Jeremy counted the change off the floorboards of his 1969 Volkswagen. The vast amount of pennies mixed with a few nickels didn’t amount to much. The winter rain pelted the tall rounded roof of the red and rusted car. The quarters and then dimes were used up in the preceding days mostly for parking meters and fast food value meals. But now, nearing midnight, the remaining change would be translated, momentarily, for a package of antacid tablets. Already the thought of mixed berry flavoured tablets made the appeal of the cure more tolerable than the pain of the acid.
He counted the coins. He was nearing the 89-cent mark. For the first time in months, he found a level of gratitude for Oregon and its people: no sales tax.
He cranked his head from one side to the next cracking the joints and stressing the already tense muscles. Outside the car, the slow December rain whipped at his eyes. Each misting drop collected in his eyelashes, his eyebrows. He slammed the door of the old car by lifting the handle at the end of the swing. This way, the door would latch and not be too difficult to open when the time came.
He started the slow walk into the 24-hour pharmacy. There was little sense in rushing a run through the parking lot, because a hustle anywhere in the cool misting rain only resulted in overheating which caused more dampness of the clothes than the rain itself. At any rate, even the slightest physical excursion resulted in more acid, more pain, more heartburn.
As Jeremy reached the door of the pharmacy, a specific fear that the store was closed came over him. He looked up at the neon open sign and then at the store’s hours. Even this proof did little to quell him.
The automatic door swung open.
Jeremy stepped inside.
“Eight-nine cents,” he whispered. The coins clutched in his hands were tightly packed and filled with the sweat of his palm.
He squinted into the bright fluorescent store. He’d been to these sorts of places before, but never grew comfortable being in one. He never felt comfortable even thinking about being in one.
For the lateness of the hour, it was a surprise to see the place so busy. There were all sorts of people, the usual folk too. He looked over the register counters and counted the customary blue smocks. Another blue smocked worker tended the photo counter. It seemed odd that there was a minimum of four workers in the store especially at this hour.
The shoppers in the line pushed the unbelievably small shopping baskets of sundries and minutia. To Jeremy, these kinds of futuristic pharmacies mixed with convenience stores were the one item kind of places.
A few late-nighters followed him in as he stalled at the front door.
The place felt like a beehive suddenly with the comings and goings.
He rushed to the rear of the store, the only place he was totally familiar with which was the antacid aisle. He knew how to find the place because this store, like all the rest were exactly the same. This way a shopper in Cincinnati would know exactly where to find enemas because they were in the same location as the shop in Oldpersonville, Florida.
There they stood: neat packages in crisp cellophane shirts, wrapped, sealed, perfect. There were the jars of eighty mint, mixed fruit, and mixed berries flavors standing in rows like soldiers.
Then there were the three packs: three rolls of eight each, same flavours, same formations, same effect.
Try as he might, Jeremy couldn’t find the single packed rolls, the rolls of 8 each, the rolls costing eight-nine cents. He slouched, bent at the knees and a belched ensued, a violent one not wholly dissimilar to a hiccup, but this belch made more and more acid come up. It felt like death, but not his own, no, this entire debacle was like watching someone else’s death. It was a grisly death, a highway death from old timey driver’s education films.
“Sir? Can I help you?” the worker said. She was old, haggard, wrinkled, too much cocaine in the 70s and too many cigarettes since.
“Single roll of mixed berries,” Jeremy said. He pointed to the rows of antacid packages and stared at the attendant.
She kept her end of stare for a moment longer. “What now?” she said.
“I need antacid,” he said. He swallowed and the acid rose to an alarming level. He winced, pulled together a frown and his eyes teared up.
“It’s a better bargain to buy in bulk,” she said.
“I only need two maybe three tablets. Don’t you see?”
“Sour stomach, sir?”
“Please,” Jeremy said. “You have to help me.” The panic rose in his voice exceeded a mere sense of urgency.
“Take it easy sir,” she said. “Single rolls are at the counter.”
Jeremy feeling a proper and justified sense of cruelty bowed in front of her. “Thank you,” he said dragging the you—ou.
A silver haired granny stood in the line in front of him. Her head looked blue like a dog’s skin when wet. The whole blue-hair statement made sense suddenly. She had a tremendous collection of random stuff in the little cart. Small stuff. Individually packaged stuff. Dozens of things, all useless as individual items and more superfluous as a collection of stuff.
The acid stirred. The burn filled his esophagus and the back of his mouth. The tip of the tongue dried out more and became flavoured with small ketchup packets squeezed on artificial potato fries.
Then, a half a step and a lean later, Jeremy saw the severity of the situation. The mountain of crap in the old woman’s cart was capped and topped with coupons. She clutched the myriad of coupons with her boney-liver-spotted-veined old lady hands.
It was horrible.
Beyond the old lady and the transaction that was beginning, Jeremy saw the door. Outside the store’s reflection on the inside of the glass was a cold and rainy night. The outside was not appealing, it didn’t have to be. The only thing the outside represented was a roll of antacid tablets and a loss of 89 cents. The last 89 cents. And still, as Jeremy stared, first at the door, then at the security monitors above it, he still wanted to run. Running meant stealing, and stealing meant police and that probably meant jail.
He had never been arrested before, had never been to jail. The thought of it made him shutter, yes, but it did nothing to raise or lower the acid level of the heartburn.
It would be a warm place to sleep, he thought.
His feet began to burn, then itch. Still, he stood fast behind the unbelievably long transaction.
He waited. He stared into the racks of packaged snacks: chips, and junk food. His eyes wondered across the packages of gum and Chapstick. Then, there at the end of the register’s furniture, he saw the rolls of antacid.
Instantly, he opened his palm and counted through the change. It was exact: 8 nickels and 49 pennies.
The sheen had returned to the coins.
It was done, he thought.
To kill time as he waited for the exchange of coupons and sundries, Jeremy tried again to realize where it all went wrong.
Outside in the night, the small drops of rain began to freeze. The effect was not so bad on his head. They were small pin pricks turned cool, then warm. On the streets, however, the scene was different.
He unwrapped the roll by digging his thumb nail into the paper packaging, and he twisted the roll in his hand and eventually freed one antacid tablet.
Then he heard the scream. It was not one to be found terrifying. He looked up through the parking lot and nothing could be seen of it. Then, he heard the engine’s roar and the squeal of tires on ice.
The scream neared.
Piqued, Jeremy looked up and saw her. She was naked from the waist up. She could have been naked from the waist down too. She stood in the front seat of the car with her body out the sunroof. Her arms waved above her head in a wild fit of abandoned ecstasy. Her breasts were waving back and forth too, getting covered with ice as they went. He stood stupidly as one might on an ice storm night and seeing a sight like that. Then the car passed with the naked woman.
He remembered to chew. The antacid tablet dissolved. The car was gone now. He absently took another tablet and shook his head. Things were different suddenly. And suddenly, he was a new man.
The acid was gone, extinguished. That, for no other reason made for a renewed sense of personhood, did it not?
But now, there was something more.
Jeremy now had a new vision: a girl naked and swinging in the rain. This was something to think about. He had no idea where to find such a woman, but he now needed one. It was something to work for, something of appeal, a goal, a dream, a desire and one that needed fulfillment.
The thought of spending another night in the old Volkswagen became an unbelievable thought. Perhaps if there was some fuel in the tank, or if there was a sunroof, then the story might be different. Or if a naked woman was involved.
Ice had already formed in peaks and valleys on the windshield. It was an ice box more than likely, a strange phenomenon where it was colder inside than out.
Jeremy twisted and pulled the handle. He crouched to the inside and grabbed his backpack from the backseat.
The bag was weathered and worn; he’d had the thing ten years. He’d proudly carried the bag during his university days and carried it each summer during the jobs he had scored. His problems begun sometime after all that. The bag was nothing more than the notion that there had been days when all was well.
“Man,” he said. He straightened up, closed the door, and donned the backpack.
It wasn’t days to do it, that was way too cliché. He’d never been a drinker. No, his problems were a whole string of bad decisions and mostly it was a whole string of acts of anger.
Despite the slamming of the door, which seemed like an angry movement, he wasn’t especially angry now.
He walked away from the frozen car in a frozen night, and with unsteady steps he walked down Belmont Street.
At an old theatre which seemed abandoned enough, he sat quietly under the awning. The thought of breaking any or all of the small incandescent bulbs hanging in patterns and dark occurred to him. But he was no more a vandal than a thief.
Slowly, he warmed up, dried off and fell asleep.
Tomorrow would be another day. Tomorrow he would find a warm place to sleep, to live. Tomorrow he would find good food to eat and he would eat it. Tomorrow he would find a woman. Even if she was savage and crazy, unpredictable and independent, she would still be a woman. He would be sure to thank her much for all that.
Tomorrow would be a whole new day.
Anthony ILacqua’s third novel Warehouses and Rusted Angels is forthcoming in 2017. His former novels, Dysphoric Notions (2012) and Undertakers of Rain (2013) are both published through Ring of Fire Publishing. He currently functions as editor in chief for Umbrella Factory Magazine that he co-founded in 2009. Meet Anthony at his blog: anthonyilacqua.blogspot.com