NIGHT SHIFT: An Excerpt from Spark Park by Alex Kudera

Super shifts and settles and starts the story mid-fry. “Lemme me rap it out for you, Zacharia. This is the sad tale of Shakin’ the Bad. Shakin’ was my main man, used to visit me most every night back in the day. This was three years past, and I was still a young chump workin’ the night shift. He so inspired me that I wrote the whole sad shit down and memorized it. So let me lay it down from the start.

“Once upon a time, in some summer hiatus away from secondary school, I worked my first slave. It was the graveyard stint at the Gas N Grub convenience shop. From nine at night to seven in the morning, I bagged first, rang second cashier, cashed in on $3.35 per hour—at the time, I was thinkin’ it’s all for four future years of school. Man, I see now my ass was probably worth five, six, or seven times as much. Brotha, I toiled sedulously, often extremely fatigued, through those convenient sixty-six minute hours—boss was payin’ nine hours of cash money dough for a ten-hour shift! What with low pay, jammed register, broken slushee machine, and all them complaining coed bitties—I was an adolescent poet-to-be who’d already found his inferno. 

“My clientele consisted mainly of a certain upper-class import. That hollow suburbanite borne of old roots, the heritage that permits four or five frenzied years of over-ripening. These were the barren business majors and the bruised fruit of banker fathers. They conserved their limited intellectual energy for economics finals, efficiently using the mandatory apple with the hard drive, the submissive cherry with the soft touch. And because computerized exams came but twice a year, students entertained themselves with contested entrances to local bars of ambiguous laws. ’Round the way, as in around the corner, parched jocks, testy young gents, and liberated, if thirsty, women all queued outside the collegiate speakeasy, preparing for the just bouncer’s long query. 

“‘Got college ID?’ was grumbled to fingers and feet shuffling through the sophomoric, if not sophomoreless, carding, their occasional snaps and taps the impatient accompaniment to a nervous fumbler at the front. And when frequent fast-talkers, would be easyspeakees, appealed that the motion,” and Sup gives the ump’s upright thumb evincing ejection, “be stricken in favor of flow toward settlement—based upon precedent’s law of eternal returns—emergency procedure was in order such as an ambulance chase to the convenience store. Runners burst into the Gas N Grub. Even as they grabbed tin-foiled chips, they contemplated and rejected sandwiches because preparation meant lonesome lingering by the microwave. Instead, in a state of pre-lawless drunkenness, they demanded nervously to me and King that purchased prophylactics be bagged separately from assorted potato chips, nachos, and pretzels. 

“‘Regular or ridges, salt-’n-vinegar lubricant, or sour-cream-’n-onion scent, Sir?’ At the register, we countered effusively. Shit, Zak, if the boy had hopes of getting some, he need not be spared. Every young Westphalian knows how he ought to unembarassedly embrace the publicity. So we, the young sellers of safe sex, supposed, and so our eyes matched the glow of the shiny packages. 

“These runners hurried in and out, occupying the store until bar-closing time. Then, en masse, a herd of Joe-college stragglers arrived at the Gas N Grub, their faces flushed from a drunkenness ordered only in the burgeoning of proof, and further enlightened by a joint rolled and lit true along the way. By some struggled-for right of diplomatic immunity, imported college students are never hassled for small-fry illegalities in the same cities where permanent residents, the darker ones in particular, are considered players in a ruthless drug war. Yes, we all nod knowingly, but nothing is ever done.”

Sup pauses for effect. 

Zak wonders who is to blame or what is to be done while he peels some dried cheese goo off the wax paper. He nods as he nibbles, and then sees the storyteller is ready to resume. 

“How the intense munchies of unintelligible intellectuals kept me and King busy for a not-so-happy hour or so. From two to three in the morning, the place was packed with college kids. Domestic flatus was in poor taste, so they strolled flatulent from foreign brews, burped hibiscus, and hiccupped through the aisles. They rarely paused to research ingredients while rummaging over shelves for that elusive aphrodisiac needed to reinspire the young night. Indelicate lovers headed for red-hot barbecued onion rings or tortilla chips garnished with oozing spiced cheese product. Saccharine addicts faked around the ice creams, opting for artificially sweetened and colored ice milk. Drunk radicals nuked, in effigy, burritos shaped like squarish former Presidents, while feminists of every girth and tone chanced upon one-calorie, no-caffeine, cola-colored, well-watered soft drinks. They hardly cared that these no-sugar sodas left an aftertaste worse than a beer-drenched, nicotined-stained frat-house couch met in escape from a resident tongue. But it was somethin’ inside ’em instead of sugar, that when mixed with liquor, supplied the high which wiped away any remaining lip-sticked inhibitions. 

“This prime-time hour featured me, the Superman, as host to a show of game contestants who were loudly demanding Slush Puppies for ninety-nine, cigs for two singles, cluing in to varied cravings, for some, consolation prizes for an evening ending empty-handed. Dude, I was baggin’ the night away, my register on autopilot, driven by fingers which had long ago preprogrammed prices,” and Sup spread-eagles his hands for Zak to see, “a head equipped to delete rudeness,” and points to his pleasant dome, “and nerves unafraid to file five- to ten-percent overcharge for excessively mean input.” Here, Sup pinches an ear lobe as proof he can take the pain. 

“It was only a rich priss’s swipe of some silly magazine that broke the rhythm of my register rhyme. These comely collegiate crooks received my angry, question-pocked stares—rich blends of sadness, resentment, and a tinge of lust for the loaded mag-snatchers because it’s all them busty sorority bitches at the counter with that same false grin. Word up, homey, I had to ignore much orthodontist-approved sympathy. Actually, I took the drunken monied breasts for granted I saw so many, and with a yawn,” and Sup yawns, “I retrieved the requested filter-free soft pack, thanked the frat chick, next-pleased the gearneck, and never a thief was revealed.”

Super performs a pantomime of pulling a secret from his shirt sleeve and displays it to Zak. 

“Believe me, Zak, betwixt these precious pundit packs, I served some very strange locals. Mostly poor folk, the diverse hometown crowd interrupted the impoverished homogeneity of the college kids. There was old Caesar the afterhours apostolic who, in recompense for his nightly half pound of coleslaw, regularly uttered the biblical bit, ‘Gotsta give unta Caesar what Caesar’s, ramembah dat, Supa.’ He wouldn’t leave the counter until I gave a goodbye, ‘Yessuh’ which slurred came to ‘yeah, sure.’ Homeboy King was never sure why that cabbage-head geezer always spoke of salad dressing. There was hoagie-head Javon, his homeboy grape-juice Jawan, Jawan’s sister lemon-pie Lashawn, and her cousin melon-tart Tameka—a double-dating quartet appearing before and after each Friday’s midnight kung-fu flick.” With that last bit, Sup slams down a vicious karate chop, causing Zak to jump, as he halves what’s left of the communal fries. 

“And old Harry Clyde, would come, always sneaking a peek at the horoscope, joking with the boys, plugging his nose with his once-big, now-butchered thumb and making weird gyrations at some college girl, the King and I receiving his most lascivious wink, giving the young woman the whistle. He’d sometimes do in-and-outs with his nose-stuffed thumb, then hold out his tongue for the all-finished, wide-lick effect. He’d then rip off the wrapper of the best candy bar in the house, and casually creep out the door. His last words were always somethin’ like, ‘Needs my energies for the night shift, boys,’ or, ‘You can cuts your thumbs slicin’ meats, but never ever cut your meat.’  To which King spat the generic reply, ‘You ain’t worked an honest day, never mind a humid night, in years. Go chop your wood, you ol’ yeoman.’

“And beepered dealers would buy cream puffs for their pale powder puffers, often sickly strawberries incapable of enflaming any counter passions. These wealthier neighbors were good for business unless Frank Malarky stopped in. Some said he’d been a real copper back in the day, and others claimed that he’d missed the force by flunking the friggin’ test, but he didn’t want anyone to know about it. It was rumored that he had panic attacks whenever he gnoshed a doughnut or Danish and went off about drug dealers and addicts.     

“This dude Frank’s a card. He lived, or should I say ‘lives’ ’cause I seen his hairy ass just last week lecturing a pit bull for growling at police. Anyways, back in the day, he lived his whole sorry-ass life in shaded reality, graying as a security guard, almost young again come any dawn which revealed him waving a night stick at shadows. Whereas his turquoise uniform deviated from regulation blue, his short, wide neck was the normal shade of lobster-red. His means of surveillance was a black and white tube depicting rerun copycat crimes (with the same old crack-pot kingpins killed), reception limited to network stations despite his knight-of-the-desk rank at Sardonick and McKahn Cable. Frank would come to the Gas N Grub for coffee and sassafras slush (a bitter taste of deviance), whistling his favorite part of the company tune, ‘Get S&M in Your Box.’ Zak, methinks I still remember that dope beat.”

Super takes a deep breath and sings for the entire, if empty, steakery to hear:

We chain up wires to all teles we seize

Whip up our cable, give a twist to your tube

The way you ain’t had it, yeah, TV non-stop!

Pumping in sixty-nine shows is a breeze

With channels galore, you’ll get higher-res cube

For nineteen ninety-five, you’ll scream, “Don’t Stop!”

In a jiffy, Sup finishes the jingle and is back to storyline.

“Occasionally, in one of Frank’s more colorful racist fits, he’d forget his failings, assume policeman’s stature, and play Gas N Grub security guard. Dude’d hover around the door of the shop, long black billy club in hand, no doubt swiped from a real copper, and he’d whisper to me, as if my counter status implied ethnic immunity, ‘Man, if I see one of ’em leave the store with somethin’, I’ll break his fuckin’ head.’ Malarky’s stance lasted until, say, some blonde issue, likely a biochemist-to-be, pinched his left butt cheek while pinching an issue of TVWeek. Maybe Frank’d have toned down his act if he’d made the force, or fought to stay on and stuck the star through his crimson heart.” 

Sup pauses to catch his breath.

“Didn’t mean to get all worked up, Zak. I better shy away from such meanderings anyways. This is my tale of Shakin’, and besides, dear dumb Frank won’t be up for the police exam again until September. Shit, Zak, my cheesesteak has gotten cold, and Shakin’s tale is hardly told. So anyways, you wanna know who’s Shakin’?”

Zak, immersed, nods, “Yeah.”

ALEX KUDERA’S award-winning adjunct novel, Fight for Your Long Day (Atticus Books), was drafted in a walk-in closet during a summer in Seoul, South Korea. In 2016, he published Auggie’s Revenge with Beating Windward Press as well as a Classroom Edition of Fight for Your Long Day with Hard Ball Press. The e-singles “Frade Killed Ellen” (Dutch Kills Press), “Turquoise Truck” (Mendicant Bookworks), and “The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity” (Gone Dog Press) are available most anywhere books are downloaded. His published short stories include “Awash in Barach and Bolano” (The Agonist), “My Father’s Great Recession” (Heavy Feather Review), and “Over Fifty Billion Kafkas Served” (Eclectica Magazine).