go unnoticed if he chooses to, and most often, does. 'They Who Watch,' in the vernacular of Ginny, who has, in turn, watched them come and go since time out of mind. If a customer chooses a booth instead of the counter, it's safe to say they're not looking for fellowship.

The second guy is a different story, and he enters within seconds of the first, as though they might be together, but such is not the case. The creative side of her suggests a reason for what brings them here, especially in this hemisphere's quietest hours. Most who show up at these times are too tired to do much more than come in here and eat. Taking a seat at the counter, he orders eggs and bacon and, afterwards, Ginny (according to her nametag) comes over to refill his coffee. On his left hand, she notices the tattoo of a bullet between thumb and index finger.

“I bet you work here long enough, you see just about everything. Eh ... Ginny?”

“That I do,” she says, letting the Folgers flow, and the admission is true even though she adds soon after, “Not that too much ever happens around here worth seeing.” One thing she's witnessed is every possible reaction toward her efforts to chit-chat with the clientele. Most are congenial, but maintain that aura of genteel Southern hospitality which is warm, if not exactly personal, but what more can she expect in the middle of God’s Great Wide Nothing? This place is no one's destination; most just want to refuel their bodies with eggs or a hamburger so they can they can keep the hell-on going.

Bullet Tattoo, however, appears willing to entertain the opportunity to tell someone his life story. It's something about the aura of wherever he's been that almost makes her excited about listening. Neither one of these guys is from around here, but then again, no one really is. With the Quiet One in a booth beyond Bullet Tattoo, she focuses on the most obvious opportunity for conversation. Once it starts, she's quick to deduce that Bullet's not even from the south. 

She asked him, once it was clear he didn’t mind talking, where he was coming from and he answered, “Maine,” but with a hesitation before saying it, like it might not be the truth. As if to clarify, he also informed her he was on a pilgrimage.

“Yeah? Like Moses, huh?”

“Not quite,” he replied. “Moses was in the desert. He couldn’t have done what I’m doing.”

“What’re you doing?”

“I’m in the cleaning business.”

“Oh, yeah? What sort of cleaning business?”

“The traveling sort,” he said, offering her a wink as he sipped his Decaf. “I’m in the business of cleansing the world, I guess you could say. At least, that’s what you’d think from all the places they send me. Someone’s got to do the jobs too dirty for anyone else. Am I right?”

“Well, I don’t know about cleansing the whole world. That might take you awhile.”

“You might be right,” he said, with a chuckle. “Guess I’ll probably just have to settle for a good spit-shine … at least, for as long as I can get away with it.”

He watches Ginny, bored and watching an eighteen wheeler breeze past on its way west. The Oasis was aptly named. At the convergence of 253 and “the old 6,” the place was going on its sixth decade of serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to truckers coming out of Galveston, tourists on their way to anywhere but here, and general drifters with no particular destination of any kind.

This much he can surmise from appearances alone. For fun, he fills in the blanks: Ginny ... Cushing had been the one serving them for half of those decades, except for a spell in mid ’75, when the fire closed them down for six weeks while an especially slow contractor replaced two new ovens and six booths, half the counter, most of the ceiling, and three of the glass panels encircling the dining room. Things he could intuit while watching she, the waitress, in her natural habitat: besides that month and a half, Ginny Cushing had never missed a day; not a scheduled one, anyway. There was the six-month maternity leave in ‘82 when Carly was born. Beyond that, her relationship with this worn linoleum floor behind the lunch counter has outlasted two marriages, a daughter, and countless pairs of thick-soled orthopedic sneakers.

Bullet Tattoo posits the theory that she’d gotten through the first ten years right out of high school by believing she was young, there was time, and that it was smarter to know where you were going before you just up and went. She’d been eighteen, and Aunt Shirley’s Alzheimer’s was barely a specter yet, just on the fringe of its five-year residency. When it finally arrived in the flesh its effect was enough to keep Ginny here for the duration. After all, how could she (in clear conscience) leave the woman who’d raised her? Once resolved to stay, this was the only job on this twenty-five mile stretch of County Road 253, unless she wanted to change bed sheets at the Diamond (which she did not).

For better work (meaning tips), she could've gone to Galveston, but Galveston was on the far end of that twenty-five mile stretch, and the Oasis was five miles from home. She could run off if she had to, without worrying whether Max would hand her job off to somebody else right away. There was barely enough clientele to keep the place open; in fact, the day Hazel, (Aunt Shirley’s live-in from Santa Fe) called her and told her to come quickly, there'd been no one in the Oasis at all. At the time, Carly was the ripe old age of two.

The next fifteen were for her daughter, but by the age of seventeen, Carly was gone and, after that, Ginny could no longer think of stronger reasons to leave than she had for staying, and so had passed five more behind this counter.

Maybe fifty cars passed in either of four directions on any given day of the week except Sunday, which saw a few less. Monday through Saturday, there was about as much traffic at night as there was during the day. She knew this because Donna had told her it would be so when Ginny took over the nightshift; Donna leaving for Dallas to "try it out" with a guy she’d met on the internet. Max had given her another quarter an hour and that was pretty much all the coaxing Ginny needed to become a night-owl. Max’s mother took over the day shift, trading days with a procession of local young folk, all developing the stones to move out of the sticks. When asked, Ginny hadn’t been able to think of a reason not to take the late night action. Lord knew there was no one to rush home to.

“It’s tame,” Donna had assured Ginny, as though Ginny didn’t already know the score around this place. “You’ll get a few sleepy drunks, a few truckers, people from town that work nights in Galveston, a few from the bars in the next county on Friday and Saturday night, once in awhile a State cop or two. Nobody out here gives a damn at four a.m. about raising a ruckus in somebody's place of business. They want eggs or burgers, and coffee. You’ll be just fine, honey.”

Phil was the night cook on a regular basis, but he was falling farther and farther into the bottle since his wife lit out last year for Houston; no one really expected him to last through this one. Max was in the back on the nights when Phil didn’t show up, and she knew he was always packing. Max wasn’t a big guy, but you don’t need to be if you can draw and shoot fast enough. He wasn't too weird, besides a fascination with UFOs and "little green men."

Bullet had talked to waitresses like "Ginny" all his life, and the stories were always the same. Change the kid's name, change the excuse for never living your life outside of a greasy spoon in the middle of nowhere, Texas back-country. Add a husband who drinks too much and doesn't work enough, swap a "family home" for a trailer park--the story comes out the same. He wondered, when he cut off her blouse, if he would see a scar from a C-Section or stretch marks.

For the most part, "Donna" had been accurate. Usually the place was dead. Two customers at a time was rush hour. Tonight, there'd been nobody but a couple drunks who surprisingly didn't overstay their welcome and Harv, the local hermit who needed to own the world whenever he walked in it, thus didn't come out until so late even the moon didn't notice. Edith was local color in an otherwise oceanic nothing. No one could understand how someone never seen without a burning cigarette hanging out of their lips could still be standing. If anyone had been around long enough to remember who built the heads on Easter Island, it was Edith. Besides Harv with his crossword puzzles and Edith with her pig-pen cloud of smoke, there was a nobody sitting behind him hovering over a notepad and scribbling something likely less wise than a last will and testament, considering what was about to happen next. Including "Max," in the back, that was four customers representing the mess he was here to clean up.

With Ginny, he planned to play a little jazz.

Before standing, he says a prayer for everyone in the room, and digs in his pocket for change. There's a Wurlitzer they actually dust once in a while, just inside the door, and Bullet knows he'll see a sign saying 3 for a dollar before the sign comes into view. He chooses "Misfits" by the Kinks; Asleep At The Wheel's version of Bob Wills' "Stay A Little Longer"; and Emmylou Harris' version of Johnny Cash's "I Guess Things Happen that Way," the live version from her 1991 show at the Ryman. While choosing his songs, it was fairly easy to lean over and throw the deadbolt without stretching too far, but flipping the open sign to closed would've required fumbling around with a sign attached to the window by suction cups. No reason to bother; any poor fool hapless enough to show up in this diner at this ungodly hour was about to find themselves robbed of their last meal. They'd be cordially greeted by the new ownership, featuring a personalized tour of the very kitchen in which his digesting breakfast had been cooked.

Another second past, and he would've been headed back to his stool at the counter; in fact, had it gone that way, the jig would've been up. Instead of leaving as the Kinks began to play, his eye had been caught by one of the record labels in the Wurlitzer, and he'd thought: Ooh, haven't heard that one in a while. Because of this, he was still there to see the arrival of the smoking pickup truck as it pulled off 253 and into this dump's parking lot.

The guy who climbed out from behind the wheel stumbled doing it, and because of that, Bullet reached forward again and flipped up the deadbolt, re-opening the door. "Nothing like Texas On a Saturday Night, indeed," he whispered--hopefully not loud enough to be heard. Sometimes things he thought he was thinking were actually being spoken, and whispered not so quietly as he'd intended.

With the waitress, the hermit, the old smoking woman, the cook, the nobody and this one, it was officially a party. He would come back to bolt the door once everyone was in the back.

He was back at his stool in time to witness, with Ginny, that the guy’s jacket seemed to reflect the lights out there, and Ginny wondered aloud if it was made of snakeskin once the guy wearing it stepped through the smoke billowing from his truck’s overheating radiator. Instead of popping the hood, he seemed satisfied to have made it this far, and headed for the doors. Ginny called out to Max, just to give him a head’s-up that they might be about to be graced with the presence of a ‘live one.’

Snakeskin came in and stopped as though suddenly bereft of his reason for coming in here in the first place. Trying not to stare, Ginny made a bet with herself that he was about to ask if they had a phone. She pointed when he did exactly that. It was interesting to note that Snakeskin didn’t seem to have the local twang in his voice when he spoke. “It’s around the corner, hon. End of the counter.”

Ginny watched him head toward it, but her other customer, Mr. Bullet Tattoo, had already lost interest. Not exactly that, maybe; he was still very much aware, but very good at not showing it. She had a sense he was listening to the guy with the jacket moving away toward the far end of the counter. Watching … with his ears.

It was four a.m., and that was half the reason she felt so uneasy. Paranoid; she still wasn’t used to being up all night, barely two weeks after agreeing to the night shift. A guy breaks down out here, what does he do but call a tow truck, most likely, or maybe a friend—then a tow truck? Behind her, in the kitchen, Max made some noise, moving pots or something. Ginny set down the Decaf pot on its hot plate and stepped away from in front of the swinging kitchen doors, to make sure Max had a nice, clear line of vision through the plastic portholes in each door’s upper-middle half. Eventually, Max came out into the area behind the counter to get a better look, but only long enough to get himself a cup of Folgers.

The Snakeskin man never looks up, uncaring whether anyone might find his behavior the least bit peculiar. He fed the phone its quarters, dialed, and, even from here, Ginny could see the effort it was taking him to hit the right numbers. As he passed her on his way back into the kitchen, he said, “Don’t worry. I’m watchin.”

Bullet had himself a silent chuckle over that one.

He waited until Max was gone before raising his empty cup in the air and Ginny was happy to have something to do. They both watched the Snakeskin Man stand there staring at the phone, waiting for the other end to pick up. Max came out of the kitchen again and knelt behind the register, pretending to look for ketchup he didn’t need. When no one answered, the guy in the jacket made his way toward Ginny’s end of the counter—that lost, distracted look now deeper than it had been a moment before.

There was something wrong with him but Ginny didn’t think he was drunk. She also knew he was going to say something to her before he actually opened his mouth.

“Um … ma’am?”

“Yeah, hon.”

“My truck overheated. I’ve got to sleep. Is there a bus st—…, I mean: a motel around here?”

“There’s the Diamond-in-the-Sand half a mile up the road.” She pointed up Interstate 235.

“Can I come back in the morning for my truck? I’m just gonna walk up to the motel and get some sleep.”

Still crouching, Max said, “Sure. We can do that.”

That was when the cab pulled into the parking lot, shutting off near the doors, where folks usually parked.

Ginny would’ve thought the cab was here for Mr. Snakeskin Jacket if not for the fact that the nearest cabs were in Galveston, and the guy had made his call less than twenty seconds ago. Besides that, she could now see there was somebody already occupying the backseat of the cab. Everyone present, including the guy in the snakeskin, gave the newly arrived taxi an almost obligatory glance.

“I’m going that way,” Bullet Tattoo told Snakeskin. “You want, I can give you a lift.” Game change. Why not?

“Um, thank you, sir,” said Mr. Snakeskin, although Ginny caught the impression that Mr. Snakeskin had been contemplating asking this conveniently arrived taxi for that very service. Mr. Bullet Tattoo left a five dollar bill on the counter as he stood up, more than covering his tab. She watched them both push through the opposite twin glass doors into the dry Texas night air, and walk off out of sight toward whatever car a guy with a tattoo of a bullet on his hand would drive. She hadn't noticed when he pulled in and found it odd, while serving him, that someone would go out of their way to park in a spot not visible from inside the diner. With every space in front open, it would seem someone who did had plans to rob the place, but her curiosity didn’t last long after realizing he wasn't from around here.

When she finally saw the vehicle on its way out of the parking lot, it came from behind the Oasis, and she watched from the open back screen door as a make she couldn't identify headed toward the Diamond with a flourish of dust in its wake. It looked classy, black paint job, which made it lost to the shadows soon enough, not to be seen again until it passed under the streetlight midway between here and the Diamond. These details, in the context she’d just observed them, were only slightly more fascinating than serious consideration of how long it took paint to dry.

Max, during a coffee refill, said without a trace of tension, “For a minute there, I thought we might see a little action.”

Ginny admitted, prior to yawning, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so excited. 

 

 

 

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