This is last week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing. I nominated this one for discussion since I used to work the graveyard shift at a convenience store about the time this story is set.
Review: “The Late Shift”, Dennis Etchison, 1980.
This is a wonderfully creepy story full of Etchison’s keen eye for details of life in Southern California particularly the demimonde of the graveyard shift which this story concerns itself with, specifically in convenience stores.
The story opens with the protagonist, Macklin, and his friends en route after leaving a midnight screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Massacre (“Who will survive and what will be left of them?”).
Somebody comes up with the idea of stopping at Stop ‘N Start, a convenience store. Entering it, the first thing they hear is the clerk arguing with a customer who wants a specific box of film. All the clerk says is “Please, please, sorry, thank you”. Macklin and friends pick up their items and head for checkout.
One of the men, Whitey (who, it turns out, is an American Indian), points the clerk out to Macklin. It’s Juano, a waiter at a Mexican restaurant they frequent. “How’s it going, man?” asks Whitey of Juano. “Thank You” is the reply. Macklin notices the milk he’s picked up is sour and tells Juano not to ring it up. “Sorry” is Juano’s reply who sounds like he’s dazed sleepwalker. Whitey asks about one of his favorite dishes over at the Mexican restaurant. Juano says nothing. A radio in the store starts playing The Doors’ “Light My Fire” whose lyrics will show up at several points in the story.
Macklin asks Juano if he remembers him. No response. Juano just turns about, drags his feet and eventually says “Sorry. Please.” Disgusted and because the convenience store is creeping them out, Macklin and Whitey throw some money down, take their stuff, and leave. But, at the door, Whitey turns around and glares at the building. Whitey says he’s coming back at the store’s shift change since he’s owed 20 dollars in change. Through the door, they can hear Juano say “Please. Sorry. Thank you.”
At ten AM the next morning, Macklin gets a call. Whitey is in St. John’s Hospital after his car went over an embankment last night. Apparently, he was drunk. At the hospital, Macklin informs the police Whitey has no relatives he knows of. But, in thinking about it, questions occur to Macklin. Why did Whitey have an accident at Arroyo Seco? It’s in the opposite direction from Stop ‘N Start where he said he was going. And a bottle of Jack Daniels on the floor of Whitey’s car doesn’t seem right. He only drank beer.
He goes in to see Whitey who, groggily, says his name is White Feather. Whitey says he saw the Angel of Death last night. Macklin thinks it’s just painkillers talking and reassures Whitey he’ll be out of the hospital soon. Asked what happened, Whitey said it was Juano. He didn’t tell the cop that. Who would believe a drunken Indian?
Macklin says he’ll take care of Juano. “What are you going to do, kill him?” asks Whitey. He doesn’t know, says Macklin. “They make a living from death, you know”, says Whitey.
A nurse comes in and tells Macklin he has to leave since Whitey is having surgery. Whitey asks Macklin “Do you know about the Trial of the Dead?” The nurse tells Macklin he can talk to his friend after the surgery. Whitey says he wants to know about the “Trial of the Dead”. What dead, asks the nurse? What does the hospital do with its dead, Whitey asks.
The nurse is resistant, but Whitey keeps pestering her. Finally she says the hosptial’s dead are tagged and put in cold storage until funeral arrangements are made with the families. How long is that Whitey wants to know. Two, three days? The nurse injects Whitey, and the two men exchange their good byes.
That afternoon all Macklin can find out from the hospital is that Whitey’s surgery isn’t critical and he’ll be kept for observation afterwards. He decides to go to the Stop ‘N Start. He talks to the manager, Raphael, whom he knows slightly. Raphael originally won’t talk “Until Macklin came up with the magic word: police.”
It turns out “they” bring guys like Juano to the store. Raphael has nothing to do with it. Its company policy for all the Stop ‘N Start stories. Sometimes the regular help is laid off from the graveyard shift “’Specially when there’s been lots of hold-ups”. Juanno replaced Dom, the late night guy. Juanno’s hours go down as Dom’s for tax purposes (screwing Dom I would say as an ex-tax collector), but Dom has to kick the money back to the company. It doesn’t show on his check. The district office pays the outfit supplying the fill-in help. The replacements aren’t even paid regular wages. Perhaps they’re illegal immigrants. Wherever they’re from, says Raphael, “They all looked messed up.”
Macklin hangs out at the store and watches Juano brought in at midnight.
Right on schedule. With raw, burning eyes he had watched Them do something to Juano’s shirtfront and then point him at the door and let go. What did They do, wind him up?
Macklin is determined to find out who “They” are. He pops some amphatamines and tries to talk to Juano but gets the same stock phrases as before. He decides to wait for Juano’s pickup.
He heads off to kill some time at an all night movie theatre. He begins to notice things.
Something about the people who work night-owl shifts anywhere. He remembered faces down the years. It didn’t matter what they looked like. The night-walkers, insomniacs, addicts, those without money for a cheap hotel, they would always come back to the only game in town.
At 6 AM, a van shows up at Stop ‘N Start. Juanno is led out, his relief shaking his head.
Macklin follows the van. But, at a street with the dead-end of a construction sight, the van turns around and blocks the street in front of Macklin’s car. Two men, one young, one older, get out. Macklin protests he was just worried about his friend Juanno. They tell him to get out of the car. Macklin gets out, tire iron in hand. But the two men easily overcome him.
’Another accident?’ suggest the youngest man.
’Too messy, after the one yesterday. Come on, pal, you’re going to get to see your friend.’
They inject him with a drug and put him in the back of the van. There are several people there including Juanno. They give off a “stink, sickeningly sweet”. He tries to engage the other passengers, but one just whispers “Let us rest”.
Macklin realizes the amphetamines he took are probably counteracting whatever drug he was shot up with. He hears an odd exchange from the two men:
’There’s still room at the cross.’ That was the younger, small-boned man, he was almost sure.
’Oh, I’ve been interested in Jesus for a long time, but I never could get a handle on him…’
’Well, beware the wrath to come. You really should, you know.’
The van stops at a gas station. The two men help a hobbling man into the van and put a hypo into his chest, next to his heart. There’s also a strap under his arms. He needs a booster, says the van driver, but not like the one they gave “old Juano’s sweetheart” since he has to be able to walk.
The next stop is a surrealistic one until the reader realizes the van has arrived at some movie studio lot. Macklin sees a gurney with a covered body on it.
’You got the pacemaker back, I hope.’ ‘Stunt director said it’s in the body bag.’ ‘It better be. Or it’s our ass in a sling. Your ass. How’d he get so racked up, anyway?’ ‘Ran him over a cliff in a sports car. Or no, maybe this one was the head-on they staged for, you know, that new cop series. That’s what they want now, realism. Good thing he’s a cremation—ain’t no way Kelly or Dee’s gonna get this one pretty again by tomorrow.’ ‘That’s why, man. That’s why they picked him. Ashes don’t need makeup.’
Macklin, after the van starts moving again, puts his head against the guy from the gas station. Near the man’s chest, he hears a sound like an electric wristwatch.
What for? To keep the blood pumping just enough so the tissues don’t rigor mortis and decay? For God’s sake, for how much longer?
Then Whitey’s question about how long the hospital’s bodies sit in cold storage comes back to him.
’Where are we?’ asks Macklin.
’I wish you could be here’ replies the man from the gas station.
’And where is that?’
’We have all been here before,’ said another voice.
’Going home,’ said another.
Yes, he thought, understanding. Soon you will have your rest; soon you will no longer be objects, commodities. You will be honored and grieved for and your personhood given back, and then you will at last rest in peace.
The van stops again and the passengers began to exit.
’What about this one?’ said the driver, kicking Macklin’s shoe.
’Oh, he’ll do his 48-hours’ service, don’t worry. It’s called utilizing your resources.’
’Tell me about it. When do we get the Indian?’
’Soon as Saint John’s certificates him. He’s overdue. The crash was sloppy.’
’This one won’t be. But first Dee’ll want him to talk, what he knows and who he told. Two doggers in two days is too much. Then we’ll probably run him back to his car and do it. And phone it in, so Saint John’s gets him. Even if it’s DOA. Clean as hammered shit.’
Macklin bolts out of the van. Running, he passes a cemetery. He tries to catch a city bus nearby but doesn’t.
He goes to a phone booth and dials the police. But he doesn’t know where he is, and the only thing that occurs to him to say, in his drugged state, is to repeat a nearby newspaper headline: “NONE OF THE DEAD HAS BEEN IDENTIFIED.”
Then he gives his story and concludes with “Who will bury them? . . . What kind of monsters”.
The phone goes dead. He next calls St. John’s Hospital and is told that Whitey died after an unsuccessful operation. (I liked that the hospital is logically connected to this conspiracy of using society’s economically vulnerable.)
At story’s end, the blue van shows up outside the phone booth.
This was a nice story combining urban horror and a satire on vulture capitalism and a ghoulish sort of labor arbitrage. I particularly liked that the dead are not zombies but aware of their half-existence and are looking forward to their final death and following afterlife.