Driftwood by Chris Milam

Driftwood

The gas station’s eight pumps are vending machines with an attached hose. Three cars and a minivan with a sticker family on the back window are being fed with a lazy squeeze of the nozzle. It’s rush hour, the main drag out front is clogged with people heading to a place that may or may not fulfill them. But they have somewhere to go, to be.

Inside are six customers. Four waiting on line, one off to the side scratching lottery tickets with a dime, and one staring hard at the single beer selection taunting him from the cooler. The lone clerk is wearing a red polo shirt. His nametag reads Mark. He has an average, pleasant face. A genuine smile. I can picture him at home eating spaghetti with his wife, a paper napkin in his lap, elbows off the table. I can almost hear the noise of their love: the contented song of silverware bumping against ceramic, the simultaneous swallowing, the lofting of happy words from mouth to mouth. But he is distracted at the moment, his fingers scanning cigarettes, energy drinks, and candy bars. This is a good thing.

It’s been a sweltering summer in Kentucky. Hotter than normal. Hotter than what the human body considers acceptable. Maybe global warming is the culprit. Or El Niño. I’m not a meteorologist, the science of weather is not my bag. But I’ve become intimate with that pharaoh of the sky, the sun, over the last two years. It follows me through the streets, stalking me like a fuming ex. From the abused tent to the library, the church pantry to the dumpster behind the pizza joint, the sun is there, a possessed claw hammer pounding away like a muscular construction worker.

You can never really defeat heat. You can hide indoors for a spell, or bury yourself in the chilled shade of a random tree, but it waits for you to venture out again. It plots as you lounge. It marinates as you doze off in a beige chair surrounded by books. The sun is the executioner beneath the black hood honing his blade in anticipation; the solitary hunter camouflaged in the bush, an arrow pulled taut in his bow. Even at night, when it sleeps, the air remains vengeful; a slow cooker humming in the dark.

I slip a 20 ounce plastic bottle into my baggy shorts. Left pocket. I play it cool, take casual steps toward the exit. I don’t see any cameras on the ceiling and the other customers pay me no mind. To them, I no longer have a face. I pull my ballcap down lower as I reach the glass doors, and glance back at the counter. Mark is looking right at me. Right through me, his eyes in my throat. I give him a slight head nod then keep going, never stopping until I hit the busy road.

It’s a haze of paint and glass. Folks careening to family dinners, babysitters, the outlet mall, a modest ranch house on suburbia avenue. I envy them, I wish I had somewhere to be. I wish I could be them if only for an evening. I wish I could be Mark passing the garlic bread to his wife.

Standing at the edge of invisibility, I often think about stepping in front of a moving car, just ending it right then and there. Derelict blood and pulverized bones, an addicted nobody broken in half on the asphalt. I never make that choice, not because my life has value, but because those people behind the wheel don’t deserve that type of grief. Maybe the crunch of the impact becomes their truth, a jagged incision in the mind. Maybe the guilt punches holes in their white picket soul, and they seek catharsis in the bottle, a shady prescription, in verbal violence. Maybe their life detours and they land in this concrete ashtray, nameless, a degrading ghost with no place to be.

Waiting to cross the street, I twist the cap off the stolen soda. I’ve never been so thirsty. Above me, the sun gloats as the sweet carbonation reaches my tongue. I give it the finger and let the taste of childhood slide down my throat. I look up and squint, tell the sun that I’m a thief now, just like you. I despise you in August, but I will worship you again in January. We are handcuffed to one another. Our journey, from a paralyzed first hello, to a weakened resolve, to a shared dependency, has always been a love story.

 

rOCKET lAUNCHER

 

Chris Milam lives in Hamilton, Ohio. He’s a voracious reader and an introverted hermit. His stories have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Molotov Cocktail, Maudlin House, Spelk, and WhiskeyPaper.

 

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