The register lady says eight eighty-six. I skim the ten across the scratched counter, noticing the grit and grime and gunk beneath my nails, but not caring one way or the other. This one here, she’s not much of a looker. Too much makeup trying to make up for what was lost years ago.; Like putting a fresh coat of paint on a barn that’s one windstorm away from tumbledown.
She drops the buck-fourteen into my palm, then pulls the six-pack toward her while popping open a paper bag, the snap of her wrist expert. She fits the beer in perfectly, the bag seemingly made custom for those Old Milwaukees. A lesser hand would’ve split the delicate paper seams — like mine for example.
I slip the money into my jeans, the riveted brass nipple scraping that tender, sensitive part of the wrist where hand meets arm, wondering why Levi Strauss ever put them there in the first place. And my can, I say, nodding toward the snuff rack behind her.
Shoot, darlin’, I nearly forgot, she says, pulling a tin of wintergreen from the plastic track. Another drops down in replacement — gravity at its finest — and I think of a jackpot flowing from a slot machine. A jackpot I’ll never see. In the bag, sweetie? Or you wanna carry it?
Nice as can be, she is, but not what you’d call a keeper.
I take the tobacco in hand. In the exchange I notice, partially hidden by displays of energy pills with names like Horny Goat Weed, a plastic jar off to the side.
A restaurant-sized mayonnaise container, maybe, or what Rudy keeps his pink pickled eggs in down at the tavern. A few bills and scattered change line the bottom like dregs. The photo of a walleyed boy, his skin a hornet’s nest gray, sits next to some hand-printed words, the whole patchwork stuck together with a mishmash of clear tape.
DONNIE LYONS NEEDS A LIVER
DONATIONS MOST APPRECIATED
Little Donnie Lyons is wrapped in a blanket and looking bad off.
Ain’t that the saddest thing? She catches my eyes on the jar as I drop the tin into my pocket, fingertips brushing the scrunched single, the brass rivet poking me again. They say he won’t last til Christmas unless he gets a match.
I nod and mutter something like Mmmhumm, that nipple still prodding me, that sharp edge of the bill just itching to cut my finger. I crush the top of the brown paper sack in my free fist, then walk outside into the crisp evening. Ragweed, goldenrod, football, wood smoke, a distant skunk — the dollar still tucked away safely in my pocket.
Tree needles litter the truck seat — White pine, Frasiers, Blue Spruce.
Sap clings to the upholstery, permanent, like cigarette burns. The beer sack covers orange nylon baling string and sticky work gloves. I pull out a coldy, pop it, and head home, the headlights cutting through the dusk as a forlorn smile of moon hovers over the Blue Ridge. One damn dollar won’t help that boy, I argue. Then the other me counters, Well, it wouldn’t have hurt him either.
Three months later, sitting in my chair, in boxer shorts, wood stove cranking, watching TV after busting my ass all day, lifting and loading tree after tree so some family in God-only-knows-where will have something to set their presents under. Drinking a beer, thinking how goddamn lonely life gets sometimes, with only Rosco for company, and him chained up outside in punishment. Him deciding that nicking my three-piece fried chicken dinner was a good idea after I set it on the table, a teetering car on cliff’s edge, because I had to run to the john to piss like a racehorse.
When suddenly, there it is.
That same exact photo pops up over the local news lady’s right shoulder. That same walleyed boy with the gray skin and cozy blanket. He lost his fight today, she says. Ran out of time before a donor was found.
I say to the lady, Ran out of gas with the finish line right smack in front of him.
She tells me I can send monetary donations in lieu of flowers… medical and funeral expenses are overwhelming.
An address for the funeral home pops up, covering the lady’s chest. Maybe it’s the beer, making me nicer than I really am, but I rummage through the junk drawer for an envelope. In the phone book, I find the funeral home’s address since I already forgot it — that’s probably the beer too — and scratch it out on the envelope. Drop in a five-spot. Lick. Seal.
If I remember, I’ll buy a stamp after work tomorrow and mail the donation. But who knows, by that time I may need the fiver back. I’d like to think I’ll send it off, but then again, I know myself pretty well by now.
Scott Loring Sanders is the author of two novels, The Hanging Woods and Gray Baby, both published by Houghton Mifflin. He was the Writer-in-Residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, and has twice been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He teaches writing and fiction at Virginia Tech and Radford University.