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“You have fifteen minutes,” the cashier says. Repeats it, runs your card, matter-of-factly smiling like Iowa girls do. Brenda smiled that smile too—pleasant, courteous. No faking, no strain.
     “Any questions?” she asks.
     You poke a carousel rack of baseball caps in front of her register. It creaks a clockwise inch. Stiff-billed, nylon, mesh. Lots of American flags. This one with the cabin patch, stitched with “Home Sweet Home.” It’s a deep bluish plum, a color Brenda likes.
     “Shower number two. Fifteen minutes once you get in.”
     Better rinse off. Tickle a comb through what’s left of your hair. Shake off whatever’s going on—your body feels cramped and swollen, logy, big as a hog with the hours you logged behind the wheel. Another minute, you’ll catch your breath. Sunlight streams through the store windows, hazy corn-tassel light. How long have you been standing in Fuel 29? Your truck’s at the pump closest to the road, the bit where asphalt breaks into gravel. Just like that. Take the Atalissa exit off 80-E, turn right, dead end. 

You heard a story on the radio, how sugar is poison. Not only white sugar. Fructose, glucose, maple syrup, honey, Karo, the invisible sweetness in a slice of Wonder bread. Swells the body, joints, and cells. They called it “chronic inflammation,” which gave you a chuckle, even if the condition is a one-way to everything deadly—cancer, heart disease, stroke—because chronic inflammation sounds like an energy drink, ethaline green, with racecar font on the can.
     Fuel 29 is a diesel-only stop. Everything outside—and in—is chosen for men like you. So, cherry degreaser in the johns and a whole frigerator case of energy drinks, brands the average joe never knows. Used to be, Brenda didn’t trust a product if it wasn’t name brand. No generics, no store labels. You’ve relaxed since you’ve been trucking.
     Some guys you know started driving thinking it was all the same, ripping around Santa Fe Speedway, jeeping through Colorado, might as well get paid, good sign-on bonus, decent wage. What you got is a strange shape of life. Nights without sheets, days without baths, hours where no one—save the cashier at Fuel 29—sees you.
     She’s looking at you now as you eye share-size bags of brownie M&M’s. You yourself aren’t much to ogle anymore. Muscles soft, stomach rounding over your waistband, wrinkles from ankles to ears, pepper and salt in your beard. Skin freckled from windshield sun. Still, you want to believe that how you carry yourself tells her you’re a good one. That you care, silently, about women controlling their own parts, their sex. Would a cabin hat signal that? Probably not. You try to hold love in your heart so tightly it works its way into your face.  
     “Full house today,” she says. “I got folks in one, three, five.”
     “Two too.”
     Something crinkles in her smile.
     Past the counter, past the coffee station, there’s the hallway. Silver-framed map of Iowa, obligatory picture of Hebert Hoover—all these years, you still don’t know a thing about the hometown kid. There’s a radio show about everything these days, and maybe when you’re clean, feeling right, you’ll find one on presidents. Mr. Hoover, good to meet you. You the fellow got stuck in the tub?

The showers are down the same hallway as the civilian restrooms. One sharp turn, and you’re right there, doors away from young guys peacocking. The boys in the showers sing loudly. Talk too. What Brenda would call “gabbing.” Talking to hear yourself talk, she meant. Once, she’d liked that about you, how you’d “pontificate,” she called it, not a lot, just when something concerned you. Just enough to show you had heart. And that you were a gabber. Not anymore. But these men? Calling through the walls, sharing.
     You open the door to Shower #2. No evidence of any sharing here. Plenty of times, you’ve seen semen clogging the drain. It looks like egg white spilled on the stove top, beginning to cook.
     Hand sink, mirror, hooks on the door, stack of towels on the metal shelf, ADA plastic seat, rail on the wall. Maybe the cashier put you in the handicapped stall on purpose, saw something in your body, or maybe all the stalls are like this. You don’t exactly look mobile. But you take the shampoo from your duffel. Lay your comb on the lip of the sink. Hang fresh Hanes on the hook. You put down the white plastic seat and take out the picture.
     Its frame is brass. Inside, there’s an 8" x 10" of Brenda. She’s straddling an ottoman. Her hair’s as long as it was at the end, only in the photo, it’s walnut brown and thick. You could suffocate under that hair. Many happy times, you did.
     There’s no story in dying when you get to be a certain age. Fifty-eight? Sixty? Brenda was sixty-six. The photo is forty-some years old—a first anniversary present. You’d never guess, looking at the girl, straddling the bench, she’d go on to catch bats.
     You can’t remember if you ever asked. Where she had the picture taken. How she knew about the studio. If it was a studio. Did a girlfriend recommend it? Did she go to the phone book? Boudoir photographs, they’re called—there was that Seinfeld episode you’d watched, squeezing hands, laughing, seeing George mounting velvet in his underwear. He looked like a goof. In the photo, Brenda doesn’t look goofy at all. Her eyes are honest, her mouth is plain, she holds the secret of life in her shapely calves, her soft breasts. Her strong forearms, long summers scooping ice cream at Happy Joe’s. Her one life.
     For a second, you catch yourself thinking, you don’t deserve this—working widower living out of a semi, no family, no kids, the air going redder and smokier every month, every year. Then you think of Brenda’s parents, soybean farmers who made her get a job at fourteen so she could buy her own Catholic-school jumper.

The water comes out hard and strong and hot. Once you had a body to match Brenda’s. Now your knees are swollen shapeless. Driving, this is less visible, and maybe that’s why your hygiene has degraded. Fact is, you can’t remember why you stopped to shower. Something stiff, cramping around your neck that, in the warm steam, you hoped you’d stretch.
     They’re laughing next door, jerk laughs, frat laughs. Over the speakers, a thick voice sings “Glycerin,” pronouncing it wrong. Maybe standing under the water is the wrong idea. You look at Brenda, her thighs on either side of that buff calf hair, squeezing the ottoman, and wonder what it felt like, the soft bristles pressing between her legs. If she liked it, if she smeared a little of herself right there. She was quick to be wet. Should you remember a thing like that?
     You pump soap into your hands. Massage your left shoulder. Your right. Your pits, your biceps. Try to push back your fingers, like Brenda’s carpal tunnel exercises. She nipped that. Stopped typing at the law firm and learned about bats.
     You shut your eyes and hang your head. The water pelts your neck. It’s been a long time since you thought about driving the white van. Borrowed from the county, steel bars and Plexiglass between front and back. Turns out, no one could nab a bat like Brenda. No one wanted to. And what were you doing after Maytag shut down the plant, moved to Mexico? Zip. Never imagined you’d be a team. husband and wife duo revamps knox county animal control they wrote in that story in the Mail. Because you were no-kill. Humane as can be. “Everything deserves a little gentleness,” Brenda liked to say.
     What a lamb, she was. You deserve gentleness too. You take a seat on the white plastic. You lean the frame against the wall, so you and Brenda are just like always, sitting side-by-side. You at the wheel, her in the passenger seat.
     You remember this one night, right before the end. You were asleep when the call came in, some girl on Bateman had a bat in the bedroom. Never took Brenda more than a second. She whipped off the covers, put on her pink animal control T-shirt, slipped on pool slides, and grabbed a beach towel from your trip to Key West.
     Often, you stayed in the van; this time, you didn’t. You followed Brenda to the door, where the girl was waiting. She wasn’t a girl but a young woman, and her living room was a mess, train tracks and rainbow blocks, toys you were never blessed with the chance to own.
     “What does it mean if you have a bat?” The girl asked.
     “Probably more bats,” Brenda said.
     You winced.
     “Upstairs,” said the girl. You followed behind Brenda, listening to her huff. Not like you’re much better, sitting here in the shower, feeling faint.
     You never know what’s inside those old bungalows’ attics. This one had a heck of a ceiling, twenty-four feet, with a four-poster sitting right in the middle of the room.
     The girl pointed.
     On the wall, a mound of brown fur was tucked tight, small as a duckling.
     You pulled over a steamer trunk, and Brenda climbed up. Her long hair was loose down her back, greasy, gray. She wrapped her hand in the towel and grabbed. Just like that. All the way to the midnight lake, she cupped it inside the towel, a fist-shaped thing not putting up a fight.

JoAnna Novak is the author of the memoir Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood. Her short story collection Meaningful Work won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest and was published by FC2. She is the author of the novel I Must Have You and three books of poetry: New Life; Abeyance, North America; and Noirmania. Novak’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, the New York Times, the Atlantic, and other publications. Her fourth book of poetry, DOMESTIREXIA, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press in 2024.