The hot summer sun seared the long ebony ribbon of Wyoming highway, a road which was almost completely deserted. Dillan sped down the lonely strip and turned into the downward sloping driveway of the old car dealership. A town in the distance was the only other sign of civilized habitation. The lot was full of old dusty cars, the dirtiest and poorest of which were situated in the back. In this manner, the red sandy earth was punctuated with neat columns of destitute automobiles. It was a graveyard of machinery; the oldest of headstones were the first to be forgotten. The dealership�s showroom was �L� shaped, the bottom of the letter facing east. A blazing sun cast a shadow onto the front walkway. Dillan hurried to the door, checking his watch before swinging it open.
�Morning, Mr. Jasper,� Dillan said.
�Good morning, I need you to start with the service bathroom today,� replied the boss, not bothering to look up from the paperwork scattered about his desk.
�Sure, have you seen Otto?�
�Not since yesterday.�
�He�s never late.�
�I know, it�s odd. Think he�s had a rough night then?�
�Take these to the broken down Suburban at the back of the lot before you clock in. Put them in the cargo trunk. I�ll try to call Otto,� said the boss. He checked his watch before lifting the receiver.
The sun was an oven after stepping out of the small, air conditioned showroom and by the time Dillan reached the Suburban, he was sweating. Struggling with the load, he heaved the two over-stuffed garbage bags into the makeshift receptacle. As he gazed over the sea of automobiles � into that desolate void of forgotten country on a forgotten road � his thoughts were lonely, frequently unpleasant and full of regrets. The sheer oneness of his life had become burdensome. He wished for more. Lately, he found himself craving constantly, always exploring for places and things he could never discover. Everywhere he looked, he found un-fulfillment. A swig from the flask of rum in his front pocket soothed his mood as he walked along the side of the building.
�That�s that, I�m heading for the bathrooms now,� Dillan said as he entered the cool comfort of the showroom. Mr. Jasper looked up from the front desk,
�Did you ever hear from Otto?�
�No luck so far, I�m sure he�ll arrive eventually. And don�t forget to scrub the bottom of the toilet this time.�
�You got it.�
Dillan headed back to the service bathroom. It was an easy clean, as if no one had used the facility since the last time he had cleaned it. Afterwards, he cleaned the showroom restroom and spent the rest of his time at the dealership sweeping the floors and straightening out the desks. By the time he clocked out and headed for his car, a strong hunger was rippling through his stomach. He was almost positive, only a cheap hamburger and a strong drink would do.
The trip to the tavern almost cost him his second job at the saw mill. Dillan was certainly not a wise man, and he had this peculiar habit of seeking comfort in anything that could possibly destroy him. There was nothing he hated more than a boss who couldn�t appreciate his workers. Each day, the shift change felt as though he was trading a fair manager for a whip wielding overseer. There were no smoke breaks at the saw mill, no effortless duties, no casual conversation. The work was physically and mentally taxing to such a degree that he was often too tired to eat after his shift had ended. Upon returning to his home he would, instead, run headfirst into a familiar alcoholic mire as soon as he reached the fridge, shortly thereafter passing out on his living room couch and waking up in the morning to repeat the whole unsavory mess. Indeed, the simple act of clocking out at the car dealership and driving to the mill had become a much loathed transition, one for which Dillan afforded ample helpings of dread. Perhaps he saw it through a prisoner�s eyes, as if hearing the wakeup call on the morning of his execution. In any case, his spirit had already expired. This particular changing of the guard was wholly unnecessary to him.
The next morning was hotter than the last. Dillan shielded his view from the bright furnace of occipital glaze as he approached the showroom, his over exposed eyes taking a few moments to adjust to the shade of the building�s interior as he entered. Nancy was not at her usual desk, which was next to the switch board. Dillan had never really given Nancy much of his attention. She seemed transparent, seemed to blend in perfectly with the dull d�cor of the outdated showroom. Even so, the front room was not quite complete without her there.
�Good morning, Mr. Jasper,� said Dillan as he walked past Nancy�s vacant desk to greet his boss.
�Morning, go ahead and start in the showroom bathroom today.�
�I�m not sure,� replied the boss. Then, appearing puzzled, he glanced at his watch.
�What about Otto? Is he in today?�
�I let go of Otto. Besides, Jim is twice the mechanic he ever was, younger too.�
�That�s too bad, I liked Otto.�
�So did I.�
�Are you doing anything for the 4th?�
�I�ll probably have a barbeque at the house. My son came down to visit, you know. Nothing special. And you?� Mr. Jasper inquired, looking up at Dillan for the first time since the conversation had started.
�I don�t really have any plans; I might hit the bar and set off some fireworks in the back yard.� Dillan�s answer rang out in equal parts, pathetic and pessimistic.
�We�re getting a new dumpster today; I need you to cart the old garbage cans out behind the Corvair at the back of the lot. There�s still trash in two of them, I left the dolly on the side of the building for you.�
�Sure thing, boss.�
Dillan stacked the old metal garbage cans on top of one another and carted them to the back of the lot two at a time. The dolly absorbed much of the burden; on his final trip, he had just started to break a sweat. This day�s task being so much easier than the last, he took the time to smoke a cigarette on the walk back to the showroom. Halfway there, he felt the nicotine hit his brain. A hot sun contributed to his light headedness, the euphoria well in place as he flicked the butt against the wall and opened the door.
�All done, I�m going to start on that bathroom now,� he said, approaching Mr. Jasper�s desk.
�Get to it.�
�I will, no word from Nancy yet?�
�No. With all of these no-shows, I might just have to promote you. No one wants to work in this dusty cesspool of a town.�
Laughingly, Dillan replied, �Operating the switchboard and turning wrenches isn�t exactly at the top of my resume. Besides, I�m sure you can find suitable replacements�.
�What about you?�
�What about me?�
�Would you like to take Nancy�s place? There�s really nothing to it.�
�You can�t teach an old dog new tricks, boss,� Dillan said, breaking eye contact with Mr. Jasper and re-focusing his gaze to the floor.
�You can learn,� Mr. Jasper replied, curling one side of his lips into a crooked smile, as if he was forcing some degree of sociability into the conversation.
�Are you going to get to work? I see your promotion slowly slipping away.�
�I�m on my way,� replied Dillan, chuckling as he turned around sharply and shuffled to the showroom�s lavatory.
�Make sure you get in between the vanity and the toilet this time,� the manager said, this time addressing Dillan�s backside.
The showroom bathroom looked no different than it did when Dillan had mopped his way out of it the day before. Everything was clean, devoid of so much as a fingerprint. For a moment, he contemplated sitting down for a rest, but the fear of Mr. Jasper firing him for sleeping on the job compelled Dillan to go over the gleaming bathroom diligently, as he would have done for a dirtier facility. He tried to remember how many people he had seen use the bathroom yesterday. Aside from Nancy, his memory failed him. The showroom had been without a single customer in days.
�All done, boss,� Dillan said, exiting the front restroom.
�Business has been slow lately,� declared Dillan, gazing through the front window and looking at the empty black strip of road. It appeared to slope slightly upwards from the low vantage point of the showroom floor.
�I know. I�ve been trying to keep busy, though.�
�Seems odd that we haven�t had a customer in here in so long; do you think that the new dealership in Cowley has been cutting into your business?�
�I�m not sure; I had a guy call yesterday about the price on the Firebird. I guess he never thought to follow up on it,� Mr. Jasper said, leaning back in his office chair and interlacing his fingers behind his head. Dillan secretly welcomed his boss�s open posture.
�Do you think we should fix the sign? Pulling up today, this place looked like a ghost town.�
�I need to sell cars before I can fix the sign. I was going to start docking your pay, but with Otto gone and now Nancy�you might just become my business partner by the end of the week,� Mr. Jasper replied with a smirking grin.
Returning the grin Dillan said, �Sounds like a plan to me; are you getting hungry?�
�No, I�m stuffed,� said Mr. Jasper, glancing at the small ice box at the back of his work station, his left hand now resting upon his gut.
�Sure thing, I�m going to grab some lunch if that�s ok.�
After lunch, Dillan finished his duties for the day and clocked out. On the way out the door his mind wishfully entertained the idea of becoming part of Mr. Jasper�s business. In reality, he was desperate to become part of anything other than himself and the never ending course of menial jobs, liquor and compensated encounters with women which had together consumed most of his adult life. Long years of manual labor now exhausted his entire being and his body forced itself to perform a brand of work his mind could no longer palate. He thought about having a respectable job, about having money, maybe a wife. He thought about all of the things he would never have. No one can convince a man such as Dillan of his own self worth, not even his own imagination. He then thought about fixing the sign out front with some scrap wood and paint, each leftover from a recent side job. �That would impress him,� he said to himself as he turned the ignition key and drove to his post at the saw mill, not bothering to stop at the tavern.
Skipping breakfast, Dillan rolled his old Mustang into the lot well before the sun came up the next morning. He took the battered sign down and swiftly repaired it with the scrap wood he had brought from his house. Fresh paint went on. It caught the eye. Mr. Jasper pulled in just as Dillan was re-attaching the sign to the short metal frame which held it to the ground. The sun was now over the horizon and its light had almost reached the top of the new sign, still struggling to overcome the long shadow of the showroom in the early morning.
�What the hell is this?� exclaimed Mr. Jasper as he exited his truck with an agitated scowl.
�I fixed the sign, now people can actually tell we�re open for business.�
�That looks like absolute trash, take it down.�
Confused, Dillan pleaded his case, �I think it looks pretty good. It�s much better than it used to be; I spent a lot of time on this. It was supposed to be....�
�Take that sign down now or I�ll fire you just like Otto and that bitch, Nancy!� roared Mr. Jasper, boxing his thick framed glasses about his face and scratching under his nose in an irritated effort to appear intimidating. Dillan was stunned by the foul retort. Vulgarity was a vice which Dillan�s Mr. Jasper had simply never engaged in. He had always known that Mr. Jasper was a heavy drinker. The gin blossom in the middle of the manager�s face was in perennial bloom, adorning his otherwise friendly visage as far back as Dillan could remember. Granted, as far back as Dillan could remember was just seven months � the amount of time he had worked at the dealership � but one does not acquire such a badge in a few months time. No. It must be earned over the course of decades. Dillan never clocked in before 9:00 a.m., and he was always the first to leave in the afternoon. It was a side of Mr. Jasper he had never seen.
Chalking up his boss�s bad attitude to a hangover, he took the sign down. He then tossed the refreshed placard face-down into the permanently shaded recess between the showroom and the small storage shed on the North side of the complex. Slightly embittered, he headed into the showroom to get his morning orders.
�I need you to start with the service bathroom today, then do the service bay,� barked Mr. Jasper, almost immediately as Dillan entered the building.
�Sure. Anything else?�
�Yeah, me and my son went hunting last night, I need you to wash out my pickup bed. You don�t have to do it right now, wait �till after lunch.�
The service bathroom and the maintenance bay were spotless. Dillan gave it little thought as he went through the motions of re-cleaning everything. After all, it had been weeks since any customers had brought their vehicles in for a service. And besides, he appreciated the work. With no sign out front, he wondered if another customer would ever walk through the door. He was halfway through his duty when Dillan realized that Jim was not in the service area. Great, he thought with a smile. Mr. Jasper would have to hire him full time now.
By this time, Dillan had worked up a strong appetite. After finishing the service area cleans, he returned to Mr. Jasper�s desk to find no one there. He glanced out the front window and did not see his boss�s truck in the lot. Concluding that Mr. Jasper had stepped out for lunch, Dillan sat down in the waiting area alone. From his chair he could see across the showroom to the small ice box behind Mr. Jasper�s desk. As he walked over to it, his gaze again focused through the front glass to check for the boss. He was broke. The remaining cash from his wallet went for gas earlier that morning. And anyway, he had earned it; there was no harm in grabbing a snack from Mr. Jasper�s private stock. He opened the lid and rummaged through the half eaten leftovers and opened bottles of soda looking for something the boss wouldn�t miss. Digging deeper into the ice box, something shiny caught his eye. It was what looked like a small patterned piece of gold, gleaming from behind a translucent plastic bag. As he examined closer, he recognized the pattern as the embossed face of a ring, the one which Otto had always worn on his right ring finger. He stared more intently through the frosty fog and made out the shape of what looked like a human hand. It was Otto�s hand, the large ring still adorning his pale blue digit.
�What are you doing?� The voice came from behind Dillan.
�Nothing, sir.� He dropped the lid quickly.
�If you were hungry, you should have come with me.�
�I�I didn�t have any money and��
Mr. Jasper interrupted, �I could have covered you, that�s no big deal.� His mood had much improved since the early morning outburst.
Terrified, Dillan could hardly speak. His face grew pale as its blood supply was drained in the wake of such a macabre discovery. He was sick. His mind was at redline, desperately trying to keep up with the flood of horrible thoughts and images which now washed over his brain like caustic acid and caused his leg muscles to tremble and seize. Was this real? What was the hand doing in the ice box? Where had Mr. Jasper gone? The questions flashed through Dillan�s psyche in short order; none of them stopped to become said. After what seemed like an eternity of staring at his smiling boss, one, and it was only one, thought successfully made the journey from his over clocked brain and onto his tongue.
�What happened to Jim and Nancy?� he choked out.
�I�ve been that hungry before,� the boss replied, his smile now wider than ever. Mr. Jasper then grabbed a hammer from the filing cabinet and approached Dillan.
BIO: Maxfield Caruana lives on the Southernmost border between Delaware and Maryland, USA, with his wife. He hopes to teach history at a college level, whenever he gets that pesky "grad-school" thing out of the way, and he loves to cook. When he isn't fervently studying history at Salisbury University or cooking ridiculously high calorie meals, he's writing rather morbid stories about cannibalism and other social dysfunctions. This is the young man's first published work, although he certainly hopes it will not be his last. Keep an eye out for him in upcoming editions of your favorite short story publications, he's much too immature to handle a novel just yet.