Read More: A short interview with Jody Hobbs Hesler.
Story always starts with a girl. This one’s fro stood about a quarter inch short, used to work down at the Gas-a-Thon. Nametag said Taysha. She didn’t know me.
It was summer, just like any summer – too hot inside, too hot out. At home, we didn’t have AC. Didn’t have much at all since Dad left with nearabout all the furniture two years back. Nothing but a bunch of dirty laundry and stale cigarette smoke there now. That, and the one fan, chopping up hot air and spitting it around, over and over, all day long.
Nothing left to do most days but walk on down to the Gas-a-Thon, about a mile from my house, just past the giant plaster dinosaur out 340. Little square building made out of cinderblocks. Smelled like gasoline, and piss from the bathroom in the back, probably hadn’t been cleaned the whole fifteen years since I was born.
Mid-July, sun bearing down, felt like my skin was melting off. Dodging the one or two cars whipping around the curves, sun baking the back of my neck, heat rising up at me from the road under my feet – whole time, I was picturing that girl at the Gas-a-Thon, practicing what to say to her. “Taysha. That’s one sweet name.”
Could’ve been because I’m white or maybe because I’m not man enough for her yet, or because Taysha had her eyes on a bigger prize than our puny little nothing of a town. Whatever it was, nothing seemed to stop her giving me the same plain-eyed look at checkout, like she’d never seen me before, couldn’t pick me out of a lineup, even if I did go there every day, buy ten million slushees just to get another look at her.
Didn’t matter how many times I said it to myself – “Taysha, remember me? I live just up the road, come here every day.” Didn’t matter how sweet she looked in my own head when she’d turn to me and smile, like she’d finally seen me standing there – the real me, not just some dumb, backwater white boy. Didn’t matter, because when I shoved open that glass door – ice cold air hitting me square in the face, wiping out summer from all around me – still no words came ready to say. And Taysha at the counter, bobbing her head to some music, didn’t even turn when I walked in.
All the signs said, No Loitering, so I had this way of kicking around the store, picking up this, picking up that, on every last aisle, to make me look like a real shopper. Up one aisle, down the next. Razors, diapers, rat traps. Tampons, tissues, toilet paper. Candy, gum, Hostess cupcakes. Up and down. Same damn box of Apple Jacks on that back shelf by the bathroom for probably sixty years. Box not even all the way green by now. Whole time I kept watch on Taysha, looking at her through the security mirror or peeking at her out the sides of my eyes.
Most days, after some long time – but not too long – I’d pick something. Pack of Big Red, maybe, Ho-Hos, red slushee, green slushee, pop it up on the counter. “Hey,” I’d say, all I ever could get up enough guts to say.
Pretty Taysha would smile, that kind of smile that comes from the inside, doesn’t have a thing to do with the person seeing it. She had narrow red lips and a way about her, something about her eyes. The way she looked down at whatever I was about to buy, how I could see half lid, half eye peeping out. Made my throat close up. “Hot enough for you?” she might say.
On my own again outside I’d say to myself all the things I should’ve said back to her. “Hot? Sun ain’t got nothing on you.” One day, I was gonna be that smooth.
Today it was just too hot to go back outside yet. You could fry a dozen eggs on that blacktop road. Figured loitering might not count if I hid out in the bathroom. Cool off in there long enough to face the sun again and head on home. Maybe with the extra time I’d finally think up something more to say than “hey.”
Bathroom was hardly big as a closet. Reeked of piss and shit and some kind of godawful cherry-flavored air freshener. Sink’d been dripping so long it left dark brown streaks down to the drain. Shut up in there, I didn’t see when the guy came in. But I heard the fast noise he made. Didn’t know what it was. Opened the door the thinnest line to peek.
It was this man standing at the counter, about my height. Noise must’ve come from him banging his fists on the counter or else slamming something somewhere. He had chains hanging off his pants pocket, black ski hat pulled over his face. No shirt at all over his hairy, lard-white back. Jagged scar up one side of his spine. “Gimme the fucking money,” he said.
Taysha’s eyes wouldn’t blink. Her mouth wouldn’t move. She went two shades lighter.
“The fucking money.” Man had something in his hand – knife? gun? “Goddam it!”
Taysha jumped back at the sound of his voice. Her eyelids fluttered, but she hardly moved another muscle.
Maybe it was because it was so hot that day and my head hadn’t finished clearing up yet or because, finally, I had the perfect thing to say. But I threw the door open and shot up to the front of the store. “You don’t talk to her that way!” Man turned toward me, thick black hair running up his chest like a rug. Definitely didn’t expect me jumping out at him, getting all up in his face.
Turns out, it was a gun he had. Noise cracked through my head. Something hot and horrible tore into my guts. Taysha screaming.
When I woke up, everything was white. Nurse came by. I could tell I was in the hospital from her white dress, funky white shoes. “You’re quite the hero,” she said. She was forty, maybe fifty. Big wide ass, mop of curly yellow hair, lipstick the fakest color red you could think of.
First thing I said, “Girl okay?”
“Yeah. Shook up, for sure,” she said.
“They catch the guy?”
“Yeah, he jacked another store a few hours after the one you were in, up in Boyce. There was a cop out front gassing up. The guy didn’t make it very far.”
Felt like crap, being a hero. Stitches all up and down my belly. They had to cut out some intestines to fix me up. Outside the window, the sun kept burning hot. At least, in the hospital, I was cool, cool, cool.
Eyes shut, always seemed like pretty Taysha was sitting in the chair by my bed. Eyes open, it was only ever the fat curly-headed nurse with the too-red lips. Her, or my mom, with a dishwater face, smelling like cigarettes. Half the time, Mom didn’t talk but just sat there, soaking up the cold air, like I would’ve done. “Andy called,” she’d tell me. “Robbie.”
“What’d they say?”
“Nothing. Get better.”
Then she’d leave.
Sleeping, the pretty black girl always came back. Sat for hours. She’d read or flip through TV channels. Rub the back of her soft, soft hand on my forehead. Say, “You got some serious balls, mister.”
Nurse asked me one time, “Who’s Taysha?”
“You keep saying her name in your sleep. Must be somebody special.”
Day they let me out, couple weeks later, all my stitches itched in sweat. Everything hurt. Car stunk like garbage. Windows jammed shut. Had to be about a hundred fifty degrees in there. Thought I’d die before I got home. Mom dropped me off. “There’s stuff for sandwiches,” she said.
Doctor said to stay quiet, keep calm, lie down. Only couch we had, though, had springs busting through the cushions. Sheets on my bed were twisted up and filthy from before I left. Stitches kept me from stretching enough to put clean ones on. Nothing left to do but walk on down to the Gas-a-Thon.
Had to keep my arm tucked up under my t-shirt, against my skin. Doctor rigged it that way, keep me from pulling the stitches too much. Figured I looked like a freak, so I threw a flannel shirt on top. It swung out baggy around me, about boiled me on the walk over there.
Hot enough to burn spit on the pavement. Made me dizzy. Had to keep sitting down on the side of the road, praying the next car wouldn’t take a turn too wide and wipe me out. All I was thinking about was seeing Taysha again.
Gust of cold air hit me at the door like always, filled up my lungs. Felt so good, I closed my eyes for a second. I’d stay a good long time today. Maybe pull up a chair. “You see the hair on that guy?” I might say. “That scar up his spine?”
“Weren’t you scared?” she might say.
“Didn’t have time to be.”
Sit there long enough, maybe it’d be easier to walk home than it’d been to walk here. Legs like noodles. Cotton in my head.
This time, Taysha turned when I walked in. Some kind of flowery soap smell whooshed in on the burst of cold air at the door. Then she looked right past me, went back to fiddling with lottery tickets in the display by the register.
Razors, diapers, rat traps. Up one aisle, down the next. Moving so slow, my feet dragged. It’d be better just to sit down. I spied Taysha up in the security mirror, watching me. She was gonna say, “Hey, that’s you, isn’t it?” any second. “Hey! Let me buy you a coke, something. Boss won’t mind.” Any second.
Candy, gum, Ho-Hos. Brain so fuzzy, it was hard to pick. That almost-white box of Apple Jacks – cereal had to be sand by now. I landed my hand first on a Hostess apple pie, then a pack of mini-donuts, then some cheese nips. Back and forth, but I couldn’t pick. Tried a few more laps. Legs so slow, I probably looked a little drunk.
“You can’t just hang around,” Taysha said. First glimpse of me out of the hospital, that’s what she said to me.
I dragged myself halfway up the aisle, toward the counter, about to tell her, “Don’t you remember me? I’m the guy got shot for you. Remember?” But halfway there, I could see Taysha’s eyes fog up with hate.
“You gotta buy something or get out.”
“But don’t you…”
“Get out. Just go,” she said. Voice like a knife.
So tired, my eyes stayed shut too long between blinks. Eyes shut, I was in the hospital again, picturing Taysha in the chair beside me. Eyes open, there she was, fingers shaking in the air.
Figured I’d just show her my belly. “It’s me,” and show her the stitches. Practically had to grab my legs with my hands and physically pull myself the rest of the way up to the counter.
Closer I got, the more Taysha’s eyes flashed at me. Picked up the huge jar of pickled eggs at the cash register, too. Hiked it up on her shoulder about to heave it my way. That’s what it came to. About to throw fucking pickles at me.
So I stomped the last couple steps up to the counter. Adrenaline or something made my legs go steady. My arm hanging there, strapped to my chest the way it was, must’ve looked like something pointing at her. I nodded my head toward the register, and suddenly words came easy. “Gimme the fucking money.”
Jar of pickled eggs crashed to the floor. Smell of vinegar rose up all around.
“You gotta be kidding me,” she said, half-eye, half-lid peeping at me. Clumsy hands fingering the cash in the register, trying to stack it all up to hand it over. Shivering like a rabbit in the road.
“Hang on,” I said. I put my hand on hers. She jumped away, threw her hands up in fight position. Dollar bills fluttered to the floor. “That’s not what I want.” It was hard to make my voice loud enough. The room blurred. Had to square my weight against the counter, wait for my balance to come back, for the blood to go back to all the right places in my body. […]
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Jody Hobbs Hesler lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her fiction, articles, essays, and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Gargoyle, The Georgia Review, [PANK], South85, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Steel Toe Review, Prime Number, Buffalo Almanack, Pearl, A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah, Charlottesville Family Magazine, and other publications. One of Hesler’s stories was a Pushcart Prize nominee and several have appeared in regional prize anthologies. Find out more at jodyhobbshesler.com, and read a short interview with Jody here.