I work in a liquor store. I haul cases of wine to customers’ cars. I unsheathe six-packs, then divvy up the bottles for the mix-and-match build-your-own. I mop when there are spills, and there are always spills. I punch buttons on the register and explain the liquor laws of Oklahoma to whatever convention’s in town this week—the Chili Bowl, the Gun Show, the Arabian Horse Quarterfinals. Cold beer is 3.2 percent alcohol and we can’t sell it here; All our beer is four percent or higher, but sold room temperature, and no, you won’t find chilled champagne anywhere nearer than Arkansas, at least not now, in 2012, though they’re always saying they’ll rewrite the laws.
I mop. I unpack. I smile and parrot and ring them all up: a grandmother and two boxes of Chardonnay. The bow-legged cowboy and his Colt 45 bottles. The businessman and his handle of Jose Cuervo Gold.
I stock, restock, stock again. I run the circuit of the store like a mouse in a maze: beer, travelers, pints, gin, rum, vodka, whiskey. Vermouth. Champagne. Bombers. The music pipes overhead: In this life that we call home, the years go fast and the days go so slow. The days go so slow. The days go slow.
In 2005, I’m eighteen. “Float On” is all over the airwaves, but I keep a burned copy of Lonesome Crowded West perpetually spinning in my slipshod stereo system: an AM/FM receiver rigged to my Discman, transmitting to my Oldsmobile’s unreliable radio. Every few days a new slew of college viewbooks shows up in the mail, replete with New England foliage and well-dressed co-eds. I spread these on my bedroom floor and hyperventilate. That could be me, laughing with friends in sweaters under an oak tree. That could be me, if I don’t fuck it up.
But I will fuck it up. This is what I do. I am sure of it, so instead of going to school in the mornings, I turn left and drive, and drive, and drive, listening to Lonesome Crowded West and watching Oklahoma’s flat fields and strip malls outside the bug-addled windshield. I turn the volume up and sing along, how I don’t feel and it feels great.
Eventually I point the car towards school and cue “Shit Luck,” a track that, in under two-and-a-half-minutes, explodes, collapses, and leaves me walking the halls of high school with a fuck-you snarl and an echo in my head: This plane is definitely crashing! This boat is obviously sinking! This building’s totally burning down!
The music makes me want to destroy something. My school. My life. Myself.
I drive a Toyota now, one with a built-in CD changer, and I smoke as I drive, but the music is the same: You can be ashamed or be so proud of what you’ve done… and it’s all gone, gone, and it’s all gone wrong.
It’s 2012 and I’m twenty-five years old. I ended up at one of those picturesque Northeast campuses, wore sweaters and made friends, and, babied by college and terrified of the real world, applied in a panic to graduate programs, got in and moved. I ran out of money last July.
And it’s all gone. And it’s all gone wrong.
I’ve come back to Oklahoma where I work in a liquor store. It’s the first time I haven’t been enrolled in something. My one degree is in storage; The other, half-done, follows me around the store, jeering. I never say the word aloud, but I know I’m not really taking a break. I’m just a dropout.
At the liquor store, my coworkers argue with me about the music. Beebee wants Joe Bonamassa, who’s just as good as Hendrix, but, you know, not a nigger. Andy wants John Mellencamp because he misses Indiana where he went through Basic Training. Jarod plays old hip-hop, Primus, and Modest Mouse, and when the owner Todd comes in to close every night, he looks at Jarod and asks, “What is this shit?”
Beebee is two years younger than my mother, but a life of ball-busting, Harley-riding, and five grandkids makes her decades older. She smokes Winstons and yaks: “I’m ‘bout to write them goddamn motherfuckers who sold me those rose seeds. Said guaranteed to fucking grow and I’m gonna call and say, ‘You fuckers, I got one fucking plant from that fucking package.’ One fucking plant. They better kick gravel and travel before I get to them.”
Jarod takes his smoke breaks alone when we work together in the evening shifts, then tells me how he played Funkadelic for his one-year-old daughter last night. “She liked it,” he says. “She kept the beat.”
Customers arrive and depart. Some are already drunk. Too many of them I know.
When you work in a liquor store in the city you grew up in, you see everyone. A man in a bomber jacket comes by for a handful of vodka pints, finally tells me, “You look so familiar.” I redden. I want to say it’s not me, but I don’t. I tell the truth. “You were the manager at the Chili’s where I waitressed,” I say, then hand him his drinks.
Or the woman, blonde and bright-eyed, whose face lights up in a glittery smile when she walks in. She’s my old softball coach, carrying a case of beer to the counter. “My husband!” she says, pointing to the bottles, and I know she’s lying. My dad’s coworker fresh from a bad divorce, saying, “Imagine seeing you here!” My old dermatologist, scanning my acne scars and asking, “I thought you were in New England?” Classmates, dozens of them, who pause, squint, ask, “Rachel?”
No, I want to say. No. This isn’t me. The girl you’re thinking of is far away and better off. She is not smoking cigarettes in the parking lot. She is not looking forward to the bottles waiting for her at home.
How Isaac Brock sings it, it’s nearly cheerful, almost an anthem: I’m trying / I’m trying to / drink away the part of the day that I cannot sleep away.
The Lonesome Crowded West ends as maniacally as it begins. The closing song, “Styrofoam Boots,” is an epic seven minute ramble about murder, St. Peter, and drinks. Maybe. I don’t know. What I know is this: I see the lyrics scratched into the paint of a stall door in a bar bathroom, and I agree. God takes care of himself, you of you.
On weekends, the liquor store explodes and the hours zip by. I am constantly moving, whether I’m sacking bottles or straightening shelves. I find a moment to hide in the back room and pinch the space between my eyebrows and try not to cry. I’ve just rung up an old man with a lopsided baseball cap who ignored my silly attempts at flirting. The older regulars love it when you card them, laugh as they filch their driver’s licenses from their battered wallets and pocketbooks. But this man ignored me, stowed his liter of budget vodka beneath his arm, and hobbled away. I watched him in the parking lot as he got into a taxi.
Maybe he’s buying the booze for his poker buddies. Maybe his car’s in the shop and he had to take a cab. Or maybe he’s alone on a matted armchair, drinking himself to death, and I’m helping.
This is not who I am. This is not who I wanted to be.
A classmate of mine comes in, a guy I hardly knew despite the handful of classes we took together. He eyeballs the Ciroc, spinning the box of Don Julio in his hands. His name finally comes to me. “It’s Paul, right?”
“Rachel,” he says. “No way.” He looks at the box in his hand and laughs. “We’re going to play laser tag and they told me to bring something. It’s graduation weekend. We’re all celebrating.”
I celebrated the night before I graduated college. When I walked, my hat was askew, a hangover raging in all my body. When I graduated high school, Paul was somewhere behind me; I was decked out in every tassel available, pins for service, an honors stole. I was someone. At that moment, I was perched on the edge of my life, ready to fly or fall.
Now, waiting on Paul, I feel like I’ve fallen. I feel like I’ve followed my dreams straight into a hole. Modest Mouse is overhead, the closing track of Lonesome Crowded West with Isaac Brock singing, it’s all nice, it’s all nice, it’s all nice on ice all right.
As I sack his bottles, Paul asks, “You’re still writing, aren’t you? Rachel the writer, right?”
I shrug. It’s the weekend and the store is packed. I tell him I’ll see him around, wait on the next stranger, someone who thinks I’m just a blonde behind a register. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve achieved. I’ve jumped and crashed and flown and retreated.
The drums pick up at minute five and climax to a frenzy. There are no other words, just the silly refrain of everything being all nice on ice all right. The album ends with a countdown, the way you’d count off a time measure when starting a song: One, two, three. Then the pause, that moment of limbo, a drum smash, a mere moment, and then, four.
I think of Beebee, gardening at three a.m. because it’s too fucking hot in the fucking daytime here in fucking Oklahoma. Todd the owner comes in, looks at Jarod, asks, “What is this shit?” We leave, Jarod to his baby and her mother, me to my parents’ house.
I pass Promenade Mall, Quiktrip after Quiktrip. The baseball diamond where I played outfield. The hospital where I was born. Church marquees berate me: WOULD THE GIRL YOU WERE BE PROUD OF THE WOMAN YOU’VE BECOME?
She’s not. But she will be.