A Casualty of Place

In 2000 I’m new at the record store. Videocassettes are viable items. DVDs are just becoming affordable. Our DVD section amounts to a few titles in a handmade, wooden end cap. The end cap, like most of the store, was built for records—to display DVDs you stack them in columns about six or seven high, sparsely filling the rows. This method has serious disadvantages: order immediately dies, and most of the titles rest at knee-level or below. One afternoon a tall, dirty man in a stained undershirt gazes at our modest collection of movies. His mouth hangs open. He scans our movies through sharp, squinting eyes.

Richie the veteran gleefully points him out. He makes sure I walk by as the man scans titles, inspecting the covers of each box he pulls from the stack. He’s beltless and bent at the knees. The visible half of his ass stares up at me.

I am nineteen, both horrified and in stitches.

Richie laughs, shaking his head under his long red shredder’s hair. He loves initiating new folks on the regulars, the intricacies and peculiarities of Lubbock’s weirder residents. “That’s Butt Crack,” he says after the man leaves. From now on we call him BC.

I become a veteran myself, and I watch Richie introduce the new guys to our regulars. He knows when to send you, arms full of new stock, past BC’s titular exhibitionism. He’ll let Clint berate you for improperly removing the needle from a spinning record. You begin to admire the way he handles Leslie the Schizophrenic, coaxing him to leave when his body odor overtakes the store. You develop a nonverbal series of cues for the shoplifter creep, and schmooze with local musicians and newscasters. After seven years you are surprised that there are always new old customers who drop in. They’re strangers to you, but Richie greets them like long-lost friends

Like Richie, I am especially nice to two kinds of customers: those I respect and those I pity. Some customers are too hygienically and socially-challenged for me to pity, though. We give them all names: the Burger Brothers, the Make-out Brothers, Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Boogie Nights, Video James. These human marginalia are important to me, since I make six dollars an hour and smell like gas whenever my ’74 Super Beetle has a full tank. I need to feel better than somebody.

A customer takes a picture. The store looks a mess. Our cubby holes behind the counter look like trash bins. Jerry and I are playing air guitar in sunglasses, wearing ZZ Top beards made of Post-it Notes. I’m twenty-five and look forty. The store sits between a barbecue place and a 7-11, and I bear the weight of weekly Snickers bars and chopped beef sandwiches. My balding head needs a haircut because I’ve let it go. My girlfriend will be hurt if I let someone else cut it, but can’t be bothered to do it herself. Whenever I break up with her she holds a kitchen knife to her throat, so I resign myself to finding happiness at the store, playing air guitar and joking with our weirder customers.

The thing we love most about BC is his ability to distill a film down to a few key phrases. He’s a gutter-Ebert, a Siskel of the pavement. He curses character development, praising bold directors for high guns-to-tits ratios, and comparing the work of actresses like Angelina Jolie to the fine mammary performances of one Jane Mansfield.

He holds a DVD case and taps it, calling our attention. “That’s a goddamn good flick,” he says, spitting out words through grunts and mumbles.

For BC, Movies fall into two categories: Goddamn Good Flicks and Stupid as Hell. Resident Evil is a good flick about prima donna vampire hunters. We don’t know what this means, but we say it all the time. A.I. is a goofy show about robots or some shit. Tomb Raider is, without question, a goddamn good flick. A lot of BC’s movie reviews seem to feature dinosaurs, despite the fact that no dinosaurs appear in the films themselves. Perhaps in BC’s mind “dinosaur” covers zombies, demons, and other monsters. Our favorite review, one that persists for years in our retelling, is for Collateral Damage, a Schwarzenegger film set in South America.

“Goddamn Commando goes to the jungle to get the Predator, but the Predator don’t show up so he starts killing Mexicans.”

His eyes widen as he playacts explosions and stunts, making sound effects and using his finger to shoot imaginary terroristas. Now we solicit his opinion on every film he sees.

A couple of years pass before we get his name. Ronnie. This is a revelation. Ronnie shows up with his wife, a squat, polite woman with middle-school-teacher bangs and big glasses. They get movies together, and not always explosive action flicks. Mrs. Ronnie dignifies him. When they show up together he wears faded brush poppers—Richie’s name for the two-tone cowboy shirts that adorn every Garth Brooks cover—tucked into Wranglers. He even wears a belt.

When Ronnie’s wife speaks, it’s with a high-pitched, dreamy delivery; she speaks slowly. If we ask a question she usually defers to Ronnie, whom she does not call Ronnie, but Jimmy. Sometimes, we swear she calls him Jimmy-John. He tells us Mrs. Ronnie works at a bank, “high up.” Again, we don’t know what that means.

Over time, we combine information: Ronnie and his wife live in a small house or a trailer south of town. They drink a lot. One of us hears about a blowout involving beer bottles flying across the room. It’s Mrs. Ronnie doing the throwing, something we find difficult to picture. Ronnie looks tired when he comes in. Over the course of a year, we watch one of his teeth blacken until one day it’s gone.

Behind the counter, we have a system of holds. There are stacks of metal CDs for Jared, shred guitar stuff for Richie. We look out for each other. Should some weird Italian prog record show up, I’ll throw it back for Nick. We put things back for customers: Steve likes ECM jazz records, Kyle needs rare Elvis Costello. Most of us love to be defined by our taste. Not Ronnie. He’s good with whatever’s on the shelves. He has a proletariat fondness for men getting killed and women getting undressed. He calls action movies “shoot-em-ups.” When he talks about actresses, he bobs his hands in front of his chest like a bouncing pair of breasts. And while he trades every movie back in to the store, he’s easy to please.

We have other regulars like Ronnie. In my head I call them mountain folk, even though there are no mountains out on the long horizon. They all live out on county roads or small towns like Levelland or Idalou or Muleshoe. But any time we have wrestling tickets, or if there’s a monster truck rally in town, they come out in droves. One spring I watch a family blow their refund check on Wrestlemania VHS boxed sets.

The word we use most, of course, is rednecks. And a lot of rednecks love the store. There’s an excitable man from New Mexico who drags his ever-complaining wife to Lubbock every couple of months to pick up his special orders of rare Skynyrd, .38 Special, or anything else that features one of the brothers Van Zant. For some reason, probably my superhuman patience, he likes me. He tells me, beaming from under his mullet, that people call him “Montrose” for his love for the band Montrose. I don’t believe him, until I’m handed every phone call with a 505 area code. “Hey, is this, uh, Andrew? It’s Montrose!”

They make a show of shopping at the store, like Lar-Dawg. Lar-Dawg makes us call him that, though his ropey wife just calls him Larry. His hands are stout, fat claws. The fingers have become near useless after years of working on trucks, and drinking, and God knows what else. He peels dollars bills out onto the counter with great, shoulder-working effort. He has a persistent cough, sounding like he’s on the verge of death despite his firecracker energy. One night he coughs a drop of blood onto the counter and doesn’t notice.

Sometimes Lar-Dawg and wife are liquored and pilled to incomprehensibility. Some Sundays they come into the store polite and quiet and high on the Word, churched up and showered, their clothing hopelessly faded and out of date, but clean.

In other words, they are West Texans.

Lar-Dawg and Montrose come and go, but Ronnie and his wife are more or less constants. For a good while they show up on Saturday afternoons, on their way out to the Depot District to have a good time. I imagine they go out for a few beers, maybe some line dancing, then home to retire for an evening of used movies and maybe a little beer-bottle-throwing. On Saturdays Ronnie’s hair is combed, he’s clean-shaven, and he hustles his wife around the store, guiding her with gentle hands upon her shoulders.

One Saturday, Kevin avoids working by talking to Ronnie and his wife, and tells me how Mrs. Ronnie tried to explain a movie by its synopsis, but it became all too clear that she couldn’t read a word of it. Ronnie took a look at it over her shoulder and read the words for her, nodding righteously at Kevin. Covering for her.

But what can I say? By this point, I’m covering for myself. I come to the store with my right hand swollen blue and red, unshowered and tired and hoarse from screaming with someone I am too afraid to leave. I lie about it. I say I wracked my knuckles fixing my Beetle. But my misery is clear. I hate the woman who keeps calling me at the store. I’ve become the guy that, rather than hurt someone else, has found that the dresser in his girlfriend’s loft has a surface that, when punched from the right angle, produces the most satisfying scraping of skin, just the right speed and amount of bleeding.

You get afraid of becoming a casualty of place. A couple of our customers are cutters, though only one of them, with his missing eyebrows and Geni-Torturers t-shirts, looks it. First you notice the long-sleeve shirts in summer, then the scars inching out when you take their money. Before long you think that everyone who shops at the store is scarred and broken. You get tired of low-balling jittery men with meth-mouth unloading their Pantera CDs. The disaffected youth, trying so hard to be authentic punks or showing up with JUGGALO tattooed in heavy script on their arms. The drunk who calls you a jerk-off after he baits you about the store’s confusing signage. The woman who calls us all assholes because her mother is dying. The old men with Brill-creamed hair who won’t find their lost youths here. You remember their faces forever and gut-check yourself in part of a drawn out fight: I am these people. I will never be these people. I wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The truth lives somewhere between those thoughts. We laugh at our customers because we wish to be better than them. But thinking you’re better than someone is the demarcation of an asshole.

And it’s not all bad. Montrose is genuinely giddy when that Rossington-Collins Band import arrives. People get excited when they find it, whatever it is. These people become my people. A lot of them are dirty, but they come back because we don’t judge. We only laugh once they’ve left the store.

So it makes sense, the lies about Mrs. Ronnie working as a loan officer in a bank, rather than retelling the stories of flying beer bottles and overturned tables. Alone, Ronnie is a mess, dirt-caked and angry-faced. Mrs. Ronnie is a mess, too, but they clean one another up, make each other presentable. One does not work without the other. Mrs. Ronnie does not work in a bank. Ronnie can’t get around without baring his ass. But they’re my people, and for all their flaws they’ve got one thing figured out: We all need someone to cover for us.

Andrew Howard's work has appeared/will appear in Southwestern American Literature, Kaliedotrope, and Bluestem, and has been shortlisted for the Carve Short Story Prize. He currently lives and teaches in Washington, DC.