I hurried into work trying to beat the clock as I cursed my beat up dark green, Chrysler Seabring for refusing to start. As I punched in I could feel my manager Angela’s cool grey eyes burning a hole in the back of my head. The Speedway gas station was buzzing with activity and a foul odor made me wonder who had burned the chili cheese Tornados, again. Maybe that’s why Angela was already so irate. Brushing past me my co-worker Judy gave me a sly grin that said, damn, she caught you. “You know start time is 5 minutes before shift, not 5 minutes after” Angela clipped. “I’m sorry, my car wouldn’t start-” she cut me off with a hand held up to my face. “I don’t need to hear another f#@$*&! car excuse.” She cursed shutting me up. I waited as she grabbed her purse and began to stalk out “Make sure you scrub down the coffee station, it’s disgusting. And someone throw out those Tornados!” With a final withering glance at Judy and I she marched out of the building. Judy laughed and turned to me “Thank god she’s gone. Working with that bitch is awful.” Smiling I opened my register, careful to avoid the mysterious goo that smudge the counter top, and took a quick mental inventory of what I would need to do on the overnight shift. My thoughts were interrupted as Judy pulled a cigarette and lighter from her pocket. “I’ve only gotta few more hours but ya mind if I step out for a smoke?” “No problem” I replied turning to begin working on the coffee station.
When Judy came back in I caught a faint whiff of alcohol on her breath but said nothing. We all knew she preferred to add a little something extra to her coffee or soda when the boss wasn’t around, and honestly no one cared. This was a rundown Speedway in downtown Crown Point just off Main Street. A long string of bars trailed down the road into the town square and then around, lining it on all four sides. The gas station was popular by default as it was the only place other than the bars opened past 10 pm, and the employees here were mostly young kids and college students working a part time job for extra income. Judy was older though and I felt bad for her at times. She seemed lonely and I guessed her drinking may have contributed to her situation. But then who was I to judge; I had been at work for 15 minutes and could already feel the cravings coming on. This night better move fast I thought running my tongue over dry lips and fixing a soda to try to suppress the urge to ask Judy for a swig of her flask.
We chatted back and forth for the next few hours between customers. My co-worker wasn’t especially talkative but she carried a conversation fairly well and I liked the company. When midnight rolled around she packed up her stuff and began heading out. “You gonna stop by and see me tomorrow?” Judy asked referring to her second job at the Lucky Mart right next to my apartment complex. “You working?” “Yeah, I got the morning shift. It’s not so bad though. He doesn’t open until 10 on Sundays and then I’m out by four. It’s boring as hell though”. I laughed, I could imagine. The Lucky Mart was your typical, locally owned, beat up convenience store in a low income neighborhood. Usually I’d run up there for a cheap snack when I had an extra dollar to spare. “I’ll probably stop by if I can’t sleep” I said “I don’t have to work the dollar store tomorrow so I was going to sleep through until my shift here tomorrow night” “yeah I get it.” She replied “Gotta get that sleep in when you can”. We laughed as we both understood the drain of working two jobs and trying to survive on minimum wage. “Well maybe I’ll see ya.” She waved goodbye and I headed over to help the customer standing at the counter.
The minutes continued to tick by slowly and the hum of the radio played over the speakers as I wiped down the coffee station for the third time that night. Around one am Police Sergeant Wasserman came in with a new rookie in tow. The police were known to hang out at Speedway at night, drinking coffee and swapping stories while they waited for a call. But Sergeant Wasserman was one of my favorites and he would keep me company even if the other officers weren’t around. “What’s up Heather!” He said to me with a nod of acknowledgement as he headed straight for the coffee. “My favorite officer!” I exclaimed in enthusiasm mixed with sarcasm reaching behind me for a can of wintergreen grizzly tobacco. “You want a tub of chew tonight?” He paused for a moment, eyeing the can and debating my question before finally shaking his head in reluctance. “I can’t, the wife’s going to kill me if I don’t cut back on that stuff”. I gave him a grin that told him he was whipped and put the canister back in place. The rookie introduced himself and watched as Wasserman and I bantered back and forth. Some nights he’d be at the gas station for over an hour, but tonight was Saturday and the bars would begin to wind down soon. As if on cue a voice came over his radio ordering him downtown. “Gotta go bust some drunks. Be safe Heather!”
As the drunks filtered in, some of my early morning regulars began showing up as well. I enjoyed getting to know these people; their stories, their quirks, their orders and guilty pleasures. For the most part I knew my regular customers orders by heart. As soon as they would pull in, I’d start grabbing cigarettes or a newspaper, or perhaps a danish, and for one young man, two 12 oz Red Bull’s. The customers appreciated this extra level of service and I appreciated the sense of connection it gave me to the community. I had missed this connection since leaving my church, really my world, just 4 months earlier. As I waved goodbye to another satisfied regular, a smile spread across my face and I began to hum and sweep the now silent store. The door chime brought my attention back to the front and the smile faded. It was Steve.
Steve had been a regular when I first started working at Speedway and we soon struck up a friendship. When I came out as gay he was one of the few people with whom I could talk to about girls. And for him, I was someone he could vent to when he and his girlfriend weren’t getting along. About a month after leaving my church he’d invited me to go to a strip club. “It’ll be fun! Plus you can get a lap dance” he’d said a twinkle and a smile. Of course I’d never been to a strip club before and was a little nervous but my new friend seemed like just the right person to take me. He picked me up and we had a really good time. Steve paid for my entrance fee, then my first two drinks and even handed me a wad of one dollar bills he “needed to use up”. I felt uncomfortable that he was paying for everything. We were supposed to be friends and equals and I wanted to pay my own way. When the scantily clad server came back around I made sure to hand her a twenty for both our drinks. He was on his second for the evening and I was on my third but holding it well, or so I felt. Eventually we left and chatted cheerily the entire ride home finally pulling into my apartment complex. I prepared to hurry out of the car so he could head home but instead he parked the vehicle and turned the ignition off. “Can’t I come in and hang out for a bit?” He asked. It seemed like an odd request. Not only was it late at night but he had a girlfriend at home waiting and I couldn’t imagine how I would entertain him. But then I was still new to the outside world having only been exposed to my church and their culture my entire life. Perhaps this is what normal people did, yet still I was hesitant. “Honestly I’m just going to watch a little TV and go to bed” I’d said “plus won’t your girl be upset that you’re out so late?” He laughed off my concern “She’s already mad I’m sure. Just let me come in and watch some tv with you until I sober up a little.” I didn’t want him driving home drunk and reluctantly agreed.
Now three months later I stood frozen, rooted in place. The knot in my stomach churned and grew with each breath and I kicked myself over and over again for being such a silly, foolish, naive girl to let him in my home. I actually had thought he simply wanted to relax and watch a movie. And my skin crawled in sheer terror and disgust as the memories of the rest of that evening played through my mind. He looked at me, not in surprise but yet slightly taken aback. Perhaps it was the anger radiating from me that caused him to silently duck down another aisle. I didn’t know what to do, I wished there was someone else in the store with the two of us and my eyes furtively shot to the empty parking lot outside. In vain I hoped that Wasserman would pull in to top off his coffee. Steve came to the front with a few items in his hand and I stared directly into his eyes. I had always been a person who’s anger could create such a defiance that at times my parents and church leaders were at a loss to know how to control me. In fact that same defiance had given me the strength to leave the church and now to stand before my abuser refusing to show the trembling little girl I felt inside. I quickly and silently rang in his items and waited for him to place the money on the counter rather than reaching out my hand towards him. But I paused when he spoke, “hey look, I know things seemed to get out of hand,” he began and the nausea in my head now became real in the back of my throat. Tears stung behind my eyes and it was through sheer force of will that I forbid them from falling or even slipping out of the corners. “I just want you to know that I was drunk and-” he was cut off by the door opening and I let out an audible sigh of relief when my friends Heather and Sarah stumbled through the entrance. They were both drunk and laughing but immediately headed to the counter. Steve’s face went white as it was apparent he didn’t intend for any other witnesses to hear his confession, or apology, or whatever the hell this was. He gave me a final look then scurried out of the gas station and I knew I’d never see him again.
I said nothing to my two new friends, one (Sarah) who was now my roommate. They had come into my life just after the “incident” and I still couldn’t process what had happened in my head let alone to relative strangers. In fact it would be several years before I would ever speak of Steve. But in this moment I was happy for the distraction and laughed as Heather, slightly more sober, attempted to keep Sarah from taking sips of an unknown customers abandoned soda. They stayed for a short period before Heather convinced Sarah to let her drive the other home. As they drove off I could see the sun begin to peak through the trees and hurried to start several pots of coffee before the morning rush.
My shift finally ended at 6 am and I said a prayer of thanks when the engine of my car revved to life. Arriving home I promptly poured a drink then walked back to my room to change. Sarah’s bedroom door was wide open and she was passed out, ass up on the bed. I smiled as I reached in to close her door then quickly changed clothes in my room before heading out to the couch. My after work routine was to drink vodka and watch DVDs of Family Guy, and I sank down on the worn, orange sofa with a drink in hand ready to forget the past day. I wouldn’t think of Steve, or my church, or my family, or anything that mattered. That was in the past. After several drinks the episodes were beginning to blend and fade and the tv became nothing more than a glow in the darkened room. I stood to fill my glass again but fell back as the room spun and the nausea twisted my stomach. After a few deep breaths I stood again and this time managed to stumble into the kitchen. I poured more vodka but stopped before adding the mixer. There was no way I’d get through another full glass, better to take this as a shot and head to bed. I knocked back the bitter and cheap Dimitris then staggered down the hall collapsing on my mattress on the floor. Habitually I slid my hand under the pillow wrapping my fingers around the ivory handle of my .22 pistsol. Then the room went dark
“Heather wake up! Heather!” I opened my eyes and groggily turned to see Sarah in my doorway. “What time is it?” I glanced at my alarm clock which read 5:15pm “Sarah I’m not working until 10 tonight!” “I know” she replied “But I had to tell you, Judys dead.” “What?” I exclaimed sitting up. “Judy? Speedway Judy? Our co worker?” Sarah nodded, “Yeah, she was robbed and shot 4 times at the Lucky Mart this afternoon.” I was stunned, trying to comprehend what was being told me. I couldn’t believe that someone I knew was murdered at the the convenience store that sat just at the end of the street. “Just wanted to let you know” Sarah said, turning to head out. As I lay back down my hand again slid to my gun and I cried. I cried because of Judys death, because my confrontation with Steve, because I missed my family, because I was alone in a crappy apartment in a crappy part of town trying to survive. Eventually it would get better, but not today and not anytime soon.