by Alexa Locksley
Alexa Locksley is an escaped Midwesterner who currently lives in Las Vegas with their spouse and dog. They teach high school English, love film noir and coffee, and can be found on Twitter @AlexaLocksley. Locksley’s work has appeared or is upcoming in Crack the Spine and Ghost City Review.
Sweep Up Floors
Tom stood behind the gas station counter shredding to bits the page he’d just torn away from the calendar. Lingering unease had been nagging at him hours long now, but he couldn’t pin down a reason, any single flash in the swarm of half-formed thoughts flitting through his head like so many butterflies. Butterflies with wings in psychedelic colors, neon current pulsing along the edges like electrified stained glass windows, poison church glass, poison words floating up with dust in slanting shafts of light—
He decided it might be best for him to stop thinking about butterflies.
The clock told him he had a few hours more to go, a few hours before sunrise extinguished the peculiar tint of artificial lighting boxed into the room by the black distance surrounding—the tundra of overgrown gravel parking lots on the northern outskirts of the city, deserted warehouses trailing north through rusted chainlink miles to the auto parts factories and turnpike further on.
When the daylight came, then it would be time to turn down the volume of the radio, spin the dial back to a Top 40 station for the daytime ladies as if it’d been there the whole time, as if the shop didn’t nightly transform to a fluorescent-lighted lair, secret shrine to ancient gods of prog rock who screamed through the tinny speakers of the radio, and him the keeper, his only task to tune in and sweep up floors before morning chased them all away.
He crossed the room and poured himself a cup of coffee. Slow night—floors already mopped, persistent muddy bootprints in front of the beer cooler banished, still the better part of an hour before Karen Williamson came on the local station to read the early early news: last night’s crimes and the traffic report. Then she’d play a little too much Supertramp and not enough Rush—in fact had led him to realize that too much Supertramp could be played, only now, here in the dark empty hours of playlist automation he would’ve been glad of it. Now nothing but quiet suffocation by plastic packaging and stale donuts, lack of air pressing him softly toward sleep, coffee thin like water, and the man on the radio singing deep green rockabye blues, some kind of cowboy song.
Stay awake now. His fingers plucked at the elastic hairband around his wrist, snapped it back against his skin. If there was just somebody talk to, to keep him from falling, gently rolling into the half-waking valley of nightmare speculation. For a moment, he thought of Gabi, but she’d be asleep now anyway. Still he was struck by a vision of her midnight hair spread over white lace, a Hammer vampire bride in her boudoir. Inviting eyes drawing him in to the mounds of white tulle that you’d sink into like raw meringue, wrapping around you like a spider’s web. Besides, she would never.
The slam of a car door outside startled him back to attention in time to watch the driver make her way to the door, in time to catch the starlight as it glistened across her cheekbones before she swept inside. She had on an overcoat a size too big and a couple decades out of fashion, not to mention too heavy for the last hours of a night that had been threatening a summer storm all along, purple sparks of heat lightning tickling the undersides of the clouds.
Another runaway. What from, he didn’t know, but always the same type: showing up on a midweek quiet night to climb out of oversized cars, cloaked in clothes wrong for the season, sweatshirts and men’s buttondowns meant to deflect the gaze of loiterers and late-night creeps. On their guard, disappearing into the ladies’ room like this one now, buying coffee, cigarettes, a road map, maybe, but never nothing so frivolous as a magazine, and asking by way of conversation only question they could and one to which they surely knew the answer: This the way to the turnpike? before they’d swish back out the door like they’d never been.
Some nights, the vision played out in his head, how he walk out with one of them when he’d finally had enough of this place. It’d be a summer night, matte black sky and humid. Some girl would waltz in with her hair a mess and flannel shirt stained with sweat and engine grease, lean over the counter, give him the order to come with and he’d go along in a heartbeat. Just climb into her pickup truck—somehow always a pickup truck—and fly along the highway to the west, radio on and windows down to temper scorching night air. Not that it had to be a girl, even, though the other type showed up only seldom here, occasional young men with fear-tense shoulders, cold angles that thawed after the right look and soft words, fingers brushing his a little too long when they took their change.
“This the way to the turnpike?”
He gave a start and heated styrofoam slipped from his hand. He caught it halfway to the floor, splashing hot coffee down his front and over the linoleum. She’d come out from the ladies’ now, the scarf tied over her hair neater, straighter.
“You all right?” she asked.
“Yeah. Sorry, what were you asking?”
“This the way to the turnpike?” she repeated, then rushed on, “I mean, that’s stupid, I know it, but is that way the fastest?”
He dredged up the dusty road atlas from behind the counter, kept for just such occasions, fingers tracing between cities on old paper worn smooth like cloth. “Depends where you’re headed to.”
“Milwaukee. Want to get there by morning.”
“That’s a long drive.”
She turned her back, he thought to leave him, but no. Instead she poured a cup of coffee, slow, and stirred in sugar crystals that fell to trickle past the cup like moonlight and sparkle dying at her feet.
“I need to go a long way away, and quick,” she said. “Is the turnpike the right way?”
“Looks like. Or,” he said, following the faded ink of the highway, “you could take 76 over to 30. It ends up more or less the same toward the end of Indiana.”
“The end of Indiana?” she repeated.
“The edge. The western border. The end if you’re coming from this side.”
She said nothing, and took a sip of coffee.
He took a chance. “Why tonight?”
“You believe in fate?”
He kept silent, question asked by tilt of the head. Words crowded in his throat almost to overflowing, buzzing like wasps trying to force their way out, but he held their needle sting inside. Don’t you know it’s a sin to go and shatter runaway faith on a night like this?
“He can’t follow me tonight.”
He closed his eyes for a long moment, pressed hard at the outer corners, the wasp stings sinking to his stomach, not dulled by exhaling.
“Anyhow, your calendar’s wrong,” she said, as if she felt that she had to set things right before she left, turn the tone of their talk back to innocuous. “Wednesday’s over.”
“Wednesday’s over?” he repeated, finding no sense in the words.
“Seventeenth was yesterday.” She ripped the page from the calendar. “Here, gimme that map a second.” She plucked a pen from catchall cup by the register and sketched on the back of the preceding day, ballpoint scraping hard against the counter.
He spoke again to drown out the sound. “So why Milwaukee? If it’s even real.” Struck by gloom—he’d never see it anyway, that or any other city but this.
Hint of smile for the first time as she tapped the printed word on his map. “It’s real enough, right there. No conspiracy on the part of the Rand McNally corporation. And anyhow I got a brother there I’m staying with, so I figure I have to believe in it.”
He nodded miserably. He’d fallen in love with her now, but it’d pass by the end of the night.
“Thanks,” she said. “You take care now.” A couple of dollar bills floated from her fingers down to the counter on their own breeze, and she was out the door.
Nothing to her but mere courtesy, of course, and him going and tricking himself into hoping before he knew too much. Then the usual business, back out the door, gone forever to leave him here alone beneath the fluorescent lights, just his own windowlight reflection for company and Led Zeppelin slow and heavy on the radio. That’d put him to sleep sure, but always a cure for that up your sleeve. Snap. Snap. He watched out the window, a brief moment of nightshine across her face before she was swallowed up by her ancient Cadillac. No such thing as nightshine, but damn it, it was real, and only vanished as soon as you stepped through the doorway to the mundane.
It was Thursday now, still too early to be real, but soon the third-shifters stopping in would lend the weight of their fatigue to the morning, giving it substance. But for now, time to sweep sugar off the floor again, and where had those welts on his wrist come from? Only a half hour more until the living voice crackled onto the radio to drive the runaway girl out of his memory. Best thing for it. Whether she made it to Milwaukee, he’d never know.
Tom leaned against the counter with his head in his hands and waited for the first purple streaks of dawnlight before he picked up his broom.