Gary Thomas Smith
A QUICK STOP
"Why do we have to stop, man?" Jordan said from the backseat.
"Have to see a guy," Austin said.
"About some business?" Jeffrey said and laughed because it sounded like a line from a movie.
"Yeah," Austin said.
He didn't laugh. He pulled his gold car with the chipped paint over to the sidewalk. "Wait here."
"Yeah," Jeffrey said. "Hurry back or we'll miss the half-priced appetizers."
Austin's eyes had a yellow tint against his pale skin.
"Appetizers?" Austin said. He kicked on the parking brake and pocketed his keys. He tensed up on runs like these, even though he said they were routine.
Jordan laughed in the backseat and rolled his head against his headrest. "Yeah," he said. "Hurry, dude." His mouth hung open and he stared at the ceiling. The lining sagged.
Austin walked across the sidewalk onto the gravel path that led to the trailer. He climbed the cinderblock staircase and went inside without knocking.
"He can be a prick sometimes," Jeffrey said.
"I know," Jordan said. "But it's easy money."
"I guess," Jeffrey said.
"Minimum wage don't pay the bills. Not to mention loans," Jordan said.
"You're telling me," Jeffrey said. He'd learned that college was only a door if you knew where you were going.
"Ever wonder what he says in there?" Jordan said.
"I don't," Jeffrey said. "Not taking us in is a hint, man."
"Don't worry so much," Jordan said. "He knows what he's doing."
"Why's he need us?"
"We're just hanging out, man," Jordan said. "We're buds."
"Whatever you say," Jeffrey said. "You've known him longer."
Jordan's stomach churned.
"You doing alright back there?" Jeffrey asked.
Jordan's eyelids were half shut, his Adam's apple flexed sharply, and he was sweating. He was thinner than when he and Jeffrey first met in high school.
"Not good, man," he said. "I just need some food. I'm feeling kind of sick."
Jeffrey wondered what Jordan had taken before they picked him up.
"We'll be at the bar soon enough," he said. "Hang in there."
The trailer's siding was corrugated, and coal dust had built up in the creases. The window by the door glowed yellow, and black dots stirred behind the glass. Jeffrey stared at the window and the black dots came into focus as fish under a bright lamp.
Jeffrey felt the outline of his phone in his jacket pocket. Austin had showed up late to get him. Jeffrey had slept through the afternoon and into the early evening but was still tired. He'd worked late to help stock the hardware store. He thought about smoking while Austin was inside. Every time he smoked Austin's cheap weed he thought of the first time he tasted it. He was drunk, so he couldn't tell if he'd been high, but he remembered the flavor. It smelled chemical. He'd smoked it with Jordan in the bathroom at a party when he was in college. Their bong was made from a plastic bottle.
"Tough shit, but it works," Jordan had said. They'd gone from high school to college together, and Jordan introduced Jeffrey to Austin that night. He hooked them up.
Jeffrey took out his wooden pipe, small enough to hide in his hand. He packed in a pinch, lit it, and took a deep breath. He held it in and his eyes twitched. He opened the car door and let the breeze carry the smoke. Jordan breathed deeper when it drifted into the back seat.
"Hope you're not digging into the batch we're selling," Jordan said. "Austin will be pissed."
"He'll get over it," Jeffrey said. Austin let both of them indulge. It had been one of his sales pitches when they agreed to help out.
"Yeah, man." Jordan sat up and leaned his head against the window. "He probably would, but still."
"We're in this together. Mi casa and shit, right?" Jeffrey said.
Jordan shook his head and his eyes moved under the lids like a tongue behind teeth. Jeffrey thought about the bar and the food. Austin had taught him that the best time to sell was when the dinner crowd morphed into the bar crowd and the shows started and the lights dimmed and the music moved people closer together. A hand-off was easy, and the patio out back was perfect—nonchalant is what Austin called it. Jeffrey's job with Austin was easy, and it was better than the hardware store that hired him after college. The store was a good front so that his family wouldn't ask questions. He took another hit and slid down in his seat. The fish did laps around the inside of the tank in the window.
The sky purpled. The sun was already low when they got to the trailer. Jordan breathed slowly, and every now and then his legs twitched as he faded in and out of sleep. Jeffrey felt heavy. He rolled down the window because the air in the car was stale and smelled sour. He felt the breeze and then got out of the car and stood on the sidewalk, leaving the door open. His legs were sore. Jeffrey wondered why there was a sidewalk there. It only lined the trailer park and didn't lead into town. He looked down the street. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to low light. Trailers were crowded into the hillside at odd angles. The little valley of trailers was like a bottle of pills turned up and spilled into the grass. No one really had a yard in the trailer park, just a path to their cars with muddy grass on each side.
The fish still swam laps in their tank. Jeffrey went onto the gravel path. He picked out a stone off the path and tried to kick gravel from the driveway into it. In the window of the trailer Austin's white shirt flashed behind the fish tank. It glowed yellow in the living room light. The screen door of the trailer snapped open. The sound muffled as the screen door shook on its loose hinges. A man in a blue button-up shirt fell out of the doorway and onto the wet ground.
"Get in the car, Jeff," Austin said. He stepped from the doorway into the yard, bypassing the cinderblock step. The man in the blue shirt was on his knees and he was crawling away, but Austin shoved him back down. Jeffrey was frightened by how strong Austin was—or maybe by how weak the man in the blue shirt was. Austin circled the man, waiting for him to move. Jeffrey wanted to run, but felt weighed down, his chest tight. The man's body straddled the wet ground and the gravel path. Austin's Converse sneaker molded into a gray, crescent moon around the back of the man's head. A quick stomp. The man's face hit the gravel and he coughed. Austin jumped back, rubbed his eyes, and looked at the trailers to each side. Nothing moved.
Jeffrey didn't speak.
"I'll see you again, soon," Austin said to the man.
"Let's go, bud," Austin said. He walked past Jeffrey.
The man's body shook, and he rolled to his side and covered his face with his hands. Grass and mud soiled his shirt. Jeffrey's throat was sore from the hit earlier. Swallowing was tough. Austin's door creaked open. The man on the ground was trying to push himself out of the mud, but he kept slipping back down.
Jeffrey looked at the lights lining the sidewalk. They were orange spheres that bled into the dark of the late evening, and they piggybacked on the telephone poles that had been there long before the trailer park. He didn't want to go to the bar anymore. He turned his head to the car. Austin was looking straight ahead, hands on the wheel, and Jordan's face was molded flat against the window in the back.
Jeffrey pulled the phone from his pocket.
"Get in the damn car," Austin said.
It would be too dark by the time he walked home. They'd already driven too far. Someone would come, and they'd find him walking away. The man on the ground had seen him.
Jeffrey dropped into his seat from the sidewalk and shut his door. The car pulled onto the road and its screeching engine echoed against the hillside.
Austin merged onto the highway. Jeffrey still hadn't spoken. He thought of the man on the ground, just laying there, shrinking in the side view mirror as they left the trailer park.
"It's about time, man. I'm starved," Jordan said. He moved the hair from his eyes and shook his head.
"Me too," Austin said.
"Austin," Jeffrey said. He looked at him, but Austin kept looking ahead. Jeffrey looked into the backseat. Jordan was playing with his phone. He hadn't seen it.
"What are we going to do?" Jeffrey said.
"Get some food," Austin said.
"Not about that," Jeffrey said.
"I've done what I'm going to do," Austin said. "And you better not do shit about it."
"He saw me," Jeffrey said.
"I know," Austin said. "Who's he going to tell? He's into the same shit we are."
"Is he going to be—"
"Shut up," Austin said.
"What are you talking about?" Jordan asked.
"You didn't see anything," Austin told him.
Jordan didn't speak.
"He looked pretty bad," Jeffrey said.
"Good," Austin said. "You've not been on a bad deal yet, but you will be. You can't let people screw you over."
"Can't we call anyone?"
Austin slowed the car hard at the exit into town.
"You can call someone," Austin said. "Think about it this way, though. You're a known associate. You're in on it with us."
"We'll be okay, man," Jordan said. "It's just part of this deal."
Jeffrey put his phone back in his pocket. "Okay, man. I get it."
"Good," Austin said. He patted Jeffrey on the chest. "I'll get the first round tonight."
They pulled into an unmarked spot at the back of the dark parking lot. The car shuddered when the engine stopped. The three of them weaved through the cars toward the front door. Music spilled from the doors like smoke as a couple stepped outside and made for their cars.
"I'm going to have a smoke out here before I go in," Jeffrey said. "Get me a beer."
Jordan gave him a thumbs up and Austin stared back at him as they passed through the doors into the bar. Jeffrey leaned against the wall and slid down into a crouch. He took out a cigarette, lit it, and drew it in. He saw the mud on the man's shirt and couldn't stop hearing the wet crunching sound of the man's head parting the mud and the gravel. He looked at the end of the cigarette and watched the burn eat it away when he breathed in. He took out his phone and stood up.
Gary Thomas Smith is a writer from Eastern Kentucky. His work has appeared in Inscape, Metaphor, The Pikeville Review, and is forthcoming in Feel It With Your Eyes: Writing Inspired by the University of Kentucky Art Museum from Wind Publications. He has an MA in English from Ohio University and is currently working on his MFA in fiction at the University of Kentucky. And he'd almost always rather be fishing.