MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Nothing’ll ever fix what’s broken in this town, but it would be nice if they’d at least get the dead bear out of the parking lot at Food Country.
Me and my friend Jamie and everybody who worked at the store had been staring at that bear for a week. It wasn’t full grown, but it was still fat from eating all summer, so the body was hard to miss. Carter asked around a few places and couldn’t get an answer about what to do with it. He said even the park service wouldn’t come collect it. Carter’s only the assistant manager, but us checkers always fetch him when something needs doing. There’s no point asking the real manager.
Jamie reckoned somebody ran over the bear in the night and brought it to the back of the store to throw it in the dumpster. She said they were probably thinking they could hide it, but our dumpsters have locks on them, so they wound up just leaving it there. Bear season wasn’t for a few more weeks, so the bear killer, whoever it was, didn’t want to get in trouble, she guessed.
Carter and me and Jamie sat out on the picnic table behind the store looking at it. We had to walk past the bear whenever we went back there for a smoke break or brought out trash. I said it seemed like surely somebody in authority would clean it up. Animal control maybe? One of the cops from Bryson City? Carter just shook his head.
“Infrastructure,” he said.
Jamie nodded. I looked at both of them and dragged on my vape. “Huh?”
Carter put his hands on his stout thighs and nodded at the bear lump. The blood was black on it now. Its head was flopped at an angle, facing away from us, but I knew its eyes were open.
“Infrastructure,” he said again. He sneered, and I could see where the wrinkles would be on his doughy face in twenty years or so. “As in, we don’t have any. No tax base in Robbinsville, Enn-See. Nobody gives a shit about a bear on private property, unless it’s at one of the rental places. But tourist season’s over. So.”
Carter tapped his feet and looked at the ridge of mountains hanging above us.
“So nobody’s gonna help us take care of it?” I said.
Jamie put her chin on the picnic table and stared at the bear. “We could get Travis to move it,” she said. “Travis is an asshole. He probably put it there in the first place.”
Carter shook his head. “We’re not supposed to touch it. Could have diseases. It’s a legal thing. Corporate office told Fuckface he couldn’t make us move it.”
Fuckface was what we called the store manager, our real boss.
Fuckface never left his office for anything; he just kept to himself. Most of us didn’t even know his real name. Ever since I started working at Food Country my junior year of high school, I’d only seen him out on the floor twice. Once was on my first day. Jamie was training me on register and told me he didn’t even care that we called him Fuckface, as long as our drawers were straight at the end of our shift. I remember he walked by right when she said it, and all I could think was how sharp looking he was, with his clothes ironed crisp, and how round and scary his eyes were. He reminded me of the principal at my old middle school—the one who got fired a while back for giving condoms to some Christian kids.
“Why do y’all call him Fuckface?” I whispered. I figured maybe he’d screwed one of the checkout girls or something. Jamie shook her head slow. She watched him pass, then turned to me and smiled. “Who gives a shit?” she said, and we killed ourselves laughing. We were good friends after that, and Carter always scheduled our shifts together.
“Still,” said Jamie, squinting at the bear. “I bet Travis would move it if you gave him ten dollars.”
“I’d get in trouble,” said Carter. He tapped his gold assistant manager’s name tag. “Travis isn’t supposed to lift over fifty pounds. It’s a rule for stockers.” He moved his hand up and rubbed the acne on his neck. “And y’all aren’t supposed to be smoking those fake cigarettes. Even out here.”
Jamie shivered and turned her head so her cheek rested on the picnic table. Her hair fell down across her back and hung below the top of the table. She had one hand between her knees, and the other held her vape and rested on the bench. Her fingers were so tiny and thin. I wished I could wear rings the way she did, but my fingers were too stubby. It was beautiful, Jamie sitting there like that. I watched her for a long time. I think maybe Carter did, too.
“Pretty, are you getting off at six?” asked Jamie. Her head was turned away from us.
“Yeah, why?” I said.
Jamie lifted her head. “Can I have a ride home?” Her eyeliner was smudged, and she looked even more tired than I felt. She looked like she was far away.
* * *
My register gets the most traffic because I’m on the end. People think I’m the express lane, but Food Country doesn’t have express lanes. Nothing in this town does; the mountains stop everything from moving.
I try to be quick when somebody comes with a basket instead of a cart, but today I was moving slow. I hadn’t slept the night before because the trailer next to ours was having some kind of bullshit barbecue until three. It’s just me and my dad living there now; momma found herself a boyfriend last year and told me I was old enough to figure out my own life. Back in the day my dad would have kicked ass over all that noise, but he won’t do anything to the neighbors anymore. He’s worried if cops start sniffing around, the county might cut his disability checks.
I couldn’t focus on my register at all. My feet hurt, and I kept checking the clock under my receipt display.
“Pretty,” said this big redheaded woman at me. She had a basket full of tampons and dill-pickle-flavored potato chips.
“Yeah,” I said.
“That’s your name? Pretty?” the redheaded woman said. She was staring at my name tag, not smiling. I’d never seen her in the store before.
“Yeah,” I said.
She watched me close. I could feel her watching while I dragged her tampons across the scanner a third time. They didn’t beep.
“How come your momma and daddy called you that?”
I shrugged and called Travis on the PA to price check the tampons.
“Well,” the redhead said. “You need to live up to your name better, young lady. Got your hair all cut off.”
Behind me, I heard Jamie slap her drawer shut hard.
“You oughta grow that hair out.” She leaned over and frowned at my sneakers. “Get you some decent shoes, too.”
The tampons finally beeped, so I canceled the price check. I finished ringing up the woman, bagged her chips. As she walked out, Jamie hissed at her. I looked over at Jamie and she smiled. I wished I could tell her how beautiful she was, but I figured she already knew.
Carter came by a few minutes later and told me to clear my drawer if I wanted. It was almost six. Then his shoulders slumped, and he said, “And try not to send Travis on price checks in Feminine Hygiene. Or if you do, don’t cancel them after he goes down that aisle. He’s pissed. Thinks you did it on purpose.”
“Jesus, Carter, he’s just … whatever.”
“I know. Get on home now.”
I waved at Jamie and told her I’d meet her at my car.
* * *
We were both hungry, so we went to the Wing King before I took her home. I can’t drink yet, but Jamie turned twenty-one last winter. I was parking the hatchback when Jamie yawned and said, “I hate this fucking town. I’m moving to Asheville.”
“It sucks here,” I agreed. “You think Wing King’s got a bear in their back lot?”
“I’m serious this time, Pretty,” she said. She patted my dashboard and wiggled in her seat, then she tilted her head toward me. “Andrew got the job.”
Jamie’s boyfriend had been trying to get hired at a brewery in Asheville for months. “For real?” I said. My guts went tight.
She laughed, and the light bounced off the rings and stones stuck in her ear. “Yeah. I’ve been dying to tell you. He got it.” She looked out my windshield. “I’m so done with this place.”
We went into the Wing King and ordered food, and Jamie got a pitcher. She said she’d share with me if I reminded her to get some dessert to take home to her papaw. Her papaw was going to give her and Andrew the deposit on an apartment.
“Asheville is expensive,” she said, shaking her head.
We sat for a while not saying much. I stared at Jamie, her long hair with all its wispy highlights, not believing she would really do it, really go. It wasn’t like I was in love with her, but maybe I was. She was different, smarter than everybody else here, and she didn’t care that I liked girls. I never even had to tell her; she just figured it out and didn’t give me a hard time about it. Nobody else knows. Not that anybody would ever ask me what I like or don’t like. But if they found out, I’d be in trouble all over. This place is a long way from Asheville—eighty miles, and a lot of churches in between.
“So, what do you think?” she asked after she’d finished half the pitcher.
“Pretty,” she said, “come on! Aren’t you excited?” It was easy for Jamie; everything was easy for her. She went to Asheville all the time. For me, it might as well have been the moon.
I tried to swallow the burger chunk I was chewing, but it got stuck. I felt like I had to say something, so I took a big swig of beer and mumbled, “I bet you get a job at the Orange Peel or somewhere. That’d be cool.”
Jamie rattled her shoulders, twitched her nose. “I hate that place,” she said. “Those people who go there are so…” She looked around the bar for the word. “Entitled,” she said finally.
“What do you mean?” I said. I knew what “entitled” meant, but I didn’t want to talk.
“They’re just full of shit. Think they’re the center of the universe. Like you know we went to the concert last night?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’d been wanting to ask. I figured you’d come in to work talking all about it today. What’d she sing?”
One time, Jamie played me a CD of this woman, Joan Armatrading. She’s old, and her songs are sad and weird, but I liked her. Jamie said those songs made her whole body float, and she listened to them all the time. When her boyfriend surprised her with tickets to the concert, she screamed and jumped on him right in front of the customers. She had skipped work last night to go to that show; that was why she was so tired all day. I realized now her boyfriend must have found out he got the job and bought the tickets off a scalper to celebrate. He said the show sold out months ago. Maybe that was part of why I hadn’t slept the night before. Maybe I’d been thinking about the concert, and Jamie in the front row, listening to those weird songs, swaying her hair around, floating.
“It was good. I cried, it was so good,” she said. “Except this one lady in the audience got really drunk and kept standing up and talking to Joan Armatrading like she was the only person in the room. She kept slurring and shouting about how beautiful Joan was, and everyone fucking hated it and couldn’t hear the music, but no one said anything.”
“Why not?” I figured Jamie would have raised a stink.
“Because it’s Hippietown. And”—she pursed her lips tight—“I mean, she was missing a hand.”
“Missing a hand?”
“Yeah, she was some kind of amputee. Her right hand was just—” She made a fist with her right hand, glided her left palm over it. My eyes got big. She took a gulp of beer.
“So no one wanted to yell at her,” she went on. “Also, I think people were creeped out by her clapping.” She picked up a wing bone off her plate and sucked on it.
“How could she even clap?”
Jamie put her chicken bone down and held up her fist again. “She kept slapping her left hand against her … you know. Nub.”
Outside, a scrawny kid cycled by on a beat-up Schwinn. I watched him through the window and pulled a grim face; little kids shouldn’t be alone on this end of town after dark.
“It was embarrassing. Stupid,” she said. “That one-handed old cunt basically ruined the show.”
“That sucks,” I said. It was hard to think of what to say, except anything that made noise and kept her from talking about leaving.
“Yeah,” said Jamie. “I was pissed. I was so excited for that concert. That was the first time I’d ever seen her. Probably be the last, too. She doesn’t tour much. I saw that one-handed woman afterwards in the street. I almost kicked her ass.”
“Sounds like she had it coming,” I said. “You should have.”
She shrugged again. “Nobody wants to be the bitch who sucker punches a gimp at the Joan Armatrading show.”
“Sure,” I replied, nodding. “Sure thing.”
“Anyway,” said Jamie. “I don’t want to work there. The Orange Peel. I’ll get a job at the mall or something. And hey, you can come visit.”
“I guess,” I said, and lifted my shoulder to run my cheek down it. It felt good to touch the soft skin on the inside of my arm.
“You could even move there, Pretty,” she said in a nice way. “You’d fit right in.” She smiled at me, nudged my arm. “Girl, you could be out and proud.”
The waitress came over, and Jamie ordered some banana pudding to go for her papaw.
I picked at a scab on my fat knuckle and shrugged. “Proud of what?”
* * *
A few days later Jamie texted me and said she was going to quit Food Country and go look at apartments. She and her boyfriend were in a real hurry to get moved. She said she’d swing by the store the morning before they left so she could say hey to me and put in her notice. When checkers put in notice at Food Country, they get wiped off the schedule so they don’t steal money out of their registers on their last day. So that was going to be it for Jamie, and we both knew it.
I didn’t want to see her. I thought about it all night while the neighbors hollered on their porch and threw beer bottles at our windows. I listened through the wall to my dad snoring in the next room, thought about how nobody would pick up that dead bear, and decided I didn’t want to let myself look at Jamie even one more time. I didn’t sleep much.
The next morning, her boyfriend’s jeep pulled up around eleven and sat idling in front of the cart rack at the main entrance. Before she got out, Jamie kissed him a bunch of times, right there by the big store windows. She’s so cool and beautiful, I thought. She wasn’t ever gonna stay here. I should have known that.
She started to climb out of the jeep to come inside, and my knees buckled. All I knew was, I didn’t want to hear her say she was quitting. I pulled out my register key and shuffled quick to the back of the store. Let her talk to Carter. Travis. Anybody. Shit.
In the back, I didn’t know where to hide that she wouldn’t come looking for me. All I could think was to go in Fuckface’s office. Nobody ever went in there. I bolted straight for the door that said “MANAGER,” squeaked inside, saw an old green filing cabinet, and ducked behind it. I crouched low with my head down in my hands and sat there a long time.
After a few minutes, I heard Carter’s voice say, “Uh, sir? Have you seen that girl Pretty, the one with the buzz cut?”
I looked up. Fuckface was at his big metal manager’s desk, looking right at me. Carter was on the other side of the cabinet and couldn’t see me. Fuckface just stared. His eyes always looked kind of bugged, so it probably didn’t seem strange to Carter, but I thought he was going to shoot lasers at me out of those eyes. They were bright blue. It freaked me out.
Fuckface turned his head toward Carter, but he kept looking at me. Then he said, real soft, “Check the walk-in fridges. I don’t want her smoking that contraption of hers in there.”
I heard Carter say, “Yes, sir,” and I thought I heard the tapping of another pair of feet. Jamie must have been with him, wanting to talk to me.
After they left, I whispered, “I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.” I whispered it to Fuckface. And I sat there behind the cabinet for another half hour. He never said a word.
* * *
Eventually, Fuckface got up from his desk and grabbed his keys, took his wallet out of a drawer. Lunchtime. He gave me a quick glance while he straightened his shiny tie, and I watched him leave. After he was gone, I wriggled out from behind the cabinet and stood in his office working up the courage to go back to my register.
The manager’s office was painted a sad hospital-green color. Paint chips and dirt smudges hid in all the corners. The whole place was filled with paper. It spilled everywhere. The desk had a dusty black computer on it, and it looked like Fuckface was working on about a million spreadsheets. I went around to his side of the desk and peeked. The spreadsheets were all kinds of money and product lists stacked haywire. On the monitor was a spreadsheet with all us checkers’ drawer totals. He had columns for all the employees. Next to the keyboard he had printed out a master list and a few spreadsheets from previous months, all labeled at the top. On the screen and the printouts, my name had a green bar going across my totals. I figured that meant I was doing all right, because some of the other girls had yellow bars or red lines. Jamie had her name grayed out.
Underneath one spreadsheet pile was a magazine called The Advocate. I pushed some paper around to look at it. The cover had a picture of a skinny actor in a fancy suit. The actor had makeup on, and he was holding his collar in a real artistic way, fingers arced, long and delicate. Looking at that picture calmed me down somehow. I stared at that magazine until I heard Carter bark my name.
“Pretty. What the…” He was standing in the door of Fuckface’s office. He looked at me like he’d never seen me before. Then he sighed a long breath. “Jamie quit.”
I nodded and ran my fingers over the magazine. The cover felt so smooth, and I wondered where Fuckface had got it from. We didn’t sell magazines like that here. My eyes started to go fuzzy, and my face went hot.
“Go on out back and take a break,” Carter muttered.
I sniffed and nodded, and he left me alone.
I went to the back door and opened it quiet. I eased outside and reached in my pocket for my vape. Before I headed to the picnic table, I looked to my left, prepared for the sight of rotting bear. I couldn’t help it; we had grown used to having it there with us. It was part of my routine now, and in a weird way, I wanted to see the bear this time.
Fuckface was at the edge of the back lot standing over the carcass. His legs were parted, and he was holding a big, rusty shovel I’d never seen before. His jaw was clenched up tight, and even though I barely knew him, I could tell he was pissed. I didn’t move.
On the ground next to the bear was a big blue tarp laid out flat. Using the shovel like a lever, Fuckface rolled the body onto the tarp a little bit at a time until it was just barely over the edge. Then he grabbed the tarp and pulled up slow with both hands. He rolled the bear in further to the middle, and its head turned over twice. It was just a big old cub, a yearling. It had probably wandered and got spooked, caught in traffic. I felt bad for its momma. Its tongue stuck out, dark brown and stiff, and its big, awkward feet were crumpled and broken like they’d been run over. One front paw was bent backward over itself.
Fuckface folded the tarp over the body real careful until it looked like a big, sad burrito. He knelt down. He put his right hand on top of the blue lump with the bear inside, right on top of it, like a preacher would lay hands on a sinner. He thought about something for a long minute, but his lips didn’t move. I leaned against the back wall of the store and watched him.
I’d never had occasion to notice before, but it turned out Fuckface had a lot of muscles. We don’t look at him much. After he took his hand off the tarp, he knelt down tighter and put his arms under the bundle he’d made and lifted that bear up like it was nothing. His silver pickup was right behind him with the gate down. That bear looked heavy—a hundred pounds easy. Fuckface’s muscles strained and bulged under his gray slacks as he lifted the bear. His arms and shoulders were huge, and it occurred to me maybe my manager got more done around the store than we gave him credit for. He was big enough, and he had all those spreadsheets. He didn’t have to hide.
He turned and hauled the tarp into his truck in one clean motion. The bear made a hard thud when it landed. The truck bounced, and the thud echoed so sharp it felt like a punch to my chest. Fuckface sat on the edge of his truck bed for about two seconds, then he whacked his fingers against his leg and stood. He slammed the truck’s gate closed, then he turned and found the old shovel on the ground. He grabbed it in one hand, gripped it firm, walked to the edge of the back lot, and slung the shovel into the weeds.
On the way back to his truck he caught me looking at him. Our eyes met, and Fuckface nodded at me, sharp and quick. He stood still for a second with his head down, and then he put his left hand out toward me. Not pointing exactly, and not waving. It was like he was signaling me, but I didn’t know what his hand was trying to say, so I stayed where I was until he lowered it back down again. Then he turned, climbed in his truck, and drove off.
I stood there a long time wondering where Fuckface would dump that yearling. Maybe I should have offered to help him find somewhere peaceful to take it, but I couldn’t clear the distance. I couldn’t just get in somebody’s truck like that. Then I went to the empty picnic table with my vape. While I smoked, I hummed one of the Joan Armatrading songs Jamie had played me a few times—something about mining for gold in dim places.
I sat out there behind Food Country for most of the afternoon, staring into the weeds behind the store, at the mountains beyond, trying to figure out a way to keep living here without going crazy. I puffed my vape and wondered about Fuckface a little, about his weird magazines and spreadsheets and management style, but mostly I just thought about how bad I wanted to sleep someplace quiet at night. The whole day went loose and cloudy after that.
Later that night I lay in bed with my eyes squeezed closed, and I pictured Jamie wearing lots of bright rings and stones. Everything in my picture looked far from me, close to her. I didn’t know how to reach out and grab onto stuff the way Jamie did. Maybe if somebody could wrap me up in a big, blue tarp and take me into the forest someplace, that would fix things. Outside, the mountains hung low and mean in every direction. The walls of the trailer rattled in time with the neighbors’ music, and not a thing in the world held any light in the dark.
Copyright © 2020 by Leah Hampton