The Salvation Army (Montrose, Colorado – 1994)

by Tony Shea on December 21, 2012



He is sick. Flu bug perhaps or food poisoning. Something has got down inside him and must run its course. He is giddy from it, like he’s been rocked in a boat.

He plucks a used neck brace from an umbrella stand filled mostly with old crutches. He supposes the manufacturer would call the neck brace flesh-toned, but really it is orange, the way an orange is orange. Painters, of course, he thinks, sometimes make the flesh from specks of green and pink and blue, which inevitably seems to lend a certain rottenness to the people of that two dimensional world.

He turns the neck brace around in his hands, flexing it this way and that, trying to determine its sturdiness. He lifts it to his nose and sniffs at it. The foam support smells vaguely of blueberries. The plastic part smells like plastic. He puts it on and cinches it around his neck. To his delight, he can neither turn his head to the left nor to the right without repositioning his entire body. It seems to be a perfectly good and usable neck brace. He wonders about the previous users and their specific maladies. He imagines car crashes and bodies awkwardly flopping down steep flights of stairs.

He moves along, snug within the brace, running his hands over the stack of cheap, yellow glass plates on the shelf nearest him before he takes a seat on an aging excercycle. He studies the contraption for a moment, leaning over from side to side, taking note of the machine’s design. Vigorously, he begins to work the pedals with his feet, simultaneously pulling then pushing the handlebars towards him and away. The seat of things bucks wildly underneath his weight.

Almost immediately, the machine begins to make a terrible noise, its old and semi-rusted parts shrieking and hammering. He ignores it as that the whole of his attention is focused on the dial of the thing’s odometer. He watches as a tenth of a mile peels away, and then another.

Barely able to keep himself on the thrashing machine, he continues to pedal. Abruptly, he stops having traveled three-tenths of a mile in imaginary distance.

Imaginary distance.

The idea intrigues him. He tries to imagine that he is not some fifteen hundred miles from home, and will not soon be driving his car through Denver and over the yellow wasteland of Kansas back to where everything that he has briefly escaped from still waits. But there is no denying it. It is a fact in the world, as solid as the excercycle.

At least he will have souvenirs.

He takes the exercycle up in his arms and throws it over his shoulder, resting the crossbar against the neck brace around his neck. He walks into the next room.

“Your daughter already pushed him once and she just did it again!”

“She wouldn’t a pushed him if he hadn’t been grabbing a’hold of her.”

“He’s not grabbing a’hold of her.”

“He is so too grabbing a’hold of her.”

In a hodgepodge room of electric appliances, living room furniture, and eight track tapes, two women are arguing in the quick rat-a-tat-tat tones of the machine gun, their children clinging on to the their legs below.

One child is a frail, sickly boy with gray skin. The other is a fat little thing with blond pigtails and tarnished buckteeth like her mother.

People sit up in the sprung recliner chairs and put the can openers back on the shelf to watch. They want something ugly to happen. Scratch each other’s eyes out if you want, their eyes seem to say.

He can feel the blood beating in his brain, the neck brace impeding the circulation. The excercycle is heavy. He walks into the next room.

Old clothing hangs on racks, but much of it is simply heaped in piles on the concrete floor. He sets the rusted excercycle down and moves along touching the soiled and stained garments.

“Stand still.” An old voice rasps out behind him. He tries to turn his head but can not. For a moment he is confused by this, as if the voice has been a command powerful enough to freeze him in his tracks. He remembers the neck brace and angles around to see that the voice belongs to an old withered woman screaming into the ear of a still more withered man.

“Stand still,” the woman screams into the man’s ear again. He is standing there with his arms out like a scarecrow, while his wife tries to size a pair of pants on him. “These are no good,” she yells and throws a pair of khaki pants back into one of the piles. She holds up a pair of jeans that her husband seems to like. There is a little smile on his face like someone drew a line there with  a black ball-point pen.

He hoists the excercycle again and proceeds towards a bookshelf crammed mostly with National Geographic magazines and odd volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. There are a few books. 50 CENTS – HARDCOVER, 25 CENTS – PAPER, a hand lettered sign reads. He puts the exercycle down and squats like a catcher, crab walking side to side, unable to tilt or turn his head because of the neck brace, as he reads the titles.

“How To Earn $3,000 A Year Stuffing Envelopes In Your Spare Time” catches his eye.

He stands again, and tucks the book under his left arm, rests the crossbar of the excercycle on his right shoulder against the neck brace, and walks towards the cash register at the front of the store, passing through one final room on his way.

There are five leather coats of only moderate disrepair, strung together with a thin, steel cord, three yellow mattresses leaning against the corner wall, two wedding dresses on hangers, a black and white television set and an electric guitar.He sets the books and the excercycle down. He lifts up the guitar to examine it. A red Gibson missing two strings. The neck is warped. Still, it does not seem that bad. He looks up from the guitar as two women approach the wedding dresses.

“There’s only two to choose from. That one’s too big and the other one is too small,” the younger of the women says through her braces, the little red bumps of acne gathered around the corners of her mouth, and a big whitehead pimple waiting to burst on the tip of her nose.

“Oh honey. Don’t worry. We’ll pin this one up and you’ll look real pretty. It’ll be fine,” the older woman assures her, taking the dress from the rack and leading her daughter away.

He leans against the store window, staring out gray-blue clouds fading towards darkness. He must get back on the road, and continue driving. Maybe he can get another hundred miles in before he will have to find a motel. And then resume driving in the morning. He will be hone again in two more days perhaps, three at the most.

He slings the guitar over his shoulder, picks up the excercycle with one hand, the book with the other, and as a after thought, the remaining wedding dress from its hook before he walks to the cashier.

“Let’s see here,” the clerk, a middle aged woman with a wig of grey cotton candy, and a face so caked with flour that she might be a geisha’s ghost, says, tallying up the items with a pencil, whose tip she first licks with her dry brown tongue, on a small white pad of paper. “One fitness bicycle, one guitar, one neck brace, one paperback book, and one wedding dress.” She adds the numbers she has written. “That’ll be $42.50,” she says looking up with a smile, pleased with the answer.

He pulls a fifty dollar bill from his wallet.

“Keep the change.”

Tony Shea ( Editor-in-Chief, New York)

Tony Shea is based in New York, having recently moved from Los Angeles after more than a decade on the sunny coast. His short films have won numerous awards and screened at major festivals around the world including Comic-Con. As a musician, he is the lead singer for Los Angeles rock n’ roll band Candygram For Mongo (C4M) who has been a featured artist on Clear Channel Radio’s Discover New Music Program and whose songs have been heard on Battlestar Gallactica (Syfy Channel) and Unhitched (Fox) among other shows and films.

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