THE KEYS TO IGNITION by G. R. Bilodeau

I had most of the money for her abortion in my pocket when I went into work that night. Live Music Thursday: the restaurant was bound to be busy. In eight hours, I’d have it all. Maybe even a few bucks to spare. Althea and I could go to the clinic the next day and get it done. At last. Jesus, would she be relieved. Chewing her nails down to the lunulas for two weeks. My phone vibrating the whole time with tiresome texts that never outlined her worry directly but gave hints of its depth with tangled derivations of gravid poetry.

Stacy, the nurse at my high school, had guided me through the process. Everything was going to be okay. Wouldn’t end up like my uncle. Or Althea’s mother. All I had to do was work my shift and make it through the night. Tomorrow, all these problems would be haze in the rearview mirror. A gathering of vapors. Thick. Fizzy. Gone.

Be that as it may, I was pretty nervous myself. I said hi to Lucy, the bartender, and stuffed my coat under the cash register. Flashed a familiar nod to the regulars, even though I was barely a smudge on their forlorn decade spun upon the worn stools. Seven minutes before my shift began, so I made for the bathroom, works in my apron, and closed myself in a stall. Last six stamps. Just enough to keep me on track.

I set up my shot and sunk home. The warm rush lasted about fifteen seconds; a soft coo, a baby burble, then I was level. Too level, to be honest. The rush–well, it rushed. But I just had to remind myself that I wasn’t here to nod out. This was a place of action. Where things were done. Flashback to Lenape Grill: Asleep at the register as I plugged in an order. For breakfast, no less. Lost that job in a week.

The night ran smooth. Busy enough to make what I had to make and still dip down to the basement now and then to slug a warm bottle of beer from the supply corner, keep my head off scoring a better fix. And so it went.

If my calculations were correct, I’d reach the needed sum by 7:00; the rest was gold to gather the dust. And the money would keep coming, too. With the band in that night, we’d be busy till 11:00. At this rate, I could drive to Angel’s on N 6th in the morning and grab a few bundles before I picked up Althea. Get my head straight.

I was plotting the day ahead when my phone buzzed.

It was Rob. Apparently, they let him out.

Grand theft auto wasn’t as harshly punished as I assumed.

Yo

Can I borrow ur car?

At KFC

Need 2 pick up

Bundle 4 you

Back in 40 tops

Ironic, him wanting to borrow my car. But I’d known him since we were kids. And truth be told it wasn’t a bad idea. I’d be at the bar till midnight, the earliest. Nobody on the block at that hour. If I gave Rob the cash I had, I wouldn’t have to worry about racing down in the morning. I could take what I made, sleep sound, call out of school, grab Althea, do the thing, and get on with our lives. Streaming like silk.

Settled, I met Rob by the dumpster out back, handed him my keys, a hundred and fifty dollars, and told him to text me when he was coming back. Then I went back to work.

An hour passed. No word.

9:00… 9:30… 10:00…

I shot him a text: Where u at??

The band played Bruce Springsteen covers that made me want to hurl a glass at the singer. Then they threw in Bon Jovi for good measure. Squeals of Jersey Pride filled the room. A serious contemplation of violence fixed itself in my mind. I gripped a dirty pint. Sometimes I hold a glass and feel the urge to grip it till it breaks. This was one of those times. But once I remembered the money coming my way, I calmed down. This too shall pass.

I was wiping down a booth when the last drunk mom stumbled out the door at 12:05. Her husband dragged her by the arm. Still no word from Rob. I had sent out fifteen texts. I was fuming. Possibilities seethed beneath my skull, but there was only one of real merit: I’d been burned. By my own stupidity, too. Which made it worse. How many times had I pulled the same shit on Shawn? Mikey? Trevor? The list went on and on.

My boss came up behind me.

“Listen, Conrad, I’m going to be taking back a kid who worked for me last year. Good kid. Point is, I won’t need you back.”

I dropped the rag and faced him.

A long pause.

“Um….okay… When’s my last day?”

“How’s tonight sound?”

I stared at him. Hard. He smiled and held his gaze.

“Ah, almost forgot.” He put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Someone’s been stealing beer from the basement. Not saying it’s you. No one’s calling the cops, don’t worry. But I am taking it out of your tips.” He looked over the night’s receipt. “Let’s see. That, plus credit card fees… How about we call it even?”

“Even?” I laughed.

“There’s a boy. Good luck to you.”

He winked, and disappeared into the backroom.

I threw my apron up on the fan.

It spun around a few times and fell to the floor.

I went to the basement, filled my coat with beer and entered the night.

Naked. Alone. Stripped. Beaten.

What would I say to Althea?

The parking lot was drenched in moonlight.

My car was nowhere in sight.


G. R. Bilodeau is a peripatetic peddler. Author of the chapbook "Somewhere in Between" (Charybdis Press, 2021), their work has appeared or is forthcoming in BP Review, Twin Pies Literary, HASH Journal, and elsewhere.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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