Outside the fluff’s nearing a foot and the parking lot hasn’t been plowed. The once-in-a-while wind gusts keep shaking the tree under which your rig, plow attached, is parked, burying it more and more over time. As minutes chug by slow as a semi stuck in downtown traffic, you wonder what Bob, who doubles as your father and your boss, would do in a situation like this. What management advice would he give you in this situation? Would he lock the doors and plow until the next customer pulled in, or would he keep calling Wally?
“Where the hell are you?” This is the third time Baby asks the question, as if your answer’s gonna change. “You need to get home right now. It’s time to do it.”
She calls you from her new cell phone. The old one got dumped into a trash can at the Food Court along with her tray’s contents. By accident, she says. You got a real Calamity Jane on your hands, Bob says. You don’t like the old cell anyway. Baby’s new one comes with a slew of free apps, unfamiliar video games that are easy to win and unlimited minutes and texting.
“Stay put, honey. Wally’ll be here shortly.”
“Has he called in yet?”
“Hell no,” you say, emphasizing frustration, showing her your cards.
“Don’t bullshit me, Lester. He ain’t coming.”
You know that Baby knows Wally, and you know she’s right. Even worse, you know that Baby knows that you know she’s right and when that happens, there’s no stopping her.
No one’s coming in to the minimart.
Bob staffs the third shift using only Wally, a confirmed loner. He’s perfect for the position. He owns a small, seventies pre-fab on a slab near Holland Hill’s seven hundred twenty-eight foot high crest. He boasts that there hasn’t been a woman above the five hundred-foot line since the first Iraq war. Wally’s got no woman, no children and is willing to work alone from midnight to eight. Bob’ll never fire him. This teaches you another lesson about management: don’t get rid of someone who’ll do what no one else will do. You now understand true job security. Just the same, you don’t take your outside clothes off hoping hope for the best. You make a plan: Wally arrives, you plow the lot, get on the road ASAP before Baby comes looking for you. Her desire to get pregnant knows no bounds.
The best thing to do is to wait.
Up high on the wall behind the register, the Black Mountain Bakery clock says it’s quarter past midnight. On a normal night, Wally’d be sucking down diesel exhaust from idling semis and inhaling second-hand smoke from travelers exhaling thank yous for their cigarettes, chewing gum, salty cheese snacks and coffee. Black coffee. But from behind the counter all you taste is the aroma of day-old, all-beef wieners as they roll to a slow death underneath outdated infrared warmers. The loudest sound you hear is neon buzz from the minimart’s bright red marquee lights, a beacon for the hungry and the weary. After all, Route 27, which runs in front of the minimart, is dead. Interstate 81 which runs nearby is on life support. Speeding along on a lane just cleared by a highway plow, what road warrior would waste time making a stop?
Standing behind the register, you consider yourself an adult.
Now, sex and pregnancy are no longer separate. Before Baby, you sought out the former with a Mike Tyson vengeance and when in the middle of the former you did your best to avoid the latter. You were careful, took things slow, didn’t get too worked up to forget the condoms that resided in the glove box of your banged up, low-riding hooptie. You weren’t gonna be like Elmo Madison or John Buckner, or even Bob, who became fathers months before graduation. Yet they make what you and Baby are trying to do seem effortless. You realize that the odds for getting your girl pregnant are stacked against you. Something that seems so simple eats at your confidence. You think, maybe Baby’s not conceiving right away is a sign, that maybe you two aren’t meant for each other. Maybe you’re too young like her parents and your parents keep telling you. These fears are the only fears you don’t share with Baby. Instead, you share them with your parents.
“Well, I guess your trying to get your girl pregnant now is just another of life’s ironies, son,” Bob says. “What’s the rush? Go out with some other girls. Have some fun.”
You bring up this topic during your last dinner at your parents’ place. You only bring it up to remind Bob how mature you are, that you’ve settled down and are ready to be the minimart’s weekday, second shift manager, meaning no weekend shifts…hopefully ever again.
Instead, Bob redirects the promotion conversation with fatherly advice: walk down aisle first, get your girl pregnant second. What a load! You wonder what Bob really knows about the subject. Or, at least, you wonder how his advice can help you when it didn’t help him. You’re the oldest kid in the nuclear clan, conceived two months before your parents got hitched first, graduated second. Chuck, next in line, is five years younger than you and, a high school freshman. Luckily he’s not around when this particular conversation takes place.
“Pregnancy’s not an irony, honey,” your mom says in soft, but not-so-friendly, tone.
The number of arguments between Bob and Mom increases each year. And these days it doesn’t take much to get them started. But when it comes to this subject, usually Mom seats herself on your side. She likes that you and Baby are planning things out, but questions why you want to get pregnant so soon.
“Pregnancy is a blessing,” Mom says. “Be patient. Remember, Amy wants this as much as you do.”
“You’re filling his head with bad ideas, Norma,” Bob says. “A blessing? He isn’t even married. What the boy needs is to grow up.”
Are they even talking about you? You tell anybody who’s willing to listen that you’d marry Baby in a heartbeat, regardless of whether she’s pregnant or not. Doesn’t the fact that you live together mean anything? Even more, Baby’s made a nicer home for you than the one you had back when Bob and Mom were young, and struggling.
Will you and Baby struggle when the baby comes?
Your earliest memories are of living in Mr. Russet’s third floor attic. A set of narrow stairs runs from the driveway up to the apartment door. You remember worn out wallpaper, faded parcels of pastel colors separating from the wall like peels opening up around a banana. Every week, Mom shaved off peeling paper. If a section became an eyesore, she hid it behind ads for specials, ones she stole from the supermarket where she bagged groceries, stocked shelves late into the night if they needed her to. The ad you remember best reads: canned pears, four for five dollars – regularly one can costs one-fifty. Another announces that all varieties of Black Mountain Bakery breads are BOGO – buy one, get one free. The words from those ads are the first words you ever spoke. You claim you were born to work the minimart, or any grocery store.
The place you rent now is big enough for a family of three, maybe four. Baby paints the place, a real improvement. Before doing it, she negotiates a reduced rent in exchange, all this while working part-time at Chuck E. Cheese’s. She likes kids. She’s part-time because she doesn’t want to feel bad when she quits. Yet even though she’s part-time, she’s won Employee of the Month five times. You deposit the bonus checks that come with the title into a nest egg savings account. Your pay from the minimart covers you and Baby week to week, month to month. Thinking ahead, you know that without a raise you’ll be struggling after Baby stops working. This makes you think about doing the unthinkable: finding another job.
“That’s all I’m saying,” Bob says to Mom. “He’s still a boy.”
“Well, at least the boy’s got a job and pays the bills,” Mom says. “He’s acting more like a man than you when you were his age.”
“Who’d you think hired the boy?” Bob asked.
“Whose parents took money out of their retirement for the minimart’s seed money?”
“Who paid them back? With interest!”
“Who spent the majority of his time at work rather than with his kids?” Mom eyes you this time. “Don’t be like your father, Lester.”
“Baby and me got a good thing going,” you say, not wanting things to get uglier. “We’re gonna make it. It’s just that Baby’s driving me crazy. Kids are all we ever talk about.”
And the process of making a baby is killing your sex life. Baby’s always tense. Waiting for pregnancy test results is like waiting for official race results at the OTB. Each time you wonder if you’ve picked a winner. Each time you don’t conceive, Baby tells you to try harder. Your desire for sex fades by a shade each time.
“Babies. Babies. Babies,” you tell the folks, only trying to emphasize your plight, only hurting yourself in the process. “It’s like I’d rather pay some doctor. You know what I mean? Get it over with. Be a dad already.”
“Jackasses!” Mom’s eyes volley between you and Bob. “Get your insides poked by a guy who can’t appreciate what you’re giving him, get knocked up and risk ruining your good name and your family’s respect, then tell me how hard it is having a baby.”
You’ve never heard Mom explain it this way before. You don’t know what to say. In a moment of brilliance, Bob keeps his mouth shut too.
The parking’s lot completely covered, not good for customers.
A state plow truck pulls into a handicap spot. The driver’s wearing a wool sweater beneath a pair of overalls. Stiff, he waddles inside and heads straight for the coffee.
“Been sitting a while,” you warn him. When Wally gets there, he’ll make more.
The driver’s a black guy close to Bob’s age. His curly hair’s almost all grey and he’s got this look of responsibility, like he should be a supervisor, not a driver. You remind yourself that you don’t want to be at his level when you reach his age. You wanna be like Bob and own something. You imagine you’ll be home from work while the sun’s still out. You picture you and Baby out on the deck having adult time after the kids have gone to bed, even though Bob has told you again and again that ownership doesn’t work that way.
The plow driver rubs his bare, brown hands together. “It is hot?”
“Good enough for me.”
“For you, it’s free. Take as much as you can stand.”
The driver sits at one of the three booths Bob has refused to remove and replace with fast-sell merchandise…your idea. He clutches a full sixteen ounce travel cup like he’s frozen.
“You gonna be here for a few minutes? I need to hit the parking lot,” you explain, tilt your head towards the window. He nods and you say, “If you’re hungry, help yourself to whatever you’d like. The restroom’s over there, if you need it.”
Once you remove the wintry rug from around your rig, you’re on your way.
Imagine having your own place.
The fantasy sails across your mind. You focus on the plow driver as you back up your rig. From a distance, even his life seems tired. You notice a wedding ring, don’t see a cell phone. If you were him, you’d’ve called Baby by now just to check in. Let her know that you wish you were home with her.
And right on cue, your cell phone’s dancing in your parka’s pocket.
“I’m in the car,” Baby says. “Wally there yet?
You’re so close. The lot’s nearly finished. You still hold unrealistic hopes of Wally’s two-ton appearing out of the night, soon enough to stop Baby from hitting the road. She’s a fine driver, but on a night like this there’s always the chance that something…
“We’re not wasting another chance because of a few flakes.” Her dashboard’s seatbelt alarm dings. “Doc Griffiths says we gotta take advantage to increase our chances.”
“Don’t come out. It’s dangerous.”
Flakes bigger than George Washington’s head on a dollar bill float down, make you think of the fabricated white powder in a souvenir snow globe. The minimart has a stack of them on the counter by the register…Bob’s idea of last-minute purchases.
“Why do people like snow globes so much?” you say to Baby.
She doesn’t know, but talks to you while her car gets on the road.
Try to make sense of the situation.
Baby’s on the way to have sex with you. The upsides of sex these last few months: no condoms, no side effects from Baby taking The Pill. The downside of sex these last few months: the fun has disappeared faster than a naked woman shutting her curtain when she catches you peeping. At first trying to have a baby was like mating season. Every time you and Baby did it there was a savagery you’ve only seen on Animal Planet. Then Doc Griffith stepped in, took the fun out. Now there’re rules, schedules to keep and positions only porn stars perform, all this to better your chances. And, worse, you can’t even service yourself.
“Where are you now, Baby?”
“Near Johnson Auto Mall.” She’s halfway. “Hey. The lights are still on over there.”
“Please turn around. Head back to the house,” you say. “Would you do that for me?”
Maybe the sincerity in your voice will turn her around. But she doesn’t answer you.
“Listen, Baby. You’re right. Wally’s not coming. Get off at Exit 10 and turn around.”
“Can’t now, sweetie. I’m on a roll. There’s no one out here and…”
And then she’s gone. It’s like she hung up on you after the many times you’ve acted boneheaded. A couple of tries to reach her back and you give up.
A car with out of state plates pulls in close to the door. A young couple around your age gets out, laughing, throwing snow at each other. They go inside. You can’t see the plow driver. He might have hit the head. He might be picking out something to eat, like you suggested. You park underneath the same tree where you were parked before and hustle inside. You’d locked the cash register before plowing, so what little cash is in it is safe.
It’s still a blizzard, but now there are customers.
You take off your hat and your down parka and kick your biker boots into the pantry where the deli bread and rolls are stored. You’ve cleared enough parking spaces and think about how your outside gear’s no longer necessary, not now, not ever. The biker boots are soaked. They’re not made for his weather. They’re for protecting your feet in dry weather and on dry roads while you’re tooling along on your Japanese rice burner. With a baby eventually on the way, owning a bike doesn’t make sense. You’re sure Baby’s gonna make you sell it. Life’s really gonna change.
The girl rounds the closest end cap and walks up to you to check out. She’s got her arms full of snacks and a couple bottles of Coke, necessities for a long trip. They guy’s behind her rooting around in his army jacket’s deep pockets. They’re from far from here. You wonder if they are going back there or going somewhere maybe more exciting. When you see out of state plates, these are the things you ponder. Sometimes you ask customers about where they’re from, about their destinations. Most visit the area for a day of tourism. Some are here to see family. If that’s the case, they usually drive to the minimart in their relatives’ vehicles. None of the out-of-staters ever say they’re moving here. You wonder why.
“That everything?” you ask.
The boy pulls a handgun out of his jacket pocket. “Where’s the plow driver?”
You ask yourself the same question.
Lifting your hands into the air is automatic. Maybe you’ve seen too many police dramas and bandit movies. Getting robbed has never happened to you before. The thought of it happening is why you think Wally’s off his rocker for working night shift, alone. Your hands shake. Bob keeps a Louisville slugger beneath the counter and in view and keeps an automatic pistol hidden. The bat’s handy to scare drunks or kids whose parents can’t control them. Bob packs the pistol during bank deposits. With your unsteady hands, both weapons aren’t any good.
“He’s in the john, I think,” you say in answer to the boy’s question.
“Then make it fast,” he says. The girl puts the stuff she’s carrying onto the counter. “Put all this in a couple of bags and whatever’s in the register in there too.”
“The food’s worth more than what’s in the register,” you say without thinking. “You’d be better off heading out with what you got.”
“Thanks, fella,” the boy says, sounding a bit sarcastic. “Don’t be a hero. Food don’t make gas money. Cash does. So gimme what you got.”
You hit the sale button. The register rings open. Since you’ve already cashed out the drawer from your shift, there’s only fifty dollars in bills, maybe ten in change. Bob can easily recoup that dough within the first half hour of the morning shift, when the locals come in on their way to work. You pull out the bills. You bag the groceries on top of them. The boy smiles at the way you hide the cash. The girl picks up the bags. Out the door they walk. It happens that fast.
The thieves’ car reverses and speeds out of the just plowed lot. Soon after the car is gone, the plow driver walks in.
“Where were you?” you say, as if you’re angry at him.
“I was in the truck calling the wife,” the driver says. “I radioed the state police and gave them the make, the model and the license number of that car. You okay?”
“You got anyone you want to call? I can watch the place for you.”
“No. My girl’s gonna be here any minute,” you say. “Thanks for calling the police.”
“Sure.” He says. “Coffee tastes burned though. You making more?”
The blizzard’s not letting up. Where’s Baby?
Since the conversation between you and Baby, the parking lot’s got a couple new inches on it. No one’s come in since the plow driver left with a fresh, sixteen-ounce cup of coffee. Free, of course. So were the two Black Mountain Bakery cheese Danishes and a blueberry muffin. You know that Bob won’t care as much about you giving the plow driver free food as he will be about having to drive thirty miles to the county lock up to get the mart’s fifty dollars back. And even then, he’ll have to bring the food back too.
Behind the counter, you linger before you call to tell Bob what happened. You wonder when a trooper will come by to take your statement. You wonder when you’ll tell Baby about all of it, though it happened so fast there’s not much to tell either her or Bob. But if you tell her tonight, you figure she’ll get upset, lose another chance to make a baby of your own.
After all the excitement, you’ve calmed down to the point of bored.
You’ve given up on Wally, wait for the trooper and Baby. You place bets against yourself as to which one will arrive first. You hope they don’t arrive at the same time. You don’t want to scare Baby, but feel a little scared to wait by yourself. Now that you’ve been robbed at the minimart, you fear it will happen again. When? You’re gonna be a father one day. When? Both are now a when and not an if, so you’ll have to wait to find out.
Standing at the register, you pick up a snow globe and shake it. Fake snow falls over fake Blue Ridge Mountains and the peaks turn white. You answer your own question and figure that people buy snow globes so they can show their families and friends where they’ve traveled, valuing these small chunks of plastic memorabilia as if they were gold. The fact that these globes are made in China by people who’ve never been to the United States, never actually seeing the scenes they create, makes you laugh. You fantasize that the Chinese guy who puts the flakes into each snow globe purposefully puts in too many so that everything inside the globe disappears when it’s flipped. Good bye, Blue Ridge Mountains. Goodbye, picturesque rocky ridges.
And you get to thinking that whoever made the earth is doing the same thing on this night. Goodbye, hungry truckers and travelers. Goodbye, tourists. Goodbye, late-night drivers, driving to home or away from home. Goodbye, minimart.