Flatonia

Billy Slauson got word through a mass text message today that everyone on the late shift would be getting drunk. “Getting drunk?” he thought. “I can do that.” Thursday’s a good day for it too. Things are slow on Thursdays, and Billy’s the only manager on the shift. The only regular who comes in is an old rigger, Keith-Bob Chandler. He orders the same thing every time: a Double-double and a Fat Burger – extra salt on both. He’ll probably be the only person to eat inside, and as long as Keith-Bob doesn’t use the bathroom there won’t be much to do in terms of cleaning either, which always make for a good night.

It’s Carlos’ day to drive, so Billy starts boozing before Carlos comes over to pick him up. When it’s Billy’s day to drive he can borrow his sister’s car, but she’s working a late shift herself tonight down at the hospital. So Billy has a glass of Old Grandpa and a Hungry Man and then sits his ass down for a wait on the cracked cement of the Slausons’ front porch, which is more of a front step really.

Carlos arrives – that’s Carlos Vega, not Carlos Brown – Brown works Tuesdays –  and the two of them roll out.

Seemed like Carlos had been drinking too because not only did he give an extra long “Billllly,” as he rolled up, but when Slauson hopped in the car there was a pack of Modelo’s, half-finished, sitting on the passenger’s side of the front seat. Billy pushed over the beers and sat down. Modelo’s beer is about as Mexican as you can get. The caps are all wrapped in gold tin foil and in these parts – that’s South East Texas – the labels are even written in Mexican too. But it just so happens that Carlos is about as Mexican as you can get as well, so the pair works out nice.

The boys are two turns out of Billy’s trailer park when Carlos offers Billy a Modelo. “Got an opener?” Billy asks. Carlos points to the glove compartment, which Billy opens. “I don’t see none,” Billy says looking through a bunch of papers, unpaid tickets mostly.

Before Billy can even start looking under the seat, Carlos takes the beer from Billy’s hand and smashes it on the dashboard. The beer opens with a bit of broken glass, some fizz, and laughter from Carlos. “That works too,” Billy says. Carlos turns to Billy. He smiles, revealing a gap in his upper set of teeth. Carlos swerves a little. “Cervezas!” he says, producing a Modelo of his own, which he had hiding in the car door pocket on his side of the bench.  “Beer!” Billy agrees and the two bring their bottles down after a long gulp and give it a cheers.

The car rattles – more from a spotty transmission than from speed – as they continue driving, and this sets all of Carlos’ car ornaments in motion. The tooth, which should have been in the gap on the right side of Carlos’ upper teeth, bounces, hanging from a string on the rearview mirror, along with a set of rosaries, a devil’s horn, and another tooth – a gold tooth that Carlos won in a game of cards out back behind Abella’s gas station last fall.

What happened was Carlos tried himself to substitute his gold winning for the real deal right on the spot, despite already having a perfectly fine tooth there to begin with. In his drunken excitement, Carlos numbed his entire mouth with cocaine and got his knife out, which is the last thing he remembers, ‘cause after a bit of digging around up there, Carlos passed out. He had blood all over his face and exposed chest, which was hairy and covered in part by a half buttoned shirt right where his gut started. Two hours later when he woke up, the gang of borrachos he was playing cards with was gone. So too were his winnings, except for the tooth, which he took as a sign of good luck. Carlos tucked his shirt back into his jeans, put his pockets right, and headed home. Since that night, the teeth have been an unmoved installation in the car, along with various pieces of Jesus Christ and Mother Mary memorabilia.

Driving along, Billy takes the gold tooth in his hand, and Carlos says, “You like that, huh?” adding, “It’s real gold too,” excitedly as Billy nods and says, “Get out of town.”

“Okay, man,” Carlos laughs pointing to a “Welcome” sign that marks the boundary of Flatonia, and advertises the town as the seventh nicest place to live in the country.  “Wonder what number six is like,” Billy says out loud but not really to Carlos. Not long after that, he and Carlos pass Abella’s Gas station, which is still painted turquoise and is still advertising “CROSSES, JEWELRY, AND CANDLES.” Come to think of it, Abella’s is probably where Carlos wrangled up all these nice plastic Jesus and Mary figurines, and some wax ones halfway melted too, which clutter his dashboard.

Since this is a vehicle blessed by God, Billy doesn’t fret for two shakes when Carlos swerves, not that he would ever pester Carlos about his driving either way. But the shakiness of some of Carlos’ maneuvers and the car itself is enough to distract Billy from thinking about what the sixth nicest place in America would be like, which he couldn’t get out of his head for a while, as he watched the road fly by beneath him from a gum ball-sized hole in the floorboard by his feet. “Grass is always greener,” Billy says, tuning the radio and almost spilling his beer when they drift into the next lane over. “Except out here,” Carlos adds, looking at the sunburnt fields of pushed over grass outside the window. “Yep,” Billy agrees, and they clink their Modelo’s once more before a long sip.

Carlos chucks his spent bottle out the window and fumbles around under his seat. The car swerves back and forth as he struggles to find what he’s looking for. There’s nobody around, but if they were closer to the center of the grid of streets that is Flatonia, they might have to be a little more careful. Though anybody they would hit probably deserves it – Fayette County being as it is.

“Tequila!” Carlos shouts a few zig-zags later, popping up from under the steering wheel. In his hand is a flask, pieces of unwrapped candy and dust stuck to its outsides. Carlos swigs and hands the flask to Billy. “Tequila,” Billy shrugs, and then asks, “got any whiskey?”

“I don’t know,” Carlos shouts over the radio, which he turned up when Pitbull came on, but is now playing a commercial for Gray’s Ace Hardware at full volume. “Check in the backseat,” he tells Billy.

After driving a bit more, Carlos turns onto Branecky Road and stays with that until meeting up with 90, which they take east – away from Flatonia. After about four miles on 90, they pass a farm that Carlos used to work on – he points it out to Billy every time – and a little after that they pull into the parking lot at Fat Burger. Billy’s in the backseat now, a little sloshed from the whiskey he found underneath some papers. It’s not Old Grandpa, but it still did the trick.

When Keith-Bob Chandler heard the whistle blow, he was leaning on the railing on the outside of the rig, just waiting for the quit. He had spent the better part of the last two hours thinking about his dinner – a nice Double-double and a Fat Burger with extra salt. He stops at the Fat Burger outside of Flatonia every Thursday after work because that’s when Maude has cards with the ladies over at her sister’s in Schulenburg. She comes home late and doesn’t notice when Keith-Bob feeds Chester – that’s their pudgy little Chihuahua – whatever she’s whipped up for old K.B.

Maude’s a nurse, the kind that’s into all this new age voodoo medicine, and she thinks that Keith-Bob’s cholesterol is too high. “More fruits and vegetables, less burgers and salt. That’s what Doctor Oz says,” is one of Maude’s mantras. Meanwhile Keith-Bob doesn’t know who the hell Doctor Oz is, but he maintains that salt is healthy. “It’s a miner-all,” Keith-Bob argues. But Maude won’t have any of that. So naturally this Thursday night meal is what old K.B. looks forward to all week. The only bad part about it is the idiots they hire at these fast food places. The fast food places in this part of Southwest Texas are especially bad in this regard, Fayette County being as it is.

Slauson’s son, Billy, is the worst of the idiots, and he’s always at the register when Keith-Bob goes in on Thursday nights. That boy’s whole family is screwy, and no one sweat it when Billy’s dad, Bill Senior, got torn in two by one of the rigs a couple years back. Only person in town to seem the worse for it was Billy. The kid’s a total mess, a complete drunk. He hangs out with the Mexican bandito types and can barely hold a job. “He must still be living in a trailer with that lesbian sister of his,” Keith-Bob thinks to himself as he drives out of work. At least that’s the last Chandler had heard of the boy. Maude knows what everyone is up to and that’s what she told him. But she might be wrong. Maude ain’t always right, and it ain’t just about simple things like minerals neither.

For one, she denies that Candi Slauson’s a lesbian, and that girl is about as butch as wood. “What kinda name is Candi for a lesbian?” Maude always asks, which to her credit, is a good point.

“Hell if I know,” Keith-Bob says. “You think I make the rules about these things? You think I write these lesbian rules?” he says. It’s always a fight between the Chandlers, and though Keith-Bob loves Maude, its nice to have some time to himself on a Thursday night.  It’s nice to have a Double-double and a Fat Burger with salt too, and that’s all Chandler is thinking about as he pulls into the parking lot of the restaurant about four miles west of Flatonia.

Cynthia McDowd had just about fallen asleep when word came through that a handicap bathroom alarm went off at the Fat Burger just outside Flatonia. “Why don’t you give the boys over at that burger place a call when you get a chance?” the sheriff asked her. Cynthia grunted. She’s been working doubles and studying for the state trooper exam nonstop for the past two months. If she passes this test coming up in two weeks she can apply to be a trooper and then maybe get a cruiser out on route 90.

Until then she’ll have to idle around the station, passing papers and arguing with out-of-towners who call about traffic tickets, the same traffic tickets she’ll be giving in about two weeks if all goes to plan. “Don’t get ahead of yourself now,” the sheriff says, when he sees Cynthia studying. That was the same thing she heard when she applied to be a Sheriff’s Deputy three years back. Cynthia McDowd was the first woman in the county to ever apply for a job in law enforcement. “Don’t get ahead of yourself,” and “Have you met Candi Slauson?” was all she ever heard back when she was applying for her current position. When she finally got the job she didn’t take her uniform off for a week. Then her mimaw said, “Aw Cindy look at you in that thing. Girl you should put a bow in your hair.” Cynthia grunted. She gets by now on the dream of bigger and better things: a cruiser of her own, and giving out tickets on route 90.

See, there’s not much doing around here, especially on a Thursday. So even though it’s not an exciting task, the alarm at Fat Burger takes priority. These alarms are always going off – usually some teenager messing around. But Cynthia gets a little concerned when no one answers the phone at the burger place. They’re all a bunch of drunks and degenerates working there, but they shouldn’t be too stupid, or too busy to pick up a phone. Cynthia figures they might have gotten spooked by the sheriff’s department number on their caller I.D. since she’s arrested at least three guys who work at the establishment, including Carlos – that’s Carlos Vega not Brown – who burnt down a barn on the Johnson’s farm just a few miles up from the restaurant on route 90. It’s a wonder Fat Burger hired half their staff. Not that a conviction on someone’s record means much in these parts, Fayette County being as it is.

“Gonna go check on this alarm over at the Fat Burger,” Cynthia tells the sheriff after hanging up the phone. He nods, “Go’n now,” the sheriff says, barely awake himself at this point.

About a twenty-minute drive later and Cynthia pulls into the parking lot at Fat Burger. Billy Slauson’s working the register.

“Hi-ya, Billy,” Cynthia says walking into Fat Burger.

“Cindy McDowd, well I’ll be damned,” Billy croaks from the other side of the counter. “What are you? You a cop now?” Billy’s drunk from the looks of it, and in a bad sort too. Cynthia hasn’t seen much of him since they graduated back in ‘93. Her last memory of Billy involves a possum, a ’87 F-150, and can of gas. Billy’s first arrest is studied by all sheriffs’ officers who apply to be state troopers in Texas.

“Yes sir, Billy“ Cynthia starts to say but before she can continue he cuts her off.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Billy repeats and then he’s cut off himself with a long and wet belch.  “What, well – “ he continues, “Well, what brings you around these parts? The sheriff’s office must be, oh, ‘bout thirty minutes west in it?”

“Twenty with the lights on,” Cynthia says.

“With the lights on.  Well how ‘bout that. Cindy McDowd, playing like there’s any traffic in Fayette County, anyhow.”

“Maybe no traffic, Billy. But there’s still speed limits,” Cynthia says.

Billy nods vigorous. “Dats right. Dats right,” he says. “Hey, have you ever met my sister? Candi? I think the two of you might really get along.”

“Well, Billy, no need to take up any more of your time here than I have to. I’ll cut to the chase. See, I’m just coming through here to check on the bathroom. The alarm went off. D’you know that?”

“Oh yeah a while ago. Nobody wanted to check on it.” Cynthia gives Billy a look, and his face snaps sober a second. “I mean, we forgot,” Billy says.

“Mhm,” Cynthia says as she walks over to the bathroom. “S’locked,” she says. “Gonna need a key.” Billy makes haste with the keys, and by the time he’s five steps away the smell of whiskey is already floating over Cynthia. “Someone in here?” she asks Billy as she knocks on the door. Billy shrugs. No response from inside.

“When was the last customer?” Cynthia asks. Billy shrugs again and then Cynthia looks to the counter where two cooks – one she recognizes as Carlos Vega, the other some Mexican fellar she doesn’t know – have come out of the back where the kitchen is. Cynthia keeps looking at them until both of these men shrug as well.  After fiddling with the ring of keys Cynthia finally finds the one to the bathroom.

With a push she opens the door and there’s Keith-Bob Chandler lying face down on the floor right near the toilet. He’s got specks of crude oil all over his clothes and it smells like a mixture between an oilrig and a manure pile. There’s what looks to be a Fat Burger clenched in his fist, and a curled up turd has slid half way down the side of his thigh. His ass, white with red blotches, is exposed, and part of his mess is drying in his ass crack. The wire that connects the handi-cap bathroom alarm is just at his fingers. “Mr. Chandler,” Cynthia says.

“Der, der,” is all Keith Bob can manage, struggling.

“Oh he’s alive that’s good,” Billy says. He’s followed Cynthia into the bathroom. Afraid to get too close, Sheriff’s Deputy McDowd hollers over at Keith-Bob. “Mr. Chandler, you alright?” She covers her face in her shoulder. “You need help?”

“Der, der,” he says. He’s grabbing his left arm. Looks to be a heart attack. Cynthia radios into the sheriff about it.  “We’re gonna get you some help there Keith-Bob don’t you worry,” she says. “Just hold tight,” she says.

Billy starts to giggle, “not too tight,” Billy says.

Then the sheriff comes through the radio responding, “Keith-Bob Chandler? He’s the one over there in that bathroom? What’s wrong?” the sheriff asks. “He forgot how to wipe?” The sheriff crackles in laughter and Cynthia has to turn down the radio as static comes out strong.

“Der, der,” Chandler say, having heard the radio too. Billy laughs looking at Keith-Bob from over Cynthia’s shoulder.  He keeps his hand over his mouth.

“Looks to be a heart attack,” Cynthia says. “Nothing doing,” she says.

“What’s that?” the sheriff asks.

“Heart attack,” Cynthia says. “Nothing doing,” she repeats more clearly.

“Heart attack? Well okay, that’s right, nothing doing,” the sheriff says. “Just gotta wait. Say Cindy,” the sheriff says over the radio once more.

“Yeah?” she asks.

“You wanna call his wife? I’d hate to be the one to have to call Maude on this one.”

“Sure thing, sheriff,” Cynthia says.

“Alright, well I’ll send an ambulance over right away. Prolly take a bit of time, though, Fayette County, being as it is,” he says.  Cynthia McDowd and Billy Slauson nod. Keith-Bob Chandler does the same.

Maude Chandler was playing the best game of five-card draw in her life when a call came through on her cell phone from an unlisted number. “How in the hell do you work this thing?” Was the first thing Cynthia Mcdowd heard when Maude picked up her phone.

“Mrs. Chandler?” Cynthia said “This is Sheriff’s Deputy Mcdowd calling –“

“Little Cindy Mcdowd?” Maude asked over the phone. “Is that you?” she continued as she silently refused a cream puff, which her sister was handing her as the next round of five-card draw was being dealt.

“Yes ma’am,” Cindy said, “listen-“

“Ma’am?’’’ Maude interrupted. “Cindy ain’t no reason to ‘ma’am’ me, girl. I known you since you was young. But you listen I’m on a hot streak over here in Schulenberg so you better make this quick cause I gotta go.”

Unfortunately for Maude, though, Cynthia wasn’t sure how to quickly tell her that her husband, Keith Bob, had had a heart attack in the bathroom of a Fat Burger, and at that very moment his was face down with his ass exposed. Instead, ten minutes and sufficient use of the words “cardiac arrest” and “buttocks” later Maude finally cut Cindy Mcdowd off. “You mean to tell me my husband had a heart attack?” Maude asked, unsure.

“Yes, ma’am,” Cynthia answered.

“Alright, well that’s all you had to say sweetie. Listen, then, you flip him over, put a cool towel on his head and tell him to wait, I’m on my way,” Maude said and hung up the phone.  She had to fold yet another winning hand and then made it out of her sister’s house with only a few dirty looks from the Minson sisters who were choking down cigars, a kiss on the cheek from Kathy and Linda, and a tray of cream puffs from her sister to bring home.

….

Just as Maude Chandler left Schulenberg on route 10 going east, Raul Gomez was heading west on the same road. The hardest part of his journey, crossing the border between Juarez and El Paso was already over and all he had to do now was drop off his truck at the safe house just outside Flatonia, and then after almost a week of driving he could finally head up north to his place in Italy, Texas.

Raul is always delighted by the fact that he can tell anyone, especially the border patrol that he’s heading to Italy – which according to locals he mispronounces because it should be “Itly.” “Italy?” one of the guards today asked, confused. Raul nodded and explains that it’s actually a town in central Texas, at which point the second guard who had circled around the truck slapped and said, “yeah don’t you know nothing?”

Usually this type of little exchange is enough to distract the guards and he’s able to cross without much more than the normal inspection for trucks. If not, the pounds of cocaine that he’s driven up from Colombia are usually well hidden enough anyway.

Raul felt an excruciating tightness in his lower back just as he exited route 10 and headed onto route 90, but he tried to ignore it for the next two minutes until he would get to the Fat Burger on the other side of Flatonia.

When Maude Chandler arrived at the Fat Burger just outside of Flatonia there were two ambulances, four news trucks, and Fayette County’s entire fleet of cop cruisers, which was five, all parked outside. “All this for a little old heart attack? I hope he ain’t dead,” Maude said exiting her car.

As it turned out Keith Bob wasn’t dead. He was eating ice chips under the care of Candi Slauson over at the hospital in the center of town, which is right next to Gray’s Ace Hardware in case you didn’t know.

Anyway, back to Fat Burger, where there was one hell of a scene and two real live dead man, laid up in the back of an ambulance if you can believe it. As far as anyone could tell one was a cook at Fat Burger, Oscar Vasquez who had started just a month ago and who nobody knew much about. The other man’s name was either Raul Gomez or Martin Smith. He had passports for both names. His Mexican passport read Gomez and his American passport was Smith. And if they both looked legit, that’s ‘cause they were. Born in America but raised in Mexico, Martin Smith had dual citizenship and had changed his name to Raul Gomez, but this was official in Mexico only, which is a fact that will take weeks for the Fayette County Sheriff’s department and the DEA to figure out.

What they discovered immediately, though, was that in the back of Raul’s eighteen-wheeler, parked in the parking lot on the rear end of Fat Burger was about fifty pounds of the purest Colombian cocaine you could get your hands on, all hidden under frozen Fat Burgers patties and fries.

Apparently these narco-trafficantes have gotten wise to the fact that border patrol in Texas doesn’t have thick enough skin to do a proper search of a freezer truck and this is how they’ve been getting their stuff over the border. And in fact it’s all that white that explains what happened next.

‘Cause just after the ambulance took away Keith-Bob, Raul entered from the back door of the Fat Burger into the kitchen where Cindy Mcdowd was interviewing the boys who worked at the restaurant. Shocked and frightened to see a police officer at the stash house, Raul got angry and started yelling in Spanish at Oscar Vasquez, the newly highered chef.

Now Cynthia Mcdowd’s sixth grade Spanish ain’t good enough to have understood everything that was said but you don’t have to be a linguist to know what “cocaína,” means and besides she had seen Scarface. As Cynthia tells it, she asked Raul to calm down and put his hands in the air as she drew her pistol. Raul began to raise his hands but in doing so his lower back gave out and he made a sudden movement, and right then either Raul Gomez or Martin Smith depending on how you look at it became the first man Cynthia McDowd ever killed.

With Gomez’ body lying dead on the floor five feet or so in front of her, Sheriff’s Deputy Mcdowd stood there shocked, which gave Oscar Vasquez just enough time to get out his twenty-two which he had stashed on the first of a set steps hidden under a false set of linoleum tiles that lead to a basement where he and Gomez – who was apparently the official owner of the Fat Burger outside of Flatonia – had been packaging their cocaine for sale and distribution.

Without Cynthia noticing, Oscar cocked back his gun and started letting off shots in her direction as he ran away. Meanwhile Billy Slauson and Carlos – Vega, not Brown, Brown works Tuesdays, remember – took cover wherever they could. Shots ricocheted throughout the kitchen hitting all sorts of pots and pans and the grill even. That is until Cynthia, who kneeled down behind a cutting table stood up, drew her weapon once more and shot the wild Vasquez in the chest. When the smoke had cleared there were three men hit.

Billy Slauson got word from his doctor today that he could finally start drinking again. It’s been two weeks, and Billy’s only been having beers the whole time. “That mean I gotta start working again?” Billy asked the doctor.

The answer was no.  But it wouldn’t have mattered really, though, because there wasn’t any job to go back to. The Fat Burger just outside of Flatonia was closed anyhow, and Billy, who got injured on the job was still eligible for worker’s compensation.

Happy about this fact and happy about being able to drink again, Billy went for a sit on the front step outside the trailer he shares with his sister to have himself a glass of Old Grandpa. In his other hand was the paper, which had a picture of Cindy McDowd looking real nice with a bow on her state trooper hat and everything.

But just as Billy was about to start reading the article Carlos Vega rolled up. “Biiiilllyy,” he shouted and gave a honk.

“Carlos,” Billy nodded.

“Hey, man, do you want to go for a drive?” Carlos asked.

“Where to?” Billy asked.

“I don’t know man, I was thinking like out to like Paradise, what you think?” Carlos asked. “It’s like six hours north, but I got enough whiskey to last and plus it’s supposed to be the fifth nicest place in the whole country, man.”

“The fifth nicest?” Billy asked.

“Yeah,” Carlos said.

“And you got whiskey?”

“Old Grandpa,” Carlos added smiling. He was flush from his worker’s comp as well.

“Alright,” Billy agreed, and he and Carlos drove off, heading north to meet up with 35. The car rumbled and all of Carlos’ junk swayed, including the gold tooth – now flattened from a ricochet bullet which Billy was wearing two Thursdays ago at work when everything happened. They drove through Flatonia once more, passing Gray’s and Abella’s and not much else before getting on the highway four miles before the Fat Burger, now closed, just outside Flatonia.