When I swaggered into the Texaco the first thing I took note of was the clerk. To my satisfaction he was busily ringing up purchases of cigarettes, beer, snacks, and petrol. I had waited for a decent rush of after five o’clock working stiffs to keep him occupied while I did my work in the bathroom. I remember thinking that the patrons looked like any typical spattering of the walking dead that made up society at large. As far as I was concerned most people were a parade of fools that blindly labored their lives away for nothing.
Considering the fact that I was a thieving junkie who had been awake for five days straight, there was a heavy dose of irony in both of these thoughts.
I was well aware of the irony and relished it. There was no shame in my game. I thrived on the delusion that I was no mere criminal, but a bona fide outlaw who played by his own rules in a world gone mad.
I adjusted my shades and headed toward the bathroom, uncontrollably eyeing the shelves yet resisting the spontaneous urge to pocket some merchandise. I had to stay focused. This was a mission that entailed more than mere shoplifting.
Delighted to find the bathroom unoccupied, I quickly entered. The door was soon closed behind me then locked. I tried to open it to make sure it was locked. Indeed it was. I then unlocked the door and opened it briefly before closing it, locking it once more, and again trying to open it to make sure it was locked. Finally satisfied, I turned and looked in the mirror. I removed my shades. My hollow eyes and thin face made me look like I was almost thirty years old.
I was nineteen.
I grinned, and my hideous reflection grinned toothily back. I could have stood there for an hour playing mirror mirror on the wall, contemplating the elasticity of consciousness and its effects on human facial features, but I again reminded myself to stay focused.
I took off the flannel shirt I wore despite the balmy seventy five degree day. Its purpose was not warmth, but to hide the needle marks on my forearms. I hung the shirt on a hook, and my slightly shaky hands reached into the deep recesses of my baggy pants to pull out a ratchet and an assortment of sockets. Next, I carefully lined the sockets in a row on the back of the toilet and looked closely at what was the back wall of the gas station. A line of bolts dotted a vertical seam where two sheets of the corrugated aluminum came together. I grabbed what looked to be the correct sized socket and tried to fit it over one of the nuts.
I inserted the ratchet into the back of the socket and went to work relieving the bolts of their respective nuts. It was the kind of work every meth head was good at. Repetitive tasks were the forte of any speed freak. We could spend hours wiling away the time sharpening knives, loading clips, or picking at scabs.
I was almost done with my task when a sharp knock rapped on the bathroom door. I almost jumped out of my skin.
“Occupied,” I hollered before turning to open up the faucet in the small sink full blast. The sound of rushing water drowned out the more suspicious tones of the ratchet, and I quickly finished removing the nuts. My friend Barry was waiting outside in my car. I knew I had already been in here long enough for him to be getting anxious. I could see him in my mind, sitting in the passenger seat chain smoking hand rolled cigarettes, trying not to convince himself my mischief had been discovered.
The last nut popped off. I dropped it into a pocket with the rest and rounded up my tools. I threw on my flannel and placed the shades back over my caved peepers before turning the water off. I gave the haunted countenance in the mirror a quick smirk and again jumped when the knock returned, louder this time. I immediately yanked the door open and flew past an impatient blue collar slug, ignoring the baleful glare he shot at the long haired dreg that oozed by him. I was used to such looks from the common folk, and they no longer penetrated the thick armor I had grown around my self image. I believed my heart was a stone that no chisel could dent or even scratch.
Little did I know at the time it was not chisels that most effectively wore away stone, but that devastating combination of fire and water.
I stepped outside after purchasing a pack of Marlboro Reds with the handful of quarters I had left from my robbery the night before, which was a twenty four hour laundromat. I used a tire iron to smash open a few change boxes and acquired enough silver for ten bucks in gas, a half gram of crank, and the cigarettes I’d just bought.
Presently, I could see my partner Barry’s squat but broad frame sitting in the rundown Chevy I had inherited from my grandma. My schizophrenic, drug addicted mother had hoped I would use it to get a job since I had dropped out of school. The freedom of owning a vehicle instead prompted me to leave home altogether. I hadn’t seen or talked to my mom in over a year.
I smacked the pack against my palm as I walked to the car, then casually tossed the cellophane to the ground before opening the door and plopping down next to Barry. The tense look on his stubborn face said I had been gone for eons, and he had wondered if he should just bail on this whole idiotic scheme.
“About goddamn time,” he said, confirming my suspicion. I thumped a tailor made from the pack and offered it to him. He chucked the rollie he’d been puffing out the window and snagged the Class A.
“I would ’a been quicker, but I had to take a shit,” I informed him. He laughed emptily at my wit, still unnerved by the long wait in the car.
“You sure you got all those nuts off? We can’t be banging on that fucking wall at 3 a.m.”
My jaw reflexively clenched. I didn’t like being doubted.
“The bolts were in a straight line. No mazes or geometric intricacies to speak of. So yeah, I’m pretty sure I got ’em all. You can go on in and inspect my work if you got your panties in a bunch. Just don’t mind the smell.”
A dark sparkle briefly glinted in my friend’s eyes before passing as quickly as it came. It was dangerous to patronize Barry, but my easy manner and dry wit made me one of the few people who could get away with it. It also helped that he didn’t currently have his own car and often needed me to give him rides on his errands.
“That’s what I like about you, Todd. Even when you’ve been going for a few days, you still keep it together.”
Barry took a deep drag off his smoke. I started the car and pulled out of the parking lot to join the flow of traffic. My hand began tapping the steering wheel in a constant motion, a sure sign I was thinking about my next fix.
“We should do another blast before tonight if we’re gonna be on our toes. We got much left?” I asked.
Barry pulled a small plastic bag from his pocket and examined its meager contents. The dark sparkle returned to his eyes.
“We got a little. Hollister’s bags have been getting lighter and lighter. I’m gonna have to have a talk with him real soon.”
I doubted there would be much actual talking in that exchange. Hollister was the only local guy who knew how to cook, but Barry was the crazy bastard no one dared cross. They had once been tight friends, and not so long ago Barry was Holly’s right hand man, but their relationship had grown increasingly worse over the last couple months. It was a common occurrence amongst peers in our world.
I often wondered how long it would take for me and Barry’s friendship to sour as well. The dumber part of me, the part that wanted to take a flamethrower to the candle of life, reasoned that as long as there was a steady supply of the ambrosia our mutual veins desired then things would be swell. The wiser part knew that when the time of plenty passed there would be fighting over the scraps. Even though I was making some money hustling quarter papers, grams, and teeners with Barry, we often did more than we sold, and so I was doing up to three or four minor larcenies a week to keep the cash coming in. To my credit, I was very particular about the kinds of places I would rob from. Houses were off limits. Being an unauthorized presence in someone’s home is a very uncomfortable feeling for me, as I suspect it is for most sensible folk. Businesses, on the other hand, were public by nature, and I had no problem giving them a financial trim.
All in all it was exciting and challenging work, but it was quite hazardous and required long hours.
“God damn that thing is loud.”
Barry looked around nervously while my ratchet once again was put to use, this time outside the station. It was almost four in the morning, and all was dead quiet except for the fast rat-a-tat-tat of my spinning tool.
“It’s not that loud. There’s no houses back here,” I patiently assured him. Indeed, the lot behind the station was empty, which left us feeling somewhat exposed, but the absence of any light kept us hidden in the shadow of the building. The station was basically one big aluminum box with a front window and glass door. I was pretty sure the outside seam I was working on would open up close to where I had undone the bolts from the inside. My biggest concern was passing through the one foot of space in between. If we ran into pipes or electrical wires we might not be able to go through. Of course, I didn’t tell Barry that. He was wound up enough as it was.
“You sure they don’t have any motion detectors or something in there?” he asked, voicing his own concerns.
“Nope,” I answered frankly. “But I know they probably wouldn’t bother installing the cheap sensors I saw on the window and the door if they had motion detectors.”
Barry was only mildly satisfied with this logic. He didn’t like being a thief in the night anyway, especially in his own neighborhood, which was a sad two mile square of trailer houses and Section 8 homes near the town of Edmond that everyone charmingly called Felony Flats. Barry had grown up there, and his standing in the community could be summed up by one word – notorious. He was often blamed for the things he didn’t do, much the less the ones he did. Police in two counties knew him on a first name basis.
I, on the other hand, was a homeless transplant who had only been hanging out in the Flats for the past six months. I had discovered this odd neighborhood after reconnecting with my best friend Desmond. He had moved a couple towns away over a year before, about the time my own life had spiraled into chaos. When I ran into his cousin at a pool hall I got Desmond’s new number. After calling and catching up on things, he got his mom to talk his new stepdad Gerald into letting me stay with them if I got a job. No job manifested, and when Gerald caught me taking money out of his wallet he tried to throttle me. Fortunately, I am slippery as an eel and fast as a cheetah, so I escaped bodily harm, but needless to say that bridge was burned. Desmond was still a friend, he had no love for his stepdad, but I was effectively back on the streets. Once I was adrift in the Flats it took little time to acquaint myself with Barry and his circle of outcasts. Birds of a feather.
I finished the last nut, let it fall to the ground, and dropped the ratchet into a pocket. I got my fingers under the seam and gripped the edge with both hands.
“You ready?” I asked.
Barry nodded but offered no words.
“Grab this edge with me. It’s gonna be loud, but if we yank it back fast it won’t be loud for long.”
I examined Barry’s sweaty intense face. He was a valuable friend to have, but this type of work wasn’t in him. If he wanted to take something, Barry would rather take it by brute force in broad daylight. That was more his style, not this slinking about.
As for me, robbing a lone outpost of a big company like Texaco fit nicely with the image of myself as an outlaw. Barry was an idealist too, but of a different sort. I was more the renegade philosopher, whereas Barry embodied a maniacal conqueror. Of course, both of those archetypes were doused with a turbulent methamphetamine sauce and placed on a chess table where the pieces were not elegant lords and ladies but poor white trash.
When we pulled on the siding it peeled back with a dull screech that made us both grimace.
“Now just hold it a sec,” I said. Barry did as he was told while his head swiveled in stark paranoia.
“You just better be right about this score,” he said through clenched teeth.
I ignored his whining and placed my body in the now exposed gap. I peered into the space between the walls and was pleased to see no major obstructions. I put my foot against the outside wall so Barry could let go, and then dug a small flashlight from my back pocket. I shined it at the inner wall and saw the inside seam. I pushed on it with my free hand.
The wall parted. I laughed aloud and shone my light through. Barry came up behind me and peaked in to see the inside of the bathroom. I turned to him and grinned.
“At any rate, I’ll bet ya there ain’t no motion detectors in the shitter.”
“Nine hundred and thirty two dollars and twenty three cents.”
I laid the stack on the car seat between me and Barry. Once we were inside everything went smooth. No motion detectors and no safe to deal with. I found the money wrapped with a rubber band behind the tray in the register. It wasn’t the first time I’d found money hidden in such a way. I could only guess as to why business owners thought this was clever. I reckoned they thought your average burglar was too stupid to look in such an obvious place. Not this kid.
In addition to the cash, we filled two garbage bags with twenty cartons of cigarettes, thirteen lighters, two pairs of sunglasses, six quarts of motor oil, and a box of Snickers. It was a sweet score to say the least.
“What does that make it apiece?” asked Barry. It only took me a second to do the math in my head. I was always good with numbers.
“Four hundred sixty six dollars and eleven and a half cents,” I told him.
“I see. Well, I’m feeling generous so you can have the half cent, and we’ll just call it even,” Barry replied with a smile.
“What a guy,” I said and began splitting up the take. Barry lit a fresh stogie and kicked back. We were parked in the narrow graveled alley behind his parent’s trailer house. He was twenty three and lived at home with them and his eighteen year old brother Cass.
“How long have we been going?” he asked.
“About six days,” I replied, trying not to lose count on the divvy.
“It’s been a good run.”
“Amen to that,” I said, and laid the last one on Barry’s stack. I handed it to him, and he took it with pleasure.
“You might want to count it again. I’m pretty sure it’s right, but I ain’t seeing all that straight,” I told him quite honestly. He didn’t look too concerned about it though. He stuffed the cash into his pocket without even looking at it.
“I’ll count it when I wake up in two days. If it feels light I’ll kick your ass later,” he said.
“Fair enough,” I returned, knowing full well he wouldn’t remember the tally by the time he woke up. Hell, I probably wouldn’t remember it either.
“You gonna crash in your car out by the lake or get a hotel?” Barry asked.
“Neither,” I said. “The sun’s coming up so I think I’ll go over to Desmond’s and pass out on his floor.”
“I thought ole Gerald wanted to wring your scrawny neck?”
“He works from dawn till dusk on an oil rig. I’ll park around the block, and it’ll all be good. Dez lets me crash in the closet. At least I’ll get a few hours sleep in the dark.”
In retrospect this would turn out to be a bad call on my part, but I was out of dope, and my vision was starting to blur. Previous experience told me I was fading fast, and I didn’t think I could make it all the way out to the interstate to get a hotel without crashing into the ditch. Such are the woes of real life vampires.
“Alright then, I’m out,” Barry drawled. We shook hands.
“I’ll pop the trunk so you can grab your share of the smokes,” I said.
“Good deal,” he replied.
Barry shuffled lazily out and walked around to the back of the car. I hit the button that was supposed to open the trunk lid, half expecting it to fail. It had been on the fritz lately, but this time it worked just fine. The lid popped up, and Barry took his haul. He closed the lid, and I watched him shamble around the side of the trailer with the trash bag of cigarettes hung over his shoulder like a macabre Santa.
Then I started the car and drove to Desmond’s for what would be a less than stellar day’s sleep.