Mason was straightening the collar of his short-sleeved, black dress shirt in the passenger-side mirror outside of his green 1992 Ford Taurus when Stella finished locking up the pet care store she worked at. It was odd that Loppenheim has a pet care store because the town was only a population of three hundred sixty-five. They didn’t offer vet service, but foods and supplies for dogs, cats, hamsters, fish, rabbits, snakes and ferrets. There was a large rural community of a combination of livestock farmers and fishers that frequented it and the store kept steady. It was more odd that this man was in the parking lot of the store, especially that time of day and Stella couldn’t think of a time she’d seen anyone she didn’t know at the store in years. It was tucked the farthest away from the through road than anything in the town, so anyone needing a bathroom or food found it before getting to the shop.
Stella felt nervous as she felt she had to say something, yet this guy seemed preoccupied in thought and waiting for something else.
“Ummmm – hi”, was all she said. A bit blunt, but she felt required.
“Heyyyy”, he said too casually.
“The shop just closed. We usually don’t have anyone here now. Uh, do you need something?”
He slowly walked from the passenger side of the Taurus to the driver’s side, pushing his key fob, opened the door and sat down in the driver’s seat.
“I’m just headed off”, he said, putting the key in the ignition and coughing.
“Okay. Nice to…”.
“Thanks”, he said. Thanks? For what? Why was I going to say “nice to meet you”, when we really hadn’t, thought Stella.
The man pulled the door shut softly and circled to drive back towards town.
Stella wished she knew more. This was really a highlight in her day.
She got into her own car. It was newer. A 2008 Honda Accord. Metallic blue, and she had detailing with the store logo done on it. Her uncle owned the store and she wanted to do some free advertising. The decal sported a fish, German shepherd and a Calico cat. Her cousin designed it and Stella drove to the nearest metropolis seven hours away last summer to have the work done. She’d never been more than five hours from her little hometown, so it was a big deal.
Stella didn’t want to go home. She never went out. She parked at the only Inn in the town – Ivan’s Inn – which hosted the only pub in town. She never drank, but today she ordered a rum on the rocks. She called her mom who drank all the time to let her know, and suddenly her mom sounded concerned. Just can you pick me up in two hours, Stella insisted, and the plan was made.
Stella made slow conversation with the staff, as they were busy with two other patrons and it seemed like a take-out order or two. She was agitated, to put it mildly. This guy that was in the parking lot….. why? Why not? What was she ever going to do about it?
“Did some guy come in here with a black shirt today?” she questioned the bartender.
“No, not that I know of.”
“Oh… just had to ask.”
“There was one in the parking lot after my shift at Paws today.”
“Hmmm. Don’t see many surprises over there I guess.”
“It’s just bugging me. He wasn’t creepy or anything, but he hadn’t been in the store and didn’t say what he was doing there. Maybe he wanted something before it closed.”
“Could be”, the bartender said. His name was Alec, and knew of Stella through her mom, recognized her, but they kept on a no-name basis, “Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just ended up there and needed a break off the road.”
“That’s what I think a bit. How exciting is my life? One surprise guest happens and I need a drink. Huhhhhhh…”
A family of three came in. The mom, maybe the kids were one and three. The littlest was being carried and the other holding ‘mom’s’ shirt. They picked up a bag of food and were out the door in less than a minute.
The phone rang and it seemed another order for take-out was made.
And, again the phone rang right away and probably another food order.
Stella nursed her drink and asked for extra ice and lime. There were always potato chips in bowls along the bar and Stella helped herself. She didn’t feel like eating supper even though it was past. Normally she’d eat right when she got home instead of drink. She almost always had leftovers and if the stranger hadn’t come today, she’d be eating lasagna and garlic bread and salad with Italian dressing. She’d even make dinners in the mornings so she wouldn’t have to cook after work, or leave food cooking slow in a slow cooker.
Stella was married once. He took off the day after they decided they were going to start a family. Stella wanted two or three kids. He wanted three or four and they were so excited. He called from his brother’s house about three p.m. the next day. Stella had no idea he was ‘gone’. Jack explained that he just wasn’t Stella’s soulmate and he’d be living with his brother raising goats for the next few years at least. He said it all so assuredly that Stella really never felt anything other than that was the truth and how it had to be.
Her family sulked more than she did…. Actually, they sulked for her. She had the house and Jack never wanted any of it or to sell it or rent it or anything. It was a four bedroom bungalow so Stella hosted friends’ visiting that had moved away after high school. They came in groups and sometimes one after the other. Some still had family locally and stayed at her place instead. It wasn’t a B and B and each guest came with an array of excitement. One had triplets and that was probably the most fun. They were six when they came for a week on their way to see their grandparents on their dads’ side. It was pretty much a halfway point. The park was an easy ten minute walk with the kids and Felix threw up on the way back so projectile that it covered Mel’s whole back leg even though he was five feet ahead of his brother. Janie still wore diapers because of a disability Stella never really considered because she was just focused on fun. The mom, Maris, graduated with Stella and they’d known each other for ten years before that. They once glued a boy’s hat to his desk at school and never got caught.
The bar sniffed of a tobacco pipe just then. This town had a dozen or so gents that used them. Stella liked the smell some and she kind of saw it as strength.
The two hours passed quick and Stella’s mom was there before Stella was really ready. She just wanted to talk to the man from the parking lot. Stella had paid way at the start of her drink and so just wolfed a few potato chips as her mom and the staff exchanged their nicety hellos and then they headed out the door.
Stella couldn’t help but tell her mom all about the man from the parking lot. Stella’s mom didn’t think it was anything. She told Stella about the mold she found in her basement and how she was ridding of it by replacing two boards.
An ambulance whizzed past them and after Stella’s mom slowed down. She put on her flashers a moment- something she did when driving got nerve racking. No one else was on the road.
There were gophers and field mice in the ditch pulling up to Stella’s mom’s place. They decided on a visit rather then Stella going home, and, besides – Stella was off tomorrow as they kept the store closed on Sunday’s.
Stella’s mom was sixty-two. Her dad was sixty-three. He was “away”, and anytime Stella wanted to know all the details of his work, he wouldn’t give them. He attended conferences and learned about diabetes and writing for the “Fishery Diaries” magazine. Weeks he’d be gone at a time and Stella didn’t get how this was okay but at least her parents stuck things through. She never asked about how their marriage was. They seemed to get along well enough.
Stella had some pepperoni and buns her mom offered but declined on the devilled eggs even though she loved them.
The conversation came about church tomorrow and Stella’s mom realized she was in charge of bringing juice for the after-gathering and meant to get it while they were in town but got side-tracked.
Stella was going to stay and talk to the chickens but she decided to go for more mom time and they hopped in the car.
There was, of course, Beatles music played in the car on the way to the grocery store.
For a Saturday night, there were more cars than Stella thought normal at the grocers. She counted them – five.
“I’ll wait.” She knew her mom would ask, and so Stella sat in the car with the window down and her mom walked into the store.
Stella started clearing coupons out of her wallet and looked up to see a friend of her moms and her daughter get in their car with a bag of groceries and drive off.
Stella took in the sun set.
Then, she noticed the green car again. It was at the end of the parking lot. The farthest point in the parking lot. Did this guy work here? Should she go in the store? ………..
She was about to get out of the car when she realized she could see a shadow of someone in the car.
Stella got out quickly.
She had to go there.
She walked briskly and thought this is weird.
She didn’t care and jogged instead.
It looked like the guy was sleeping. It was the guy from earlier at the pet store. She could see his face.
“Hiiiii”, she said in a low tone, hoping he could hear and would open the door.
His eyes were closed though. Embarrassed, she realized she must be disturbing a nap and almost turned around. She was already at the side of the driver’s door though and curiosity surged. She peered in.
A bobble-head flamingo on the dash.
She could smell pine from the outside but didn’t think she smelled it earlier.
A crumpled paper also on the dash.
The sun and her embarrassment were making her sweat, and the light made it harder to see clear.
In the back of the car she could see runners and Styrofoam cups in a package. A granola bar – with raisins. She hated raisins really. Unless they were in butter tarts.
Her eyes shifted again to the man and she moved in the light so it would shade her view.
Stella leaned in. What was she looking at on his pants?
Did he spill something?
It looked like feathers…..wait…… blood….. and feathers.
Was there a dead bird on his lap?
Stella knocked on the window softly. “Is everything okay?”
“Hello???” She waited, thinking it would take a tired person a moment to come to.
“Helllllllooooooo?” she said, more drawn out, knocking hard.
She grasped the handle as her mom tooted the horn! HONK! It wasn’t that loud, but she screamed. Her mom was coasting over in the car.
Stella grasped the handle and popped the door. “hello”, she said meekly. “hello”, she repeated.
Oh my God. He was dead. And the bird. They were both dead. Stella pressed his shoulder. “Sir.”