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Hapscomb's Texaco sat on Number 93 just north of Arnette, a pissant four-street burg about 110 miles from Houston. Tonight the regulars were there, sitting by the cash register, drinking beer, talking idly, watching the bugs fly into the big lighted sign.
It was Bill Hapscomb's station, so the others deferred to him even though he was a pure fool. They would have expected the same deferral if they had been gathered together in one of their business establishments. Except they had none. In Arnette, it was hard times. In 1980 the town had had two industries, a factory that made paper products (for picnics and barbecues, mostly) and a plant that made electronic calculators. Now the paper factory was shut down and the calculator plant was ailing—they could make them a lot cheaper in Taiwan, it turned out, just like those portable TVs and transistor radios.
Norman Bruett and Tommy Wannamaker, who had both worked in the paper factory, were on relief, having run out of unemployment some time ago. Henry Carmichael and Stu Redman both worked at the calculator plant but rarely got more than thirty hours a week. Victor Palfrey was retired and smoked stinking home-rolled cigarettes, which were all he could afford.
"Now what I say is this," Hap told them, putting his hands on his knees and leaning forward. "They just gotta say screw this inflation shit. Screw this national debt shit. We got the presses and we got the paper. We're gonna run off fifty million thousand-dollar bills and hump them right the Christ into circulation."
Palfrey, who had been a machinist until 1984, was the only one present with sufficient self-respect to point out Hap's most obvious damfool statements. Now, rolling another of his shitty-smelling cigarettes, he said: "That wouldn't get us nowhere. If they do that, it'll be just like Richmond in the last two years of the States War. In those days, when you wanted a piece of gingerbread, you gave the baker a Confederate dollar, he'd put it on the gingerbread, and cut out a piece just that size. Money's just paper, you know."
"I know some people don't agree with you," Hapsaid sourly. He picked up a greasy red plastic paper-holder from his desk. "I owe these people. And they're starting to get pretty itchy about it."
Stuart Redman, who was perhaps the quietest man in Arnette, was sitting in one of the cracked plastic Woolco chairs, a can of Pabst in his hand, looking out the big service station window at Number 93. Stu knew about poor. He had grown up that way right here in town, the son of a dentist who had died when Stu was seven, leaving his wife and two other children besides Stu.
His mother had gotten work at the Red Ball Truck Stop just outside of Arnette—Stu could have seen it from where he sat right now if it hadn't burned down in 1979. It had been enough to keep the four of them eating, but that was all. At the age of nine, Stu had gone to work, first for Rog Tucker, who owned the Red Ball, helping to unload trucks after school for thirty-five cents an hour, and then at the stockyards in the neighboring town of Braintree, lying about his age to get twenty back breaking hours of labor a week at the minimum wage.
Now, listening to Hap and Vic Palfrey argue on about money and the mysterious way it had of drying up, he thought about the way his hands had bled at first from pulling the endless handtrucks of hides and guts. He had tried to keep that from his mother, but she had seen, less than a week after he started. She wept over them a little, and she hadn't been a woman who wept easily. But she hadn't asked him to quit the job. She knew what the situation was. She was a realist.
Some of the silence in him came from the fact that he had never had friends, or the time for them. There was school, and there was work. His youngest brother, Dev, had died of pneumonia the year he began at the yards, and Stu had never quite gotten over that. Guilt, he supposed. He had loved Dev the best . . . but his passing had also meant there was one less mouth to feed.
In high school he had found football, and that was something his mother had encouraged even though it cut into his work hours. "You play," she said. "If you got a ticket out of here, it's football, Stuart. You play. Remember Eddie Warfield." Eddie Warfield was a local hero. He had come from a family even poorer than Stu's own, had covered himself with glory as quarterback of the regional high school team, had gone onto Texas A&M with an athletic scholarship, and had played for ten years with the Green Bay Packers, mostly as a second-string quarterback but on several memorable occasions as the starter. Eddie now owned a string of fast-food restaurants across the West and Southwest, and in Arnette he was an enduring figure of myth. In Arnette, when you said "success," you meant Eddie Warfield.
Stu was no quarterback, and he was no Eddie Warfield. But it did seem to him as he began his junior year in high school that there was at least a fighting chance for him to get a small athletic scholarship . . . and then there were work-study programs, and the school's guidance counselor had told him about the NDEA loan program.
Then his mother had gotten sick, had become unable to work. It was cancer. Two months before he graduated from high school, she had died, leaving Stu with his brother Bryce to support. Stu had turned down the athletic scholarship and had gone to work in the calculator factory. And finally it was Bryce, three years' Stu's junior, who had made it out. He was now in Minnesota, a systems analyst for IBM. He didn't write often, and the last time he had seen Bryce was at the funeral, after Stu's wife had died—died of exactly the same sort of cancer that had killed his mother. He thought that Bryce might have his own guilt to carry . . . and that Bryce might be a little ashamed of the fact that his brother had turned into just another good old boy in a dying Texas town, spending his days doing time in the calculator plant, and his nights either down at Hap's or over at the Indian Head drinking Lone Star beer.
The marriage had been the best time, and it had only lasted eighteen months. The womb of his young wife had borne a single dark and malignant child. That had been four years ago. Since, he had thought of leaving Arnette, searching for something better, but small-town inertia held him—the low siren song of familiar places and familiar faces. He was well liked in Arnette, and Vic Palfrey had once paid him the ultimate compliment of calling him "Old Time Tough."
As Vic and Hap chewed it out, there was still a little dusk left in the sky, but the land was in shadow. Cars didn't go by on 93 much now, which was one reason that Hap had so many unpaid bills. But there was a car coming now, Stu saw.
It was still a quarter of a mile distant, the day's last light putting a dusty shine on what little chrome was left to it. Stu's eyes were sharp, and he made it as a very old Chevrolet, maybe a '75. A Chevy, no lights on, doing no more than fifteen miles an hour, weaving all over the road. No one had seen it yet but him.
"Now let's say you got a mortgage payment on this station," Vic was saying, "and let's say it's fifty dollars a month."
"It's a hell of a lot more than that."
"Well, for the sake of the argument, let's say fifty. And let's say the Federals went ahead and printed you a whole carload of money. Well then those bank people would turn round and want a hundred and fifty. You'd be just as poorly off."
"That's right," Henry Carmichael added. Hap looked at him, irritated. He happened to know that Hank had gotten in the habit of taking Cokes out of the machine without paying the deposit, and furthermore, Hank knew he knew, and if Hank wanted to come in on any side it ought to be his.
"That ain't necessarily how it would be," Hap said weightily from the depths of his ninth-grade education. He went on to explain why.
Stu, who only understood that they were in a hell of a pinch, tuned Hap's voice down to a meaningless drone and watched the Chevy pitch and yaw its way on up the road. The way it was going Stu didn't think it was going to make it much farther. It crossed the white line and its lefthand tires spumed up dust from the left shoulder. Now it lurched back, held its own lane briefly, then nearly pitched off into the ditch. Then, as if the driver had picked out the big lighted Texaco station sign as a beacon, it arrowed toward the tarmac like a projectile whose velocity is very nearly spent. Stu could hear the worn-out thump of its engine now, the steady gurgle-and-wheeze of a dying carb and a loose set of valves. It missed the lower entrance and bumped up over the curb. The fluorescent bars over the pumps were reflecting off the Chevy's dirt-streaked windshield so it was hard to see what was inside, but Stu saw the vague shape of the driver roll loosely with the bump. The car showed no sign of slowing from its relentless fifteen.
"So I say with more money in circulation you'd be—"
"Better turn off your pumps, Hap," Stu said mildly.
"The pumps? What?"
Norm Bruett had turned to look out the window. "Christ on a pony," he said.
Stu got out of his chair, leaned over Tommy Wannamaker and Hank Carmichael, and flicked off all eight switches at once, four with each hand. So he was the only one who didn't see the Chevy as it hit the gas pumps on the upper island and sheared them off.
It plowed into them with a slowness that seemed implacable and somehow grand. Tommy Wannamaker swore in the Indian Head the next day that the taillights never flashed once. The Chevy just kept coming at a steady fifteen or so, like the pace car in the Tournament of Roses parade. The undercarriage screeched over the concrete island, and when the wheels hit it everyone but Stu saw the driver's head swing limply and strike the windshield, starring the glass.
The Chevy jumped like an old dog that had been kicked and plowed away the hi-test pump. It snapped off and rolled away, spilling a few dribbles of gas. The nozzle came unhooked and lay glittering under the fluorescents.
They all saw the sparks produced by the Chevy's exhaust pipe grating across the cement, and Hap, who had seen a gas station explosion in Mexico, instinctively shielded his eyes against the fireball he expected. Instead, the Chevy's rear end flirted around and fell off the pump island on the station side. The front end smashed into the low-lead pump, knocking it off with a hollow bang.
Almost deliberately, the Chevrolet finished its 360-degree turn, hitting the island again, broadside this time. The rear end popped up on the island and knocked the regular gas pump asprawl. And there the Chevy came to rest, trailing its rusty exhaust pipe behind it. It had destroyed all three of the gas pumps on that island nearest the highway. The motor continued to run choppily for a few seconds and then quit. The silence was so loud it was alarming.
"Holy moly," Tommy Wannamaker said breathlessly. "Will she blow, Hap?"
"If it was gonna, it already woulda," Hap said, getting up. His shoulder bumped the map case, scattering Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona every whichway. Hap felt a cautious sort of jubilation. His pumps were insured, and the insurance was paid up. Mary had harped on the insurance ahead of everything.
"Guy must have been pretty drunk," Norm said.
"I seen his taillights," Tommy said, his voice high with excitement. "They never flashed once. Holy moly! If he'd a been doing sixty we'd all be dead now."
They hurried out of the office, Hap first and Stu bringing up the rear. Hap, Tommy, and Norm reached the car together. They could smell gas and hear the slow, clocklike tick of the Chevy's cooling engine. Hap opened the driver's side door and the man behind the wheel spilled out like an old laundry sack.
"God-damn," Norm Bruett shouted, almost screamed. He turned away, clutched his ample belly, and was sick. It wasn't the man who had fallen out (Hap had caught him neatly before he could thump to the pavement) but the smell that was issuing from the car, a sick stench compounded of blood, fecal matter, vomit, and human decay. It was a ghastly rich sick-dead smell.
A moment later Hap turned away, dragging the driver by the armpits. Tommy hastily grabbed the dragging feet and he and Hap carried him into the office. In the glow of the overhead fluorescents their faces were cheesy-looking and revolted. Hap had forgotten about his insurance money.
The others looked into the car and then Hank turned away, one hand over his mouth, little finger sticking off like a man who has just raised his wineglass to make a toast. He trotted to the north end of the station's lot and let his supper come up.
Vic and Stu looked into the car for some time, looked a teach other, and then looked back in. On the passenger side was a young woman, her shift dress hiked up high on her thighs. Leaning against her was a boy or girl, about three years old. They were both dead. Their necks had swelled up like inner tubes and the flesh there was a purple-black color, like a bruise. The flesh was puffed up under their eyes, too. They looked, Vic later said, like those baseball players who put lampblack under their eyes to cut the glare. Their eyes bulged sightlessly. The woman was holding the child's hand. Thick mucus had run from their noses and was now clotted there. Flies buzzed around them, lighting in the mucus, crawling in and out of their open mouths. Stu had been in the war, but he had never seen anything so terribly pitiful as this. His eyes were constantly drawn back to those linked hands.