All rights reserved.
Nine in the morning with the thermometer
eighty-two and rising. Pops opened the shutters on the cracked store windows
and wiped a stained cloth across his scalp. He watched from the shelter
of the weathered awning as an endless freight train shunted through the
intersection crossing, a solitary unbroken warning light flashing over
the empty road.
"Hey, Pops," Amos called out,
the octogenarian stabbing the sidewalk with his metal cane as he hobbled,
wizened head darting from his overalls like a tortoise in a denim shell.
"Amos. Another hot one, I reckon."
Pops scratched idly at his paunch.
"Reckon so, reckon so." Amos
wheezed with exertion. "Could sure use some coffee."
Pops held the screen door ajar, wedging
the inner door open with a rusting chunk of rail steel. The tall interior
of the store held a long wooden counter, three chipped red plastic tables
and an adopted family of mismatched chairs. Amos made for his regular
spot, the ticket clerks' high-backed wooden seat from the long-deserted
station. Dusty shelves lined the room from floor to ceiling, tins of food
next to ammunition and fishing lines, boxes of nails and tins of paint.
An old waist-high Electrolux hummed quietly to itself, losing the battle
to keep the cola and beer cool. Pops poured two large mugs of black coffee
from the greasy percolator.
"You want something in that?"
He asked Amos and lifted a square bottle of brown liquor from under the
counter, adding a measure to his own mug.
"Too early for me, Pops," said
"There you go, then." He sat
by Amos and gulped the scalding coffee and bourbon, raising his chins
to reveal a rash of bloody red dots half hidden by stubble.
"What's that?" asked Amos.
"Oh, damn mosquitoes." Pops scoured
the marked skin with blunt fingernails. "Every day, I'm waking up
with more bites."
Amos laughed. "Hope they can hold
"Hey, it's not funny. I tried flyscreens
and papers, even that expensive repellent, nothing helps. I'm gonna have
to get the sheets washed sometime, try to get rid of the bloodstains."
"See Doc Addams, get a creme or something."
"Yeah, maybe. You seen the papers
yet? Me neither. Hey, Edison! Move yourself, boy!" Pops yelled into
the back of the store. The albino came shuffling through, dripping mop
in hand. He was tall, over six feet, and thin as a dry reed, with a shock
of pure white hair over pink eyes. Patched thrift-shop clothes hung from
his scarecrow frame. A bruise was ripening at his temple, blue-black against
the white. He could pass for fourteen or forty.
"Yeah, Pops?" Edison stared vacantly
at the two men.
"I want you to go over to the gas
station, see if they got any papers left, The Sentinel or The
Courier. Here's a five. You got that?" The young man nodded and
headed for the door. "You think you'll need that mop, boy?"
"No, Pops." He was about to place
it beside the door when he collided with a customer.
"Whoa, Ed! Careful, there!" The
burly man in patched overalls smiled as the albino stuttered an apology.
"Aw, go on, boy, no harm done. Not getting any smarter, is he?"
he asked Pops, pushing his cap back over lank black hair.
"Nor never will, Cal. Cup of coffee?"
asked Pops, reaching for the jug.
"Maybe the boy's not as dumb as you
reckon; you never think Edison'll quit, find someplace else?" asked
Pops laughed. "Where? Who'd be stupid
enough to have him? He's damn lucky I took him in: he gets his food and
a bed, so long as he does what he's told; you know who's boss around here,
don't you boy?"
The albino picked up the fallen mop and
stared for a moment at the men before he replied, "Yes, Pops."
He left and walked slowly along the boardwalk, into the heat.
"So, Cal, haven't seen you in town
for a while," said Pops.
Cal gulped his drink. "Thanks. Yeah,
Agnesâ brother and me started fixing up the barn for the fall season,
gonna rent it out to the hunters but it needs a lot of work. That's the
"Good plan," Amos approved, parchment
hands cradled over his cane. "Got to do what you can, diversify,
"Why don't you come up for a couple
of days, the start of this season?" Cal asked Pops. "We're gonna
have some fun up there."
"What, and leave Ed in charge of the
store?" asked Pops. "Why, I could just burn the place down now,
or give all my stock away to passing bums. You know a one-eyed squirrel
could outsmart that boy!"
The three men sat under the feeble ceiling
fan, talking the situation over, as the morning turned to afternoon and
sunlight caught the plumes of road dust from passing trucks. The Sentinel
forecast higher temperatures and lower crop prices. Edison slowly cleaned
the store around them, giving each small task his full attention. They
sent him out to the Diner, fifteen minutes each way in the stifling heat,
for barbecue ribs and dirty rice, washed down with lukewarm beer.
Regulars passed through the store, small
purchases and conversation, mutual acquaintances and gossip. A new saloon
car pulled up outside, the paintwork dulled and streaked by the dry red
soil. They watched the young blond man peel himself from the driver's
seat, his sweat soaked white shirt sticking to his body. He loosened the
damp necktie and stretched his back and neck, rolling his head, before
pushing the screen door open.
"Afternoon." He addressed them
all, unsure who was the owner.
"Afternoon." Pops got to his
feet and walked behind the counter. "What can I get you?"
The man perched on one of the tarnished
high stools at the counter. "Anything cold to drink, cola, water,
whatever you have. And some directions, please."
"Where you looking for?" asked
"The Johnson farm," he said,
and took a long draught of warm cola. "I'm a realtor," he confided.
"Old man Johnson?" Amos and Cal
looked at each other then took it in turns to question the man, mining
as much information as they could. They talked the farm down, creating
visions of empty wells, diseased livestock and toxic waste dumps sitting
just above the water table. Cal licked his lips and thought how good another
hundred acres of cheap land would be. The realtor noted everything in
his leather organizer and asked for another drink.
"Edison!" yelled Pops. "Get
another case of cola from the cellar. Now!"
The realtor watched the albino descend
the open cellar hatch, and said, "I haven't heard that name before;
who is he called after, the inventor?"
"Well, yeah, in a way," said
Pops and grinned, showing an uneven line of yellow teeth. "His mother,
God rest her soul, used to work for me, years back, before she took to
drink. She christened him Randolph John Glen Buchanon."
"Fine looking woman, Martha was, yes
sir!" said Amos. "She liked the film stars, especially in the
westerns. She'd be at the movie-house most every night, same seat, while
her poor husband was taking care of their screaming litter."
"If a man's fool enough to put up
with that, he deserves everything that follows, is my opinion," Pops
stated and turned toward the albino as he struggled up the ladder, a heavy
tray of bottles balanced above his head. He asked, "What's your opinion,
Edison? Speak up, boy!" Edison's mumbled reply was lost in the slam
of the trapdoor.
"Seem to remember you were pretty
keen on young Martha, back a while," said Amos with a hooked grin.
"Maybe a couple of yours are kicking around the town!"
"I took my turn, same as the rest,"
said Pops loudly, staring at Edison. "You know, nine children she
had, mongrels all."
"But the sight of her last-born was
too much, I reckon," said Cal as he leaned toward the realtor.
"Could be, could be. Poor old Randolph
John." Amos shook his head.
"But, if you don't mind me asking,
why do you call him Edison?" the realtor asked again, warily.
Amos and Cal leaned forward, waiting for
Pops' answer. "Because he's about as bright as a ten watt bulb!"
They laughed in agreement as the blushing Edison silently stacked cola
in the old refrigerator. The realtor smiled weakly and dropped a few dollars
onto the scarred counter before he left, his wheels kicking up clouds.
Cal toasted his coming good fortune with more beer.
Afternoon eased into evening and a succession
of station wagons signaled the end of the working day. The store filled
with blue work clothes, leather and smoke. Pops switched on the radio,
a dark wooden cabinet the size of a TV, and tuned in to Hank and The Drifting
Cowboys. The few remaining streetlights created cones of dirty yellow
along Main Street and illuminated the dusty, boarded-up storefronts. A
distant blue neon sign flickered; 'Eat,' it reminded the empty town.
The deputy's station wagon pulled up outside
Pops' store. Conversation dwindled as the officer waited at the counter,
watching Pops pour cold beer into a clean glass. He drained his drink
in one gulp and nodded toward the rear of the store. Pops reached under
the counter for a battered cash box and followed him through to the back
room. "Edison, you watch things for a while and remember: no credit.
Bill, Frank, you want to come through?" Two of the customers joined
him, leaving tobacco wreaths in their wake.
Edison was kept busy, fetching beers and
cleaning up. He knocked against a table and watched a bottle shimmy for
a moment before tipping its dregs onto the scarred plastic. "You
wasted my beer, boy." The customer was heavy, thickset and blue-jowled.
"Now why'd you want to do that?"
"Sorry, Jake," Edison whispered
to the floor. "I'm real sorry."
"Well, sorry don't fill the bottle
up. You just go get me another, on the house," said Jake, and smirked
at the other customers as Edison cleared the table and fetched a fresh
Pops returned from the back room and threw
the cash box under the counter. He jerked the opener over a beer so hard
that a shard of glass splintered from the neck. "Get me some food
from the Diner. Chili or hash," he ordered Edison. "Go on, boy,
The customers waited for Edison to return
before they called out for more food, sending him to the Diner every hour
or so until it shut. The wooden blades of the fan chewed the sullen air
over. Pops switched to Pabst and whisky chasers, then just the chasers.
He held court behind the counter, his eyes bright under the fluorescent
tubes, pontificating and giving matters his most serious consideration.
Moisture dripped down the grains and whorls of his lined face and onto
his distended belly in its sodden gray vest. He laughed long and hard
when Cal's jolted beer bottle geysered into Edison's unsuspecting face,
and the foam-framed pink eyes wide in surprise.
Saw-toothed static jammed the radio as
the customers drifted home, their headlights cutting through the grimy
windows. The deputy was the last to leave, smiling goodnight to the grimly
polite Pops. Edison swept the discarded butts and food scraps as Pops
finished the bottle, then helped the swaying man up the creaking stairs
to his bedroom and closed up the store. Moths and flies continued to attack
the glass until Edison turned off the lights and plunged the store into
The three-quarter moon swamped the center
of the bedroom with light, illuminating the rusting iron bed frame and
worn carpet. Ribbons of pungent flypaper, dotted with wriggling specks,
hung from the ceiling. Pops collapsed onto the grubby sheets in vest and
shorts, his damp clothes heaped into a nylon puddle nearby, and lay on
his back snoring lightly through slack lips. His pale hairless chest rose
and fell under the vest's tidemarks. He coughed and murmured, his limbs
thrashing the bedclothes, then drifted into heavy sleep. The room waited.
The store was quiet now. The moon carved
an irregular rectangle of light across Pops' clammy body and threw the
rest of the room into palpable darkness. A point of light flickered at
the border of light and dark, and gradually resolved itself into the bright
blade of a new hunting knife. The blade pushed slowly into the room, reflecting
moonlight, clutched tightly in a white claw. The skin of the naked albino
was luminescent, his face rictus-tight. He shuffled across the floor and
into the pale light, toward the sleeping form of Pops.
"You know who's boss around here,
don't you boy?" Edison mimicked Pops' gruff drawl as he circled the
bed, his white hair a vivid halo. He delicately trailed the knife from
the sleeping man's feet and up his legs, pausing over his groin, then
on to his heart, the blade almost touching the dank skin. He hesitated,
then moved up until the knife was poised above Pops' throat; a little
pressure and the sharp point entered the body, just a fraction, and withdrew.
A tiny drop of blood welled to the surface and was joined by others as
the tip danced lightly across the coarse skin. Pops stirred and waved
his hand across his chest, almost catching Edison's arm in passing. The
knife withdrew and Edison was slowly absorbed into the dark, step by step,
until only the blade was illuminated. Pops grunted and turned over, adding
the fresh droplets to the patchwork of dried stains.
Edison's voice whispered from the shadows,
"You just sleep tight, Pa. We got plenty of time."
Back to top of page