My Life

Dispatches from Wasteland: The Kindness of Strangers and the Shadow of Joan Crawford

Note: Yet another snippet from my work-in-progress for NaNoWriMo (click here to read this story from the beginning), picking up right after I have realized that I made a stupendous automotive error at the end of my midnight shift in a convenience store…


So, there I am, standing next to my rumbling car, trying to figure out what I’m going to do, now that I’ve locked my keys inside the running vehicle. And this is a Mustang Mach II, a muscle-car wannabe that does not purr quietly. The chugging of the engine is meant to attract attention, specifically designed for middle-aged men who stopped having meaningful sex years ago and they are seeking validation wherever they can find it. (I was neither of those things at that time, but I was someone willing to drive one of my father’s cars because I couldn’t afford one of my own.) You can’t help but notice the noise, with the rumbling pistons oozing an aura of unfocused testosterone.

Which means that everybody in the parking lot is aware of my situation, within seconds, as I stand beside the car with a panicked expression on my face, yanking on a door that will not budge. It’s morning rush hour at this point, so there are tons of looky-loos milling about, and of course one of the loos has to wander in my direction and ask something idiotic.

“Did you lock your keys in that thing?”

No, I just want to steal this car, but I’m not as smart as you and I don’t know how to do it. Perhaps you could give me some pointers since, based on your appearance with the stained overalls and the chewing tobacco juice dribbling off your chin, you probably know some folks with some helpful tips. Then I take a deep breath and calm down. It’s not this guy’s fault. I need to quit being such a bitter, sarcastic drama queen, even if I don’t know how to act any other way.

“Yeah, I guess I did. Pretty dumb-ass on my part.”

He sidles up a little closer, quite pleased to find himself engaged in an actual conversation, since he’s used to people just running the other way. (See, I can’t help myself, the sarcasm is just my go-to response, at least internally.) “Well, get you one of them hangers,” says Juice Dribbler.

Hangers? Hangers! Yes, a wire hanger, so I can snake it through the window seal and try to pull up the lock knob. (Reality check for the youth of today: This story took place at a time when you locked your doors by pushing down a physical button on the door. There were no such things as electronic key fobs or remote controls or even ATMs.) “Great idea. Be right back. Can you keep an eye on this for me?” He immediately beams at the prospect of this new mission, hooking his thumbs under the straps of his overalls and looking around to see who has noticed that he has important things to do with his life, unlike most of his friends who just drink beer and wait to see which of their kin got arrested today.

I race back into the store. The manager, who just arrived mere minutes ago and is perky and fresh because he didn’t work the midnight shift like I did, looks at me with a quizzical expression. “I thought you were gone.”

“Thought I was, too.” Then I zip right past him without further explanation, headed toward the back room. I don’t want to talk to him at all. He’s a boring man, with boring things to say. He’ll only slow me down, and I am far beyond any desire to play nice with people I don’t like.

I crash through the swinging doors in the rear of the store, and I nearly slam into the bread-truck guy as he waddles out of the bathroom, still pulling up his pants and fiddling with his belt, the toilet still swirling behind him. (The sink where he should have washed his hands is bone dry. Lovely. Thank you for the image of your fetid fingers touching my fresh-baked buns.) Of course, he probably didn’t expect Jessie Owens to sprint by as he was coming out of the bathroom, but still, finish your business before you open the bathroom door. Nobody wants to see your dangle-bob at this hour of the morning, especially when it’s that hard to see.

Side note: The just-vacated bathroom is a major point of contention in this store. See, the manager does not want the rest of us to let the public use our private restroom. And I completely agree with that, all for it. (I don’t like cleaning up the messes some of these folks leave behind, a crime scene that looks like somebody wrestled a wildebeest and lost.) Trouble is, on his shift, the manager lets anybody and their dog use this bathroom, waving hordes of people on through like there’s a prize if he hits a certain quota. (Congratulations, Manager Man, you have just received the Golden Bladder Award for allowing ten percent of the population of Oklahoma to relieve themselves in what is essentially a broom closet with plumbing. Your family must be so proud.)

Of course, this dichotomy leads to complications on the rest of the shifts, the shifts where we are not allowed to proffer privy privileges if we wish to continue working those shifts. When I tell drunken people that we don’t have a public bathroom, they want to argue with me, because they just peed in said bathroom a few hours ago with the complete blessing of the other guy, the manager guy. You’re not the manager. Ergo, you suck, and your little dog, too.

Look, you smelly little heathen with your gum-smacking girlfriend who, if you’re ready for a truth bomb, is also the girlfriend of about 37 other men who come into this store, check the security camera, I’m the manager right now. And you’re not going back there. Hard stop.

Then you need to call the real manager. He’ll tell you I can go back there.

No, you need to just leave and go pee where you normally pee. You must live somewhere nearby, because you’re always in here trying to get a deal on the day-old fried pies. Just like your short-attention-span girlfriend and her roulette wheel of availability.

And so it would go. Every night, at some point, there would be a discussion on who has the right to pee where. But I wouldn’t give in. I didn’t want these people in the bathroom. If I can’t see you, I don’t know what you’re doing, and in this part of town, visual contact is important to survival. Hell, some of you folks will steal the Godzilla stick just because it’s not bolted down.

But, of course, I did let a select few make use of the facilities. Officer Justine, for one, was welcome to LIVE in the bathroom if she indicated an interest in doing so. For the most part, though, I was the ass that made you hold it until you got home.

Anyway, back to the quest for a wire hanger, I side-stepped around bread truck guy and sped to the little section where we keep our personal things. There was a tiny closet where we could hang things up, so I ripped open the door with a rush of excitement.

All the hangers I could see were made of hardened plastic, inflexible and completely unsupportive of how I’m trying to simply live my life. (Just like most of my relatives at family reunions!) Great. No wire hangers, anywhere. Had Joan Crawford been in here? Wait, was she the bread-truck guy?

Right at that moment of me once again veering off into movie trivia, I heard the manager guy bang through the swinging doors. Terrific. I did NOT want to talk to him, as I’d already lost enough hours of my life as he babbled on about meaningless things like bait, fertilizer and whether or not corn meal would take the sting out of poison ivy.

Luckily, the manager stopped to chat with the bread guy, who was still fiddling with his belt buckle. (Come ON, Einstein, what’s up with the wardrobe malfunction? It’s not that hard. You line up your prong with the right hole and you’re golden. And this is a bit of advice that applies in multiple situations.) Einstein was a talker, too, so they immediately launched into a lengthy discussion on the mating habits of the hoot owl or some such.

Just as I was about to forlornly close the closet door, I spotted a discarded wire hanger on the floor of the cubicle, shoved to the back. It was old and rusty, and it was covered in that thin, crackly paper hangers used to be wrapped in way back in the day, advertising some dry-cleaning establishment that probably burned to the ground twenty years ago. But it would work. I snatched it up and reversed my course.

I tried to avoid eye contact with the manager as he continued to chat with Joan Breadford, but I guess he caught the flash of my team smock as I sped by. “Brian?”

I kept moving. “What?”

“What are you doing?”

I slammed through the swinging doors, startling an elderly woman clutching a honey bun. “Nothing. I’ll tell you in a minute.” Translation: “I have no intention of coming back in this store. Leave me alone.”

I got back outside, where Festus was still lording over the rumbling car, grinning broadly at anybody who happened to glance in his direction. (“I’m in charge!”) Then he noticed me, and the smile faded as he snapped into what he assumed was a military-like position. He was taking this far too seriously.

I ripped the wrapper off the hanger, and I started twisting the curved part to unwind the two ends of the wire. This is difficult to do when you’re trying to hurry and get it done before talkative co-workers and delivery people come outside for further investigation.

Festus: “Son, I think that you-”

Me: “Just a second. Almost got it.”

Festus: “But the lock-”

Me: “Hang on. A couple more twists and…” Bingo, the ends came apart. I straightened the thing out, and I made a little hook on one end. I jiggled it through the top of the window and snaked the metal toward the lock. Wait a minute. Aw, hell.

Festus: “Ain’t nothing to hook it on. I was tryin’ to tell you.”

Damn. I’d forgotten that the top of the lock button was smooth as anything, just this little piston thing that basically disappeared into the hole when it was pushed down. (Who was the twit engineer who thought that was a good idea at the Ford plant? Probably the engineer who was trying to make it more difficult to steal a car.) This little operation was not going anywhere. I pulled the wire back out and threw it on the ground in frustration.

Festus: “Ain’t the hanger’s fault.”

I suddenly wanted farmer man to go do something else for a while, even though he hadn’t really done anything wrong. This is just what happens when folks get frustrated. They take it out on the people nearest them, despite their probable innocence. This situation is also known as marriage.

But Festus was determined to assist. There hadn’t been this much excitement in his life since Billy Ray Bodean got lickered up at the barn dance and took advantage of somebody’s prize gourd. “Who else has got a key? Somebody close?”

Despite this being a valid question, part of my soul died as I contemplated the “somebody close”. The only other person who had a key was my Dad. (Because it was his car.) Oh, boy. That was a phone call I did NOT want to make unless my life depended on it. And even then, there would be hesitation. Call Dad or finally learn if there was any truth to this afterlife thing? I’d really have to think on that one.

You see, Dad had convinced himself long ago that I would never amount to anything. Which wasn’t true. I got along in life fairly decently and I paid my bills on time. But, every once in a while, I would do something completely dumb-ass, and of course he would find out, and then he’d make another entry in his spreadsheet of the ways in which I had disappointed him.

I sighed, probably in a dramatic manner because, well, gay instinct. “I guess I could call my dad.”

Festus: “He gotta key?”

Me: “Yeah. And an attitude.” (Like I didn’t have one. Tree, apple, not far, right?)

Festus: “Daddies always have attitudes. That’s why they’re daddies.”

I was beginning to really like this man in the overalls. Maybe he could adopt me? But our budding relationship was immediately truncated because, well, life goes on.

Festus: “Well, son, I gotta head out. I was supposed to be home an hour ago and the missus is gonna think I been sniffin’ around the neighbor lady again. You sure you can find your daddy?”

Me: “Yeah. Just gotta make a few calls.”

Festus: “Good enough for gov’ment work. I’ll see ya.” Then he turned and headed toward his beat-up pickup.

Me, calling after him: “Hey, thanks a lot. I appreciate it.”

He just raised an arm and did a half-wave in the air, then kept walking.

I watched him go for a bit, then turned back to the store. I would have to go inside to use the phone (no cell phones in 1986), meaning I would have to deal with the manager, hovering as he would be near the business phone. Great. Two people I didn’t want to talk to, all lined up and ready to torment me. The manager I could ignore, because we had no past. My dad? There’s far too much past to make the present pleasant.

I took a deep breath and walked toward the front door…


Click here to read the next bit in this series…


Originally published in a different form in “Memory Remix” and “The Sound and the Fury” in 2010. Modified considerably for this post. For those who are concerned that Justine’s presence might be fading in this story-line, rest assured that there is more of her to come. For those who are concerned that this story might go on forever, rest assured that I will eventually get bored and move on to something else. After all, this is Bonnywood Manor…


21 replies »

        • Kid in the car is the scariest bit, but here’s the funny side. We were parked under cover in a shopping centre car park. The window was open a crack. Libby, the 18-month-old daughter trapped in my car, was old enough and capable enough to unlock the door. She’d done it many times in the past. Could even reach it when she was strapped in her car seat, as she was that day. But I had scolded her about it in the past and had said that unlocking the door makes the police very cross. So no matter how much I pleaded with her to unlock the door, she figured it must be some sort of trap. Sat there smiling sweetly with her arms folded. I can still see an image of that and it was 36 years ago.

          Liked by 4 people

  1. Please tell me Justine was there when your dad showed up?
    Oh crap.
    Love your ‘rest-assureds.’ I get bored with my stuff too, or more likely, just plain forget them. Going through my archives is always entertaining. “Oh yeah, I remember that series… forgot about it half-way in.” 🙄

    Liked by 1 person

    • Justine does have more appearances, just not during this particular plot point…

      And yes, I have a focus issue, often getting bored long before most of the folks who are following the tale. (Case in point: In “real time” with NaNoWriMo, I’ve already moved on from this story and I’m piddling with the extended tale of Dr. Brian’s indecency trial in Paris, and I’m already itching to share THAT sordid story. Just to prepare you for future comments: that story IS fiction.)

      In fact, I think you just inspired me to insert a break with tomorrow’s post, sharing something from the archives that Melanie found. No worries, though. We’ll return to Justine, as there’s an upcoming scene that I know you’re going to appreciate…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I lock myself out of my car on a regular basis. I love the code that lets me in now. Long ago in the 80’s I locked an infant in my car, put her in the carseat, shut the door and voila, the keys were smiling at me from the adorable hands of my daughter. I was in a huge parking lot in the freezing cold and there was no such thing as calling from a cell phone and no way I was leaving her there alone while I went inside so I broke the driver side window using my jacket to prevent cuts, dusted off the glass and drove home with my coat hanging where the window used to be. Daughter just laughed and laughed. Hubby was not impressed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You HAVE to share this story on your blog. It’s a terrific setup, with humor and frustration and a mother’s love. I know you can make it work, so please do it. #NotPushing #YesIAm

      P.S. I just now considered the fact that you may have already shared this story on your blog and I just haven’t seen it. If so, please ignore this rambling comment… 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      • LOL I might have shared in the past and might do so again. Now that the kids are grown no one can call child services on me. Bwah ha ha… that is until we start crucifying women for mistakes/sins from a hundred years ago like we’re currently doing with the men. Right now, I’m saved from such scrutiny, because I have “Vagina Privilege”. Bwah ha ha

        Liked by 1 person

  3. My brother did the key in car thing with his Ford Exploder, Found a handy piece of broken curb, did a decent impression of a pitcher, followed through, hit the side window slap bang in the middle… the ricochet nearly took his head off. Window One, pissed-off brother Nil. Ford door buttons are cheap and nasty, the glass is tough. Took him two more shots and a lot of explaining to the insurance company.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great imagery and description. (“Window One, pissed-off brother Nil.”). Too bad you don’t have video footage of this incident, as it could easily go viral, with that near-death ricochet aspect. I’ve never actually had to break a window, but I have gotten very creative accessing a locked vehicle, once crawling into the trunk and pushing down the back seat. That was a shining moment…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh yes, and here’s. Girl I knew locked her keys in an old Honda, door locked Damn. A kind stranger helped, he looked at the keys in the ignition, he looked at the locked door, he went to the unlocked passenger door…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.