Monday morning, early, and Mike stood in front of the bathroom mirror and looked at the reflection of his newly shaved face. He took a towel and mopped up the left-over foam that had avoided the razor by hiding in his long sideburns, then leaned forward to look deeply into his own eyes. He was looking for a difference on the outside that fitted the changes he felt within. And yes, maybe he did look more relaxed, more confident - more happy. A little twinge of fear shot through him. He never felt at ease with happy. The little twisting worm of fear died as Dan shouted up the stairs, saying that breakfast was ready. Mike pulled his shirt on as he descended the stairs three at a time.
This time though, that little blighting fear was more premonition than pessimism, for by lunchtime, Mike's short experience of a life worth living was to be snatched away.
Bob called Mike into the office. Mike had a busy morning; must have shifted several hundred gallons of gas. Trucks, pick-ups, a convoy of four-by-fours driven by old guys with white hair and towing silver, bullet-shaped trailers. One little compact full of luggage and kids and the biggest ever Pink Panther ever stuffed with kapok.
Mike had fun with that Pink Panther, pulling it out the car and making like it was the Panther pumping the gas, much to the amusement of the six-year-old boy who was its Daddy. Made it dance, walk along the hood. The kid's dad gave him one healthy tip!
Mike figured Bob was going to tell him he could take an early lunch. As he walked in though, a knot twisted in his gut as soon as he saw Bob's face - and the guy who was standing next to him.
'Mr Bixby here claims you may have some of his property,' said Bob, as Bixby stood behind a pace and sneered.
Almost resigned to the worst case scenario from bitter experience, Mike answered unconvincingly. 'I don't have anything that belongs to this guy.'
'Try looking in his jacket pocket. He was wearing his jacket when I saw him in my car.'
'That's not true,' said Mike. I've never have been in his car. Haven't even seen it since the first day I worked here.'
'That's gold-plated bullshit, Mr Forde,' spat Bixby. 'I stopped off to put air in my tires. Went to use the men's room and when I came back, this little shit was inside.'
'That's a lie!' from Mike, his anger beginning to bite.
'Now don't be insulting the customer's Mike. Mr Bixby's been a regular here for as long as I can remember. What possible reason could he have for...'
'Because he tried to hit on me is the reason, an' I told him "Fuck you!" '
Bixby moved to take a swing at Mike, making a good act at appearing wronged and indignant. Bob caught hold of him and held him back. Mike squared up ready to defend himself.
'You watch your mouth Mike! And you, Bixby. Hold back.' Bob was small, but his size hid a wiry strength. He shook Bixby until he dropped the attack. He pointed a warning finger at Mike, and he also eased up. 'Do you mind if I look in your coat, Mike?' he said, pointing to where it lay over a chair-back.
'Go right ahead, Mr Forde.'
And you've guessed it. Plumping out the inside pocket of Mike's jacket was a billfold full of twenties and fifties, and credit cards in the name of Bixby.'
'It's a Goddamned plant!' protested Mike, but quietly, knowing already what the upshot of all this would be.
Bob spoke quietly and looked on Mike with betrayed eyes. 'I'll call the Sherrif.'
Bixby shrugged as he took his wallet. 'Nah! I don't want to get the kid into too much trouble. Just sack the little sonofabitch. That'll be punishment enough.'
Bob nodded. 'I'll have to let you go, Mike.'
He did not bother protesting his innocence. After all, he was just a nobody, who thought he'd try a stab at life off the streets. He was next to worthless, and the last few weeks hadn't happened at all. He took his jacket and walked out.
Out onto the road. At least he hadn't forgotten the art of hitching. At home, the Wilburs were out. He packed quietly, left a scribbled note of thanks, pulled a loose-fitting wool hat on to ward off the cold of a night in the desert. And left. He didn't look back. It would have hurt too much.