In 2012 Emily Hoffman received an Individual Artist Grant from the Arkansas Arts Council for novel writing. Her
poetry and prose have appeared in places such as Cottonwood, Chiron Review, Front Range, and Chaffin Journal. She
is an assistant professor at Arkansas Tech University, where she teaches a variety of courses in creative writing, film, and literature.
On Friday, admission’s free to see Jimmie and Jeff, Carl, Denny, and the Busch boys get a feel for the grooves and work out the kinks, so a crowd—sweaty and bottlenecked—crams through the turnstiles and climbs up to the shade of the overhang. It’s mostly men like Mick who’ve come out to luxuriate in the fetid scent of concession stand beer and speculate about who’ll get to victory lane come Sunday.
“What’s Jimmie sayin’ ‘bout the car?” Mick says to the guy closest to him on the hot aluminum. The guy’s in tube socks and topsiders. He cocks back his scanner headset to holler a reply. “Said it’s loose as shit comin’ out of turn three.” He refits the headset and resumes his assault on a jumbo dog with sauerkraut. On the next lap, Mick sees the 48 fishtail. His own car—a venerable old Delta 88—may have finally crapped out for good yesterday in the Price Chopper parking lot, so he has suffered the indignity of having his son and live-in girlfriend drop him off like a junior high punk meeting up with his crew at the multiplex. They’ll text when they’re done shopping. “So be ready,” his son said. Buy whatever you want, Mick had wanted to say, but it won’t keep the two of you from smashin’ apart real soon.
As Jimmie brings the 48 in and Mick watches it disappear among the garages and tricked-out trailers, Stan, a salesman at the mega-big furniture mart across the way, goes left, left, left in his own oval, pacing a tedious perimeter around the Beautyrests and Tempur-pedics, past the pricier loveseats, leather sofas, and La-Z-Boys, bedroom sets, and back to the mattresses. He has that deal-maker’s ingratiating smile and a breast pocket weighed down with business cards. It’s been a slow morning, a slow few months, truth be told.
A couple ambles over. They’re youngish, newlyweds maybe, but probably just shacking up. He doesn’t know how, but he can tell the difference even before checking for rings. The guy—Mick’s boy—climbs onto a pillow-top queen and lays like a pharaoh in his tomb. She settles down at the foot of the mattress and jounces it with her bottom. It’s not the one. Stan calls out a greeting but doesn’t go closer or launch into his talking points. It’s a risk, but when they say, in unison, that they’re just looking, he can tell they appreciate him keeping his distance. They’re the type who’ll find him when they’re ready. They’re buyers, not browsers. Five minutes, he thinks. Any longer and Frank will be back from lunch, eager to pounce.
Stan takes the escalator down so he can sidle up to the See’s candy counter by Customer Service as if he’s just there to buy a caramel lollypop to go with his left-over lo mein rather than admire the half of Connie visible from behind the case of delicate confections. Connie’s something of a delicate confection herself: newly divorced from a card-carrying lowlife, shyer than she seems when she’s making change for a canister of Toffee-ettes, and struggling to believe that her life, a monumental drag up to this point, could actually be turning around. She’s even tenuously pretty, like all that’s holding her together are her false eyelashes and hairspray. He’s hinted at dinner. Nothing fancy. Just a shared slab of ribs at Arthur Bryant’s across the street. But she’s been giving him a sweet not-yet smile. Wednesday, when they last talked, he could feel her wanting him to ask, but he’d held back.
He’s barely off the escalator before some checker motions him over. He wants to know if Stan’s heard yet. “Heard what?”
“The candy chick, the blonde, busted in the bathroom doing coke. By a customer. Cops just took her out.”
The checker has more to tell—instant gossip that’s mutating and spreading to the far corners of the cavernous store. Stan, though, is on autopilot and headed for the escalator. The stair he rides on glides upward. It was her ex who was into that stuff, she’d said. She’d tried it a few times, sure, but the feeling she got from it creeped her out. The tops of the grandfather clocks recede below, and, for an instant, he catches another blonde, much older than Connie, arranging a new shipment of Toffee-ettes on a display table.
Everything in his body—his bones, blood, tendons—feels out of whack, unmoored. At the top, he almost forgets to step off, and his half-stumble propels him in the direction of the Tempur-pedics. Frank has intercepted the pharaoh and his girl. No doubt they’ve heard his tired ice breaker. “Looking for a spring mattress today?” he always says. After a beat he drops the punch line: “Well, you’re outta luck cause our mattress are made for all four seasons.” He’s closing the deal, sliding the invoice into the envelope they’ll take downstairs to the register. They’re on their way, and already Frank’s got a sun-whipped couple in his sights. “You folks been over at the speedway?” Frank’s a virtuoso. To talk “racin’” he’s seasoned his voice with the faintest little drawl even though they aren’t in the South.
Stan’s been to the real race before, not the dull qualifying they’ve settled for today. He won two tickets for being first in sales three quarters running and took Gina, who was about to break up with him. The winner, whose name he’s forgotten, drafted and bumped, timed his last trip to the pits just right, got high on the bank the final turn, and nipped the line in a photo finish that ignited the crowd. Stan remembers now what he liked about it. Not the drivers’ daredevil skill, not the sparks and flying shrapnel of the crashes. He had liked the sound. He had liked how his mind had been sheared of its worries and obsessions by the ceaseless sound of horsepower, an annihilating din.