by Bud Smith
“Just once I’d like to see that dragon explode,” Jad said, slapping down his klappvisier to shield his eyes from the glare. He glanced at Gadnor perched above the King’s Quick Keep with disdain.
“Yeah,” I said, “it’d explode, but it’d take us down along with the entire station.” I shifted my weight against fuel pump number two, relieving the armor from digging into my ribs.
The large prop dragon’s jaws were wide, its head thrown back. The blue sky streaming forever above us. A crow landed on the tip of its most jagged and skyward tooth. The dragon’s tail was draped down the side of the building, resting beside the ice chest, always advertising some extraordinary deal, today: MUTTON POPS 5 for 99c.
Gadnor had been designed to shoot a vertical column of fire, thirty five feet in the air—the motorist’s on the interstate wouldn’t have been able to miss that one. Sadly, the fire marshal had ordered the piping, the ignition source and all of the electronics stripped before it was even used once. Instead, Gadnor had become just another sad concrete statue painted red, which nobody but us Fuel Castle employees imagined was built of sturdy steel components capable of withstanding up to 600 degrees of heat.
I looked at my ‘illegal’ wristwatch; it was only three o’ clock.
Carl Kone, our overly-bizarre owner, was a new gas station entrepreneur with an exciting strategy. His chief promotional attraction: every evening on the half hour, MASSIVE FIERY DRAGON DEATH!
“It’d-a been fine,” Jad said, “nothing woulda happened. The fire marshall is a major league pussy.”
I’d seen Jad sneaking puffs in his booth. He’d steal the cigarettes and smoke them and we hadn’t blown up from that. So, maybe the fire marshall was overreacting.
Jad was stupid, but I liked him. Also: I knew of Jad’s side gig, palming a dollar bill as he handed each car back incorrect change.
We all have our little scams, I thought in defense. Most are just secret.
Zelda’s yellow jeep pulled in from the highway. She was a shitty assistant manager; tubby, close cropped ‘tough guy haircut’, lousy people skills. Rumor had it, that she and Carl Kone were lovers, but I could never be sure; because I never saw the man, he was more like a legend, a whisper, maybe he didn’t even exist.
I looked for Vicky’s Subaru, pulling the horse trailer with Noodle; I knew she wasn’t far behind Zelda, her shift started at 3:30. That excited me.
Worse than Zelda, was Noodle—a crappy horse, that bayed at everything, barely even tolerating Gwendylnevere/Vicky, its rider, our star attraction. My main complaint about Noodle, was that he shit everywhere without any concern for health code violations.
There were many things in place to draw the consumers to us, such as; us—the ‘good’ gas pump attendants, decked out in full suits of bright aluminum armor, with plastic chain-mail, rubber swords and klappvisiers lined with a sunglass lens to help fend off sun fatigue; billboards that began in a sixty mile radius, on three converging interstates: GET READY!! ONLY FIFTY THREE MILES UNTIL YOU REACH FUEL CASTLE!!!; Gwendylnevere, our beautiful enchanted maiden who rode a white mare out of the Magic Forest as the fog machine dumped thousands of cubic feet of scene setting atmospherics—lute music emanating from speakers tucked indiscreetly behind the cardboard dumpster.
I didn’t mind my job there, I had my secret interests. Number one, my side loot; number two, Gwendelynevere. Number three, the smacked assholes that I worked with, who never ceased to amaze me with their candor; especially the evil knights 0f Diesel Rock.
There was Ryan, often spun out on acid, who walked with a limp since his recent ‘accident’. He liked to sniff Noodle’s saddle after Gwendylnevere’s riding shift was over, claiming; “only thing that keeps me coming back.” Sure, she was a beauty but, we all agreed, Ryan was weird for that, and perhaps possessed.
Dave, a heavy set woman in the midst of gender reassignment surgery (how far, I don’t know) who wore monk-like black shrouds, and carried a rubber mace—chanting, as she assumed an ancient nomadic druid would, along with the easy listening radio pumped through the entire compound. She played the steel drums as a hobby and was super kind. Often she would give me her last Reese’s peanut butter cup if she got the King Size.
Seen less often, but always entertaining, was Pippy, an old, wired crack head, who looked like he had alcohol for blood and hadn’t more than one meal a day for fifty years. He entertained me because his armor was nearly three times too big for his frame and would shift with every step he took, sliding as if there was an earthquake underfoot. If he was absent and needed (why?), he could usually be found in bathroom stall C, breathing heavily.
He once pulled me aside and said, “I’ve become immune to the poison in anti-freeze by taking little gulps every day since I was 13. I can drink 3/4 of a gallon now without any ill effects.”
He also wouldn’t be caught dead swimming in the ocean because, “fish fuck in there.”
“What about the moat?”
“Sure, I’d swim in the moat for ten bucks.”
Yes: the evil knights of Diesel Rock in their dented, crimson armor, pumping petrol for tractor trailers, dump trucks, landscaping crews—they delighted me. They were our fictional enemies—that we, the good knights of the regular gas pump islands (Feudal Premium Realm) were supposed to fight in mock battles in the fields surrounding the moat and on the drawbridge itself on Cheap Tuesdays when customers saved ten cents off Feudal Premium.
There’d been a lawsuit after Tim Bologne got his head spilt open by, Spike Lablatt, the lead knight from Diesel Rock with fittingly, a big hunk of rock, the size of a soccer ball; so the fucking battles had been put on hiatus until the Fuel Castle lawyers could straighten out the legal mumbo jumbo. I’m not sure what Tim Bologne’s real name was. He didn’t go to my school. I believe he went to St. Agnes catholic. The head splitting had been a very big deal at the time, but, like most things, it had drifted into the background almost a day after the incident. Spike vanished forever.
I’m a soft sissy. After all that blood and brains, I took three days off work, hiding in my room. I’m not good with confrontation, or adventure, or anything. I think I have social problems. Dave recommended me her psychoanalyst, but I never went. Can you blame me; we make ten bucks an hour.
A blue Honda pulled up to my pump.
I stood with great struggle, clanking and rattling.
The lady in the car said what half of them say, “Oh my God! Look at you!” A little red-haired girl in the back seat was staring at me transfixed, “Look Molly, look at the man! Do you know what he is?”
Molly shook her head. I smiled, “I’m Sir Billy.”
“He’s a knight!”
I nodded, “I’m a knight. I defend Fuel Castle, providing exceptional value and upmost service.
First off, me-ladies, can I check your motor oil?”
“Thank you, please. And I’ll take a full tank of Feudal Premium.”
“5 cents off if you pay cash.”
“Cash it is, Sir Billy!”
I clanked over to her hood, checking the dipstick, “Oops, look at this, you’re a quart low. Fill it up?”
She nodded. I walked to my booth, retrieved a white plastic bottle of Fuel Castle 5w 30 synthetic.
It was empty.
I took the cap off, flipped the empty bottle of oil into her nozzle, I left it there as if it was draining while I filled the car with gas.
“Do you know why knights are so special, Molly?” the mom asked.
“No,” the child said meekly.
“They protect innocent princesses from bad guys and they have an unflappable moral compass. They’re pure of heart.”
I said, “We also butcher dragons.”
The mom answered a ringing cellphone and I leaned in Molly’s window.
The little girl’s eyes got wide. “Dragons? Real dragons?” I pulled my rubber sword out of my sheath and motioned to Gadnor above the lottery ticket sign: Powerball was up to 89 million.
“See that fucker, I cornered him in the lava fields of Mount Nasty Volcano where he lived … I stabbed him in his gut till he was dead, then dragged his dead ass down I-80, all the way here. Cool huh?”
“He had kids,” I said darkly, “If they fucking come after me for revenge, I’ll gut them too.”
“Can I help?”
“Begin your training now … it’ll be a little while till our battle They’re still just babies, but they won’t ever forget.”
“Neither will I,” she whispered.
The pump clicked off. The mother said into the phone, “Babe, I’m sick of meatloaf.” I put the handle back, removed the bottle of oil, and snapped the hood closed. I put the cap back on the oil, returning the bottle to the floor in my booth, to use again later.
The mom handed me fifty dollars ($48.56, but please keep the change) for the fuel and the bottle of air.
I waved goodbye. She honked happily, returning back to reality, sliding snuggly between two vehicles zooming by in the rush hour. Birds must think we’re nuts.
I put forty-four bucks in my cash drawer, no one the wiser. Jad, on his side was dealing with a guy in a red Ford pickup. As he handed the guy his change, I watched Jad count the correct amount out for the gentleman and then palm a dollar that disappeared in between his imitation chain-mail cuff and gauntlet glove.
When the truck pulled off, Jad said rather proudly, “Ha! Got that dumbass too.”
I felt bad for Jad, he was just poor white trash and dumb as they come. Working at Fuel Castle was probably as far as he’d get. He was in remedial classes, I was in college prep. He lived in a crowded trailer in Pine Manor with his two twin cousins—Dee and Max.
And look how excited goddamned Jad gets over a boosted one dollar bill!
What were Jad’s hopes and dreams?
He’d mentioned a few times that college seemed like a waste of time.
“Cause you already got a job,” Jad said, “and far as I can see, getting free mutton pops is quite a perk.”
“There’s a lotta room at the top in Fuel Castle.”
Doing what? Managing the fuel sales? With that came the responsibility of all other outside services, and arranging the gunk to get sucked out of the moat/drainage pond loop, having the animatronic ‘lady of the lake-style’ moat-hand serviced all the time; arranging for consistent landscaping care—well groomed lawns/battlefields 1-3 (we had a major problem with dandelions 4.5 months out of the year) the pruning and clipping/weeding of our neat edged flower beds; securing delivery of oat sacks for Noodle to munch on; making sure that the less respectable freaks in Diesel Rock with the face tattoos and juvenile detention records weren’t getting methed out in the bathroom or the Magic Forest; cleaning the birds’ nests out of Gadnor’s throat chute.
I’d never want the responsibility of that managerial job, but I’d do: A) whatever I needed to do in order to stay employed at my brainless pump station to pay for my night classes at Arcane County college. B) things I thought would get me in good graces with Vicky, as far as considering signing up for riding lessons in the farmlands to the west and wearing—gag—any amount of cologne that would be appreciated (scout reports waiting arrival on that), but to be honest with you, she majorly intimidated me sitting up on that horse, my palms even more sweaty in my gauntlet gloves, I’d start to stammer in my brain without even saying a word. Oh sweet Jesus, imagine actually talking to that fine specimen? C) avoiding eye contact with Ray, but looking at him whenever I could because he was always doing crazy film-worthy shit.
Speaking of glancing, I glanced across the moat at Ray over in Diesel Rock. His crimson armor heavily dented. He’d gotten into a fight with a customer just the week before, an older lady in a rack body truck who refused to pay. She’d smashed him with her truck as he tried to jump on the hood, then she just drove away.
“That kid’s crazy,” Jad said, noting my fascination.
“Yes he is,” I confirmed. “I wouldn’t fuck with him either.”
“Ah, he’s just a scrawny fuck.” Jad acted like he was a bad ass because of his wannabe gang-banger cousins who were also beefy power lifters. They lumped him up so much, he thought he knew how to fight, even going as far as to tell me, ‘I’m a black belt, son. Don’t believe me, go get one of Noodle’s hay bales and I’ll do a back flip, split it in half, yo—over my head.”’
“I heard he has a samurai sword now, since that chick ran him over” Jad said, “Dave was mentioning …”
I said, mocking bravery, “Well, I got a sword too, so I ain’t scared.”
“Yours is about as real as that dragon up there.”
We watched Ray wobble down Indian style in the middle of his island. He was drinking a Sunkist soda, rocking back and forth slowly, tripping hard, as always mumbling about Carpathian demons, his biggest problem.
I had a string of cars come in, two of them who I sold empty bottles of oil, at four bucks a pop—but at the exact moment when the rush ended, I watched bitch Zelda come walking out of the convenience store. Her hair was pinned back tight to her head; she could use a facelift but couldn’t afford one. “She looks pissed,” Jad said.
I watched with intrigue as Zelda crossed the moat bridge in her heavy pink shoes, precisely as the animatronic hand of the lady in the most, who had an ax instead, rose out of the water under the bride; we couldn’t have a sword in her hand because we didn’t want to get sued by Excaliburrito, who had almost the same thing (that came out of the ball pit with a beautiful sword, glimmering from some electric trick).
I’ve always found theirs cheesier; ours as a contrast, I found quite noble. For instance, our hand had French tipped nail polish. There’s only has four fingers. Very tacky. Unless she’s not supposed to be human, then… whatever.
Zelda walked up to me angrily, “We need to talk.”
“About what?” I said.
“About your little scam, Jad.”
“I’m not Jad,” I said.
“Then who is?”
We turned to look at Jad hiding behind his gas pump.
“My office now,” she said angrily to the gas pump.
“You have an office?” Jad said.
“Stock room! Now! Let’s go!”
Jad walked with her over the bridge. I covered double-duty while he was gone. Until, mercifully, Brenda came out from bathroom or coffee or Mutton Pop detail and snatched Ray from Diesel Rock and sent him over to our side.
I tensed up as soon as we were left alone because he asked me, “Are you a fucking demon?”
“Not that I know.”
“Don’t say that, I’ll have to cut you open to check.”
“Then I’m not a demon.”
“Good!” Ray laughed hysterically, stumbling over to the windshield washer fluid pit, flipping up his visor, puking.
A car came. I covered for him, not even selling fake oil while the kid laughed uncontrollably next to the customer’s rear passenger tire.
I said to the driver, “I think Sir Raymond the High is just checking your tire pressure.”
“Very good,” the customer said, turning up Billy Joel on the stereo. I believe it was ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant’
I went into auto-pilot.
Earlier that morning, Jad had been on the couch playing Street Fighter 2, when his jacked-up cousin walked in with a black handgun aimed at his head.
Jad didn’t notice what was happening until the laser dot crossed his eye and all he saw was red. He ducked out of the way, cursing, “Crap!”
Cousin Dee howled with laughter, “Tricked ya.”
“Why are you pointing a gun at me?!”
“It worked, I scared ya, and it’s not just any gun. It’s a desert eagle, semi-automatic … sixteen in the clip, one in the barrel.”
“Ha-ha. The trick is that it’s a replica. Looks real as hell. Got you to wet your fake chain mail.”
Jad was half dressed in his work outfit. His routine on Saturdays was to smoke a couple bowls, playing video games, slowly putting on his suit of armor before coming to Fuel Castle.
Max was laughing in the hallway. Both cousins were in on the joke, the big thick dumbasses.
“Where’d you get that thing?” Jad said.
“The flea market,” Dee said.
“That’s gonna get you shot by a cop.”
Dee sat down to the right of Jad. Max sat down on the other side of him. The two twins towered over Jad, as if he was sitting between two grizzly bears.
“How much cash you got on you at your job?”
“Yeah, we might rob you. Sound good?”
“Sound good? Fuck no that doesn’t sound good.”
Max said, “I need money, bro. Car payment. My Trans Am isn’t gonna pay for itself.”
“Didn’t get this gun for nothing, J.”
Max pulled a Chewbacca ski-mask over his head, “You like this thing? I got it at the flea market too …”
“I gotta go to work,” Jad said. He stood up without finishing his videogame fight. Out in the garage, he pulled on the rest of his aluminum armor.
Dee stuck his block head out through the screen door, waving as Jad pulled away in his Honda, “see you later, buddy.”
The laser appeared through the windshield; Max was pointing the gun through the window above the kitchen sink, cracking himself up.
Jad flipped them both off as he sped away.
Vicky zoomed in off the highway with her Gwendylnevere outfit already on, her golden hair streaming out the window. Butterflies flapped around stupidly in my empty stomach. She had the horse trailer hooked to the back of her Subaru, I heard Noodle whiney and thought about what a high maintenance horse he was, the old bastard.
“That bitch is magic sexy,” Ray said, practically drooling. I ignored him, thinking about how he had that ‘thousand mile stare’ like Private Pile from Full Metal Jacket or same thing, Jack Nicholson from the Shining. It really annoyed me that Jad had just been dragged inside by Zelda and was probably getting super interrogated (under hot heat lamps moved from the sandwich station), I was worried that Jad was getting fired and I was gonna be stuck with Ray permanently.
The other thing that worried me was that Jad might blab about my scam too. I was raking in an extra $200 bucks a week. Whatever. I justified that I was safe from accusations because Jad was too stupid to even realize what I’d been doing with the empty quart of oil that I’d reused 500 times.
I stared at Ray’s dented armor, and how comically creased it was.
“Why’d that lady hit you with her truck?”
Ray wasn’t talking. He just stared at the ground, giggling at his boots.
A car pulled in, I went to his window. “What the hell is going on here?” the customer asked.
A lot of them were like that, at least a quarter of them. Despite all of the advertisements on the highway every mile leading up to Fuel Castle, some motorists passed them all without noticing, 63 billboards to be exact, managing to pull into our station completely bewildered.
“Seriously,” the guy said, “what’s with the armor?”
“Ah crap,” I said, “What’ll it be?”
He looked at the pump, struggled to comprehend what all of the weird fuels were, “which one’s regular gas?”
“$20 of that.”
“Cash or credit, cash is five cents cheaper … Check the oil?”
“Credit. Yeah, sure. Do the oil.”
He handed me the credit card. “Never mind, we don’t do the oil anymore,” I said, “I forgot.”
The driver shrugged.
I looked over at the Magic Forest; Gwendylnevere had started the fog machine. The smoke was beginning to waft out of the trees, the lute music drifted from the direction of the cardboard dumpster. She was petting Noodle’s muzzle and saying something to calm him down, he was a very high strung horse.
I asked Ray to cover for my pump, while I snuck away, pretending to go use the bathroom, but what I really wanted, was to say hello to Vicky before she jumped onto the horse and became Gwen. Once she was up there, it was all over for me.
I lost my nerve though, and walked into the store, as she looked at me approaching. Inside, at the end of the hallway, I put my ear to the wall and listened to Zelda berating Jad.
The way she was screaming at him, it made me think that Zelda owned Fuel Castle, that we weren’t living in Karl Cone’s fantasy world, but hers.
I got caught by Dave as she came around the corner to use the lady’s room. She laughed at me, “Did I catch you spying, Sir Billy? That’s not very fitting behavior for a knight.”
She went inside and I felt silly standing there after that. I walked back into the store, and then back out to the pumps, after debating about an ice cream sandwich that I spent so much time contemplating, I decided I didn’t need it. Besides if I wanted to get ripped for Gwendylnevere, I needed to lose the last 25% of my remaining gut. Sure, my breast plate was chiseled and made me look like I had screaming pecs and abs, but I couldn’t wear my armor everywhere, could I?
As I walked back to the pumps, a purple Trans Am squealed up beside Ray, who looked lazily over at the car. A black handgun stuck out of the driver’s side window.
“GIVE US ALL YOUR CASH, FUCKNUT!”
I froze. Ray didn’t even flinch; he squared up, pulled his sword out, which wasn’t plastic like mine, but rather, a razor sharp samurai sword.
“Jesus,” I said.
A laser dot appeared on his armor, in automatic response, the sword ascended and then slashed down through the air, the hand holding the gun lobbed off.
The gun clanked on the ground. The hand flopped beside the Trans Am’s tire as the driver screamed in delayed terror.
On the ground, the hand oozed. In the car, blood sprayed everywhere; every heart beat a rush of crimson plasma.
The car lurched forward narrowly missing me, driving headlong into the moat, resting at the approximate location of the animatronic Lady in the Lake.
The car crash spooked Noodle, who sprinted away from Gwendylnevere, across the wooden bridge, hard fear in his eyes. The horse galloped full bore past the pumps and into the frantic highway, where I fully expected him to be hit by an approaching flatbed truck, but instead of getting smashed by the truck, Noodle timed his steps and leapt in the air, easily landing on the back of the flatbed, which just cruised away unaware of the new passenger.
The truck and the horse were heading toward the link up for I-80, which went to the east, ending at Hackensack, NJ, or to the west, ending in Los Angeles.
Gwendylnevere ran out to the edge of the highway and crooked her neck, “NOODLE!”
I grabbed her long white dress because I thought she was gonna run out, but she didn’t, yelling, “Get off me!”
Looking back at the pumps, I saw Ray sitting Indian-style on the ground, rocking again. In the moat, the door to the passenger side of the Trans Am was open; a guy in a weird ski mask was trying to pull the driver out.
The water was turning pink from the blood.
I glanced down at the severed hand on the ground and the gun beside the hand.
“It’s fake,” I said.
Ray wiped the samurai sword down with napkins from the trash can.
My roommates weren’t happy with me; I hadn’t paid my share of the rent in over two months. Tim knocked on my door, as I laid/hid in my bed, refusing to answer the door. I was sneaking in through my own window at that point. I took my meals at Excalliburitto, Burgerland or the salad bar at Food Universe. I showered when Tim was at Mattress Mayhem, making deliveries in a long blue van, air brushed with cartoon mattresses and people sleeping on them who were going, “zzzzz … zzz … zz … zzzzzz … z” as if it were some kind of secret code.
To make matters worse concerning our communal living conditions/money issues with the house, Jane had moved back with her mom and dad, and Carl’s girlfriend was in the process of moving out because they’d broken up. The landlord would boot us all soon, if I didn’t get over my fear.
“Bill,” please open the door. “We gotta talk, man. We really do.”
I’d been dodging him for too long. I couldn’t do it any longer.
I answered the door.
“You’ve got your armor on …”
“Yeah,” I said, “I go back to work today.”
“It’s a good thing, I guess.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“I’ll have some cash for you in a week,” I offered, “if it all works out.” What were my other options? I couldn’t move back in with my parents, they’d moved down to a retirement community in Florida, 55+, I had thirty-five years to go before that’d be kosher.
“Thanks, Billy,” Tim said, “really.”
Fuel Castle was eerily the same. I parked in the lot, peering at Dave as she waved to me in her heavy Druid’s cloak. It was a hot day; I didn’t know how she did it. I guess she thought the same thing about me in my shiny aluminum armor.
I shuddered, remembering the two ambulances that’d come that day, one to take Dee to the emergency room, another to take Ray to the psych-ward by way of the local police. When the police had showed up, they had no trouble taking the sword from him; he’d left it next to the twitching hand.
“It’s fake,” I kept saying, “It’s fake.”
I went in and saw Zelda, her hair was shorter, spikier, the kind of red dye that’s so intense it becomes purple under fluorescent lights. Old ladies love that.
“How are you?”
“I’m OK,” I said.
“It’s good to have you back.”
I nodded, made myself a new time card, punched in. Leaving the store, walking back into the sunlight, I noticed a strange sound coming from the Magic Forest. The gallant lute music had been replaced by cheesy moaning and wailing, one of those Halloween mix tapes. Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Ghouls. Walking in that direction, I found the old sign gone, replaced with one that said, “Ominous Woods”
I walked in; the fog surrounded me in the heavy shade of the trees.
“Hello!” My voice echoed through the damned place.
A soft light appeared before me, “Go away.”
“Gwendylnevere? Is that you?”
She approached me in the fog, glowing supernaturally with LCD lights now sewn into her long white gown. I didn’t move a muscle. I just stood bravely in my armor. The rattling of chains was all I heard.
“It’s me,” she said, standing five feet in front of me, the mist swirling all around. Her face was caked with white theatrical powder—her lips were blue.
“You’re a ghost now?”
“It’s all I can do; just hang in these freaking woods, for no reason either.”
“Your horse is still gone?”
“Yeah, no word,” she said. “I think this is gonna be my last day. No one comes back here. They have no reason to. I might as well not be here.”
“Don’t say that,” I said.
“Why? It doesn’t matter.” She pulled down her hood; Her golden hair that used to stretch all down her back was gone. In its place, were curly raven black shoulder length locks.
“You cut your hair.”
“It was a wig,” she said.
“This is me.”
“Think I like it better,” I said.
I think she blushed, but I couldn’t be sure because of all the powder and fog and distracting moaning.
“I always wanted to say hi,” Vicky said, “but …”
“I’m just so shy.”
“Tell me about it.”
Jad was out at the pumps, whistling a song as if nothing catastrophic had happened just weeks prior, “Bill!”
“Look at you, all chipper.”
“Well … What’s the alternative? To be a glum fuck? Where you been?”
“Wow, is that anything a badass knight would do?”
“I’m not a badass knight,” I said.
I gassed up a few cars, including a hatch-back with a hot young punk-looking chick who told me my armor looked ‘sexy as hell.’ I smiled and resisted the urge to ask her for her number, I was entertaining the thought of Gwendyn—, err, Vicky.
I’d talked to her. I should have done it months before. I sure felt like a fool: I’d waited for no reason.
“Went and visited my cousin yesterday …”
“And, so?” I said.
“He’s suing this place.”
“Got his hand cut off,” he laughed wildly, “duh, remember? I’ve seen his stump. Nasty. Real nasty.”
“That was one of your relatives?”
He shrugged, “Yeah, you can call him one of my relatives.”
A mini-van arrived, I watched Jad do the bottle of air for the bottle of oil trick and take a four dollar commission for that.
He said to me, as we were alone, “Got a new secret cash cow, boy. I’ll show you sometime.”
He was always lagging behind.
I washed the windshield of my next customer, scrubbing bugs off extra hard and helping with a question, they were lost, and in need of reliable directions.
I said, “I’m lost too, but I think you’ve got to go that way,” I pointed down the highway, the direction they’d come, “make a right at the Fried Paradise and follow that road until you hit the junction.”
They tried to pass me a dollar; I declined, saying, “We aren’t allowed to take tips anymore.”
I’d enacted a new policy for myself.
When Jad went to the bathroom, I dug my old reliable empty bottle of oil out of its hiding spot and chucked it into the trash, where it belonged.
I found Noodle in a strange residential area, 300 miles away. It was a combination of blind luck and a lot of posts on Craigslist, Facebook, Google+, etc. that led me to him.
The horse had jumped off the wayward flatbed, landing in a guy named Louis’ yard, who took the ‘god sent me a horse this is awesome. I’ll give it to my wife’ route of dealing with the sudden appearance of Vicky’s broken down mare.
I showed up at the house in Tim’s blue work van from Mattress Mayhem that he kindly let me borrow one Sunday afternoon. Tim had no idea what I was using it for. How did he know I wasn’t a mad bomber?
When I got to the pink house, there was a miserable looking woman, sitting on a picnic table, combing out Noodle’s rat nest mane. A transistor radio played Patsy Cline. The yard was littered with dog toys; a rut was worn around the oak tree. Noodle was wearing two dog collars looped together.
“Hey,” I said, “Cindy? I think I talked to you on the phone about that there horse …”
“Yeah, you did.” She smiled at me, but it certainly was a wounded smile. “Louis found him, eating the last flower in my garden.”
Our conversation was stunted. I felt horrible; the lady had grown quite attached to Noodle. Even saying, “I went over to Tractor Town the other day. Saddles are so expensive anyways.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, thinking about Noodle’s old saddle that’d slipped off, landing in the bloody moat.
I sat with her for half an hour at the picnic table while she said goodbye to the horse. “I always wanted one.”
Even though I was thirsty, I declined, walking the horse into the back of the van. I tightly shut the door, waved while I drove down the road, I thought, Wow that was too easy. She hadn’t asked to see ID or anything.
“Maybe I’ll start stealing horses professionally,” I told Noodle, as he lay down on his side like he was dead, which is something I didn’t know horses ever did. I guess they don’t like vans.
In the rearview, I watched lonely Cindy in her backyard picking up dog toys, as we went up the hill.
I made fast tracks, stopping only once for gas and to stretch my legs at a truck stop near Greenville. I got quite a few strange looks as I walked Noodle in the tall grass, cars and trucks whizzing by that didn’t startle Noodle as much as I figured they would.
I tugged the rope tied around his neck, begging, whistling, trying everything, “Come on boy! Please go! Please!”
The thought of Noodle flooding the Mattress Mayhem delivery van with piss and shit worried me more than what my life was worth.
Luckily, somebody with horse experience lounging in their station wagon offered: “Take that steed around the back of the building, out of the light, away from all this noise …”
It worked. Noodle relieved himself into the drainage ditch.
As a reward, I fed him a jumbo size container of Burgerland Fries and let him slop up some of my root-beer off the pavement. He seemed to have quite the tough tongue. Horses are interesting.
Later that night, I showed up at Vicky’s place, a farm down a long dirt road that wrapped around Sullivan pond. I saw a light in one of the windows but wasn’t sure if it was hers. “Can I help you?” A man said from the shadows of the porch.
“I got Vicky’s horse.”
“Why do you have Vicky’s horse?”
“It ran far away. I tracked him down.”
“VICKY! COME DOWN HERE!” he yelled, happiness in his call. “She’ll be happy,” the shadow man said, coming into the moonlight to shake my hand, “and nothing makes me happier than seeing that.”
I almost called him dad.
She was in a nice blue dress; I had on khaki pants and a white button down dress shirt. We walked hand in hand out of the lawyer’s parking lot, past my car and through the trees to Excalliburrito.
We were hungry after a four hour holdup with the lawyer. I’d given a testimony about the ‘epic battle’ that’d given Tim Bologne brain damage on that tragic day. He wasn’t there in the court, but the prosecutor said that he’d lost 55% of his sense of taste, now had blurred vision, he could no longer sleep on his right side and, the biggest driving force of the lawsuit, Tim Bologne could no longer get an erection, at only 21 years old.
During litigation, it came out, the reason Spike Lablatt had pummeled Tim in the skull with a large chunk of asphalt (I’d remembered it as a smooth white stone as big as a soccer ball) was because Tim Bologne had been sticking his bologna in Denise Delcorro, Spike’s finance.
I’d summed up my memories of the day as: “I remember it was really hot, I felt like I was cooking in my armor. I playfully crossed the field and pretended to do battle with Dave, who was lightly smacking me with her plastic mace, while I blocked it light-heartedly with my shield. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jad Thomas and Tim Bologne (during that part of my testimony the defense attorney corrected me, saying what Tim’s real last name was, I can’t for the life of me remember what the hell it is) having a real lame and deliberate sword fight. People at the pumps were honking their horns and splitting their energy between either demanding we fight a little more pointedly or stop fighting all together and come pump their freaking gas. We were supposed to have a battle every hour on the hour on Tuesdays. I remember laughing with Dave ‘cause our fake battle was so lame and looking up just in time to see Spike Leblatt running over from the parking lot by the Magic Forest with a huge hunk of white stone the size of a soccer ball (at that time, the attorney pointed to the bloody hunk of asphalt on the table in the plastic evidence bag labeled ‘exhibit C’. I have no idea where ‘exhibit A or B were either).
“Were you ever instructed by management to put each other in comas?”
“It was never insinuated that if you caused great personal injury to each other, that you’d climb the ranks?”
That was pretty much as far as the questioning went. I walked out of the room and Vicky walked back in, to give her limited testimony, she hadn’t seen much, on the account of all the fog surrounding her.
“Glad that’s all over,” I said, as we crossed into the Excalliburitto parking lot.
She laughed, “Maybe we’d get a discount at this place if we had our costumes on.”
“Ha, I don’t think of it as a costume, more as a uniform.”
“Same thing,” Vicky said, smacking my shoulder playfully.
At the counter, I got us both the Knights Templar Quesadilla Value Meal that we’d grown to love and live off since we’d officially started dating and dining together. She was even taking a class with me at Arcane College: Intro to Bird Studies. I was a happy man; her things were in the trunk of my car, and it’s nice to have her in the house. It was just me and Tim.
The garage was becoming a stable for Noodle.
I set our tray down at the round table (all the tables were round, the way King Arthur would have liked it.)
“Look at that,” I said, motioning to the pit full of brightly colored plastic balls. It was red taped off, DANGER DO NOT ENTER.
“What do you think happened?”
“I have no idea,” I said.
An acned kid cleaning up a table not too far away said, “oh, geez, it was crazy … This little kid got electrocuted by the Lady in the Lake. Really zapped.”
“That’s sad,” Vicky said.
“Kid’s mostly OK,” the guy said, “shit happens, that’s life.”
We finished our quesadillas quick and got the hell out of there, finishing our soda together in the car, sharing the straw. When I kissed her, she tasted like blueberries and fizz.
A month later, we were all standing around the pump stations, looking up at the convenience store above Fuel Castle, which was closed temporarily, while two guys on the roof were unbolting Gadnor and working with a crane operator below to pull it off with metal slings. The workers lowered the prop dragon down onto a flat bed, while we all absently serviced cars, trucks, everything. The whole thing took about an hour and a half, then the caution tape came down and the store opened again.
Jad said, “I can beat my cousin pretty easy now at Street Fighter.”
“Oh? Why?” I wasn’t paying attention.
“Cause he’s only got one hand.”
Gwendylnevere waved to us all through the fog, as the construction workers split their time ogling her and actually working. Noodle seemed unperturbed even, when a large metal sling fell off the roof and crashed into the ice chest. We all jumped, Noodle didn’t even flinch. His adventures down the highway had made him a tougher horse.
The flat bed pulled onto the highway, Gadnor was strapped down tightly, as it disappeared off into the distance, going off to a pancake house forty miles away that liked the promotional opportunities of a fire breathing dragon mounted on its roof. Who wouldn’t?
I made a promise to go visit that pancake house when my tax return showed up. I wanted to take the whole crew out for eggs, bacon, pancakes, coffee, one time before work.
Dave walked over in her heavy robes and said, “You want my last peanut butter cup?”
“Would love one,” I said, smiling.
In the moat, our own animatronic ‘lady of the moat’ breeched the surface, lifted its ax up brightly from the water.
I couldn’t wait to pass the word on to Carl Kone via Zelda, that we could have the sword back for the animatronic hand, on account of the tragic electrocution that had befallen Excalliburrito. But that’s life.
As the sun poked out from behind a cloud, the ax reflected the rays directly into our eyes. We all lowered our klappvisiers together.
Bud Smith grew up in New Jersey, and currently lives in Washington Heights, NYC with a metric ton of vinyl records that he bought at Englishtown flea market for a dollar. He is the author of the short story collection Or Something Like That (2012), and Lightning Box (Kleft Jaw Press, 2013); he hosts the interview program The Unknown Show; edits at Jmww and Red Fez; works heavy construction in power plants and refineries. Currently, he’s probably watching My Cousin Vinny.