Joe's outside, leaning on the gas pump, his hands cupped around his lighter. After the butt catches, he tosses his head back like a horse, sucks in smoke so the cigarette flares orange like a hole in the colourless prairie sky. The pump jockey should say something about that--Joe's standing under a sign depicting a lit cigarette with a circle around it and a line drawn through it--but Ace (so the patch on the breast pocket of his coveralls says) has his own home-rolled dangling from his lips so there ya go. Joe flicks ash and crushes it with his boot, Mr. Frigging Fire Safety. The clouds are whipped low and thin and long across the horizon behind him, and the smoke from his lips curls out and blends with them like Joe's exhaled the sky.
Billy snorts and adds two more Half Moons and a Joe Louis to the stack of hydrogenated breakfast-flavoured crap on the counter. Joe, he'd love that, the thing about exhaling the sky, mostly because he'd buy it, halfway serious, maybe spread his arms wide with ownership, a half-empty bottle in one hand, and say around the bobbing cigarette, "Let there be light, Billiam. Let there be fuckin light." Viewed through the space between the posters plastered to the plate glass window behind the counter, Joe's reach would span the visible world, all the way from "Win Free Gas for a Year!" to "LOST: German Sheppard, one ear missing. Goes by Kilo. Call Mike at the Feedlot." Billy adds two cans of diet Coke and two packs of smokes—his brand and Joe's—as Ace slouches in through the open door and starts punching keys on the register. Ace smells like grease and weed.
In the station, John's finally come out of the can and is methodically walking up and down the aisles naming everything he sees in a sort of soft-edged monotone like a monk's chant. Maybe later there'll be a song, some riff about Cheezees and batteries and road flares. That's how it used to happen, anyway, back in the day, when John's brain used to riff in verse, stringing random scraps together with rhymes so that sometimes Billy could almost believe that the world was made that way, like there is no random if you're bright enough or crazy enough to see the rhymes. "Sunscreen," John says, the word drawn out like a swath of disappointment across the stubbled, frost-brittle fields. "Expired two years ago."
In the van, Pipe's got his face mashed up against the passenger window, mouth open and drooling. He's slept easy for three hundred klicks like that, three hundred kilometres, three rounds of classic movies, one out-of-nowhere oration from John about the way the fields are rolled up like wheels, and a quick, rough hand-job—the van skewed at the end of the pull-out next to the bear-proof garbage cans and Billy's back against the dusty passenger door, Joe's face pressed hard into Billy's neck and his breath raw and his voice wordless and angry and his fingers ripping the button off of Billy's jeans, and Pipe right there, face mashed against the passenger side window, oblivious, John snoring on the bunk with his book open on his chest and his pen slipping from his fingers and out through the hole in the floor. Pipe should be broken, sleeping like that, but his muscles are too saturated with pot-induced mellow to twist or pinch. He'll turn it on, though, in Regina, and giggle like a fricking eight-year-old about the name—"Regiiiiiiina!" Billy watches as Joe pushes himself away from the gas pump and yanks open the passenger door. Somehow he gets his cigarette back in his mouth in time to catch Pipe as he heads for the asphalt face-first so that Pipe thanks him before his brain wakes up enough to clue in that Joe's a cruel fuck. Billy adds two Kit-Kat Bars to the bag and pays the tab.
"You'll laugh later," Joe's telling Pipe, who's sitting on the running board with one fist screwed into his eyesocket and the stubby index finger of the other hand pointing accusingly at Joe and his so-called sense of humour. "Fuck no, I don't think so, man, 'cause that's fucked, like, when a guy's sleeping, 'cause it's a matter of trust, you ever heard of that, man, trust, it's this thing people have so they don't have to sleep with their eyes open, yeah, fuck you, nice friend, there, Joe" he's saying while Joe's repeating, "You'll laugh, you will, you're laughing on the inside," in a relentless syncopation of run-on sentences like Gilbert and Sullivan stoked on coke and road rage.
"I am the very model of a modern major general," John says, and they both stop and look at him.
Joe takes a long drag and blows the smoke out before saying, "What the fuck?"
Grinning, John climbs over Pipe and into the van.
"Psycho," Pipe mutters, and maybe he's going to say more, but Billy waves a Kit-Kat bar under his nose and instead his face lights up like he's been handed the holy grail and it turned out to be made of chocolate.
Joe gives him a little kick with the side of his boot and growls, "Get in the van. We're gonna fuckin be late for the gig."
Pipe's voice is muffled by a mouthful of candybar as he yodels from inside, "In Regiiiiiiiiiiiina!"
Joe rolls his eyes at Billy and takes a last drag before flicking the cigarette away in a high curving arc. It rolls and stops beside the pump, still smoldering under the no smoking sign.
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