Sunday, August 05, 2012

Novel Excerpt "Stinky Dan"

We called him Stinky Dan: The Piss Man. It was a kind of song we’d sing when we saw him. It was more than that, though; I realize, now, that it was a kind of warning, not just to him, but to us. I didn’t know if Dan was really even his name, maybe it just sounded good. He used to hang around the bookstore—lots of homeless hung around all the stores in Crossroads Mall. We were just off the interstate, close to downtown where the shelters are.
Mostly, they’d sit in History and talk about the government or gossip. We didn’t sell a lot of history books.

I never knew there were homeless in Arkansas, but I guess Little Rock isn’t really Arkansas.

Stinky Dan was the worst of them. He’d come in to the café, sit in a chair, and piss himself. It would puddle under the chair while he read the paper. Customers would complain, and Steve, the manager, would hide in his office until one of us did something about it. It was usually me; not because I was responsible or anything, but I wasn’t as squeamish about the smell as some of the other employees were. I just didn’t care. I’d chase him out one door, and he’d go around the side and come back in another one. I usually called it due diligence and let it go.

None of us bothered to find out the story behind any of these guys. Dan, and one or two of the others, wore fatigues most of the time, so we assumed they were vets. If one of them had come in wearing all black, we’d have just as easily assumed he was a down-and-out priest. If one had come in dressed like a giant chicken, we probably wouldn’t have even noticed.

When Steve wasn’t hiding in his office, he was talking about the band he used to be in. It was called Lost Boy.

“Don’t you mean Lost BoyS?” Someone would say, each time, and he’d patiently explain that it was singular, not plural. He played keyboard; one note over and over on one song. They only ever played one gig. He got this dreamy look in his eyes when he talked about it.

“It was the 80s,” he said. “You had to be there to get it.”

You can imagine him, a product of middle class white privilege, skinny and pale, scruffy hair with too-long bangs dyed black, hanging over his eyes trying hard to be Robert Smith. That was our model for the lost world, so you can see we were doomed.

Aside from this middle-aged never-was who hated his job almost as much as we did, there were at least a couple dozen of us, but mainly three guys ended up on my shifts: AC, Westley, and Adam. AC was a five-foot tall, El Salvadorean ex-marine. His family had come to the states literally in flight for their lives one night after his cousin was arrested for being a rebel. Now, he worked a register and got high, talking about how he was going back to school on a GI Bill just as soon as he got around to it. Westley was a community college dropout who lived with his parents. He read a lot of comic books, played a lot of video games, and told the same two or three stories about shitting his pants in various places across the country over and over, though they were funny stories. Adam was a new guy who buddied up to Steve, something none of us had even thought of doing. I was working my way through grad. school. Really, I was. I mean, I’d taken that semester off to save up some money, but I was going back in the fall. Really. I had all the paperwork done and everything.

We were always talking about plans, how we were going to get back on track. Mostly, we pretended we were in a Kevin Smith movie.

The thing was, somebody was shitting in the urinals in the men’s room two, three times a week. Most of the employees thought it was Dan. I suspected it was an employee, myself; who else would hate the place enough to go to all that trouble?

After a few weeks of this, one day I saw Dan come out of the bathroom with the back of his pants stained brown. I caught up to him and herded him out.

“Let’s go, Dan.”

He dribbled a trail all the way to history and then to the door.

“I’m not cleaning that up!” Joan roared as we passed her. She was a middle-aged mother who spent her shifts talking about how much better she was than this job. Most of us did that, I guess. When she worked, she kept a running total of all the things she’d done. When she’d reached some limit she’d come up with, she’d stop. You couldn’t get any more work out of her. I wondered why they didn’t fire her, but I wondered that about all of us.

I didn’t want to touch him, but I pushed Dan out the door. He tried to come back inside like he always did, but he’d pissed me off, so this time, I went and pulled the door closed in his face. He stared at me through the dingy glass and walked around to the other door. I went and caught him at that door. He went back to the other one. It was like some kind of bizarre game.

Adam came up — he was setting displays up front. AC was on register and came over to watch with a crooked smile. Adam opened the door. Dan just stood there.

“You have to leave,” Adam said. When Dan didn’t respond, Adam said, “Sir, you’ve been asked to leave. If you don’t comply, we’ll be forced to call the police.” Dan still stood there, not really making eye contact. Instead, his eyes darted all over the place, from me to Adam to the inside of the store to…the mothership, maybe. I’d never really looked that close at him. There was something missing in those eyes, something important, but I didn’t really know what. It sort of reminded me of a bug that’s lost a leg but keeps struggling.

“Why does he do that?” I said.

“Instinct,” AC said. “Like when zombies go to the mall.”

I grinned. Adam closed the door, and Dan turned and went to the other one.

“Fucking pinball,” AC said.

Adam stood in front of the door. Dan tried to push it open. Adam caught it and pushed it back hard and hit Dan in the stomach with the handle. Dan stepped back.

“Whoa!” AC said, laughing.

“Sir, I will use force if I have to. You need to leave the premises,” Adam said. Dan kept staring. Adam opened the door, and Dan stepped inside. Adam pushed him back outside. I started to go out after him but Adam put a hand on my arm. “We can’t do anything unless he’s on the premises.”

“I’m not going to do anything,” I said.

“Yeah,” AC said. “We won’t see you do anything.”

I went out. Dan just sat there. I pulled him up to his feet, careful not to go anywhere near his backside. As soon as he was up, he started for the door, so I spun him around and led him to the parking lot and to the next line of stores cattycorner from the book store. I gave him a little push, and he kept walking like a wind-up toy. I watched him disappear, wondering, for the first time, where he was going and how he would get there. When I turned back, AC and Adam were watching at the door.

“Did you push him into traffic?” AC asked.

Adam’s eyes were on me. I put my head down. “Fucking guy’s retarded or something.” I brushed past them and went to the back to get a mop to clean up his shit-trail.

After I cleaned up, Adam came and found me in the backroom.

“Steve wants you on register.” He had a coin tray.

“He does?” I said.

Adam was already on his way up, so I had to hop-to to catch him.

“I told him about you and Dan, so he figured you need a break from cleaning tonight.”

“Thanks,” I said. I was a little surprised. We got to the front, and he put the coin tray in the register and entered a code. “I thought only managers had a code.”

Adam smiled at me but didn’t answer. “AC, go on break.”

AC logged out and nodded at me before heading to the back.

“When he comes back, you go. Then, you two tag-team it until close. See if you can’t Front and Face nonfiction and religious. Call me if Dan comes back,” Adam said before leaving.

AC came back a half-hour later. “I’m starving,” he said.

“What’d you have?” I asked. There weren’t any customers and probably wouldn’t be for a while.

“Bag of chips.” He logged into his register. I logged out and started straightening up the add-on displays by the registers. These were full of useless bullshit like bookmarks and keychains and overpriced pens that don’t work.

“If you didn’t spend all your money on weed, you might be able to afford to eat,” I said.

“Thanks for the insight, Confucius.” AC was going through his register, looking for a snack.

“So Adam’s a manager?” I asked as casually as I could.

AC shrugged. “Looks like.”

“How long’s he been here? Couple months?” I’d been there for two years. AC even longer.

“Yeah, but he ain’t like you and me,” AC said, picking up my thoughts somehow.

“What do you mean?” I looked over at him.

“He’s not a fuckup.” AC turned to me. “Are you going on lunch or what?”

I signed out and walked over to this hotdog place a couple doors down. They had a special. It gave me the shits, but it was better than McDonalds. Plus, they had cookies, sometimes. I liked to sit in the back with the fake plants and stare out the window. There was always an empty seat in the back, because most people wanted to sit up front where you could see the interstate. It’s like dogs staring at other dogs, I guess. But I liked to sit in the back where all you could see was parking lot. They were the spaces furthest from any stores, though, so they were almost always empty. I liked to stare out at the empty asphalt stretching to a concrete barrier that lined the road, just gray and brown and white. Sometimes, there’d be a car there, which sucked, because it was usually a junker someone left so it was there until one of the managers got the city to tow it. Those days, I didn’t even want to eat.

When I finished, I plunked down two bucks and got a couple dogs to go for AC. When I got back and gave them to him, he devoured the first in three bites.

“You know why I love you, Tommy?” he asked. I shook my head. “Cause you’re a sucker for a hard luck story.”

“If you drop dead,” I said, “Who will I talk to? Westley?”

AC laughed. Just then, as if by command, Westley came up.

“What’s up, guys?” he said. “Gnoshing on some dogs?” He was a lanky blonde with a nondescript face and glasses who did even less work than Joan.

“Westley, you’re so pale, NASA came to your house because they thought they’d discovered a white hole. But it was just you in the shower,” AC said.

Westley grinned. “You like to think about me in the shower?”

“Hey man,” I asked. “When did Adam become a manager?”

Westley nodded. “Steve made him one, Monday.”

I glanced at AC, who couldn’t have cared less. “Don’t you have to pass a test or something?”

Westley adopted his sage look. “Since he was a manager at his old job, Steve made him a probationary manager.”

A customer came up, so Westley and I made a show of straightening up the add-ons again. When she left, I asked Westley, “Why’d he leave his old job, anyway?”

Westley shrugged. “According to him, he fired this woman, and she sued the company, so they let him go.”

“Huh,” I said.

“She was black,” Westley added.

“What do you mean?” I straightened up.

“She raised a big stink about the race thing, so they fired him.” Westley was leaning on a display, the picture of sloth.

“That sounds unlikely.” I glanced at AC again, but he was ignoring us, finishing off his hotdogs.

“Happens all the time. That’s why I don’t want to be a manager,” Westley said.

AC scoffed. “You couldn’t be a manager.”

“I could,” Westley said, looking offended. “I’m magazine manager.”

“Yeah, okay,” AC said.

“You’re saying that, what, black people have some kind of special influence because they’re black?” I said, trying to piece together Adam’s story.

“Yep,” Westley said.

“That’s retarded.” I went back to straightening to try to hide my annoyance.

“It’s true,” AC piped in. “I get all kinds of perks for being black.”

“You’re not black, dude,” I said.

He put his finger to his lips.

“Sounds to me like they fired his ass over something, and he’s trying to play it off like it’s some political bullshit,” I said.

Westley shrugged.

“Dude,” AC said. “I’ve got to go to the bathroom. Cover me.” He held his stomach.

“Those hotdogs were all you ate today, weren’t they?” I said. “You’re pathetic.”

He gave me the finger as he walked away.

At closing, Adam came up to take our drawers. He had a sour look.

“AC,” he said. “I already did bathrooms. You’re sweeping.”

“On it, boss,” he said. I was a little surprised when AC called him that. I’d only ever seen him use the word “boss” to people he really didn’t respect, but he betrayed no emotion.

Adam turned to me with a look of barely restrained rage. “Did Dan come back?” I shook my head. “Well he must’ve, cause somebody shit in the urinal again.”

I glanced at AC, but he looked away. “He didn’t come back,” I repeated. “Must be somebody else.”

Adam stared at me and then turned to AC. “What about when you were on lunch. AC, were you watching the door the whole time?”

AC affected a look of concentration. “Sure, boss.”

Adam looked at me. “Well, I mean,” I finally said. “This old woman came and wanted help finding a bible. So I helped her.”

“How long were you away from the register?” Adam asked.

“Maybe two minutes. Maybe. But it was locked-up,” I added.

He nodded. “Must’ve been it,” he said and took the drawers. He didn’t say a word as he took the drawers away.

“But did you see him leave?” I asked when Adam was gone. “Cause I didn’t. If he got in, he’d have to still be here.”

AC shrugged. “They don’t pay me to watch homeless guys.”

We split the store into sections and went through, straightening all the books on the shelves. I took Kids because nobody else would. It was always the worst. In fact, I was still straightening when AC and Westley had finished the rest of the store. They came over to help me finish.

“Tommy to the office. Tommy to the office,” Adam said over the intercom.

Westley had his shit-eating grin on. AC didn’t look up from the shelf he was straightening. I went to the back, where the office was.

“Moving up,” I said.

Adam didn’t respond. He was sitting at the absurdly small desk, counting down the drawers. There was one on the floor, and mine.

“What’s up?” I plopped into the chair beside the desk.

“Your drawer is short,” Adam said.

“What?” I leaned in.

He held it out to me. “You want to count it?”

I stared at it until he set it back down.

“How short?”

He had one of those calculators that have the ticker-tape. He scrolled it down. “$10.”

“So what does that mean?”

“Anything over $5 means you get written up.”

I was shocked. “I’ve been doing this for years, ever since high school. I’ve never been short.”

“Maybe it happened when you stepped away from your register.” His voice was calm. It somehow made me furious.

“I was away for like two minutes,” I repeated.

He nodded. “Well, you’re short. I just wanted to tell you before Steve does.” He handed me a piece of paper. “Sign this.”

“What is it?” I read over it.

“Your official notice.”

I stared at it but I couldn’t make out the words. “Sure,” I said. I signed it and handed it back. He took it and swiveled around to a file cabinet, opened it, and dropped the page into a file. Then he slammed that closed.

“You guys almost done?” He turned back to the desk.

“Yeah. We’re in Kids.” I was still shocked.

“I’ll be out to check it over in a minute. Once I finish the deposit.”

I nodded and walked out.

“He wrote you up?” Westley said. “That’s hilarious.”

“Company man,” AC said. He was still straightening while Westley leaned against a shelf.

“I guess. It’s weird.” I was going almost as slow as Westley.

“Man, I’m short all the time. It doesn’t mean anything,” Westley said.

“It means you don’t know how to count,” AC said over his shoulder.

“That’s why they won’t let you work register, Westley,” I said.

“Let me tell you how much I miss that,” Westley said. He held up his hand and made a zero sign.

“All right, are we done?” Adam said. He was suddenly behind us. He went to a shelf and started re-straightening it, even though it looked fine. “Come on, guys. Let’s do this right so it looks good. Steve opens in the morning.”

Normally when we closed, Steve wouldn’t even look at the store. When he finished counting down the drawers, he turned the lights out and left. We had to be near the front if we wanted to see our way out. One time, Joan had gotten stuck in the bathroom and called Steve on her cellphone to turn the light back on. He hadn’t even noticed she was still inside; he’d been halfway home.

Adam went through each section, straightening and goading us. The store looked fine, really. He was nitpicking, making little displays and everything. We followed behind until he’d taken us through the whole store. The whole while, he lectured us on the proper way to do things, as if we all hadn’t been working there longer than him.

Outside, the lot was grey and empty. We diverged like a line of ducks, making a ‘v’ for our cars. Adam’s was furthest, and AC had asked me for a ride. We shot the shit until Adam pulled up.

“There’s a pretty good band playing at the skating rink,” he said. He had the only foreign car of any of us. We all drove beat up Chevys or Fords.

Westley went and hopped in Adam’s car like a fucking puppy. “Come on,” he said.

“I don’t know.” I looked at AC. He was already moving over to Adam’s car. Westley leaned forward to let him in the back.

“Come on,” Adam said. “You owe it to me for letting Stinky Dan back in.”

I glared at him, but I went around the side and got in.

It was an all-ages show which meant no drinking. As soon as we got there, AC disappeared around the back of the building to get high with some kids. I went up front to hear the music. The band was called Shizknit. They were loud and passionate, though they didn’t look the part. They looked like they’d just rolled in from work and started playing, which maybe they had. It was a nice change of pace from the kids who’d obviously spent hours making themselves look like shit.

“What a stupid name,” Westley said.

“They’re good, though,” Adam said.

“Not really.”

“Why not?” Adam said. He turned to Westley.

“They don’t have any hooks.” Westley gestured boredly.

“Who’s got hooks?” I asked.

“Green Day,” Westley said. He was a huge fan of that band.

“Green Day are post-punk posers,” Adam said. “You know their average fan is 13 years old because their break-out album was called ‘Dookie’ right?”

“It was a good album,” Westley said. He sounded like a whiny kid.

“It was what it claimed to be,” Adam said. “Dookie.”

Westley went quiet.

“You’re too old to be listening to Green Day,” Adam continued. “It’s bad enough you still live with your parents, and look at yourself, but you could at least have a decent ear for music.”

Westley went red. “I live with my parents so I can go to school.”

“And how’s that working for you? When was the last time you took a class, even at a community college.” Adam was placid. He didn’t even make eye-contact as he tore Westley down.

“I can’t afford it right now,” Westley said. He was turning red.

“So get a better job,” Adam said. “You can’t spend your life wishing things will happen. They never will. No one respects dreamers. They respect doers.”

I was watching all of this, honestly just shocked. Nothing Adam was saying was wrong; it just wasn’t very nice. Picking on Westley was easy, like kicking a lonely dog. Adam paused. Westley was fuming, and I hoped he had the sense to just let it go.

“What are you even going to study?” Adam started again. “You want to design video games, right? So design video games.”

“I don’t have time,” Westley said through clinched lips.

“Let it go, Adam,” I said.

“Be quiet. I’m speaking,” Adam said. He didn’t even look at me, either.

“Well stop speaking, dick,” I said, getting right in his ear to make sure he’d hear. “Leave him alone.”

“Westley needs to hear these things. Otherwise, he’s going to end up living this pathetic life forever. You could stand some guidance yourself. Both of you need a plan.” Adam’s voice was still calm.

“Look at yourself, Adam. You’re a third-tier manager at a bookstore nobody goes to. What the fuck makes you think you can tell anybody anything about life?” I was getting upset, and the fact that Adam wasn’t only made it worse.

“I certainly have flaws,” Adam said, acceding the point. “But I own all of them. And I make the effort to improve instead of pretending it’s a badge of honor to be a fuckup.”

“Bully for you. You’re still a fuckup. Sorry to have to be the one to tell you.”

“That’s your opinion.” He turned back to Westley. “But at least I don’t live in my parents’ basement pretending I’ll be a video game designer someday, but never actually following through with it.”

I was too caught up in my own anger at Adam to see Westley throw the punch until it was too late. It came in wide and wild. The thing is, I saw Adam’s eyes – he saw the punch coming, but he didn’t try to dodge it. He let it come. Westley hit him in the cheek. He gave it everything he had, and it twisted Adam like a spinning top. But then he stepped up to Westley, looking him in the eyes and saw the fear there – letting him see that the best Westley had to give wasn’t anywhere near enough. I tried to get between them, tried to pull them apart, but they kept coming around me.

“Westley, go outside,” I said. Westley just stood there. “Adam, come on, man; you made your point. It’s West, man. It’s just West.”

“You hear that, Westley? ‘It’s just West.’ Tommy doesn’t even think you’re worth fighting,” Adam said.

“Damn it, Adam,” I said. “Let’s just all calm down before someone gets really hurt.”

“No one will get really hurt,” Adam said with that cold voice of his.

“Adam.” I grabbed him and looked in his eyes. I was stunned by what I saw: there was nothing in there, really. Just darkness. “It’s just West, man. We’re all friends, here.”

Adam smiled with his lips. It was almost as freaky as his eyes. “You’re a good friend. Now get out of my way.”

I shook my head. “I can’t let you hurt him.”

“I won’t hurt him.” He shoved me hard and dodged around me. He stepped up to Westley and knocked him down with one punch.

“Congratulations,” Adam said. “Your first real fight.” He reached out a hand. Westley looked at it and then took it. Adam pulled him up. He patted Westley on the back and dusted him off. Westley pushed him away and went to the bathroom. Adam watched him go, and then turned back to the band.

I disappeared into the crowd, trying to distance myself from Adam and the others. What I realized was that I was older than just about anybody else there. I was also fatter and dressed different — I still wore my khakis and polo shirt from work. These kids all wore tee-shirts with bands on them, jeans, their hair was dyed or spiked or whatever, whereas mine was just prematurely graying. As I made a pass through the crowd, I recognized a girl I used to work with. She was a skinny little blonde thing. I couldn’t remember her name. I was pretty sure she was gay or bi, but I couldn’t remember how I knew that. She was standing by herself, so I stood by her for a few minutes – trying to chat, but that was impossible while the band played. So I stood by her. Every so often I would catch her eye and smile or nod meaningfully towards the band, and she would nod back. They hardly stopped between songs, so there wasn’t a chance to speak. I really just wanted to leave, but now I was committed, and the longer I waited, the weirder I thought it would be to just walk away without speaking. Finally, the band paused for a minute. She turned to me with a pained smile.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Good,” she said. There was a pause. “You?”

I nodded. “Good.” I was pretty sure she didn’t remember my name, either.

“You still at…” she gestured.

“Yeah.” I tried to smile.

“You still taking classes?” she asked.

I nodded. “Yeah,” I said. “Still taking classes.”

The band started up, and I leaned in quick – and she leaned away just as quick – so I just yelled, “It was good to see you!” and pointed back towards Adam and the others. She gave me a thumbs up and I left. It took me a few seconds to realize she was not the girl I thought she was.

I found Adam and Westley near the side, standing together, thick as thieves as though nothing had happened. Westley’s cheek was bruised.

“Do you remember that skinny blonde girl that worked in the café?” I screamed into Westley’s ear.

“Sara,” he screamed back.

“I just spent twenty minutes talking to someone I thought was her. But it wasn’t her.”

He didn’t laugh.

AC came back in, eyes glowing, and went into the mosh pit for a while. When he came out, I grabbed him.

“Let’s go get a drink,” I said.

Westley came up, so I asked him to come. “Let me ask Adam,” he said.

“Why?” I tried to stop him, but he was gone.

“Adam wants to hear the rest of the band,” Westley said when he got back.

Everyone followed me over to where Adam was standing. I motioned towards the door. He shook his head. I turned to AC and Westley, but they hesitated. It made me mad. I felt a hand on my shoulder – it wasn’t hard or anything; it was just there -- and Adam said, “They’re almost done.” So I waited.

AC and I wanted to go to the nearest place, just a couple blocks over, but Adam insisted we drive downtown to this place he liked.

“We won’t be able to find parking,” I said.

“We’ll all go in my car,” Adam said.

So we ended up going there. At that point, I didn’t care.

* * *

I had a nice buzz, and everyone else was doing stupid shit. I drank several shots of the cheapest stuff they had, and it was still too expensive. I wished I’d driven, because I wanted to leave. I went outside to get away from the noise of the cover band. It was cool for spring, one of those nights where winter creeps back in like Christmas might be right around the corner. By morning, it’ll be gone, but just for that night, it’s a different world. When the cold air hit me, it made me need to pee. I turned to go back inside, but I’d come out of a side door, which was locked. I thought: fuck it, and started walking.

A friend of mine lived close by, I thought. It ended up being a mile or so. By the time I got there, I was in dire need of a bathroom. I went to his apartment and knocked on the door. He didn’t answer, so I pounded. It was pitch black. I checked my watch. It was about 3:30. I went back down and out into the parking lot. The urgency of my situation had surpassed pain to a kind of desperation. I just started walking, more or less in the direction of my apartment. I got a block or so down to a house – I didn’t know whose. I went around back away from the streetlights and let it go in his back yard. A dog barked. No lights came on. I felt strangely free.

I walked the rest of the way to my apartment, probably a couple miles. It was a little one-bedroom in a cheap complex in a bad neighborhood. It was the kind of place that you make excuses not to have to go to. It was mostly bare inside so there was nothing to steal. When I got there, I called AC’s cell.

“I’m home, dude, in case you were looking for me.” I didn’t even open my eyes as I spoke.

“Who is this?” He sounded wasted.

“Your momma.”

“Momma? I thought you were back in El Salvador. Why are you calling me now? Is daddy okay?”

I hung up and went and lay on my bed. It smelled bad. That was the kind of thing that got to you.

I dreamed Stinky Dan was living in the parking lot outside the mall. He had a little shanty he’d built – like the ones you see in documentaries about Africa or South America. It looked nice for being made out of trash. I was thinking that could be me; I could live in a trash house in the parking lot. It wouldn’t be that bad.

My alarm woke me. I had to open that morning. I was showered and dressed and to the parking lot before I remembered my car was across town. There was no way I could afford a cab all the way out to it. So I went over and begged a ride from my neighbors, the Karens. They laughed at me the whole way, the way girls will sometimes.

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