***This is the first short story I ever wrote. I wrote it for an introduction to fiction writing class probably in 2013. I fixed a number of typos and cleared up a few confusing parts, but I left most of the awkward writing just so I know how far I have come as a writer. If you want to see the original post, you can check it out here: https://therichardbraxton.wordpress.com/2015/12/23/running-on-empty/ ***
The sun was warm against the morning chill. The long shadows were shrinking. This was a day that was uniquely suited for drinking beer outside. Ned was standing, beer in hand, on the landing. The door was swung open to the second-floor apartment. But Derrick had his crescent wrench and screwdriver in hand. He was alternately jabbing and cranking on the rusting lump of engine bolted to the back of his VW bus. Somehow, this process adjusted the timing. Derrick had traded for a stinger exhaust. And Ned was trying to envision how it would be installed with a minimum of bailing wire and duct tape.
Ned watched as Derrick took a step back and stared at the tools in his hands. Derrick shrugged his shoulders then dropped the tools. He flung open the side doors of the bus slid his dented red toolbox across the floorboards. Crouched next to the car, he rummaged through his tools. There must have been something in his peripheral vision because he reached under the front seat and pulled out a bag of tacos. He unwrapped one, spread open the soggy shell, lifted it to his nose, and gave it a good long sniff. He took a bite. He chewed slowly then swallowed hard.
“Yuck, this is stale.” He looked up at Ned and took another bite. “Toss me one of those beers. I need something to wash this down.”
“No problem,” Ned said. “I’ve got a special one just for you.” Ned walked into the small apartment. Just beyond the door was a dingy coffee table covered with empty cans. He selected a choice and unblemished empty labeled Miller Light. Ned held the can in his left hand and unzipped his pants with his right. Wouldn’t you know it, Ned had stage fright. He kicked the door shut behind him and closed his eyes. Ned focused on the faucet’s constant drip until his bladder let loose. A light breeze opened the door with a creak. Ned startled from the sound. His hands shot out to his sides. The urine sloshed in the can. Luckily, he wasn’t one to piss himself from fright. His urine stream had shut off almost instantly and only three or four drops got on the carpet. The can was little more than half full, but that would have to do. He did not think that he could get started again anytime soon. Ned zipped up and walked out the door.
“What took you so long? Did you brew it yourself?”
“You could say that.” Ned tossed the can over the rail.
Derrick took two quick steps away from the car. He tilted his head back keeping his eyes on the can. At the last second, he reached up and caught the can. The liquid splashed, and a few droplets rained down on his face. He must have whiffed that unmistakable smell or felt the heat through the can.
“You pissed in it.” He threw the can back at Ned. It hit the railing spraying the ammoniac liquid all over Ned and the surrounding area.
“You knew I was drinking the last one.”
Derrick shook his head. “Lock the door. We’re getting some more.”
Damn it. Is he channeling Jessie Jackson? Of all the things that he may want to emulate about the man, his cockamamie rhymes and faux-southern cadence should not be one of them. But it is a great way to talk crap. Ned said, “I’ve got a feeling. Your shit ain’t worth stealing.”
Derrick raised his voice. “I don’t know if you have noticed, but this neighborhood seems to be the focus of many unsavory characters.”
“Yeah, they must be the alcoholic types because they never come over and drink with us.” Just last night, Ned had answered the knock at the door. The young couple that lived next to them was standing there with their stupid faces. Turn down your music they said. We have jobs they said. We have groceries. Your friends parked in our spot. You left garbage on the stoop. We are calling the police if we see you pissing off the balcony one more time. Someone caked shit on our door handle… Well, that last one will be tonight. “You’re right. I have never had neighbors as bad as these.”
Ned locked the door and met Derrick at the car. “I know of a place. It’s a little out of the way, but they don’t check I.D.”
In the years since the interstate came through, the old highway had come to be used for little more than travel between the local cities. There wasn’t much down this section of the road except the rusted hulks of ancient fueling stations, dilapidated restaurants, and faded old motor lodges. The only people who kept this road alive were loggers and out-of-towners who were lost. Even the county seemed to forget that this part of the road existed. Aside from the brush and trees that encroached all the way to the edge of the road or the fields of kudzu that consumed everything in its path, this stretch of road was deserted. The only vestiges of the golden age of highway travel that still remain are at the intersections of major thoroughfares.
But a good ways out of town, where this dead road intersects another, a decaying truck stop clung to life among the rubble. The sign for the Dingle Brother’s Truck Stop boasts of clean diesel, good food, and hot showers. But grass grew up through crumbling asphalt, and there were no takers at the fuel pumps. All the building’s original wood had been eaten away by time and termites. And the nails had long since rusted away. The building was held together with the mortar of bugs and dust lost between the layers of old paint.
Derrick pulled into the parking lot and parked in front of the door. To the left was an overflowing trashcan. And past the trashcan, a homeless man sat in the fetal position sucking the last drop from a bottle of Crystal Palace.
The day wasn’t hot, but Derrick was sweating and his face was pale. The homeless man gagged. Derrick fumbled with the door handle and exited in a hurry. The homeless man vomited a slow drool. Derrick’s stomach gurgled like a draining tub. The homeless man made no effort to move. Derrick clenched his cheeks and walked stiff legged to the door. The vomit rolled down the homeless man’s neck and over his shirt. Derrick looked back over his shoulder and said, “Grab a sixer of Steel Reserve. I’ll be in the shitter.”
Ned removed the keys from the ignition. Derrick had left the engine running. “What an ass.”
A kid was over by the diesel pumps squishing a puddle of greasy sludge between his toes. He waited for the kid to meet his gaze. Ned gave him a dirty look. That kid better keep his distance. Reservations aside, Ned entered the store.
The inside of the store looked like an old mechanic’s shop. The place was dimly lit with high ceilings. “They really do serve food,” Ned said a little too loud. “This place smells like boiled hog livers.” The merchandise was scattered over filthy, old, wire racks. The floors were bare concrete with a thin layer of dust. Ned followed the footprints back to the beer cooler.
Ned contemplated the beer selection: Corona, if it needs lime and salt, how good can it be? Lowenbrau: brewed in Munich. That’s in Germany, right? Budweiser, ye old standby. And Steel Reserve, the butthole of beers. Ned was lost in thought when Derrick arrived.
“I found your mom’s phone number on the bathroom wall. Did you know that she has false teeth?”
Ned’s response was quick and decisive. He had warned Derrick before. The mama jokes had to stop. A quick nut shot should do the trick. He swung his arm swiftly towards Derrick’s crotch.
Derrick sidestepped the first blow. Then, he lifted his knee to block the next. “OK. OK.” He gave Ned a push. “Just grab the beer.”
Ned grabbed two six-packs of Steel Reserve. They walked up to the old bald man behind the register. Ned clanked the beer on the counter.
Derrick said, “Carful, or they will be all fizzy.”
The old man stared at them. “Let’s see them, boys.” he had a Tiparillo in the corner of his mouth and pit stains on his shirt. Mercifully, the air vent above Ned was still working, and he only got a hint of the old man’s true stink. Ned pulled two wadded bills from his front pocket.
“There you are sir, a couple of Lincolns.”
The old man’s face was stone, but his body shook. “You come up here with your hoo-hahs hanging out, and you are expecting favors from me?”
Ned said, “Doesn’t this cover it?” The old man must be greedier than he thought. But he didn’t have any more cash.
“Derrick said, “You can keep the change.”
The old man grabbed the beer and slammed it on the counter behind him. “You not just stupid, you deaf too?” The old man flailed his arms. “Get out of here.” Derrick and Ned scatted.
They ran out the front door. Ned’s heart was racing, but with the door between him and the old man, he slowed to a walk. Derrick took two more strides before he began to walk as well.
Derrick said, “I was about to slap the crap out of him until I saw you running.”
Derrick must have run first. Ned was not such a coward to run from a decrepit old man.
They heard a voice. “You’re both a couple of pussies.”
Ned flinched. It was the kid.
Derrick said, “I’ll slap you too. Call me a pussy.”
The kid was now leaning against the against the driver’s side door of the Microbus. “If you let me drink with you, I will help you get those beers.”
This was a hard spot for Ned to be in. But beer is beer. “Slap him after he gets us the beer.”
The kid said, “I will go in first. Wait for me to start kicking shit around. When they chase me out, you grab the beer. And I will meet back up with you. Have the van running.”
Derrick said, “It’s not a van…”
“…It’s a VW.” Ned said mocking. “I am grabbing something I haven’t had. Heineken, I think.” Derrick followed the kid in. He did not wait for the signal. But Ned was already following Derricks lead.
The kid was barely inside the door when the old man was running out from behind the counter. “Get out of here. You little shit,” the old man said.
Derrick grabbed two warm cases of one beer or another from an end-cap display. Ned swung open the glass doors to the beer cooler. The joy of discovery was welling up inside of him. His excitement was brimming like little shocks of electricity as he reached for the top shelf. The green bottles, that means quality. Ned turned to see Derrick and the kid both running out the back door. Something was wrong. He craned his neck further and saw two men guarding the front door. One was stupid and the other was ugly, or was it the other way around?
Just the same, Ned sprinted for the backdoor. Derrick must have slammed into the door as he ran out. One of his cardboard cases had opened and the cans were scattered all over the floor. Ned stayed to the left to avoid most of the mess. He kicked the door open with his left and a quick spin move got him through the door without breaking even one bottle of Heineken. Derrick’s right hand was holding a shredded scrap of red and white cardboard. The old man yelled something, and Stupid and Ugly came running out the back door.
The kid was already well on his way to the edge of the woods. Derrick was struggling to keep up with the kid. The weight of the beer in his left hand was pulling him off course, and the case slammed against his thigh. He would periodically turn to the right to correct his stride. This resulted in a stumbling zigzag that was by no means fast. Derrick looked back. Either he had just given up drinking or Stupid and Ugly were catching up because he smashed his remaining case of beer on the ground. The cans went flying out of the box spinning and spraying. But Ned was not going to follow suit. Ned turned his head to see for himself how close stupid and ugly were. But he tripped over his own feet.
Ned hit the ground hard. The asphalt scraped his face and arms. His pain was soothed at his hands and wrists by a coolness that worked its way inward toward his chest. The blood and Heineken mixed, and he was baptized in the bitter nectar of disappointment. Ned heard the bellow of echoing laughter. Stupid gave him a good hard kick to the ribs, and Ugly spit on his head. Stupid and Ugly forcefully removed the wet boxes and shattered dreams from Ned’s grip. Stupid took booth of the shattered boxes of Heineken, and Ugly gathered up the cans of Budweiser in the broken case. As Stupid and Ugly walked away, Ned scrambled to his feet. Derrick and the kid stood at the edge of the woods staring at him in impotence. But Stupid and Ugly were too interested in retrieving the beer and they let Ned go. And Ned limped his way over to his friend.
Derrick said, “When they caught you, I just about shit my pants.”
“Are you sure you didn’t? You did eat that three-day-old taco.” They stayed along the edge of the woods making fun of each other until Stupid and Ugly were a safe distance away.
Derrick said, “How are you getting home kid?”
But the kid was already gone. Either he disappeared into the mists from whence he came, or he had just become bored at the juvenile conversation in which they were engaged and slipped off into the woods to poke a dead skunk with a stick. We may never be certain.
Derrick and Ned walked the long way back to the Minibus. They stayed as far from the store as they could. When they got up the nerve to approach the front of the store where the VW was parked, they noticed the homeless man was gone but the puddle of vomit remained. Derrick’s eyes were red. His face was pale, and Ned could see the beginnings of a tremor. “I think we should just call it a day.” Ned’s head throbbed.
“You’re not hung over, are you?”
“Then we’re staying drunk today.”
“How? We don’t have any alcohol. Or are we gonna ring out my shirt and drink that. I know let’s scoop up the homeless man’s vomit. I bet it has a fairly high alcohol content.”
“Oh, ye of little faith.”
Look. The old man has our last ten bucks. Tell me. How are we going to buy any booze without money?”
Derrick looked angry, but he was quiet for once. Derrick just faced forward and keyed the ignition. The engine started but it sputtered and gave out. Derrick tried again this time he pumped the gas pedal, and the engine came to life.
Ned wrung a handful of his shirt over his mouth. He managed just one drop. “Mmm…” he thought, “That Heineken tastes better than I imagined.”