Every Picture Tells a Story
“So—you talk to Joey? How much does he want for that tired old car?”
“Four seventy five...”
“I don’t know, kid...he tell you he raced it?”
“Yup. Said he did OK, too.”
“He tell you he crashed it?”
“Oh, yeah, he told me everything. I know it’s got a lot of miles, and I know it needs some work, but it’s a ’69 Camaro SS, Harry—it’s my dream car.”
“Just hope it ain’t a bad dream...how many miles it got?”
“Hundred thirty seven, I think. That’s a lot, right?”
“Ouch.” Harry made a face and packed his cigarettes against his open palm.
“Oh, man, I can’t wait to get that thing out on the highway...”
“SS...that’s got the factory Hurst? Four speed?”
“Can you drive a stick?”
“Better learn soon, pal.”
“Rainy said she’d show me.”
Harry had been turning to go, but he stopped and grew serious.
“Absolutely not. Listen to me, kid, that is a bad, bad idea for two reasons. One: how well can she drive a stick anyway? You want to learn it right the first time.”
“Her mom’s Jeep is a stick—
“For Christ’s sake, it’s a three-on-the-tree! It’s like fucking Framer Brown’s tractor, that doesn’t count. Listen, you like her?”
“Yeah, I like her.”
“You fucked her?”
I could feel my face turn red.
“Never mind, here’s the point—if you let her try to teach you to drive a manual transmission you won’t. You will have the fight of your lives and you’ll never get over it. Trust me. It never works. Let me teach you, for God’s sake.”
I made the Boy Scout salute.
“Don’t be a wiseass. I’m doing you a favor.”
“OK. Hey Harry. Speaking of fights...can I ask you a question? Personal?” Harry shrugged warily. “When you and Cheryl fight...it seems like you really fight. If I ever got that mad at someone I don’t know how I’d get over it, but with you guys...”
Harry chuckled and shook a cigarette out of a pack.
“Yeah, battle royale, right?” He stared at me while placing the cigarette between his teeth. “Two-three years ago I used to go out with Donna Mazelli—
“That’s the one. You know her?”
I shook my head. She must have been older than me, Frank’s age.
“Well, you know Dina, right? Then think Dina, only more so, like in every way, you dig me? Oh, yeah, total killer. Donna was great, really sweet, but...nice-nice. Never said what she was thinking in case she hurt your feelings, so I never said anything back, so’s not to hurt hers. You know what happens? You swallow every thing you want to say, you’re so polite that one day you find out that you want to fucking KILL this person. Over something stupid. Or over nothing at all. Nope, me and Cheryl work because we don’t keep anything in. We blow it out and move on.”
“Wow. I don’t think I could do it.”
“ Try it...it’s easier in the long run. All right—duty calls. Take it slow, Mario Andretti. And don’t forget; don’t get in a car with a stick until you get with me.”
Harry backed out the door, pushing it with his butt while he lit the cigarette. The sky looked as black and new as spilled ink.
* * *
It was 9:27. There hadn’t been a customer since Harry left. I went back to flipping through Motocross magazine.
There was an article about a guy, some geezer who used to drag race motorcycles back in the thirties and forties. He ran a repair shop in California, and on the weekends he gave recitals on a huge pump organ in his shop. It was a bit of an odd mix, but hey, Steppenwolf were bikers and musicians. The thing that got me, though, was a picture of the guy as a young man, trying to set a speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats. He looked like a low-rent Buck Rogers, with his leather helmet and goggles, wrapped around an old Indian bike as tight as a coat of paint. How did that young guy on the bike become the old guy behind the counter?
* * *
At 10:24 Mason opened the door. He had the dirt outline of a dust mask around his nose and mouth. He worked at Burt’s Greenhouse, a half mile south on North Main.
“What’s going on?”
“I’ve been at Burt’s since five oclock unloading lilies and putting them in pots. Easter is the worst. I need a beer, man.” I don’t know if Mase ever drank beer, but this is what he usually said.
“We’re out of beer. Have a Moxie. Fresca? Tab?”
Mason trudged down the aisle leaving a trail of mulch. He felt cans of Coke until he found one that was suitably cold, and trudged back. I sniffed.
“P.U. man. What kind of crap exactly do they put into fertilizer?”
Mason took three long swallows.
“Horse. Cow.” He belched loudly. “I’m pretty sure Burt takes a dump on the compost heap from time to time. What are you smoking tonight?”
“Silva Thins...” Mason imitated the voice of the guy on the ads, who sounded like a European spy. “I dunno, kid, I see you as more of an Old Gold kind of guy. Collect the coupons.”
“I’m leaning towards Chesterfields. Luckys maybe.”
“Well, I’m going home. See you tomorrow?”
The door closed behind him and he climbed into his father’s station wagon. As he turned the ignition Bad Company’s Good Lovin’ Gone Bad filled the otherwise empty parking lot.
“Silva Thins...,” I said to the empty store.
It was 10:42.
* * *
I put back the Motocross magazine and took out Sports Illustrated. There was an article about this Little League team from Pennsylvania that had won the Little League World Series. It made me a little sad to read it—I used to love baseball, and because of that I loved summer, and the Red Sox, and the smell of my glove. Maybe I missed having some dumb thing to care about so much. As I stood there with the Sports Illustrated open on the counter, I remembered when I started to not care so much about summer and the Red Sox, and the glove-smell. I guess I was twelve. My Little League team was in the World Series in our town, something we had talked about and hoped for and worked at all summer long. I was the third baseman, and while I wasn’t a star on the team, or as good as Frank had been, I had held my own all season. I was a good fielder, a slightly above-average hitter, and fast for my age.
I had been pretty nervous about the game, because it was the most important one of the season, and the team we were playing was tough, and really good. Even their coaches had uniforms, and they looked like they had drilled like Marines all season. We were sloppy-good, maybe had more heart, and less pressure to win.
It was not my best game or my worst. I’d had a double, a walk, and flied out. I’d made a couple of good plays. My father was in the stands, which was unusual. He hadn’t come to many games, even when it looked like we were going to go all the way—he always had some lame-ass excuse, or had to do something with Frank. I knew that he didn’t come because he thought I’d embarrass him, or just not be good enough. My mother came all of the time, and the games had a strange effect on her. Around the house, or maybe I should say around Dad, she was pretty quiet, mainly keeping house, or watching TV, going to the kitchen for refills during the commercials. But at the games she looked ten years younger, wearing colored scarves over her hair, sipping her special lemonade from a thermos, yelling and cheering. It was a little embarrassing sometimes, but it was still important to me that she cared enough to show. And everybody liked her, especially the single dads that came.
So, this game I played pretty good, except for two plays, and my father let the whole world know that I’d goofed up.
My second time up I had walked, and I’d advanced to third, two outs. I could hear my Father, and it screwed up my concentration.
“Knock ‘im on his ass! Get your cleats in his mitt!”
The catcher for the other team was a kid named Gregory Corsetti, and he was a big raw-boned kid from across town. He was as big as a high school kid, and his size and strength were all he had going for him, so he used them as often as he could. There was no way I could knock him over. My only chance was to try to hook-slide around him.
“Hey! HEY, YOU LISTENING?” My father had his hands cupped like a megaphone. “DON’T BE SCARED OF THAT BIG TUB, HIT HIM!”
Gregory heard him, and smirked. I think everyone heard him. I was used to hearing my Mother’s breezy encouragement, but today she was silent. It was all I could do to watch the pitch.
Our batter swung and blooped it into the outfield, an easy one-hopper for their centerfielder. I bolted for home, but the throw beat me by a mile. Gregory charged me, and I was too far from the plate for a proper slide. I’m sure it was my Father’s big mouth that made Gregory hit me like a linebacker, so hard my batting helmet flew over our bench. He knocked the wind out of me good, but I tried to not show it as I limped to the bench to get my glove.
I thought I was being pretty rugged, in a way my Father could appreciate, until I heard his voice through the crowd—
“What kind of sissy slide was that?”
By the end of the game the sun was beginning to sink towards home plate, as they had their last at-bats. We were up 5-4, and they had the bases loaded, two outs. As luck would have it, brawny Gregory Crosetti was up, and his lust for a grand-slam-game-winner was written all over his face. If he’d been smart enough to sense the Life Lesson in this, he might have understood that trying too hard is not the way to go—he whiffed twice, mightily. On the third pitch he swung with all his might, but only got a little piece of it, and the ball went almost straight up, down the third base line.
I watched this routine pop-up go up, up, up into the fiery afternoon sun, where like everything else, it turned pure white. I was staring into an eclipse, a slow-motion flash bulb. I was terrified. I couldn’t see a thing.
On the other hand, I could hear everything.
“Oh, Jesus! Shit, look at him! Back up! BACK UP, YOU IDIOT!”
When the shadow that I assumed was the ball finally came back into view, it was coming down two feet behind me. I lunged backwards, reaching my glove as far as I could. The ball bounced off of it and fell in front of me.
Our bleachers groaned. Their bleachers whooped. Without thinking I scooped the ball up and threw it home as hard and straight as I could. There was a cloud of dust, and a tumble of bodies.
The scoring run was out. We won! I was frozen in relief. As the infielders swarmed the catcher, I turned to look at my family.
It was a tableau that I will never forget. My mother sat alert, hand shading her eyes. Because of her sunglasses I couldn’t tell what she was looking at, but it seemed to be far away. Frank was in profile, gazing towards the parking lot. My father slouched against the bleacher behind him, arms crossed on his chest, on his face an undisguised look of disgust.
I looked at them for a moment, not knowing what to do. The rest of the team was yelling and jumping around home plate, celebrating.
I looked at the team. I looked at my family. My father was slowly shaking his head. My coach waved me over, and slapped me on the back, smiling and barking, “Close one!” The team was going out to Friendly’s for ice cream. I wasn’t hungry. I lied and told everyone that I’d meet them there. My family headed for the car. I turned and trotted towards the path that cut behind the supermarket.
* * *
When Beverly the day cashier came through the door I almost jumped out of my skin. I was glad for the diversion, as I was starting to feel as bad in my memory-trance as I had that day that I had got the last out in the Nowhere World Series.
“Kid, hi! How you doin’, hon, good? Yuh? You busy?” Her face immediately crinkled in sympathy, as she answered her own question. “No? Aww.” She was awash with commiseration for my plight. It was as if she understood my boredom, my loneliness, and by understanding she drew out some of my discomfort like lancing a boil.
“Well, you can catch up on your reading, right? Right?” She laughed, and blinked her overly made-up eyes. I loved her with a stray dog’s eagerness.
“Could be worse—my friend Mason has been digging in fertilizer all day.”
She made a face and pinched her nose.
“Ewwww.” She laughed. “Well. I just need some milk and a pack of Marlboro Light 100’s...I’m being so bad, but I can’t help it! Next week I’m going to quit for sure.”
She came back from the dairy case and I rang her up.
“OK, hon—you have a good night now!”
I caught myself checking out her ass and felt immediately guilty.
* * *
11:12. Time to face off the shelves, wipe down the Slush Puppie machine, X out the register and do a drop in the safe. Time for one last smoke, and then the Binaca blast.
I wondered if it was too late to call Rainy—I didn’t know much about her house except she lived with her mom, who was a nurse. Nurses work late, right? Someone has to sit behind that high desk under the flourescents, someone has to be awake when it feels like the whole building is holding its breath, someone has to be there doing nothing in case something goes terribly wrong and they have to do something, quickly. I had met her mom once—she seemed like an older, tired-er version of Rainy. Maybe Rainy was home, alone, right now, lying on her stomach reading a book, idly kicking her feet. Maybe she was thinking about me.
I told myself, Go Home, you idiot. It was as inviting as a chair in an empty room, but I had nowhere else to go. It was probably too late to call, she was probably asleep, and her mom was probably paying bills at the kitchen table in no mood to be reminded that horny teenaged boys were thinking about her daughter, and not her.
Goddamn, I would kill to be sitting on a rock in the woods with Rainy and a bottle of Southern Comfort.
* * *
I locked the doors and turned off the lights, then all the lights in the refrigerator cases. I Z’ed out the register, counted the drawer, and made a last drop in the safe. I made sure that everything was in order for Beverly the next morning, then set the alarm and let myself out. The Mobil station, the Power Test pumps, everything was dark except the streetlights on North Main. Behind the store my bike was chained to the fence that surrounded the dumpster. It was a Frankenbike, made up of three or four other bikes—a Sears frame, Schwinn handlebars, Raleigh wheels. It was simply a way to get from one end of town to the other, but on this night it looked ridiculous. It was a fucking kid’s bike, and I stood and stared at it, and realized that for whatever reason, I couldn’t bear to be seen riding home on a bicycle. I’d rather walk home. It was four miles and I was tired. I needed to either unlock the bike and go home, or start walking, but instead I stood like a mannequin and stared at the bike locked to the chain-link fence. I started to feel a pinwheel of frustration in my chest. I stared at the bike as if it were someone come back from the dead. I didn’t want to ride it. I didn’t want to walk. I put my hands on my hips and sighed. I closed my eyes and dropped my chin to my chest. I hated this. I wanted to break something.
Then I got it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to walk, or didn’t want to ride. I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to go home. My heart sank. I unlocked the bike and rode it towards the house where my parents and I lived. Halfway there I topped the rise by the high school and began to gain speed on the long grade that ran alongside the cemetery towards downtown. What could I do? I could feel bad about it, or say, “Fuck it.” As my feet pumped faster and faster I began to chant under my breath—
“Make the best out of the bad, just laugh it off—ha!
Didn’t have to come here anyway…just remember
Every picture tells a story don’t it—
Every picture tells a story don’t it—”