Daniel parked in the fire lane between pallets of mulch and the cart return. “Money,” I turned to Daniel and Steven with my hand out.
Floppy pulled another cigarette from his pack and lit it, blowing the smoke from the corner of his mouth and out the window.
The others squirmed around, searching for crumpled bills in the bottom of their pockets.
“Marlboro Reds,” I pointed to Daniel. He nodded.
Steven changed his brand regularly, “What is it this time Stevie?”
“Get me Kool 100’s.”
“You know that menthol shit is bad for you,” Daniel prodded.
“Your cigs are literally nicknamed cowboy killers,” Floppy laughed from the back seat.
“There isn’t a healthier cigarette,” Steven replied.
“You could smoke light cigarettes and grow a vagina like Mike.”
“I like the flavor better,” I climbed out of the car.
“Sure you do.”
I turned to go inside, “Hey, Mike” Steven handed another crumpled bill out the window. “Grab me some rubbers too?”
I had been buying Steven condoms basically since we became friends. His mom was a devout Mormon (only when it came to her children’s habits and not her own). Steven was terrified that his mother would find out that he purchased condoms, used condoms, or had a need for condoms.
And his concern was justified. For whatever reason, Liz trusted her son implicitly. If Steve wanted to take his girlfriend upstairs and shut his bedroom door, Liz believed Steven when he said there would be no sex. If she were to find out what happened behind that closed door, she would rip it from its hinges.
The only thing greater than Steven’s fear of his mother was fear of abstinence. The only fear greater still was fatherhood.
I walked toward the Shop and Save’s sliding glass door and Daniel moved the car to the opposite end of the parking lot.
Jay Nickles sat on the splintered wooden bench beside the store’s entrance. Jay retired from the railroad decades ago, and he earned his nickname by spending his retirement walking around the town’s parking lots and side streets collecting dropped change. His day started early at the playground on the north side of town. He always wore a black and red flannel, and he walked with his head down, poking the ground with his cane. No one knew if the hunch in his back arose from his hunt for change or predated it, and no one knew why he was collecting change. Jay never gave up the secret.
“Evenin’ Jay,” I waved as I neared, “How was the haul today?”
“It was pretty good Mike. Found a ten dollar bill today in a storm drain.”
“No shit, who drops a ten dollar bill?”
“Eh, lots of people,” He drew a circle in the air with his cane and shrugged his shoulders. “Find a lot more bills these days than I used to.”
“What’re you gonna spend it all on Jay?”
He grinned and gave the same unsatisfying answer, “Oh, you know, this and that.”
“Well, share some of it with me,” I said as I continued past him.
Jay’s only reply was a dry, halfhearted laugh.
The cold air of the Shop and Save was a welcome respite from the early summer heat. I surveyed the registers looking for a friendly face. I was thankful to see Ms. Mimi behind the counter near the cigarettes.
Mimi was a stout Germanic woman, built for work, widowed by a husband whose final gift was crippling debt. The rumor about town was that Mimi had him killed or killed him herself. I didn’t doubt there was at least of shade of truth there. Mimi, even old and crippled by diabetes, elicited an indescribable and unexplained unease. It was common knowledge that Ms. Mimi was not to be fooled with, though there was nothing but hearsay to serve as evidence of her cruelty.
I always went out of my way to help Mimi with her customers. I bagged groceries for her when her line was backed up, and I flirted with her. My mom always said that the old ladies were the ones who really ran the world. She told me often that if I could get old ladies on my side, I could get anything I wanted. It was good advice.
Mimi knew I was full of shit, and she called me out on it, but even a steely, battle hardened widow like her couldn’t help but enjoy the hugs and smooches from someone a quarter her age.
Mimi wasn’t among the roster of people I regularly bought cigarettes from, but I felt confident that I could add her to it.
I swept over the store and didn’t see any other customers. It was a lucky day, no one to report back to my mother. I grabbed a pack of condoms from a display near the front of the store and set them on Mimi’s conveyor.
“How’s the best lookin’ forty year old in town?”
Mimi let out a laugh that can only be described as southern. Her lungs crackled and wheezed from half a century of accumulated tobacco smoke.
“Well if it isn’t little Mikey, more full of shit than a Christmas goose. You know damn good and well I’m sixty-five this year.”
“Oh, comeon,” I scoffed. “Now, which one of us is full of shit?”
“If I were fifty years younger Mikey, I might fall for all your nonsense.”
“Wait.” I put on a look of shock and then of sadness, “You never told me you weren’t falling for this.”
Mimi and I shared a laugh.
“Let’s get to what you’re really doin’ here little Mikey.”
She leaned forward and slid the box of condoms across the register. “I’m glad you have good enough sense to buy these. Lot of boys your age don’t. They end up getting someone pregnant. Ruin three lives getting someone pregnant at your age.”
She dropped them in a paper bag to save me an embarrassing walk across the parking lot, “That’ll be five twenty-nine dear.”
“Actually Mimi, I need three packs of cigarettes.” Her eyes narrowed and focused on my face. She glanced over my shoulder toward the office.
“Ya know I could get in trouble. Everyone in the store knows you’re sixteen.”
“Whose gonna put you in trouble Mimi?”
“Adam.” Mimi pointed toward the store manager’s office.
I chuckled. Adam Moore was the store manager, tall with long, thinning hair. He’d worked at Shop and Save since he was in high school. He made a pretty good living as store manager, but he was a local with deep roots, and spending decades as the only local grocer gave Adam an intimate knowledge of everyone in town. He knew who bought what and when, and he deduced much about the lives of his customers by their grocery purchases. Adam was a good ole boy, a smoker, and a storyteller. I passed more time at work smoking behind the store and listening to Adam weave a tale than I did putting boxes on shelves.
“I bum smokes from Adam all the time, he sold em to me last week at the end of my shift when the store was empty.”
Mimi looked in my eyes and calculated the likelihood that I was being truthful. “If you’re lying to me Mikey, I’ll find you where you sleep. Ya hear me?”
“Yes ma’am I wouldn’t lie to you.” I wasn’t, and I didn’t want to find out what the old bird would do to me if I were.
She folded her arms and looked me top to bottom again, and then shrugged her shoulders. “Alright, what brand you want.”
I had an inkling there was no way Mimi would sell me three different brands. I counted it as good luck that she was selling to me at all. I did the sensible bought my brand.
“Three packs of Camel Lights please Ms. Mimi.”
Without saying anything, Mimi turned to the locked cigarette case behind her register and removed three white and blue cellophane wrapped boxes.
“Ought to last you a while.” She winked, scanned them, and added them to the paper bag. “Want me to sell you beer too while we’re at it? It’ll be twenty-one thirty-seven Mikey.”
“Could you?” I asked handing the bills over.
“Could I what?” She counted them out and punched the numbers into the register, made change and tore the receipt in one fluid motion.
“Sell me beer.” My grin threatened to split my face.
Mimi handed my bag across the register, “I used to like you little Mikey.”
“But now you love me?”
She coughed her way through a deep laugh. “Get out of here.”
I took the bag and started out of the store. I shouted over my shoulder, “you’re still my favorite Ms. Mimi.”
“Be safe Mikey,” I heard her shout just before the doors closed behind me.
Daniel saw me exit the store and drove over to meet me. Steven was back in the front seat.
“What the fuck is this?”
“It’s cramped back there.” Steven whined.
“So you think I should sit there?”
“You’re short.” Steven said matter-of-factly. “And the deal was only for the ride here.”
“I see.” I stared into the car and then pulled the box of condoms from the paper bag, “guess I’ll just toss these up on the roof.”
“That’s fucked up Mike.” Daniel said from the drivers seat.
“We had a deal Steven. You got a cigarette from Floppy, and I got the front seat. You modified that agreement. I agreed to buy you condoms with the understanding that you were a man of your word, and here I come to find out that you aren’t. We can’t just change the deals we make when we feel like it. How can we trust each other?”
“It’s just the front seat Mike.”
“I know. Why is it so important to you?”
“Because I’m tall and there’s more room you fucker. I get all squished up back there I can’t even sit up straight.”
“Guess having safe sex isn’t all that important to you then.” I turned to Floppy in the back seat, “We could blow these up like balloons.”
“Alright,” Steven cried and opened the door. “I’ll get in the back seat.”
“Here you go.” I handed the condoms over. “Nice doing business with you.”
Steven moved slowly, and groaned like an old man as he climbed into the back of the Camaro. I retook my seat. “So we ran into a little issue inside.”
“None of my regular people were in there, so I could only get one brand. I didn’t want to be too suspicious.”
“Ok. So what brand did you buy?”
“Oh, I know where this is going.”
I turned the bag over and dumped out the three packs of Camel Lights. “Now if you all don’t want them…”
“You bought your brand? What the fuck Mike? We gave you money,” Steven threw his hands up and accidentally smacked his knuckles on the ceiling. It took some effort to pretend that he hadn’t really hurt himself.
“I was about to say, if you don’t want them, I’ll pay you back for them. After being stared down by Ms. Mimi, I was glad to get any at all.”
They grumbled, and I held a pack of cigarettes out to each of them, Daniel on the left and Steven on the right. Daniel took his without consideration. Steven held out for a moment before sighing and snatching the pack from my hand.
We each went through the familiar ritual, packing the tobacco, peeling the cellophane, opening the box lid, and removing the foil covering.
Daniel took the second cigarette from the front row and returned it to the pack filter side down. That cigarette was deemed lucky. He only smoked his lucky cigarette when he was in a tough spot, or whenever it was the last one. Steven pulled a cigarette from the pack by putting it to his mouth and pinching a cigarette between his teeth.
“Oh yea,” Steven blew out his first lungful. I needed that.
“You had one on the ride over here,” I noted.
“Well.” Steven paused, “even still.”
“So what now guys?” Daniel wondered.
“Let’s park and hang out.” Floppy suggested from the back seat.
“Mike?” Daniel wanted confirmation.
“Fine with me. Stevie?” I passed the question along.
Daniel parked the Camaro facing the highway at the far end of the parking lot. Daniel and I climbed out of the car to let Steven and Floppy out to stretch their legs. In addition to the Shop and Save, the little shopping center hosted a pizza place, Chinese restaurant, Pharmacy, Bank, and McDonalds. It was the center of commerce in Black Hollow. The Shop and Save parking lot was unlit in the section farthest from the store. As the sun went down, the lack of light would give us as much privacy as a public space in a small town could afford.
We parked at different places around town, looking for a space that was private enough to prevent our parents from finding us or hearing about what we were doing, but public enough for people from school to notice us and stop to chat. We tried the car wash, but the cops chased us off. We sat at the river for a while, but the railroad owned the access road and put up gates when the management found teens socializing on their property. We got kicked out of the public parks when we didn’t leave by ten o’clock. We wanted to be outside. We wanted to be loud. We wanted to experiment. We wanted to meet new people, and we wanted to do it without interference. We wanted to talk, listen to music, and smoke. The unlit corner of the Shop and Save parking lot was the closest thing we had to that place, and it wasn’t without its problems. It wasn’t uncommon for working men to creep their trucks by and hang their heads out the window. They most often gave disapproving looks. A friend of my dad’s pulled over and told us to “get a life.” A man completely unaffiliated with the store threatened to call the police and warned us that we were trespassing.
Our only crime was gathering in public, and adults made it clear that we were to stay quiet and out of sight.
An hour and a few cigarettes later, the sun disappeared behind the ridge line, the sky grew dark, and the unnatural lighting of street lamps bathed everything but our dark corner of unlined asphalt. Steven was the first to notice the line of pickup trucks parked at the produce stand across the street.
The trucks sat with their beds facing the highway. They would’ve been invisible but for the ambient glow of light from the billboard overhead.
“Do you guys see that over there?” Steven pointed.
“The group parked down there at Chipper’s Produce?”
“Yeah.” Steven put his arm down.
“It’s a pretty big group.” Daniel squinted. “Think we know any of them?”
“Well, we can sit here and never find out, or we can go try to make new friends.”I tried to infuse the suggestion with enthusiasm and positivity, but I knew Daniel and Floppy would take some convincing.
“Maybe we could expand our little group here.” Steven sensed that I needed help.
“I like our group the size it is,” Daniel hated new people change, for as long as I’d known him, he’d never made a new friend of his own volition. I was forced on him by his mother. Steven and Floppy were forced on him by me.
“I don’t know Mike,” Floppy was a different story. He collected new friends when we were younger, but he had been held back in the eighth grade, right at the division between middle and high school, and the experience stunted him socially. Daniel had been held back the same year and was the only other person Steven knew in the new cohort. Floppy and Daniel closed ranks around one another and refused entry to anyone new. They also resented Steven and I for leaving them behind, as if we had a choice.
“Ok.” I looked across the road to where the trucks were sitting. “I’m going over there. Wanna come Stevie?”
“You gonna walk? Cause I’m staying here.” Behind Daniel’s statement was the implication that the car was staying parked. There was a chance Daniel would get pissed and leave me behind if I left the group, but home was close enough to walk. It would be a long walk, but it was doable. There was an equal chance that if Steven and I both went across the street, Daniel would capitulate and bring Floppy along.
“Yeah. I’m gonna walk over to Mickey D’s and get a couple cheeseburgers, then I’m going to the produce stand to see who’s there.” I pointed at each location in turn. “Comin Stevie?”
Steven paused for a long moment and weighed his options. “Will you buy me a cheeseburger if I come along?”
I had him. “What’s a little dollar menu between friends? I’ll buy you two.”
Steven put his hand out and I slapped it, “Oh yeah.”
“Well,” Daniel shifted back and forth on his feet. “You guys better be back when I want to leave.”
“You wouldn’t leave us here would you Danny?”
“All I’m gonna say is that I’m not coming across the street looking for you. I’ll flash the lights a few minutes before Floppy and I are headed out. If you all aren’t here, then I’m leaving. So be looking.”
I clicked my heels together and gave a half-hearted salute. “Aye, sir.” I checked my pockets for my keys, phone, wallet, and cigarettes and then turned to Steven, “Got everything?”
Steven had just done his own check, “Except my two cheese burgers.”
I laughed, “You’ll get em.”
“I think Daniel was a little pissed.” I said when Steven and I were out of earshot.
“Yeah, he’s been a little bossy now that he’s got this car. Thinks because he has wheels he can tell us where to go.”
“Well, there is something about dancing with the one that brought you. He did drive us here.”
“Yeah, but it’s almost possessive ya know? Like he don’t want us to be friends with anyone else. I’m just trying to expand the circle. Good to have more friends. Some of those guys might be from school, might be older, might be able to buy beer. Might be a good party.”
“Think they’ll come down after a while?” Steven pointed his thumb over his back at the darkened corner of the parking lot. “They’re both socially retarded.” Steven laughed, “They’ll both be virgins forever.”
“We gotta save them from themselves Stevie, force them out of their little bubble. Take chances, make mistakes.”
“Mikey.” Steven stopped in the road.
“Yeah?” I turned and walked backward.
“Did you just quote the magic school bus at me?”
“Yeah.” I turned around again and heard Steven chuckle and jog a bit to catch up.
“Want to walk through the drive through?”
“Why wouldn’t we just go inside?”
“How many people do you know who have walked through the drive through?”
“Nobody Stevie, because it’s a stupid ass idea.”
“Awe come on Mikey, what happened to ‘take chances, make mistakes.'”
“Oh no!” I mocked. “You have turned my own words against me. I guess we have to walk through the drive through.”