Ten minutes later, the five of you are parked on the side of a gas station mini-mart.
“You going in, Tony?” asks Joanne. “You look twenty-one, at least.”
“No way,” he says. “Everybody knows me. I’ll be busted as soon as I try.”
“You want me an’ Ruthie to go?” she offers. “Use a little female persuasion?” She leans over to Ruth and says in a terrible British accent, “Ah little tea an ay, if yah know wah ah mean?”
Ruth stifles a laugh.
Bobby turns around. “No, I’ll go.”
“Here,” says Tony, reaching for his wallet. “And get some bologna too.”
“Bologna?” asks Bobby. “What for?”
“Just get some.”
He takes the folded bill from Tony’s hand. “Sure.”
You feel Tony’s eyes on you in the mirror. “You got money, Baby Boot?” he asks, “Get it out.”
“Sure,” you say, reaching for the wallet in your back pocket. You already know there is a ten, two fives, and three ones in there. Your arm brushes Ruth’s waist and you twist as much as possible to avoid elbowing her.
“No,” says Tony. “Go with Bobby, but not together. Two tries are better than one.”
“Tony,” says Ruth. “Matt—”
“Looks like a baby?” he finishes. “So what? He makes a good distraction. Bobby knows the drill.” Tony opens his door and leans forward in his seat.
Ruth puts her hand on your arm. “You don’t have to, Matt.”
“No,” you say. “It’s cool.”
Bobby’s waiting for you outside the car. “I’ll go first,” he says. “Act like you don’t know me. If they sell to me, just buy some chips or something.”
“If they don’t?”
“Grab a case of Bud and run.” He puts his hand on your shoulder. “Can you do it? I need to know.”
“Yeah,” you say. “A case of Bud and run.”
He slaps you on the shoulder and disappears around the corner. You count to five, slowly, in your head, and then follow. Behind, you hear Tony say, “What the fuck, Ruthie?” You don’t stop or turn around, but by the time you’re reaching for the door, she’s right behind you and you go in together.
“Matthew,” the man behind the counter says, “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“Hi, Mr. Valdovinos.” The place is not very big inside, and the register is located right next to the entrance where the owner can keep one eye on the store and the other on the gas pumps out front. “No,” you say. This is your street, your store. It seems like you’re in here at least once a day for candy, or soda, or on an emergency milk or bread run for your mother. “I stayed home sick.”
His gaze slides from Ruth back to you. “Hum,” he says, with a conspiratorial grin. “Feeling better then?”
You give an exaggerated shrug.
“I’m taking care of him,” Ruth says, her touch suddenly at the small of your back.
“And what is your name, young lady?” he asks, extending his hand over the counter.
“Ruth,” she says, stepping forward to take it. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Valdovinos.”
He smiles, a pinch of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. Maybe he is impressed with her manners, or maybe it’s just to hear her say his name. Ruth does seem to have that effect on people. “And what can I do for you, Ruth?”
“Last row on the left,” he says. His eyes dart past her into the depths of the store and you suspect it’s now Bobby that has his attention.
You follow her to the chips where she immediately grabs a large bag of Doritos and then takes her time perusing the other brands. You steal a glance toward the front of the store to see Bobby at the register, a case of Budweiser is sitting on the counter.
“You over twenty-one?” you hear Mr. Valdovinos ask. “I’ll need to see some I.D.”
“Oh, shoot,” Bobby says. “I must’a left it in the car.”
“No I.D., no beer.”
“Are you sure?” Bobby asks. “I could leave a really big tip.”
Valdovinos puts his hand on the case. “Sorry, son,” he says and pulls the beer behind the counter. “You still want the bologna?”
“Uh, yeah.” Bobby turns, shooting you an urgent look, then, taking his change, he exits the store. You quickly drop your eyes. The beer cooler is right behind you. It’s your turn now.
“Forget it, Matthew,” says Ruth, grabbing a second bag of Doritos. “Just the chips. This was a stupid idea anyway.”
By the time you get to the front, Ruth is already paying for the chips. As she reaches for her change and receipt, you slide the case onto the counter, pull out your wallet, and take out the ten.
“What’s this?” asks Mr. Valdovinos.
You place the bill on the counter and push it toward him. Please understand, Mr. Valdovinos, you want to say. Please, just do this for me. He stares back at you, frowning. You look up to meet his eyes and it feels like you are shrinking beneath his gaze, growing smaller, younger, and above you on the counter there’s a dime and three pennies next to a twenty-five cent Hershey Chocolate Bar. Please, Mr. Valdovinos?
He reaches for the ten. “Go on,” he says. “Get out of here.” But this time there is no understanding in his eyes, just disappointment.
Back in the car, Joanne is laughing. “I told you it would take a woman’s touch.”
“No,” says Ruth. “That was all Matthew.”
Bobby is already reaching into the back seat. “Hey, whatever, just pass me one.”
“Not here,” says Tony. “Wait till we hit the back roads.”
Bobby gives him a disappointed look. “Yes, Dad.”
Tony drives around the back of the store, exists onto your street, and you pass your house. The driveway is empty but the Volkswagen is in its usual spot alongside the curb. You wonder if Joanne will recognize the car and remember where you live, but she’s too busy prying open the top of the Doritos bag.
“Ah, Ruthie,” she says. “You think of everything.” She stuffs several chips in her mouth and then extends the open end of the bag to you and Ruth. You let Ruth go first and then you reach into the bag.
“Hey,” says Bobby. “What about us?”
Ruth passes the second bag between the seats.
“So where now?” asks Joanne.
“Dead Joe’s,” says Tony, taking a chip from the bag in Bobby’s lap.
“Ah, man,” she says. “That place gives me the creeps.”
Bobby looks over at Tony. “Dude, did you bring your gun?”
Tony flashes him a look. Shut up, it says. You catch it in the mirror.
“What’s Dead Joe’s?” Ruth asks.
Bobby twists around in his seat. “You’ve never been?”
“No,” Joanne answers for her. “Why would she?”
“Why? What is it?”
“It’s just this old abandoned house,” says Tony. “No one will bother us there.”
Bobby turns to her with wide eyes and a creepy smile. “Because it’s haunted.”
“No way,” says Ruth. “So, who’s Joe?”
“All I know,” Bobby says, like he’s about to tell a spooky story around the campfire, “is that some guy named Joe butchered his whole family there, pregnant wife, three kids, even the dog, and then he killed himself.”
“All I know,” says Joanne, “is that it smells like spray paint and piss.”
“So, who haunts it?” asks Ruth. “Joe, his family, or the dog?”
He just looks at her.
“Forget it, Bobby,” says Tony. “Ruthie’s into all that Exorcist and Poltergeist shit, aren’t you babe?”
She just shrugs.
You want to look at her, but you can’t have Tony catching you so you stare at the red polish on the toes of her sandaled foot next to yours instead. You’re remembering her hand on your back in the store, and realizing that you haven’t seen either one of those movies.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” Tony asks.
Bobby leans forward in his seat. “Yeah, dude. Right here, right here.”
THE MISADVENTURES OF MATTHEW VAN DER BOOT is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental … no matter how many times you ask.