Preview – NINE TOES IN THE GRAVE, by Eric Beetner — Coming November 1 from All Due Respect Books

NINE

IT STARTED WITH a girl. It always starts with a girl, doesn’t it?

I was working in a diner, the kind they call a greasy spoon. We had the greasy fork and knife, too. But it was no sweat to me—I didn’t own the place. Jake did. He sat behind the register and scowled at all the customers. The padding on his stool was grooved deep with imprints of his ass cheeks. He cut the side order of bacon from four strips to three. He switched from the good ketchup to the generic crap they make in Mexico and kept using that to fill the Heinz bottles over and over. That’s the kind of guy Jake is.

Me, I cleaned up. When I needed to, or when Roberto was too hung over, I filled in on the grill. I can fry an egg or burn a burger patty as well as the next guy. Good enough to be just above the very low bar people expected when they came in the joint.

We got truckers, illegals who worked at the rubber factory down the road, we got the truck stop whores drifting home after their shift. I wish I could say I didn’t fit in around that place. I wish it, but I’d be lying if I said it.

Moira was Jake’s wife and the head waitress. She’d blown in from somewhere out east about ten years ago and this was as far as the wind took her. I think she hitchhiked and ran out of money on Jake’s front step, applied for a job and his natural charms must have taken it from there. Not that he’s a bad looking guy. He’s mostly just a sourpuss. Business was good and Moira was way out of his league, so I never knew what the hell he was always bitching about.

She had the right amount of leg, ample up top, dark hair with light eyes. Pale, pale skin like she was keeping secrets, y’know? Out there, on the side of a highway coming from nothing and going to nowhere, she qualified as a vision.

So, yeah, she and I took up together.

Jake never hung around until closing time. He’d leave me and whoever else was on the schedule to close up. We didn’t have much of a clean-up routine. Make sure the burners on the griddle were off was about the gist of it. Take out the garbage, but most times that could wait until morning. Weeknights we closed at ten, weekends at one a.m. and opened back up at five. I never quite saw the point to that, but like I said, it wasn’t my place.

We were in the middle of the middle. Miles away from anything interesting and too far to make a run for it. We were dry most of the year then when it rained everything flooded. We were a stop along the way, not a destination. The in-between. Boredom was our chief export and business was good.

I guess I could have done a lot of things with my life, most of them illegal. But something in me always kept my nose clean. Wasn’t my dad. He was a son-of-a-bitch who never did shit for me. Didn’t teach me a lesson in his whole waste of a life. Mom wasn’t much better. Drank herself silly and spent two years in jail for passing bad checks.

Come to think of it, the lesson they both taught me was not to be a total fuck up. It’s unbecoming. Makes you look like an asshole.

So I stuck to the straight and true. Mostly.

Taking up with a married woman I know doesn’t strictly fit the definition, but Jake was an asshole only slightly less puckered than my old man. Thank god Jake and Moira didn’t have any kids.

Moira didn’t seem to mind the stink on me after a shift. She kept herself doused with perfume like it was bug repellant keeping the gnats and chiggers of her life at bay. Didn’t smell much better than a can of Raid. We started up one night after close the way you do. Nothing new to tell there, just two people clinging to each other and calling it just fucking when in a lot of ways it was the only thing keeping us from catching a ride with one of the truckers and getting the hell out of there.

I’d thought about leaving lots of times before, but I knew better. Where would we go but another diner on another stretch of road with the same dead trees and same billboards trying to scare me back to church? Burning bacon smells the same no matter which state you’re in. Smells like the gears of your life grinding down to nubs until the engine seizes up and you’re not going anywhere anymore. Burning pig, burning oil—all the same.

So the sex kept the call of the road at a volume low enough I could ignore it. And the way Moira screamed and moaned, she’d drown out most of the noises I didn’t want to hear.

It went on a good two months before she showed her hand. Can’t say I was surprised to see it. I knew I was batting over my average with Moira. I hadn’t been sure what she was getting out of it other than a bit of a fuck you to Jake. Then she let me know.

“Y’know we could run this place.” She offered me a drag off her post-coital cigarette. I don’t smoke and told her often. Didn’t stop her offering. She took another drag and asked me, “You want to run a diner?”

The way I sneered made it clear I did not.

She exhaled, looked out over the empty parking lot like she was looking into the future. “I don’t know. If I’m gonna be stuck here, might as well be the boss.”

“Why not sell it?” Me, always with the plans.

She smiled and blew out smoke at the same time. “Now you’re thinking, cowboy.”

I’m far from a cowboy. Middle height, middle weight, brown hair, brown eyes. I’m as plain as the blacktop running to the horizon outside.

“So why tell me?” I said. “Tell Jake.” I didn’t mind mentioning her husband after we’d had sex. We didn’t shy away from the facts. We didn’t deny who we were.

“I have told him,” she whined. “He doesn’t want to. He’s satisfied with all this, if you can believe it.”

I ran my hand gently over the arch of her backside. Felt the skin ripple and rise into goosebumps. “I can see why he thinks he’s got everything he needs.”

She blew smoke at me as a way to bat away my line of bullshit, but I was serious.

“It could be mine, you know.”

“You mean half of it. In a divorce you’d only get half.”

“Sure, in a divorce. I’m talking about all, though.”

She stood, short skirt still hiked up over her hips. Shirt off and tits bouncing as she walked. I reached down and peeled off the condom and let it drop on a saucer half filled with spilled coffee. Moira and I had gone at it before I had a chance to clean up after the Hispanic guy who was drinking his third cup right before we closed, but the spill might have come from our lovemaking. Wasn’t the first night we’d used the counter. Wasn’t the first time we’d not bothered to wipe it down.

At the cash register she stopped and turned to me. She was lit on one side from the red neon of the sign in the window. A sheen of sweat glowed on her in the artificial light. She exhaled a cloud of smoke and it circled around her like a bad idea forming. But that idea had been around for a long time.

She reached into the back of the cash drawer. “What if Jake goes away?”

I looked in her hands. One still dangled the cigarette, the other held the pistol Jake kept for emergencies. I couldn’t see her eyes in the dim light, but I knew what they’d look like if I could. I’d seen them before, right as she came. They grew wider, a little desperate. Darker.

“Where would he go?” I asked, to give her an escape. I opened the door for her to say she was just kidding or put the gun back and deny she ever had it. A trick of the light, the electron-charged gasses throwing shadows of murder around the diner.

She slammed the door in my face. “He’d go six feet under, dumbass. I sure hope you can shoot as good as you fuck.”

I registered what sounded like a compliment and filed it away for later. Right then I wanted to focus on the murder.

“You want me to kill him? I’m not gonna do that.”

“I guess you don’t want to do me anymore then, either.” She blew smoke to make her point.

She was right. Given a choice I’d skip another roll with her before I’d go shoot someone. I’d lived my life decent. You don’t go from turning down a drag on a cigarette to murder in one night. But I didn’t answer. I called her bluff. I’d never been with a married woman before but I had to figure this conversation happens all the damn time in situations like this. Seeing she was getting nowhere, Moira snatched a twenty dollar bill from the drawer and slammed it shut. She stepped out of the light and the red neon slid off her body like she was dropping a silk negligee to the floor. She passed by me, picked up the saucer and condom and kept moving. She pulled her skirt down as she headed out through the kitchen. She never bothered to put her panties back on.

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