The electricity had been out for over an hour, and the emergency lights at the corner of the bar – powered by an ancient, sputtering, apneatic generator just outside the back door — made the whole place look even more desperate, desolate and forgotten than usual, if that was even possible.
In the best of times, this hole-in-the-wall wiggle bar at the edge of the Pine Barrens was a miserable place to spend a shift, she thought to herself. And even now, with the winds still howling, the rain falling sideways, and a line of cars and trucks on the evacuation route stretching eastward all the way back past the Garden State Parkway to the waist-deep lagoon that until a few hours ago had been Atlantic City, the place was empty.
She guessed that the flood of evacuees heading west toward higher ground would rather take their chances with the worst storm in the history of the state than risk wandering into this dive. She couldn’t really blame them.
Phil had flagged the girls off, told the dancers not to come in because of the hurricane, and promised to rebook them if the place was still standing when the storm passed. He didn’t come in either, the son of a bitch.
But he made damned sure that she came in.
What the hell, she thought. What else did she have to do? Where else did she have to go?
Maybe she could have tried to make it back to her apartment to retrieve a few things, but why bother? What was there that she’d ever need? A picture of her mother and father? She still remembered what they looked like. A photo of her First Communion back in Ojinaga at Jesus de Narzaret with her and all the other little Mexican girls and boys; none of them smiling, all of them looking serious, not because they appreciated the solemnity of the moment so much as the fact that they all wanted to hide their missing baby teeth? Maybe some things are better left behind.
“Fuck,” she muttered. “My papers.”
Until recently, she’d never given them a second thought. As soon as she got them she tossed them into the junk drawer in what passed for a kitchen cabinet in her second-floor apartment. She couldn’t remember if she even broke them out when she applied for this job as a bartender. Phil never asked to see them. She remembered that. He told her she was going to be paid the same way the handful of pop-veined regulars spent most of their evenings there, under the table.
“That’s the American way,” he told her.
Lately, though, she found herself thinking about them a lot. Three o’clock in the morning, four o’clock in the morning as soon as the cab would drop her off after 12 hours of pouring Seagrams and drawing Bud Lights for Trump supporters, she’d pull open the drawer and look at them, just to reassure herself that if the unthinkable happened, if he ever did somehow manage to be elected, and if the wall actually did get built, at least she’d be on the right side of it.
Maybe they’d be all right. There was a chance that the storm surge, when it finally did come, wouldn’t reach all the way to the second floor. Still, the thought that it might, that she might lose the papers and have to endure the bureaucratic hell of replacing them, and risk being late for at least one and probably several shifts to do so, made her a little queasy.
A smoke would ease her mind. She stepped out from behind the bar and moved to the coat rack, fumbled in the pocket of her still rain-sodden denim jacket and grabbed the package of Top. She opened it, and pulled out the papers. “Double fuck,” she muttered. “Only fucking papers I’ve got on me, and they’re soaked.”
“And triple fuck!” she screamed to the empty barroom as the wheezing old generator coughed itself into a coma and the lights faded to blackness.
“Damn it, damn it, damn it,” he screamed as he pounded the steering wheel of his 15-year-old Ford pickup. “Fuck, Fuck. Fuck!” Rainwater had half-flooded the truck through the driver’s side window that hadn’t gone all the way up in a decade, and with each fist fall it shot up around him like a fountain at a Pine Barrens Seizure Village. How could have gotten his math wrong? Ever since the gas gauge had given up the ghost about five years ago, he had gotten pretty good at watching the odometer and counting down after each fill-up. By his calculations, he should still have at least a gallon and a half. Even with the slow going on these old sandy fire roads that cut through the pines a half-mile in from the traffic-choked highway, he should have had enough gas to make it to his uncle’s hunting cabin where he had two five-gallon cans of gas stashed. It’d be enough to get him to I-95, and from there….
He grabbed a screwdriver from the center console, pushed the driver’s side window down by hand, reached outside and fished around inside the hole where the door handle used to be – that had gone about the same time the window had – until he sprung the lock. He pulled the keys out of the ignition and fumbled with them until he found the tiny little key for the glove box, opened it, and grabbed his Sig 9mm. He hated the fact that he had to keep it locked up like that, but the truth was, for the last 18 months, he hadn’t trusted himself to have the gun too handy.
“Have you ever had thoughts of suicide?” the mook at the V.A. had asked him.
“What the fuck is that? A trick question?” he had thought to himself. “There isn’t a day that’s gone by in 15 years that I haven’t thought about suicide. Every time I think about your sorry face, I’ve thought about it. Every time I walk through that fucking door I think about it. Weigh the pros and cons. Carefully. And then move on to something else. Give me some fucking credit for not doing it,” he thought.
But all he said was, “No, doctor, of course not. I have too much to live for.”
And up until just that moment, he thought maybe he had. He had it all so carefully planned, the fire roads to the interstate, then all the way out to Philadelphia in time for the Democratic convention. That’s where he’d make his stand. Storm right up to the Bernie for President headquarters there, and do it. Show the socialist bastard that there was only one way to make America great again. He’d be a hero.
But now it was all in jeopardy because he was a $1.87-a-gallon-and-a-half short of gas, stuck on a fire road in the middle of a hurricane.
“I just don’t win anymore,” he moaned as he pocketed the handgun and stepped out of the truck into a puddle of water two inches above the tops of his Timberland knock-off boots.
He was about to give up, but just then, off in the distance, he heard the wheeze of a generator far off in the pines toward the highway.
There was just enough battery left on her Rite-Aid bought Tracfone to use it as a flashlight but only just enough to give her a quick chance to see whether she could even fix the goddamned generator, whatever was wrong with it. When it came to actually fixing it, that she’d probably have to do by feel. Part of her was ready to say to hell with it, to just sit there in the dark and the cold until the storm passed and the sun came up. But God and her father in far-off Ojinaga had saddled her with a disturbingly Catholic sense of responsibility, even to an establishment and a boss that were so clearly taking advantage of her. That same duo had gifted her with a knack for making piece-of-shit mechanical devices work regardless of their condition, and so, out she went.
She hadn’t even made it to the second step before she spotted him. Hunched over, one end of a rubber hose in his mouth, the other end stuck in the gas tank of the now-silent generator, a five-gallon jerry can beside him. He saw her coming. The look on his face was like Denny Hastert getting caught by the principal outside the boys’ showers.
She didn’t even have time to get the “F” in “fuck” out before he was on her like the rain. She felt a frigid piece of steel up against the side of her head, and heard that peculiar Piney twang in her ear.
“Damn it, damn it, damn it, fuck, fuck, fuck. Now you’ve seen me. Now you’re gonna come with me. You’re my insurance.”
It was all just a big terrifying blur from there, how he had ripped her phone put of her hand and tossed it deep into the woods, then the long trudge through the pines with his gun poking her in the ribs the whole way. Was it a mile? A half-mile? She lost track. He forced her to sit in the mud and sand and water as he poured the contents of the jerry can into the truck, then with a screwdriver, opened the door, never taking the gun off her. Her ordered her inside, down on the floor, which was ponded over with water. Even in her terror, she thought it odd, maybe even a little funny, that he didn’t bind or gag her. Hell, if there was one guy in the world who ought to have duct tape handy, it was this guy.
The truck reluctantly groaned to life, and as it did, the radio came on, AM, scratchy, distant, the metal coat hanger picking up every fourth of fifth word from the announcer on NYW Newsradio 1060. He was saying something about how the Sanders campaign had decided to furlough most of its staff and close its headquarters in Philadelphia.
“Pink slips!” her kidnapper cried. “Bernie gave out pink slips!”
He put his head on the steering wheel and sobbed. “I just don’t win anymore.”