Night Shift

Skian McGuire

9.2.08

  

 

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Spring 1983

ďIt could have been a gun,Ē I tell the cop, a paunchy white guy with a South Philly accent. Heís fingering the half-grown stubble on his upper lip. Detectives go about their business in the shabby squad room around us.  I donít want them to think Iím too much of a sissy to be trusted running an all-night convenience store, caving to the first robber with his hand in his pocket, but Iím trying to be honest. I just couldnít tell. It didnít look like a finger or a pen - too thin. It could have been a piece of tube, or a dowel. Iím sure it wasnít a dildo, but I donít tell him that.

His partner, tall and blond and stiff-backed as a Prussian Army officer, is at the next desk. He puts down the phone heís been holding to his ear.

ďIt was a gun,Ē he says.

Probably, committing a robbery with a gun puts the guy away for longer. They want to believe it was a gun, or they want me to believe they believe. All right. So it was a gun.

ďWas he white?Ē Detective Mustache wants to know. ďWas he black? Hispanic?Ē

I think about the guyís face framed by the black hood of his parka, drawstring pulled tight. ďI donít know,Ē I say, remembering skin not quite the color of coffee with cream, something more golden. ďHe could have been black.Ē

The Prussian rolls his eyes.

They give me books of mug shots to look at. Six big albums full, front and profile views, row after row and page after page of scowling, nervous, scornful, impassive faces, only a few as pale as mine. None of them is him.

I couldnít see his hair, I tell them. No scars or tattoos, no skin except for that brown face and small brown hands. No mustache. No sideburns.

Iím remembering the oversize parka, the thin legs, the dark brown eyes I stared directly into across the counter. Just my height, I noted carefully when he left, checking the stickers on the door jamb that were put there for measuring the departing perpetrator of a robbery, a circumstance I never imagined would really happen.

ďYou know,Ē I say, ďit could have been a girl.Ē

The hustle-bustle of the squad room slows and stops around me, or maybe I only imagine it, as Detective Mustache stares and the Prussian stops rifling a file cabinet to turn and look wordlessly down his nose.

They bring out six more books of mug shots. Scared black girls with corn rows or braids or straightened hair with bangs like the pixie cut my mother made the barber give me when I was little, sullen black girls with short platinum-blonde afros or cinnamon-colored dreads. There are brown girls, too, with perms and pony tails and everything else in between. Unlike the menís photos, there are no white faces at all. She - or maybe he - isnít here, either.

The cops are disgusted with me. I know what theyíre thinking, that Iím a fucking lezzie, with my hair shorter than theirs like I want to be a man, Iím probably just trying to break their balls. Mustache drives me back to the store, where my boss, a closeted dyke, gives me effusive praise and tells me I can have the next night off if I want it. I did just the right things, she says: handing over the money right away, locking the door behind him before I hit the button for the police. I even had less than $50 in the drawer, just like the sign says. Two weeks ago, she helped her supervisor clean up the blood and brains of another clerk at another store in West Philly. Sheís glad Iím alive. I donít tell her Iím not sure he had a gun.

The cops say theyíll call me in for a line-up if they pick the guy up, but I donít expect to hear from them again. I didnít give them squat. I walk home in the bright spring sunshine, going over and over in my mind what I should have done differently, how I shouldíve been a better observer. It takes a long time to get to sleep.

I go back to work that night Ďcause I need the money, and Iím watching every customer like heís the next robber, gladder than ever to count cigarette packs in the morning and sign off on my drawer. By the end of the week, the jumpiness wears off. Young drunks steal microwave burritos and throw up on my floor. Old ladies in stinking layers of sweaters nurse 35-cent coffees with a dozen creamers and leave a blizzard of sugar wrappers for me to clean up. I work the night shift and hate everybody equally. Life goes back to normal.


Fall 1984

The club is packed. I make for the bar through a sea of dancers, which seems easier than picking my way around the edges, skirting lit cigarettes and half-full glasses, the clutter of tables and flannel-shirt lesbians straddling chairs to swig their beer, lovers necking in the dark. A year and a half has gone by, but I know itís her the moment I spot her. Sheís wearing menís dark blue chinos like the ones I wear to work and a green polyester shirt thatís slightly too small, tight over jutting shoulder blades and tiny breasts. No parka now. With brown eyes sparkling, teeth flashing, her face resembles the stone idol I saw that night only the way a living face might be brought to mind by its death mask. I donít know why I recognize her, unless itís her hands, small and neat, the same soft palm I put all the money into, hands now open wide and waving as she moves to the music. I stop beside her, staring.

She smiles at me, looks away, looks back. Smiles an apology to her partner and tilts toward me, one eyebrow raised. She does not stop dancing but reins in her motion, shuffling a little with the beat, her body half turned in my direction.

ďDid you have a gun?Ē I ask.

She freezes, her face blank. I freeze, too, just as shocked by what Iíve said as she is. She blinks. Her eyes widen.

ďDid you have a gun?Ē I repeat, blood pounding in my ears loud enough to drown out my own voice, drown out Johnny Cougar blasting from the speakers, drown out any answer she might give. She glances at her partner and grabs the womanís hand, backing away into startled dancers, her expression disbelief and scorn, shaking her head and saying something I canít make out, something dismissive.

The crowd of women dances around me, flicking looks of curiosity and annoyance at me standing still and solitary as Lotís wife. When the number ends, the beat merges into a new song not as danceable, and I drift back to the dark perimeter with the couples, out of the range of the mirror-ball scattering confetti light across the shiny hardwood floor.

From across the room I watch the woman and her partner pull jackets off the backs of chairs and make smiling good-byes. For just one instant, she looks out into the room. I imagine sheís looking for me. I wait until the next song draws dancers back onto the floor and follow the two of them out.

The smell of beer and cigarette smoke lingers for a moment on the crisp fall air after the steel door clicks shut behind me. Theyíre walking down the middle of Quince Street, on the crown of cobblestones. They turn west on Walnut. My footsteps ring in the narrow street, in the late night hush, no traffic except for a bus that squeals and roars away from the intersection as I step cautiously around the corner. The other woman is gone.

She doesnít turn around. I follow her six blocks to Bainbridge, four blocks to 17th, gradually closing the gap. Hunched into my too-big bomber jacket, I keep my head bent so she wonít recognize me. She never turns.

At last, in front of a narrow doorway sandwiched between storefronts, she stops to pull out her keys and spots me. A flash of fear; she faces me with the keys poking from between her knuckles like little blades, something she learned from a self-defense class, maybe, or maybe itís just instinct, picked up from the streets.

She recognizes me. I want to think she recognizes me from the convenience store, when she held her trembling left hand out to take the sweaty bills from me, her right hand invisible, pointing something at me through her coat.

ďDid you have a gun?Ē My voice sounds loud in the empty street. Her face changes from wide-eyed fright to disbelief to anger. She shakes her head, not an answer but a rejection. Her face says Iím crazy. I half expect her to tell me Iím one crazy motherfucking white girl, sheís going to call the cops, but she doesnít say anything.

I wonder what someone looking at us from one of the apartments would think of this silent tableau, me in the dim yellow glow of the streetlight, her in the wash of white light that spills from her entryway. A loverís spat, maybe. If her neighbors know sheís gay. Or would they think I was a man, with my short hair and big leather jacket?

ďI just want to know,Ē I say.

She steps sideways toward her door, never turning her back on me, jabbing her key at the lock until it finds its own way into the hole. The lock gives a heavy metallic click as the bolt turns. The door swings in and she disappears inside, never taking her eyes off me.

A light comes on above the street, bright enough to make two rectangles of reflected white ceiling appear through the security cage of a shop window opposite. One after another, the blinds fall, and the slats wink shut.

I wonder if I can stand there all night, waiting for the starless red-black haze of the city sky to lighten into gray, to turn shell-pink, for the rumble of bread trucks to be punctuated by the banging of dumpsters, by car horns and screeching brakes, front ends slamming into pot holes all the way from Broad Street, for the low growl of the subway underneath as the city shakes itself awake. Would she keep the vigil, too, now and then parting the blinds to see if Iím still here?

Iím used to staying up. Iím used to being on my feet all night. I try to picture her coming out in the morning, dressed for work. A skirt and heels, office drag? A McDonaldsí uniform? Does she have a job besides robbing convenience stores? Was I her first? Is she a student? Does she do drugs? Is there a child in there, waiting for her to come home from the bar? Did she use the $43 she stole from me to buy heroin, diapers, beer, bologna, pay for the dentist, buy flowers for a beautiful femme? I heard they still do butch and femme out in West Philly where the black lesbians have their own bars, as alien to me as if Iíd been straight. Is there a woman asleep in the dark quiet of a bedroom at the back of the small walk-up, a world away from the street where I look up, wondering?

I donít know how long I stay there. Finally, I  walk most of the way home, until the first A bus of the day groans to a stop where I wait for the light to change on the deserted street.  

The temperature has been falling. I keep my hands in the pockets of my jacket, trying to see from my reflection in the bus window whether a finger looks like a gun, but the leather is not supple enough and itís getting too light. I am a ghost in the glass, nearly invisible. When I get home, none of my housemates is up yet. Trying to be quiet, I am a ghost here, too.  I go to bed early and sleep until itís time to get up for work. I do not dream.


Winter 2003

The sky is brilliant with stars like diamonds scattered on jewelerís black velvet. I pick out Orion the Hunter, one of the few constellations I know, and try to follow him around the twisting road, dropping out of sight and reappearing over the tree line and the rising and falling hills. Finally I park and sit for a few minutes in the dark cab of my truck. I tell myself Iím making up my mind whether to do it or not, but I know I will. I may never have another chance. I may never have the nerve again.

The engine coughs into life when I turn the key, and the dashboard glows. I hate to turn on the headlights, but I do, and they seem almost too bright for my eyes. I touch the pocket of my coat again and have a moment of panic when I find it empty, then I remember. I put the gun in the glove box, in case I got stopped.

I pull away from the stand of dry brown corn that waits to be plowed under in the spring. We havenít had any snow at all until this afternoon, and now there is a light, dry dusting of it on everything. It blows off the road in the wake of an oncoming car, and I imagine the trail Iím leaving, of naked pavement in the path of my tires.

The glow of Winchester is up ahead, a town only somewhat larger than the one I live in with my partner of almost twenty years. She came home to help her brother out on the dairy farm when her father retired, and we stayed. We own a house now - or at least, the bank does, anyway. I have a job with the Post Office, and a paper route to make ends meet, and I start my day at three in the morning instead of eleven at night like I did those last couple of years back in Philly.

The lot is deserted. I park off to the side of the building, out of the glare of the gas sign and the pump lights and the fluorescence of the store itself with its racks of candy bars and chips, its coolers and coffee makers and a freezer full of things to put in the microwave for an on-the-road snack. Itís the only thing open at this hour for miles around. Sometimes I come for gas here, when I donít have enough to do my route because I forgot to get it the night before. Last night I stopped to steal a license plate from a pick-up in a driveway just across the state line; I doubt theyíve even missed it yet. My truck looks like thousands of other trucks. Unless a cop comes in while Iím here, I donít think Iíll get caught.

Not that I mean to do anything, really. I take out the gun and test the weight of the cold, slightly greasy metal. I spin the cylinder - itís an old-fashioned revolver, as obsolete as I will be someday - to make sure itís empty, one last time. I donít want anybody to get hurt by accident. I told the police chief I wanted a permit so I could learn to shoot targets, but I had no plans to shoot it at all. I never even bought ammunition. I donít suppose it could have magically loaded itself, but even so, I check.

I feel sorry for the kid at the register. I know just how she feels, or should I say he? I realize that Iíve been thinking of her as a kid, even though sheís probably as old as I am. She did a sex change - I know about things like that - and just like all those FTMs Iíve seen down in Northampton, she looks younger than she actually is. He looks younger. With the fuzz on his lip, he looks barely older than a teenage boy. I almost didnít recognize her. Him.

Sheís not as dark, now; he looks almost white, up here in the north where summer comes and goes so fast, it hardly seems to happen at all. No more coffee-with-cream; no more brown skin like she might actually be black. Now she passes for white, I guess, the way she used to pass for male. I donít know how she came to be all the way up here, half a world away from Philly and half a lifetime gone by. I hadnít seen her before last week, when I came in to pay for my gas. I hadnít seen her in 20 years, but I knew, just like I knew that night in the bar: It was her, all right. I would recognize those eyes anywhere.

I wonder how she ended up here. Did she come here on the lam, running from the law? Did she come with the beautiful femme? Is her kid grown up? She probably did the sex change after she got here, since this neck of the woods - Lesbianville, that tabloid called it - seems to have become the world capital for women becoming men. Maybe even thatís why she came here. Iím the last of a dying breed, the Butch Lesbian. Nobody under forty need apply. But did she rob convenience stores to save up money for her chest operation? Did she get a job in one afterward, as some weird sort of expiation?

How long has she been here? When I saw her that first time, I was so startled I nearly left my credit card behind. When she - he - spoke, I was surprised he didnít sound like a Spic; I swear he sounded just like a native Yankee. ďHey, ya forgot ya cahd,Ē he called out in a voice that was not very low but buzzy and rough like a boyís. Thatís the testosterone, I thought. He was growing a mustache, too, just about as successfully as that macho cop, all those years ago. He had to have been here long enough to acquire that accent. Maybe as long as me. I get a shivery feeling, thinking that my quarry might have been here all the time, maybe working days or the three-to-eleven, and I didnít even know it.

The gun is heavy in my pocket. It is not cold now, just cool as my fingers brush it, warmed by my body heat. It is as familiar to me as my own hand. Iíve had it for years, oiling it occasionally to keep it from rusting, dry firing it just to have the feel of pulling the trigger in my muscles. I donít know what I bought it for, without any bullets, except just to have it. Just to look at myself in the mirror with it, locked in the bathroom like a teen-age boy with his rod in his hand. I hold it in the firing position, what they call the three-point stance on cop shows, and stare down my own barrel in the medicine-cabinet light. I hold it in the pocket of my down coat, a little too warm in the heat of the house, and point it at my reflection, trying to see if I can tell what it is. I put my hand in my pocket just by itself and point my first finger the same way. Is it a gun? A finger? Gun? Finger? Thereís no way of knowing.

But I want to know. I have spent the week rehearsing what I will ask him. ďDidnít you used to be a girl?Ē or maybe ďHave you ever lived in Philadelphia?Ē That would sound like Iím just trying to chat him up. ďDid you rob the convenience store where I worked, twenty years ago?Ē He would just deny it, anyway. Maybe I should get right to the point: ďDid you have a gun or not?Ē

I remember at the last minute to take the ski mask out of the other pocket and pull it over my head. Whew. That would have been a big mistake. Iím shaking a little now, wondering what else I might have forgotten, what I might have missed. The lot is still empty. I donít dare waste any more time.

Heís reading a magazine behind the counter. I wonder what his face will look like when he finally looks up and sees me in my ski mask and down jacket. Puzzled? Scared? Will he reach for the button right away, instead of waiting Ďtil itís over like heís supposed to? Will he notice my height against the feet-and-inches decals on the doorframe? My tits are small, invisible under the big coat, and Iím slim-hipped and broad-shouldered enough that he wonít know whether Iím a man or a woman. I thought about stuffing some rolled-up socks in my crotch, but it wouldnít show, anyway. I scan behind me, my breath making the mask feel damp. Even in the lights of the gas station, I can still see bright white Orion, looking over my shoulder at the empty street and the winter black sky  and the parking lot where nobody has picked up the cigarette butts and candy wrappers in quite some time.

The revolver in my pocket seems huge now, clammy with my own sweat. Iím clutching it so hard, my hand is shaking. I take a deep breath and use the other hand to reach for the door.

 

 

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