Gauge is undone. His Dragon Tails are missing from the invoice. Though he is sure he ordered them, there is no mention of them on the carbon papers he holds in his hands, which shake. His Juggler’s Jubilee Grand Display sets, all one hundred of them, sit plastic-bound on a pallet in the back room; all he can think to do is stare, stare, stare. Wait for the old hick. Hold a cigarette quivering to his lips. He should set right to work, stack them up into a pyramid, a tower, something fun. Instead he stares. Waits. Undone. The M-80s are gone, Gauge thinks as he breaks up. Fucking gone. Fucking little bastard, Gauge thinks. He holds his breath.
The giant red rooster above the store wears a camo hat. He has his thumb-feather up. He winks. That’s supposed to be Rowdy Ron. Gauge’s fireworks store is called Rowdy Ron’s, even though it’s Gauge’s.
“Are you twenty-one?” asks Gauge, though he knows the little bastard isn’t.
“Naw.” He wears a bow tie over a pinstriped shirt and glasses.
Gauge is going to kick him out. Every underage kid that comes into Rowdy Ron’s is a new joy to expel. Gauge boots up on power trip; he gets off, gets by on power trip.
“You need to leave, kid. Come back when you’re twenty-one.” Gauge lights a cigarette in front of the little bastard. He’s twelve, maybe ten. Gauge snorts a dismissive chuckle.
The little bastard smirks aggressively and barks, “Somethin’ funny?”
“Hey, fuck you,” Gauge grunts, mostly out of instinct.
The little bastard just stands there looking at him. “You got any M-80s?” The little bastard’s voice is surprisingly redneck and rugged for such a well-dressed tyke. He spits the words out like tobacco juice.
Gauge doesn’t like the question. He tries not to betray his discomfort as the kid leans forward, steps toward the counter. Gauge glares, fingers the rim of his Stone Cold Steve Austin cap, and says to him: “Hey what’d I tell you? Git out.” He points to the door.
Then the little bastard is gone, just like that.
Gauge bought Rowdy Ron’s from his uncle, Rowdy Ron, in 1997, for a carton of Winstons and a Chevy engine. Now he sits at the front desk, beneath Ron’s old shotgun and a mounted buck’s ass, talking to creditors on a rotary phone. Every two or three days, he sees Ron through the front window, cruising by, rolling slowly through the strip’s parking lot, stopping to badmouth high school girls, some of whom get into the pristine Camaro, hopping over the shiny yellow door, kissing “Rowdy Uncle Ron” on his pockmarked fifty-something cheek. Ron gazes through the glass front of his old store. Stares in at Gauge. He whips a cigarette fresh out of a pack of Winstons. Grins. Speeds off.
Ron can kiss my ass, thinks Gauge, and sips Natural Ice beer from a clandestine front counter cozy. Old codger acting the hotshot, as if he were in Gauge’s body for the day, every day, abusing it, while Gauge tires and drowns in an unsalable pile of sparklers and toy gun caps.
M-80s, cherry bombs…etc. something, etc…illegal in the state of New Hampshire. Etc. Family-run business. Etc. Prosecution. Etc. Signed, Ron Bondino. Dated 1995. He lights a cigarette.
Gauge is almost out of the red. Gauge is almost twenty-four. Gauge is going to buy a tricked out Camaro and his freedom in, he reckons, seven months. Then, he is considering shooting Ron in the back of the head, and spending the rest of his days cruising into the parking lot just to stake his jailbait claim.
“Hot enough for ya?” Gauge flirts with the teenage girl in the tied-off shirt. She giggles. She’s looking at his Wizard Bangers.
He sashays out from behind the counter and comes up behind her. “Them’re big fuckers,” he says. “Shoot ya goddam head off if ya not careful with ’em.”
More giggling. She turns, and Gauge examines her breasts. He thinks she is Jillian Easton’s younger sister. “Is Ron in?”
“Nope.” Gauge shrugs. This question slows him down a step. “He don’t work here no more. He ain’t worked here for a while.”
“Oh.” She turns back around.
Gauge bends deep at the waist and looms closer. “You like fireworks?”
Immediately Gauge dislikes that he has said this, but she twirls around, a box of Wizards pressed to her bosom. “Oh,” she stumbles for words. “Oh yeah. We use to shoot ’em off all summer down by the lake!”
“Yeah.” Gauge bobs his head.
She says, “Yeah, my friend told me to…to come down here and talk to Rowdy Ron.”
“You Jillian Easton’s sister?”
The girl takes a step back. “Y…yeah. You know Jill?”
I went to high school with her. “I seen her around.” Pause. “I’m Gauge, by the way.” He reaches out his hand.
She beams. Puts the box down and lowers her hands to her sides. “I’m Angie,” she says, then reaches out to touch his hand.
Gauge has been selling illegal M-80s and cherry bombs for a year and a half. Mostly to his friends, some regular customers. Kids come in all the time asking for shit like that (“Hey man…ya got any dynamite?”), but Gauge always points to the sign and shakes his head. Pointing to the sign isn’t like kicking a kid out, though. Actually it makes him feel kind of gay. He always follows up by asking the kid how old he is, then proceeds to eject him from the store. But yes, the contraband is there. Gauge sells it to some people. It isn’t like you have to have a secret code or anything. Gauge just knows. He gives them the look.
He got hooked up at the tri-county 4th of July blowout fair. This old hick from Lempster or Ackworth or something. Real Rambo. Big old buck knife in his boot, a bandoleer of shotgun shells under a winter-camo vest. Hair tied back. Did more than one tour in Nam. Got hooked with explosives and gook fireworks or some shit. Real whack-job, but he hooks Gauge up every six weeks. Drives right up to the cargo dock in back of the plaza and unloads them. Overhead’s a paycheck and a half, but it pays off.
Gauge started by paying this old hick from Asscrack, New Hampshire, on credit. Lately, he buys whole crates of the stuff with cash, and he runs out by the end of the fourth week. He’s been trying to get in touch with whoever the guy above his guy is, but the old hardcase won’t budge. Gauge dreams of shooting him in the back of the head as he is leaning into the back of his cargo van. The guy’s knife secretly scares him.
“What’d I tell you about bein’ twenty-one?” Gauge yells at the little bastard who for some reason is in the store again, his fancy shirtsleeve on the counter.
“C’mon old man,” says the kid, leaning in. “I know you’ve got the heat.”
Gauge cracks his neck to the side viciously. Kicks the back of the counter then the wall. He cannot believe this little punk is talking to him like that. If there’s one thing that Gauge hates, it’s mouthy little punks. Gauge thinks: but he’s a smart looking kid. Probably an Honor Roll kid. Fourteen, maybe fifteen years old. Glasses, collar. Maybe it’s this dichotomy in the little bastard that so confounds and infuriates Gauge. Whatever. He lights a cigarette. He suppresses the urge to sip from his front-counter Natty Ice. Gauge hates to say shit like, do I have to call the cops? It makes him feel shattered, broken up, undone.
“I’ll be back for them M-80s, old man.” The kid (fucking serious?) kind of grimaces and narrows his eyebrows before twirling around and stomping out.
Duck-footed. Look at how the little bastard walks. Gauge laughs and almost lights another cigarette before feeling for the one already in his mouth with trembling fingers. He realizes that he never actually told the kid to leave.
Surveying the breadth of the back room—the huge, compact stacks of boxes on shelves and pallets—she looks delicate, inexperienced, sitting on a dented keg. Gauge squats opposite her on a stack of milk crates. He pulls a new Natty out from behind a stack of Zinger-Lingers and makes a big show about opening it up.
She gasps, smiling. “You drink at work?”
“Only on lunch break, sweetheart.”
She laughs fully. Lunch break. Gauge has flipped the sign in the front door window. Half an hour, and here they are: that comfortable, lit-cement atmosphere.
“So,” says Gauge pulling one leg over the other. “How d’you know old man Ron?”
“Rowdy Ron…” Her lip quivers, almost a smile. “He comes around to a lot of the parties me and my friends are at.”
“You like to party?”
He gives her the look.
She says, “Do you mind if I have a beer?”
He pretends to hesitate, then opens one for her and hands it to her. The head overflows, and it drips onto the floor as he passes it. Gauge tries not to say sorry but says it anyway.
She sips. “Yeah, Rowdy Ron took me and these two girls, Becky and Sienna, up to this campsite one night…”
Gauge sits transfixed. His finger begins to twitch.
“And he set off all these, like…crazy fireworks that he gets from like…China, or some shit.”
She watches him light his cigarette, cute little grin on her face. He exhales slowly, knowing what comes next. “Oh, don’t tell me you smoke too…”
She squeals and acts embarrassed. “Can I please have one?”
He hands her a Winston and lights it for her.
She exhales, lowering her eyes. “Only when I drink, though…” Giggle.
“Fireworks from China, huh?” Gauge’s voice is skeptical.
She nods while she sips.
“How big were they?”
She swallows. “They were like…” she makes a circle with her thumb and pointer.
“Cherry bombs?” He huffs.
“Old man Ron’s got a big mouth on him, I’ll tell ya that…” Gauge leans back, almost to the tipping point of his milk crate perch.
She licks her lips. Gauge has twenty-two minutes. She says, “Them are illegal, aren’t they?”
Gauge nods and puckers his lips like a rock singer.
“So you don’t got any of those…do you?” He watches her lips. Waits for them to pucker. Waits. Waits.
“Rowdy Ron himself. Just yestiday I seen him comin’ outta the woods, out by Camden’s. Big ole gobbler over his shoulder. Holy fuck. You shoulda seen it. He says, ‘Tim, I come up over this ridge, you know, making a whole shit loada noise, not payin’ any fucken attention—you know old Ron, prawlly out at O’Hare’s place all mornin’, workin’ out his liver—says he seen this big ole gobbler just jabberin’ away. Ron says, ‘Fucken A, Tim, I git about nine feet away from the dumb bastard and he’s just talkin’ talkin’ talkin’, you know, yammerin’ right away, sittin’ all fat and puffed up…’”
Rowdy Ron got his first turkey of the season. Gauge’s friend Tim tells him all about it for about twenty minutes while Gauge smokes two Winstons and finishes his Natty Ice. He wishes Tim would shut the fuck up. He’s got the box of M-80s he wanted, already paid for, just sitting there under his elbow on the counter. He’s had it there the whole time. Three mothers and their children have come and gone with the contraband right there. Gauge is trying not to sweat it.
While Tim talks, Gauge thinks about the little bastard, despite himself—his bizarre, cocksure, almost gentlemanly behavior still itches Gauge, days after he threw him out.
“…I says, ‘Ron, git that fat fucken tom offa my pickup truck.’ Thing’s all bloody and shit, perched up on the hooda my fucken truck! Old Ron jus’ looks up and…”
And why is Tim so intent on this Ron hagiography? Gauge knows Ron. He’s his nephew. This excessive documentation of Ron’s victorious first-kill of the year is making Gauge break apart, come undone.
“…I says, ‘Ron, I’ll tell ya what. I’ll buy you…a case of whateva ya want if you jus’ take that fat fucken’…”
Tim is killing him. It’s not the M-80s, not the creditors, not the mouthy little punk bastard. No, Gauge is cool with all that. It’s just Tim’s voice. Preoccupies his attention. Can’t focus on anything else. Who is coming in? Are they twenty-one? It could be anyone: the cops, the old hick, the little bastard. God forbid. Every time he looks around Tim to glance at the door, Tim says something like, “Hey, ya still listenin’?”
He lights yet another Winston and experiences his first fantasy of killing Tim…pulling Ron’s old twelve-gauge down off the rack and nailing him, pumping him twice in the chest, even though he keeps the shotgun unloaded. Doesn’t matter. In the fantasy it is always loaded. He inhales the smoke. He holds his breath. Waits.
Gauge is absolutely getting laid for revealing his contraband to the teenage girl. One way or another. His body screams and oozes with each drag of the Winston as he watches her run her long, fake fingernails over the unmarked box. One of them is coming unglued. (Bet old Ron never got laid in the back room…) She lifts the lid strip tease slowly, all but squealing at the eventual sight. Gauge bursts into pieces.
It is almost closing time. The mouthy little bastard comes in. He looks probably eighteen or nineteen. He comes in with his signature glasses and his ridiculous bow tie, his preppy shirt, smelling this evening of Old Spice. Gauge is disgusted.
Gauge puts his hands flat onto the counter and presses tight to the desk, until his groin is smashed up against it. “Get out.”
The little bastard puts his face extraordinarily close to Gauge’s and smiles. “Ain’t you gonna ask me how old I am?”
Gauge almost goes for the shotgun.
“Think I’m underage?” The little (come to think of it, he certainly appears larger than Gauge remembers him) bastard grins impossibly hard. His teeth, in stark contrast to his foppish attire, are trailer park eggshells. He reeks of long-leaf tobacco, not cologne.
Someone is coming to the door from the parking lot. A girl.
Gauge goes for the Winstons, but the kid goes for his first and, to Gauge’s dismay, lights up and puffs.
It’s Jillian Easton’s sister. Angie. The one he sold the cherry bombs to. Shit.
Another beer? A few sparklers? Will he have to offer her the cherry bombs for free? What will it take? (He cannot take his eyes off her dingy tank top.) Will he have to beg her: take me to the parking lot, Angie, drive me away from this store, to the gravel pit, where we can park and drink beer out of cans and make out and be young. Will he have to offer her the cherry bombs for free?
She comes up behind the supercilious little bastard. Puts her arms around his waist. His heavy, redneck smell, his rowdy attitude, his surprisingly muscular arms curled up on the counter next to (as if in comparison to) Gauge’s own, hidden beneath the clean cuffs of his anomalously well-pressed shirt (a nicer shirt than any Gauge owns). It all bespeaks strange manhood.
“The M-80s, old man.”
Gauge squeaks, “I’m only twenty-three.”
“Where are they?”
Gauge goes for the shotgun.
Angie: “We already know where they are, you fucken dickwad.”
Gauge takes the shotgun off the rack and points it at the couple. Both of them smile at each other. Angie opens her mouth wide and sticks her tongue into the fucking punk kid’s mouth. She gives him a sloppy, gratuitous kiss.
Gauge clicks off the safety and yells something. The two teenagers slide apart and stand side by side, facing him across the counter. He pulls the trigger and the unloaded shotgun dry-fires. Angie reaches out to disarm him. She takes the shotgun by the muzzle, pulls it out of his hands. It’s too heavy for her to hold like that, so when Gauge lets go the butt hits the counter, making an angry bark, and he comes unglued in a pitiful second.
It is closing time on Friday. Gauge flips the sign, locks the door, and kills the lights. The glow from the parking lot shoots in through the windows; Gauge stands at the door, catatonic, staring at the door to the back room, the blank spot behind the door where the M-80s were. He can feel it, like an abscess behind a tooth.
The rowdy little bastard and the girl let him keep most of the merch (“We don’t care about no fuckin’ Wizard Bangers, old man!”), but all the illegal stuff is gone. Nothing to show for it but a dented Natty Ice can, a few butts.
She didn’t even touch it.
Tired, undone, and older than ever before, he staggers out the door of Rowdy Ron’s and into the night. The door bangs like a shotgun blast behind him, and he flinches.
He figures (as best he can, undone) it was some sort of wager, one he didn’t even know he was making. With the rowdy little bastard? With the girl? With Ron Bondino? And now it’s only a matter of time until they call or come by: police, creditors, Jillian Easton’s parents. The rowdy little bastard. Jesus no.
Gauge looks up at his sign. The giant rooster—Rowdy Ron, as it were—winks at him in the electric light of the strip mall parking lot. His camo hat has lost luster over the years. Gauge will not repaint it.
Gauge is almost out of the red.
Gauge is only twenty-four.
Gauge is going to sell Rowdy Ron’s and buy a tricked-out Camaro and drive it out of this town. People will say, Gauge? Wasn’t he old Ron’s nephew?
He gets down and kneels in the parking lot. In the distance someone peels out of some other parking lot somewhere.
Yeah, we used to go down to Rowdy Ron’s and buy all these fucked up illegal explosives from that kid, Gauge.
Gauge gets down on his knees beneath the sign.
What d’you think happened to that kid, Gauge?
His knees ache. The rooster above him smirks. He holds his breath.
People will say, We ain’t seen him in a long time.
The rain starts up.
All rights reserved to John F. Kersey.
Illustrations by Graphic Design Intern Jarad Jensen.