A short story by Jay S. Winston, all rights reserved
(published in Margins Magazine, www.marginsmag.com)
1. Notes from a dump in the middle of nowhere
Frank’s was a dump; no way around it. A dump in the middle of nowhere; no way around that, either. Food wasn’t too bad—not rancid or likely to make a person sick—but not too good, either.
Tourists walked in the front door now and then, big smiles on their faces. They’d think they’d found an authentic small town diner with scrumptious old-fashioned down-home cooking. Then you’d see them grimacing over what they got: salads of wilted iceberg lettuce—bone-white, brown around the edges—served with packets of generic ranch dressing, tomato soup poured from cans and defrosted burgers on defrosted white buns served with defrosted fries. Frank drove nearly a hundred miles round trip to the nearest Wal-Mart once a week for these items and didn’t see how anyone could complain. “Best you’re gonna find in these parts,” he’d say, “no way around it.” And, to be fair, he wasn’t far from right.
Frank was Margo’s father. Not a bad father, really; never hit, neglected or molested her, always supplied her with all basic life needs. Not a bad guy in general, for that matter—a pretty good guy, really, though certainly not a great one, or even particularly notable in any way you’d likely think of. Not much of a businessman, not very ambitious, which might not be such a bad thing, some would say not a bad thing at all, a good thing, really, unless you take his family and the town they lived in into consideration. Not that his family was doing so badly, and not that it was such a terrible place. In fact, they were doing okay, never short of any of the necessities of life and comfort, healthy, decently clothed and well fed, living in a quite respectable four bedroom cottage right behind the diner. And, in many ways, perhaps most ways, the town was a good place: clean air, practically no crime to speak of, a tight-knit community. And yet, sadly enough, that community was disappearing.
Sherman’s Fork, Arizona had a population of fifty-two, having gone down from fifty-seven the previous year (when the last young family in town, Bob and Margie Underwood and their three children, left), a hundred and sixteen ten years earlier, three hundred and eighty-one ten years before that and, back in the boom years of the mid eighteen nineties between ten and twenty thousand. Frank, self-proclaimed town historian, could and would rattle off such statistics to anyone eating at the counter when business was slow, which it almost invariably was. “Town’s disappearing,” he’d say, “no way around it.”
Besides the diner, Maine Street consisted of a gas station with a post office attached to the back, a tiny Catholic church, an even smaller Mormon one, and a number of other buildings, mostly vacant. The last bar had closed four years ago, the grocery store and pharmacy three years earlier, the hardware store three years before that. The school closed down after the Underwood kids left and Frank’s itself was struggling, as usual, depending largely on the people, not that there were many, who stopped in town for gas—first station in fifty-seven miles, last for another hundred, though on a road that hadn’t been used much in the half-century since the interstate was built—and figured they might as well grab something to eat. The locals, who made weekly trips to Wal Mart themselves, usually buying better quality goods than what Frank got in bulk, came in for coffee and conversation but rarely ate.
Margo waited tables and cleaned while her father cooked. Thirty-four years old, a year older than Jesus, Frank liked to say, though it was never too clear what he meant by it. She’d lived in town her whole life, started helping out wiping counters around the age of nine. That was when her mother, Nora, first took sick, commencing the long series of illnesses that eventually rendered her an invalid. Frank never told her she had to help, or even asked; it just gave her something to do, opportunities to talk to people. He never asked her to help take care of her mother, either, but that came to take up most of her time away from the diner.
The kids she’d grown up with had, over the years, moved away or died in accidents, not that there were ever many of them. To be exact, there were eight within a close enough age range for meaningful childhood interaction. Actually, that would be nine if you include her brother, Brad, two years older. He’d always felt protective towards his sister, but far too embarrassed by her to be any kind of companion. He moved to Phoenix at eighteen, got married twice, divorced twice, then came back home to work at the gas station, occasionally fixing cars but mostly selling stale candy bars and flat soda pop. Then there were the nasty Ramirez brothers, twins her age, who’d come to school visibly battered on more occasions than she could count and would do their best to bring any other kids within range into a similar condition. Once when they’d pulled her hair and ripped her dress, Brad went after them, succeeding in pummeling one before the other came up behind with a baseball bat, its subsequent impact leading not quite to a concussion but opening a gaping bloody wound that required thirteen stitches. The one murder in town during her, or her parents’, lifetime took place not long after that. It was at the bar, Pete’s, when she and the Ramirez twins were twelve. Mr. Ramirez, whose first name she’d never learned, never asked, had stabbed his wife, Mrs. Ramirez, with a steak knife after surprising her with a man at the bar (the man, amazingly enough, emerged unscathed, and later claimed they’d merely been discussing the weather). She died. He took off and was eventually spotted in Tucson by a cop who was shot dead attempting to apprehend him. The next day some other cops filled him with twenty-eight bullets, all fired, according to official records, in self-defense. The twins went to live with relatives in Southern California. According to local gossip, for which Frank’s was the town’s hub, both had since returned to Arizona as inmates in the state’s world-renowned prison system.
Then there was Sonia, a year younger, Margo’s one and only best friend, who left town as soon as she could hitch a ride on her sixteenth birthday and hadn’t been heard of since, and Sammy and Veronica, two and three years younger, respectively, whose family moved away when she was eight, and of course Charlie Dinkins, a year older, dead due to hemorrhaging brought on by sniffing drain cleaner at fifteen. Finally there was Billie, two years older, who got married to Carlos, four years older. They’d left town with their son, James, and daughter, Nicole, five years ago.
So, at night, once mother went to sleep she would sit and read, mostly magazines and the occasional novel Frank might happen to bring home from Wal-Mart and now and then watched old movies on T. V., thanks to the satellite dish Frank had installed for watching football games, preferring black and white ones from the thirties and forties. During the day she worked, waiting on whatever customers sauntered in and keeping the tables and counters spotless, all the while listening, along with everyone else, employee or customer, to her father’s collection of old country and western tapes.
The music wasn’t bad, in fact it was probably the high point of the job—usually she was the one who turned over or replaced a tape when it came to the end of a side—except that Frank’s selection was limited to twenty-three cheaply made pre-recorded tapes he’d had almost as long as she’d been alive. Most by now were muddy-sounding or featured shrill crackling noises that grew louder with each listening. She never complained, though.
It was Frank himself who’d grumble, actually, when she played the same side of the same tape, the same song when she went back to the kitchen to rewind to it, over and over, day after day until everyone came to associate it with her. That was Johnny Cash, in a tape-mangled, barely audible voice burbling “I Still Miss Someone.” People wondered who the someone was that Margo thought of when she played that. She answered any who actually asked with a light grin asserting the confidence of love lost yet remembered and savored for all time. Not that those who asked were many, or that they cared so much. They were few and they were old and there weren’t many young people around to the offer the vicarious passions of youth. At this point, apart from the geriatric extramarital affairs they sniffed at in disapproval, feigned or otherwise, Margo with her quiet and vaguely enigmatic memories was just about it.
Sometimes she wondered about the song as well, lying in bed late at night when it played over and over in her head, without all the crackle and hiss of Frank’s tape, and sleep wouldn’t come because it was so loud. There was Charlie, the boy she liked so much during her early teens. And yet, despite such a gentle, intelligent, so sensitive face Charlie took a girl’s innocent infatuation, such a precious, delicate feeling blooming forth among the tiny schoolyard crowd, and turned it back on her as poison, encouraging and nurturing until it fully revealed itself and then laughingly displayed it to all with cruel laughter, mocking her gangly legs, big nose and unruly hair. “It just grows that way,” she’d say to anyone who’d hear, and this was true, not that it mattered. When his body was found two years later in the Dinkins’ garage. she rubbed salt in her eyes so as not to appear insensitive to the loss of one of so few youthful companions. Then there was Carlos, who’d kissed her without mentioning he’d become engaged to Billie, her best and only friend since Sonia’d left town. He tried to go further and then called her names when she pushed his hands away. For years afterwards she’d pretended not to dislike him for the sake of Billie, to whom she’d never said a thing about the encounter. And that was all. It was in these late moments only that she admitted to the silence that the someone was in fact no one. No way around it.
2. A mysterious handsome stranger comes to town, complete with sullen attitude and Harley
Johnny showed up just before dark on a Sunday in June. His motorcycle, a Harley Davidson, had broken down somewhere out in the middle of the desert, on a way back road in a hundred and five degree heat. He was dressed in leather head to toe, had no water, and waited for nearly five hours before Chuck Begay, out on a never-specified errand, pulled over in his pick-up. With the aid of some scrap wood and a lot of heaving and sweating they’d managed to get the bike up in the back. Margo was cleaning the tables for the third time since the evening’s last customers had come in an hour and a half earlier and Frank was getting ready to close up when Chuck and the stranger walked in. “Hey, Frank, this fella needs a big glass of water. Make it a whole pitcherfull. Heck, go out back and get him a hose. Most likely could use some good grub, too, but I guess he’ll settle for what you got on the menu.”
Frank didn’t smile, but Margo did. Frank never did appreciate Chuck’s sense of humor and it was clear he didn’t like the strange man, either. Despite a generally amiable disposition, there were people he disliked from the outset, particularly if they looked broke or otherwise bad for business.
The stranger was, without a doubt, in haggard shape, not exactly presentable to the carload of tourists who might show up any minute. He was clearly suffering from acute dehydration, heat exhaustion bordering on heat stroke, a nasty sunburn and no doubt hunger and worry about that expensive motorcycle. Not that any of that, beside the simply fact of being a leather clad biker, could be held against him.
Chuck had already offered to let him sleep on his porch, and asked if Brad was around to look at the bike, since the gas station closed at five. “He went out to Randy’s”—Randy was a friend of Brad’s, ten years older, who lived with his wife, parents, younger brother and children on a ranch forty miles away—said Frank, “so don’t think you’ll get any help tonight. No way around it.”
Margo brought a tall glass of water, cold but no ice so it would be easier drink down, along with a full pitcher of water into which she’d stirred a healthy portion of generic pink lemonade mix. “What’s good?” he asked, giving a blank glare at the menu, in a tone almost hinting at friendliness, but not quite.
“Nothing much, really,” she said with a half-smile, having noticed that Frank and Chuck were deep in conversation. Not that she’d ever had much that was better, but she saw how the out-of-towners, and even those in-towners who got out more often, reacted and respected those reaction more than her father. Even if she’d never seen much of the outside world, barely anything past the Wal-Mart not counting trips to the hospital in Phoenix for her mother a long time ago, she knew Frank’s didn’t stack up too high in it. “Nothing’s too bad, either, though. Not if you’re hungry.”
He’d finished the water and was already halfway through the lemonade. Might he say something, she idly wondered, like in some of those novels her father brought? Maybe “how ‘bout you? Are you good or bad?” or “what’s a woman like you doin’ in a nothin’ place like this?” or even ask her name. But he didn’t, just ordered a tasteless hamburger with fries and more water, please. Except he didn’t say “please,” actually, or “thank you” for that matter. Just ordered what he wanted then ate it, eventually handing a bill across the counter, saying to keep the change: a five dollar bill for a check totaling four dollars and eighty-seven cents. After a while Chuck said he was heading home but the offer for a place to sleep was still good. The stranger left with him.
3. The stranger’s stay turns out to be longer than anyone, including himself, would have expected
The stranger’s stay turned out to be longer than anyone, including himself, would have expected. He stopped by the gas station then crossed the road to Frank’s for breakfast the next morning, asking about Brad. It was Saturday, Brad’s day off. Normally, he spent it around the place, working on some old junkers kept behind the garage. On rare occasions, though, he stayed out at Randy’s to ride horses and do whatever else it was they did out there.
Apparently this was one of those occasions. The stranger stuck around ‘til lunchtime, then ate again, then moved from the counter to a table by the window where he glared at the mostly empty road out front until time for dinner, which he ate, like the other meals, apparently only for a momentary respite from boredom. Once he picked up a newspaper from a bin by the door—The County Voice, featuring a smattering of local news amidst all the ads, including TEN PAGES OF COUPONS for the Wal-Mart an hour’s drive away—but didn’t bother reading it.
Margo tried to make conversation, couldn’t seem to get much out of him, not that she said much herself. Not that she had much to say, anyway. What do you say to a stranger? Especially a stranger who didn’t seem to want to talk or do much of anything else other than get his bike fixed and leave town as soon as possible? Beyond recounting news stories from the paper he’d shown so little interest in, not much she could think of. She tried asking questions—the usual “so where you from?” “So what brings you to these parts?” “So how you enjoying your stay here?”
He seemed no more enthusiastic about answering these than in reading about the specials at Wal-Mart or the past week’s dearly departed senior citizens. She must have wiped down all the counters and tables five times that afternoon for every customer that came in. Johnny Cash: Fifteen Golden Hits had died for good a few days earlier, with unspooled tape caught so deep in the player Frank had to get Brad to take the thing apart so it would work again. Now Merle Haggard was singing “we don’t make no party out of lovin’” and it was up to Frank to turn the tape over or switch to another when the side ended.
Brad finally arrived home around seven, just as the stranger was about to walk the two miles back to Chuck’s porch. He turned out to be tired and dirty from riding horses all day, as well as apparently worse for wear from quite a bit of drinking. Hearing about the bike, he promised to get to it first thing in the morning. Brad always liked motorcycles, and relished telling any biker he met that he himself had a Harley during his first marriage in Phoenix but had to sell it to pay for the divorce. More than making up for the stranger’s taciturnity, he managed to carry a conversation about bikes for nearly an hour before finally deciding to wash up and head for bed.
“Where you staying?” he asked before exiting the diner. The stranger told him. “Hell,” said Brad, “we got an extra room. It’s no Hilton Hotel but there’s clean sheets and it sure beats a porch. Not to mention it’s right behind here instead of way outside town. Why don’t you stay with us?” Frank frowned heavily so Brad could see him but the stranger couldn’t but didn’t say anything. Margo couldn’t hold back a smile, or the fear that made her want to run for Chuck’s now vacant porch herself.
Late that night the stranger, who’d avoided giving positive identification to anyone, merely shaking hands when locals offered their own, told her to call him Johnny. He’d entered her room, asking permission first, as she lay awake with the light on, holding but not reading a magazine. They talked a little bit, though not dealing with anything of consequence. Before going back to the guest room, he ’d joined her on the bed, taking something she’d never particularly wanted but kept thirty-four years.
4. More than a week passes.
More than a week passed. There were a couple reasons for that. Brad had never been quite the whiz he thought he was, and actually had rarely worked on motorcycles, including his own, which he didn’t have long enough for it to need much maintenance, so it took a while to figure out what the problem was. And that’s not to mention that the day turned out to be busier than expected. “Busy” here usually meant that he didn’t have time to read an entire True Crime novel in between customers. This day, however, turned out to be an exception.
Bill Endrezee towed a tractor in twenty miles the morning before, and obviously wasn’t too happy to find out Brad wasn’t in town and he’d have to leave it without so much as an estimate. So, that morning he was there when the station opened at eight with a sour expression. Even that job, which turned out to be a little more complicated than Bill had thought, ended up being interrupted for a lengthy period when the day’s first customer, around ten, said something was wrong with the gas pump. Then, as soon as the tractor was ready to go, Brad’s ex called, beginning an ordeal of tense conversation that lasted much of the afternoon. He didn’t manage to touch the bike until almost quitting time, and even then distractions arose.
Ultimately, it wasn’t ‘til around mid-afternoon the next day that he ascertained what just what parts were needed. Then it was closing time before he went and talked to the stranger at the coffee shop and managed to place an order for them. Then another three days before they arrived. Then, too, however, there was an unusual amount to be done.
Brad’s ex, it turned out, told him she had a two year old with his face. She’d thought when she got pregnant that the kid belonged to the guy she’d been fooling around with, and that in fact was what cemented the break-up. Now, she said, he came to look more and more like Brad every day, and certainly nothing like that other man, whose whereabouts were anyway unknown. So Brad drove to Phoenix for a couple days, leaving just hours before the parts arrived. Bill Harris, the gas station’s owner, left them sitting on the work bench ‘til he got back.
Once that happened, Brad immediately took off for Randy’s again, showing up back at home so hungover he could barely stand late the next day. Fortunately, the stranger seemed to have grown content to wait. He didn’t complain, or even ask about Brad’s, or the parts’, whereabouts. The town, with and its little diner where he could sit all day under Frank’s unseen glower, seemed to suit him.
Though she’d stopped trying to spark a conversation in the diner, local patrons, who largely shared Frank’s viewpoint, though they didn’t have the misfortune of a son who’d invited him to stay indefinitely under their own roofs, couldn’t help remarking that Margo didn’t seem to mind his sticking around either.
5. The stranger begins to wear out his welcome
“You got the parts now,” the usually genial Frank hissed at his only son. “I want you to fix that bastard’s bike tonight.”
“Yes, Sir,” muttered Brad, in a voice indicating compliance having more to do with a desire to stop that angry nasal voice banging against his misused head than any real sense of urgency.
“He’s gonna to be out of this town by the time your sister comes home from church tomorrow, no way around it.” Brad nodded and started in a stumbling, half-hearted gait toward the station to get to the job at hand.
Coming in the house hours later, he was stopped by his father on the porch. “You get it done?”
“Yup. Thing’s ready to go. I’m goin’ to bed...”
“I heard it again,” Frank arrested his son’s motion through the door with the unusual seething quality in his tone, though he spoke low enough so as not to be heard by anyone inside. This from a man who rarely expressed anything stronger than light irritation when the peace of his life appeared to be interrupted, such as his reaction to the news from Brad’s ex three days earlier. He knew that anything beyond that only made things worse, more complicated, more irritating
Frank ignored the question. “Right over my damn head, in my own damn house.”
Brad stood quiet, not wanting to think about the possible implications of this.
“We’ll wait ‘til Margo goes to church in the morning, then we’ll give that piece of trash a little goodbye party. See to it he leaves and never wants to comes back.”
6. The stranger leaves town at last
Margo was the only one in the family who went to church anymore. Her mother would have, certainly, were it not for her infirm condition and Frank and Brad, while certainly attesting to a strong belief in the Almighty usually had too much to do. Usually that meant work around the property, or at the diner or gas station, or merely some additional but badly needed sleep after a long workweek. On this occasion, however, once the daughter of one and sister of the other were out the door, Frank went to the attic for the gun. It was a small handgun, bought after the gas station was held up in 1978 (actually the only armed robbery in town since 1921) (before that, during the town’s boom times, violent crimes were actually quite common, including a very famous bank robbery by the Mezcal Kid in 1891, about which Frank had once written twenty-four pages of an unpublished book) (and this time, the ’78 robbery as it was called locally, was certainly far less dramatic, involving a local kid with a hunting rifle which turned out not to be loaded. Nonetheless, Frank wanted to protect his investment, and who could blame him?). Brad went to the gas station for a crowbar. The stranger, still a stranger after a week and a half in their home, was waiting in bed, staring straight at the fly-specked wall opposite, when father and son entered.
The familiar motorcycle, much referred to if never seen by her, was in front of the house. That caused a slight gasp to rise in Margo’s throat, a sudden cold wind to ripple things inside her as she approached the house, coming back from church following a sermon on heaven and hell so slow and dull as to make both sound like fine alternatives to those uncomfortable wooden pews. Complete silence in the house did nothing to assuage her fears. After a brief and ineffectual calling out of names, she entered mother’s room first, finding the woman who’d always been sick finally free of illness, body draped silent and peaceful across the bed she’d lived in for so many years. Frank’s gun lay innocently atop the sheets. Having completed a brief tour of the house’s others rooms, including her own, and finding them empty with nothing out of place, she entered the one she’d called, in her own mind, Johnny’s, to see her father and brother sprawled out in contortions unknown to the living, a crowbar remaining in Brad’s clenched fist.
It was only upon stepping outside again that her original question was answered. Johnny sat on the Harley’s seat, loosely gripping the handlebars, though making no attempt to start the engine. Rather, as had been the case in all the time she’d known him, that one strange week, he waited. But this time, she realized, the motorcycle wasn’t the issue.
“Wasn’t no way around it,” he said, a feeble and inappropriate, if well intentioned, attempt at humor by a man who never seemed to laugh.
“I better go,” he said, “folks ain’t gonna like this much.”
She nodded again.
He gestured toward the empty space behind him on the seat. “Come along, if you want.” And in that moment, uncharacteristic as the joke, there seemed to be an emptiness in his face as well, the emptiness itself hardly unusual, but this time, for the first time, seeming to evince a desire, perhaps even a plea, to be filled.
She climbed on, thinking for a moment of asking him to wait so she could get a few things, but quickly deciding otherwise as he revved the engine and the two of them left the town behind.
Frank’s never opened again. Bill Harris, the gas station owner, decided to do without a mechanic and keep the place open for business fewer hours rather than replace Brad. The town’s population was now down to forty-eight, though it lacked a town historian to mark the change.