At the beginning of the year I decided to take the layoff from my part time employment in the cemetery to get some much needed writing done. For the past two months I slaved away at my computer (and built an awesome bed canopy that I named FORT COMFY) and pretty much stayed in my bedroom during the winter season. I was excited DARK DAYS ON THE DIXIE HIGHWAY: DIARY OF A THIRD SHIFT ZOMBIE was taking shape and really starting to look like a book. I was about ready to have a cohesive rough draft when I realized a word count of about 45,000 wasn’t much of a novel. I figured I’d need at least 30,000 more words for a proper length. Unfortunately, after writing and essentially picking at and reopening old wounds these past two months, I realized that I am running out of material. Getting together something that I can proudly publish will take a lot more work. I am still plugging away at it as well as other stories and scripts I have rattling around in my head. In the meantime, here are two previously unpublished chapters to my grim and gruesome tale.
There was a regular that came in quite a few times; he’d buy a cup of noodles for a dollar and change. He opened it up in the store, poured in the water and popped it in the microwave. He scooped in a bunch of chopped onions and a few jalapeno peppers. He’d squeeze in a packet of sweet and sour sauce or a pump or two of nacho cheese and added a splash of hot sauce. Though I found it to be a cheap and ingenious meal, which he always paid for in change, Condiment Man’s Special Ramen Recipe was a drain to our supply. Particularly, the bags of diced onions I changed over constantly for he always managed to show up just after I threw the old ones out.
The manager blamed me at first for failing to fill them to their proper level. He did not pick up after himself either. I caught hell for that too. She’d yell, pitching a fit about the cleanliness of the sales floor. “Have you even been working? What have you been doing at night? There’s a nacho cheese stain on the counter and just look at all of these onions!” She exclaimed as she shoved the dispenser of fresh relish, onions, and jalapenos aside causing the condiments to splash over with a grating screech across the counter, making an even bigger mess than the one she pointed out to basically everyone else in the store. “How many times do I have to tell you to do your job! You’ve been here long enough!” She stomped and scuffed her feet and yelled as she pitched her fit, blustering and berating me. “There is a stain on the floor! What is that more nacho cheese? This is my store and I want this floor so clean I can lick it!”
“Why don’t you,” I said quietly but loud enough that she heard me.
“What did you say?” Her head perked up and she came toward me.
For a second I fancied forcing her to the floor and making her lick the cheese stain clean. “I said I’d get the mop.” I grinned at the customers who stopped what they were doing and gawked during the early rush. The store was packed at six in the morning.
After my shift she pulled me into her office and threatened me with the employee handbook and a write up. She didn’t believe me when I told her it was Condiment Man. It was as if he was some sort of convenience store Cryptid, a nocturnal scavenger for ramen add-ins. “That’s bullshit. No one uses that many condiments for anything,” she spat matter-of-factly debunking my sightings of Condiment Man. He might as well have been stealing Tupperware lids, underwear, or single socks.
Then one day Condiment Man came in on a morning that she happened to be there to witness his feeding habits. She was in a mood when she let him have it. Every visit after that I had to charge extra for all of his condiments. A special button was added on the POS machine. Condiment Man stopped showing up as much after that fateful encounter. Some nights when I was alone enough for some semblance of a lunch break, I followed his recipe, including the liberal amount of ingredients, especially the onions. Ramen is, after all, a perfect comfort food and depression meal. I did of course pick up after myself.
There was a time my freshman year of art school that some friends and I went on an Adderall fueled road trip to the North Country to rescue a friend. We were in the farthest reaches of Upstate New York, the next town over was basically Canada, when we stopped at a gas station to refuel. I squinted in the harsh florescent lighting of the store. It was a stark contrast from the pinpoints of passing headlights we saw for most of the night, and even those grew few and far between as the dark hours drew on.
The walls were a blinding white littered with convenience store propaganda. Posters and decals covered the windows as well, telling all who enter which products to buy for the best deal. One poster on the front glass doors displayed a proud managerial type. Bold lettering on the bottom read Want a career in customer service? All you need is a smiling face!
Something about my surroundings bugged me, the vibe I got, for a seemingly empty store; it was filled two the gills with consumerism, advertisements that practically vibrated and jumped off the walls, targeted to road weary travelers such as ourselves. There were two cashiers working on that desolate stretch of road. For all I knew they might have been just as jacked-up as we were. One would have to be, I surmised, being shut up in a place like this every night. A late night corporate wage slave, paid to bend over and take it from customers, people who intrinsically thought that they were better than you.
Broke and hungry, I wound my way through the isles covered with candy and chips when I stumbled upon a four foot jerky stick. “Holy crap,” I remarked open mouthed for I have never seen a package of dried and seasoned meat of that size and magnitude before, “that is an excessive amount of meat!” For a moment I wished I had the money to purchase it.
I stopped my story to look up at my fellow third shift zombie as he took a break from his security gig for a moment of human interaction. That night, I regaled to him the tale of my encounter with that fateful meat snack. “It was then I decided if I ever ended up working in a place like this,” I waved my hand at the window to the sales floor littered with convenience store propaganda for dramatic effect as we smoked outside, “I was going to fashion it into a meaty noose and hang myself with it. Sadly, I haven’t seen a Ropearoni since.”
“Sadly?” He repeated and I nodded. The irony was not lost on me. “You want to make a noose out of jerky and hang yourself with it?”
“Yes,” I clipped my cigarette to save it for later. I knew I was going to need it.
“You worry me sometimes,” he frowned.
“Yeah.” I shrugged, “look I have to go in and clean some shit. Not real shit this time, thank you Jesus. Oh, by the way, the hose beast of a manager has taken note of our meetings and if she catches me with another ‘late night visitor,’ I’m going to get fired.”
“Damn. I’m not surprised though, I’ve been here when she was here. I’ve seen the way she treats people, the way she treats you. People around here are beginning to wonder which one of you is going to crack first. Why are you still here anyway? I thought you moved.”
“I did, I’m planning on getting out of here soon, don’t worry.” I no longer had the convenience of a five minute walk to work since we moved out of the apartment complex. It grew to half an hour or a forty five minute commute depending on traffic. I had my lines out for different jobs that were much closer to home. Something was bound to bite, and I couldn’t wait to put my time at the Gashole far behind me.
“Yes, you should leave this place,” he put out his cigarette and turned to leave, “but not by making a noose out of jerky,” he amended and went back to his job.
“Many years ago,” I added grimly to myself as I looked off into the night before returning to my expansive workload, “I made a promise to myself and I intend to keep it.”