Marla took the WhaleMart job after her husband Jonas went to the penitentiary for dealing oxycontin. He’d been the sweetest boy before Iraq. Every girl in Shale County mooned over the tall, lanky dark-eyed basketball player, but Marla was the one who figured him out. He was just a boy in a man’s body, and she knew how to appeal to both halves. They got married right out of high school and moved into their own trailer. Work was steady through that summer, until Osama Bin Laden blew up New York. Then jobs went down the toilet, and Jonas went into the military. He came back thirteen months later, spit out whole mostly, but mangled as his Humvee, blown up by a roadside bomb.
Jonas’ drug problem didn’t happen on purpose. He made dozens of trips to the VA, but, in time, figured that copying ’scripts was easier and cheaper than the long road trips. He wrote his own and forged the doctors’ names. Sometimes he would disappear for days in the van that her father-in-law let them have when Jonas first came back from the trauma hospital in Germany. If it was raining, Marla was stranded at home. If it was dry, she’d ride her old Schwinn down the winding blacktop to Shale City, coal trucks threatening to blow her off the road or flatten her like a cow pie.
Jonas felt pretty good as long as he was taking the pills, so he took all he could. He carried them everywhere he went. The innocent boy he had been was long gone, and the man he had become was somewhere very far away. A nurse once told Marla in a whisper, “Give him space. This could take a long time. Do you have a Bible?”
Marla tried to get him to stay home, but Jonas was a wanderer who did everything at 100 mph. It wasn’t speeding that got him arrested, though, it was hitting a tree. Driving like IEDs were still around every curve, Jonas totaled the van, scattering pills all over the place. Off he went to prison. It was built high up on reclaimed strip mine land. Even the officials who ran the place knew it was slowly slipping down the mountainside.
All Marla had left was a trailer and the old bike. Nobody was going to prop her up, so she started putting in job applications everywhere she could. Her first job was at the Diner on the Square, right across from the Shale County Courthouse. She loved to cook, but was hired as a waitress. She treated her customers like family and they appreciated it. She knew everyone, who avoided salt or preferred mayonnaise to Miracle Whip. Many local storefronts had closed down, but the Diner still had its lunch regulars, including the lawyer who defended Jonas. Every time he came in, he told Marla that her husband was going to be fine. Eddie Gruzins and his big dog, Riga, were steady customers, too. And there was the nice young VISTA caseworker. Old timers avoided him, because he was black, but Marla treated him just like everybody else. The only patron she really hated serving was the Mayor, who went through secretaries the way a boy goes through pie. For a tip, he always left a single quarter, slapping it down and cursing like he had lost a bet. By two in the afternoon, the place was empty, though, and since Marla needed more work than four hours a day, she bit the bullet and started at WhaleMart.
Below limp pink and purple banners, Marla wiped down the Snak Shak counter. She was so bored she imagined herself back at the Diner, serving up the blue plate special. Familiar faces swirled on the surface of the counter top that Marla rubbed her rag over, until they all blended together. She missed Eddie most. He was a goldmine of badly retold jokes and made-up gossip. Marla wondered if Jonas got melancholy behind bars. Were they still a couple? Why was Osama alive and Shale City dying?
WhaleMart customers were never calm. Kids could run wild and parents still didn’t have enough sense to put their bags down, even though the plastic handles about sliced their wrists. They never tipped, either, but headed for the parking lot without a “goodbye” or a “thank you.” On the best days, Marla spent her shift serving nobody at all. It was during these long stretches of inactivity that she dreamed up recipes for sensational dishes she would prepare someday in her own restaurant. Goat cheese casserole, rosemary bread, chocolate desserts served with fresh-brewed coffee. To her, coffee served in anything but a real ceramic mug was just hot, brown water. WhaleMart brewed its own brand, Kavalicious, which arrived in fifty-pound foil bags every Sunday at 2 AM. Marla drank a cup from the first pot she made every morning, but didn’t touch the stuff after that.
Around noon, a few shoppers would order for what passed for lunch, cold muffins. These folks were either out of work or had given up trying to find it. They came from all over the county to hunt for bargains. If the manager wasn’t in sight, Marla bent the rules and refilled their coffee cups. Most of the time, though, Mr. Moss was watching like a vulture. Marla spoke to those she knew from town in whispers, because idle conversation was prohibited under company regulations.
Marla heard the dog’s familiar bark before she saw Eddie waving to her. He raised his right hand, beckoned to her as old friends do, while the automatic doors suddenly swung wide.
“Hey-yah, Marla, it’s OK for the dog to come in with me, ain’t it?”
Eddie stepped forward to the second set of doors, his dog trotting alongside. Riga had a sleek body with a narrow ridge of deep white fur running along his spine to the top of his tail. He moved with far more ease than his master. Eddie walked with a pronounced limp.
The Snak Shak counter was on the other side of the entryway, too far for Marla to reply without shouting, so she shook her head vigorously side-to-side in Eddie’s direction. She knew Riga was not welcome. Before she could get Eddie to stop, however, the store manager emerged from behind a neat pyramid of paint cans he was stacking. Arms folded across his chest, he stood five foot three, but what he lacked in height, he made up for in attitude. He treated people like overstock, and considered every patron a potential shoplifter. He was from somewhere up north.
“No pets allowed!” he declared. His edict was neither a request nor a negotiation, but a demand. A customer reading The Star in checkout lane #4 looked up, her mouth open, her silver fillings sparkling. Marla couldn’t hear exactly what Eddie was saying, but she figured he was upset and confused. Whenever they visited the Diner, Riga came along and lay quietly at Eddie’s feet. Marla saved bacon scraps for the dog and even kept a water bowl under the counter. When it was rainy, of course, Riga stayed in the truck. Eddie didn’t want Marla to have to mop up dog tracks. But he always parked up close to the restaurant door, so the dog could look through the windshield at him while he enjoyed his coffee and the companionship of good friends. On those days, Marla would wrap a porkchop bone up in a napkin so Eddie could reward Riga for his patience and obedience.
The store manager and Eddie were now toe to toe, shouting at each other. Marla approached cautiously. Riga was barking loud. He seemed to want to pull his master away. The electric doors, which opened and closed spasmodically, frightened him. Eddie, on the other hand, was just plain mad. He told the manager exactly what he thought of their rules and his reception.
“Sure now, you can take your stinking Whale and shove it up your —”
Before he finished his oath, Mr. Moss grabbed Eddie by the shoulder, spun him around and shoved him back the way he came. At the same moment an intense yelp came from the dog, and Marla was the first to notice Riga’s plight. The doors had closed on his tail. He was caught in an automated, unforgiving trap. Then the heavy doors sprang apart again — like the Red Sea parting — and Riga bolted for the parking lot like the Jews must have for Sinai. The dog scooted head down, ears back, his damaged tail dragging behind him like a broken broom. Eddie called after him, tremendous fear and devotion combined in his wailing voice. Marla knew Eddie felt the pain that Riga felt, because she could feel it, too. A silver SUV sped through the parking lot, its driver lost in conversation on his cell phone. Marla saw the device fly out of his hand and smack the dashboard when he finally braked, but Riga was already pinned underneath the front wheels.
Eddie and Marla stood helpless over Riga’s soft, loose body. He looked asleep. Eddie kneeled and repeated the dog’s name quietly, bending his cheek to Riga’s chest and rubbing it gently up and down with the flat of his hand. Mr. Moss watched from just inside and shook his head. A report would have to be filed. He muttered under his breath as he tried to remember where he kept the store’s Accident & Injury Report forms.
“Clean up the mess out front, Junior. Move it!” he barked over the intercom to a teenaged worker who was eating a bologna sandwich alone in the break room. Marla had always thought that Horace — which was the boy’s actual name — looked a little like Jonas had at his age. There wasn’t really much the kid could do but run a hose over the dark spots on the pavement. The SUV driver was on his phone again, this time talking aggressively to his insurance agent.
“WhaleMart’s gonna pay for my bumper, you know! Damn that crazy dog!”
Marla stayed close as Eddie carried Riga to his truck and lay him across the ragged passenger seat. He sat behind the wheel and Marla stood by the pale blue driver’s door in silence. There was nothing she could say, so she just patted Eddie’s shirt sleeve through the open window and kept quiet. Eddie’s eyes grew full and dark as he stared at his hands, which were folded in his lap. He couldn’t feel his fingers. His eyes were shut tight. Marla turned away to give Eddie more privacy. She watched the shoppers. Nobody paid any attention. The drama had happened and evaporated as quickly as a desert mirage. Not a soul in the parking lot cared a fig about Riga, or Eddie, or Shale City, or Marla, or the Diner, or Jonas, or oxycontin, or Iraq. Everybody was on his own. They were all strangers now.
Then Marla spotted her boss, hands on hips, staring directly at her, and knew that meant trouble. She rubbed Eddie’s sleeve one more time, deep and strong, and slowly walked back to the entrance of the store. Eddie’s eyes opened slightly and followed her. His fingers moved to grip the dog’s mane, his lips opened and closed without making a sound.
“You left your station,” the manager said coldly once Marla had resumed her position behind the Snak Shak counter. “That’s against the rules.”
Marla knew she might say something stupid and lose her job, so she didn’t reply at all.
“You know that foreign man out there with the dog?” Moss’ unofficial interrogation had begun, and Marla felt like a prisoner of war.
“His name is Eddie Gruzins. He’s Latvian, but he’s been living up Shale Creek for over fifty years, ever since the Iron Curtain came down on his homeland. He used to come in sometimes for a cup of coffee or a chat at the place where I used to work, before —”
“Well, listen good,” Moss snarled. “We don’t need that kind of riff-raff immigrant in here, not him or his filthy dog.” Knowing he needed Marla’s cooperation if it came to an inquiry about the incident, he paused, then cooed with slimy passive aggression, “Now, do we, Marla?”
She didn’t answer him, but raised her eyes and glared back. Her self-concerns had evaporated with the word “filthy.”
“What you did was … completely unnecessary, Mr. Moss.” Her voice was surprisingly composed. She wasn’t afraid of him. “What happened out there was a tragedy. But the only filthy part about it is how long it will take to make things right again around here.”
Her supervisor pursed his lips and took a step back, lifting his chin to make himself a half inch taller.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into you, Marla. Are you on drugs or something?”
Marla’s jaw clenched. She felt like slapping him, or laughing in his face, or both. While these possibilities competed in her conscience, the two stared each other down. Breaking the stalemate, Mr. Moss took out a tiny notebook and began to scribble.
Marla knew, either way, she was bound to lose. So, why waste her breath? She’d let her boss stew in his own sorry juices. Work was not life and death. It was only money, and lousy money at that, just a rusty sip from a crappy cup of coffee. A real bottomless bargain. Hell no, not anymore. Marla had made up her mind to quit.
Fifteen minutes later, things were back to normal at WhaleMart. Marla defrosted another tray of muffins. She intended to finish her shift and give notice. Over the loudspeaker, Mr. Moss got back to business, informing shoppers of an unadvertised discount on left-over paint in Aisle One. Then, in a sudden whirlwind, the bi-colored banners exploded upward like frightened birds and a blue blur plowed through the double doors, smashing everything between them and the Customer Service Desk. Florescent bulbs crashed down from the ceiling. Flying glass, door frames, display cases, a million bits of paper, dust and plastic bags exploded inside the store’s main entrance. The truck slid across the polished linoleum floor and careened into the pyramid of bargains. Eddie slumped over the steering wheel, crying like an inconsolable child.
The local editor’s headline downplayed the incident: Shale City Loses Best Friend. Inside there was a double page of advertisements for holiday values and employment opportunities at WhaleMart. A photo of Riga, blown up to show his sweetest features, appeared in the Obituaries. Riga’s fluid brown eyes were dark, trusting, and innocent. Unlike everyone who remembered and missed him, he was out of his misery. Edvard Gruzins was listed as his sole survivor.