Busted Flat in Baton Rouge
I woke up to Janis Joplin’s whiskey raw voice on the radio. Shiner abruptly turned us south toward Baton Rouge, tapping his hands on the steering wheel. That’s all it took with Shiner, a whim, a change in the wind – song lyrics. We’d come down from Texarkana in a stolen pickup, and then Shiner robbed a convenience store east of Shreveport while I revved the engine, watching the rear-view mirror, waiting to be unleashed like I was in the Indy 500.
We hadn’t been together long. A month, maybe, — since one day shooting bottles and cans in the shimmering desert heat outside Bakersfield. But it was long enough to know we’d been cut from the same cloth. Brothers in arms and all that shit, Shiner liked to say. Like in the Joplin song, I figured we had nothing left to lose, and that was a kind of freedom. Maybe freedom from consequences. Even from worry. We were free to go where Shiner took us, which until the song, had been random.
South of Natchez, we pulled into a gas station in the middle of nowhere to stretch our legs. I went to the men’s room to piss and splash water on my face. I was watching myself in the mirror, making some goofy faces for the hell of it, when I heard the first shot. I recognized the sound of Shiner’s .44 Magnum, and then a loud boom I knew had to come from a shotgun. We didn’t have one and that was a bad sign. My face in the mirror didn’t look like me.
Then the shooting seemed over as I eased around a corner for a look. Shiner was face down by the station door, a pool of blood spreading from what was left of his head, and the station attendant, a middle-aged man with a bald head, sagged dead against the door, the shotgun across his lap, blood pouring from a gaping wound in his neck. Smoke still curled from the shotgun’s barrel, like it had been smoking a cigarette.
There were no other vehicles in the lot, and I went inside and looked around, careful not to touch anything, but nobody was there. I didn’t see any cameras. It was just a shitty country store with an old type of register. The modern world hadn’t caught up to that place yet.
The till was open, and I could see the cash. Not so much, from the look of it. A few small bills, some coins. Not a haul at all. Not really worth the trouble. That was likely as far as Shiner had got before the man brought the shotgun up and Shiner probably dove back out the door. I don’t know why I thought of it, but it seemed like a slow-motion scene from a movie, like from Bonnie & Clyde. I wondered which of us was Bonnie and which was Clyde.
I went over to Shiner and stared at his bloody head a moment and then looked around, but it was just me and two shattered bodies. I fished a wad of cash out of his pocket. He’d have done the same with me and I understood that. Felt it more than understood it. That was a business transaction.
I glanced at him one last time. It no longer looked much like Shiner. But I didn’t feel sorry for him. Now, I’m not unfeeling, but I hadn’t known him long enough to feel much at all. Regret? Maybe for the loss of companionship, I suppose. But no tears. He’d of felt the same about me.
I stepped in the station and grabbed a bag of potato chips and a large Mountain Dew out of a cooler. Some cheese dip, too. A lighter and cigarettes from a rack. No one would miss them. But I left the piddling money in the till alone. It was tempting, I admit. But that was Shiner’s gig and not mine. He hadn’t run that one by me. I’d got what I figured was my cut off his body. It was just the choice I made. No more than that.
I started the truck and just listened to the engine idle for a moment. It had a nice rhythm to it. Steady. No cars went by. I glanced at Shiner and the other guy. It was like an old back and white photograph in a dusty book. I finally drove south, toward New Orleans, again turning the radio dial, but all I got was Cajun caterwauling, some mournful Hank Williams. I wanted some Janis, but she was nowhere to be found. I tossed the empty Mountain Dew and chips bag out a window and saw the bottle bouncing along the road in the rearview mirror.
I ditched the truck and walked into the French Quarter with warm sun on my neck. I drank a few beers on Bourbon Street at a titty bar with frigid AC and bored, skanky dancers. It was as if Shreveport and Natchez had never happened, that Shiner had never happened. I figured time would tell on that. I tried to picture Shiner, but he wouldn’t come into focus.
Outside the titty bar, a man coaxed patrons inside by claiming the prettiest girls in the world awaited them. But I’d seen what they had, and it wasn’t nothing to bark about on a sidewalk. I smirked, lit a cigarette, and looked around. I didn’t know which way to turn, but it didn’t matter, and soon I was swallowed by a crowd, a great moving, colorful mass, and people next to me and in front were out of focus. Shapes with heads on them. The crowd swept me along and closed in on me until I felt as if we were all just one beating heart teetering on the edge of the unknown.
Gray’s stories have appeared in Alligator Juniper, Arkansas Review, I-70 Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Westchester Review, Flashpoint!, Black River Syllabary, Verdad, Palooka, Hektoen International, Potomac Review, Home Planet News, SORTES, The Zodiac Review, Literary Heist, Evening Street Press & Review, Two Thirds North, JONAH Magazine, Press Pause, El Portal, Shark Reef, Cholla Needles, The Waiting Room, and Johnny America. He is the author of six published novels. The Armageddon Two-Step, winner of a Book Excellence Award, was released in December 2019. Well Deserved won the 2008 Sol Books Prose Series Prize, and Not Famous Anymore garnered a support grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation in 2009. Exile on Kalamazoo Street was released in 2013. The Canary, which reveals the final days of Amelia Earhart, was released in 2011. King Biscuit, a young adult novel, was released in 2012. Gray is winner of the 2005 Alligator Juniper Fiction Prize and 2005 The Writers Place Award for Fiction.