It was too god damned hot as I pulled into a dusty Wal-Mart parking lot in Shamrock, Texas around 10 a.m. CST. Shamrock, Texas was a single flashing yellow light dumped in the middle of the panhandle, halfway between Oklahoma and New Mexico. Broke, hungry and far from home I’d decided to call on an old employer, hoping for any kind of work. I got out of my car and looked around until I spotted Skinny Jim’s pristine SUV amidst the rolling scrap yard of dirty pick-ups. Annoyingly fastidious, Skinny Jim was a barbarous son of a bitch. I wound up working with him every time I came through the Old Republic.
“How are you Paul?”
“I’m broke, hungry and hot; trying to get home. Any work for me?
He reached onto the passenger seat and grabbed a manila envelope. “All I have is a collection notice for you: first time offender, ex-whore trying to go straight, $5,000 cash upon delivery, has to be done by eight tonight. Here’s a fifty, on me. Get yourself a steak. You really look hungry.”
I walked back to my car and flipped through the contents of the envelope—a picture, a work address, a sandwich bag and a knife. It all seemed pretty standard though the time thing was going to be rough. I started the ignition and a few clicks down the road I pulled into Maxine’s Bar & Grille.
I opened the door and was slapped with stale, piss-warm air. Choking back bile and an impotent sadness over the apparently broken air conditioner, I found the bar and dejectedly sat down on a stool. The pretty bartender came up quickly smelling like lavender and jasmine mixed with sweat and stale beer. A name-tag perfectly placed over a large firm looking breast said “Becky.”
“What would you like?”
“A Budweiser and a steak, rare.”
“Yeah, that’s it, Becky”
Four Budweisers supplemented my steak. I called Becky over and ordered another one for dessert. As she placed the sweaty mug on a fresh napkin she asked me the question I’d known she was thinking since I first walked in.
“So where’re you from?”
“Virginia,” I said.
“You’re far from home. What’re you doing all the way out here?”
“Work,” I said and made eye contact. “My line of work brings me to all sorts of interesting places.”
“Oh yeah? What type of work is that?”
“Collections,” I said and watched her face as I took a sip of my beer. She was classy; I only saw the nervousness cascade briefly across her face as quickly as a summer cloud shadowing the prairie sun. Hopefully, she would handle this with the proper decorum, though part of me likes it when they beg and cry.
“Look,” she said, narrowing her eyes, “I told him I would pay him. Work’s been slow and my kid needed braces. I told myself I’d earn this money legit so it’s taken longer than I expected. I just need another week. You can see I’m working alone here. ” She showed me a naked ring finger.
“Well, Becky I’ve been doing this for years and I think you’re telling me the truth. Hell, no sense in lying, right? Honestly though I don’t care if you pour a million drafts or suck a million dicks to get that money. I have no opinion, no sympathy. I’m just the collector. You know what’s coming so I suggest you take a break.”
My instincts had been right about Becky. With a resigned elegance she took a break and led me out to the employee area where the waitresses smoked and whined about their shitty tips. With her face contorted in defiant anger, not a tear escaped the “fuck you” glare as I cut off her ring finger.
“Remember,” I said, as I dropped the finger in the sandwich bag, “this is a warning. Thumb’s next.”
I left her sweating in the late afternoon heat, cradling her wound in a dirty bar rag. I wondered if Skinny Jim would give me a bonus for being early. I pointed the car east, cranked the air conditioner and felt $5,000 closer to home.