The Weird Hours
Ian Denning

On Wednesday nights, for no reason Ford could determine, the smell of the FastGas changed. The other six nights of the week, it smelled cool and metallic, but on Wednesdays something clicked on in the back room or bubbled up from the bathroom drains and the silver smell of the place became warmer, peppery. Ford switched to coffee instead of diet soda, hoping that the aromas would cancel each other out, and wiped down all the surfaces with a stronger dilution of cleanser than Mr. Galveston had told him to use, but the smell, like bad Mexican food left too long in the fridge, wouldn’t leave.

This Wednesday, when Paige showed up at two in the morning, he asked her if she smelled anything. “It’s like rancid jalapenos or something. You smell that?”

“No, nothing,” she said. “Come on, cigarette break, champ, you’ve been working too hard.”

“Can’t sleep again?” Ford asked as they stepped outside. He feared that if he ever didn’t have a cigarette for her she would turn, like a stray cat no longer fed, and leave forever.

“Do you ever think about Truth, capital-T? And reality? Do you ever think about things like that?”

He lit their cigarettes for them and puffed into the hollow night air. A film of fresh snow clung to the concrete and the tops of the gas pumps. “Sometimes, I guess.”

For a cigarette, Paige passed on her professors’ lectures to Ford. She seemed to enjoy working through her mental notes, and he liked the intellectual stimulation and the company. Last week Ford had learned about the Ya̧nomamö tribe. Tonight she took him through Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Ford had taken a classics course at the University of Washington before he dropped out a month ago, but he hadn’t learned as much from those dry lectures as he learned from his talks with Paige. Maybe it was the cigarettes and the casual atmosphere, or maybe the fact that they had made out twice last summer acted as a kind of study aid.

They smoked their cigarettes down to stubs and hustled back into the warmth of the FastGas. “And no, I’m not sleeping,” Paige said. “You sleeping any better yet?”

“I covered my windowpanes in aluminum foil and duct tape yesterday. That helped.” Ford hadn’t slept well since he returned from Seattle. Insomnia was new to him, and strange, and the aluminum foil did help a bit, but it made his bedroom feel like a metal cocoon or a submarine. “Still, you know, graveyard shift, it screws with your sleep patterns.”

“Circadian rhythms,” Paige said, and headed for the magazine aisle. “You’ve got a customer.”

The doors slid open with an electronic tone and a pale blond girl in pajamas walked in. Her eyes were puffy and red, and she clutched a packet of tissue in her hand.

“Gas?” Ford called to the girl.

“Yeah, give me a minute,” she croaked, and went to the candy aisle. When she came to the counter with a chocolate bar, Ford recognized her.


“Ford? I haven’t seen you since graduation.”

Ford ducked his head and scanned the candy bar through the laser. “Yeah, same.” She wasn’t the first person from his high school to stop by the FastGas, and he hated these conversations. “Are you around town?”

“Living at my parents’ and looking for a job, same as everybody I guess.” She laughed, a low, congested huh-huh-huh, then squinted her puffy eyes at him. “I heard you left Spokane.”

“I did, to Seattle, but I dropped out.”

Marcy hid her smile quickly, but Ford caught it. “You dropped out? You? Why?”

“I don’t know. It wasn’t the right place, I guess.”

“Fifteen on pump three,” Marcy said, and gave him a wadded up twenty-dollar bill.

“Didn’t you have like a full scholarship or something?”

Ford nodded and Marcy nodded back. She kept her face neutral and looked away when Ford slid the receipt across the counter.

“You’re all set.”

“Take care, Ford,” she said, with a voice too high and too happy.

When she had gone, Paige slapped her magazine back on the rack. “What a bitch. Jesus.”

“It’s fine.”

“It’s not fine. She was relishing it.”

“She’s not the first.” Ford supposed that most of his classmates who stopped by the FastGas saw him as proof of what they had known all along: that their teachers were full of shit, that grades meant nothing, that sooner or later everybody—even the salutatorians like Ford—wound up at FastGas, or Zip’s Drive In, or Jiffy Lube, or the mall. “Whatever. Screw them.”

“You’re better than them. You’re not some hick who fixes cars and pumps gas for the rest of his life.”

“Yeah.” Ford watched Marcy pump her gas through the sliding doors. She was getting fat, he thought, and she looked miserable. Of course, no one looked their best at two-thirty in the morning at a FastGas. Her pajama bottoms had hotdogs on them.

It was late and their conversation trailed off, so Paige said goodbye and drove home to watch infomercials until they put her to sleep. Ford stood at the counter and watched her go.

Between three and five in the morning the outside world disappeared. The headlights stopped their sweeps of the plate glass storefront, the customers stayed away, and the reflections in the windows seemed to thicken until only the orange glow of streetlamps showed through from outside.

Mr. Galveston, the FastGas manager, had warned him about the middle of the shift on his first day. “Keep an eye out—the middle of third shift is peak time for armed robberies, and we’re in a bad neighborhood. We get robbed every once in a while. It’s life. Just do what the guy says—we don’t expect you to get your head blowed off for FastGas.” Mr. Galveston’s purple polo shirt was stretched tight over his gut, and Ford tried to keep his eyes off the outline of his belly-button. “But probably the worst you’ll have to deal with is just getting tired. You can wander around the store, walk some laps, do some pushups, as long as you’re around when the customer walks through the door. That’s why we’ve got the electro-dinger.”

Ford spent those two limbo hours of every shift walking through the FastGas, like Mr. Galveston recommended. He talked to himself. He read magazines about cars and guns that didn’t hold his interest. He detailed the rubber trim on the coolers and the top of the slushie machine. He drank cup after cup of diet soda from the fountain. Sometimes homeless people came in to loiter in the warmth, buy a cup of coffee, drink it down, and disappear into the dark. Every second or third night, Chief Dave came in.

Chief Dave was a scrawny middle-aged Native guy with duct tape criss-crossing his pants and encircling his ragged shoes. The first few times Chief Dave came in, Ford kept a hand near the silent alarm button; he had an addict’s surplus of movement—shuffling his feet, scratching his jaw, blowing air out through his lips, grinding and clicking his teeth—that made Ford anxious, and that could suddenly disappear, leaving behind an exhausted silence. Chief Dave seemed friendly though, and Paige loved him, and soon Ford relaxed. They were on a first-name basis, and he insisted that Ford call him “Chief Dave,” and never just “Dave.”

“It’s a sign of respect,” he told Ford and Paige once. “It’s an honorary.”

“What are you the chief of?” Paige asked.

Chief Dave looked at her with a blank face, the face of someone who is trying to hide how insulted they feel. “Everything,” he said, and left without another word, out into the weird hours of dark.

From three to five the night was at its most nightliest, the air its most brittle and distressed. Ford and Paige shivered on their cigarette break, sipping FastGas coffee and talking about Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, and he was disappointed when she had to go. Ford felt his worst at sunrise, watching the parking lot turn from black to less-black to grey. Sometimes at sunrise he considered going back to the west side, but then he thought about Paige, and Seattle seemed too far, too foreign, a city full of people who had nothing to say to him.

“I know it’s personal and all,” Paige said one night, “but why did you drop out? I’m sorry—you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want.”

“No it’s fine. It’s just Seattle is a lot different from Spokane. That’s part of it, at least.”

Ford had hated Seattle, a foreign city full of rain, full of snobs who ate food that tasted like dirt and listened to unlistenable music. His classes were incomprehensible, and he sat tapping his pencil against his leg while everybody else nodded and took notes. Ford, who had skated to a 3.95 GPA in high school, began to fear that soon the university would find out he was a fraud, that he couldn’t write papers about polyphony or abuses of the American judicial system, and they would send him back to Spokane—Spo-Compton to his classmates, a shit city on the hick side of the state.

Ford, who his high schoolmates had considered dangerously liberal and who had drawn lines through the calendar days remaining before his escape to Seattle, began, unwillingly at first, to defend his home. “Once I defended rodeo from a bunch of them at a coffeehouse,” he told Paige. “I mean, not rodeo itself, which I hate, but the idea of rodeo. They didn’t understand. It’s one thing for us to talk about hating rodeo—we know about barrel racing and the PRCA and all that—but they had no idea. At least we hate with authority.”

“But this place sucks,” Paige said. “It is Spo-Compton. You hated it here in high school.”

“Turns out I hate it over there, too. There’s good things here, though, things I can make work for me.” He glanced up at Paige, but she was staring into space.

He had thought of her on the drive home, across the snowy pass and the five hours of freeway to Spokane. The shame had driven him out—he was a hick who had faked his way through, earning, he estimated, B’s and B+’s on his finals, and he decided to quit before the university realized he couldn’t make it in the tougher classes and threw him out. His parents had prodded him with gentle questions about his scholarship and his plans. He would find a job before Christmas and work until he wanted to return to school—maybe Eastern Washington University, or Central, something close to home. Paige was finishing her first semester at EWU, he had remembered, and he thought back to the hours he spent with her on her parents couch. There had been two girls in Seattle, but neither was worth staying for.

The next night, early in the shift, Paige showed up with a car full of college girlfriends. They came laughing through the door, in their tight flannels with cowboy boots clicking through the aisles, and Paige skipped over to Ford and gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek, which surprised him. She smelled like vodka and cranberry juice. “Girls, this is Ford, friend of mine from high school,” she announced as they sashayed through the snack aisle, grabbing low calorie chips and peanuts. “Ford, this is Cary, Terry, and Sandra. We’re going to buy some beer.”

They were dolled up with lots of eyeliner and lipstick, their hair piled and clipped and hair-sprayed—real Spo-Compton girls. Paige had no makeup, as usual, and wore her ratty green cardigan over a tee-shirt and jeans. “Paige said you wouldn’t care if this is fake,” one of the girls said when they brought their things to the counter, and handed over her ID.

Ford shrugged and keyed in the date listed on the card. “A friend of Paige’s is a friend of mine.”

The girls laughed. Paige thanked him and they asked him to come to the party—“Only if it goes past eight in the morning,” he told them—then they left. He watched Paige stop as the others got into the car. She pulled the driver aside and talked to her, then the driver talked to the other girls. They conferred over their phones, then Paige waved and walked back to the FastGas while the car drove away.

“Let’s talk about linguistics,” she said.

“Did your friends just leave without you?”

“My friends? Jesus, did you see them? They’re just some girls from class. Look at this bag of potato chips.” She grabbed a bag from the shelf, knocking one to the counter.

“Are you drunk?”

“Just go with it. How do you know what is inside this bag of potato chips?”

“Because it says on the label.”

“But what if the label is lying? How do you know there wasn’t an accident at the factory and it’s full of tortilla chips instead of potato chips?”

“I guess I don’t.”

“You don’t. You don’t know.” She set the bags back on the shelf and leaned over the counter. “Furthermore, how do you know that when I say potato chip I’m thinking the same thing as when you say potato chip?”

“Potato chip, potato chip, potato chip,” Ford said.

“Potato potato potato potato potato.”

They repeated the word until it slowed down and broke into singular movements: the plosive ‘p’, two bowlegged ‘o’s, the drawback of the ‘tay.’ After a dozen repetitions, the word meant nothing. Poooo-taaaay-toooo.

“Cigarette?” Paige asked, and they walked outside. Before Ford could draw his lighter from his pocket she pushed him up against the big ice cooler and kissed him. She tasted like alcohol and warmth. They kissed for five minutes, their mouths steaming in the cold, and pulled apart when headlights flashed on them.

“You’ve got a customer,” Paige said, and as Ford turned to enter the FastGas, she slapped his butt. The customer was an older man in khakis, a dress shirt, and a Stetson, and he smiled and shook his head while Ford rang up his gas. By the time the customer left, Paige had disappeared.

What had it meant? Did she do it because she was drunk? Maybe she felt sorry for him. Maybe she wouldn’t come back. Their thing last summer hadn’t gone anywhere—maybe he would lose her for another four months and they would have to start all over again. For all his uncertainty, Ford smiled while he flipped through the new Guns & Ammo, and the weird hours passed faster than usual.

He was still thinking about the kiss the next night at two-thirty when the doors dinged open and let in Chief Dave. “Hey Chief,” Ford said, but Chief Dave didn’t acknowledge him. He had rolled his overlarge flannel up past his elbows, and Ford could see track marks on his arms. He shuffled to the back of the store, clicking his nails on the metal shelves, and stood by the cooler.

Ford rubbed his eyes. He hadn’t slept that afternoon in his burial chamber of a bedroom, and only caffeine kept him standing up. He was so tired not even the Wednesday smell bothered him. For what felt like the fiftieth time that night, he thought about Paige’s lips on his. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to confuse the side of the ice cooler for her couch last August, with the sun streaming through the windows, and when he looked up Chief Dave was walking down the aisle holding a machete.

“Cash register,” he said, knocking down the display of potato chips with his blade. Ford didn’t feel surprised or afraid. He felt like he did when he lay half-awake in the middle of the day and reason suspended itself. He only wondered where Chief Dave had hidden the machete—in his pant leg? Under his shirt? Was this a dream? “Come on,” Chief Dave said, and tapped the machete against the counter.

Ford emptied the cash register and heaped the bills up, but Chief Dave shook his head and said, “The change too.”

Once Ford had scooped the change from the till, Chief Dave pulled a set of flimsy toy handcuffs from his pocket. Up this close, the track marks looked even worse—deep purple-black lines tracing the forearm up to his wasted bicep. “Handcuff yourself to the slushie machine.”


Chief Dave raised his machete and Ford flinched and grabbed the handcuffs. He hurried to the back of the FastGas and clipped one cuff around his wrist and one around the stainless steel lever of the slushie machine, just behind the fist-sized ball-grip.

“Both hands,” Chief Dave said.

“I already did it. How am I supposed to—”

“Shut up, shut up, never mind.” Chief Dave checked to see if Ford had secured the handcuff properly, then, his energy exhausted, he slumped against the coffee counter and dropped the machete to his side. “Good Jesus,” he murmured, and rubbed his face before trudging to the check-out counter to fill his pockets with bills and change. Ford watched him grab a candy bar and two cases of Bud Light, which he carried out the door like suitcases. “Thank you,” Chief Dave called over his shoulder, and the door dinged closed behind him.

Ford yanked on the handcuffs, trying to break the cheap metal chain, but only succeeded in rattling the cuff against the lever and gashing his wrist. He hadn’t pushed the silent alarm button, his cell phone was behind the counter, and the cameras were on, but they fed straight to digital backup in the back room. Knowing he would have to wait for a customer to arrive and call 911, Ford sat down against the base of the slushie machine with his hand held above his shoulder. The surprise and shock were coming now, and he shook all over, teeth chattering. Where had Chief Dave hidden the machete? Why?

He waited through the weird hours. His arm fell asleep and his shoulder cramped up. Wednesday’s rotten pepper smell seeped in from somewhere. He repeated every swear word he knew over and over until they became background noise, and thought of the convenience store on 45th, near the University of Washington campus, that bustled with customers even at four in the morning. If I worked there I wouldn’t be chained to a fucking slushie machine, he thought, and kept swearing. Where was Paige?

Around four-thirty, for the first time, Ford fell asleep in the FastGas. He dreamed that he was sitting on top of the counter, and that the sun was rising and setting over Spokane, faster and faster, until it became a path of molten gold in the sky, and the pools of light that slid through the plate glass windows and out again at twilight flickered like an old movie. He awoke to shouting and a pain in his shoulder. A woman in a muumuu stood over him, yelling into her cell phone at the police.

The cop arrived and freed Ford from the cheap handcuffs with a bolt-cutter. He gave a statement, described Chief Dave, and pulled the security tape from the back room. The investigator was bleary-eyed, and accepted the cup of coffee Ford offered him without a word.

“They usually don’t handcuff you—that’s a new one,” Mr. Galveston told Ford when he arrived to fill out the paperwork and cover the rest of Ford’s shift. “Jeez. Almost makes you feel bad for the guy, just scratching for some change to shoot up his arm. Pathetic. You want a couple days off?”

Ford grabbed his phone and walked to the car. The sun was rising over the strip mall and peeling back the shadow, lighting up each crushed plastic cup and discarded wrapper, and each dead tree in the strip of dust between the sidewalk and the street. I came back here, Ford thought. I came back to a place like this. I shouldn’t have left.

Ford went home and slept dreamlessly. When he woke up his alarm clock read seven-thirty, and a shadow stood in his doorway. He stared at the shadow, thinking at first that Chief Dave had appeared again to dog him during the day as well. “Dad? Mom?”

“It’s me,” Paige said.

“Oh. You want to turn on a light?”

She ignored him and walked over to the bed. “I went to meet you after your shift and the fat manager guy told me what happened. Are you okay?”

“I’m okay. I quit the FastGas,” Ford said before he remembered that he hadn’t. “Or I’m going to. Is it seven-thirty in the morning or night?”

“It’s Thursday morning.”

Ford dropped his head into the pillow. “I thought you weren’t going to come back.”

Paige turned her head and shrugged. “You know, if you quit we can’t have cigarette breaks.”

“I’m going back to Seattle,” Ford said. “I’m calling the school today—there should still be some classes I can register for.”

Paige stayed quiet for a long time. She patted the sheets until she found his chest, and rested her hand there. “I wouldn’t want you at the FastGas forever.”

“I’m sorry.”

She leaned forward and kissed him. Ford wondered if he was feeling now how Paige had felt last summer. Had she seen futures, too, opening and closing, full of love and great distances? Did she, like Ford, have no idea how to weigh which one was best?

After the kiss, Ford threw off the covers and put on a shirt. “Help me with something,” he said, and pulled up all the blinds in his room to reveal the dark planes of aluminum foil that covered his windows. Their bumps and folds glinted, even in the low light.

Ford’s fingers couldn’t find purchase on the slick foil, so he licked his thumb and rubbed hard until it creased and tore, then he peeled a shard off. Paige hadn’t moved from the bed. She watched him while he ripped the silver off the panes, stripping duct tape back and flooding the room with light.

Ian Denning recently graduated from the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in A Cappella Zoo, Mid-American Review, 34th Parallel, the Rio Grande Review, and elsewhere.