“Brown Paper Sack Guys” by Brenda McCray
Thursdaze (because the weekend won’t come fast enough) features original flash fiction modeled after our Drug Chronicles Series. Each story is an original one, and each encapsulates the author’s fictional experience with drugs. Our print series has anthologized authors writing about marijuana, cocaine, speed, and heroin, but contributors to the web series can focus on any drug, real or imagined, controlled or prescribed, illegal or soon-to-be legalized. Submissions to Thursdaze will be judged on an author’s ability to stylistically emulate his or her substance of choice. Submissions are also limited to 750 words, so try to focus. (They have a pill for that.)
This week, Brenda McCray’s Nancy runs into some interesting characters on her way to a liquor store.
Nancy took the job at the new liquor store to supplement her shitty government salary. The liquor store allowed her to work weekends and in the evenings after leaving her regular job—only a two-minute walk from one to the other. Every morning when she walked from her car to her office, she would see the same cast of characters posted up in front of the gray-and-beige county government building, which was situated only a few blocks from the homeless mission.
Willie was gray-bearded, nearly blind, and dirty. He sat out on a bench from eight to five every workday. Sometimes Nancy would see him drinking orange juice out of a Nestlé Pure Life water bottle. Sometimes he had coffee. In the summer, when the air felt like hot breath, Willie slept. He never asked passersby for spare change, but people greeted him—Mornin’, Willie!—and gave him a sandwich or a buck or two anyway.
Next was the oldster with the cane. He told Nancy to call him Pops, but no one knew him by that name. “Help an old marine?” he would say, his ashy arm extending a Styrofoam cup, which he shook at people like an angry fist.
There was also an angry guy. Nancy never saw anyone give him change. The angry guy was crazy—always talking to himself, sometimes shouting and spitting at an unseen enemy. He smoked down butts of discarded cigarettes, some of them tattooed with pink lipstick, that were left behind by employees on smoke breaks, rarely making eye contact with anyone.
Last—and also least—was Asshole. He wore old combat fatigues and had the glossiest white (natural) Santa Claus beard Nancy had ever seen. That guy was the most hated of the downtown panhandlers. Almost everyone had the same story: I used to give him money. I gave him money three days in a fucking row! Miss him one time, and he insults me! Nancy had seen people shouting back and forth with Asshole for an entire city block after passing him. When he first appeared downtown, he had a child’s flute, which he played inexpertly. Played it like total shit, actually. He would really get into it, playing with feeling, but it was obvious he didn’t know how. He later tried the same thing with a harmonica. His body language said he was a blues man to the bone, but his sound said huckster. If Nancy didn’t stop and give him change, he would say, “I guess Satan’s gotcha!” Other times he chided, “What goes around comes around!” At first she had tried to explain that she had given him all of her change on her way into the building that morning and that she was just walking back to her car. I already helped you! Asshole didn’t care for explanations, she’d learned. After that, Nancy just watched her shoes on the sidewalk as she passed him.
When Nancy started working at the liquor store, she began to see the same guys in the evenings. Until then, Nancy had never been indoors near Willie. In a small, enclosed space, he had an odor that demanded a burst from the aerosol can behind the counter once he’d left. When Willie had orange juice, he was really drinking Barton Vodka. When he had coffee, it was Kentucky Deluxe. The store was located on the ground floor of a high-end apartment building. The prices there were higher than at other, farther-flung liquor stores frequented by guys from the mission. But they still came, with shouldered rucksacks and sweaty money. They paid the high prices, though they never failed to mention them. I can get this pint of hundred proof at George’s for five! The new store made their pockets lighter and their world smaller, artificially containing them in a small circle bracketed by the mission and the store’s convenient location.
Nancy didn’t mind her job at the store. She didn’t have to think like she did at her social worker job—it was mentally exhausting finding services and solutions for the down-and-out. Once Nancy left the county building, she was no longer a social worker. She was just the lady at the liquor store. She was like some of her customers that way. Once the war ended, no one saw soldiers. Instead, they saw brown paper sack guys, and on weeknights, Nancy sat in a tall, yellow-backed chair from six to nine, mindlessly ringing up their deaths.
BRENDA McCRAY is a an Oklahoma City criminal investigator and a mother to one daughter. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and taking large bites of nachos.
Do you have a story you’d like us to consider for online publication in the Thursdaze flash fiction series? Here are the submission terms and guidelines:
—We are not offering payment, and are asking for first digital rights. The rights to the story revert to the author immediately upon publication.
—Your submission should never have been published elsewhere.
—Your story should feature a drug, any drug, and your character’s experience with it. We’ll consider everything from caffeine to opium, and look forward to stories ranging from casual use to addiction to recovery. Stylistically, we’ll respond most favorable to stories that capture the mood and rhythm of your drug of choice.
—Include your drug of choice next to your byline.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words.
—E-mail your submission [email protected], and include THURSDAZE in the subject line. Please paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.
About the Drug Chronicles Series: Inspired by the ongoing international success of the city-based Akashic Noir Series, Akashic created the Drug Chronicles Series. The anthologies in the series feature original short stories from acclaimed authors, each of whom focuses on their fictional experience with the title drug. Current releases in the series include The Speed Chronicles (Sherman Alexie, William T. Vollmann, Megan Abbott, James Franco, Beth Lisick, Tao Lin, etc.), The Cocaine Chronicles (Lee Child, Laura Lippman, etc.), The Heroin Chronicles (Eric Bogosian, Jerry Stahl, Lydia Lunch, etc.), and The Marijuana Chronicles (Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Child, Linda Yablonsky, etc.).
Posted: Oct 23, 2014
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