>>> The Lady's Shave
By staff writer NG Hatfield
March 20, 2008

“Mary, Mary quite Contrary, how does your garden grow?”

A tall woman bobbed a swaddled baby against her shoulder and kept up with the old nursery rhyme. She was maybe twenty, attractive, brunette and skinny. Her hair was up, tempting, a pale pink ribbon was woven through it at the crest of her head. Her eyes were big, but swollen from what could have only been the absence of sleep. I could tell she was Southern; the rhyme felt more genuine, motherly because of her thick, sonorous accent.

She shushed, sang, kept the baby moving up and down. From the bundle by her neck, a series of tired sobs traded for two or three therapeutic whimpers, then a welcome silence.

“I could feel the throb of my heart. The fight hadn’t satisfied that archaic human need to feel pain.”

She looked at me. “I’m sorry. It’s the only way I know how to calm him down.” I noticed that under the wet, white-speckled faux-fur of her coat was the yellow collar of The Daylight Diner’s uniform. I could smell fried eggs, coffee.

“No. No,” I said, feeling a strange attachment to her because of the job resemblance, “Don’t worry about that. It’s not the first crying baby I’ve heard today.” I felt a little like an asshole. I concentrated on something to redeem myself. “But you’re a decent rhymer.” I felt like a real asshole.

She smiled politely and handed me a ten dollar bill.

I wiped a pack of diapers, Virginia Slims and a Diet Coke over the scanner. The register beeped a total. It was more than ten dollars. “Actually, it’s eleven sixty-four.”

“Oh.” She looked shocked, depressed. She repositioned the baby to unzip her purse.

“Don’t worry about it. My drawer is already over. This place is too expensive anyways.”

She looked up. “Thank you so much.” Beaming, she reached across the linoleum and grabbed my wrist. “Really. Thanks.”

Although I didn’t know if my drawer was actually over—though it never was—and I had to pay out before I could head home, I felt okay about ditching the dollar sixty-four.

I said, “Only a buck or so. It’s not a problem.” With the way she was grabbing me, it really wasn’t. I would’ve paid her more than that.

She lifted my drooping arm, turned her hand and rubbed her thumb over the hair on my hand. “I mean it, you’re a life-saver.”

I couldn’t tell if she was flirting or just very appreciative. I bagged up her diapers, asked if she wanted her cigs and Coke in the same bag. She said yes, displaced the baby on her other arm and headed out the door with it pressed against her tit.

No one else was around and there were three minutes left until quitting time. I thanked myself for enduring the shift again.

I hated the place. Myself for working there. My arch nemesis is shredded lettuce, I kept thinking. My arch nemesis is shredded lettuce. My arch nemesis was shredded fucking lettuce and that was it. The only entity capable of equaling was a wet strand of green. Dried, stuck to the stainless steel corners of the little deli attached to the counter. Plastered to the red and white tiles of the walls. Green. Lettuce. Brown. Oxygenated. The loathsome brush strokes of sandwich artistry.

I saw a head of it in a bin about ten feet from the register. When I was younger, I had considered no person capable of matching me. But the cloudy green crinkled under the plastic wrap as I peeled a new bin open for the night shift. I knew there was a new presence of evil. Not an arch nemesis that would challenge. Lettuce. It could not justify or reaffirm or goad. Lettuce. The worst enemy of all time. Cut and shriveled blades of Easter grass.

I felt like I was killing something, or smoking.

I had quit better jobs. That was the kicker, I guess. When I didn’t need the money. Selling televisions, or caddying at a country club. I didn’t have to pick dried shards of dead green from my fingernails. Lettuce. But I desperately needed the money and sometimes I’d get to see some hot ass.

Minor victories, I thought.

The door swung open again. I hoped that the waitress had left her keys or something; I had forgotten to take a peek at her ass as she left.

“Hello and welcome to–”

Fergal stomped in, wearing bright red Fort Hill sweats and his company hat. “Well shit!” Other than our hats, the station never had much of a dress code policy; most of the guys wore sweatpants or raggedy-ass jeans to work.

He cornered the magazine rack, heaved a stool to the counter, sat down and turned to me. I could smell acne medication and gin. “My fucking Impala’s got a loose timing belt.”

“That’s some tough luck,” I said.

“Goddamn right it is. And now I got a work this shithole all night.” He sighed, massaged a tight circle around a big, red pimple on his neck and pulled a Reader’s Digest from under the register. “Least I got this.”

Fergal was one of those guys you might call a Corporate Motherfucker. He bummed cigs from me and then told me not to smoke them on my shift. I wouldn’t listen and he would threaten to write me up. I returned the intimidation with, “I’ll fucking quit.” Apparently, finding workers who are reliable or maybe depressed enough to stick around a fucking gas station was a difficult deal. So, he never went through with the bullshit.

“Yeah. Glad you’re here,“ I said, “I needed to get off.” I plucked my jacket—some water-logged leather shit—from a hook by the wall of cigarettes. My hands found my jacket’s respective sleeves and with a little discomfort, slid through to find air again. “I’ll pay up tomorrow, after you count it out.”

“Sure. Sure.” He looked at me like I was crazy. Like he was sad for me. I couldn’t tell which or why.

Well it’s Fergal, I thought, took a few steps toward the door and said, “See ya.”

“Be careful,” Fergal said, “It’s shittin’ white out there.”

I could feel snow hitting my face. I could hear it blistering the rain spouting. It reminded me of the small, limp moths that smashed themselves against my lights in the summer.

Sparkling little piles of it collected from the wind, under a streetlamp, in a sewage ditch near the road. I took out a new pack of smokes that I had stolen earlier in the shift, pulled one out and lit it. I walked around the place and leaned against an unlit wall by our dumpsters. There was something spray-painted in a bright white on top of them. JESUS WAS A WHITE MAN, A DEMOCRAT FROM ‘BAMA, HE HUNG TWO NIGGERS, WEARING HIS PAJAMAS.

The slogan made me wonder who the author was insulting. Christians? Black people? Southerners? Republicans? Pajama-wearers? I laughed. Then, I tossed a few handfuls of snow on top of the word “Nigger.” Enough stuck to the sloped plastic lid to conceal the message.

“I’ll clean you off tomorrow,” I said to it.

I turned back to realize that the spot near the dumpsters was creepy as hell. A dead rat was disemboweled by a trap nearest the building and the corners of the large green metal cast a shadow over cigarette butts and broken glass. It was a certain, hair-raising hilarity, that fucking squalor. I stayed. There was a little awning I could stand under and my cigarette could stay dry.

I looked at it proudly, took a drag, then watched the street. Everything looked like it was waiting, I thought. Waiting to be sullied black by the salt trucks. To be melted away in the morning by the sun. To be stepped in, defiled by footprint or tire track or piss puddle.

I ashed on it. My flecks like smoldered confetti on a soft, white floor.

“Fuck this,” I said. I took a long drag again and noticed that some red car, an Acura or a Honda or something, had pulled in and was stalking around the lot. Its tinted windows, its calculated movement. It looked like a metal, neon shark.

Around the four pumps it drove, then stopped in front of the door a few times. Nobody got out. Apparently, whoever it was was looking inside for something.

I thought about the graffiti again, wondered if the driver was a black guy, shrugged it off and grabbed a bottle of pills from my jacket’s inner pocket. I took two, chalky Zannies—my last—and watched the car.

Eventually, it stopped circling and drove out into the street. I watched its taillights disappear, then began walking home.

The snow was deeper than what it looked like from inside the gas station. Maybe five inches. My sneakers let the cold moisture in quickly and I swore at them. Still, the roads were empty and the sidewalks even more so. It felt good to be alone.

The storm had eased off and there were footprints up a hill before the strip of bars I had to pass to get home. The wind was still going, but it was at my back. It was a lucky night, I thought.

The sky was a strange grayish orange. The city must’ve been reflecting its pollution, light off of the snowclouds above.

I heard a car coming, saw the headlights cast my long shadow. The car-shark pulled up beside me and lowered its dark passenger-side window.

“You seen a girl with a baby around here?” It was, in fact, a black guy.

I jumped a little, “What?”

“You seen a girl with a baby around here?”


“Thought I saw her car there.”

“I didn’t see a girl with a fucking baby. Alright?” I figured that if the waitress wanted to see this guy, she’d get in touch with him without my assistance.

“Listen man, there’s no need to get hostile.”

“Sorry. I just got off a long day.”


His tone was dismissive and I didn’t like it. “Piss off.”

“Get a fucking life, man.” He turned, rolled up the window and slowly drove along. The taillights disappeared again. Pissed off and tired, I turned, headed into the snow, back into the wind for McCaughey’s Bar.

For a regular, I got the shittiest service possible. I don’t know what tipped them off that I was poor. The bright blue SERVICE hat I wore or that I stiffed them on the gratuity every Tuesday night. I was outright ignored by all the female bartenders and barely acknowledged by the men. I ordered four beers at a time to keep the buzz going strong and limit the amount of human interaction.

“Would you believe that that Coleridge guy asked for a second mortgage today?” some guy from a few seats way was squawking. He was angular, balding, in a dark gray sport coat. He was probably twenty-eight, probably a virgin. He drank imports. I didn’t like the guy because he was constantly talking. He was a regular, too. Just sauntered in around nine thirty with a bunch of his pencil-pushing fuck friends and pontificated while I was trying to relax. “Jesus Christ, don’t you think he’d get the point?”

I ignored him and looked around the bar. A long, mahogany countertop with the sheen of a dozen or so circles of amber-colored liquor near the edge. The bartender, Ryan, ignored the stains and smoked a cigarette by the Keno machine while he talked to somebody on a bright red telephone—like you’d picture in the White House or something. The video poker machines were beaming in the darkest corner of the place, across the pool tables, each flashing WINNER above them. The jukebox was off and looked sinister, disheartened even. There was never any music until eleven or so, when one of the girls would plug it in and play some country song about lost love.

“Seriously, what a fucking dumbass!”

I decided to say something to the virgin. I read his nametag aloud, “Sagan.”

He took a drink and looked over, “Yeah?”

“You got a first name?”


I addressed him as David.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“You’re full of shit.”

“That so?” He lifted off his stool and puffed up. It wasn’t much, given his chest looked concave.

“Yes. That so.”

“Fuck you buddy.” He sat back down.

“That’s it, then?”

He didn’t say anything. Only held the top of his beer, looked in the mirror that hung behind a few bottles of liquor.

I finished the fourth beer and thumped my arm across the bar with a fiver waving limp in the air.

An hour later, Sagan and I were in the parking lot. “C’mon you fuck,” he shouted, “hit me.”

I had taken off my jacket, tossed it into a pile of snow. I ripped my shirt open at the neck. For theatrical purposes, I guess.

There were too many potholes, too much ice and snow. I couldn’t get my footing. Neither could he. We swung and missed six or eight times. He kept screaming for me to hit him and I would’ve liked to, but nothing was connecting.

“Hit me!”

I swung, missed. The momentum carried me to my knee and the snow soaked through. “I fucking can’t!” I flailed, got to my feet and repositioned myself. “Why don’t you hit me, then?”

He swung, lost his balance and fell on his ass.

I gave up and went back in to get warm.

I could feel the throb of my heart in my neck. Adrenaline. The fight hadn’t satisfied that archaic human need to feel pain. Something that allowed me the greatest compensation of knowing I caused it too. I lit a cigarette to calm my nerves, kept the match ignited, the heat on my face for as long as it could endure.

“Hey. Hey,” I heard from behind me. “My Lord. You look like hell.”

I looked up from my second beer. Jay Butler was biting down on an unlit cigar.

“What’s up, Picasso?” I asked him, offering my hand for a shake. He wasn’t an artist. I had only called him the name because he told me that’s what his friends call him. And we were friends, had been since my first year in Morgantown.

We went into the pleasantries and after, I figured he’d leave. But he slid over a barstool and said, “Listen, I got a serious fucking problem.”


“I read your last story. What you gave me at Karlie’s party. What was it?” He thought for a second, “Mea Culpa?”

“Yeah. That’s the one.” Nobody ever read my stories. I turned to face him and listen.

“I can’t tell if it’s an orgy or an English conversation.”

I laughed and swung my open palm up to smack the back of his head. He was the kind of friend who warranted a little physical abuse.

He braced for the hit, allowed it, then grabbed one of my beers. “This is going to get warm. Let me buy you a few rounds.”

“Sure fucking thing.”

The night went on; more people showed up with snow on their shoulders and in their hair. Some played the video poker, some slid quarters into the jukebox and more country blasted. Sagan left with some older woman wearing this leopard-print dress. This incensed me and Picasso picked up on it. “What the fuck’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” I shrugged it off and he picked it up enough to move on.

“What was I sayin’? Oh yeah, that’s right.” He smiled. “Your ideal woman is a fucking skeleton.”

“That’s horseshit,” I said, “they aren’t all that skinny.”

“Yeah they are.” He held a pinky up and stroked it. “Me, I like them a little thick.” He held up the thumb on his other hand to show the comparison.

“I wouldn’t mind fucking on an X-ray machine, now that you mention it.”

He laughed. “That’s the writer I know now. Really, really fucked up.”

I appreciated the compliment. Until he repeated it again and again.

I woke up in my bed. It was a little after noon and I knew that I had two hours to go until I was back on the register at the station. I hoped, by some miracle, that the snow had piled up enough that I had a valid excuse not to come in.

Out the window, a soft rain was melting the accumulation.

“Fuck it,” I said, and went back to sleep.

Eventually, I turned up at the station again. Four days later. The fear of starving to death, of feeling lazy all week got me out of bed and my apartment.

Fergal was standing with his arms crossed when I got there, looking down on the counter, at another Reader’s Digest. He looked up, “You’re back, huh?”

“Looks like it,” I said, and he left after he counted out his register. I felt good that he didn’t ask me about the money I probably owed.

The day inched by. Maybe seven customers all day. The weather had stamped the idea of staying home into the collective unconscious and I wasn’t complaining. When it was as empty as it was, I could sit back, smoke, make myself a sandwich and watch a mute television that hung on the wall by our men’s bathroom. I watched some old spaghetti western, a talk show about neglected wives, a movie with Clint Eastwood as some sort of FBI agent, and about three hours of Looney Tunes. I couldn’t help but feel remarkably attached to Daffy Duck; he kept getting pulled off the stage by that long cane, but he kept dancing. For whatever reason.

Around seven, the door opened. It was the waitress. This time, without her baby.

She was wearing the same coat, uniform, pants. She hustled up to the counter and smacked her hands down, “Listen.”

I was listening.

“I like you.” She blew the damp hair that had hung in front of her face up and off to a side. A nervous act, but still oddly graceful, sexy.

I didn’t know what to say. I felt a tight feeling in my guts.

“You want coffee? Drinks tonight?” she asked. “Anything?”

“Yes. Yes. Both. Everything.” I knew I sounded too eager then. I pulled back from the counter and leaned against the wall of cigarette boxes. One fell. Lucky Strikes.

“Good.” She covered a smile with a gloved hand. “I don’t have Jack all night.” She handed me a pink diner slip with her address scribbled on it.

“I’ll be there at ten thirty.” Enough time to leave the gas station, get home, take a shower, masturbate and arrive at her place.

“Great.” She smiled, turned and walked the few steps to the door. My agreement of her request had apparently given her the confidence to tease me. “See you then, baby.”

“Wait. What’s your name?”

She whipped around. “Rita.” Then out the door.

I got a good view of her ass as she left; it was the best I’d ever seen.

After the next two hours, I realized that my caring, sexual or romantic, was full of new, pounding faults. It was cold excitement, a shooting star that could just be a hunk of shit crashing to Earth from the upper atmosphere.

As a beautiful woman, Rita was a member of an exclusive group that had butchered me since puberty. She would be a killer. Or, she would be the spy they sent to find out something significant in me, then rip it out through my dick.

Continue to Part II »

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