By Peter Vaudry-Brown
As I come across the parking lot, it starts to come down. A real soaker.
I don’t have a hat, but I flip the collar up on my overcoat, and rush the last few yards to the overhang in front of the store, at the well-lit end of a mini-mall. The next place over is painted blue and has a sign proclaiming it as the D.R.E.A.M. Center. Beyond that is beyond, over there. Darkness .The store is the only thing open. A couple cars in front.
About a hundred yards off, there’s a black van, a full-sized one, over in the circle of light by the pay-phone. Parked so that the driver could reach out and answer if the phone rang.
Thunder rumbles off somewhere.
Under the awning, I check the sky and then the van again. It’s probably eleven. I see a cigarette glow in the darkness behind the windshield. I say still for a second, and then I nod deeply, one time, confirming something. Usual thing. Car broken down and bad weather. Phone book?
“Ts’up y’all.” I’m inside, folding my collar back down, letting the rainwater drip off me some, so that I don’t track it all over the store.
The counter man, who’s my age easy, and the woman he’s talking to both look over at me. He says, “Evening.”
I am trying to remember if we’re into Florida yet. If this is Alabama, I can’t buy beer. But I don’t want to ask, I don’t want them to remember me. I go to the back of the store, while the two of them talk. Without seeming obvious, I try the beer cooler. It’s unlocked.
This must mean Florida.
She is almost out the door when she stops and turns, looking at him. “Now hol’ up. What’s stronger, these or the Lights?”
She’s got a pack of Newport Mediums in her right hand, keys already out in her left. The lady’s about thirty, maybe younger, hard to tell with black people, and she’s wearing a burgundy scrub shirt and some shorts. There’s some kind of orange puffy thing on her key ring and a name tattooed on her calf, the outside of the one facing me.
And he says, “Now what you want to know for sister? You buying those cigarettes for somebody?”
I’m obviously not in any hurry. I think that I am about to see someone getting busted for selling cigarettes to a minor or trafficking in cigarettes. I look around the store and then out the front windows. The van is still over by the phone.
Normally, with no rain, I would wait until the last customer is out.
He says, “You’re not buying those for someone on the inside are you sister? Those aren’t for a prisoner?”
I look at him. He is older than me, maybe. Grey-headed some. By the till, there are fliers advertising the D.R.E.A.M. Center. A black face, a bad photocopy that could be him, is the minister.
The woman, Charice, what her leg says, she is almost smiling. “Nooo.”
She looks at me, and realizes that I’m ready to pay. She steps back, waving me on. And like that, I am in their little circle.
She’s smiling now, looking up at the wall of cigarettes behind him.
He takes my twenty and rings me up. The drawer opens and there is no drop box, no safe. Maybe two hundred in the till. And he says to her, “Because you’ve got that look. Like you’ve been loved by a prisoner.”
Clarice says, not looking up, not stopping, smiling, “That’s not funny.”
Because I can’t help it, I say, “It is to me.”
He makes good eye contact with me, and smiles. Looking back at her as he hands me my change, he says, “It is to me too.”
And I say, “She’s got that prison glow about her.”
He smiles, electric. “She does. She got that glow!”
Through the windows, I notice the van start to move. Coming towards the store. I raise my hand, like I’m reaching for something, like I’m adjusting something on this side of the cigarette rack that the guy behind the counter can’t see. And I wave.
Back in the van, my beer on the floor behind and between us, Jay starts in on me.
“I saw ya. I saw ya, ya fucker. Ya had to talk to ‘em.”
I make a raking gesture. “They made me. They knew.”
“Fuck you. You queered it. Like always.”
The rain is lighter now and we’re driving away. And I say, “He seemed like one of ours. But funny, right? Talking about keeping people up while they’re in jail. Plus there was a drop box.”
We go on for a while. A trip like this, two or three scores gets you to where you’re going. And then you dump the car. Somewhere outside of De Funiak Springs, or just past it, I say, “I’m getting too old for this. I like these people.”
And Jay says, “Tell me something I don’t know, hunh?”
I don’t know. But I say, “You were right not to come in. You should want everyone to have an emotional investment in these things here. Loyalty and all.”
We split up in Gainesville and I make that last step to straight.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 3 Apr 2005