Price Breaks and Heartaches
A journal of retail and failed romance
(The following story is true, only the names, dates, locations and sequence of events has been changed. Aside from that, total truth.)
Imagine if you would an abandoned gas station, its windows boarded up, its asphalt slowly crumbling to dust, its dead pumps marked by the leavings of birds, dogs and God knows what else. The station has been empty long enough that nature has begun to reclaim it with a sickly carpet of thistles and weeds.
This is the kind of place we set up in to do business.. We never stayed in the same locations for more than three days in a row. My boss Paul DeSanti said this was because any longer and the novelty of our presence would wear off. I’m sure it also had something to do with our complete lack of permits and not charging sales tax.
Paul DeSanti operated in that twilight somewhere between a carnie and an entrepreneur. He had at least a dozen businesses going at once; selling Amway derivatives, cut rate stereo speakers and roadside art. I’m pretty sure he also peppered his profits with just a smidge of welfare fraud but who am I to say? Maybe his wife did somehow count as a single Mom even though she had no kids. Did her dozen or so cats really count as dependents? At 19 I was too young and inexperienced to be sure.
I had taken a job working in the roadside art side of the DeSanti business juggernaut. It was my job to show up at eight in the morning and unlock the U-Haul truck that I’m not sure was legally his any longer and set out our impressive collection of framed posters and oil paintings on black velvet
We had quite an array of images to choose from. Our most popular sellers were Jesus, John Wayne and Rambo. I shudder to think what that said about the American psyche in 1988. We also had pictures of hot chicks, pictures of Harley Davidson motorcycles and pictures of hot chicks on Harley Davidson motorcycles. Truly something for everyone.
I would sit there on a battered lawn chair and make sales, being sure to engage any browsing customers in conversation while at the same time trying not to get robbed.
Believe it or not I looked fairly attractive in those days. Reading, writing and chronic masturbation had yet to catch up with me so I didn’t need glasses. My hair was thick and swept back in a pseudo-mullet. Working and sweating outdoors had left me tan and lean, like a strip of quality bacon.
By 11 AM one of my co-workers would show up to keep me company and give me a much needed bathroom break. Sometimes it was one of the three Casey brothers, sometimes it was Paul but if I was lucky it was the lovely, lovely Athena.
And Athena was the only reason I had taken this crazy, half-legal job.
The sight of my first love Lilly could reach into my chest and set my heart quivering; the sight of Athena hit a little lower if you catch my drift. The girl had a lot of positive qualities; her white blonde hair, her lithe dancer’s body, her iron gray eyes and her utterly disarming ability to make anyone she spoke to feel like they’d been friends with her forever.
It was the second week of June,and I had spent most of the morning alone with a copy of Clive Barker’s The Damnation Game. Much of the early morning rush hour traffic had slowed to peruse our wares but only a few had broken their routine to buy anything. By that afternoon I had sold three framed John Wayne posters, a classic style Elvis on black velvet, a painting of Pope John Paul II and a painting of a naked black woman sprawled on a moonlit beach with a predatory look in her eyes.
Those last two paintings had been bought by the same man, he had assured me that one was for his den and one was going to be a gift. He never specified which of them he was giving away and which one he was keeping. I pondered the question for days but never settled on a satisfactory answer.
The sound of a car horn roused me from the world of the Razor Eater and the Last European. A battered Dodge pulled into the abandoned gas station and rolled to a stop beside the truck. Athena got out of the passenger side; her white blond hair hung loose around her face, she was wearing her pink shorts today- they were my favorites. The pangs of lust I felt were the stuff Journey songs were made of.
Then I realized she had brought me lunch. She was hot and she had food, what more could any man ask for?
“Hi!” I gave her a wave and stood up a little too fast knocking my folding chair backwards into the dust.
The oldest of the Casey brothers, Lonnie, got out of the driver’s side and pointed up at the truck, “The sign fell down again.”
‘Sign’ was a generous description really; Paul had given us a tarp with letters clumsily stenciled on it. It mentioned exclusive deals and special prices; however it didn’t mention that each of these pieces of art had been assembled in Mexico by workers using the strategic application and placement of Elmer’s glue and poker chips.
The problem with our homemade sign was that it was held in place on the side of the U-Haul with duct tape. The elements frequently had their way with it and it had to be re-hung every three hours or so.
“I got it,” holding the roll of duct tape in my teeth I scrambled up the front bumper, over the cab and on to the top of the U-Haul. The metal roof of the vehicle had been baking in the sun for hours and I could feel the heat of it rising up through my sneakers. I tried to make the whole procedure a chance to show off my virility to the young lady down below but she was hard at work cleaning the slowly accumulating roadside grit off our merchandise.
When I got back on the ground Lonnie handed me a burger and a soda, French fries tended to go missing around the man but I wasn’t going to argue the point. Not because I was worried about my blood pressure mind you, it was because Lonnie was as large as he was dangerous. Athena had confided in me that he had done time in jail for manslaughter.
So as far as I was concerned Lonnie could have all the damn fries he wanted.
His other brothers were also Characters with a capital C. Working with swishy Conrad or sleazy Max made me long for Athena’s company all the more.
I offered Athena my lawn chair but she politely declined choosing instead to sit on the bumper of the U-Haul. Lonnie busied himself taking inventory an act that even with scrap paper could take hours.
It wasn’t until I started eating that I realized how famished I was. I made sure not to try chatting Athena up with my mouth full but I chatted as much as I could. I asked, “Where did you say you were you going to college?”
“Oh,” I nodded. “is that a community college?”
Athena gave me a smile, “No.”
“And this pays for it?”
“This is just something to do. I’m scholarships all the way.”
I was suitably impressed, “That is awesome. What are you going to school for?”
“You’re supposed to ask me what my major is,” she said, “that’s the first step to hitting on college girls.”
“Ah, well let me try again,” I said, “so what’s your major?”
“Why Albert, are you hitting on me?” Athena laughed.
That question gave me pause, “I honestly have no idea at this point.”
“I’m studying Political Science. There’s always need for lobbyists and things like that. Who knows? I might even run for office someday.”
“Wow. You’ve got it all planned out. What party are you for?Democrat or Republican?”
She shrugged, “Whoever hires me first. I don’t think there is much difference.”
I found her cynicism almost as alluring as her figure. “I’d like to be a writer,” I explained. “I just started sending out stories, I figure by the time I’m 40 I’ll be world famous and rich.”
“Writing’s a tough racket, you should try writing movie scripts.”
Lonnie called me, “Hey Al! Do we have any more Marilyn Monroe?”
“Not sure,” I said, “let me check.”
There were crates of framed posters and paintings stored in the truck. I slipped past Athena to venture into the back of the U-Haul; my arm brushed past her cheek and she giggled, “Watch it! Bad enough you’re hitting on me.”
As if it wasn’t hot enough in the back of that truck.
I watched her put on her Walkman and start bopping her head along to her mix tape of N.W.A., Public Enemy and Slick Rick.
Well, no girl was perfect.
Didn’t she know that this whole rap thing was a fad?
Twenty years from now no one would be listening to it, I was as sure of that as I was sure that bands like T’Pau and The Outfield would still be charting hit after hit well into the next century. I promised myself that when my seduction of her was complete she would understand why we had built this city on rock and roll.