3. The Day Off

When I was 14, my dad gave me his Atari 400 as a Christmas gift. In those days, he would come to pick me up every other week to stay the weekend. Usually, we’d go see a movie—sometimes two—and eat pizza and watch old science fiction shows on the television. During the summers, I might even stay there until Tuesday or Wednesday. That was always fun, because I could look at his Playboys while he was at work, always being extremely careful to put them back in the exact location and orientation in which I found them. I was shocked when, one day, he came home and showed me an article in the newest Playboy about Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari. I remembered my face turning warm, as though I had just shot a hundred milligrams of morphine directly into my jugular.

“B-b-but that’s a Playboy,” I stammered.

“I don’t think it’s anything you haven’t seen before,” he grinned slyly. “Didn’t your mom tell you what you did when you were three?”

I just stared at him blankly. I was terrified of my dad. He and my mother were teenagers when I surprised the entire family by making a guest appearance. My grandparents convinced them they should do the right thing and marry. My mother was elated at the prospect of having a baby and even a family with my father. His reaction wasn’t quite as warm: “I don’t want this damn kid!, or you!” He spent the next five years reminding both us of that fact. I couldn’t imagine what I had done when I was three, but I was sure I paid dearly for it.

“When you were three years old, you took one of my Playboys out from under the sink in the bathroom, tore out the centerfold and took it to bed with you. You always have had a thing for blondes.” He laughed at the memory with a detectable note of pride. He had changed significantly since the divorce. For a couple of years after my parents split, I would refuse to see my dad, as terrified as I was of him. Since then, he did everything he could to make up for his past mistreatments—including giving me the Atari 400 computer he had bought for himself.

Still, one could argue he had no real choice in the matter. Even after having taken a few programming classes in college and studying the Atari programming manual for a month, he could still only make the computer print “Hello Darren!” in an endless loop. A month after buying the computer, he picked me up one Saturday morning. By the following Friday, I had written a Pac-Man clone. Working on that Atari was satisfying on so many levels –– it was intellectually challenging, it made me feel good to hear my dad brag to his friends that I was a genius with the thing and even they would ask me how to program things.

A lot changed in two years. My dad dropped out of my life when I dropped out of school. The tape recorder that stored programs for the Atari died and I had to write all my code down on paper and retype it in anytime I wanted to use it. By then, I was programming in a language that used nothing but numbers—“machine language”–and if I got one number wrong, the entire machine would freeze completely. I would have to restart it, figure out what was wrong and retype it all in again, hoping and praying with all my soul that my fix would work and I wouldn’t have to repeat the entire process.

My mother had also married Shafto—her third husband. She had an uncanny ability to pick the worst possible men available. My first step dad, though good to me, beat her often. She only divorced him after I saw the abuse for the first time and spent two weeks convincing her she should leave. We lived with my grandparents for the next few years until she met Shafto. She married him just as my grandmother was dying of cancer.

A year after they were married, my mother told me about the night before when Shafto woke up in a cold sweat, tossing and turning and moaning.

“What’s wrong with you?” She asked.

“The men in black, babe. I was dreamin’ ‘bout them men in black.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Vietnam, babe.”

My mother said it was all she could do to keep from laughing, “You were a cook in the army.”

“They still messed me up bad over there, babe.”

The intensity of Shafto’s hatred for me and the extent of his insanity were matched only by the degree of his stupidity. His favorite saying, “I’m just a dumb ol’ country boy, but I’m a smart dumb ol’ country boy!” was actually the most insightful thing I’d ever heard him say. Under different circumstances, I might have even found him somewhat entertaining. His theories about “them sendin’ that damn space shuttle up thar is punchin’ a hole in the sky” would have provided me with countless hours of entertainment if they had been posited by someone I could stand to be around for more than ten seconds.

But spending as much as ten seconds around Shafto was asking too much of me. Not even Christ himself had that much patience. I did everything in my power to never be in the same space with him. If I wasn’t working or hanging out with friends, I was locked away in my room, working on the computer or watching movies and sneaking tokes off a pipe made from a Coke can. Sometimes, I would get so high I couldn’t see straight enough to watch Blade Runner. Then I’d stay up for two days in a row programming, imagining that the electric circuits were the perpetually darkened Los Angeles in the movie and the electrons were like the black rains. I would work on programming problems so difficult that they would sober me up and I would get a rush that I can only describe as a runner’s high.

Such is what I was looking forward to on my night off from the gas station. I bought a quarter of weed from Bunt and picked up a case of Coke and a carton of Marlboro Lights on the way home. I parked the Monte Carlo off to the side of the large, circular driveway where it would be out of Shafto’s way as he demanded. It was still winter and I could put several cans of Coke outside my window so they would stay cold. I flipped on the Atari, smoked several hits off an empty can, lit a candle and resumed work on a video game I had been writing for the past several weeks. The gist of the game was that the player had to maneuver a spaceship deep into the caverns of Mars, battling pterodactyls, mines and laser canons along the way. I was at the point where I was experimenting with creating various sound effects for the explosions and the pterodactyls, and looking for a sound that was really cool. I had already written a program that would take numeric values and convert them into proper musical notes and had transcribed the guitar music to Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil as the background score.

After about an hour of working out various combinations of distortion values, pitches and volumes, I heard the rumble of Shafto’s van pull into the driveway. My stomach knotted immediately. It was always a crapshoot whether he would leave me alone or decide to barge into my little world and remind me of what a disgusting creature I was.

That night, I rolled snake eyes. First, the banging open of the front door, then the clomp-clomp-clomp-clomp of those filthy hick boots, then the throwing open of my door so that it thudded violently against the wall.

“Just whut in tha hell is your problem?”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll tell me…”

“It’s after midnight and you’re in here blarin’ that racket. What the hell are you tryin’ ta prove?”

I shook my head. The guy hadn’t been in the house more than five seconds and he was acting like I was Michael J. Fox cranking up some mad scientist’s nuclear-powered amplifier while he was trying to sleep.

“Answer me BOY!”

“I’m not a boy, I’m a Mann. I’ve been a Mann since I was born.”

Wit and sarcasm never really seemed to penetrate Shafto’s rather thick skull, “You ain’t a man! You ain’t never gonna be a man! All you do is play on that goddamn computer all night and run around with a bunch a whores and druggies!”

“Yeah, you’re right. I’m just the biggest piece of shit God ever flushed out of the sky.”

“Don’t get smart with me BOY!”

“I’m not getting smart with you. You’re right. I’m just trash. I’ll never be worth a damn.” I continued programming, never once looking at Shafto’s wrinkled face; it always reminded me of a piece of overcooked roast beef – grey and wrinkled and covered with a bushy beard that, if one were willing to carry the analogy that far, could be likened to a disgusting coating of mold.

“Fact is, you can’t get smart with me, BOY! I got more intelligence in my little toe than you got in your whole body!”

“You’re absolutely right. And I’m probably causing a hole in the sky too.”

“Turn that damn TV off and get your ass to bed. You gonna be late for work tomorrow. Or did you already get fired?”

“No, I work tomorrow.”

“You goddamn well better, BOY! And get this goddamn cat of yours outta here!”

I tuned the television down as far as I could while still hearing it as Shafto clomped off to the bedroom. I crept out to the living room to get Mitt, who wasn’t allowed to roam around the house—I had to either leave him outside or keep him locked in my room. With great effort, I had outwardly managed to keep calm, but inside I was reaching critical mass. I shut off the computer, dropped some pot into my empty can I had hidden under the bed and put in the Empire Strikes Back, longing to be in a galaxy far, far away.

As fate would have it, Travis was also suffering at the hands of his parents that night. Bunt and Dee were convinced that Travis was never going to move out of the house. He held exactly one job since I’d known him—his mother had gotten him a position at the Hilton bussing tables along with me. He was fired within weeks due to customer complaints about him spitting, wiping his ever-dribbling nose and sweating profusely—all due to his Tourette’s. Travis’ parents could get quite bitchy about his unemployment when they felt like it, but they did acknowledge that he at least had the right to exist.

Apparently the nagging was too much for Travis that night and I noticed the headlights of his little gold Colt pull in behind Shafto’s maroon van. I hopped up, threw on some shoes and a coat and shoved my Coke can pipe into the pocket on my way out to meet him. Normally, I would be more concerned about being quiet. The slightest creak of a floorboard would be enough to set Shafto off but not even he was stupid enough to mess with Travis at six-three and two-seventy-five. I made it out to the car before Travis could even get his door open.

“Hey man, what’s goin’ on?”

“Awww, phhhhsssssshhhhh, my parents have been on my ass all night, man.” His neck flexed to the side and he made a whooshing sound.

“Really? They seemed OK earlier…”

“They got pissed because I ate too much at dinner. That started it. Sssshoooosshhhh!”

“Hmmmm. Yeah, Shafto’s been his normal sweet self.”

“Jesus Christ. Fuckers.”

“I don’t get it man, at least you’re in school. Why can’t they chill out long enough for you to finish VoTech at least?”

“I really need to get high, man.”

This was a rare treat indeed. Travis almost never smoked pot. If I was really lucky, I would be able to talk him into doing his Dee Snider imitation once he was high. “Let’s go down to the end of the gravel road there. Shafto probably has us under surveillance.”

I hopped in the Colt and we slowly drove a couple hundred feet down the gravel driveway, until we passed a hump in the road where some railroad tracks had been removed. Travis put in his favorite tape—Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry—and we passed the can between us, each toke taking us one step further away from our troubles until we were laughing and joking about rednecks and Sunday morning Kung Fu movies.

Travis’ face was red and moist, reminding me of a sausage. His eyes were teary and his laugh was a hysterical falsetto. The time was right, “Come on Travis, do the Price!”

Travis laughed, his eyes squinting and drool running from his mouth, “No man, come on!”

“The Price, Travis! Do the Price!”

Oh it’s the price we gotta pay and all the games we gotta play makes me wonder if it’s worth it to carry on…

The crazy imitation of Dee Snider—soft and high-pitched—coming from Travis’ mammoth body was always too much to bear and I lost myself in laughter.

“Hey man, tttt-ttttt-ttttt!” Travis laughed, “there’s someone out there!”

“What the fuck are you talking about man? You’re high!”

We both laughed as Travis pointed out toward some bushes off to the side of the road, “Look over there!”

He was right! There was a person hiding in the bushes. We watched several minutes, our giggling slowly fading away. The shadowy figure ran over to another set of bushes closer to us. It remained hunched over and appeared to be carrying a stick.

“Is that Shafto?” I wondered.

“Phhhhhwwwwwwwssshhhhhhhhhhh. What’s he doing?” Travis broke out in laughter again.

Shafto lunged out of the bushes and ran toward us. I quickly shoved the Coke can pipe under the seat.

“What the hell are you boys doin’ out here?!”

The insane son-of-a-bitch was wearing nothing but a t-shirt and briefs and carrying a rifle.

“Uhh, we’re just talking?”

“You almost got yourselves shot. You know people’s been dumpin out here!”

“Huh?”

“Get back to the house!”

Travis had gone from beet red to ghostly white. He started the car and we headed back to the house, with Shafto following behind like some sort of demented soldier escorting a couple of prisoners to a camp.

“Tttt-ttt-tttt! Man, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to get you in trouble!”

“It’s not your fault, man. Fuck that asshole.”

We pulled back into the driveway and waited in the car until Shafto came around to Travis’ side. His rifle must have given him a sense of bravery. Normally, he wouldn’t think of being disrespectful to Travis. “You get your ass home. You ain’t got no business bein’ out this late.”

“OKkay.”

“You get your ass back inside,” he nodded his greasy head at me.

“Later, Travis.” I silently walked back inside and locked myself in my room as the Colt labored to haul its massive cargo back down the gravel driveway.

I could hear Shafto muttering and cursing as he locked his rifle in his cabinet and went back to his bedroom. I knew he realized the whole time that it was Travis and me out there. There was no way he couldn’t have known. He didn’t fall asleep in ten minutes. He didn’t suddenly lose that ultra-sensitive, army-trained hearing that enabled him to detect my footsteps from the opposite side of the house. Yes, he knew it was us out there.

And I knew he wanted to shoot me.

2. The Aquarium

Josh had grown tired of being exiled to Siberia. It wasn’t like he really needed the extra money or anything; he was selling over a hundred-lot of acid a night at the station. This situation was advantageous to me, however, since I wanted to be out of the house as much as possible and so, I took over for Josh filling in on Sundays at our sister station. I thought it would be a breeze working there, as it wasn’t a full service station like ours; all I had to do was sit in a locked cage all day watching television, getting high and collecting money.

The north station was run by Ted’s wife, Jenny. She was almost a clone of Roseanne Barr but uglier. She had a single employee, Toad, who worked the night shifts. I had known Toad for a few years before being hired by Ted. He used to buy my cousin and me alcohol after he got off work. Toad had been a history teacher at the local high school but was fired when he was caught buying marijuana from a student.

I had been working at the home station for several weeks and began hearing gossip that Ted was deeply concerned about the books not balancing out. In fact, he was firing people in a constant stream, suspecting them of theft. It didn’t matter to him that when the owner’s forty-year-old son, Lee, did the books everything magically balanced out. Evidently, Jenny was equally mathematically disinclined, but she explained the problem differently. According to her, the north station was terrorized by a constant stream of dishonest customers who would fill up and take off without paying.

The Sunday shift at the north station turned out to be quite maddening. I knew I was in for a special kind of uneventful hell the first day I worked there. I had a rush that lasted an hour or so, probably right after church services had ended. After that, it was completely dead the rest of the shift. Bored by the meager offerings of Sunday television, I began reading the graffiti that was carved into the counter top with a blue ballpoint pen. Most of it orbited around a center piece of graffiti that read “ACID IS WEIRD.” I realized Josh had been lucky to escape with even a shred of his sanity.

Being somewhat naive in my youthfulness, I took Jenny’s word for it that the place was under attack by wretched criminals–probably bikers–filling up and not paying. I watched every customer carefully and was certain by the end of my first shift that everyone had, in fact, paid for their gas and that I had made correct change.

Astonishingly, the books didn’t balance out the next day and Ted grilled me when I arrived for work at the home station.

“You sure everyone paid for their gas?” He eyed me suspiciously. Daryl and Daryl sat blankly at his post to the side of the desk, like a toothless, neutered guard dog.

“Yeah, dude.”

“You didn’t take no cigarettes and forget to pay for ‘em?”

Oh for fuck’s sake, “Nope.” At least not two hundred dollars worth, I thought.

The room grew deadly quiet as Ted eyed me like a soldier trying to break a prisoner of war. The intensity of the moment was broken by Daryl and Daryl, who snapped from his catatonia, slammed his fist on the desk and exclaimed with intense hatred, “Maggots!” Everyone in the room had become accustomed to this behavior and ignored him as he huffed outside to the poor victim eagerly awaiting his services.

“Well, there was a big problem with money yesterday,” Ted continued gravely.

“Has Lee done the books yet?”

“Not ’til tomorrow.”

I rolled my eyes, immediately recognizing the same pattern I had seen at the home station for weeks. My mind responded in the only way it knew how, “basically, you’re telling me your wife is a fucking idiot just like you,” which was filtered, processed and repackaged by my mouth as a nonchalant “Probably just a mistake in the math or something.”

I managed to successfully end the conversation, but only temporarily. As the weeks wore on, I continued working Sundays at the north station. The next day, the books would always be a mess. Ted and Jenny grew more and more anxious about the situation and managed to warp me into a paranoid mess. I knew nothing shady was going on, but I realized that it was Ted and Jenny’s perceptions of reality upon which my job so delicately hinged. The last thing I needed was to be sent home–jobless again–to be put through Shafto’s meat-grinder of a psyche.

The money shortages weren’t the only problem with the north station. The intense boredom was also beginning to take its toll on me. There was never anything worth watching on the television and I had to be extremely careful about smoking pot, since it was basically a six-foot square coffin and the smell would linger for days. It was Josh’s sage-like graffiti that came to my rescue: Acid is weird. It also made anything at all fun.

Earlier that week, I had worked with Josh at the home station and had gotten a couple of hits of blotter from him. It took every ounce of self-control I had to not take the stuff right then and there but I managed to wait until Sunday when I would once again be banished to the north station with its church-going customers and that awful green chair covered in Jenny’s long greasy hairs and weird body odor.

I put the two squares of blotter under my tongue the minute I awoke that morning and got to work fifteen minutes late as usual. It was the same every Sunday, I would drag in like a wet rat while several people sat around in the lanes watching me like hungry cats as I brought out the trash cans and squeegee buckets and unlocked the pumps and finally managed to turn the “Open” sign. The impatient customers would pump their gas and throw their money through the window at me before scurrying away, no doubt hoping I would rot in hell for wasting fifteen minutes of their precious lives.

After that initial lump of customers left, I had a few hours to do nothing at all until church services were over and our one rush of the day began. Jenny kept a blue bank bag filled with change tucked away in the back of the station. With nothing better to do, I took the bag out and dumped the contents onto the counter in front of me.

My original intent had been to get together enough bills and coins so that I could make proper change without having the bag lying on the counter begging for someone to steal it. But as I poured the money out, things took on a completely different meaning. I was no longer seeing a collection of individual coins that existed as completely isolated objects. I realized that the money wasn’t the image I was seeing or the scent I was smelling or the metal I was feeling. It was all of those things together. The way the coins interacted with each other, the way they transferred energy, knocking each other about, the way they spun and wobbled and rolled. It wasn’t a collection of objects, it was a whole, continuous mass of movement, sound, smell, sight and interactions.

I was taking my first steps on a long trip and I was ready for it.

At that moment, Travis pulled in, driving his gold Colt. He hopped out of the car, lifted his leg in the air like a dog urinating on a fire hydrant and flicked his hand in the air. I immediately lost all composure. Travis lumbered up to the window, wearing his red-striped shirt, blue shorts and high-tops, “What’s so funny, man?” Travis laughed with me, even though he didn’t know why.  I didn’t either, really.

“Travis, can you get me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”

“What?!”

“Please?”

“Jesus Christ, Darren.” Travis walked over to the store next door and brought back a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter and some strawberry jam.

“Thanks, man.”

I laughed wildly as Travis told me about his recent fight with his grossly overweight sister. My sandwich was a mess and I decided it would probably be better off fed to the birds. I threw the sloppy mess out the window, sending Travis jumping to the side, “Fucker!”

“Dude, I’m frying my balls off. I can’t eat now!”

“Tttt-tttttttt! Well what did you want a sandwich for?! Ttt-t!”

“I forgot.”

“I’m going home. You’re wasted. Call me when you get off work, Dooo-doo-do!”

“Alrighty,” I giggled.

Unfortunately, my encounter with Travis was going to be the best it would get that day. The church crowd wasn’t nearly as ready for me as he was. I felt like I was in an aquarium and all of the multicolored cars and wide variety of people were like exotic fish swimming in and out of view as they pulled in, stopped to fill up, then left.

A light blue station wagon swam in. It was a man dressed up in a suit, with his mousy-looking wife in the passenger seat and several kids in the back. I laughed uncontrollably as it struck me that this station wagon must be the friendly dolphin, Flipper.

The man filled up his wagon then came to the window with his Phillips 66 credit card. He was a “Gold Member,” meaning he cared more about his image than I did. Tears rolled from my eyes as I laughed and filled out the credit card slip.

“Having a good time?” the man smiled.

My mind reeled, I knew I couldn’t possibly explain the aquarium to him. I was relieved as a thought from my childhood came to my rescue, “When I was a kid, I had a Flipper-in-the-box.”

The man looked at me with a furrowed brow. I must have confused him.

“It was like a Jack-in-the-box, you know. But instead of a clown, it was Flipper that popped out and it played the theme song to the show,” I burst out laughing even harder, realizing how badly I had botched this entire social transaction. “I really shouldn’t be here.”

“Especially stoned out of your mind,” he scowled, as he snapped his copy of the credit card receipt from my hand and stomped back to his dolphin. As he started the fish, he and his wife looked back at me, frowning and shaking their heads while the children pointed and laughed, bobbing up and down like little mackerel.

Eventually, more and more sea life washed in as the rush took on full force. It was more than I could deal with. I was being attacked by mutant squid; hundreds of tentacles waved through the window holding credit cards and cash. I didn’t know what belonged to whom or for how much. All I could do was laugh. Then the unthinkable happened… a cop pulled in. My mind fragmented into a thousand disjoint shards. He walked up to the window.

All at once, my paranoia and intoxication exploded in an orgasm of insanity. Intent to get rid of him, I pointed at a blue CRX that was pulling out of the station, “That guy left without paying!”

The cop rushed to his car, threw on his sirens and took off after the hapless driver like a shark bearing in on a wounded cod. I laughed hysterically even though I was shaking from the adrenaline rush.

Thirty minutes later, the officer returned, following the blue CRX into the station. Several other police cars pulled in, surrounding the car. The officer walked to the window with the young man who had been driving the CRX.

The alleged gas thief didn’t seem to see the humor in the situation the way I did. “I paid you,” He said grimly, staring at me intensely and biting his lip.

I failed to suppress a smile, “Oh yeah. Sorry dude.” I chuckled.

The young man was escorted back to his car and left. After a lengthy debriefing among all the police officers, the original cop came back to my window and lectured me on the abuse of law enforcement resources. I didn’t bother to listen to the lecture, realizing he must not have been trained in identifying a guy whose brain was frying to a crisp on LSD.

I never worked at the north station again and considered myself fortunate to have gotten out of there with my job at the home station–and my sanity–still intact. Jenny’s books remained a mess for as long as she managed the station. Miraculously, Lee’s calculations from my Sunday Adventure showed nothing unusual in the books. I can only imagine the horror on Ted and Jenny’s faces if they knew that a damn filthy druggy stoned out of his mind on acid could do their job at least as well as they could. The effect such a thing would have on their psyches would likely keep a team of psychiatrists living like royalty on grant money.

I pitied the next poor fool who would get trapped into that shift like a fly in some exotic plant. The only thing I could offer them was a short piece of advice, which I added to Josh’s own graffiti: “They call him Flipper.”

1. Career Goals

I frowned at the pitiful, sickly wretch studying me from within the mirror. I was 120 pounds at six feet tall. My thick dark hair was wild and bushy—I had decided to let it grow out and it responded by becoming sentient. I was pale and my almost-black eyes were sunken and bloodshot. A steady diet of Coca-Cola, cigarettes, pot, LSD and insomnia had taken its toll.

It was a common sight. At the age of sixteen, I had grown bored of tormenting my teachers in high school, I decided to do them a favor and obtain a GED. Not everyone was as happy about my decision as, say, Ms. Gillis or Mr. Perich. My father, for all intents and purposes, disowned me. Aunts and Uncles were less drastic but still made their disappointment clear. How could this kid, who was reading at a 6th grade level in kindergarten, have decayed into such a monstrous failure? My grandfather, a retired army captain, suggested I join the service. My stepfather, on the other hand, was elated. Finally, he had incontrovertible proof that I was the most horrific thing to taint the planet since Adolf Hitler—a fact he took immense pleasure in reminding me of at every possible opportunity.

Without job or car, my only recourse was to lock myself in my room and study the fine art of computer programming. I would stay up three days at a time with nothing but a case of Coke, a carton of Marlboro Lights and a bag of potent skunk weed, writing computer software until finally passing out on the cold, hardwood floor, usually covered with Atari memory maps and programming language references. I kept the Coke outside the window so it would stay cold—that way I wouldn’t have to leave my room and possibly face Shafto, as I affectionately called my stepfather. Using fancy words like “programming” didn’t change the fact that all I was doing was “playing with that damned computer” and until I got a job, I wasn’t a “Man.” Eventually, I managed to secure a car—it had been my late great-grandfather’s—and had a couple of jobs, neither of which lasted more than a few months before I was fired or decided to not bother showing up. The harassment at home would resume as soon as Shafto figured out I was no longer working. It had been almost a year since my last job—I was eighteen now, and the torment was endless.

I rubbed my eyes and sat down in the living room taking a moment to enjoy the late afternoon peace in the house. Shafto was at work and my mom asleep after her graveyard shift. The old house, built by the bare hands of my own great-grandfather, had a creaking chill to it in the cold winter gusts. I finished a Marlboro Light and pet my mom’s Siamese cat meditating on the irony of being a prisoner in this house built by my own flesh and blood. My great-grandfather had had to fish a body out of the river when a railroad worker was hit by a train. I wonder what he would do if he knew his great-grandson was being treated like a war-criminal of the worst sort in the very house he had built. I snuffed my cigarette tensely into the ashtray before heading over to Travis’ to get some pot. I was going to need it to take the edge off for the job interview I had the next day.

Travis had been my friend since the fifth grade. He had Tourette’s Syndrome, before anyone knew what Tourette’s Syndrome was. He was constantly getting sent to the principal’s office for “being disruptive.” Once, a teacher even mistakenly thought he was masturbating in class. While I was at a twelfth grade reading level, Travis was suffering at the hands of our fifth grade teacher, Ms. Sleeth , who humiliated him by making him stand up and try to recite the alphabet in front of everybody. He broke down crying when he couldn’t do it, much to her satisfaction.

Travis’ dad, Bunt, had come to live in Missouri when he was busted selling pot to some neighborhood kids in Montana. It seemed he hadn’t learned his lesson. Not only was he selling pot to the neighborhood kids again, in the summer he was growing the shit in the small tomato garden he had in the back yard. It didn’t seem to bother him that he lived next door to a county cop and it certainly didn’t bother my cousin and I to go to Travis’ every Sunday morning and get high with his dad while watching “Kung Fu Theater.” Bunt always seemed to have the best weed and that’s precisely what I needed.

Though he rarely smoked pot himself, Travis joined Bunt and me on the living room floor as we passed a joint back and forth. Bunt hadn’t bothered to wear any pants or underwear—only a t-shirt. It wasn’t as shocking as the first time I’d seen it.

“So how’s your stepdad?” Bunt prodded me, knowing he would get a strong reaction out of the subject.

“Fuckin’ redneck. He flung my door open last night when he got home to say ‘hi’ and remind me that I’m the most worthless human being he’s ever seen.”

“Schhhhhaaaaaaaa,” Travis twitched, “asshole.”

“What a guy!” Bunt added, laughing and coughing, “and what did you tell him then?”

“Just agreed with him,” I inhaled deeply from the joint and passed it back to Bunt. “I’ve got better things to do than sit there and argue with that fuckstain all night.”

Travis’ mom walked past, on her way to the kitchen, “Hi there, kiddo.”

“Hey Dee.”

“Travis says you might be gettin’ another job…”

This was a touchy subject with Dee. She was a waitress at the Hilton and had gotten me my first job there. I was fired after three months when the manager caught me with a waitress in her car while I was supposed to be working.

“Yeah. We’ll see.”

“Melodee says hello, by the way.”

I reddened, “Oh… that’s cool.”

I guess Dee couldn’t be blamed for getting her jabs in. Melodee was a coke fiend and was a bit overt with her affections. Dee had had to field questions from regular patrons of the restaurant about my relationship with Melodee. How they decided it was any of their business was beyond my comprehension. Still, I wished that Dee could see things from my perspective: In my 16-year-old, hormone-addled mind, there was simply no way a mortal man could possibly have resisted Melodee’s 20-year-old charms. And probably not even a mortal woman, for that matter. In any event, it had been two years ago. I wished that she would just let me forget about it.

As I took the joint back from Bunt, he wiped his scrotum with his hand and then waved it under his nose, savoring the scent. I couldn’t put the joint to my mouth after seeing that and I plopped it in the ashtray between us. “I think I’ve had enough of that stuff. I’m gonna head home and get some sleep.”

“That’s cool man!” Bunt smiled brightly, completely unaware of doing something that would scar me for life.

“Thanks for the bag man.”

“No problem, man!” Bunt assured me.

“I’ll pay you in a couple of days.”

“Oh, I know you will, man! St-a-a-a-a-y cool, man!” Bunt waved his hand from side to side, as though he were polishing a window. I suspected Bunt was afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome as well, but had learned how to disguise it in his 64 years.

Travis cocked his head to the side and spit at the air, “Hey, good luck with the job, man!”

“Thanks, Travis. Later.”

“Later, man! Ttttt-ttt-ttt!”

As I drove home in the darkness, I thought about my botched three-month stint at the Hilton. I reminisced about my only other job—a couple of months at the airport gift shop. There, I had been fired when a secret shopper caught me giving away merchandise to friends and taking a pack of cigarettes—something I had considered to be a company-subsidized health benefit. Now, a gas station? Things were certainly bleak.

I steered the car with my leg while I packed a bowl and lit up. I inhaled the smoke deeply and forcefully, determined to snuff out my awareness.

* * *

I stood in the gravel parking lot of the Phillips 66 and took a deep breath. I was weak and numb from exhaustion and lack of nutrition. I hadn’t been able to sleep again—putting me at 48 hours of being continuously awake. I was probably somewhat overdressed and I hated wearing dress clothes; but I decided I should probably actually try to get the job. I was uncomfortably warm and itchy, even as deep into the winter as it was. I wasn’t so bothered by it, though. I doubted the interview would last that long and then I could finally go home and sleep.

There were two vehicles parked side-by-side in the gravel lot—a beat-up old blue and white pickup and a decayed green Charger. Behind those were two cars which seemed to have been parked somewhat more haphazardly—a ’59 Fairlane that had been restored and painted a glossy blue and a large new black pickup with over sized wheels and “KC” lights on the roof and bumper. I assessed the scene and concluded I was dealing with two losers, probably a twenty-something who might be cool and some stupid hick kid with parents who had too much money. I was a bit nervous as I walked past the Charger and then the blue and white pickup, then the ice machine and then through the heavy glass door and into the office.

I was immediately assaulted by the scent of car grease and gasoline and the annoying blather of an AM talk radio show. At least it was warm inside. There was a conversation going in the room as I opened the door, but as soon as I entered, it grew silent and everyone stared at me. To the right, sitting on the floor against the wall was a large metal safe that opened from the top. To the left was a desk in front of long wooden shelves, painted a sickly yellow-green and filled with various automotive fluids. In front of me, there was an ancient cigarette machine and a newer Coke machine. Four people were hanging around the office. I quickly identified the two losers and the stupid hick kid, but the twenty-something who might be cool was actually a long-haired teenager. I was completely unimpressed.

“Hey, I’m Darren,” I said with a half-smile.

The long-haired teenager was the first to reply, “Hey dude, I’m Josh.”

Stoner.

The stupid hick kid adjusted the wad of tobacco he was gnawing on, causing his bottom lip to protrude, “Howdy, I’m Rick.”

Great, a redneck. He probably shoots stoners.

The older man sitting at the desk stood up and held out his hand, “I’m Ted.”

“Nice to meet you,” I lied, as I shook his fat greasy paw. It was cold from being exposed to the bitter cold all day.

Ted was sitting at the desk with his day shift partner at his side like a faithful dog. Ted was in his late thirties or early forties, short, round and balding. He had thin black hair that he greased over his bald spot. A distracting mole sprouted from his nose, and a thin black mustache seemed to collect moisture from his nostrils. Wearing his green coveralls, he reminded me of some sort of warped Mario Brothers character.

“This is Daryl, my future son-in-law,” Ted beamed proudly.

I immediately thought of “Daryl and his other brother Daryl” from the Newhart Show.

“I’m still tryin’ to get him to stop walkin’ around shittin’ his pants.”

I couldn’t decide which mental image was worse—Daryl and Daryl walking around shitting his pants or Ted engaged in some activity that would stop such a thing from happening.

“Your shift is from three to nine. Can you start today? That would sure help.”

I wanted to collapse. “Well, I’ve been up all night… “

Ted sat at the desk staring at me blankly. The look on his face made it clear that getting this job was directly dependant on my decision to work that night.

“Yeah, I guess I can.”

“That’s great!” Ted grunted at Daryl and Daryl who, out of some Pavlovian response, began counting his money. Ted grabbed a large clipboard of long orange sheets decorated with hand-drawn lines and indecipherable scribbling. He motioned for me to follow him.

Ted went to each of the four pumps, reading the sales numbers from both sides while explaining the complexities of gas pumping, “Always do the windshields. Sometimes we’ll have to check the oil or tires. If anyone gives you any shit, just tell ‘em to get lost. You can smoke inside, but not out here. I don’t care what you do on your own time, but I don’t want no drugs here.”

I absently nodded in acknowledgment, not really paying attention to a word he was saying. I was more interested in the cute girl grappling with her windshield at the Amoco next door. This job could have benefits, I realized.

“So how come I ain’t seen you at the VoTech?” Ted asked, as he walked back toward the office.

“Oh, yeah, I dropped out. The instructor wasn’t even qualified to be my student.”

Ted eyed me suspiciously, “What class were ya takin’?”

“Computer programming. But I’ve been pretty much teaching myself for the past two years. The instructor couldn’t keep up.”

“Oh, you smart, huh?”

“I guess that depends on how stupid you are,” I thought. This guy reminded me of that dumbass hick, Shafto. My senses kicked in and immediately translated my sarcasm into a phrase easily digestible by someone with Ted’s obviously limited cognitive abilities: “Not really.”

Ted grunted. I got the sneaking suspicion he wouldn’t want me as a son-in-law.

“How long you known Travis?”

“Oh, since the fifth grade.”

“He’s a character ain’t he?”

“Yeah. He’s cool.”

We made it back inside the office where Daryl and Daryl had finished counting his money. He threw the wad of bills on the desk next to a mound of coins and recited the total to Ted who quickly scribbled it into a random blank spot on his orange sheet. Daryl and Daryl left without saying another word.

“See ya tomorrow,” Ted called after him.

I heard an indecipherable intonation from Daryl and Daryl’s general direction as the glass door swung closed behind him.

Ted counted his money and laid it on the desk and then began slowly punching numbers into a grease-covered adding machine, “We’ll just let Rick and Josh handle the money tonight, ’til you get comfortable with everything.”

“Okay…”

The room fell silent except for the sound of Ted pecking out numbers on the adding machine and the annoying blather on the radio. Josh and Rick collected the two piles of money on the desk and we officially began the shift—each taking turns getting cars.

After my third car, Ted finally finished with the books and collected his things, “See y’all tomorrow.”

“Later,” I replied as Josh and Rick remained silent.

As soon as the door closed, Josh tuned the radio to KY-102—”Kansas City’s Rock Station”—and Rick took Ted’s seat at the desk.

“So, you go to the Vo-Tech?” Rick twanged, accompanied by Boston’s “More than a Feeling.”

“No, I dropped out.”

“Did you know Ted there?”

“Nope.”

Rick looked at me with distrust, “I thought you were in the same class with him… so why did he hire you?”

“No. My friend is in Ted’s class. He referred me.”

Rick and Josh glanced at each other suspiciously. The tension was thick in the room. I needed to get that damn hick out of there so I could broach the drug subject with Josh and I was happy to see a car pull in, knowing it was Rick’s customer. Instead, Josh got up to take care of the young kid idling at the near island. I watched closely while he walked up to the window, not so much interested in the activities outside as wanting to ignore the awkwardness in the room. The kid didn’t buy any gas, but gave Josh some money. I knew a drug deal when I saw one.

Eventually, Josh returned and only a few moments later another car pulled in. This time Rick hopped up to get it. I quickly took out my hard pack of Marlboro Lights and fished out the joint I had hidden in it, “I don’t suppose there’s any way we can smoke this here.”

Josh’s eyes widened in astonishment, “Dude, you get high?”

“Usually.”

“Shit! We thought you were Ted’s narc. You’re not friends with Ted?”

“Dude, I never met that guy before in my life.” This fantasy everyone seemed to have of my “friendship” with Ted was starting to annoy me. I found it deeply offensive anyone would think I would associate with such a person.

Josh pointed, somewhat dazedly, to a wooden door behind him. The door had a black sign on it with “KEEP OUT!” in large red letters, “We can smoke it back there.”

“Is Rick cool?” I asked, somewhat surprised.

“Yeah, he smokes.”

We went to the back room and lit up the joint. We passed it back and forth a couple of times before Rick came back inside.

“Dude, he gets high!” Josh said, excitedly.

Rick looked at me incredulously, “I thought you were friends with Ted…”

All I could do was shake my head at the absurdity.

After a few more hits off the joint, with Rick joining us, Josh pulled out a cellophane bag. At first, I thought it was pot but quickly realized it was LSD. It looked like twenty or so of the small perforated squares remained on the sheet, each one stamped with a gold star.

Josh held the bag up, “You wanna do some acid?”

“Fuck! You do that here?” I laughed.

“Sure, dude.”

I was tempted, “Well, I should probably be careful my first night and all. I don’t want to freak out and start giving money away or some shit.”

Josh giggled in a way that only an acid head could, “That’s cool dude. Here, take a couple for later.” Josh tore off three of the squares and handed them to me, then tore off two more and shoved them under his tongue. Now I was convinced—this job definitely had benefits.

The tension in the room had completely evaporated and it had almost become like a party. As time wore on, more and more customers came in. Eventually, they were lined up to the street and we had to stay outside constantly. The night air was bitterly cold. Fortunately, I had discovered a large brown Phillips 66 coat in the back room. I grew more comfortable with the duties of the position and, In thirty minutes, I had handled enough customers that I had created my own wad; it was too much of a nuisance having to go to Rick and Josh to get change. Just three short hours after first walking into the office, I felt completely at home. In a moment of carefree euphoria, I stuffed the three squares of blotter under my tongue.

My timing couldn’t have been more perfect. By the time the rush had died down, the acid was starting to hit me. Several of Josh’s friends stopped in to hang out and trip with us. We all laughed at nothing and talked about things that didn’t make any sense beyond the boundaries of the small universe that existed only within that room—a bubble of an insane asylum in the middle of suburbia.

At 8:30, Josh declared that we’d all had enough and moved the hands of the clock thirty minutes ahead. We brought in the squeegee buckets, air hose and trash cans, locked the pumps and turned off the canopy and pump lights from the two fuse boxes in the back room. Josh flipped the “Closed” sign and locked the door. We hung out in the office for an hour or so, laughing at the confused customers pulling in wondering if we were still open. Some would wait several minutes, staring intently at the door. Sometimes Josh waved at them, laughing hysterically.

After Josh’s friends trickled away one-by-one and Rick left and we decided to go for a drive. For some reason I can’t even imagine now, we ended up at a grocery store. At the time, it was the only 24-hour store in the area, so there was a constant stream of people coming and going. We walked through the first set of doors and immediately noticed a broken gum-ball machine. Without the slightest hesitation and without saying a word to each other, we knelt down in front of it and shoveled the large gum-balls into our pockets. I was still wearing the Phillip’s 66 coat, which had huge pockets. Store patrons walked by staring at us with a mixture of confusion and fear. We laughed maniacally until we emptied the machine and left without anyone disturbing us.

I finally made it home around 4:30 that morning. I went to my room and fell onto the bed, sending gum-balls spilling out into various hiding places all over the room. I would still be finding them a year later. I smiled blissfully into my pillow with the realization that I had finally stumbled upon the perfect job.