Robert Gipe

We Call It Cream

excerpt from the forthcoming novel Weedeater


            Work that day at the copy shop was church bus slow. They sold office supplies at that copy place, so I went and opened a thing of scissors and got a bunch of magazines and cut pictures out of them. I cut out a movie star pushing a baby stroller, acting like she didn’t want nobody to know it was her, when obviously she did, or she wouldn’t have on the hiding-out-movie-star costume—black sunglasses and a tight, showing-off-fake-boobs t-shirt and a hundred dollar baseball hat like you see rich women wearing when they run out on the bypass, ponytails bouncing, trying to act like they’re in Lexington. Then I found a big old picture of a pit bull, its mouth full open, looking like a shotgun wound with teeth, its head filling up both pages of a magazine spread. I cut that out and lay it next to fake hiding movie star and it looked just like that dog was going to eat both her and her baby clean up. That made me feel better, and I was fixing to go get a glue stick and glue them to a big piece of paper and then draw some stuff around it for my daughter Nicolette, leaving her space to make up a story about them or whatever when this bunch of women come in with helmets of hair, all in yellow and pink and flowerdy print dresses with sunglasses big as Big Mac boxes, their bare arms like those long skinny loaves of bread French guys carry around on the back of their bicycles, their teeth white as mall toilets.

            They was fixing to have a church bazaar which I don’t even know what that is and they wanted a flyer to hand out to their friends and they wanted to know what kind of paper I thought they ought to put their church bazaar flyer on and so I got out fifty million different paper samples for them, and one of them said, “That lime’s too hot,” and another one said, “That pink looks tacky,” and they finally said, “Honey, what do you think?” like they were doing me some big favor to ask and I said I didn’t have no idea, and then I wondered to myself how many chomps it would take a pit bull to bite one of their heads off and I thought if you took their hair off first, a dog might could do it one chomp, and I was thinking such not because I cared one way or the other, but because they kept debating and debating about their paper color, and wouldn’t never stop, and so I thought, you know, their heads are actually pretty small if you take the hair out of consideration, and so I was looking at my pit bull picture and then back at the small-headedest one of them, when the biggest one said they’d decided. I took out my order pad and she fished out a piece of paper from the fifty million samples all over the counter and she said, “We’ll take this one. What do you call this one?”

            And I said, “Cream. We call it cream.” Which was like the most boring, obvious thing they could have possibly chosen. I didn’t say nothing. Or maybe I did, but if I did it wasn’t anything real bad, just like “I’ll be damned” or something like that, and probably said it under my breath, but they give me a funny look and said, “If you don’t want our business, you can tell your manager we took our business elsewhere,” and I said, “I am the manager,” because the stupid boy who was the manager was with his stupid friends staring out the front window of the shop, not paying a speck of attention to what was going on, and so them women left and I just said, “Bow-wow-wow-yippy-yo-yippy-yay,” to the back of their helmets of hair, and went back to thinking about Willett’s blue folder and all his employee-ness and how the world was my goddam oyster.


            When them women left, it got quiet and everything was fine til I had to change the toner on one of the big main copiers. I spilled that toner everywhere—on the carpet, down in the copier, all over the job I was copying, all over myself. The manager and the two other boys working my shift blew snot laughing. They all went to the state university in town. They made fun of me, how I talked, the way I drug out my words.

            “Fuuuuuck,” I said, when the toner got on my face and hair.

            They had a time laughing at my dustyass face, but after a minute, they went back to wishing for cars they seen in the parking lot. I went back to cleaning up after myself and wishing them dead. The lights in that place were gray as the carpet on the floor and the paint on the walls, and didn’t none of it ever change, morning noon or night. The boys laughed and talked about vomiting in public, and the fat funny looking country kids in their classes. I got out the big vacuum cleaner that place had—it was big and gray too—and went to sucking up that toner powder. They were laughing louder than the vacuum. Laugh it up, boys, I thought. Cause it wouldn’t be much longer. In a minute here, I’d be working for extra money, not bill money. And maybe I wouldn’t be working at all.

            When I finally got that mess cleaned up and the clunky-ass vacuum cleaner put up, I went back to copying. I was copying some book I knew was copyright violation but the boys had give me ten of the forty the guy needed it copied give to them. So I had the copier going top up. The light went straight to the back of my eyes, and hurt.

            The copier was going ca-chunk ca-chunk ca-chunk ca-chunk. The bell on the door rang. The toner had got up my nose. That toner powder was like coal dust. But it wasn’t. It was clean. Even though it messed everything up, it was clean, an indoor mess. It made me miss everything home, home like it was before Daddy died. Made me miss a genuine mess. Made me miss Momma making Daddy change clothes at work, making him shower at work, when his mines had a shower, so he didn’t come home covered in mine mud and dust. He’d have his work clothes in garbage bags. I’d see how dirty that work was when she’d do the wash. But he didn’t track it through Momma’s house, not when we all lived in the trailer out on Long Ridge.

            I wished someone would come in smelling of moss. Smelling of woodsmoke. I wished someone would come in smelling of game and grease and cigarettes and gasoline. Paint. Even if somebody would come in smelling of paint, that’d be enough.

            That toner powder added to how I felt that day. I didn’t want to go home, I didn’t at all want to live at home, didn’t want to live in Kentucky. But in that moment, on that day, I sure did want to be home.

            All the sudden I was tired of being inside, tired of being in town, tired of being swallowed up in gray. Despite all my family’s crazy shit, I wanted to be back there. Crazy. 

            I couldn’t help it. I wished someone would come in smelling of moss. Smelling of woodsmoke. I wished someone would come in smelling of game and grease and cigarettes and gasoline. Paint. Even if somebody would come in smelling of paint, that’d be enough. Not likely here. People come in the copy shop were people living on paper, on presentations, on handouts, on printing for eight cents a page, on Internet access two dollars for ten minutes. I stood over the copier, light strobing my face. I could feel the customer behind me, but I didn’t turn around, cause if I did, the customer would be my customer. Let one of them chatty boys do the talking with the customers. But this customer come in with a smell I couldn’t figure out.

            Ca-chunk ca-chunk ca-chunk.

            B.O. and wet dogs was part of it.

            Ca-chunk ca-chunk ca-chunk.

            There was chewing tobacco in it.

            Dawn, I said to myself, Don’t turn around.

            Ca-chunk ca-chunk ca-chunk.

            “Hey girl,” the customer said.

            Ca-chunk ca-chunk ca-chunk.

            “Turn around here.”

            Ca-chunk ca-chunk ca-chunk.

            Orange juice and honey.


            “Say,” the voice said.


            “Can’t you hear no more?” I knew who it was.


            I smelled my granny Jewell’s moonshine recipe.



            “Turn around here you big tall thing.”

            Beep beep beep.

            It was my brother Albert.

            Beep beep beep. Something was wrong with the copier.

            Albert said, “You need help with that thing?”

            Beep beep beep.

            I turned to the counter. There stood Albert, stringy and brown, a big blue slushee in his hand.

            I said, “What are you doing here, Albert? How’d you know where I was at?” I stacked and restacked the papers on the counter without taking my eyes off Albert. 

            Albert’s rat eyes twinkled like gas in a mower can. He said, “Hug?”

            I come around the counter, motioned for Albert to follow me. He spread his arms wide as I went out the door into the parking lot.

            He said, “No hug?” with a grin like a tent zipper.

            Albert’s bird yellow pickup set in a handicapped spot with its “Army of One” bumper stickers in the back window under the two foot tall stickers spelling out “REDDNEKK” in gothic letters. Silver flames run back from the front wheel wells. Under lights. Tail lights blacked out. Pins holding the trunk down. Extra gauges ran up from the dashboard which was spraypainted a lime green. Albert could waste money like nobody’s business.

            He said, “Where’s your queerbait husband?” His head filled the truck’s opposite window. Albert backed up and grinned.

            I walked back towards the copy shop.

            “What’s the matter?  Aint you gonna hug me?”

            I said, “You got a woman. Go hug her.”

            Albert laughed with his arms wide open.

            My dark face in the glass of the copy shop door could have told me.  There is no way to make your family disappear. Nor was I ever going to know peace with mine. Hubert’s face filled the glass next to my face.

            Hubert said, “Where’s your momma?”

            I said, “Yall get out of here. This is my work.”

            “Your mother needs to call me,” Hubert said.

            I didn’t even have the urge to say how pissed off I was, to tell Hubert to leave her alone, leave me alone, leave Tennessee alone. Hubert got me by the arm and jerked me around.  I said, “Get your fucking hands off me, Hubert.”

            He said, “I need your help, Dawn.” Hubert’s eyes was like the front end of bullets. “She’s gonna get herself killed.”

            I said, “What am I supposed to do? Blink three times and make her appear?”

            I could feel them asshole drips watching me from inside. Sweat was running in Hubert’s eyes. He looked like a bottle of orange pop just come out of a cooler in some old store.

            “Just hold her,” Hubert said. “If you see her, hold her.”

            I met Hubert’s bullet eyes with my own. “If I see her,” I said.

            Albert put a Canard County Bugle, our newspaper, in my hand. As usual, there was a big drug bust on the front page. And there in big color pictures above the fold was Groundhog and Fu Manchu, cuffed and not even trying to hide their faces. Hubert and Albert got back in the truck.

            I said, “Hey,” and Albert started the truck. I ran up to Hubert’s window. He rolled it down. I said, “Did Momma rat on them two?” and pointed at the paper.

            Hubert said, “I don’t know. Why don’t you blink three times and ask her?”

            Then they were gone. I went back in the copy shop. The boys were behind a row of shelves, but I heard them.

            “Her boyfriend,” one of them said.

            “I thought it was her brother,” another said.

            “Probably both,” said the third, and then come the laughing.

            I run as hard as I could, put my shoulder into them shelves. There was twelve foot of them hooked together. They went over easy and I caught all three of them dicks under it. They were rocking the shelves trying to get out, but I stood up on the flipped shelves, like a surfer, them hollering, hurt, while the desk calendars and candy bars went flying. I stomped til one of them cried and then I walked out of the store.


Robert Gipe is the author of the illustrated novel, Trampoline (Ohio University Press, 2015), which won the Weatherford Award for Fiction. The first six chapters of Trampoline were first serialized in Still: The Journal. Robert was born in North Carolina and raised in Kingsport, Tennessee. Since 1997 he has directed the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College. He is a producer, writer, and performer in the Higher Ground productions, a series of community musical dramas based on oral histories and grounded in discussion of local issues. His work has been published in Appalachian Heritage, Southern Cultures, and elsewhere. He lives in Harlan, Kentucky.


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