by: m.s. fuller

There’s a gas station outside Carson that looks like it may have been a 7-Eleven at one point.  Same orange and green signage, same box shape with aluminum shelving inside under fluorescent lights.  The sign outside though is fractured where the company’s logo once glowed above the door.

Now, the orange and green stripes running around the eaves don’t glow.  The fluorescent lights inside are mostly missing; the ones that are left are dark and coated in dust.  The sign advertising Marlboro reds squeaks in the desert wind.  One of the pump nozzles lies across the concrete pad that’s now mostly hidden beneath dust.

This was where they found Jay.  A couple in a topless Jeep had pulled over to snap a shot of themselves posing in front of the western sun around the skeletal remains of the shop.  The wind was whipping around that day and they saw the upper half of a body reclining in the sand behind a dumpster.  The dirt had been blown clear everywhere above the belt buckle and sloped down in gentle drifts behind the bald head and the flannelled shoulders.

Nguyen heard this story again and again.

The first time was from the officer who’d brought him downtown to question him about his activities over the course of the last six months.  And then asked him about his association with Jay Ringbold.  And, when Nguyen denied any knowledge of a “Jay,” the cop explained the process of ballistics analysis.  And then went into the inventory of stolen firearms from Richard’s Riflery outside of Reno.  And then, in a voice dryer than the desert heat, the cop went into the process of tracking Nguyen through surveillance footage, rental car records, and fingerprints found at the Riflery.  “We found Jay outside of Carson,” the cop said, “with a round rattling around his sun-dried brain.  That round had markings consistent with the 9mm Glock you lifted from Richard’s Riflery.”

Nguyen heard the story in court where the DA himself told the story to the jury.  The DA himself had a voice that reminded Nguyen a whole lot of James Garner – affable, pleasant, theatrically measured, but authoritative.  And the DA told the story, from every angle and with every color, to the jury.  “Why won’t he talk to me?” Nguyen asked his defender.  “He doesn’t give a shit about you,” the Defender answered while packing up his briefcase one day.  Then, snapping the lid shut before hustling off to his next client, “The jury’s all that matters, my man.  Besides, you know how the story ends.”

In the afternoon before the sentence was carried out, Ms. Dorner came to pay a visit to Nguyen. 

“Ms. Dorner is Jay’s mother,” the correctional officer told Nguyen before the woman came into the room.  “And, yes, you have to sit through this – this was authorized by the judge.”

“He was a good boy,” Ms. Dorner had started.  Of course.  Every mother’s boy is a good boy.  Of course he was a good boy.  A Good Boy.  He was a Good Boy.

Nguyen nodded his head.

It didn’t take long for Ms. Dorner’s eyes to fill with water.  “He was a good boy.”  Nguyen nodded, yes, a Good Boy.  She repeated this for a while until she gathered the strength to utter the name.  “Jay was a good boy.”  She blew her nose then into a ragged Kleenex, “And you took that away from him.”

In court, the Defender had told about how Jay was a meth-head, how the flesh that dangled from his face in all the photos wasn’t the result of torture or posthumous mutilation but was rather the work of Jay’s own fingertips during periods of drug-induced restlessness and, after death, those bloody pocks only attracted desert insects who then chewed them wider, wiggled under the skin, pulled the flesh from the bone beneath, and so on and so forth.

“Jay was a good boy, you know?”  Ms. Dorner was pleading with him.  She was angry.  She wanted a deal with the devil.  She would hammer that deal out with her own flesh and blood if need be.  “Why did you do it?  You’re a disgrace.”  She hammered the table with her hand.  The steel made a dull report against her fleshy balled fist.  The skin under her upper arms flapped with each blow of her fist.  Her earrings – cheap and blue and screaming Walmart – shook with each thrust of her head.  Tears splotched the thick lenses of her glasses.

“Why the hell did you do it?”  Nguyen could tell she was the kind of woman who didn’t curse much and so hell carried with it a sort of awkward weight from out of her mouth.

“Why the hell did you do it, Win?  They told me that’s your name, but when I see it in writing, all I see is Nu-goo-yen.”  She paused, took in a hitching breath, and hissed, “We don’t kill in this country, Nu-goo-yen.  We don’t do that.  And when someone does, you gotta answer to the Almighty God.”

Nguyen wondered if his Dad would have come if the sentence would have been carried out on a Sunday, a day when the shop would have been closed.  His Dad was probably restocking today – that’s what Thursdays usually were for.  Restocking.  A lot of work to own your own grocery.  Nguyen had watched all his life at how much work it was.  Stocking, restocking, ringing up sales, dumping unusable inventory.  The first thing Nguyen could remember as a child was a fat man banging through the front door, stomping to the counter, and demanding a refund on bananas.  “I get a bunch of bananas, I expect them to be spider-free,” and with one hand he threw a plastic bag containing a largish spider down on the counter; with the other hand, he slammed four bananas down so hard that they split and began oozing banana guts from their split sides.

The man had yelled, his Dad had nodded, smiled, refunded the cost of about a pound of bananas, then listened some more as the man went on and on, sweating profusely all over the collar of his shirt, about Goddam Guatemalan bananas and foreigners in general and the overall unacceptability of substandard foreign shit.  “I bet we could grow better bananas in South Carolina if we put our minds to it!” he shouted, wiped the banana guts from his hand onto the edge of the counter, and stormed on out.  Nguyen had been scared.  His Dad put his hand on Nguyen’s shoulder and explained how sometimes it was just better to smile, refund $1.60, and move on with your day.  “Ease through the day,” his Dad would say.  “Smile and keep moving.”

Ms. Dorner began shaking uncontrollably and the Correctional Officer came to lay a hand on her shoulder, suggest that she might like to leave if that was all she had to say…

“I ain’t done.”  She wiped her nose, pulled the glasses from her eyes.

Can she see me, Nguyen wondered.  Can she see me?  If not, maybe I can just slip back to my cell, rest for a while.  I’m so tired.

She stared him right in the eye, made Nguyen think that maybe she didn’t need those thick lenses after all.  Maybe she could see a truth that no one else in the world with all their Lasic surgery and contact lenses and such could ever see.  “You’re gonna want to squirm when they slide the needle into your arm,” she said now without a hitch, a sniffle, or a sob.  “You’re gonna want to squirm, but those straps are gonna holdja tight.  And when those drugs slide through your veins, they’re gonna burn.  They’re gonna burn right up your arm and all the way into your chest.  And then your lungs are gonna get real sore and it’s gonna feel like you’re breathin’ underneath a big, hot pot of water.  It’s gonna burn somethin’ real heavy until you just feel like pukin’ it all up, but of course you can’t, because you’re gonna be paralyzed.  And so you ain’t gonna have nothin’ to do but just die.”

She took a breath.

“And that’s gonna be the heaviness of the hand of God upon you, pushing you down – down – down there for all that you’ve done to my Good Boy.”

Nguyen smiled as she stood, pulled on her glasses, readjusted her sweater, and walked out of the room.

Just try to be polite, agreeable, and move along through your day, his Dad would have said.  It was a Thursday today and Dad was probably busy restocking shelves for customers that needed Mac and Cheese and toilet paper and tampons.

Nguyen smiled then at the Correctional Officer who came back, grabbed him by the arm, and led him down the hall to the room that was his home for the next eight or nine hours.