CLOSED FOR VACATION
With the deli closed for vacation this week I drive out to Injun Joe’s. It’s twenty minutes east on the two lane highway. An hour in heavy beach traffic. I keep the air conditioner on low speed to save on gas. Normally I get my cigarettes at the deli in cartons of five. Jimmy gives a discount for bulk purchase. Injun Joe isn’t interested. Charges me the full rate. He’s counting out change when Doug slides a little on my neck. Enough for Injun Joe to spot his darting tongue. What’s that shit you got a snake ‘round your collar? It’s just Doug, I say. Doug repeats Injun Joe. He’s wearing a silver bracelet with charms. I challenge him back. You’re wearing a charm bracelet, I say. Like a girl. Injun Joe is not deterred by this. He holds out his arm. It’s got skulls and a cross and dead looking animals all out of silver. Does it jangle? I say. But Injun Joe has moved down the counter to sell cigarettes to a bleached out blonde. When she finally leaves the tepee he pulls up a stool. I’ve had enough women, he says. I thought you’re married? Was. Not any more? He points toward the door of the tepee. You see that piece of shit car? She left it. I look but can’t see a thing except the tepee flap. It’s dark in here, I say. You get used to it, says Injun Joe. He points at Doug. What’s it eat? Flies? Flies are good, I say.
Back outside in sharp sun I spot the car. A silver Echo. Dings and all. Injun Joe comes out and lights up. That’s a total piece of shit, he says. Jeannine left it same time she did. I’m nodding. See that crater on the back fender? Sure I can see it. Who couldn’t? Julio said he could suck it out with a plunger, Injun Joe goes on. Why didn’t he? I say. He got a customer for gas then forgot. Can’t you go back? But Injun Joe has cranked his neck toward the sky. His eyes are shut. He stands still as his tepee. You can’t get a read if he’s frozen dead standing like that. I look up noticing the sky bluer than the ocean. It don’t seem fair, says Injun Joe coming back to life. Doug moves again on my neck. Then I know it’s time to go home.
These muffins are not the good ones. These taste wet and stringy. Even Doug shies away like they’re snake poison. What’s wrong with these muffins? I say to him. Everything has collapsed. All on account of summer. Things I expect have shut down. Signs everywhere saying Closed for Vacation. At the supermarket I buy a muffin mix. Carrot muffins. Back home I get it all beat together with an egg. Even locate the muffin tin without too much trouble. Grease the eight slots with butter. You’ll like these, I tell Doug. I bend to shove them in the stove and it’s dirty. What kind of woman leaves you with a filthy stove? Now I’ve got a quandary. Could the muffins pick up a bacteria? I hold the pan of gooey wet muffins sniffing. I don’t smell carrot. Was the box mis-marked? They smell like cardboard. Is it worth the baking to eat a cardboard muffin? I stand in the kitchen still as Injun Joe stood. Doug in his tank on the table looks sleepy. Biiiiiiiiiiiiitchhhhh I scream out. Doug sort of jumps in the tank. Easy fellow, I say. It ain’t you I’m cursing. I throw the muffins away with the muffin tin. Never want to see another muffin. Not in this house anyway.
Out in the woods about a quarter mile past Injun Joe’s is a strip club. It’s old and wooden and smells moldy. Fights break out when someone thinks their drink is watered. I went there once for a bachelor party. Some of the guys from work go there to get lap dances. Charlie Fiedler-Wrangler goes regularly. In the break room he’s inviting Hal to go. Hal says yahoooo! I like the one with the red panties, Hal says. Charlie Fiedler-Wrangler licks his lips. Then he turns and points at me. Hey why don’t you come too, asshole. You afraid of women? Both of them start laughing. But they shut up fast when Tracy the bookkeeper strolls in. What’s this about red panties? she says. Charlie and Hal drop their eyes to the floor. It’s not about you Tracy, I say. So you in on the joke too? No, Tracy, I say. It’s not your panties. You three are jackasses, she says. She turns around going back out. You forgot your coffee, Hal yells after her. The three of us look at each other. We are a circle of bad. Now she hates me too, I say. She always hated you, says Charlie Fiedler-Wrangler. You can forget about those panties. I shift to my weight to my other leg. Doug moves under my collar.
The next-door neighbor put a fence up during the night. It had to be during the night because it wasn’t there and then it was. They do stuff like that around here. Christmas decorations pop up overnight. Halloween pumpkins. Those dry door wreaths. What are they afraid of? I say to Doug. He’s drowsing in his tank while I pop a beer for breakfast. It gives me a little rush before work. I’m looking out the living room window at the fence. A timber style that has a wrong side. The wrong side facing my side. I think I remember a law about which side. That the neighbor is supposed to get the good side. The fence owner is supposed to suffer the bad side. Actually the bad side isn’t that bad. It’s more rustic. I take Doug out of the tank and slip him around my neck. Then grab my beer and go out in the yard. Right away the neighbor pops out of his door like he’s been watching. How do you like the fence? he says. His wife is hot on his trail. They both stand on their side smiling over. It looks good, I say. At least on this side. It looks sturdy. Their eyes slide and I catch the look. They think I’m stupid. Doug likes it too, I say. Doug? the man says. A small squint to his eyes now. I pull Doug out from behind my collar and the wife shrieks. Oh my god! she says. He’s wearing a snake. She turns and runs into the house. Why would you do that? the man says. Do what? Upset my wife this way. Well it’s not her snake, I say. So why should she be upset? It’s unusual, the man says. He walks a few steps closer. Can I take a look at it? Sure, I say. Doug’s not shy. What you see is what you get.
Even though the deli has reopened I go to Injun Joe. I need to ask him a favor. I almost leave Doug behind. But then he moves so I pick him out of the tank. Doug thank god for you, I say. He blinks or is it a dream? We drive the back detours only the residents know. The beach people know other detours more jammed now than the highway. Passing the crowded clam bar I tell Doug we should think about moving. I’m considering the mountains, I say. I hear it’s less crowded. They say the mountains look purple and blue in the distance. Today I make it to Injun Joe under thirty minutes. I park next to his beat up Echo. The tepee flap is shut but I hear music inside. I tap on the flap. Nothing. I shout, Hey Injun Joe! The music only gets louder. Someone is singing now. Then there is just music. Professional music. Then more singing. Louder. It’s a woman’s voice. Bad voice. Everything feeling bad at once. Karaoke, I say to no one. A crow screeches in the treetops. I feel Doug shivering on my neck.
Clueless. I am essentially clueless regarding Doug the snake and his master. But they call to me, now and again, so I write them.
Susan Tepper‘s new book will be released in January, and is a collection of linked-flash titled “From the Umberplatzen” (A Love Story) published by Wilderness House Press. She is the author of three previously published books, writes the “Monday Chat” Interview column on Fictionaut, and hosts the FIZZ reading series at KGB Bar in NYC. You can visit Susan at her website.