"Asphalt" was published in The Portland Review in 2003.
Copyright Christopher Stanton
It all started after Vance shaved his head.
He wasn’t the type to look at fashion magazines, but since he was the assistant manager at the Grab-n-Go and walked the floor every morning before they opened, he couldn’t help but notice them next to the greeting cards in Aisle 3.
The August issue of something-or-other had a guy with long eyelashes on the cover. He wore a striped suit and a white shirt with a pointy collar that stretched across his shoulders. And his head was shaved so that only a tiny bit of blond stubble was left.
Beat the summer heat, the front of the magazine said.
Vance thought the guy looked pretty cool. Not just cool in a suave way, but actually, physically, cool. He wasn’t quite sold on the striped suit, and especially not the shirt with the butterfly collar, but Vance thought the haircut might be something to seriously consider.
It was the end of July and the weather was highly uncomfortable. It had reached one hundred degrees almost every day that week, according to the sign on the Texas Savings Bank. The air conditioner in Vance’s apartment was malfunctioning, as well; it leaked coolant onto the carpet and whined incessantly every time he turned it on.
Becky, who was his wife and was seven months pregnant, hollered at him every time he stood with his head in the refrigerator.
I ain’t paying that electric bill, Vance, she said.
Well, why don’t you come on here and join me then. We might as well waste electricity together.
That made her smile.
Vance knew that Becky was a bit more excitable than usual, on account of what was going on inside her. But she definitely had a point. He recognized that marriage involved compromise, and he figured he should take action to solve his problem, instead of burdening Becky with it.
So on the way home from work, he stopped at the barber shop near the VFW and asked the elderly barber to shave his head so that only a tiny bit of stubble was left. Vance brought the August issue of the magazine with him as a visual aid. The man had raised an eyebrow but complied with his request.
Surprise, Vance told Becky when he got home. What do you think, honey?
Becky didn’t reveal her opinion about his new look. She didn’t speak over their dinner of macaroni and cheese and potato salad from the Grab-n-Go deli counter. She didn’t even protest when Vance cracked open a second Bud Light after dinner, or when he turned on baseball instead of the Tyne Daly program that she usually watched on Tuesday nights.
Becky excused herself long before their usual bedtime. Vance came to bed after the Astros won the game with a home run in the tenth. Becky didn’t stir as he crawled into bed next to her, the ceiling fan whirring above them. He put his arm around her shoulders, but she didn’t make a sound.
Vance lay there in their sweltering bedroom, next to his wife and unborn child. He wondered if he had made a horrible mistake.
Becky didn’t get up and sit with him the next morning while he ate his regular breakfast of Multigrain Branola, pineapple wedges, and two cups of Sanka. Vance picked out a short-sleeved checkered dress shirt, tan khakis, and a red Ralph Lauren tie that was the most expensive article of clothing he owned. His shoes needed a bit of polish, but he figured they could last another day.
For exercise, he did several bicep curls with the barbells he had purchased from an infomercial on TV. He had splurged for the fifteen-pound weights because they were painted a bright red color that he thought was sexy. Associating exercise with sex made him feel more motivated. The Ralph Lauren tie performed the same function for him, but he didn’t tell Becky.
Vance left home five minutes early to allow for traffic. His drive was mostly uneventful, and he listened to an upbeat music station and enjoyed the air conditioning in the Honda, which was set on Low, to conserve power. He passed a work crew laying fresh tar on a parking lot off the frontage road, the heat shimmering around them. They wore orange vests and carried huge jugs of water. The unshaven men looked as if they had been working for days. Vance wondered if they were a chain gang.
He checked his reflection in the rearview mirror. Vance thought his shaved head looked sterling. He could see his eyes! For the first time, he noticed the flecks of gray, like bits of shale, in the irises. Or were they the pupils? He wasn’t sure. Regardless, they were an intriguing facet of his face.
The shopping center was set off a dirt road, behind a stand of cottonwoods. Besides the Grab-n-Go, there was a video store that catered to discriminating adults, and a Drug Zoo, which offered dusty bottles of Mexican shampoo and feminine products. There was a stand at one end of the shopping center that sold fireworks and karate supplies, but that had long since closed down because of pressure from the local law enforcement.
Vance parked in his usual spot along the side of the building, away from the main lot, where his car was less likely to be nicked. It was a trick he had learned from his mother. She was full of helpful advice.
He got out of the car. The sun rose up off the asphalt and choked him. It pressed against his eyelids. Vance was positive that day would be the hottest yet of the summer. He walked down the cracked sidewalk, stepping over the jagged pieces of a beer bottle that lay smashed on the ground, its dark green glass somehow more beautiful in the sun.
Becky called around eleven. Vance wasn’t exactly in the mood to talk; the two bag boys had called in sick, so everyone in the store was pulling double duty and helping out where they could. For Vance, this meant him going out to the parking lot and collecting shopping carts. No one else volunteered for it, so he figured he would demonstrate some leadership.
There were rumors circulating among the Grab-n-Go staff that the two bag boys, who were best friends and had identical tattoos, had stayed out late drinking and gotten arrested for indecent exposure at the G’Night Motel off the Interstate. Vance was expecting a call from the police, so he was at his most polite when he answered the phone in the manager’s office.
Grab-n-Go, Vance Mulholland speaking, he said.
This heat is bad for the baby, Becky said. We’re out of Fresca, and I don’t feel up to drivin’ out to get more, she said.
Hey honey, Vance said. I’ll pick up some for you.
You better get a promotion soon, Becky said. I’m the one about to have a baby, so I can’t go back to work.
Then the line went quiet.
I love you, honey, Vance said.
No one in the store seemed to notice his new haircut. The only attention he received that morning was from a woman in frayed cutoffs and a pink t-shirt. She had written a phone number on the back of one of her food stamps before giving it to him at the checkstand.
I got some strawberry wine coolers and reefer in my trailer, the woman said. We’ll have us a party.
Vance was flattered, but decided he shouldn’t get involved. He had to think of his family.
The phone call from Becky had worried him a bit. Vance figured he should concentrate on something less stressful. He waved to Glenda at Checkstand 3 and went out to collect shopping carts. The Grab-n-Go had a limited number of them, and the customers complained when the carts weren’t inside the door when they came in the store. Vance knew that it was good managing technique to keep the patrons happy.
The sky was hazy and heavy and there were only a few cars in the parking lot, even though it was almost noon. The sun beat down hard and he felt sweat under the arms of his short-sleeved shirt. He had never felt heat that intense.
The shopping center was set so far back from the main road that many people drove right past it. A few faded yellow lines were left on the asphalt. There was one lamppost, but it had been struck by lightning in April during a thunderstorm.
Vance thought about what Becky said to him on the phone. She was his wife and he respected her opinion, but he felt that his assistant manager position was a pretty darn good accomplishment. It wasn’t the most glamorous job, or the most scenic location, but he looked at it as a step on the ladder to bigger and better things.
Vance gathered six shopping carts and pushed them back to the area inside the Grab-n-Go, just beyond the automatic doors. The sun felt extremely uncomfortable on the top of his head. He had only been outside a few minutes but was already concerned that he might get sunburned. Vance decided to make a trip to his car for his Astros cap.
His Honda sat in the same spot along the side of the building. Beyond it, a dented gray pickup sat parked under the cottonwood trees near the loading dock. Its flatbed was stacked with old tools and coils of copper wire.
It was an area that was for deliveries only. The signs clearly marked it as such.
Vance forgot about his cap for a moment. He walked toward the pickup. A mockingbird flew low across the asphalt and landed in a patch of briars. It called to him sharply, then disappeared into the trees. Vance knew that high school kids often drank beer and rode their bikes back there. He hoped there was nothing out of the ordinary going on.
The sun glinted off the truck in bright flashes that made him wince. The paint was rusting through and the top of the cab was covered with pink blossoms that bled streaks of color. Dry mud spattered the wheel wells.
Vance came up to the window of the truck. He put one hand above his eyes and looked inside.
A baby was strapped in a car seat on the floor, on the passenger’s side. His cheeks were bright red and his tiny chest rose up and down rapidly. A single tear dripped down the baby’s nose and mixed with the sweat that covered his face.
Vance tried the door of the truck. He pulled on it, hard. Then he ran around to the passenger’s side and yanked on the handle. It, too, was locked.
There was no one nearby. The side parking lot was empty, and there was no one around the dumpster or near the loading dock behind the store.
Hey, Vance called, into the trees. A squirrel scurried up a cottonwood and disappeared into its thick branches. Anyone there?
There was no answer.
Vance looked inside the truck again, pressing his face against the glass. The baby was not breathing. It lay slumped against the car seat, its thin black hair plastered to the side of its face.
Vance ran to the bed of the truck and jumped inside. He kicked aside empty beer bottles and bundles of old newspapers and searched desperately for something that would help the baby.
There were coils of wire, and garden rakes, and an old push mower. A pile of rusty brass wrenches sat on top of a ratty beach towel.
Vance grabbed the heaviest wrench out of the bunch. He hefted the tool in his hands and moved back to the driver’s-side window, as far away from the baby as possible.
Vance swung the wrench as hard as he could. A sharp crack echoed through the trees as tiny bits of glass flew into his face and neck. He brushed them away and turned to see what he had done.
The window caved in along a fissure that snaked across the middle of the glass. Vance punched in the rest of the jagged pieces with the end of the wrench. He reached inside the window and unlocked the door. A sharp section of the window slashed across his bare forearm, cutting deep. Vance ignored the pain and opened the driver’s-side door. The inside of the truck smelled like sweat and cigarettes. There was a cracked thermos in the cup holder, and Vance could see the coffee stains along its side.
He reached across the shards of glass and pulled the baby’s car seat off the floor and out of the truck.
You let go of my son.
Vance turned around. An unshaven young man with thick black hair stood in front of him. He wore a bright orange vest and carried an open bottle in a paper sack which Vance knew had come from his store.
The young man had bare arms that were tanned and packed with rangy, hard muscles. Behind him, a pretty girl in jeans and a halter top stepped out of the trees.
Ricky, she said.
You give me my boy.
No, Vance said. It was the first thing that came to his mind, and the logical answer. Your baby’s sick. We need to call an ambulance.
You fucker, Ricky said. You give him to me.
The young man dropped the paper sack. He reached for the car seat and tried to wrestle it from Vance’s hands.
No, Vance said, as he struggled to hold onto the baby. What’s wrong with you?
Ricky, the girl said. Don’t hurt him.
Before he knew it, Vance felt the first punch land squarely on his upper lip, right above his front teeth. Pain shot through his mouth and across his face, right to the tips of his ears. Bright flashes of white flared up in front of him as he let go of the car seat and fell to the asphalt.
I need to call an ambulance for your baby, Vance said, his voice barely above a whisper. He struggled to get to his feet. The man in the orange vest towered over him. He held the car seat in his arms, the baby slumped lifelessly inside.
You don’t know shit, the young man said. He kicked Vance in the face, right below his eye, with the tip of his boot.
No, Ricky, the young woman cried. Leave him alone.
Vance lost count of how many times the blows came. He curled up on the blacktop in the hot sun. He heard the truck engine choke to life and felt the tires squeal against the pavement.
The young couple and the baby were gone.
After the police and the hospital and the interviews with the local TV stations, Vance made it home and spent the evening lying on the couch, watching television in his favorite robe. His face ached and the bandage around his forearm itched, but he felt intact, all things considered. There were only a few moments when he felt like crying.
Becky bought a super high-speed fan at a garage sale in town and hooked it up so it blew directly on him. She cooked him beef noodle casserole and fresh asparagus, and even brought home a store-bought chocolate pie for dessert.
Becky stayed up with him, well past their bedtime. She only asked a few questions, and did not ask anything that embarrassed him or made him feel like he hadn’t done enough.
Becky was asleep when the local news came on. Vance turned down the sound on the TV, as not to wake her. There were stories about a car wreck on the Interstate, and an explosion at a chickenfeed factory. Then, a story about a young couple who left their infant locked in a truck. The couple was found by the police eight miles away in a motel and was arrested for murder.
A man with a swollen, bloody eye and a bruised chin came on screen. He had a shaved head and wore a short-sleeved dress shirt with a tie, and spoke about smashing the truck’s side window to get at the baby. The young man spoke about wanting to save the baby’s life.
Vance stared at the man for a long moment. He got up from the couch and walked over to the television. He moved the antennae around a bit. Vance wanted the young man’s features to be sharp and in focus, and his words to be clear. He wanted to know the man he saw.