WARKOVER

 

 

 

 

 

Warkin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by

Geddy Gibson


 

Back cover copy:

 

This is only temporary.

 

Jim Crayson pulls the work vest over his head. As his first shift begins at the backwoods convenience store he realizes things weren't supposed to turn out like this.

 

Sick of teaching logic at Midwestern colleges, Jim had taken his chances at starting over in Northern Florida. But that was many months and many resumes ago. For now he just needs cash while he keeps looking for something permanent.

 

The possibilities seem endless. Jim feels certain that any day now his degrees and experience will land him writing work--or at least a job with benefits. Maybe his book will finally get published. And then there's that shot he has at winning thousands on a quiz show.

 

But it's no picnic dealing with this job and the people it involves. Will Jim watch his hopes dissolve into the seedy, violence-prone world he encounters at the store? Could his last sight be a customer pointing a gun at his head?

 

Geddy Gibson's bleakly comic novel is an unflinching portrayal of the real prospects for many who attempt to change careers and pursue their dreams. Warkin takes an insightful and often witty look at being overeducated and underemployed.

 

Paperback edition available at http://www.createspace.com/3344166 and Amazon.com.

 


This book is a work of fiction. Except for direct references to public figures, the names, characters and incidents herein are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

Copyright information:

 

Warkin by Geddy Gibson (2008) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. This entails that Geddy Gibson retains copyright but allows others to copy, distribute and modify this work provided that:

 

-The work and its parts are attributed to Geddy Gibson

 

-It is used noncommercially

 

-New works that incorporate it in full or in part are also copyrighted using a noncommercial Creative Commons License. For additional information, visit: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/

 

 


 

Chapter 1

 

 

 

 

I must have looked like an idiot.

 

The District Manager came out of his office. There I stood in front of a beef jerky display, sweating, wearing a suit and tie. To an interview with a chain of convenience stores. He was surely accustomed to seeing T-shirts, jeans, flip-flops…everything else, but not dresses or suits.

 

But I’d been doing “real” interviews for a couple of months. It was an afterthought. And, of course, just like most other forms of inane etiquette, it seemed to make a good impression.

 

“You must be Jim Crayson,” he said.

 

“Yes,” I said, as he smiled at the suit.

 

“You might have overdressed a bit,” he said. “We do some lifting and moving here, boxes and stuff. People usually wear jeans and short sleeves to work.”

 

No shit. I’ve done C-stores—haven’t you looked at the application? This is the interview, not a shift.

 

“No problem,” I said.

 

“I’m Don Volker, the District Manager. Jolene here--she’s an assistant manager--she’s gonna get you set up on the computer. Everybody that comes in for an interview has to do a pre-screening employment test. Pretty basic stuff. You shouldn’t have any problem.”

 

I glanced at the woman standing near the counter. She had been about to sip from her day-glow orange, 64-ounce travel mug of soda. She tipped it toward me instead. She wore a filthy green vest issued by the company. Her bright red company cap was slightly cleaner. She looked exhausted.

 

I nodded at Volker, sucking a deep breath through my nose. Trying to suppress the sudden urge to bolt.

 

Easy there Sparky. You swore off dignity quite a while back.

 

I followed Jolene behind the counter to the computer workstation. She was a little bit flirty. She half-grinned at me, flipped her hair. I smiled faintly. Tried not to send any signals.

 

She left my side after getting the software running. I scooted up close to the computer monitor, trying to look like I was taking it very seriously.

 

The “screening” was the usual crap. You have to assure them you won’t rob them blind. Also admit some imperfections, some past mistakes. Otherwise they’ll think you are such a liar or nutcase as to claim you are perfect. One of the biggest C-store chains in the Southeast, and they were using this pop psychology detritus.

 

“SIR?! SIR! JUST INSERT YOUR CREDIT CARD AND WITHDR--!”

 

“WHUH…!? HOW DO I…?

 

Jolene was leaning toward the big plate glass windows that formed most of the front of the store. She was shouting into a microphone. A guy was out front yelling back through the speaker, making large gestures of confusion. The volume of the speaker was insane.

 

“I CAN’T GET THE PUMP TO WORK!!

 

“JUST REMOVE YOUR CARD QUICKLY AFTER--!

 

“IT WON’T TAKE MY CARD!”

 

“SIR! IT--!”

 

“IT JUST SAYS ‘TRY AGAIN!’”

 

“Ya moron,” she said under her breath. “JUST A MINUTE, SIR!”

 

Then she glanced at me, faking a smile. Half-smile, anyway.

 

“I need go out and help him get his card to work.”

 

I nodded. Turned back to the computer screen.

 

Sometimes using physical force on people at work is necessary. How strongly do you agree or disagree?

 

I frowned.

 

Well, there’s the Heimlich maneuver, after all…

 

Looked like my having taught logic wouldn’t help me get through this very quickly. I tried not to think too literally. I knew with these questionnaires they were basically just looking for consistency.

 

I got through it after a few minutes. I looked out front. Jolene was near the door, smoking. She was watching the same dolt out front trying to get the pump to print out a receipt for him.

 

I let Don know I was done with the screening. He looked surprised. He printed out a report, had me follow him back to his office.

 

“Most people take closer to half an hour to do this.”

 

“Well, it, um, I just tried to be honest. Not over-think it.”

 

I pulled up a chair from the 1970s while he looked over my test results. I checked out the cramped room that housed his desk.

 

This is the DM’s office?

 

It was obviously a converted utility closet. About four-by-eight square feet, bare cinder blocks for the walls, shelves pregnant with unnecessary piles of paperwork.

 

Don was tall, middle aged. I stared at his hideous peach colored shirt as he perused the printout.

 

“I notice you answered “Strongly agree” to the statement ‘I get angry when others take credit for my work,’” Don said. “Tell me about that.”

 

Fuck.

 

I surmised that I had been thinking about something like plagiarism. Or maybe I had equated “Strongly Agree” with “Is intuitively obvious.” But I guessed that Don was just looking at this as an anger management issue.

 

“Well, taking false credit is something I feel strongly about—cheating, plagiarism, stuff like that. Stuff from school,” I fumbled.

 

Don looked at me. Waited for more.

 

“It’s not something I can’t control or anything,” I said.

 

He visibly relaxed at that.

 

“Good, good.”

 

Don began to look over the laser-printed resume and cover letter I had clipped to the official Grab-n-Go application. The app was filled out in pen.

 

“So, tell me why you’d want to switch from teaching logic to working for Grab-n-Go.”

 

“Well, you’ll notice I actually worked part-time as a bookkeeper and clerk with a C-store over the past couple of years, while I was still teaching. I eventually figured out that the…um… practical nature of business suited me more than the academic world,” I answered.

 

I had added a hint of a sneer at the word academic. Betting on the chance that Don hadn’t been big on college back in his late teens.

 

“Well, tell me a little bit about what you did at…what was it?... Parkway Powergo.”

 

An arm appeared over my right shoulder holding a sheaf of papers. I jumped slightly. It was Jolene. Don gave her an annoyed look.

 

“Tater chips guy can’t leave ‘til you sign these.”

 

Don snatched the pages, started flipping through them. While he looked them over, I imagined the honest answer I wished I could give him about why I was applying:

 

I’ve never really fit in with any group, so the social game of academia was not my forte. Not enough to climb the ladder, anyway. So I ended up teaching at schools you’ve never heard of. Regional schools. Local schools. Thinking maybe I could still make a splash someday as an outsider with irresistible ideas.

 

Turned out that teaching was a good way to cure myself of interest in the whole pursuit. I despised trying to keep the attention of rich brats who would rather be at home in front the TV with a bong. The ones who hate reading, who see education as a vapid ritual for buying their way into better digs. 

 

I thought “Well, I can’t be STUCK in this career. I’m no idiot, I have some skills. Career possibilities seemed to abound--”

 

Don reached toward me, handed Jolene the pages.

 

“Okay, then, ah…Jim,” he boomed. “Let’s get--“

 

Don’s cell phone rang.

 

“Jeez! You believe--? Sorry, I gotta--Yay-o! Don here!”

 

His side of the conversation sounded annoyed. Seemed to be talking to a manager at one of his stores.

 

As he talked, I watched his double chin wiggle under his beard. My mind continued writing my real cover letter:

 

So, my girlfriend Katie and I moved down here from Missouri. I intended to find writing work in a warmer climate. This place, Doctor’s Landing, is small, but Kingsboro, FL is nearby—city of two million people, three military bases, tech industries on the rise. Figured at least I could get some tech writing work, freelance the rest of the time.

 

Cut to two months later. The bills are piling up. I’ve sent out nearly one hundred cover letters and resumes, but can’t get more than a couple of interviews. One of the only offers was from a non-profit. They offered me nineteen-K a year.

 

Don’s face kept getting redder as he listened to the person on the line. His eyes kept darting in my direction, never quite reaching my face. I stared at him. In this closet of an office, averting my eyes would have looked more stupid than polite.

 

“Yeah, well you tell him if he can’t be there on time, there’s plenty of people who’d be happy to stand behind that counter in his place.”

 

So, anyway, Mr. Volker, here’s how I ended up here. One day I was here in this store, getting an iced coffee. Noticed the Help Wanted sign. This store is near the river landing, and I live within walking distance. That, and I figured this gig would offer me a sure-if-pathetic paycheck while I kept pumping out resumes.

 

The minute I find something better, you’ll see smoking tread marks where you last saw me standing.

 

Sincerely--

 

“All right, do what you have to!”

 

Don closed the flip phone with a bit more force than he seemed to want to.

 

“Sorry about that,” he said. “Aaaallright. So…”

 

He shuffled my application papers some more. Trying to think of another paint-by-numbers interview question.

 

“SIR! YOU NEED TO MOVE YOUR CAR CLOSER TO THE PUMP! DO NOT TRY TO STRETCH THE HOSE TO YOUR CAR!”

 

Jolene’s voice boomed from the front of the store again. Don rolled his eyes.

 

“So…” he began, chuckling, “Tell me about some of the things that would make you a good manager at Grab-n-Go,” he said.

 

Don nodded as he listened to me. Don was a nodder. He nodded to look like he was paying attention while you talked.

 

Despite his nodding, Don looked a bit skeptical about me. Made sense. Don was smart enough to worry that my resume meant possible trouble. On paper, I didn’t seem desperate enough, for one thing. Degrees, experience. Or, if I really were desperate, it could be because of something bad that you couldn’t tell from the resume.

 

I stopped talking suddenly. Both of us had heard a low, deep thump. Felt it, actually. We stared at each other for a beat.

 

“DON!!!”

 

Jolene sounded frightened.

 

Don jumped up. My chair was between him and the door so I jumped up too. We fast-walked toward the front of the store.

 

“DON!!!”

 

Jolene had rounded the front counter. She was running toward the doors.

 

“HE KNOCKED OVER THE GAS PUMP! HE RAN INTO IT!”

 

We could see one of the pumps on its side out front. The car was poised behind it. A huge puddle of gasoline was spreading around the downed pump.

 

I began running behind the counter as Jolene reached the front door. I had noticed the emergency shut off valve behind the counter while I was doing my “screening.” A large red panel near the window.

 

“HIT THE SHUT-OFF VALVE!” Don yelled toward me. But he had already deduced why I was back there.

 

“GOT IT!” I yelled.

 

Out front the old codger who had hit the pump was opening his car door. He set his left foot in the pool of gas.

 

“SIR! DON’T GET OUT. JUST SHUT OFF YOUR CAR!”

 

He didn’t hear Don’s advice. He got out, turned to stare at the pump. He put both hands on his forehead. Just stood there swaying.

 

Don looked in at me and held his hand to his ear like a phone. I nodded and reached for the phone, dialed 911.

 

While I talked to the dispatcher, I watched the scene outside. The old man had started walking around in circles. The gas fumes weren’t helping his confusion.

 

Jolene ran toward him, tried to guide him away from the puddle. Don carefully walked through the inch of gasoline and turned off the car. Then he went to the edge of the street. Started waving off traffic.

 

A few minutes later things were settling down. Don and I were standing on the walkway in front of the store. We watched the firemen trying to clean up after the spill. Jolene and the old man were talking to the cops.

 

“I can’t start you off in management immediately,” Don said.

 

He registered my surprise, smiled, then continued.

 

“That’s not the way Grab-n-Go does it. This store is kind of our management trainee store. Jolene and Marta work here. They are both assistant managers. There is no actual manager. The assistant managers get a feel for running the store on their own.

 

“Uh-huh,” I said.

 

“So you’ll do that for a while. You’d probably be up for management in four or five months.”

 

My bullshit detector went off with this last statement. There was something about the way his eyes locked in on me when he said it.

 

“This is a good store. Not our busiest one. We get some good weekend traffic here from the ski boat docks. Beer, ice, girls in bikinis…”

 

Don snorted, chuckled. His eyes narrowed into a mild leer. I did my best knowing nod.

 

“Rest of the time it’s pretty sleepy. Y’know, small tourist town…”

 

“Sure. Good place to learn the ropes, though.”

 

You are such an ass-lick.

 

Don nodded in approval.

 

“Assistant managers come in at five a.m. and do the book work for the previous day’s take. Then you open up the store at six, and run the store until second shift comes in at two p.m.”

 

I did some nodding of my own, glassy-eyed.

 

Did he say five a.m.? FIVE A.M?! Hot fudge shit! What am I DOING here?!

 

Nine a.m. had been the standard start time for the stores in Missouri. I half wondered if Don was joking.

 

“We send you out to our novice training store in Pine Trail for a couple of weeks. Ben is the manager out there. He’ll get you trained as an assistant manager. Then you can come back here to work and we’ll bump you up in pay. Sound like something you want to do?”

 

FIVE A.M?!

 

“S-sounds good,” I answered, not sure whether I had managed to smile.

 

“Alright, well let me just get the forms we need you to sign…”

 

I paused out front for a moment. It was blazing hot from the Florida sun. But I stood there, staring at the store. The lurid signs for milk and beer. The rubber welcome mats, filthy from the soles of thousands.

 

Damn it, we NEED this money.

 

It bugged me that the C-store biz was sucking me back in. It felt like giving up. Like shorting out on all those possibilities. But I just couldn’t seem to move into something better. Not so far, anyway.

 

Jolene was still out in the parking lot. The old man was now sitting on the pavement. A female cop was supporting him from behind. One of the firemen was kneeling in front of him, checking vitals. Jolene was smoking, watching.

 

Out by the street another cop was taping off the entrance to the parking lot. Too many people kept trying to turn in, even with the flashing lights and all the foam coating the gas spill. His partner was arguing with a couple of guys in a pickup truck still trying to enter the parking lot. I could hear one of them yelling something like “beer ain’t the same as gas.”

 

The pickup peeled away from the cop. Cop looked pissed but turned to wave the other cars along. I watched the pickup drive up to the side street a bit further north. It turned onto the side street. It disappeared behind some palmettos, then reappeared across the sand lot to the north of the store. Parked.

 

I watched a dude exit the passenger side. Jeans, stars-n-bars bandana on his head, tank top with beer logo. He slammed the door, started making his way across the lot. He was headed for the store.

 

The cop on the street spotted the guy when he was about halfway across the sand lot. Cop started running toward him. The female cop saw the traffic cop running. She left the old man, joined the run.

 

Redneck froze in his tracks, held up his arms. Cops plowed into him. Hard. Jammed his face in the sand, started cuffing him. When they jerked him to his feet, I could see that one of his ears was bleeding.

 

Okay, you need the money. But THIS place? Why?

 

I found myself imagining how I could sell it to Katie.

 

“It’s only temporary. And what about doing management for a while? Even if I could not find something better, pretty soon I would be looking at a decent salary, benefits. I can do my writing on the side, in the evenings…”

 

Figured I’d wait ‘til later to mention waking up before five in the morning.

 

I turned and opened the “in” door. Walked back to Don’s office. Still not quite sure whether I would sign the papers, or tell him to forget the whole thing.


 

Chapter 2

 

 

 

 

Some form of self punishment? Is that the idea? Is that why you are doing this?

 

4:30 AM. On my way to the Grab-n-Go training store in Pine Trail. I was fuming. I had accepted the job and regretted it since. I had spent the few days before my first day--today-- thinking about what I had settled for. “Only temporary” seemed like too much. The feeling of trying to get up and drive to work this early was not helping.

 

 Am I still asleep? No, I am awake. Fuck…FUCK. This is REAL.

 

My stomach was grinding from having coffee when I was usually asleep. I hadn’t managed to get to sleep before one a.m. or so, my usual time. I shook my head. I was scheduled for a full 10 hour shift. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to stay awake the whole time. Much less train for a new job.

 

The road was black along this stretch. Hardly any other cars out. I turned up the radio to try to wake myself. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that this was not just a one shot deal, getting up like this. Not just something to power through temporarily. I would be doing this for weeks, maybe months.

 

I was headed out to Pine Trail. It was considered to be the armpit of the area. A hiccup of shitty hotels and junk lots on an obsolete highway. The kind of road that used to be a main artery southward through Florida, but that had been made obsolete decades ago by a nearby interstate.

 

This didn’t make for much of a “town.” Pine Trail was a place where nobody would want to move unless they had kin there, were hiding out from something, or needed the absolutely cheapest land to park a trailer on. The result was a series of Trailer Forests—undeveloped wooded areas along the highway that were shot through with dirt roads and lousy with mobile homes.

 

Katie and I had heard locals in Doctor’s Landing constantly mock Pine Trail. She had given me a hell of a look when I told her I would supposedly be doing management training there.

 

I spotted the Grab-n-Go logo ahead. It was dim, but pretty much the only light along the road. The Pine Trail Grab-n-Go.

 

Five minutes early, I pulled into the dirt area next to the main parking lot. I sat and looked at the dank old building. I sighed. The place looked filthy. Ancient. A better candidate for a feed store for livestock than for humans.

 

It actually reminded me of a store where my family had stopped on the way through some one-caution-light town somewhere in Georgia. I had been about twelve. I bought a yellow Moon Pie from the place. A snack I’d heard of but never tried. I ate the whole pie, though it had an oddly tangy taste. I had already thrown away the package, but I guessed it must have been a crappy lemon flavor. I few hours later, I was puking violently.

 

I glanced at my watch, then dragged myself out of the car. My eyes stung from lack of sleep. I glanced at the piece of paper I pulled out of my shirt pocket. “Ben,” I had written on it. I was supposed to go in and find this guy.

 

Don, the District Manager, had told me Ben was the district’s Grab-n-Go trainer and the manager of the Pine Trail store. I imagined some overbearing, dynamic character. A guy with the four extra inches of shin bone that triggered everyone’s daddy reflex--what I called execu-height.

 

 Some guy was standing outside the main door as I shuffled up the walkway. I paused since he was wearing the green Grab-n-Go vest. He was smoking a filterless. Thought maybe I’d ask him where this Ben was.

 

“You Jim?” he asked.

 

“Yes.”

 

His mouth was a crag in a leathery face.  No visible teeth. I wondered if he had those stubby, baby corn teeth. I could not see them. Easily could have been toothless instead. When he talked it looked like a guy turning the head of his cock to the side and using it as a puppet.

 

“Hey. Name’s Ben Charles.”

 

He led me into the store. Ben had only just arrived himself. The long-haired guy behind the counter stood a bit straighter when we walked in.

 

“Mornin’ Ben. How was your day off?”

 

“Mornin’ Gil. Good, good…Uh, Jim here is new. Gonna be training today.” Ben turned to me. “Gil works the overnight.”

 

Gil was looking at me without smiling. He just stood there giving me this hard look. One of those looks that makes you wonder whether you cut the guy off in traffic without remembering him. Maybe killed his dog as a kid, or something. I gave him a nod with a dash of “what-the-fuck?” in my eyebrows.

 

Ben walked behind the counter. He set down the files and papers he was carrying. I followed him. I found myself in the pathetic, crowded little area that arbitrarily set employees apart from the public.

 

“Here, put this on,” said Ben. He held out a new Grab-n-Go vest. I tried to take it, but he held onto it. He locked his eyes on mine.

 

“Employees must wear a vest at all times while on the clock.”

 

He said this in a more resonant voice than he had used so far. I almost laughed. It was hard to tell whether he was joking. Maybe even making a face. His glasses were big and the lenses were for farsightedness. Ben’s eyes looked like small brown fish in a bowl.

 

His continued silent stare at my smile told me he wasn’t kidding. Ben had been getting into trainer mode, trying to sound official. He just blinked at me. I looked down at the bright green vest in my hands.

 

‘At all times.’ Right. What if the vest gets a couple of 16-oz cups of coffee spilled on it when some clumsy idiot dumps them across the counter?

 

I pulled the vest over my head as Ben watched with approval. I was official, now. One of them. I felt dumb.

 

Gil interrupted the pathetic little induction ceremony to tell Ben something. He muttered a few insider statements and names that I didn’t care to try and make much sense of. Something about someone doing something wrong on Thursday night. Gil seemed to be “telling on” someone, as school kids might put it. Sucking up to the boss at someone else’s expense.

 

I stared at Gil as he spoke. Somehow his eyes seemed to be blind even as he looked at Ben and me. He reminded me of turtles when they have retracted into their shells. You can still see their faces, but they look pinched and two-dimensional. Closed off.

 

Ben listened to him, nodded.

 

“Uhn-kay,” Ben half mumbled.

 

Gil paused for a second. Ben continued shuffling through his papers. Gil looked slightly annoyed. He went back to the cash register.    

 

After a bit more straightening and fidgeting, Ben took me back to the training room. He said he would be starting the “bookwork.” We would be counting the receipts from the previous day and filling out the related paperwork.

 

Ben shut the door behind us. The training “room” was essentially some plywood and thin decorative paneling that enclosed a corner of the store. Ben made a bit of a show about pad-locking the door behind him.

 

“This door must remain locked at all times while counting the receipts,” he says in his by-the-book voice. Ben seemed to lose some of his deep Southern accent when he was playing the rules/regs guy.

 

“Guy came in here while one of my former employees, Linda, was doing the count,” he said. His voice had returned to its normal sound. “Guy locked her in the beer cooler, told her if she tried to get out he would come back and shoot her.”

 

“What happened to her?” I asked.

 

“She wasn’t hurt or nothing. Later she quit. Said she couldn’t be here alone anymore.”

 

I glanced at the padlock again. Ben watched me. He nodded in silence. Guy didn’t seem to notice when staring became awkward.

 

I rolled my office chair up to the desk where we would be doing the bookwork. I had done about nine months of this kind of work within the past year, so no problem, I figured. I was fucking tired, but I thought the work would be doable.

 

Ben handed me a paper sack full of little yellow envelopes that he got from the store safe. They were about the size and shape of paper currency. Each little envelope usually held two or three large bills in it—a 20 or 50. Some of the envelopes contain odd amounts, or a sheaf of singles. There were about 100 of these envelopes in the bag.

 

“Them are your safe drops for the previous shift. You go through and count the money inside, check against this shift sheet.”

 

He set a piece of paper on the desk.  It was covered with grids and numbers, with tiny hand-written initials by each number. It must have been typeset by one of those guys who paints Spanish galleons on rice grains.

 

“These here is the amounts the cashiers say they put in them envelopes. You let me know if the money in the envelope doesn’t match the amount written on the shift sheet.”

 

I dumped the envelopes onto the desk. There were nearly a hundred of them. Thousands of dollars.

 

 I started in on them. Shake out the money. Count it. Check the shift sheet. Group the bills by denomination. Place the envelopes on a stack. Get next envelope. It began to become clear how long this was going to take.

 

What difference does it make if someone wrote down the wrong number or miscounted the drop? This is pointless. POINTLESS.

 

Shake, count, check, stack. Rinse, and repeat. Until your mind bails and goes stomping off to do something else. That, of course, is when you miscount and have to start over.

 

A fist bangs on the training room door.

 

“Unlock the fucking door man! I got a gun!”

 

I freeze with fear. My view of the door visibly pulsates as my heart verges on exploding. The bleat of a hick female customer breaks the silence.

 

“He ain’t lyin’. Yew bedder open it.”

 

The blast of a shotgun punctuates her plea. A wreath of splinters surrounds the baseball-sized hole that appears near the lock. The next shot shatters the lock, sending hot metal chunks into my left eye.

 

Ben cleared his throat. That snapped me out of it. I realized I had just been staring at the stack of envelopes. Doing something this mindless had allowed my mind to slip back into a sort of half dream state.

 

I looked at the stack of ones in both my hands. I tried to resume counting where I had left off.

 

“Um…twenty-two, twenty-four, twe--…Shit. One, two, three, four…”

 

Ben sat next to me, curved like a vulture and just as still. Now and again I got unnerved and focused on him without actually looking. That threw off the counting too.

 

I finally got to the end of the count. Over three thousand dollars. Incredulous, I called out the figure and slowly turned toward Ben. His urethral mouth widened into a proud smile.

 

“See, this is a high volume store.”

 

I looked down at the stack of money again. Enough to make a huge difference in the lives that played out in the trailers surrounding the store. The image of the shotgun blast ripped into my mind again for an instant.

 

I felt a flash of fear at the thought of a month of ten hour shifts here. Three grand on a single shift. The store where I worked in Missouri never pulled in more than two grand cash a day.

 

We walked back out front to the cash register area. By this time it was around 7 a.m. I looked for Gil. Wondered if he would still be giving me stink eye. He seemed to have left. There were a couple of customers at the register. I looked around wondering who was supposed to be helping them.

 

“New guy, huh? Is he gonna figure it out, Ben?”

 

The voice came from behind us. It was an alto marinated in probably 35 years of nicotine. I turned wearily toward the owl-eyed leprechaun trying to get past us to the register. She hissed an expectorating laugh at her own comment.

 

“I reckon he’ll do alright, Billie,” Ben chuckled. “Jim, this is Billie.”

 

She shook my hand. She gave me a wink through bangs of her homebrew haircut. Dyed blond. She seemed okay.

 

“Well, we could use somebody around here who knows what they’re doing.”

 

Billie headed for her register. Ben told me we weren’t done with the management duties. He led me to the computer system managers used for data entry. It looked to be about ten years out of date.

 

Ben began to drone instructions as he walked me through the daily data entry. He stood behind me and looked over my left shoulder. He watched every keystroke, registered every grunt. Same unnerving stare that had watched me count probably 300 singles.

 

After maybe an hour of this I was starting to see things. None of the arbitrary keystrokes and sequences made much sense. I gave up the expectation that I would remember any of this. I repeatedly stared unfocused for several moments. Strained to break the trance. I saw these little shadows moving in the corner of my eyes. Tiny imps that skittered under the shelves of macaroni and toilet paper.

 

“YOU SON OF A BITCH!!!”

 

Both Ben and I flinched and then turned slightly toward Billie’s register. She was barreling toward us.

 

“A RUNNER! I GOT A RUNNER!”

 

I tried to squeeze forward so she could get by. I glanced out front. There was a blue truck turning onto the highway. The driver was leaving the fuel pump without paying. Too far away for me to make out the tag number. Billie was running out front to see if she could read it. I could tell there was no way she would make it out in time.

 

A couple of Billie’s regulars had exited the store moments before. They were climbing into a truck. They had paused to check out who was peeling out of the parking lot. The driver glanced toward the store just as Billie opened the door.

 

DAVIS! THAT SON OF A BITCH AIN’T PAID FOR HIS GAS!”

 

Davis waved and said something I didn’t catch. He was in his early forties. His passenger was a decade or so younger. They both looked like they worked outdoors. Dirty, faded clothes, heavy boots. Couple of shit kickers. They peeled out of the parking lot in pursuit.

 

Billie stayed out front. Good excuse for a smoke break, I guessed. After the first drag or so she leaned her head in the doorway.

 

“I thought that bastard looked suspicious, Ben. Shoulda made him prepay.”

 

“Thought you was gonna go tackle him, Billie,” Ben said.

 

Davis’ll take care of that for me.”

 

She closed the door, continued smoking. Ben shook his head.

 

“I wish they’d just get his license plate number,” he said.

 

“So, the, um, cops are pretty good about tracking runners down around here?”

 

“Well, not really. Most of the time we don’t get anything but a description. It’s too far to see out there from the registers. Takes too long to run out there. Like with Billie.”

 

I nodded. We both just stood there for a moment. Seemed strange to continue with the training.

 

“So, after we are done with this, uh, the computer stuff, am I…do you want me to get on the other register up here with Billie?”

 

“Ain’t nobody allowed to work on them registers without going through all the training programs,” Ben said in his managerial voice. “You will be viewin’ a series of training videos after we are done up here.”

 

Billie came back in. Bitched some more about the gas thief. Then Ben and I started back in on the data entry. It looked like we were nearly done. I thought maybe the momentary excitement might keep me awake, pull me through to the end. Then maybe I could catch a snooze during the videos.

 

About ten minutes into it, Billie erupted again.

 

“HA-HAAA!!! They GOT ‘im!”

 

“We look out front. Davis was pulling up in his pickup. There was a figure slumped in the seat between Davis and his buddy. Billie wheeled around the counter again to go out and meet them.

 

Ben and I watched as Davis’ partner yanked the gas thief out of the truck. My stomach turned and my chest felt tight. The guy’s face was a mess. A flap of skin was hanging over his eyebrow. He was breathing through his mouth since his nose was basically a red blob. Davis was leaned over. He was wiping his boots with a handkerchief.

 

§§§

 

I don’t know whether it was during the visit from the cops, Billie’s incessant crowing about catching the gas thief, or the mid-morning rush. Somewhere along the line Ben decided to just finish the data entry himself. Fine with me.

 

But first he led me back to the training room to watch the videos. He sat me in front of a PC and video monitor.

 

OK. So now I can sit back here by myself for a while. No way he’s going to sit through these videos.

 

He selected a video and turned on the machine. Fiddled with a couple of dials. Then he stared at me for a moment. He looked managerial again.

 

“Now, be sure you pay attention,” Ben said, “‘cause the computer training programs have questions about some of the stuff on them videos. You gotta get at least 80% right on them computer tests, or you gotta do it all over again.”

 

I glanced at the computers. More retro equipment.

 

I smiled at him. I tried not to look too glad that he was leaving. Tried to think of something to say that would make him leave.

 

“I will do my best Ben. I’ll shoot for 100%.”

 

He seemed impressed with this. Too easy. He paused; just long enough to make me worry he was staying. Then shut the door behind him.

 

I let out a breath. I could hear the beep-beep-boop of the register. Voices muffled enough that I can only pick up the sense unwarranted self-pride. The attitude most country music conveys.

 

Might as well get it started.

 

The video crackled to life. A fill of electronic drums kick-started the decade-old soundtrack by some studio guys with too many synths.

 

“Welcome to the exciting world of the convenience store industry. Give yourself a hand, because you have made the right choice in selecting a career in this bustling service industry…”

 

I looked up at the ceiling, with its yellow-brown leak stains. I could see the bloody face of the gas runner. I felt sick again. Tried not to think of him at the hospital getting sewed up.

 

I shut my eyes, leaned the chair back. For a moment I considered using the padlock on the door. That would buy me time if Ben came back. Maybe I could even curl up in the corner on the floor. Tell him his robbery story worried me.

 

Through the compressed wood panels came the sound of Billie’s cackle. It quickly devolved into a wet hack that went on for a least a minute.

 

I settled for putting my feet up. I wished I could have sneaked in a beer.


 

Chapter 3

 

 

 

 

I think I drove home after work.

 

Yeah, I must have, because I found myself parking in front of the house boat. I sat there for a moment in that silence after the engine goes quiet except for a few pings. My eyes were wide and unfocused. Hypnotized from the drive and lack of sleep.

 

I checked my watch. 4:15 PM. I had left home nearly twelve hours ago. Pay for the day, after taxes, would be about 70 bucks.

 

That snapped me out of the trance. I clenched my eyes shut, tilted my back and groaned.

 

One day down. One fucking day.

 

I got out of the car and felt that general ache. I was running on about 4.5 hours. I lost my balance as I shut the car door, and grunted.

 

Ahead the house boat was only a bit steadier than I was. It rocked slightly in the wake from a passing speedboat.

 

The house boat was anchored on the Timacaw River. We slept about half a mile upriver from a big recreational boat landing. Other tourist attractions surrounded it. As I walked from the car I could hear the whoops of rednecks playing putt-putt and/or dumping beer and ice into their styrofoam coolers.

 

The Grab-n-Go where I interviewed was on the road to the landing, about half a mile inland. I would be working there once they decided I was skilled enough to ring up cigarettes and beer.

 

The house boat actually belonged to Katie’s family. Her dad had agreed to let us squat there while we “got on our feet” after our move from Northern Missouri. He owned a couple of car lots up there. Thought of himself as a real high roller.

 

He had parked the houseboat on the Timacaw twenty years ago. Came down every year or so to fish, get drunk, and generally pretend to be single. Katie had never been here, but through the filter of her father the place had become Shangri-La.

 

I opened the door to the low-end blaring of commercial TV. The twins, my step-kids, were home from school. Each occupied his/her own depression in the well-loved couch.

 

“How’d it go?” Katie asked.

 

I looked at her from under my eyebrows, shook my head back and forth. I tried to think of a dry remark to lighten the issue. Nothing. I had not spoken for about 40 minutes during the clock-out and the drive home. It was like the speech centers of my brain had gone back to bed already.

 

She squeezed my arm, pressing her head against it. She looked a bit guilty. But maybe I imagined this. At work I kept picturing her just lounging in the house boat all day. Said had she was waiting to see where I would be working before she got her job. Or something.

 

The twins were staring at the tube. There were Doritos bags and crumbs on the table in front of them. A passive giggle erupted here and there as they watched cartoons.

 

The twins had come when Katie was only eighteen. Fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. She had finished her senior year in high school with a couple of screaming babies in day care. Then it was off to do service writing at one of her dad’s car lots. The secretarial pool hadn’t cut the owner’s girl much slack.

 

I became an instant dad when I Katie and I got together. The twins were decent kids, so step-fatherhood  hadn’t been much of a shock.

 

Except for the noise. The constant fucking noise.

 

Looking at the twins, I suddenly became aware of my surroundings. The prospect of the next few hours stretched out in my minds eye. The space seemed smaller. It complicated the choice of deciding what to do next.

 

The only thing I really wanted to do was sleep. My stomach still churned from too many coffees. Somehow, though, they had not managed to penetrate the fog. But here were the twins, TV blaring. No way to sleep through that.

 

“You guys been outside since you got home?”

 

“NO,” Katie bellowed in their direction, answering for them.

 

They looked mealy-mouthed for a moment. Then the boy, Tim, spoke up.

 

“There’s nothing to do outside.”

 

“Yeah,” said Jillie, his sister.

 

“What if Newton had said that, or Aristotle?” I asked, wearily.

 

“Whooo?” they said at the same time.

 

Really smart people are never bored,” I said. “Aren’t you kids interested in finding out about nature?”

 

“That’s what we go to school for,” Tim answered. “We’re done with school today.”

 

“Don’t be so sassy,” Katie said. “Enough TV. You kids go outside and play.”

 

I watched them perform their mime of the oppressed. They moved jaggedly, pouting, and huffing. They made a show of putting on their shoes. It occurred to me that they would probably stay outside for about fifteen minutes. Then they would get into a fight or cause some trouble in order to prove that they were better off in front of the TV.

 

“Listen, you think you can keep them quiet?” I asked Katie.  “I really have to get some sleep.”

 

“Sure, no problem.”

 

She seemed a bit disappointed. I was gone all day and then I came back only to disappear into the bedroom alone. She was still touchy about moving so far from Missouri. She had never lived anywhere else.

 

I tried to push the drama out of my mind. I fell out of my shoes and pants. My shirt reeked of the store, but I did not have the strength to change it.

 

When I hit the bed, I involuntarily whimpered quietly. Made me chuckle. Felt like I had worked out too hard and then jogged five miles after staying up all night. Sleep came on hard and fast.

 

§§§

 

About two hours later, my consciousness was dragged back online by the banging of pots in the kitchen. The kitchen—kitchenette, whatever—was just outside the door of the main bedroom.

 

“Jillie! Enough!” bellowed Katie.

 

Katie had either forgotten or just didn’t care that I was trying to sleep. My head suddenly felt compressed, like I was under 20 feet of water. I lay there listening. The dispute over which twin should have to put the clean cups away instead of the plates and bowls.

 

I felt a flash of anger that Katie was allowing it to go on. At this volume level, anyway. I felt myself about to yell at them to shut up.

 

Then I reminded myself of Katie’s feelings about relocating. Florida was alien territory. Relatives that had been a constant source of annoyance to her suddenly seemed too far away. It was like she was being weaned.

 

At night she would silently convulse with tears in the bed next to me. That, or she would slime the shoulder of my sleep t-shirt with her nose. I would lie there feeling like the guy who shot the Easter Bunny. Like it had been all my doing.

 

So instead of screaming at them, I just stumbled out of the bedroom. I figured it made sense to get up anyway. I would have to try to force myself asleep again in about three hours. Another 5AM clock-in tomorrow.

 

“I was wondering whether you were going to sleep all night,” Katie said.

 

She was stirring some sort of ground meat and pasta concoction. Something out of a box.

 

Words still failed me. Still tempted to bitch about the wake up. But I just looked at her. I seemed to be moving like an opossum or a sloth. My body still had no idea was the hell was going on. The twins were setting the table. They giggled at my slow, blank stare. Thought it was a put-on.

 

“I…have to-to work. Again. Tomorrow.”

 

Katie looked a bit concerned. “Are you okay?”

 

I dumped myself on the couch in response. Maybe some tube would wake me up. No more caffeine—I felt poisoned from it. Didn’t want to touch the stuff.  Caffeine hangover.

 

Don’t think about the store.

 

I looked around for the remote control. Not finding it, I felt the skull compression looming again.

 

“Where is the re-MOTE?!

 

I knew the response almost as soon as the question came out.

 

“It wasn’t me!” said Jillie.

 

“You were watching TV last,” Tim said.

 

“Yeah, but I turned it off with my finger.”

 

“That’s ‘cause you lost the remote after you switched to the cartoon channel.”

 

“Did not!”

 

“Did t--”

 

“Just get over here and find it” I hissed. “Both of you!”

 

I watched them search. I wondered if TV had stunted their brain growth. They seemed incapable of the simple act of placing the remote back in the spot where they had found it. It always ended up under an unlikely blanket on the floor, or behind a lamp on the other side of the room. Most often, it burrowed its way beneath the couch cushions like a chigger into scrotum meat.

 

What seemed to work best was my solution at our last place in Missouri. When the kids weren’t looking, I would put the remote on top of a blade of the ceiling fan. No one could reach it or spot it but me. It had kept them in suspense for weeks.

 

After the remote turned up under the dog’s bed, I sat flipping through the channels.

 

 I need to be in there writing. Or at least working on some cover letters.

 

This thought made my stomach seize up. I had already worked ten hours. The thought of getting keyed up about another job…I figured I’d get to it on my day off. Or, some nights, maybe I wouldn’t be as tired. I’d get used to this schedule. The other people at the store were still alive. Somewhat, anyway.

 

Katie brought me a plate and sat on the couch beside me. We watched a video bloopers show and had ourselves a salty, lower-middle class supper. The kids were on the floor in front of us.

 

After I set my plate aside, I looked at Katie’s long, firm legs curled up under her while she stared at the screen. Somehow after two kids there was not an ounce of cellulite on those legs or on the tight little ass above it. In the evening she liked to wear these microscopic terry-cloth shorts with no panties. I could see a good portion of her rump pressed against the cushion.

 

Katie caught me looking at her. She knew my expression instantly. She stretched a leg along the couch. She burrowed her toes behind my back. Then, staring forward to make sure to kids weren’t looking; she slid the crotch of her shorts to the side.

 

Instantly the calculations begin. How soon ‘til kiddie bedtime? Would they leave us alone if we went in there and locked the door? If they stayed up much later would she get out of the mood? Should I do the dishes as a bribe?

 

The cloth crotch snapped back into place. Katie turned to flash me a coy smile. She held the cards and was not letting me see them. She knew it was safe to play these games when I couldn’t immediately maul her. I hardly ever got the pussy peek when we were in the bedroom reading or home alone during school hours.

 

“Mom?”

 

Katie turned to look at Jillie.

 

“Can we make cookies now? You promised.

 

Katie turned back to look at me. She smiled.

 

“Okay, we can make cookies.”

 

Katie leaned over and put her arms around my neck. She wet my neck with her lips. The promise to get back to me later.

 

The girls headed to the kitchen. Tim started playing with his card collection. I flicked off TV. Food, the nap and an hour at the tube had not much changed my brain state. I was not thinking of sleeping, but I was somehow stuck with that same zombie brainlessness.

 

I decided to do a little housekeeping on the computer. I had a website with some of my stories, stories other people sent me. I also had self-published a small collection of fiction stuff for sale. A feeble attempt to pick up a few dollars online.

 

I trudged off to the bedroom, fired up the laptop. I opened up the front page to my website.

 

There seemed to be some interest in the website. It featured short short stories. Stories that were 250 words or less. I had gotten into them in grad school. An outlet for ideas that didn’t cost me much time. Something about the economy of words meshed with what I liked about logic.

 

After I had started putting the stories online, other people started sending in their own stories. I posted them. The thing became sort of an electronic journal. Pretty soon I had amassed a fair amount of stuff.

 

Schemer that I was, I decided maybe I could get a book out of it. An edited volume. Maybe get publishers interested. I wrote up a proposal to one of the smaller New York houses. Clytemnestra Press. They had actually responded that they might be interested. They would consider it. I was blown away.

 

That had been months ago. No word since. I kept wondering whether to write them back.

 

I stared at the front page of the website. My eyes were unfocused.

 

“TOME THUMB: A WEB COMPEDIUM OF SHORT SHORT FICTION.”

 

I was staring at the title, top of the page. Trying to figure out what to do. Write a story? Tinker with the layout? The title started to seem stupid. It seemed to mock me.

 

Short Short. Who wears short shorts? She wears short shorts.

 

I decided I was staring at it too long. Getting nowhere. I decided to search for affiliate links instead. Other people with websites that would link to mine. Supposedly this would draw web traffic to it. Eventually money. Supposedly.

 

I heard the twins begin powering down around 9:00. They were probably still on Midwest time, somewhat.

 

“Brush your teeth guys,” said Katie.

 

They pouted through the ablutions, stomped off to bed. Tim stomped, anyway. Jillie would pretend to protest, but on her own she probably would have slept at 7 or 8.

 

One last half-hearted fight over whether X had really brushed his/her, and whether Y was a tattle-tale, and then it was silent time.

 

The crotch flash Katie had given me appeared in my mind. I shut off the laptop, went back to the sofa. Katie jumped onto the couch and hunched against me like a big toad.

 

“Shiver,” she said.

 

She always got cold at night, except during the summer. This was one of the reasons she didn’t mind getting out of Missouri.

 

She stuck her icy fingers under my shirt, partly to warm them up, partly to get me to jump. I did. My nipples got all goosed up. I tended to stay warm—too warm—but this was like setting ice cubes on my chest.

 

We had the TV just for background noise. A kind of foreplay, really. A delay of the inevitable. She continued to snuggle up to me. As a Seinfeld rerun went to yet another commercial, we started to kiss. After a few minutes of this I didn’t hear the TV anymore. She set her hand on my tented shorts, and squeezed.

 

People on a date probably would have finished up right there on the couch. But we had been together for a while. For us, the fucking could wait for the usual nightly rituals, albeit sped up. A trip to the bathroom, checking to make sure the door was locked, having the dog take her final piss of the night. The hard-on would return as soon as Katie stripped down.

 

Once we were at it, I kept it slow. I wanted to build up to one of those orgasms where you feel like you are going to faint. The ones with the threat of a charley horse in your stomach muscles. If I had been able to fall asleep right then, at 10, I would still have only managed to get about 6 hours of sleep. And I was not sleepy at all. I figured if I didn’t come hard, I might not get to sleep for another hour or so.

 

It was pitch black in the room, so I could picture anything. I barely moved inside her, stirring it around from side to side to just enough to keep her interested. I started to picture the Pine Trail store. I figured if any place would keep me from thinking what was happening to my groin, Pine Trail was it.

 

I pictured the dusty floors, the toilet bowl stained orange from the rusty pipes. I saw customers stooped over lottery tickets, furiously scratching the plastic paint in hope of scoring a fiver. Felt like it was working. I was still hard, but not about to blast.

 

Then I panicked. What if I pictured the wrong person and it made me start to come? What if I accidentally blew it while thinking of, like, Billie the chain smoker coughing up one of her oysters? Or Gil, the night-shift troll? A rip-off orgasm. No way would that help me sleep.

 

The worry actually helped me back off of the plateau phase even more. It brought me back to the present. I got the feeling of starting over, and began thrusting harder. Katie grunted in front of me, pushed back against me. She had long since come, and was ready for something to reignite her interest.

 

Staying in her, I reached over to switch on the lamp for the coup-de-grace. Her real, living image obliterated the visions of Pine Trail. She was leaned forward, her back to me. A perfect arch of bronze and white flesh, rippling ribs, toned back, moving against me and in time with me. Her long blond hair splashed across the pillow in front of her.

 

I came so hard I nearly passed out. The spasms went on for over two minutes. We fell forward once I stopped bucking. I just had to lie there for a couple of minutes more, panting into her neck.

 

Eventually, I rolled over to turn off the lamp. I flopped on my back and stared into the orange afterimage from the lamp. I had the feeling like I had melted away from navel down. It was perfect. Katie burrowed in next to me, still nude. She touched my ribs, her fingers now warm.

 

I knew I had my six good hours of sleep locked. All for the good of Grab-n-Go, of course.


 

Chapter 4

 

 

 

 

It never seemed to get old to them. One of them always fell for the trap, and the other always thought he was the cleverest joker around.

 

First guy. A working man, blue collar. Construction, usually. He stands at the register, completing his transaction.

 

Second guy. An acquaintance of the first guy comes into view. Another worker. He enters the store or gets in line at the register.

 

First guy: “Hey there buddy! Wha-choo doin,’ man?

 

Second guy: “Warkin’!”

 

It was more of a sound than a statement. Something like the squawk of a macaw. The local dialect made the normal “or” of “working” sound more like “are.”

 

“You were just stating a standard greeting, but I responded as if you were actually wondering what I was doing today.” Funny? Hardly. Hear it three or four times per shift for a couple of weeks, and it becomes like an ice pick in the temple.

 

Warkin.’ Warkin.’ Warkin.’ Ha-fucking-ha-ha-ha.

 

I glared at the morning’s offending pair over the top of the cheap computer monitor. It was 7:50 AM at the Pine Trail store. Day Two. I had already observed this bit of Redneck Theater twice in the past fifty minutes.

 

Ben was watching me do the daily data entry. I could hear his nose whistle intermittently behind my left shoulder. Whenever it did my eyes would defocus on the text on the screen and look at the reflection of Ben’s head on the monitor glass.

 

 “What are the CRIND totals?”

 

“Uhn-kay,” Ben began. It was if I had pressed play on some ancient tape machine, a reel-to-reel. “Your CRIND totals are gonna be found over here on page four of the print-out, down on line 45.”

 

“Yeah, but what are they? Maybe that’ll help me remember where to find them.”

 

Since I had taught for several years, aimless training techniques centered on rote memorization really got on my nerves. It was hard to believe that anybody at these stores had actually learned the bookkeeping procedures.

 

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Shelly looking at me. While Ben bumbled through his definition of CRIND totals, I glanced Shelly’s way. She turned her head away as I turned mine in her direction. She stared forward like she had not been watching us.

 

Shelly was the other overnight shift worker, besides Gil the troll. She was here today instead of Gil. Shelly was also an Assistant Manager.

 

Why she would want the overnight shift I had no idea. I looked at her. Attractiveness can be a very relative thing. The girl you talk to on the bus might be the one you would completely avoid at a swanky bar. In the milieu of the Pine Trail store, Shelly was Aphrodite.

 

SHE works third shift? Did she piss off the District Manager?

 

“…on page 4 of the print-out, down on line 45. Uhn-kay?”

 

“Uhn-kay.”

 

Ben probably thought I was an asshole. I kept making comments about the Byzantine bookkeeping processes, the ludicrous data entry interface. I wasn’t much trying to impress him like new hires are supposed to. Figured I’d only be here as long as I needed to be. I did not feel like trying to fit into this grimy little world at Pine Trail.

 

Something about Ben seemed to invite it, anyway. He was turtle-like, like a very old man, even though he was not so old. Not an alpha male by any means. He never seemed to get aggressive with the other Pine Trail employees, yet somehow seemed to wield authority over them.

 

I glanced over the monitor at the line of about ten customers. Third shift usually got off at 8 AM. I was supposed to finish most of my bookwork by then. What I didn’t finish, I was somehow expected to do in my “spare time” while manning the cash register. But Shelly had had a pretty steady stream of customers since Ben and I finished the cash count.

 

The top of Shelly’s Grab-n-Go vest was stuffed to the breaking point. I kept sneaking glances at her. She was about average height, and filled out her jeans just a bit more than she probably cared to. Tried to keep my mind on the data entry while I pictured taking her to the back room, fucking her between those tits.

 

Ben’s nose whistled again. Like it was commenting on the image in my head.

 

Two more screens to go. I need to get through this before I start trying to run the register.

 

I pecked at the keys, wrote down the sequences. I tried to make myself a “cheat sheet.” Otherwise I knew I would never recall it all while trying to run back and forth to the register.

 

“Mr. Jim…” Shelly drawled loudly.

 

I glanced over the monitor. Shelly had dispatched her line of customers quickly. This was the first she had spoken to me since her “Hey” when Ben introduced us at 4:55 AM.

 

I looked at her, smiling slightly, hoping I had misread the seeming confrontation in her tone.  She looked bored. Her eyelids stayed so low as she faced me that it made her look slightly cross-eyed. Her lips were stiff, and encircled with a halo of wrinkles.

 

“You the one rollin’ up them ones in the safe tubes?”

 

One of my morning duties was stocking up the timer safe with plastic tubes of change. Rolls of coins, tubes containing four fives, two tens, twenty ones, etc. Cashiers would trigger the safe to drop these tubes as needed. For some reason I had decided that the twenty singles were supposed to be rolled into something like a cigar instead of folded and rolled like a newspaper.

 

“I guess so.” My smile slackened.

 

“You guess so,” she said, with a faintest Pharoahing of her neck. “Well, it ain’t easy getting ‘em out of there when they’re all rolled up. I have to stand there pullin’ most of them out the tube one-by-one.”

 

Well. Nice to meet you too.

 

“Ya fold ‘em, then you roll ‘em. Like this.”

 

She held up a properly rolled sheaf of bills, and inserted them into a tube. She looked at me over the tube. Lids still heavy, eyes still dead. Soul closed for business.

 

I glanced at Ben, who had looked on in silence. There was neither a look of approval nor disapproval on his face. Pretty much nothing. I suppose he might have been glad that she had saved him from having to be the heavy.

 

I went back to typing. Imagining Shelly’s car on fire. Thinking about how the wrong people get killed by drunk drivers, get cancer. Hating myself for having looked at her bulging green vest.

 

§§§

 

“Anything else for you?” I asked. The scanner booped the last item on the counter.

 

“Hey Ben,” the customer drawled over my shoulder, ignoring me.

 

Ben was seated behind me on a creaky barstool. Looking over my shoulder again. Guy was like my fucking parrot at this point. He was gumming a sandwich as he observed my cashiering techniques.

 

We had finished up my second go at doing the bookwork for the store about an hour ago. I still had little idea of how to finish it on my own. I might as well have worked in the circus instead of doing bookkeeping at those stores in Missouri.

 

Registers I could deal with, though. Money. Ben had already commented on my speed.

 

“Hey Miss Carol,” said Ben. “How them boys doing?”

 

“They alright,” Carol projected through my skull. “Jason’s still always getting into some kind of trouble. But Chris is doing alright in school. Doing pretty good in metal shop. He’s good with a sodder’n iron, you know.”

 

I look out the front windows toward the gas pumps. A man’s head was visible over the top of the pump as he filled up his tank.

 

“Uh-huh,” buzzed Ben’s tar-coated voice box, in agreement. Miss Carol droned on about something I didn’t want to hear.

 

“…so I told her if she wanted me to bring the breakfast to Bible study it wasn’t gonna be any fancier than a tin o’ cinnamon buns from Ben’s store…”

 

The man filling up his tank was wearing those pitch black, wire-rimmed sunglasses like the Rev. Jim Jones wore. His head was still, like he was watching the numbers rise on the gas pump. But those black lenses seem to stare right at me. I felt colder. Those shark eyes seemed to bore through the plate glass separating us.

 

“How much?”

 

I turn back too slowly to look at Miss Carol.

 

“Fourteen-twenty-three, please,” I announced.

 

I said it in my cashier voice. The voice states things clearly and with a whiff of positivity. It is something like those voices that tell you which button to press to speak to a customer service representative. I only used it sometimes. Usually to avoid being accused of rudeness even while showing no respect. The inappropriately upbeat and formal tone was intended to remind them that our interaction was impersonal. That they weren’t “getting to me,” even when they tried.

 

It also implicitly requested that they finish up and get the fuck out of my face already.

 

Miss Carol let her glance linger on me a bit longer than it needed to as she reached into her purse. I had not been sufficiently put upon by her conversation with Ben. I had not, literally, “waited on her” as she spoke. By looking out the window, I had not allowed myself to experience the discomfort of being spoken through. She didn’t like these results.

 

By now another customer had appeared behind Miss Carol. I glanced at him as she rooted through her leather purse. He seemed bemused by her deliberate slowness, for the moment. But I noticed he had to shift the weight of the 20-pack of beer in his arms.

 

“Well, I ain’t got enough cash. Reckon I’m gonna have to write a check.”

 

Tonk!

 

The 20-pack of beer made its way to the floor a bit more loudly than its carrier would have liked. It drew the attention of Miss Carol. She shot him a glance over her shoulder. Then recognized him.

 

“Oh, hey Harry. Didn’t see you there.”

 

“Hey Miss Carol,” Harry says, attempting not to sound annoyed.

 

“Is Mavis doin’ alright? She wasn’t at Bible study last Sunday.”

 

“Oh, she’s doin’ alright. Her ankle was bothering her a little on Sunday. She did some waterskiing on Saturday.”

 

Jim Jones Sunglasses had now come in from the pump. He stood behind Harry, arms crossed. He peered around Harry. His shark eyes now bored into Miss Carol.

 

“Oh, shoot,” she said, turning back to me. “How much you say it was?”

 

My cashier voice repeated the price. She looked for emotion in my eyes. Then she began laboriously writing out the check. Harry fidgeted. I stood stock still. Another customer lands in line behind Jim-Jones sunglasses.

 

Over the sound of Miss Carol’s slowly ripping out the check, Ben intoned in his manager voice:

 

“Un-kay. Do you know the procedure for running a personal check?”

 

“I believe so,” I said.

 

I rubber-stamped the back of the check for deposit. I slid it to Miss Carol. The stamp printed several lines on which she was to print her information.

 

“Un-kay. Now you have her fill out her Drivers License number, address, and phone number, and then have her sign on the line. Then you run the check through this here machine.”

 

Miss Carol was already familiar with the process. She began dig out her I.D. But all this was too much for Jim Jones.

 

“Ten dollars for pump 3,” he said.

 

He slammed the cash on the counter next to Miss Carol’s checkbook. This, of course, was cause for her to interrupt her writing.

 

“Hmmph,” was all her brain could muster. She shook her head at Jim Jones as he walked away. How dare he have somewhere to go?

 

He stormed out the door. I glanced at the gas readout out to make sure he was covering his bill. I had seen him replace two candy bars on the impulse rack before he bailed from the line. This insidious check policy was costing the company money. I savored the realization that I did not give a shit.

 

Eventually Miss Carol left. I felt a momentary wave of relief. A flash of empathy for the guys in line who had endured all of this.  At least until the next came up to the counter and glared at me. All my fault.

 

I finished up with the other customers who had come in during while Miss Carol ruled the line. Ben had watched me the whole time. He had a stillness that left me a bit on edge. I could feel the psychological distance between us. I could not grok the mindset of a person who could just stand like a coat rack, staring at someone who knew you were watching them.

 

Maybe you have to be insane to be a manager. Or maybe it makes you insane.

 

I glanced at Ben. He was moving behind me. He ambled back to the computer screen. He shuffled through a few papers. He stapled some of them together. Some things he would stack in piles. Others would go into those cheap tan folders. None of it seemed to make much sense. It was like watching a line of ants carrying inedible objects for which they seemed to have no use.

 

I tried to imagine him before he became a manager. Tried to imagine him being like most employees, hating to be at work. Ben never seemed to have his mind on anything besides what was going on in the store. And that seemed perfectly fine to him. He was not giddy about being here. Not like some glad-handing bumblebee trying to inflate morale. He was just here, doing the thing. More like a pod person. A shell.

 

§§§

 

It was a pretty slow afternoon. I was lucky. It was the middle of a work week. Most people were still at work in the early afternoon. Kids were not out of school yet, scavenging for sugar.

 

A few women like Miss Carol would come in for bread, milk. Beer for their husbands. Beer for them. They probably drove to the big box stores on the weekends to stock up. But the Grab-n-Go was perched like a vulture at the edge of a pine forest full of cheap homes. It knew that the families would run dry on supplies, soon enough.

 

But mostly it was the painters, the sheetrock guys, the framers. They must have wanted to leave the worksites during their breaks. Just get away, go somewhere. Grab-n-Go was about the only somewhere around.

 

“Whassup brother?”

 

I blinked the glaze from my eyes, and looked at the smirking phantasm at the counter. He glowed with a white sheen, even though his frumpy work-clothes managed to convey their dinginess. He worked in sheetrock. They were always dusted with the fine white powder.

 

“Hey there,” I said. I scanned the barcode on his 12-pack. His teeth were probably smoker-normal, but they looked brownish-yellow beside his whitened skin.

 

I wondered what he was smiling at. The way he was grinning, I thought he might be making fun of me somehow. Had I picked my nose or something, and not realized it? Fly open?

 

Then I caught the odor. Dude had just burned one in his truck. High as the fucking Hancock building in Chicago. Weed coming down the river from Drennon, Georgia was supposed to be primo.

 

“Just the beer, sir?” I asked. “No powdered doughnuts with that?”

 

He actually considered my offer for a second. Then a smile stretched across his face. He started snickering with this repeated soft-palate buzz. There was a cartoon dog in the 70’s that laughed like that—Mumbly, I think he was called.

 

“Dude, that was cold, dude.”

 

He finished up the transaction, carried the beer out to the truck. There were two other sheet rockers sitting in the cab of the truck.

 

The beer buyer got in the truck. He was still smirking, talking to the other guys. They were looking at me through the plate-glass window. Listening to their buddy tell the tale.

 

Then they started laughing. I smiled and watched this silent film of stoner humor for a few seconds. Then I felt my ears turning red and I had to look away.

 

No other customers were in the store. Ben was on the phone behind the counter. I pretended to straighten up the crap around the register.

 

“Un-kay, Jim?”

 

My neck hairs suddenly prickled at Ben’s voice. Manager voice. I froze for a second.

 

Shit! I probably was not supposed to sell those guys beer, since they were high!

 

I turned slowly toward Ben. I felt momentary relief. Ben was standing there holding the phone toward me.

 

“Don Volker wants to talk to you.”

 

Volker wants to talk to me? The District Manager?

 

I had not heard from Volker since the first interview. He had given me my schedule and that was it. Off to the Pine Trail store for training. I thought things had been going okay so far. Ben said I had passed all the training tests and whatnot.

 

Oh! Must be time to let me know about my schedule at the Riverside store.

 

I took the phone from Ben, giving him a little nod of thanks. I was ready to kiss the Pine Trail store goodbye.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Mister Crayson…” he began.

 

He was sounding a bit too much like Shelly to suit me.

 

“Mister Volker…”

 

“When you entered the store gas prices for today, you did not include the nines.”

 

“Sir?”

 

I was merely stalling for time. I knew what he was talking about. Gas prices are officially posted as normal dollar amounts plus another ninth of a penny. Instead of $1.79, gas stations charge $1.799. Everyone ignores it, and nobody cares. I figured why type the extra nine into the books, when everybody who gives a shit just assumes it’s there?

 

Don Volker cared.

 

“When you enter the gas prices in the morning, you have to type in the extra nines at the end of the numbers. Gotta have the nines.”

 

Had I done an okay job otherwise? How was I doing in the training? Was Ben telling me everything I wanted to know? Fuck all that. Gotta have the nines.

 

“Uh, okay, I will be sure to type, type in the nines next time. Sorry.”

 

“Good.”

 

The line clicked as he hung up. I stared off for a minute, thinking about reality. About when and how I could, maybe, get back to it.

 

 “Hell-lo-o!

 

I looked down. Some kid was waiting for me to ring up pork rinds and a 44-ounce tub of soda.


 

Chapter 5

 

 

 

 

I ambled toward the house boat again. End of day two at Pine Trail. I had managed to assassinate another day of my life, standing behind a counter selling cigarettes and beer.

 

Running on about five-and-a-half hours of sleep, just like the night before. But I didn’t feel like taking a nap this time. I felt like I had been released. Too many possibilities. It almost seemed sacrilegious to go unconscious now that the shift was finally over. Or maybe it was just that my circadian rhythms were already going screwy.

 

Katie was reading a book on the couch. She looked tanned, rested. She smiled at me.

 

“Another tough day hanging out at the river, huh?” I said.

 

Her smiled straightened a bit. Most would have come back at me hard, found something. She just looked a little hurt.

 

I’m such an asshole.

 

I moved in next to her on the couch. She felt warm. I could tell she had been sunbathing, because her bare brown legs gave off the pleasant aroma that her skin does in the sun. I gave her a long kiss, but she broke it off.

 

“The kids will be getting home on the bus pretty soon.”

 

I kept kissing her neck, enjoying her smell. I thought about talking her into it.

 

We sat there for a moment together. Though the sliding glass doors, we looked out over the Timacaw. I listened as a fishing boat buzz-sawed down the river, out of our sight.

 

“Did you give D.L. Grille’s a call; see if they have any openings?” I asked.

 

D.L. Grille’s was a mid-priced restaurant nearby. It could have been called the Doctor’s Landing Grill, but it was going for the kind of name that ineffably called out to different type of crowd than your average local bar and grill: boomers with money.

 

Katie was not thrilled at the question.

 

“Well, no, I didn’t,” she said. She was taking the question as an accusation. “I mean, I don’t know how long we’re going to be here…”

 

The pit of my stomach registered the swipe at my uncertain career position. I registered the iffy assumption that she would need to think of her job as a permanent one. I wasn’t thinking of mine that way.

 

“Well, however long we are here, it would be, you know, worth it to pick up some extra cash. Tips should be pretty high there.”

 

Katie looked away from me. She stared at the river.

 

“You said you weren’t going to work at this…store for very long. I thought you were going to look for something in Kingsboro,” she said, finally.

 

“I am, but…I…”

 

“There are craft shops down there. You know? Or I could run a kiosk at a mall there, maybe,” she said. “I thought you were gonna get a job down there.”

 

Katie made beautifully intricate costume jewelry. The kind of stuff you see at the better craft fairs. When she had worked at a bank the year before, customers and co-workers were constantly nagging her to make something for them.

 

I gave up. I could see that the situation had not gotten real enough for her yet. I was too tired to bring out the heavy artillery, like credit card statements or a budget. Besides, she was zeroing in on all my Lousy Breadwinner buttons.

 

I stood up. Started walking toward the bedroom.

 

“Well, I’m going to do some searches on the internet. For a job.”

 

I was about to shut the bedroom door. Then I remembered the kids.

 

“Try to keep the kids quiet when they come in. Try to get them to go outside. Beautiful day.”

 

I fired up the laptop. I stared at the meaningless parade of logos and hourglasses as the machine booted up. My eyelids suddenly felt like orange rinds, rubbing across my eyes when they blinked. Nothing like trying to do something productive to summon fatigue.

 

The room was quiet, except for the steam-jet-like sound of the modem connecting. I felt strange sitting there. The surroundings were not triggering the usual familiarity. It was like I was distracted by wallpaper in an unusual setting. Parts of my brain were still in bed.

 

I stared at the screen for a moment. Wondering if I should just take that nap anyway. Then I thought of Katie’s swipe about working in Kingsboro. I started pecking at the keys.

 

Checked my email. Nothing good. One with a question about my website, the short short fiction site.  A request for an affiliate link from some online casino. When I first started doing affiliate links, I let a couple of these outfits squat on my website. Never made shit from them.

 

I noted that, as usual, there were no notification emails from BankBuddy.  No surprise. My little e-book of short short fiction was available for sale. Cheap. People could deposit $2.50 in BankBuddy and download the thing. This probably happened only once every five weeks. But it was often enough to keep me stupidly hopeful every time I checked my email.

 

Suddenly I heard air suck between the bedroom door and its frame. The front door had been opened. A muffled giggle. The kids were home.

 

I sat back from the keyboard for a moment. Might as well wait for it. I knew Katie was going to have to argue with the kids about going outside. Possible yelling, whining.

 

I glanced out the bedroom window. It was still sunny, breezy.

 

Maybe they would go for it.

 

Would have been nice to go outside myself to do the computer work. But I knew the battery would not last long enough. Fucking computer companies made it so that you had to buy a new one every year or so.

 

Muffled voices from the other room interrupted each other. Little bursts of annoyance, conciliation. Then I heard them in the kitchen. They had convinced Katie to let them have a snack.

 

It didn’t sound like they were going out. I steeled myself to go out and do the yelling. But after a few moments the voices quieted again. Soon there was only the low burble from the analog TV speaker. The occasional quack of sibling rivalry, too.

 

I leaned forward to the laptop again. I knew I needed to get started on the job searches, but my hand clicked over to a message board. For me avoiding message boards online was like trying not to listen to the conversation in the booth behind you at a restaurant. Even if it isn’t interesting, you have to tune in just for a second to hear what they are talking about.

 

Besides, I told myself, I was going to the message boards of AltaMent, the club for people with IQs over 150. This was research. Figuring out what really defines intelligence. This supposed gift that supposedly set certain people apart.

 

That, and I enjoyed watching schoolyard spats play out with Jesuit intricacy.

 

I had long ago figured out that many people in these IQ clubs couldn’t get past a big illusion--that scores define what you deserve. Your true social rank, if society were run the way it should be. By and large, these were people who were waiting for everybody to at long last recognize them as the geniuses they were.

 

I had been prey to similar thinking when I was in graduate school. But teaching had helped me discover that I just sucked at some level in terms of likability. I would never be a social operator. And that was as important for social status--if not more so--as smarts. For better or worse.

 

Many of the people in AltaMent just had not discovered such things about themselves. Maybe they never would. But damned if they didn’t spout off some occasional gems. I couldn’t risk missing out on those.

 

I glanced through some of the discussions. An argument that the periodic table is best understood when organized as a mandala. A letter excoriating another discussant for some misquotes.

 

A couple of clicks down, a familiar photograph appeared on the screen. This guy was supposedly at the one-in-million level of intelligence. But he hadn’t managed to upload his picture properly. It elongated his face. Exaggerated his look of disdain toward the photographer.

 

I clicked open his message of the day. As usual, he was in the middle of an extended online slap fight with another member. I skimmed through his lengthy defense of his recent remarks. He argued that calling someone a “pussy” is not necessarily a personal attack. He included a lengthy and technical reinterpretation of the ad hominem fallacy.

 

Suddenly I could see myself hunched at the screen, reading this crap. One of the few people on Earth giving this guy an audience. It was enough to make me exit the site.

 

Alright, goddamn it. Time to see if I can find a REAL job.

 

There were a couple of job board sites I visited regularly. They were slightly better than most. Nothing had panned out in the past two years from looking at them. But somehow that didn’t stop me.

 

I typed in “Writer” and clicked the search button. I knew this was something like expecting to find a legitimate job posting seeking men to service nubile women who want to become pregnant. But I always started with this search anyway.

 

The screen was blank for a moment. Then the lines of text trickled down.

 

Search Results:

 

Displaying results 1-6 of 6.

 

Service writer needed for Boffmont Pontiac

 

Experienced reporter for Kingsboro Times, journalism degree required

 

Quit your day job now!!!

 

Human resources reports software expert, 6 month contract

 

Office manager/report writer for busy cancer clinic

 

Get your real estate license; sell for us in 2 months

 

The usual crap. I didn’t have the journalism degree for the only relevant posting, the reporter job. And a search for dishwasher repair would have returned the “Quit your day job” entry.

 

Time to think of a better search term. Maybe “analyze” would work? I figured that’s what I do best, really. And if a company needed someone to analyze something, maybe they’d let me do it.

 

I typed in “analyze,” and hit the search button.

 

They might let me do it, that is, if my resume could somehow get past the dumbfucks in the Human Resources department.

 

I felt my face get hotter, as I waited for the search to go through. I had sent out hundreds of resumes and cover letters over the past few months, but scored only one or two interviews. I had started to blame HR workers.

 

There was a rationale for this. The vast majority of HR workers had no graduate training. Much less an inkling of the precise analytical thinking that it took to get a graduate degree in logic. And, lacking these thinking skills themselves, they would be ignorant of how portable such skills were among a vast range of job titles. They didn’t understand my qualifications.

 

Then there was my job history. There was an employment gap while I was in graduate school, living on loans. The jobs after that pegged me as a “teacher.” Teachers, according to them, were only qualified to teach.

 

There was this stupid bias out there, that the best choice of applicants was someone who had already been doing the job somewhere else. Yeah? Just ignore the suspicious fact that they were interested in a horizontal move? And just ignore the superior qualities of other applicants who didn’t already happen to have the same job somewhere else?

 

I threw my head back and stared up at the ceiling. Hot breath hissed through my clenched teeth.

 

I pictured myself running through the entrance into some grey office building. Tossing a grenade behind the security desk as I run by. Heading for the Human Resources department. Spraying bullets randomly at the cubicles. Watching the pattern of gray holes dot the burlap, or whatever material it is on those cubicle dividers. The frantic HR workers clawing at each other to escape.

 

Out of the corner of my eye I caught my reflection in the dresser mirror. Hissing in an empty room, like a lizard. Visions of mass murder. Maybe I had finally lost it. I hoped Katie would not walk in the bedroom door just then.

 

Fuck this. Enough with the mind games.

 

I straightened myself up and looked at the screen again. The search was done. I glanced through the list of jobs that supposedly had something to do with “analysis.”

 

Search Results:

 

Displaying results 1-8 of 8

 

Software Analyst

 

Data Administrator

 

Credit Clerk

 

Patient Safety Coordinator

 

Quit your day job now!!!

 

Manager Trainees wanted

 

Project Manager

 

Paralegal

 

 

I sighed looking at the screen. There was the usual tech stuff.  I knew that tech job market was flooded with people who had ten times the computer background I did.

 

Credit clerk. Yeah, deep analysis there.

 

I resisted the urge to click on it just to see how they managed to incorporate the word.

 

Why not a listing for Landscaper, too? “Analyze whether the amount of debris on the driveway calls for the use of leaf blower or broom.”

 

I looked at the job descriptions for a couple of the other white collar gigs. I could tell my resume would surely end up in the shredder bin.

 

The only job title that promising at all was “Manager Trainee.” Same title I supposedly held with Grab-n-Go. I sighed. Clicked open the description.

 

The ad was concise. That was good. There was no resume-style fluff. It described the company rather than just the employee they sought.

 

“Advertising firm with Fortune 500 clients needs people to run our branches in Kingsboro. Background in management, publishing, advertising or education a plus. We will train the right people. Learn the ropes at one of our current locations, analyze potential in untapped areas, and then run your own location. $500-$1000 per week to start. Click here to submit resume.”

 

Advertising?

 

I looked at my reflection in the glass frame on the wall in front of me. My eyes had dark circles under them.

 

Advertising…

 

I was no fan of commercials, I thought, but there was potential for me in the field. My training in linguistics and logic, after all, had led me to think of sentences as little contraptions, tools to accomplish particular tasks. Whether or not I cared about the products, I could see myself crafting just the right sentences to get people interested in them.

 

There was something about this job. I pictured myself setting up my own office somewhere in Kingsboro. Having a house down there. Spending hours strategizing, organizing. Writing clever copy for our ads.

 

The idea of marketing, I thought, was different when you were working for yourself. Not standing behind a counter in a ridiculous green vest. Selling someone else’s stuff. Having no say.

 

I smiled at my attempts to convince myself. After a few minutes of this, I found myself tinkering with my resume. I would need to change a few details. Get it ready to paste into the submission form.

 

I rewrote some of my job descriptions on the resume. I played up some of the marketing aspects of my non-marketing jobs. I played up my forays into online advertising, the links I put on my fiction site. Unpacking boxes of candy at the C-stores became “designed and implemented in-store product displays.” I pushed the academic aspects further down the page.

 

After one last read-through, I hit the submit button.

 

“Your resume was uploaded. We will contact you shortly.”

 

I stared at the words. More advertising. Didn’t mean I would ever hear from them. This contraption was designed to keep me from calling them the next day, or maybe for the next week. It basically said: “Ok, you’ve done your part, now go do something else, please. Let us handle it from here.”

 

I complied. I felt myself hoping something would come of this one. Didn’t want to dwell on it anymore.

 

Sat back in my chair. One resume, emailed. A step toward flushing this turd of a job at Grab-n-Go.


 

Chapter 6

 

 

 

 

My next shift at the Pine Trail Grab-n-Go was on second shift, three to eleven. This was not only a switch from day to night, but also to merely clerking. No assistant manager duties occurred on the second shift. I would be manning the register and doing the nightly clean up.

 

Their reason for the switch was that I needed familiarity with what the evening was like in the stores, how it differed from the mornings. Supposedly this would make me a better manager. Right.

 

It was 2:55 p.m. I stood waiting for Ben, the training manager, to finish up on the PC. I needed to clock in, something we had to do on the ‘puter.

 

I felt well-rested, but the extra sleep and midday clock-in time had been throwing me off all afternoon. I kept having to figure out what day it was.

 

Ben finished his hunting and pecking. He set a rumpled shift report on a pile that looked fit for an incinerator. Then he turned my way, blinked at me through his heavy lens.

 

I stared back at him for a moment. I felt my lips spasm into a question mark.

 

“There was something I was supposed to tell you,” he said. “Lemme see…”

 

I guessed that the District Manager was somehow involved.

 

“Volker?”

 

“Yeah…”

 

What does the micro-managing fuck want now? Did I leave off another nine somewhere?

 

Ben continued to use my face as a mnemonic device for a few more seconds. It was starting to get uncomfortable so I looked out toward the parking lot. A couple of guys with mullet haircuts were chomping on heat-and-eat burritos. I recognized them from the worksite nearby. I tried not to think about what might happen if they used our toilets later.

 

“Well, I reckon it’ll come to me,” said Ben, looking back toward the computer screen.

 

“I’m sure it will. I, ah, need to go ahead and clock in, right?”

 

“Oh. Uhn-kay.”

 

We traded places. Ben, of course, watched my fingers as I typed in my access code, logged on for my shift. I wondered whether there was really nothing better for him to do.

 

I guess I’ll have that kind of free time when I get to be manager.

 

A man was at the register by then, waiting for me. He had his hand on the top of the bottle of orange juice he wanted to buy. I made my past Ben and to the front counter. Steeled myself for at least eight hours in this spot.

 

“Good afternoon, sir,” I said, logging onto the register.

 

“Mm-hmm.”

 

I chuckled lightly as I rang up the juice. He plopped his cash on the counter. I picked it up without telling him the total.

 

“One-twenty-three is your change,” I said. “Thanks, and have good day.”

 

He picked up the juice, turned to leave. Said nothing.

 

“And so it begins,” I mumbled to myself, as the juice buyer ambled out the door.

 

I glanced around the store to see if anymore customers were there. I could tell that sleeping in for the morning had left me ten times more alert than I had been at this job so far. Without the fog of fatigue, the colors in the place seemed brighter. Not more cheerful, though. More lurid, with a film of rural dirt. Gaudy fixtures and displays. The place had the chicken-broth-and-confetti look of fake rubber vomit. I stood there for a few minutes, hypnotized by it all.

 

Ben returned from the back room and stepped behind the counter. He had his street clothes on. Maybe dirt road clothes would better describe them. His toothless slit-mouth was open. He seemed to search for words for a moment.

 

“Billie ought to be coming in at four. She’ll be on ‘til twelve, when third shift comes in. You leave at 11, after you do the shift change.”

 

I feel a rush of blood to my face. The shift change was as arbitrary as all the other administrative duties here. Trying to remember it was Ebbinghausian. Like trying to memorize a random string of 70 numbers.

 

Worse, you had to do it between customers. People came to C-stores for quick service. But with these shift changes they had to stand there for five-to-ten minutes while the cashiers rush around counting dimes and scribbling down lottery numbers. They got pissed off. They glared. They tried to get people fired.

 

“Uh, Ben,” I said. “I have only done a shift change once. And that was with you going through it step by step.”

 

“Billie’ll answer any questions you have,” he said. “She’s been here a long time and…”

 

“Can you ring this up?” drawled a voice from the register.

 

A couple of customers had come in. I ignored the lack of respect. Headed over to do my duty as a live vending machine.

 

As I cashiered, I watched Ben out of the corner of my eye. He poked and prodded in his workspace. He straightened a few stock items. He did not seem to be waiting to talk to me. Instead, he seemed to be delaying leaving.

 

I thought about the times so far I had worked. There were days where I clocked out late. But that was because I was not through learning how to do the bank deposit. Or I was waiting for the second shift person to get there. If I could leave on time, I was out the door. Time to return to life.

 

What is the matter with this guy?

 

I knew I would never take any longer to leave a store than I had to. The choice between life and store was no choice to me. And if managers were supposed to end up like Ben, I knew I could never pass muster. Not that I considered it an option anyway. This was all temporary.

 

Ben finally walked out of the store talking to a customer he knew. They stood in front of the big bay window for a while. Looked like they were trading jokes or laughing about people they knew.

 

I was busy with customers, so I did not catch exactly when he left. I figured it couldn’t have been before 3:45. That was when I noticed that he had disappeared from the bay window. He had nearly put in an eleven hour day. A routine eleven hour day. Sure, lawyers and executives do that--and more--all the time. But this was a fucking convenience store.

 

Noticing that Ben was gone gave me an odd feeling. I realized it was the first time I had been alone at the Pine Trail. Suddenly I was the guy. The dude behind the counter at the corner store. I imagined all these people riding by in their pickups and seeing or picturing me behind the counter. It felt a little too much like being in a display window. I didn’t like it.

 

I also knew I was under-trained. Too much worthless customer service theory on the videos. Too many little machines that could get a paper jam or go blank without notice. What would I do with a line of angry rednecks if the register or lottery machine broke?

 

“Where’s your Crimson Light?”

 

The voice honked from over the racks of over-priced groceries. Couldn’t see the guy. Must’ve been short, I guessed.

 

I was running lottery tickets for a leathery couple in their late fifties. They looked at me expectantly over the machine after the guy yelled from the back. Their yellowed eyes asked “Whatcha gonna do about that?

 

A scowl crossed my face. I wondered why these customers always seemed to side with each other. Here this guy was basically trying to break line in front of them, and these shit-for-brains thought it was amusing to see how I handled it.

 

So much for them, then.

 

I let Beer Boy simmer a second longer, so that I would not appear to be his handmaid. Then I acknowledged him.

 

“Hang on a sec; I’ll check the cooler for more.”

 

“You gonna ring us up?” gurgled the wrinkled male half of this ill-conceived mating, as he flapped his lottery tickets.

 

“Yeah, yeah…”

 

My patience had given. So that was it. They had spotted the trap. If I didn’t make Beer Boy mad, they would get mad, and vice versa. I guessed it beat a usual afternoon of alcohol-fueled dramatics back at the trailer park.

 

But they hadn’t counted on Billie.

 

“Hell-ooo!” Billie chimed, as musically as her smoker’s voice could.

 

I looked up from the register. She was gliding in front of the counter, smiling. She was carrying her green smock, draped over a plastic food container. I smiled and nodded. I knew Mr. Crimson Light would hit her up for his fix.

 

I finished up extra slowly with the leather twins. While I punched in the numbers, I tried to figure out how I could avoid giving them the last word. At the last second I decided to go with the “I’m no longer thinking of you” approach:

 

“ThanksandhaveagoodafternoonHEY BILLIE!”

 

I saw them hesitate before turning to leave. Then I knew that it had worked.

 

“YEAH?” came Billie’s voice from the cooler.

 

“DO WE HAVE ANY MORE CRIMSON LIGHT?”

 

“I’m putting it on the rack now.”

 

And so we got both the leather people and Beer Boy out of our faces.

 

§§§

 

Billie was cool to work with--a Grab-n-Go rarity. She was in her late 40’s and pure Southern rural working class. She was less judgmental and abrasive than most of her peers in the C-store biz.

 

“Hi, how are YEW?” she would say when she first saw you for the day. Her alert smiling eyes put people at ease. Most of the customers knew her. They would ask her for personal details, she would ask them for theirs. Billie was in her niche. She was suited for no job as well as that of cashier in a neighborhood C-store.

 

This was our first full shift alone with each other. She was on register A and I moved to register B. That way Billie could handle most of the scratch off lottery. It was located next to register A. Many of the regular customers were there for scratch games, and would want to talk to Billie anyway.

 

I was happy to oblige. It was tough for me to disguise my disdain for scratch games. They were obviously rigged to lose. I had thrown away a few bucks on it in Missouri. My girlfriend at the time thought it would be fun. About ten dollars later I knew I had been had. Just another way for losers to lose.

 

A guy walked past my register. I leaned back against the rear counter. Watched him walk up to Billie.

 

“Hi Billie.”

 

“Hell-oooo Mr., Bailey! How are YEW?

 

“Good, good. Old man hangin’ in there?”

 

“He’s still doin’ alright. They got him on half time at Container. Back bugs him, but he’s done got used to easing off when he needs to.”

 

“Good, good. Gimme two of them ‘Today’s the Day’ tickets. The two dollar ones. You keepin’ yourself busy?”

 

“Heck yeah. You know me. Here most of the time.”

 

“Ben workin’ ya pretty hard?”

 

“Yep. Keeps me busy. How’s that wife of yours doing?”

 

“Well you know she’s got her bursitis. She don’t get out much as she used to…”

 

I listened as Billie dueted with this scratch jockey. In most cases I would go into a conniption fit having to listen to conversations like the one Billie and Bailey were having. But I liked watching Billie work. Billie let people talk, even let them vent. If people needed to talk, they could talk with her.

 

In between sentences, the guy would take a few swipes with his “lucky” quarter. Little flakes of the latex or non-stick paint—whatever it was that covered the losing numbers—gathered on the lottery display case. Scratch jockeys rarely brushed it off the counter for us. Especially when they lost. Which was most of the time. Bailey was good for at least $30 a day for the store.

 

After Bailey walked out, Billie turned to me.

 

“His wife is in a pretty bad way. He’s a good old guy. He ought to be spending that lottery money on his wife, though. She ain’t too long for this world, if you ask me.”

 

I made one of those tight, no-lip expressions with my mouth and nodded. Billie looked around the empty store, and then glanced at the parking lot.

 

“Hey. You mind if I go out for a smoke?”

 

“No, of course not.”

 

“You smoke?”

 

“No, but I don’t mind. You go ahead.”

 

I had smoked heavily in the past but no more. Kelsie, a girl I lived with in Missouri for a couple of years, was a chimney. She got me smoking by something like osmosis. Pretty soon we were both doing about a pack a day. But a year after I quit Kelsie, I quit smoking too. It had nothing to do with will power and everything to do with a hardcore case of flu in January.

 

Billie must have thought it would be rude to leave me standing in the store alone. She stayed inside to smoke. Lit her cig, then cracked the door and stuck her cigarette hand outside. She looked back at me.

 

“So…you like it here pretty good?”

 

“It’s…okay,” I said. “I’ve done this stuff, this kind of work before.”

 

“Where?”

 

“Up in Missouri. Figured it would be about the same down here.”

 

She nodded. She looked at me openly when I talked. But her eyes showed no evidence of scheming. Not like the people I knew from graduate school. When she asked a question, she was just asking a question.

 

“I’ve, ah…actually…This is just between us…”

 

She nodded.

 

“I’ve been looking for a better paying job for a couple of months,” I continued. “I still am.”

 

Her large eyes were fixed on me. I looked down at the register.

 

“BoxCo has some openings,” she said. “You tried them?”

 

The pain in my stomach went away.

 

“No. I’m looking at, y’know, office stuff. Managerial, bookkeeping, publishing…”

 

She nodded. She leaned toward the crack, took a long pull on the cigarette.

 

“You tried the newspaper? Reportin’?”

 

“Yeah. No dice. No journalism degree.”

 

My eyes glazed over for a moment. I thought about Tommy Rosana, the head editor at the local rag. I had practically begged him for work, even as a stringer for school sports. Never returned my calls or emails.

 

“Hell-oooo!”

 

 Another customer was walking toward Billie outside. She stepped out front and let the door shut. They started gabbing. The store suddenly seemed dead silent. Nothing but the hum of the beer cooler and slush machine.

 

I watched them from behind the counter. It occurred to me that when I worked with Billie, I could stay in the background. Her personality would shield me from the public. It would dispel their default negative attitudes. Maybe they would not notice me at all. I could just ring things up, keep the money straight, brew the coffee. Be efficient.

 

Billie crushed out her cig. She and the customer erupted into the stillness of the store. I figured I’d let her keep the person all to herself. She’d had her break.

 

“Hey Billie, I’m gonna step into the back for a minute or two.”

 

“O-kay!”

 

There was nothing in the back room to do. I just didn’t feel like hearing another “How ya doin’” one-act. I felt like just disappearing for a few minutes. Neither hearing, seeing, nor being seen.

 

The back room was just fine for this. One of those bare cinderblock rooms that you’d see if you ever went to the stock-area restroom in older grocery stores. Mops. Over-sized boxes. Crates. Usually 10 or more degrees cooler.

 

Why do they always stink?

 

I was still pissed from thinking about the newspaper editor. No writing work for me, apparently. Instead it was back to this kind of work. Fading into the wallpaper, like I did in the shit jobs I took during college. At the movie theater. At the coffee store.

 

Here I was again. Now 35. Hiding next to a yellow garbage can on wheels, in the back of a convenience store. Avoiding people. Like none of the years of schooling, the degrees, the teaching--none of it--had ever happened. I was like a roach hanging out behind the refrigerator, waiting for the kitchen light to go out.

 

Maybe this is my lot.

 

I noticed something white next to the mop bucket across the room. I leaned forward, trying to see what it was. A cigarette. A whole one. Someone had dropped it. Probably while changing the mop water.

 

There was only a little dirt on it. I picked it up. Looked it over. I smelled it, breathed in that pungent tobacco smell.

 

I thought about walking out front, taking it to my car. It had been a while since I’d had one.


 

Chapter 7

 

 

 

 

“We have reviewed your skills and experience and we would like to set up an interview.”

 

My heart had started going when I saw the source of the email. I felt some of the pores on my cheeks engorge, like I had taken niacin.

 

“Please give us a call at your earliest convenience.”

 

For a sec—just a sec—I wondered if using the word “convenience” was a dig. I had included Grab-n-Go on my resume.

 

Oh, shut up. It’s just a form letter.

 

“Ask for Angela.”

 

I wondered why they used her first name only. Seemed kind of unprofessional. More like I was calling to make a hair appointment.

 

The doubts kept trying to bubble up. But now I felt something else. I looked away from the computer screen. Outside the window I could see the cursive white shape of a wading bird, across the river.

 

This is it. This is IT! I found a way out!

 

“Hey Katie! C’mere!”

 

I could hear her smooth legs slide across the sofa fabric, then the thump-thump of her approaching heels.

 

“What’s up?” she asked, through a mouthful of apple. She leaned against the doorjamb. Probably expecting me to show her some dumb altered photo from the web.

 

“I scored an interview!

 

Her mouth flopped open. A chunk of apple fell out. She caught it without looking down.

 

“Who with?!”

 

“Oh, ummm…”

 

I had to glance back at the screen. I had scarcely thought about the company since I sent off the resume. Job search books recommended doing all this research on companies. You were supposed to be positive and expect an interview. I had dumped that habit after about my ninth application ended up on a milk carton.

 

“Paladin Ad Solutions,” I said.

 

“Cool! What kinda job?”

 

“Title of the job is Manager Trainee. I’d end up running one of their offices.”

 

“In Kingsboro?”

 

“Ye--I guess so. Yeah. Kingsboro has all those different sectors. Beaches. Pipedale. Northside…”

 

Katie nodded. Her long legs looked especially brown in her pale yellow shorts. She liked to lounge around reading in these short little fucking shorts. Made me want to bend her over the armrest of the sofa every time I looked at her.

 

“Ready to move to the ‘big city?’” I asked her, smiling.

 

“Oh…” Her face slackened. “We have to leave Doctor’s Landing?”

 

“Well, we don’t… we can’t stay in the house boat!”

 

I was somewhat amused. Not sure whether she was serious.

 

“Well I know that...” She looked at her apple.

 

“And…You don’t…I mean, and we wouldn’t be able to afford here. All this…waterfront property here. A-a place on the river--”

 

“The kids like it here. I like it here.”

 

“But Katie, most of the affordable houses around here are shit. Look-look at all those moldy trailers, out behind Raft Ridge. Y’know? And most of the places downtown are like shacks.

 

“C’mon. There are some decent places. You just have to look.”

 

“Listen, let’s…I found a way out of Grab-n-Go, let’s…You’re right! We will look! Let’s look!”

 

“Well, you have to get the job first…”

 

“You’re right! Let’s get the job! Whatever! Get me out of that store!”

 

Katie grinned at me, her teeth gleaming from their apple scrub down.

 

I glanced at the clock. 1:45 p.m. I was due in for the Friday evening shift at Pine Trail. I would need to set up the interview, eat, dress and leave by 2:30. No problem.

 

“Okay…Okay…Well, let me uh, let me give them a call. I’ll see if I can go in for the interview on…what?...Monday.”

 

I glanced at the screen again. I picked up the phone and dialed in the first ten of the eleven numbers. Then I remembered to clear my throat.

 

“Ah-hom! Ah-HOM!

 

Katie gave me a weird look, left the room. I coughed once more. Needed to make sure my voice didn’t sound scratchy, sleepy…weak. Then I poked in the last digit with a flourish.

 

The pit of my stomach started squirming.

 

No! Be confident. ‘I deserve this.’

 

One ring. Two.

 

Yeah? You deserve whatever you GET. Look where you ended up.

 

Three rings.

 

Just shut THE FUCK up and do what you need to do. If not for you, for Katie. You got too lucky finding her. Don’t repeat the Alone Years.

 

“Paladin Ad Solutions. How may I direct your call?”

 

“Hello, Jim Crayson here. May I speak to Angela?”

 

 

§§§

 

Having a job interview scheduled was almost enough to make the Pine Trail store bearable. Almost as good as having turned in my notice. Something to pull me through those eight hours.

 

I walked through the dirty glass door. There was a bit more purpose and confidence to my stride. The place was as overwrought with color and clutter as ever. Signs and logos trying to out-scream each other. But today it looked temporary. It was the waiting room after “next” had been called.

 

It was 2:55. I went ahead and clocked in. I was not going to leap behind the register with five minutes to go, but it was best to use the computer before Ben reappeared to peck at it.

 

I tapped my password onto the keyboard. My peripheral vision was pulled toward the commotion of the clerks already at the registers.

 

“So I’m like WHUT-EVER! You ain’t got I.D., you ain’t getting’ no beer here!

 

I glanced at the source of this bellowing tenor voice. He was about 25, tall with that overgrown body type, like a toddler magnified by five. A live action Fred Flintstone.

 

“I mean I don’t give a flip whether you get your drunk on, buddy. It ain’t my problem.”

 

The young blonde he was talking at giggled. She was hottish, but also looked kinda corn-fed. The type who always made me wonder what hormones they were putting in milk.

 

“Then he wanted to get in my face about it? I mean, un-Uhh! It don’t work like that. I don’t play dat.

 

I started to imagine him not shutting up for eight hours. The shift started to feel a little bit longer.

 

“So he goes: ‘Hey, y’know, I know where to find you, man.’ An’ I was like: ‘Hey anytime, bro’ any-TIME.’”

 

“No you didn’t!”

 

“Yeah, girl! I ain’t scared of these rednecks. Shiiiit.”

 

More giggling.

 

A local worker in his fifties had sauntered to the counter. His visible skin was stained with a gray-black sheen of decades working on engines. He stood there staring at the blonde’s tits.

 

“Good afternoon, sir,” said Flintstone. “Find everything you need today?”

 

“Um-hmm.”

 

“You wanna buy a Super Digits ticket? Jackpot’s up to sixty-two mill.”

 

“Naw.”

 

I rolled my eyes.

 

Guy insults the customers then tries to up sell them. Probably angling for store manager.

 

Ben returned from the training room/office during the beer sale. Finally done with the bank deposit for the day. Ben waited until the transaction ended to speak.

 

“Uhn-kay, Jim, this here’s Jay,” Ben said, pointing to Fred Flintstone. “He’s gonna be here with you ‘til eleven.”

 

“How’s it going,” I said.

 

“Hey Jim,” said Jay. He had leaned back against a chewing tobacco rack. He looked me over, arms folded on his chest.

 

“Uhn-kay. An’ this here’s P.J. This is her first day. She’s new. She’ll be here ‘til six.”

 

“B.J. was it?” Jay said, grinning at her.

 

“Shut-UP!” she said, smiling and slugging him on the shoulder.

 

“Aw’ight, ya’ll,” grumbled Ben. “Simmer down.” He turned and gave me a look over the top of his glasses.

 

“While Jay’s working with P.J., I’m gonna have you put out the supply order. Stores receive the supplies for the week on Fridays.”

 

I looked at the grocery aisles toward which Ben gestured. The aisles had barely enough room for customers. Stacks and stacks of colorful plastic boxes lined the middle of the aisles. These were called “totes.” There were also stacks of cardboard boxes in the aisles, leaning against the coolers, the walls…

 

“Try to get as much of it out as you can. Jay’s been doing some of it.”

 

Yeah, really looks like it.

 

“Ben, can I talk to you outside before you go?” asked Jay.

 

“Oh, uh, uhn-kay.”

 

They headed toward the door. I looked at P.J. She gave me a smile. It was a pleasant, honest smile. She seemed okay.

 

“Well, I guess I’d better start on those groceries,” I said. “At least while Ben is watching.”

 

P.J. giggled.

 

I chose a green tote, felt its heft. Probably weighed over thirty pounds. There were about twenty of the things waiting for me. Then there were the cardboard boxes. This would take a while.

 

As I opened the tote and picked out the merch, I looked toward the big glass front windows. Jay was facing Ben, towering over him. Jay was animated, talking with his hands. I could not tell what he was saying. His facial expressions were not very revealing. He was all voice. The lips simply parted and he blew.

 

Shelving groceries was the usual familiar bullshit. Same as working at stores in Missouri. You always have to remove the older merch from the shelf first. The new stuff is supposed to go behind it. Rotating stock, they call it.

 

People who do the ordering always overestimate how much will sell. They see two cans of chili on the shelf, with room for three more. They order five, thinking the other two will sell before the order arrives. Almost never happens. So you have to “cram and jam” the new stuff. That’s what I called it. Fitting all this crap on the shelves when there is no room for it.

 

The worst thing was the toilet paper and paper towels. The anal-retentives who got management jobs were always over-ordering T.P. And there was never extra room for it. You could cram and jam maybe one extra package. Then you had to figure out in the crowded store where the hell these extra packages were gonna go.

 

Soon the totes had me running all over the store, trying to figure out where things belonged. It occurred to me that if Ben had planned this, maybe he was a good manager after all. I would be forced to gain a good knowledge of where stuff was.

 

After a while, one of the totes had me hanging up cellophane tape dispensers near the register. I noticed that my body was trying to appear straight and trim. My peripheral vision had locked in on P.J. I chuckled at myself.

 

Jay, the fat fuck, was on the phone. Once Ben had left, he had not yet resumed shelving the grocery order. I had been looking at him expectantly while I made like Mercury whisking items all over the store. So far he’d been oblivious, yakking to P.J., yakking to customers. Now he yakked into the phone.

 

P.J. finished up with a customer, looked my way. I looked up and gave her a grin. I had a handful of daytime camera film. I was wearing a borrowed green Grab-n-Go smock I found in the back room. It was an XXL.

 

“You ever worked at one of these stores before?” I asked her.

 

Real smooth. The new co-worker version of “Come here often?”

 

“Yeah. I worked at one in Kingsboro for a while. A Zip Foods.”

 

“Are they a, you know, a pretty good company?”

 

“They’re okay. Most of their stores are newer. Not like this old place.”

 

I nodded. Then I noticed I was putting 200 ISO film on the 400 ISO rack. I started fumbling to correct the mistake.

 

“My dad wanted me to quit at the Kingsboro store, and move back up here near home,” P.J. continued. “The Zip Foods up here was not hiring, though.”

 

“Why’d he want you to quit?”

 

“Said it was too dangerous. My dad’s a deputy sheriff, so he got kind of antsy about something that happened down there.”

 

I nodded. I paused with the film for a moment, looked at her. Waited for her to continue.

 

Ray hung up the phone. He sauntered toward P.J. with that dumb, fat, smug look on his face. Then the serious looks on our faces dawned on him. That kept his mouth shut, for once.

 

“One afternoon this skinhead guy was in the store buying beer,” P.J. began. “A black guy came in the door. Young guy. You know, dreads, baggy pants… They looked at each other. I was thinking, like ‘Oh shit.’”

 

“Naw, both them types are all show,” Jay piped in.

 

Well, that was a short respite.

 

“Well, not this time, I guess” P.J. said. “The skinhead said something to him, not sure what. He turned back to me, y’know, to pay for his beer.”

 

“Prolly called him a nigger,” said Jay.

 

“Yeah. So, the black dude finishes with me, starts walking for the door. Skinhead comes up to the counter. Big grin, you know, like he’d--”

 

“Like he’d scared the nigger off,” Jay said.

 

“Yeah. But while the skinhead is paying, all the sudden I see the n--the black guy coming at him from behind. He’s holding one of them…um… racks where they keep the hats for sale?”

 

“A hat rack?” asked Fred Flintstone, smirking.

 

How do I hate thee?

 

“Yeah, one of them metal hat racks. He whacks the skinhead on the back of the head with it. Cuts the guy’s head open.”

 

“Holy shit!” said Jay. He had a huge, open-mouthed grin.

 

“Exactly, that’s what I was thinkin.’ Didn’t knock him out, though. So the two of them are going at in the store. I’m dialing 911. Nobody else was in the store, so I’m just alone with these guys beating the shit out of each other.”

 

Jay started guffawing. He accompanied it with that slow, deliberate, fucking fake clap people do when they are watching sports on TV.

 

“It seemed like it took forever for the cops to get there. The place was just…wrecked. They knocked over all the, you know, all the racks and shit. They knocked off, like, half the groceries on the shelves. And later on I had to lock down the place and mop up the blood.”

 

“Ho-o-ly shi-i-it,” Jay keened in a high, put-on chuckle. “I wish I coulda seen THAT!

 

I resumed cramming film onto the metal hangers. P.J. was still looking at me. I hoped I had not turned white.

 

Fights had always made me sick. People running to see a fight, smiling, eyes wild with excitement as they surrounded the fighters. It seemed so alien. No, so animal. I would start to panic. Hoping I could get away, not have to see any of it. Not have to smell the blood or see the ruined faces.

 

I tried not to think about being stuck in a store like that, with a fight going on. It had been bad enough seeing those shitkickers bring that gas thief back to the store on my first day.

 

I didn’t feel like talking to P.J. anymore. My body felt limp and slightly achy.

 

I finished stocking the pegboard hangers up front. I headed back to the stack of totes. Jay was yakking again. I looked for some way to shelve out of earshot of him. I noticed a stack of juices and colored liquid treats for kids. They needed refrigerating.

 

The cooler!

 

You had to go into the cooler to stock it. The drinks were stocked from behind, not from the front. The sound of the cooling fans blocked out all the sound from the store. Fairly dark in there, too. Just lit by a single bare bulb. The racks blocked much of the light from outside, so it was hard for anyone to see inside. Nice way to escape.

 

I went in there and worked slowly. The dry cold dug into my clothes and skin. Felt good. Felt like it took away the nausea. Gave me a brisk energy. Like being back up North.

 

This was good stuff. On the clock and in relative solitude. Nothing but the clink of bottles of juice and beer as I shelved them. I smiled and thought about the job interview I had lined up. Couple of days away. It was almost enough to make me feel like I wasn’t working at all.


 

Chapter 8

 

 

 

 

My neck looks too fucking fat.

 

My face looked back at me from the mirror as I adjusted my tie. I was looking puffier from too many tall boys of malt liquor. There was something about selling, stocking and staring at beer all day that had been making me apt to buy it.

 

I look like a monkey.

 

It was the morning of the interview. I had to turn myself into a “Manager Trainee” by 8:30. If I was out the door by then, I’d easily make the 9:30 appointment in Kingsboro.

 

This meant trying to make wearing a tie look good. I craned my neck, trying to keep the skin from sitting like a blob on the collar. Around my eyes the skin was a greyer brown than usual. The swing shift schedules were doing a number on my ability to sleep properly. Even with naps I was managing only about six hours a day.

 

This is hopeless. I just don’t look like a business guy.

 

I noticed that my gaze was open-lidded, intense. I knew this was wrong. The “winners” of the world do not have this demeanor. I remembered flipping through my college yearbook, looking at the pictures of frat guys. They all seemed to do this thing with their eyes. This asshole look. I knew it was the right look for business. Every prick in a suit I’d ever seen had that look.

 

I squared up my shoulders. I tried for the expression in the mirror. I narrowed my eyelids slowly, feeling for the right width. This was one of the most noticeable things about the look, the sort of squinty thing.

 

It looked wrong on me. I was still just an academic in a monkey suit. Only now I was squinting at myself. I scoffed at myself and shook my head.

 

“You’re an idiot,” I said, under my breath.

 

But just then I saw the right look on my face. The asshole look. That was the thought I needed to have. You’re an idiot.

 

I tried it again. I smiled with a slight sneer, nodded at myself in the mirror.

 

“You fucking idiot. You turd-sucking frat dick.”

 

That was it, I decided. I just had to remember to think of everybody else as a pathetic loser all day. If I could somehow keep that up, maybe I wouldn’t remind them of some professor they hated. Instead, I’d be another “righteous” pledge at the kegger.

 

I tried the look again. Swaggered in place.

 

“Oh, that’s where you went to college? Pfft! You gotta be--”

 

“What are you doing?”

 

My guts went down to my shoes. I saw Katie’s expression in the bathroom mirror. I was not sure how long she had been watching me from the dim light of the bedroom. I glanced back at the reflection of my reddening face.

 

“Oh, just messing around,” I said.

 

I did a nervous laugh at first. Then I started chuckling for real at the absurdity of it.

 

She still looked confused. I did not have time to explain. I splashed on a bit of aftershave, running my wet fingers through my hair.

 

In the kitchen I downed a piece of wheat toast with peanut butter on it. I leaned over the sink as I crunched into it. One dollop of peanut butter on my tie would cost me a whole wardrobe change. Bad enough I already had to mix and match jackets and pants, since I had no suit per se.

 

“Fuck…Katie! Do you know where my travel mug is?”

 

“Check the dishwasher.”

 

There it was. Among the dirty dishes. I grabbed it and switched on the hot water. It was the only mug with a lid. I could not risk driving and drinking from an open coffee cup on the way to a job interview.

Katie helped get the door open to leave. My hands were full of stuff—coffee, cover letter, resume, leather-bound folder, cell phone. My mind raced to remember whether I was forgetting anything.

 

I looked at Katie. I wished I could crawl back into bed with her.

 

“Well, this could be it,” I said, smiling. “A real job. No more convenience store.”

 

“Good luck!”

 

I headed for the car.

 

§§§

 

When I finally pulled in at the Paladin offices I was sweating. I had underestimated the morning traffic in Kingsboro. Big city. We had come down a few times for shopping, movies, and such, but never during the morning rush. I was fifteen minutes late for my interview time.

 

I had called “Angela” again en route via cell phone. I lied that I was stuck in accident traffic. I doubted they would check my story. I was given a new time, but I hated the tincture of disapproval I heard in her secretarial voice.

 

The parking lot was packed. Paladin was not the only company in the building. There were various doctors, investigators, CPAs…The usual denizens of the older, less pricey office strips.

 

It was still morning, but the Florida sun was already blasting down. I found a place with a sliver of shade from a bush and pulled in.

 

Inside the office, the waiting area was packed. I introduced myself to the woman at the desk. She handed me a clipboard, and asked me to fill it out.

 

“Just like at the doctor’s office, huh?” I said, surveying the room full of applicants.

 

She gave me a polite scoff, went back to answering phones.

 

While I looked for a seat, I noted that the receptionist’s voice was the same as the one I had heard both times on the phone. The name plate on the desk read “Brie.” In the background, my brain started working on what all this “Angela” business was.

 

One look at the clipboard and my shoulders collapsed in resigned annoyance. It was an application. Why the fuck should I fill out an application when they already had my resume? Plus, I had another copy of the resume with me.

 

So this was another company that worshipped at the file-cabinet altar. Paper work. Busy work. Anything with tiny grids to fill in, lines to sign. The veneer of the official, of legitimacy.

 

I copied verbatim from my resume with the cheap ballpoint. Boring work. Between filling in the boxes, I took quick glances at the other applicants. At 35, I had to be among the oldest there. Most of them looked excruciatingly young.

 

Did the ad say no degree required?

 

Hoping I would not have missed that, I glanced at my printout of the classified. It didn’t mention education. Not all ads do, so it had not put me off. But it explained all the baby fat I could see in the chairs around me.

 

After a long few minutes a door creaked open. All eyes in the waiting area turned.

 

“Clara Mixon?”

 

One of my competitors stood. She was a creamy-skinned redhead in a beige suit. She walked up to the man who’d opened the door. Flashed a world-weary smile. Beautiful.

 

Besides Angela/Brie, the man who called Clara was the only Paladin rep I had so far seen. He was close to my expectations for the experience. He was about my age and looked something like a TV sportscaster with expensive glasses. I straightened myself in my seat. Tried to put on my Frat Dick Face.

 

Hey you! Mister…glasses-over-payer. You suck, idiot face.

 

I froze. As he shook Clara’s hand, the sportscaster guy glanced over her shoulder at me. For a second I wondered if I had been thinking aloud. But he and Clara turned and disappeared into the internal offices of Paladin.

 

That’s right, you four-eyed puss. You’d better run.

 

I looked back down at my clipboard. I tried to keep the smirk. It was hard to read the form while squinting.

 

§§§

 

Five years later Mr. Sportscaster came out again and called my name.

 

“Jim Crayson?”

 

I lurched out of the seat and headed toward him. Frat Dick Face was in place, but I could feel that my left leg had gone to sleep. I was walking toward him like a cat with a wet paw. He tried not to look at my leg.

 

“Nice to meet you,” he said, attempting to crush my hand in his. “I’m Mike Honchak.”

 

“Heya Mike.”

 

We headed back to Mike’s office. He circled his desk and scooped up a sheaf of papers. The conversation began with the inevitable “so.”

 

“Sooo…” said Mike, continuing to peer in silence at the hard copy of my resume for another good thirty seconds.

 

“You’ve done some teaching.”

 

“Yes…” I started. I gave him the run-down of my academic career.

 

“That’s good. We are looking for people who can train and lead a marketing group. Who can motivate people.”

 

I thought back to the waiting area. The competition. Some of the others might have been teachers.

 

Seeming to read my mind, Mike continued.

 

“Some of the people out there are interviewing for other jobs, not part of our marketing group. You’d be one of the ones we’d look at for eventually running an office like this one.”

 

“Okay…” I said.

 

Sensing my uncertainty, Mike set down the resume.

 

“I’m sorry. I haven’t really explained the set-up here. Did anyone else describe what we do here yet?”

 

“No.”

 

“Okay. We have two main lines of ad services that we offer here: Print and online. I see here you have some experience online, doing websites, stuff like that.”

 

I nodded.

 

“So we’d prolly put you in the Web Division. Okay. So we send out our reps to meet with business owners in the area. We score some of the biggest partnerships around.”

 

“Fortune 500, the ad said.”

 

“Right, that’s right. Um…but most businesses are smaller than that, of course. The one’s that really need our services. Businesses that don’t have an online presence these days are gonna get left in the dust, right?”

 

“S-sure. Most likely.”

 

“Right. So we meet with them, we offer them an online package. We offer to get them online, set up a website just for their business. It’s basically…we set up an online billboard for them.”

 

“I see.”

 

One of those junky ad pages that litter the internet.

 

“They pay us for setup, a monthly fee for the online space…nothing to it. Money rolls in. Everybody’s happy. Got me?”

 

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

 

I tried to hold my smirk. It felt blank, like a mask.

 

“Now, at first we start everyone out there meeting clients, marketing the websites to businesses. You know…we need managers to be familiar with the territory, with the product…Basically to improve your understanding of the marketing team you will lead.”

 

“Right, sure.”

 

“So, we do want our guys to be strong marketers. You pull in good numbers out there yourself, the better you’re gonna be at getting your own people to rope in the clients. Yeah?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“So we start you off on commission. You make a percentage off of whatever sales you make.”

 

“On top of a salary?”

 

“No. We do salary only once you run a marketing team. Before that it’s commission only. But don’t worry: our worst guys are pulling in $500 a week. Most make about three times that per week.”

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

“Any other questions about how that works?”

 

Am I in? This is sounding like I’m in. Don’t screw it up with some dumbass question.

 

“I, uh, I don’t think so.”

 

“So, does this sound like something you’d want to do?”

 

“Definitely.”

 

“Cool. Yeah, I think you will fit in well here.” Mike smirked at me. I smirked back.

 

“Soooo. What we’d do today…” Mike shuffled through some sticky notes, apparently looking for a name. “What we’d do today is we’d let you go out on marketing calls with a team leader. He’ll show you how the process works, give you a look at the basic talking points.”

 

“The basic pitch.”

 

“The basic pitch, yeah. You go out with him, meet with potential clients. He shows you the ropes. Maybe you help him drop a couple clients…you get me?”

 

“Yeah, sure. Great.”

 

“He reports back to us. We talk…” Mike made a rolling motion with his forearms. “If everything is copasetic…y’know…we go from there. Right?”

 

“Right.”

 

“Alright,” Mike said.

 

He picked up the phone.  Began dialing an extension.

 

“Hey Ben-ny! Mike, here…s’up man?

 

I looked at the walls of the office. No pictures. It didn’t look very lived-in.

 

“Yeah? Cool…So, hey, you headed out today?”

 

Mike looked at me, tipped his eyebrows.

 

“Yeah? Good, good. Hey, I got a good candidate in here for your team…Yeah…You wanna show him the ropes today?”

 

Mike was staring at me the whole time he was on the phone. I leaned over to brush some dust off my pants. Tried not to show uncertainty on my face.

 

Mike finished up with Ben-ny, hung up the phone.

 

“Let me go over and check the conference room, see if we can get in there. Introduce you guys. Be right back.”

 

So, is this IT? No more C-store?

 

I couldn’t sit still. I started jiggling my legs. I imagined handing my Grab-n-Go vest back to Volker, the District Manager.

 

Mike popped his back in the door.

 

“Okay, Jeff. Let’s go see the man himself.”

 

“Jim.”

 

“Right. Sorry. Long day of interviewing. And it’s only 10 o’clock!”

 

I followed Mike into the conference room. It smelled musty, like an old hotel. I looked at the whiteboards hanging on the walls. They were covered with scrawled numbers and crude maps. Beside them were posters with expressions like “Achieve!” and “Bushido!”

 

“Ben-ny,” said Mike extending his hand. “The man, the myth, the legend.”

 

Benny was young, swarthy. Hair slicked back, gold chain. Looked like he might have seen the inside of a metallic linen suit or two. His face sported a smirk as he shook Mike’s hand. He turned and looked me over.

 

“Benny, this is Jim.”

 

“Good to meet you,” I said, smirking.

 

I glanced over Benny’s shoulder at another smirking guy standing behind him. Mike did not acknowledge the man. He seemed to be observing us.

 

“Jim’s ready to go out and see how you work. Learn from the master.”

 

“Sounds good, sounds good.”

 

Benny kept looking me over. Seemed skeptical.

 

“You gonna show him your stuff?”

 

“Well, I’m not givin’ away all my secrets.”

 

They laughed. I tried to look amused.

 

“Alright Jim, let’s do this, man,” Benny said.

 

Benny picked up his briefcase. I glanced once more at the silent observer. He really had the asshole expression down. Clearly calling me a loser with that face.

 

Mike stayed behind with the observer. I followed Benny out to the parking lot.

 

Well, I guess this IS it, then.


 

Chapter 9

 

 

 

Benny and I walked out of the Paladin Ad Solutions office and stood on the sidewalk. It was hot. Benny took off his suit jacket, slung it over his shoulder.

 

Mike, my interviewer, had given Benny my resume. Benny propped his foot on one of those outside ashtrays with aquarium gravel in it. He perched my resume on his knee and flipped through it.

 

“You taught college classes?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Why did you get out of that area?

Uhhh…Why are we having another interview? Why am I repeating myself?

 

“I worked in business part time, liked it better. Also, you know, I like the money a heck of a lot more.”

 

Benny seemed more skeptical than Mike had been. He furrowed his brow and went back to reading.

 

I tried to determine Benny’s age. He looked young. Not young like some of the kids in the waiting room. But mid-twenties young. Younger than me. I decided this whole re-interview overkill was probably an attempt to establish dominance. Had to put the old guy in his place.

 

“I see you have some web design experience. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about that?”

 

Why don’t you read the fucking resume?

 

I explained my website work for school courses and business. Benny seemed to soften a bit. He nodded and a slight smile appeared.

 

“What type of web publishing software do you use?”

 

I gave him the name.

 

“I do a little web design myself. I do straight coding in HTML, though. I just type it into a text file.”

 

I had to suck up my cynicism and make the appropriate indications of someone who is impressed. It seemed like every other person I had met who had done web design tried to one-up me with the HTML thing. I had better things to do than dick measuring with code nerds.

 

I seemed to have passed whatever test Benny had in mind that he was giving me. He asked me to come along to the car with him.

 

“What is your degree in?”

 

“Logic.”

 

“Logic circuits, electrical engineering?”

 

“No. Logic like reasoning. Proofs, arguments…”

 

Benny got a quizzical look on his face. Walked in silence for a sec.

 

“What kind of job can you get with that?”

 

I gave him the “Don’t I know it” look. It helped me avoid rolling my eyes at the question I had been hearing since I was eighteen.

 

“Pretty much teaching, like I did. You study all this high-flying stuff in graduate school, but you end up teaching the same students you would have if you were a shop teacher.”

 

Benny snorted.

 

“But, you know, logic improves your strategic thinking. That’s useful for business.”

 

“I went for an MBA.”

 

“Ah-ha. Where?”

 

“At the university here. Finished up a couple of years ago. Signed on with Paladin right away. Here’s me.”

 

Benny stopped behind a Ford Escort. It was at least 10 years old. A piece of junk. Dents, rust, broken trim, Bond-O…the whole nine.

 

I stopped still, looked at Benny. I thought he might be trying to pull one on me. But he was standing there clinking through his key ring.

 

You gotta be fucking kidding me.

 

“Hang on,” he said, climbing in. “I’ll have to open your door from the inside. The handle on the passenger side door is broken.”

 

Benny looked out at me through the crack as he opened my door. He was hard to read, but the Frat Dick Face was gone. He peered at me round-eyed, mouth set, eyebrows frowning. I was too incredulous to remember to keep wearing my smirk as I got in.

 

I kicked a couple of fast food cups out of my way in the floorboards. The seatbelt worked, at least. I noticed that I was barely moving, looking shocked. I tried to get settled into the seat, look natural. Give myself time to think.

 

As we pulled into traffic, Benny was making small talk. I tried to process it, but my mind was racing.

 

Tell him to pull over. End this now. This is bullshit.

 

“All right,” Benny said. “We’re movin’ now.”

 

Quitting now would be crazy. So the guy has a shitty car. He’s a couple of years out of school.

 

“We’re gonna hit Sandbar Boulevard today,” said Benny. “Some good leads there.”

 

I knew the area. It ran perpendicular to the Timacaw River. Lots of newer developments, strip malls.

 

“Nice area,” I said. “Where are the meetings set up?”

 

Benny looked at me for a moment. Then he looked back at the road. He drove for a moment without response.

 

“So, did Mike… You understand the training process for managers with Paladin, right?”

 

“What do you…? I think so.”

 

“It’s like…You gotta pay your dues, selling. Everybody starts out doing basic production. Getting out there and marketing. Pulling in the numbers.”

 

I felt my face lose its feeling.

 

“Yeah…?”

 

“You really have to have…you know, vision. You have to be able t-to see past the direct marketing.”

 

 I nodded.

 

Pull him over now. You can get a cab back to your car.

 

“A lot of guys come out here the first day, we get out there, pound the pavement…” Benny said. “All they can see is the, uh…the meetings. With business owners. They say, like, ‘This is just door-to-door sales. I’m out.’”

 

YOU get out. Now!

 

“But, see, Paladin is not looking for guys to just, just do cold marketing. They are looking for people who want to run their own business. The managers, see, like Mike, they work independently. Have their own marketing group. That’s not door-to-door.”

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

My voice sounded like someone was pinching my larynx.

 

“You gotta keep your eye on the prize. You gotta be driven. To...to get out there and earn your own shop.”

 

We drove in silence for several moments. Benny had not turned on the radio. I wondered if it was broken.

 

“So…talk to me.” Benny said, with a touch of an edge.

 

“Hmm?”

 

“What do you think…are you getting into this?”

 

I was supposed to be selling myself more. This was an interview. But I could feel my willingness to play nice dissolving in the acrid heat of the Escort.

 

“Here’s something I…I don’t get…” I began.

 

“Okay…?”

 

“Paladin makes money off of the websites and print ads. The stuff you sell door-to-d--The services your clients…purchase. That’s where a lot of the, most of the revenue comes in, right?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“So wouldn’t it…wouldn’t it make more sense to have people out there selling…who, who are good at selling? People who want to do that, and are, you know, dedicated to that?”

 

“Well…”

 

“I mean, you are essentially saying that the sales are done by people who really want to be managers. Right? People who want to run a marketing group…a sales force, I guess, really. And, and not guys who want be in that sales group. Like you, right?”

 

Benny drove for a few more moments, silent. How far away were these businesses? My turn to break the silence.

 

“Does that make any sense? You see my question?”

 

“No, no, I see what you are saying,” Benny said. The edge in his voice was gone now. He held the steering wheel more loosely.

 

Benny maneuvered the car into a strip mall. He remained quiet as he turned.

 

“I mean, I’m just not…I just not sure that is a sound business plan,” I said.

 

“Uh-huh…”

 

We pulled in among the rows of cars parked at the shopping center. Benny thought. I looked at the shopping center, visually searching for a suite of offices, a headquarters.

 

Then it hit me. We were going to be selling door-to-door at retail stores. Straight, cold, door-to-door soliciting. Fucking flower shops, nail salons.

 

Fortune 500 clients? MEETINGS with business owners? What a load of horse shit!

 

I sat there scowling out the window. Benny cleared his throat. He had figured out his reply to my doubts about Paladin.

 

 “I see what you mean. But see, we get out here and sell because we are motivated.

 

“Yeah, motivated to get out of it. To not be a salesman. I mean…somebody who wants to sell is motivated to sell. They exist. I’ve met ‘em.”

 

“Yeah…”

 

“And if somebody was good at selling, why would you, why pull ‘em out and put ‘em behind a desk?

 

“Well, but…yeah--”

 

“I mean, I’m not trying to…y’know. I don’t wanna be…”

 

Why NOT? You SHOULD tell him to fuck himself.

 

“No, no, I understand--”

 

“You know, I’m just trying to make sense of this.”

 

“Sure, I follow.”

 

Benny paused. He glanced toward a storefront. We were parked nearest a shop called “Heavenly Baskets.”

 

“Well look, let’s go in and talk to these people,” he said. “We can talk more strategy later.”

 

I looked at him. My mouth opened. It was fucking hot outside. It dawned on me that maybe if I played along, maybe he wouldn’t mind taking me back to my car so soon.

 

“I’ve done an initial pitch to them. So this is a follow-up. They have had, like, a couple of days to look at these brochures.”

 

Might as well see what he does. We are miles from the car now.

 

Benny handed me the full color flyers. The graphics looked kind of cheap. Kind of looked like a menu from some run-of-the-mill strip mall restaurant. Maybe they were trying to appeal to their audience.

 

“So, we’re gonna try to close the sale today. C’mon.”

 

Inside the store, we were surrounded by frilly gift baskets with a religious theme. The place looked like a wedding shop. Flowers, lace, lots of white and pink. Enough crosses and angels to kill a guy who merely had longish canine teeth.

 

Benny and I milled around looking out of place in our suits. The manager had spotted us. He took his time ringing up a sale. Then Benny pounced.

 

“Good afternoon. We are with Paladin Ad Solutions. How are you?”

 

“Fine, thanks.”

 

The guy recognized Benny. Nice guy who wanted to be polite. His wheels spun as he formulated a way to get rid of us. I felt like apologizing and running out of the store.

 

“How’s business this afternoon?” Benny asked.

 

“Mmm…Okay. Listen, I, uh--”

 

“Have you given some more thought to how Paladin can help you increase your sales? Did you get a chance to read the literature I left you?”

 

“Yes, I did.”

 

“So, which business website package can we sign you up for today? The Executive, right?”

 

“Actually, I, uh…I already…I have a guy working on a website for us.”

 

Okay, then. End of story. We’ll just be leaving now.

 

“Oh? How many hits does it get per day?”

 

“Well, we, uh…we actually have not gone live with it yet.”

 

“We can have a website up for you by tonight. Plus a minimum guaranteed traffic.”

 

The owner shook his head. Walked back toward the register.

 

“Sorry, guys. No can do. I have already paid to have the site developed.”

 

He was lying, but I didn’t care. His basic message was “Please leave.” I was more than happy to accept that request. Benny wasn’t.

 

“What about hosting? How much are you going to be paying to have the site placed on the intern--?”

 

“I’m-quite-happy-with-that-now-if-you’d-please…gentlemen, really, I have quite a bit of work to do.”

 

I angled for the door.

 

C’MON Benny! Shut the fuck UP!

 

“Here, keep my card,” Benny said. “You really should change your service to Paladin. Give us a call when you get fed up with this other guy.”

 

We walked toward the car. My face was burning. I wanted to shrink into my shoes. I hoped I never saw the shop owner again. I felt like taking a shower.

 

No WAY am I doing this.

 

During graduate school I had spent about four years living alone. No women, little human contact besides family and my closest friends. It was tough sometimes, but it was a cleansing experience. It left me with an acute sense of how I ticked, what I wanted, what I could do. What I would do.

 

Cold-call, door-to-door, direct sales was not it. I could tell I would die during every pitch. Walking to the door would be like walking to the gallows, every day, every hour. A month of this and I would need a head transplant.

 

Benny and I got back in the car. I loosened my tie. I was through with the charade. Time to just start figuring out the best way to get back to my car.

 

Benny kept glancing at me as we drove to the next lead. Looking at my overly relaxed position in the seat.

 

“See, it’s not that hard. I mean, we didn’t make the sale…But people are pretty good about the whole thing.”

 

I wondered how any of these people could make any money. Who would want to buy a website package from some guy off the street?

 

We turned off of the strip mall strip and drove under a canopy of live oaks. I was looking for cabs. Trying to remember whether a bus route ran back toward the Paladin office. We were in a more residential section. The neighborhood was lower-middle class. Looked like it was put up in the late ‘60’s.

 

“There are some businesses tucked back here,” Benny said, maneuvering through the narrow streets and sprinkler sprays.

 

Benny pulled up to a tall structure sided with corrugated steel. Letters hung on the siding that read “CURTIS Smal  Eng ne Repa r”

 

I looked at Benny in disbelief. I chuckled slightly and shook my head. He furrowed his brow.

 

“I found a guy in this neighborhood just last week. He was doing lawns. Took me ten minutes to drop him. Hell, that’s 30 extra bucks a week.”

 

Fortune five-fucking-hundred. Right.

 

I couldn’t resist seeing how this one went. I followed Benny to the building. Place was set up like a garage. Three men filthy from combustion smoke and grease huddled around a riding lawnmower. I stood by the opening of the garage watching Benny try to pitch to them.

 

“Ah whut?”

 

“A website. On the internet.”

 

The guy just stared at Benny. One of the others started to snicker.

 

“An online ad for your business. It lets people know about your serv--”

 

“Naw.”

 

“Lotta potential clients out there with computers, y’know--”

 

“Naw, man…naw, naw.”

 

The three men turned back to the lawnmower, their backs toward us. Benny paused for a second. Then he wisely chose to keep his trap shut and head back to the car.

 

We got in, started driving. Benny was silent again. Expressionless. He pulled back onto Sandbar, the main drag, and headed for the next bank of shopping centers.

 

“Listen, uh…Benny, I think I’m done.”

 

“Hmm?

“This is not for me. We might as well just stop.”

 

“But…You mean take you back now?”

 

I nodded.

 

“But, I need to finish this area. It would take a long time to drive back to Paladin and then back out here.”

 

I frowned.

 

“How long…Maybe I…How long were you planning to be out?” I asked.

 

“Well…we were, I was supposed to be out here all day.”

 

I knew there was no way I was spending the day driving around with this guy for nothing. That would be beyond stupid. I had to think of something else.

 

“Shit…Okay, uh…Okay. You know the public library on Fourth? A few blocks from here?” I asked, pointing.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Just drop me off there. I’ll make my way back to my car.”

 

I knew there would be phones at the library. I could check bus routes on the computers. Cab prices. I could figure something out.

 

We drove in silence for a few minutes. I wondered if Benny was thinking about what he would say to Mike. Mike, or whoever his boss was. They could use this against him. If they were out to fuck him over, this would be ammo.

 

Then I glanced at Benny’s face. He was wearing the smirk, the Frat Dick Face. Probably laughing at the fat, old, piece-of-shit academic loser he got stuck with today. Fine with him. He didn’t need any dead weight along for the ride.

 

Benny pulled up to the library. I got out of the car. It was around noon. The air outside hit me like blast. Before shutting the door, I leaned down, looked in at Benny.

 

“Look, man…Do you really think they plan to set up with your own branch?” I asked.

 

“Why wouldn’t they?”

 

“Well, if you are out here, you know, you are pulling in sales for them...”

 

“Noah…”

 

“No, seriously. Aren’t they just stringing you along? Two years was it? And when they deny you one of their cushy management jobs, you get fed up…what happens? Another manager wannabe takes your place.”

 

“No, no, man. I-I can make this work. The market here is wide open. Plenty of management jobs to go around.”

 

“Al-ri-ight…See ya.”

 

I didn’t watch him drive off. Too hot. I took off my jacket and headed into the library. Time to cool off, figure out how the hell I was gonna get back to my car.


 

Chapter 10

 

 

 

 

It was mid-afternoon and I was behind the counter at the Pine Store. Just clocked in. It was weeks after the promise of a fast track to Grab-n-Go management, but I was still paying dues. Helping fill shifts while the “brass” at Pine Trail took a few days off.

 

I was slightly hung over from too much cheap beer and too much sleep. Knowing today was a second shift day I had gorged on sleep. Didn’t get up until 11:30 a.m.

 

Even if I hadn’t gotten drunk or overslept, it would not have made much difference in my demeanor. After the Paladin debacle, I hated this place even more. This job. This…everything.

 

No decent job leads had emerged since then. I was treading water. No idea was my next move would be.

 

I was at the register, ringing up an orange slush and a candy bar for some pinworm-spreading scion of Pine Trail. Ben was on vacation. Don Volker, the DM, was in Ben’s office/training room, doing…whatever. DM crap. Shelly the Assistant Manager was crouched near me, fiddling with the contents of the safe.

 

All cash and coin at Grab-n-Go stores was supposed to be either in the register or in the timer-locked safe. Most cash was supposed to be in the safe. During their shifts, cashiers were supposed to do “safe drops.” Large bills, from twenties on up, were to be logged and deposited in the safe through a one-way lever contraption. The lever system kept the fine Grab-n-Go staffers from fishing out the cash with something like a coat hanger.

 

Shelly was digging in the safe, collecting the drop envelopes from first shift. I gingerly dropped change into the young customer’s filthy hand. I heard Shelly sigh dramatically.

 

“P.J. is still dropping loose bills in the safe,” she bitched. “You’re supposed to do your drops in the drop envelopes. I don’t have time to be feeling around in here for loose bills.”

 

I was idly paralyzed, fishing for a response. Wondering if I gave enough of a shit about her or the comment to say anything. I decided to change the subject.

 

“Has Volker mentioned anything about when I’ll be working at the Doc’s Landing store?”

 

“How would I know?” Shelly grumbled. “Why don’t you just ask him?”

 

You’d know because you have ears?

 

I gritted my teeth. Shelly was one of those people who just spewed battery acid out of her soul. Nearly every statement was a call-out. Every time her mouth opened you’d find out whether you were the type to just take it, or one who’d bark back. Just a fucking bitch.

 

“Hey Buddy.”

 

I looked up. A local working guy was walking past the counter. Headed for the door. He struck me as a meth-head, in the early stages. Skin pulled tight along the cheekbones, dark circles under the eyes, intense.

 

I gave him a “Yeah?” nod.

 

“You might want to check that men’s room. I kinda messed it up.”

 

He was fast.  Meth-y fast. He was out the door before I could process the situation. Shelly’s sat up so that her head looked puppet-like from across the counter.

 

“What’d he say?” she asked.

 

“Oh, fu--Cover the register a minute. I better check this out.”

 

“I’m…I can’t…I’m doing the first shift count!”

 

“Just let me take a look,” I yelled over my shoulder.

 

I opened the men’s room door. A horrifically familiar, slightly vinegary, stifling stench hit me.

 

Agglllk!

 

I gagged. Not just the kind you do for comic effect around kids. I nearly puked.

 

The guy had had diarrhea. He shit the toilet. Missed the bowl with a lot of it. Sprayed the seat and the forward face of the tank. Probably didn’t quite make it on the sit-down.

 

Shelly looked up as I stormed out of the back room. I felt like kicking something.

 

“The dude shit the toilet! What the fuck?! Wha--Where did he go?”

 

“He did what?”

 

“Where is he? Is that his truck?”

 

I ran toward the door. There was a truck sitting out front, but a guy was getting out of it. I looked around quickly, scanning for Meth Man.

 

Damn it! Fucking fuck it!”

 

I pounded my fist on the metal frame of the glass door. The customer-alert dinger dinged.

 

“Whoa there, slim. Need me to come back at a better time?”

 

I glared at another customer walking toward me from his truck.

 

“Just don’t use the toilet. Last guy sprayed it down with diarrhea.”

 

Guy started cracking up. I gave him a “Gee, thanks” nod.

 

“Man, no!” he said between cackles. “Man, that is cold.”

 

“Actually it is still steamy warm.”

 

“Too much information there, slim. Whew! Just let me get my beer!”

 

I followed him back into the store, scowling. Shelly’s puppet head was looking at me across the counter. Actually, her eyes were a bit deader than those of most puppets.

 

“Jim, I need you to come on back here. Now.”

 

She was always overly nervous about having the safe open.  But it was hardly ever open the same time of day. What were the odds that some customer, finding out it was open, would decide on the spot to rob the place? Maybe in Kingsboro, not in Pine Trail.

 

I stepped around her, stood behind the counter again. I stared across the tops of the shelves, arms crossed on my chest, grinding my teeth. Seeing the Meth Man’s face.

 

Mother FUCK-er! You fucking FUCK-er!

 

“How bad is it?” Shelly asked. She sounded a little too bemused to suit me. She clutched a brown paper sack full of money and checks. She kicked the safe shut.

 

“Well…he shit the toilet!” I said, exasperated. “The fu--y’know, the toilet is sprayed with shit.

 

My cheeks and ears were warm. She turned, started walking around the counter toward the office.

 

“Well, put the out of order sign on the door for right now. I’ve gotta get this deposit done.”

 

My brain raced with outrage, taking in what was going on. Fucking bitch was smirking. Smirking. Why? What was the assumption there? That’s right: that I would be the one to clean it. It happened while both of us were working, so why was it my problem?

 

Because it could be. Because she could make it my problem. She was the Assistant Manager, I was the Trainee. She “had” to do the deposit. I obviously needed the job. And the clincher? The thing that would mean she would not even have to argue with me about it? Volker was here. The big boss man. Backup.

 

And so she smirked. She might as well have shit that toilet herself. Or shit on me.

 

“Yeah…heh, heh, heh…shit the toilet, huh?”

 

The guy from the truck set his beer on the counter.

 

“Yep. Pretty funny, huh?”

 

Suck it, dirt boy.

 

I rang up the beer, not smiling. But I realized this was just making it better for him.

 

“Heh-heh, yeah…Makes you wonder about people, don’t it?”

 

“I guess. That’s $9.62, please.”

 

“Yeah…Guess you got your work cut out for you tonight, huh? Heh-heh.”

 

I made change, gave him a brush-off spiel, and then made like I was straightening stuff under the counter. He grabbed the beer, started heading for the truck. Then he paused, turned.

 

“Hey, brother, don’t let it getcha down, now!”

 

Ah! The smell of blood. He cannot tear himself away.

 

“Um…Okay?” I said, slapping my hands on the counter in a “what more do you want from me” gesture.

 

Just as the guy is leaving Volker emerges from the office. He is smiling too. He bellows across the store at me.

 

“So some guy messed up the toilet?”

 

Fuck ME!

 

“Yeah. Go see for yourself, if you can stand the smell.”

 

“What did he look like?”

 

I described the guy. Volker nodded as he listened. I started thinking he knew the guy, maybe we could track him down. I had forgotten that Volker was just a nodder.

 

“Think you can remember what he looks like?” he asked.

 

“Y-yeah?”

 

“He comes in again, you ask him to leave.”

 

“Uh…Okay…”

 

No shit…

 

“Tell him he has to leave, or you will call the cops,” Volker declared. He said it as if he were making the cleverest declaration he’d made in weeks.

 

He walked toward the back room, where the men’s room was. I heard the door squeak open. Long pause. Then it shut. I heard Volker rummaging around in the back room. I heard the hollow tonk of the mop hitting the plastic yellow mop cart.

 

My heart started to beat faster. I could hear the whine of the industrial sink as Volker filled the mop cart with steaming hot water. It sloshed as he rinsed the mop, wringing it in the mop cart’s squeeze clamp.

 

I decided maybe Don was one of the good ones. One of the people others delight in destroying.

 

The water went off. Volker wheeled it to the doorway leading to the back room. He looked at me, holding the mop handle. He was smirking.

 

“Made you a mop bucket. I’ll watch the counter.”

 

The whole time I mopped it up—when I wasn’t gagging—I pictured holding a gun on Volker and making him eat the scat with a spoon.  Making Meth Man give Volker a rim job while Volker ate his shit with a spoon.

 

§§§

 

Later that night. Still on the second shift. The shit shift. The sun had set and Shelly was long gone. Volker too.

 

Volker the Fucker…Folker?...Fulker? Yeah. Mother Fulker.

 

I looked over at Brenda, in her green vest. She was behind the counter with me. Yammering on the phone.

 

Brenda was the other “Trainee” on the second shift that night. She’d been on the job a couple of weeks. That meant I wouldn’t have to deal with basic “how to” questions. That was the idea, anyway.

 

We were both on until eleven. She was talking on the phone to someone about money.

 

“Well, we’re still staying down at the Pines Motel…Yeah…Um, I think, let’s see…Fi—Six weeks now.”

 

She listened to the guy for a few moments. I could hear a faint Peanuts Adult version of his honking drawl buzzing on the line.

 

The store was in a lull. 9-10 PM. Prime tube-watching time. Every ten or fifteen minutes I would wince. I swore the diarrhea stench had somehow burrowed into my nose. It would go dormant for a while, then suddenly strike.

 

“I know…Ye--…Yeah, well that’s why we’s trying to move out of there. But see…yeah…but see, down at the apartments they want a $400 deposit.”

 

I wondered if she was angling for a loan. I hoped she wouldn’t ask me for any money.

 

“Well, we ain’t got it, though. Mark just found his job this week, and don’t even start ‘til next. I’ve just been here two. So, I told, ‘em, y’know…

 

She put her hand on her hip. Listened for a moment.

 

“Yeah…You’d think they’d want to go ahead and rent the thing to us, ‘stead of leaving it empty.”

 

I looked around to see if the coffee needed brewing. I wasn’t sure I wanted to listen to this anymore.

 

Coffee was okay. I started pouring more of the sandy powder mix into the “cappuccino” machine. The shhhhhh of the powder muffled Brenda’s voice, disguised the meaning. For a few moments anyway.

 

But I’d just be, y’know, it’s just for a week, ‘til I get paid…I mean…Ya’ll know where we live! Heh-heh...Uh-huh…Uh-huh…”

 

Sounded like it was winding down. I moseyed back behind the counter. Stupid move. I realized the mistake as soon as she hung up the phone with an “Ah-ight, then.”

 

Phone clicked down. Brenda’s eyes came up, meeting mine. I was the first and only sounding board to be seen.

 

“Well SHIT!” Brenda hollered, throwing down her cigarettes and lighter. “Don’t that beat…? I don’t know how they expect, how we can get ourselves, y’know, situated. House and feed their own grandchildren. They won’t even give me a loan for a damn week?! For us to get situated in a decent apartment?!”

 

I shook my head in mock disbelief. Let her talk. I knew all I had to do was let her bitch a little, and it would be over soon.

 

I looked Brenda over while she talked. She was solid, wide. Looked shorter than she was. Something like a wrestler. Her fingers were fat and it made her fingernails look more like claws.

 

There was just a trickle of customers as we stood behind the counter. Earning money for standing there was about a third of the job on second shift. It was shaping up to be a slow night.

 

I was never much for chatting. After a while Brenda got tired of hearing her same old stories and comments. She suggested we work on Ben’s list.

 

Ben had left us some “if you get a chance” instructions. There was a store inspection coming up. Company bigwigs and regional management rode around to the various stores in the area. They strutted around with clipboards. Basically lifted their legs and marked territory.

 

For proles like Brenda and me, this meant cleaning, polishing, that kind of shit. Tonight it was dusting the shelves. Picking up all the grocery products and wiping underneath them. Crucial fucking stuff.

 

Brenda wanted the radio on while we worked. Sang or hummed along. When she didn’t know a song, she talked.  We started talking about other employees.

 

“Yeah, Billie is great,” I said.

 

“She’s been here forever, I heard,” said Brenda. “But just as an employee...I mean, just as a clerk? Not even assistant manager? I figure…it’s…There must be something off about her.”

 

“She--no--she mentioned that to me. Back when I first, um, worked with her. When she found out I was training for management. We talked about that. It’s not…”

 

I picked up some cans of cheap chili to put on the floor while I dusted their spot on the shelf. Tried for too many. I almost dropped two of them.

 

“Well, what’d she say about it?”

 

“She said she didn’t want the, uh…responsibility. Said it was too much work. She said Ben was running himself into an early grave for this…place.”

 

Brenda squinted and wrinkled her nose at me. She set three boxes of cat food back on the shelf.

 

“But seven-fifty an hour? Well, that starting, but come on.

 

“Yeah, but ask Billie how much she works a week,” I said

 

 “But it’s still--”

 

“No-no, I mean…She works a lot. Billie said that she gets overtime almost every week. Usually, like, fifty hours. Or more. She said after overtime--that’s what does it--she makes more than new managers.”

 

“Well, SHIT!” said Brenda. “I wouldn’t be a manager either if I could get that deal.”

 

“And she’s been here long enough to…She like trained just about everybody. So, y’know, nobody’s going to…even somebody like Shelly doesn’t ride her. Give her shit.”

 

“Yeah, yeah! I kinda got that feeling.”

 

We polished shelves. Nothing but the click of cans for a few moments. Brenda had the radio tuned to “classic” rock. Some piece of Steve Miller fluff was on, probably for the fiftieth time that week.

 

“You worked with Jay, yet?” she asked me.

 

“You mean Fred Flintstone?” I asked.

 

She leaned over laughing. Kind of overplaying it. She snorted when she laughed.

 

“Dude, that is wrong,” she said, gasping. “He looks exactly like Fred Flin-stone.”

 

“What do you think of him?” I asked.

 

“He’s my bud. We been working together on Sunday’s. Prolly pulled about six shifts with him. We hang.”

 

I shuddered at the thought of the utter abuse of sonic space this must entail. I set some canned peaches back on the shelf. Then I looked at Brenda.

 

“Is he gay?” I asked.

 

It didn’t make much difference to me, one way or another. I’d had plenty of gay co-workers at my college jobs in Atlanta. I just wondered if my gay-dar still worked.

 

“How’d you know?” she asked.

 

I shrugged.

 

“Are you?” she asked

 

“No. I was just wonder--”

 

“Ooooohhhh!” she cooed.

 

I looked up from the scraping off some rust rings. Brenda was looking toward the door. The customer alert bell dinged. Two working men ambled in.

 

“There’s my boy,” she said excitedly, under her breath to me. “Gotta go help ‘im.”

 

She boogied her way behind the counter. One of the men swaggered up to the counter in front of her. The other looked a bit sheepish. He headed for the beer cooler.

 

Brenda looked up at him, her pupils dilated. He was a good foot taller than she.

 

“Wha-chall up to tonight?” she asked.

 

“Warkin.”

 

Brenda giggled. I figured he looked the part of her husband--Mark, did she say his name was? He looked like a bit of a redneck player, taking nothing seriously except beer and weekends. Then I remembered that she’d said on the phone that Mark was not “warkin” until next week.

 

I tried to look like I was counting cans of peas on the shelf in front of me. I noticed that Brenda’s accent was getting thicker when she talked to the guy.

 

“Not gettin’ your tin of honey buns tonight?” Brenda asked.

 

“Naw. Them thangs about had me going up a size in my jeans,” Non-Mark said, smirking.

 

“Shi-ut,” said Brenda. “You ain’t got no fat on you.”

 

She reached across the counter and poked at his stomach. They both laughed. Non-Mark said something guttural that I didn’t catch. His sidekick walked up with the beer. Two sixes settled with two clinks on the counter.

 

 “When you gonna let me ride in your new truck?” asked Brenda.

 

“When you want to, girl?” he asked.

 

I could tell he was playing her. Maybe hoping to keep her on the side. Seemed like he enjoyed letting her pursue him. He was tall, fairly fit. Had all his teeth.  Probably saw himself as out of her dumpy league.

 

“Well, hell. If they’d give us a decent break around here…” said Brenda.

 

She suddenly looked more nervous than flirty. Non-Mark spotted the out in her hesitation. He and his sidekick exchanged smirks.

 

“Well, I reckon we oughta get on outta here, then.” Non-Mark said.

 

Brenda wasn’t quite ready to let him slip away. She rang them up. Yapped the whole time. Then she followed them out to the truck.

 

Across the shelves, I watched the men back out of the parking place. They looked out of the pickup cab, both smirking at Brenda. She was standing on the sidewalk, bathed in the headlights, trying not to look uncomfortable.

 

Aware of herself, she patted her vest for smokes. She lit up, looking across the flame at Non-Mark’s tail-lights leaving the lot. She stood with a hand on her hip, in her best “I was gonna come out here anyway” pose.

 

After working with Billie I had quickly learned to scoop up as many breaks as she did with her smoke breaks—which was a lot. Seemed only fair, even if I didn’t have the excuse of nicotine addiction. So I stepped outside to join Brenda.

 

I walked over to her, leaned back against the big window frame. I folded my arms across my chest. I didn’t say anything. Just gave her a searching glance.

 

She blew a stream of smoke, then shouted “Whooo-weee!”

 

I laughed.

 

“Mmm-mm-mm,” she said. “Brenda, Brenda…”

 

She took another pull on her Light 100. Watched the long stream of smoke she blew out.

 

 “I’m gonna end up fuckin’ that man,” she said.


Chapter 11

 

 

 

 

…Thirty-eight, thirty- nine, forty…

 

“Hey Jee-um!” Knock-knock-knock.

 

Wha…?! Uh…f-forty-two, forrr…, f…God FUCK it!

 

I threw down the unfinished strap of singles I was counting.

 

“Yeah?!” I yelled.

 

“Phone for you. It’s Volker.”

 

Perfect. My nerves were already raw from being up at four for a first shift. Drinking a whole pot of coffee had somehow merely made me more of a zombie. Now Billie was banging on the office door while I was counting money. Great time to talk to Volker.

 

I extended my hand out the doorway. She handed me the cordless.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Jim. Don Volker here.”

 

“Hey, Mr. Volker.”

 

“How are the numbers looking for Pine Trail? You working on the deposit?”

 

“Um…yeah, fine. I mean, uh, yeah, yesterday’s take was like, thirty-one hundred. This morning, first shift, we did…eighteen, maybe? I haven’t finished it yet.”

 

“Good. Not bad. Well, listen: The Riverside store is still in the busy season. People are still out skiing, tubing on the river. They are pulling those kinds of numbers, too.”

 

“Okay…uh, that’s goo--”

 

“Casey over there wants to work at store 58, in Pebbleton. So we’re moving her to 58. Jolene wants to manage store 20.”

 

“Uh-huh,” I said. The names and numbers were not registering, but I waited for the punch line.

 

“So we need you at Doc’s Landing, Riverside. Seems like Ben has plenty of people to cover the shifts now at Pine Trail. No more vacations and what-not. You’ve been there long enough anyway.”

 

I paused. I felt a surge at the thought of getting out of Pine Trail. But I didn’t want to let Volker feel like I owed him.

 

“Well…good. So I’ll be at Riverside as--So, I’ll be an Assistant Manager over there?”

 

“You and Marta will both. Both be AMs there. You met Marta?”

 

“No, I don’t think so…”

 

I thought about a hideous creature I had seen when I picked up an application at the Riverside store. Wizened, short. Radiated darkness from her perch behind the counter. Had one of those über-mullets that went half-way down her back. She glared at me the whole time I was there, as if she suspected me of shoplifting. Actually made me think twice about whether I’d want to work there.

 

I hope that was Casey.

 

“Who’ll be the manager?” I asked.

 

“Well, remember, the AMs there perform the major managerial functions. So there is no full time manager. My job is to, you know, dot any i's and cross any t’s that need to be done.”

 

“So…does, is there--Are there any classes I need to go to before? Or, like, videos…?”

 

“No, no. The stuff you’ve been doing on first shift is what you…that’s your AM training.”

 

“But I haven’t…The grocery orders, stock orders…I haven’t done any of that stuff.”

 

“Marta already knows all that. She does those things. You’ll pick it all up.”

 

“Okay…I mean, it seems like I have just been counting the money over here. Ben and Shelly pretty much--”

 

“No, it’ll be a little bit different, yeah. You’ll get it, though, no problem.”

 

“Okay…So, is that, is there a salary fo--”

 

“Nooo, no, no. AMs are still hourly. You guys are full time, but, you know, the hours are more flexible, when you leave the store you actually leave it…Basically like you are now.”

 

Now THERE’S a selling point. Same shitty job, different job title.

 

“We’ll bump you up to nine,” Volker said.

 

I am not sure how long I was silent. Somehow hearing the number, the wage, made it hit home. In my job search I had figured I needed at least fifteen an hour for us to be able to get out of the house boat, get a place of our own. Instead, I would do half the duties of running a store—a store that pulled in over $3000 a day on weekends—for nine lousy bucks an hour. No benefits.

 

Everything around suddenly looked strange. It seemed like the world outside Ben’s training room/office had dropped away. It was hurtling through empty space with me in it.

 

Where the fuck am I? How did I get in this room?

 

“That work for you...? Jim…?”

 

“Y-- I…Hold on a sec. I dropped something.”

 

I felt like I was swallowing a pitch, being suckered into buying the Extended Warranty. Should I bargain for more money? Would the switch require me to put more thought into the job, have less energy for the job search?

 

For some reason I went through the motions of leaning over in the chair, as if I had actually dropped something. On the straighten-up, it hit me.

 

I’m planning on quitting ANYWAY. I’ll find something better any day now.

 

“Okay…yeah, no, it sounds fine. I mean, thanks for the offer. I’m glad to be getting ou--It’s, ah, good that I’ll be in Doc’s Landing. I live near there, y’know.”

 

“Oh, really? Out by the Landing? Too pricey for my blood. How do you swing that?”

 

“No, it’s…we live in a house boat.”

 

“You own a house boat?”

 

I paused for a moment. I hated letting people at work know anything about my financial details.

 

“No…uh, we…Katie’s family owns it. They are…we rent it from them. While we, uh--”

 

“Oh, oh, I see. Not a bad deal there.”

 

“Yeah…I, uh…yeah.”

 

I just sat there for a moment. Let him know it was time to move along.

 

“So…”  Volker said. “Okay, good. So, you’ll finish up this week’s schedule at Pine Trail. I’ll make up the schedule for next week, with you at Riverside.”

 

We finished up the call. I looked at the plywood room. The money was sitting on the desk in front of me, waiting to be counted. The rest of the afternoon was waiting to be used for more job searches.

 

I glanced at my watch. I’d already been there nine hours and twenty minutes. I took a swig of coffee. Lukewarm. Started counting again, faster.

 

Twenty-seven minutes later, the money was all counted. Six bucks short. I could give a fuck. I knew that wouldn’t raise any complaints. That I could let it slide without double-checking my count.

 

Maybe that’s why you’d be a shitty manager.

 

Yeah. Guess I’ll be condemned to a real job. Poor me.

 

The deposit bag I had to take to the bank was clear plastic, sticky-sealed. It was wrapped around the big brick of strapped cash and checks. If customers didn’t recognize it as thousands of dollars in unmarked bills, it could be mistaken for a big brick of contraband.

 

Either way it made me nervous to walk around with it. Some employees stuffed it in their pants, under their green vests. That was about all the help Grab-n-Go provided for this problem. I’d never heard about a holdup on the way to the bank. Doesn’t mean it never happened.

 

Since my waistline was already sufficiently full, I just stuffed the thing in my armpit. I eased the door open, peered out at the store for customers. An old man was standing in front of Billie at the counter. From behind, he appeared to be furiously masturbating. But I knew he was doing scratch lottery. I recognized him as a regular. No one else around.

 

The door squeaked as I tried to close it quietly. Billie peered over the scratcher’s shoulder at me. I walked quickly through a grocery aisle, along the back wall. I tried to look natural.

 

“Well, Jim, how did the money come out for first shift?” Billie honked with her smoker’s voice.

 

“Just fine,” I said, walking toward the safe behind the counter. “Got it all squared away.”

 

The scratch addict looked up absent-mindedly, but with a relaxed expression. He spotted the money brick under my arm immediately. I nudged the safe door shut with my foot, started reaching down to lock it for the night.

 

“Are you about to leave?” Billie asked.

 

Fuck! Here it comes…

 

“Uh, yeah…I, uh--?”

 

“Would you mind if I took a quick smoke break? It’ll be another couple of hours before P.J. gets here…”

 

“S-sure. Go for it.”

 

I liked Billie. Few people don’t try to make you feel like you are constantly on trial. Billie was not just “friendly” in that artificial way, where you see Eye of Scorn peering out from behind the smile. Where every statement sounds like it just might be sarcastic. Figured I could spare her five extra minutes.

 

Billie was out the front door in seconds. With a fluid flick of her wrist, she made a couple of smokes jump up, protrude from the hole in the top of her pack. She slid out the one that stuck out the farthest. A look of relief already relaxed her wrinkled face.

 

I watched her start to desperately work her lighter in the breeze. I noticed the feel of the bank deposit under my arm. I quickly crouched, swung the safe door open, tossed it inside. With a loud clank, I shut the safe door again.

 

For a moment I tried to decide whether to lock it. It was on a timer. It would take ten minutes to unlock it again. That would keep me here longer.

 

I noticed the scratch man looking at me. A faint smile was on his lips, almost like he knew my dilemma. I looked back at the safe, twisted the lock closed with a squeak. I stood up, and glanced out toward Billie.

 

“Can I get another one of these Penny Papas?” asked the scratch addict.

 

He tapped an ugly yellow claw on the glass. Like I didn’t know where they were located.

 

“One of those, and a $2 Ultra Cash.”

 

I tore off the cards, handed them over. He tossed three bucks on the counter. Into a black hole. These cheap cards were made for morons. All of the scratch lottery games were a rip-off, but the cheap ones were a complete waste of money. People would proudly bring back an occasional “winner” for a couple of bucks or, more often, a free one-dollar card. Total rip-off.

 

Through the window I saw the profile of another old timer, ambling toward the door. One I recognized. He held his upper body stiff was he walked. When you couldn’t see his legs it looked like he was gliding on a skateboard or something. Like a ghost floating along. He was always bitching about something. I hoped Billie would finish smoking before he got to the counter.

 

“Ha! Got a free one!” said the scratch addict. He flipped the card toward me.

 

“Today’s your lucky day,” I said flatly.

 

I took the card to the lottery machine. I looked at the Ghost as he glared at me across a chewing gum display. Even with the dollar cards, we had to go through this red tape process of scanning the barcode on the back, entering a code, and waiting for the machine to register it.

 

“I’ll take another Penny Papa, another Ultra Ca--”

 

“Hold on a sec. Gotta run this, uh, winner through the machine.”

 

“You know, Billie is a very patient cashier. She keeps all my winners ‘til the end, then runs ‘em through,” he said, sounding petulant.

 

“Well, Billie’ll be back any minute now.”

 

“Hey…” croaked a voice from the back of the store. I was not sure whether it was just a comment. I kept trying to scan the dollar card.

 

“HEY! YOU!” said the voice again, yelling this time.

 

The lottery machine booped again, not recognizing the winning card. I wheeled around.

 

“Yes sir, how can I he--”

 

“This coffee is not hot! Who brewed this goddamn cof--? THIS COFFEE IS COLD!”

 

“Alright, let m--“

 

“This coffee is cold! Who brewed this coffee? How long has this coffee pot been sitting here?”

 

I glanced out at Billie. She was still in nicotinic peace. Her poisonous happy place. Firmly out of earshot of all this.

 

“I’ll jus--I…Hang on just a sec,” I said, glancing at the scratch addict.

 

“Did you leave this coffee on this cold burner?! This burner is not even turned on! This coffee is cold! What kind of…”

 

His upper lip quivered. The bottom one was fat and slightly purple. What caused that, poor circulation?

 

“Sir, Billie will be right in, let me fini--”

 

“Well, what is she doing outside?! Does she work here or--”

 

“Sir!  Let me just finish with this gentleman, then either I or Bi--”

 

“Shit!” he hissed.

 

He took off his trucker cap, tossed on the counter next to the coffee pots.

 

You fucking walking corpse. I’d like to slash your head open with--

 

“I’d like to get another Penny Papa, another Ultra Cash, and two, no three…what does that leave me?”

 

Scratch addict was leaning toward me slightly. Digging in and asserting his priority in the customer food chain of the moment.

 

I let him hang a moment, the lottery junkie. For effect. Also to allow time for my mental image of choking him to death to complete itself.

 

“You have one free dollar card,” I said, nearly growling.

 

“Okay, I’ll take a Penny Papa. No…two Penny Papas…”

 

I kept trying the “winning” card on the machine. I glanced at Billie outside. She was doing that deep drag thing, bending over, where a smoker intends to drop the cigarette, but can’t bring herself to do it. Has to get that one last drag, no, just oooone more…

 

Fuck! I should have already set the safe to reopen. Ten more MINUTES of this?!

 

Billie swung the door open, smiling. Recharged and ready. But her face slackened a bit when she saw my desperate look. I frantically nodded my head in the direction of the coffee service area.

 

“BILLIE!” croaked the Ghost. “Can’t you see this coffee is cold!? Who brewed this goddamn--COUGH-COUGH-COUGH!!

 

“Now, Mr. Winslow,” Billie cooed, “Don’t get yourself all worked up. You know that ain’t good for you...”

 

Billie went to work on the Ghost. I stood at the lottery machine, scanning and rescanning the winner. Finally the machine accepted the card. I tore off the new cards the scratch addict wanted, slapped them down on the counter. He started scratching, glancing up now and then at the backwoods psychotherapy session going on near the coffee pots.

 

Twisting the double keys, I set the safe to release. Ten minutes and counting. I just needed to stay away from the fucking public for ten more minutes.

 

“Hey Billie,” I shouted, “I’ll do the trash for you.”

 

Custodial work. Perfect. She never wanted to do it. Always begged me to, during second shift.

 

Hey, and you can add that to the “Skills” section on your resume.

 

I gathered the bags from the various spots inside the store. I made sure to avoid the Ghost. I saved the trash can by the coffee pots for last. Didn’t want to give him another verbal shot at me.

 

All the bags went into the big yellow canister. The one with wheels. The canister would cart them to the big dumpster on the side of the store. I steered it out the front door.

 

Assistant manager. The big “promotion” at last.

 

I wondered what Katie would say. It would probably just remind her that I was supposed to be getting a better job. Especially when I told her how much the “raise” was.

 

The stench of the dumpster hit me. It seemed worse in the heat. I wanted to fuck around outside, wait for the safe to open. But the smell was almost too much. I tried to wheel the canister upwind of the dumpster.

 

I stood there for moment. A few cars blew by on the highway out front. I wondered whether I should give up on Kingsboro. It had seemed hopeless lately. Maybe I could at least find a better retail company locally. Start the management track there. Back on the bottom rung.

 

Something buzzed on my leg. I jumped away from the canister. It felt like some huge fucking bee. Or maybe a rodent. Then I remembered I had my cell phone on vibrate. I looked out at the road to see if anyone had seen me jump.

 

I pulled the phone out, glanced at the display. Unknown caller, it read. It displayed a number from the 213 area code.

 

213…? Los Angeles? Fuck, this is probably a telemarketer.

 

“Hello?”

 

“May I speak to Jim Crayson, please?”

 

“Go ahead.”

 

“Hi, this is Craig Fillbeck in Los Angeles. I’m one of the producers for Quiz Slam. We talked to you earlier this year.”

 

Sweet Buddha’s Bunghole.

 

Oh…H-Hi.”

 

The soup of memory chemicals in my head was roiling. Quiz Slam, the TV game show. I had tried out for it seven months prior. Aced their general knowledge test, did well in the test taping. But time had gone by with no call-back. Then there was the move…I had completely given up on them.

 

“Well, we were very impressed with your audition. We wanted to find out if you were still interested competing on Quiz Slam.”

 

My mouth dropped open, my eyes were huge. I slapped a hand loudly on my forehead, holding it there. Felt like my skin would slide off, otherwise.

 

“Oh my G--Are you ser--Yes, yes, abso-lutely I’m still interested.”

 

“Great! Okay then…”

 

Fillbeck started going into some standard information, some routine questions. I listened and responded, but my brain was exploding. I was grinning wildly, kind of flailing around as I listened. I watched a truck pulling into the lot. The driver stared at me.

 

Seven months ago seemed like two years ago. Everything had changed since I had even thought about appearing on national television. We had given up on Missouri and moved. It was total luck that I had decided to keep the same cell phone. They’d have never been able to contact me otherwise.

 

I suddenly remembered my book proposal. This was huge. HUGE. Clytemnestra Press was just sitting on my proposal to make an edited collection of short short fiction. To them, maybe, I had just been some nobody at a tiny mid-west college. Not even in an English department. But if could get my face on the tube, the public’s reality maker…It was just undeniable. A no brainer. They would have to publish the book.

 

This is IT! This is IT!

 

With the phone still in hand, I threw head back while I listened to Fillbeck. I clenched my fist and held it out to the side. I didn’t care if the guy in the truck was staring at me.

 

“Are you somewhere where you can receive a fax?” Fillbeck asked. “We need to send you some information to fill out. We need to go over the standard agreement.”

 

My head came back down to the horizontal. I looked around frantically. Did the store have a fax machine?

 

“I’m actually…Uh, no, I’m going to need to…um…I’m at a store. I need to get the number for a fax place. A-a place that has a fax machine.”

 

“Okay. Call us back as soon as possible with that number.”

 

“Uh…okay. W-wait…wait…let me--”

 

The phone suddenly seemed like a tiny spider’s fiber that stretched from me to California. The number was displayed, but I could not trust it as my lifeline. Too easy for something to go wrong. The battery would fail, the circuit chip would fail…What were the odds I could track down a public number to a television studio and get them to connect me to one of their many producers.

 

“Should I give you a direct line to call me here?”

 

YES! Yes…let me…” I fumbled with my pen and a receipt carbon. “Okay, go ahead.”

 

He gave me the number. My hand was shaking as I wrote it.

 

We hung up and I couldn’t help myself. I thrust my arms out and up in victory chops, wanting to yell, wanting to laugh from my gut. Months of fear, doubt, anger, self-loathing, and such got painted over quickly inside of me.

 

I looked around quickly. The guy in the truck was grinning. I gave him a wave. I started pushing the big yellow trash can back toward the store.

 

I hoped the safe was unlocked. I had to get out of there. Find an office supply store, some place with a fax machine. That, and somehow get the deposit to the bank.


Chapter 12

 

 

 

 

I rushed through the door at the house boat. The twins were parked in front of the TV. The rollicking soundtrack of a “Tom and Jerry” blared from the speakers. It was the episode built around music that sounded like Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” I loudly scatted along with the familiar melody. The kids turned to look at me, grinning.

 

Katie peered around the corner from the kitchen. She Spocked her eyebrow at me. I held the fax from Quiz Slam above my head with both hands. I flapped it in the air.

 

“You’ll never guess. Never.

 

Her face softened into a quizzical smile. “Wha-at…?”

 

I leapt in front of her, thrust the pages in her face. She winced, but I watched her eyes start to click over the text like a metronome. Her expression started to go blank. The fax was mostly in legalese. She wasn’t getting it.

 

“I MADE it! Quiz Slam! They want me to be on the show!”

 

“Shut up!”

 

“That audition was back in January, in Missouri! I mean…I had given up on the whole thing, y’know?”

 

Katie’s face was in disbelief. Then she jumped toward me, grabbed me around the neck.

 

“What is it?” yelled Jillie over the cartoon music.

 

“Hey, turn that down a minute,” Katie yelled toward them. Tim reached for the volume button, clicking it several times quickly. They sat still, stared at us like a couple of meerkats.

 

“Jimsy’s gonna be on TV! He made it onto Quiz Slam!”

 

When we had first started dating, the twins spent weekends with their father. As we started living together, Katie tacitly faced the problem of what to have them call me. This diminutive version of my name, Jimsy, was her solution. I tried not to gag whenever I heard it.

 

Jillie’s mouth dropped open in. Tim squealed and started flailing on the sofa cushions near the television.

 

“Are they coming here to film it, to the house boat?” asked Jillie. “Are we gonna have enough room?”

 

I laughed, looking at Katie.

 

“No. I’ll be going out to L.A. That’s in California.”

 

“Oo, Oo,” said Tim, sitting up from his supine flailing. “C’n I go? I wanna go there, I wanna go to California.”

 

“No, I can’t take anybody with me,” I answered. “Besides, it’s only for a couple of days, and I’ll just be at the studio.”

 

“But we wanna goooo…” whined Jillie. “We wanna see the studio. We’ll be good.”

 

“Quiz Slam is paying for the tickets,” I explained. “They are only sending one for me…But c’mon guys…you’ll get to see me on TV!”

 

Tim was now backed against the foot of the sofa. He sat in his patented “I’m angry” position. His arms were crossed over his chest. His head was thrust forward and downward. His face was a scowling mask. Katie told me that Tim’s father often used that position, even as an adult. “That’s his dad,” she would say, when Tim assumed the posture.

 

Jillie did a quick assessment, and saw the opportunity to be the Good Twin. She ran to me and embraced my thighs.

 

“Yay!” she shouted. “Jimsy’s gonna be on TV!”

 

Katie took the bait and went after Tim.

 

“Tim! Quit that sulking! Jimsy told you that the show can only fly him out to L.A.

 

“I wanna GO!” Tim snapped.

 

“Oh, he’ll get over it. Tim, I’m sure we’ll be able to go out to visit California sometime.”

 

I pulled Katie toward me. I held her for a moment, her eyes close to mine.

 

“I mean this…this could…who knows what this could turn into.”

 

Katie nodded. She still grinned, but the expression seemed to be merely draped across the bones of her face.

 

“The book deal! Just think about that! Those sons of…those…people--the publishers--have had my proposal for…what…nearly a year now. Right?”

 

She nodded.

 

“How can they just let someone…I mean, these fu--these editors…just, just let someone sit and wonder for…take a year out of their lives…”

 

I shook my head for a moment. Then I felt it again. The feeling of a reprieve.

 

“But this! Jus--They just can’t deny the-the…exposure! I mean, they can’t say ‘Oh, we’re not gonna be able to sell this book.’ TV! How many books do you ever see on TV?”

 

“Well…” Katie started. “…those morning news shows have books…people come on, pitching their books.”

 

“Exactly! That’s where the publishers go, you know, when they want to sell a book. They send the authors out to be on these, these stupid A.M. talk shows. TV!”

 

“But…Quiz Slam, that’s n--I’m mean, it’s not like a talk show--”

 

“Of course! It’s not…I-I’m not saying it is the perf--They talk to the contestants, though.  They announce them, ask them what they do…The point is, I get to mention the book on TV. Hardly anybody gets a shot like…This…this is…”

 

Jillie looked up at me. Gap-toothed, she was throwing me her best school picture grin.

 

“I better get rolling with this. I need to…I need to fill out this agreement, get it signed. I have to fax it back to them.”

 

I extracted my legs from Jillie’s grip. I looked at Katie, flapped the pages at her.

 

“I have to be smart about this. I need to…y’know…think…get it right. Strategy…Strategize…I need to make sure…”

 

She smiled again. “I know, I know…This is so awesome…And you don’t have anything to worry about.”

 

“Okay, bu--Okay. Okay. I’m getting cracking...I mean, I’m gonna get cracking. You know what I mean.”

 

I shut the bedroom door. I plopped onto the foot of the bed. The relief in my legs reminded me of how long I had been on my feet that morning. I stared at the bedroom door, enjoying the lack of motion and sound around me. Then I began to hear the clipped murmurs of argument. Katie was not letting Tim continue his sulking routine. At least I couldn’t hear Tom and Jerry.

 

I thought back to the audition, when I had made the initial cut. There had been hundreds of people there. You could say that practically nobody had made it. The odds then were just…

 

I remembered thinking then that it was surreal that I was there, trying out for quiz show. I had only been into quiz shows for a couple of years. Before grad school, I had never watched them. Always seemed dull.

 

Something about having two years of serious thinking and writing under my belt changed that. I had started to want to know everything. To actually realize how little I had learned from high school. It began to seem as if I cared whether I knew, say, what the battlefield in Henry V was called.

 

I had also noticed that the ability to retrieve the answers quickly seemed to be like a muscle. The more I forced myself to answer in the allotted time, the faster I became. It seemed obvious to me that this was a good skill for a grad student and future professor.

 

Quiz shows, then, took on a greater significance. I began to think of them as part of an ideal system for thinking. To most they seemed like bits of fluff, a way to show off in bars. I took them seriously. The possibility of getting on a quiz show stayed in the back of my mind. Winning a ton of money, becoming able to support writing and research without teaching…

 

I chuckled as I thought back, seeing myself staring intently at the TV screen. I spent a lot of time alone in those days. It’s the kind of thing takes on significance during four years of celibacy.

 

A lurid green caught my eye. I glanced down at the vest in my lap. I was still carrying my Grab-n-Go smock. No more academic career to fall back on. The stakes had changed. This wasn’t just about retiring early anymore.

 

I got up from the bed, walked over to the “desk.” Actually, it was a wicker chest of drawers with a flat wooden top. We did not have room for a desk. I used it as my workspace, sitting with my legs jammed against the drawers.

 

I spread the fax from Fillbeck on the desk. I spent a good 20 minutes poring over the pages, making sure I signed everything, read everything.

 

After the last signature, I pushed the papers forward. California was three hours behind us, so I had a good two hours’ buffer for faxing the paperwork to Quiz Slam. I needed to think clearly, start figuring out exactly how I could exploit this. Such potential on so many fronts. Might as well think of it like a new job.

 

From the ink jet printer I grabbed a fresh sheet of paper. Across the top of it I wrote “Quiz Slam: pre-departure plan,” and drew a line under it. I knew I needed to make a list. With the constant flood of ideas I had going through my head, there was no way I would be able to remember them all. Much less schedule all the preparation I would need.

 

For about 20 minutes I alternated between staring at the wall in front of me, and scribbling on this piece of printer paper. Then I picked up the piece of paper, re-read through all the bullets:

 

  • Call Clytemnestra Press:  tell them about Quiz Slam appearance

 

  • Study materials: Almanac, online encyclopedias, Celeb Magazine’s yearbook, watch at least 3 quiz shows per day???

 

  • Make up business cards with my name and website address (or book title?!) to hand out in Cali

 

  • Make up T-shirt with website logo and address. Wear on show--- at least around hotel, studio

 

  • Write more stories for website     Upload older unpub’d stories

 

  • Write out talking points for contestant chat on show (jokes, snappy comebacks, etc.)

 

  • Notify local media—interviews? “Local man” story angle?

 

  • Query mags about writing a “What’s it like to get on a Quiz Show” piece

 

  • High-protein diet--camera adds 20.

 

  • Start taking B-vitamins, Lecithin, Huperzine regularly

 

That was enough for the time being. I had satisfied my desire to get something in writing. To feel like I had a plan, a schedule. I decided I’d better get that fax off.

 

I was about set down my list when it struck me.

 

Fuck.

 

Grab-n-Go. I needed to call and ask them if I could have the time off. I would need three days cleared up. That shouldn’t have been a problem, since I usually only worked three or four in a row. But Don Volker had called me about switching to the new store. I was not sure what my usual days would be, the number of days per week, what my hours would be…

 

I sat back with a smile. I propped my hands behind my head, interlacing my fingers. I realized I didn’t much care whether they let me off. This really was it. I had an out, finally. I let that feeling wash over me.

 

Suck it, Volker.

 

I put my feet on the desk. I looked at the toe of my sneaker. The leather part was starting to separate from the rubber sole.

 

‘Course, this show isn’t really a JOB…

 

It hit me that I probably shouldn’t quit Grab-n-Go unless they forced me to. This TV exposure was a gigantic coupon for the future. But I probably needed to hang onto the Grab-n-Go gig. Play it safe. A quiz show appearance, even if I won, might not buy groceries for months.

 

I moved my legs down, let the chair whack back to the floor. I looked at the phone.

 

Volker.

 

I didn’t want to make the call. One of the best days of my life, and I had to think about this fucking store, this fucking shit job.

 

I snatched up the phone, whacked out Volker’s digits.

 

“Boop-boop-beep…We’re sorry…This number cannot be completed as d--”

 

I clicked off the phone. I had botched the entry. I tried again, with less abandon. The phone rang.

 

“Don Volker here.”

 

“Hey Don. This is Jim. Crayson.”

 

“Jim. My new Riverside man. What can I do ya for?

 

“I, ah…What kind of schedule am I gonna have over there? I haven’t…at the Pine Trail store, you know, there’s not a real…I’ve been doing whatever shifts he needed…Ben.”

 

“Right, right. No, at Pine--at Riverside…out here, you’re gonna be on a more regular schedule. You and Marta will be switching off, working days and nights.”

 

“Uh-huh. So like…”

 

“Probably two days, three nights on some weeks, then opposite on other weeks. Three, two.”

 

“Weekends?”

 

“Of course. Prolly alternate those, too.”

 

“Okay…So, do you…is next week already set in stone?”

 

“Well, not…I mean, I just checked with Marta about the switchover, but, ah, the shifts don’t have…there are shifts that need to be filled. Once you are an assistant, it’s, you know…

 

“Listen. If there is any way…Let me explain...I, ah, I have this once-in-a-lifetime thing…this…you ever heard of, you ever see Quiz Slam?”

 

“Qu…Quizlam?”

 

I rolled my eyes.

 

“Quiz. Slam. On TV. It’s on around here at abou--”

 

“Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, right, right. I think I… is that were they have, like, the tag team…like the wrestling-looking--?”

 

“Yeah, that’s it. The quiz show.”

 

“Okay, yeah…What about it?”

 

“Well…I’m, I’m gonna be on there. On the show--”

 

Really?”

 

“Yeah! They called me today, after work. I auditioned waaay back in January, and--”

 

“That’s awesome.

 

Volker was a Boomer. The religion of The Tube had obviously infected his childhood home. I could hear awe of the medium infect his voice. His baritone had lost its lower partials, gotten breathier.

 

“I know. So--”

 

“What did you do? Did you fly out to…where? To Hollywood?”

 

“To try out? No. It was in…it was up where I was, back in Missouri.”

 

“Well, hell, why don’t they ever come here?!”

 

“Yeah, you’d think they’d do auditions here…er, in Kingsboro, anyway. Never did, huh?”

 

“Not that I know of. Sounds like fun. I prolly woulda tried it.”

 

“Hmm…”

 

This conversation was weird. Don and I had never discussed much of anything. All shop talk. I supposed this was a side he had chosen to keep hidden from his employees. Slightly more human, more enthusiastic. Not very corporate.

 

“So, would that be okay? The time o--Not putting me on the schedule for next, um…Wednesday through Friday?”

 

“Sure, yeah…I can swing something. Switch some people around. Should be no problem.”

 

“Great. Yeah, this is…really, um…This is something I’ve...I really appreciate that, ‘cause this chance is, like, beyond…

 

“It’s a big deal, man.”

 

“Right…So, you know, thanks.”

 

“Well, hey…Don’t forget us little people, if you go out there and win the big bucks!”

 

Wince.

 

“Ha-ha-ha! You got it Don…And hey, y’know…Thanks again, bud.”

 

Ugh. I disgust myself.

 

I set the phone down, looked at my favorite blank spot on the wall again. The call had gone much more easily than I had expected. And no need to quit. No big blowout on the phone, no having to hang up on some cheesy lecture on responsibility.

 

Leaning back in the chair, I interlaced my fingers behind my head again. I actually had an escape hatch, here. If I won, I’d quit, of course. If I did not win, I could string the store along until the national exposure bore fruit.

 

Yeah! Meantime, I just have to avoid getting shot by some crack head robbing the place.

 

With that thought, I thumped the chair back to the floor. Time to head out and fax my contract to Quiz Slam.

 


 

Chapter 13

 

 

 

I rubbed my index finger along the edge of the business card.

 

Clytemnestra Press

New York, NY

 

Jack Borden

Acquisitions editor

 

I had stared at that name for…probably hours if you added it all up. Every time I looked at it, I recalled pounding out that damned book proposal.

 

It had taken days to put it together. Detailed plan for the entire book, chapter by chapter. Sample chapters. Description of my ideas for promoting it—they wanted you to do all the marketing work for them, too. Over 50 fucking pages.

 

Borden had requested the proposal on the basis of a letter I sent him, describing my idea for the book. It seemed to fit right in with their catalog. Seemed like a no-brainer to me. He had mailed back my letter, with a hastily scrawled note across the top, like a little poem:

 

“Interesting/Send me a proposal/Jack L Borden.”

 

After I had sent it, two months went by. Nothing.

 

I sent a letter to ask if he had any questions about the proposal, or needed any additional information. Nothing.

 

Month after month. Meanwhile, I quit teaching at the college, still thinking that surely I’d be able to fit into some niche in the writing world. That’s where most grad students ended up, after all, right? And, after all, I had managed to draw the initial interest of a publisher.

 

By the time we moved to Doctor’s Landing, I had pretty much given up on Borden and Clytemnestra. Too much time had gone by. Close to a year. I figured decisions could be made faster than that. Those autobios puked out by ghost writers for people having their 15 minutes of fame—those sure as hell got quicker decisions than what I was getting.

 

But now I had the Quiz Slam news. Something that could make a difference…

 

So, here I was, the day before my trip to Los Angeles and an appearance on national TV, looking at Borden’s name again. I’d had to dig it out of a box. They hadn’t sent me the official “No” letter yet. Figured I might as well take a shot.

 

They’d be STUPID not to. I mean, this is on a PLATTER.

 

I cleared my throat a couple of times. Started testing my voice for the call.

 

“’This is Jim Cr--‘”

 

More bass. Sit up.

 

“’Mr. Borden, this is Jim Crayson. I sent--what is with this phlegm?”

 

I got up and walked toward the kitchen. Katie was lying on the couch, reading. She had a blank expression. She gazed at me over the book, her eyes searching. I registered that she looked somber. I tried to stifle my concern. No time for it now.

 

I filled a glass with water and stirred in some vitamin C powder. Pounded half of it. Hawked a couple of times. Pounded the rest. Walked back into the “office” to make my call.

 

Borden’s line rang a few times. Then his voice mail clicked on. I felt a wave of relief. I hadn’t really wanted to talk to him. Conversation was not my forte. I preferred carefully crafting written messages and letting them do the work.

 

“Hi Mr. Borden, this is Jim Crayson. I sent you a proposal last November for Tome Thumb, my micro-fiction collection. I wanted to let you know about a new development that might affect your decision on the book.”

 

You sound too much like you are reading.

 

Phlegm was back too. I cleared my throat and continued.

 

“I, ah…I successfully auditioned for the television show ‘Quiz Slam.’ I am headed out to the studio tomorrow. Taping takes place the next day. I thought it would be great if I could mention on the show that I have a forthcoming book with Clytemnestra Press. You, ah, you have my contact information, so, um, just send me an email, give me a call…let me know what you think. Okay, thanks. Bye.”

 

I sat back in my chair. My breathing started coming back to normal.

 

It seemed ridiculous that I’d had to do this at all. The book was the same whether I was on TV or not. Did nothing matter anymore besides marketing?

 

Ah! But YOU! You live a life of purity! Selling cigarettes, beer, and petroleum products.

 

I stood up. Focusing on tomorrow seemed like a better idea. It was Borden’s move, as always. I needed to move on. Carb up on trivia questions.

 

My laptop was on the desk in front of me. I felt pretty comfortable in the chair for now. Time to fire up an online encyclopedia.

 

I looked down at the screen. The login screen was up. The cursor blinked, waiting for me to sign in.

 

First I need to check my email, though. Could be something important.

 

Half way through my password, the phone rang. I paused, then finished filling in the password field. The phone rang again.

 

Maybe I shouldn’t pick it up. What if it is Volker telling me to come in? I have to study tonight, pack, get extra sleep…

 

Another ring.

 

So tell him no. What do YOU care?

 

One more ring, the last one before the answering machine would click on. I snatched the phone off of the cradle.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Hi, this is Jack Borden from Clytemnestra Press. May I speak with Jim Crayson, please?”

 

I froze for a moment. I had to force my mouth to move, speak.

 

“Oh...h-hi…Jack. Yes, this is m--this is Jim Crayson.”

 

“Got your message about the television appearance. Congratulations.”

 

He said the word “congratulations” in a way that meant “I am making the standard overtures.” Sounded like one of those people who were always ready stop talking to you and get back to ripping on you behind your back.

 

“Thanks…I--”

 

“You should know, though…There won’t be much, if any, promotion you can do on the air. The network won’t let you mention the book during the show.”

 

Something stinks here. People on that show are CONSTANTLY…

 

“I mean, you can say you are an author,” Borden continued. “But they won’t let you say the title, or anything like that.”

 

“Um…Okay, that’s--”

 

“I was actually on another OBC game show. ‘23 Quizoo?’”

 

“Um-hmm--”

 

“So, I am familiar with their contracts for the shows.”

 

“I see. I was just--”

 

“But your book is… We still have it under consideration. We haven’t finalized a decision on it yet.”

 

“Oh…Okay…Well, about how long…”

 

“Give us about another month or so, and we’ll be able to send out official word.”

 

“Alright…I, ah…Th-thanks.”

 

“Thanks for the update. And good luck on the show.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

I threw the cordless phone in the air a couple of feet. Caught it on the way.

 

“Well, FUCK ME!!

 

“Potty mouth!”

 

Katie’s voice echoed from the other room. Ever since we started living together she had started semi-playfully reminding me not to curse in front of the kids. The kids were not at home, but her habit kicked into play anyway.

 

“Guy at Clytemnestra? You know, the one I sent my proposal to?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

I walked into the common room. Katie was still on the sofa. The late afternoon sun was coming in through the window. She was sitting in a shadow. She set her book on her tanned thigh.

 

“Bastard has ignored every letter…how many have I sent now? Three, four? …Three, if you count the one with the proposal--”

 

“Un-huh?”

 

“Yeah, so…He has just let me sit here, just ignored me…Like, ‘Gee, I wonder if I will ever hear from Clytemnestra? Should I write to another publishing company? Should I blow my fucking brains out?’”

 

Potty mou--

 

“Just waiting on this a--this jerk. No information...I mean, shouldn’t…couldn’t they at least…I don’t know--”

 

“Let you know what’s going on.”

 

“Yeah. Is that asking...? Doesn’t that seem like the professional thing? Am I crazy?”

 

“No!”

 

“I mean, to me it just…That just shows you the attitude. The power they see themselves as having…I mean, you see this…it’s the usual human bullsh--games. Primate games.”

 

“But maybe…I mean, he asked for the proposal.”

 

“Yeah, but when he saw it, with his little…Editors have this Princess and the Pea attitude… ‘Oh, this just doesn’t suit me today!’…After I had put so much…”

 

“That proposal took a lot of work--”

 

“Exactly! I mean…the sense of entitlement they seem to have. Once that sense of struggle, that everyone has…That goes away when they get a sense of the power they have. They get to weed people out. They feel they have arrived…The fuck with everyone below them…”

 

“Or--Potty!--or just fear. Maybe, you know, they get in trouble if they pick things that don’t sell.”

 

“Well, maybe…But it seems more cynical than that. This guy…just--”

 

So, what was this phone call?!”

 

“Oh. Well…Yeah, that’s just it. So, I leave him a message about Quiz Slam, he calls back in like…I don’t know…five minutes?”

 

“Nooo.”

 

“He calls me back…You didn’t hear me on the phone? He call back, but then he tries to talk it down…downplay it.”

 

“Huh…That doesn’t--”

 

“Yeah, he’s talking about how I can’t promote the thing on air, can’t this, can’t that. I’ve heard people on these shows. You know? You always know what people do, their careers--”

 

“Right.”

 

“So, why even…? I’m thinking: if it’s no big deal, getting on the show, but yet, you call me back after five minutes…”

 

“Doesn’t make any sense.”

 

“I swear these people are driving me crazy. They’re either diabolically…diabolical, or just…crazy.

 

“Mmm…”

 

“Or they just don’t care. They only want to deal with known commodities. People they know. Insiders.”

 

Katie didn’t respond.

 

“Well, anyway,” I said, “the fact that he called tells you something about…TV is a big deal. Getting known. People take it seriously. If he wants to be stupid about this…”

 

I looked out the window. There was a boat going about 50 yards out. I could see a girl in a bikini. She was sunning herself on the bow.

 

“There’s just so much that could…It doesn’t even bother me so much, now. That they are acting this way. I really feel…I’m gonna meet people. People in the entertainment business. This is….important.”

 

We were both silent for a few moments. Katie looked down. She stared at the book on her leg.

 

“What are you reading, anyway?” I asked.

 

Katie didn’t respond. I moved closer to her. I could better see her face. Her eyes were red and wet. I tensed up.

 

“What is it?”

 

She was still looking at the book. But her eyes were just staring.

 

“What’s the matter?” I asked, sitting on the floor next to the sofa.

 

“I don’t know…”

 

“C’mon…”

 

Nothing. A sniff.

 

Fuck. Game time.

 

“Come on, tell me what…what’s the matter?”

 

I placed my hand on her thigh. I waited.

 

“I don’t want to you to go.”

 

Is she saying she’ll miss me or…? No…Not THIS…

 

“I-I’ll…It’s only for a couple of days…”

 

I took my hand off of her thigh. My head felt light.

 

“Well, what am I supposed to do here?”

 

She flipped onto her stomach. Her book dropped on my leg, a corner of it jabbing my calf. She buried her face in the pillow and began sobbing.

 

This can’t be happening.

 

My scalp seemed cold, like the blood had rushed out of it. I could only stare at her shoulders, for the moment, as they shook with her sobs. It almost seemed like a joke. It seemed too stupid.

 

“But this…I mean it’s just a couple of d--”

 

Her contorted, slimy face tore off the pillow. She scowled at me.

 

“I don’t have anything here! You drag me down here from Missouri, and now you’re going off to California?”

 

I felt a line of red crawl across my cheeks and nose, like war paint.

 

“We agreed to come here…We talked about this--”

 

“Don’t you think I miss my family?” Her voice was gravelly now, choked. “This was your idea!”

 

“No! You know you wanted…you liked the warmth. You liked the idea of moving to a warmer climate!”

 

“You knew this was a big move for me!” She was yelling at me know. “I have never lived anywhere else! I DON’T KNOW ANYONE HERE!

 

She jammed her head back in the pillow, scream-sobbing into it. I sat there paralyzed. I thought about the hundreds of dollars for the moving truck, the gas to fill it up. For the storage of all the things that wouldn’t fit in the house boat. Months of life squandered, trying to get back up to speed. Now it was all a fucking mistake?

 

“But…this show will be a good thing. I don’t know, maybe we won’t end up staying here…but, see…this will give me a cha--”

 

“I’m not talking about the show. What I am supposed to do here? I never go anywhere! I’m just stuck here while you work! I never get to go on any trips! You’re just going to leave me here alone.

 

“I can’t believe this,” I muttered.

 

I stood up. I’d had it.

 

“I’m only going to be gone for a couple of days, Katie! I’ve gone out of town before. I don’t know why you have to…”

 

YOU BASTARD!” she screamed.

 

Her face was a mask. She hardly ever showed her teeth like that. Somewhere below the anger I was sickened that the whole scene seemed so cliché.

 

 “Why don’t you just leave me ALONE?!” she yelled.

 

I walked back into the bedroom. I was shaking from the adrenaline. I clenched me my fingers into a choking shape, then into fists. I squeezed them against my temples. Hissed through my teeth.

 

I imagined unmooring the house boat with her in it. Kicking it. Watching her float down the river.

 

My anger was so white-hot that I suddenly became more self-aware. The room looked slightly gray colored, blurred at the edges. I stared across the room in front of me, at the door-frame into the bathroom. The visual images seemed to detach from reality, so that the room looked like it was floating.

I looked at my empty suitcase on the bed. Wondered how long before I’d feel like packing it. Like doing anything.


 

Chapter 14

 

 

 

“I’ll bet that any place now that does well, any business that makes people feel at home, that makes people feel like they are getting their money’s worth, etc. does so by recreating the television-watching experience.”

 

I was on the plane to California, writing in my notebook. Surrounded by my fellow passengers and the microbes they wheezed in and out. I had my elbows crooked in some awkward way, to avoid sticking them into the personal space of the people next to me.

 

The thought I was logging in my notebook was spurred by the in flight “entertainment.” Somewhere over Mississippi, the monitors, like rising monoliths, had slowly opened from the bulkhead. My fellow primates had become notably excited.

 

But what had made me particularly grumpy was the selection of films. A comic book adaptation, of all things: “Quicknife.”

 

“Quicknife?”  I wrote. “Okay, obviously we can all accept the fact that we prefer to sit in front of glowing monitors and soak up their narratives. But a COMIC BOOK movie for a plane full of adults? What, is this a chartered plane headed for Disneyland?

 

I set the notebook back on my lap, relaxed my elbow contortions. I looked across the torso next to me, and out the window. We were among the cumulous clouds, giant mountains of fog. They became a landscape as we moved beside them.

 

I faced forward again. Tried to relax in the narrow seat. I shut my eyes.

 

Images of the night before were still fresh in my mind. The middle of the night. I woke up to the feeling of Katie’s wet lips tightly wrapped around my shaft. Her head started to bob. I groaned a sleepy groan, and then started to get into it. The room was pitch black, quiet. Wet sounds and guttural vocals punctuated the silence.

 

Then I heard her legs swooshing across the sheets. She mounted me. We had avoided each other all evening, and now she was fucking me. Fucking the shit out of me. She did it with a kind of desperation that practically brought out an extra seam in my erection.

 

I listened to her panting, grunting, and slamming that blessed cervix against the head of my cock mercilessly. As her strokes began to quiver and lose their rhythm, I felt her temperature rise a telltale degree.

 

I held my breath, clenched my teeth. I arched toward her. My body shook and sputtered like some old truck that won’t shut off immediately. The sensation was indescribable, one for the books.

 

“I’m sorry,” she breathed into my neck.

 

“Me, too,” I panted.

 

Aware of myself in the airplane again, I put my hands over my crotch. Just in case. I peered through my lids. Checked my peripheral vision to make sure no one was staring at me. Then I closed my eyes again.

 

Katie and the kids had seen me off at the airport. Pleasant, sweet. We didn’t speak about the episode of the previous afternoon. I liked that about her—she was very intuitive, non-verbal. We had understandings. There was not always this need to sit through a fucking speech.

 

I couldn’t quite shake that sense of betrayal, though. I knew that Katie could feel me eyeing her with suspicion at the airport. I wondered if she had really meant all that I had read into her complaints. But I was happy she had been willing to let it go for the time being.

 

Thinking about the fight got my heart rate up. Made me feel tense again. I opened my eyes. I looked down at my notebook. Tapped my pen on the page.

 

“Get something for Katie and the kids.”

 

I scribbled the reminder on the page, but I wouldn’t need it. My father had gone on business trips once or twice a year. He always brought us a souvenir. A t-shirt, a toy, something like that. I would smell the t-shirt, or whatever, and try to imagine what my father had seen. I figured maybe I could give the twins similar memories.

 

I looked up again. Eyed the string of monitors, scowled at its images of cartoonish heroes. I noted with satisfaction that headphones were needed to hear it. I could hear some tire squeals and such from nearby headphones, but this provided no continuity.

 

At least I can’t hear the accursed soundtrack. Danny Elfman, no doubt.

 

I looked at the notebook again for a sec. Then I shut it. I decided to try to sleep. Maybe I could meditate, I thought, make myself drift off.

 

I leaned my head “back” and to the side on the headrest. I had the sense that my body was ridiculously positioned. Like some photo of the elephant man. I felt it was immoral to lean my seat back, and further diminish the space of the person behind me. This left me having to figure out how to relax while sitting bolt upright.

 

Somehow I must have fallen asleep in that state. The monitors were keeping the others quiet. That probably helped. In any case, the next thing I was aware of was the blaring of the intercom.

 

“LADIES-AND-GENTLEMEN-THIS-IS-YOUR-CAPTAIN-SPEAKING.”

 

I gasped. I looked around, confused. Tried to straighten myself in my seat.

 

RRRR WE RRRR CURRENTLY ABOUT 10 MINUTES AHEAD OF SCHEDULE NOW. [CLICK-SQUINK] AND RRRRR WE SHOULD BE AT THE GATE IN ABOUT 20 MINUTES.”

 

Quicknife had long since vanquished his foe. The monitor junkies were still glued to their screens, however. They had been soaking up outtakes from hideous-looking sitcoms. After the captain finished his update, the monitors went blank. The passengers looked dazed. Stiff necks began to turn, eyes looked around.

 

“Well, that didn’t seem like such a long trip,” said a male voice behind me.

 

“No, no,” said a female voice. “I thought the movie was cute.”

 

Pause.

 

Please leave it at that. Don’t say “so.”

 

“So…you headed out to L.A. for a vacation?” asked the man.

 

Christ fellating a dog! Here we go.

 

“Mainly to visit my mom. But I am on vacation.”

 

“So, are you originally from L.A.?”

 

“No, my mom moved out here about ten years ago. She had visited a few times…”

 

I squeezed my eyes shut, wishing I could shut my ears. I could always control my eustachian tubes by moving muscles in my throat. This helped with the ear pressure you feel on planes. But now I opened them up just then because of the rushing, underwater sound it created. I hummed a little, trying to drown out the trite, intrusive conversion behind me.

 

How could they not realize we can all hear every sibilant, every plosive?

 

Perhaps some people enjoy the chance to glimpse into the life of someone else by listening in on them. For me it created something like a chronic ache. I felt I had heard all the variations of chit chat hundreds of time, but I could not tune them out.  Maybe by some neurological quirk. It made plane rides tough.

 

Then, as we landed, and rolled up to the gate, the coup de grace.

 

“Well, it was nice meeting you.”

 

“You too.”

 

The tinny sound of a brief electronic musical flourish arises from behind me.

 

Sweet Idi Amin Fisting Hitler, no. Please, no.

 

Pause.

 

“Hay, Mare…Yep, we just landed…Good, good…No, no problems, on time…There was a movie, too…Yep…'Quicknife?’…'Member that, from a few months back?...”

 

It was too much to bear. I grabbed my pen, flipped open the notebook to the day’s entry.

 

What is the point of calling RIGHT when you land on a plane? I mean, what significance can there be to that? ‘Oh, Jim has JUST LANDED. Okay, let me get my camera. I am going to take a snapshot of the digital clock. We can keep the picture on the fridge.’

 

I got lucky as we disembarked. There were several other passengers between me and the chit-chatters.

 

 

§§§

 

“Hi, name’s Jim.”

 

“Sup, Jim. I’m Kevin.”

 

“Hi, I’m Clara.”

 

The limo driver watched as we shook hands. He looked a bit skeptical. Kevin was in his early twenties. Still wearing clothes from his college days, cheap buzz haircut. As usual, my attire was Dollar Store Conservative--super cheap and designed not to draw attention. Neither of us looked likely to end up getting in a limo. Clara was better off. Late twenties, eye for fashion, probably upper-middle income.

 

Kevin was smart. You get a feel for such things after years of exposure to enough bright people. Nothing to do with looks, location. Could be a guy who cracks you up with a passing quip in the park. A woman selling muffins at some farmer’s market. You sense the intellect behind the reaction patterns.

 

Neither Kevin nor I needed to size each other up…much. We both got it, and quickly. Our interaction was freewheeling, peppered with facts drawn from our broad interests. Fun. Clara tried to keep up.

 

Clara was a security camera planted in a mannequin. Well-spoken, well-manicured. She had the kind of “pretty” face that looked good in its current financial state, but which would have looked plain, or even ugly, had things gone worse for her in life. Money pretty. But those eyes were waiting for you to fuck up. They informed you that you were this close. That they would be watching.

 

“You know, I actually met Russell Crowe once,” said Kevin.

 

“Oh, I’m jealous,” Clara said, clasping her naked knees.

 

“Oh, you shouldn’t be,” he said. “I haven’t wanted to see one of his movies since.”

 

“How’d you meet him?” I asked.

 

“He…well, that’s the thing. You might say I tried to meet, tried to talk to him,” said Kevin.

 

Clara shot me a knowing glance. I looked at her blankly. I detected no intent on Kevin’s part to tell a fish story.

 

“I was working at this radio station at my college in Philly,” Kevin continued. “This was not long after his movie ‘Gladiator.’”

 

“His first Oscar win,” I added.

 

“Right. Only one, actually. Anyway, you know he had a band, had that album out, right?”

 

“Oh…um…um…” Clara snapped her fingers, searching for the name.

 

“30 Odd Foot of Grunts, wasn’t it?” I asked.

 

“Yeah, yeah. What a fucking stupid name for a band…” Kevin said. “S-s-so…Anyway, they play…the station manager let them play a couple of…play on the air, live.”

 

“Sounds like a cool college station,” Clara said.

 

“Yeah, but…have you heard them? Heard him sing…his songs?”

 

Clara and I shook our heads.

 

“It’s just…so baaad! He sings just like he talks. Horrible. Maybe like Gordon Lightfoot with a poor sense of pitch.”

 

“Ewww…what’s that old song of his?…Um…‘Tusk?’” asked Clara.

 

I looked at her blankly, pausing for effect.

 

“No, that’s an album by Fleetwood Mac,” Kevin said.

 

“Oh…yeah,” said Clara.

 

“So, I’m in the engineering booth listening, just hating this shit. But I’m, y’know…there’s the Gladiator in there singing, right? I mean, it was Russell Crowe, man.

 

“Little star struck, were you?” Clara asked, smiling broadly.

 

“Well, yeah…I mean, yeah, wouldn’t you be?” he said.

 

Thoughts of big shots I had seen popped into my head. It had always been a letdown to me. They always looked like they were on the make. If they faced at you, it was with a searching look, like they needed a fix of approval from your glance. It was all too tempting to throw them an eye-roll, a sneer.

 

“So, after they were done,” Kevin continued, “Crowe kind of…like, hands off his guitar to some underling…some dude in his posse, right. Then, he’s…he starts…he’s gonna take the back way out, right?”

 

“Through…the…where you were, right?” I said.

 

“Yeah…so, here comes fucking Russell Crowe, walking right past me, y’know…And out of my mouth…my mouth starts to say it…”

 

“Oh no…” I said, grinning.

 

“What?” asked Clara.

 

“’I really like your music Mr. Croooooowe…’ Whoosh! Guy walks right past me. Not a word.”

 

Clara gasped theatrically, her mouth the expected gaping “o.”

 

“O-o-o-oh, no…What a prick!” I said, laughing.

 

“NOT A FUCKING WORD!” shouted Kevin, smiling.

 

“But he’s just…I mean, he must get people all the time…” Clara said. “I mean, can you imagine?”

 

“Well, but--” Kevin began.

 

“He’s just so hot!” Clara said.

 

“But, like, Jack Black, he played there too, and he--”

 

“Who?” asked Clara.

 

“Guy from ‘Shallow Hal?’” I told her. “He has a band--”

 

“Oh, right…Oh! You met him too?!”

 

I looked out the window at L.A. passing by, as Kevin continued his story. I had never seen the place before. I wanted to absorb the landscape.

 

The houses in L.A. were closer together than I would have ever imagined. People could reach out of their windows and into their neighbors’ houses. I wondered if anyone had ever had an affair through one of those windows. You could easily give a hand job like that.

 

Kevin seems like an honest guy. Maybe an ally. Not sure if there is much I can do about Clara.

 

Quiz Slam was a competitive game. It wasn’t just trivia questions. It involved teams, and people could be voted off those teams. There were alliances, betrayals. Just knowing a bunch of facts wouldn’t save you if everyone turned against you.

 

I glanced at Kevin and Clara. Kevin held my gaze for a second as Clara asked a question.

 

There is a reason they put us in a limo together.

 

It dawned on me that the game had already begun. I had spent all that time doing trivia work, memorizing facts. Now here I was, at least 24 hours before the taping, already playing the game. Already trying to make friends, size up the competition. Maybe even turn people against one another.

 

Suddenly I felt as confined in the limo as I had in the plane.

 

Am I being paranoid here?

 

I looked at Clara. I couldn’t see her as a studio plant. Make-up job she learned from her sisters. Clothes you could find at any of the thousands of suburban strip malls littering the nation. No, she was definitely from one of the “flyover states.”

 

Clara caught me looking at her. We were from different planets. She had us pegged, Kevin and me. She was the “normal” one here. We were--how you say?--weird. Clara was already ready to take us down.

 

I gazed out the window again. Scenes I recognized from TV and movies flashed by. A slideshow. We passed Mulholland Drive. It looked smaller than it did onscreen. Camera adds 20 square yards, I supposed.

 

A group of high-rise hotels appeared as we rounded a curve. Clara’s voice suddenly became more than background chatter.

 

“Oh, I think that’s it. SIR, IS THAT THE HOTEL?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” said the limo driver. “Next stop the Global Studios Henson Hotel.”

 

Time for the endgame.

 

I knew the ride from the airport had already tipped our hands too much. I didn’t want to end up in some fucking party setting and get written off before we even got to the real game. Social jockeying was not my forte.

 

I needed to make sure I didn’t get invited to something I’d have to refuse. I knew Clara’s social operating system was likely to elicit discussion of social plans for the evening. Worst case? Dinner.

 

Okay, how can I--

 

“Oh, I need to let Bill know we’re here,” said Clara, partly to herself. She rifled through her purse, and soon located her cell phone. Her mall manicure began clicking against the buttons as she dialed.

 

Ah…A Deus Ex Cellular.

 

I sighed. Now I just had to make sure to grab my luggage and get out before she finished the call. I knew Kevin might try to hang with me. But turning down an invite from him would not have the potentially negative impact that it would with Clara.

 

§§§

 

Quiet.

 

The room with its hotel smell. Dark wood furnishings, thick expensive comforter and drapes. The elegant but artificial feel of an apartment display unit that gets cleaned and sanitized every day.

 

Travel always made me more self-aware. More introverted. Reality became like a film I was watching.

 

I had managed to get through the check-in process quickly. Kevin had helped Clara with her luggage. She stayed on the phone the while he did so. By the time they headed for the check-in desk, a couple of families had queued up behind me. I was able to escape to my room with a friendly wave toward them as they waited in line.

 

With the world now at a halt, alone in my room, it hit me that I would be doing a TV show the next day. I stood up, walked around the room a couple of times. It seemed too small. I decided to look out my window. I walked to that side of the room. I pulled open the massive curtains.

 

Ahh! So this is what TV network money will get you.

 

From the 16th floor, I gazed out at a mountainous vista. This was second only to certain ocean views I had seen in the past. I drank in that sense of stillness and self-importance that open landscapes can give.

 

The limo, the posh hotel, the view. I saw it all on a balance sheet in my mind. I began to feel that maybe it all reflected something about me. The value of my mind, maybe. These surroundings were the return on the investment I had made in myself, my intellect. All of that alone time, all of that study. The obsession with self-development. All of it was an elevator that had opened upon this panorama of Los Angeles.

 

Yeah? How does Grab-n-Go fit into that scheme?

 

I turned from the window. With so much at stake, I thought I’d better study. There was my trusty notebook computer sitting on the mahogany desk. It looked a bit sad among the nouveau riche décor.

 

I had brought along my “DiskFo Electronic Encyclopedia.” It was a CD-ROM that had come free with some electronic doohickey or other. Not very thorough, but it was good enough for my purposes. Just some raw info for my brain to munch on. Hell, if I read one new fact that happened to come up during the actual game, it could be decisive.

 

I reached for the notebook bag to get the disk. I looked at the big, empty, king-sized bed. Maybe it was the sight of that bed, the hotel-smell of the room triggering deep memories of fuck-a-thons from my college years. Whatever it was, something evoked a question. A faint peep from way down in the reptilian lobes…

 

I wonder if there is porn on the cable TV system in this place.

 

And then my legs began moving. My hand picked up the remote. After all, I was just curious of course. I was going to start studying the DiskFo, but I was just wondering whether a swank place like this…

 

Yeeesss.

 

Carefully engineered images of women pouted out at me from the screen. Porn galore. And it was the good stuff. Two-to-four hour compilation tapes. You could mainline all the suck-and-fuck scenes without wading through some costume drama or pathetic attempt be an oiled-down version of “Top Gun.”

 

I had developed a taste for the stuff during my four years without female contact. A couple of years into the dry spell, my dick had dragged me into a porn rental shop. I just knew a current student would spot me. But the need to see writhing female bodies was too powerful to resist.

 

There in the hotel, alone, the temptation had come back. I could not turn down the temptation of seeing a couple of hours of hot naked women getting fucked. The promise of four or five orgasms. Plus, the room had complimentary scented hand lotion in the bathroom.

 

Yeah, this is gonna happen.

 

I nuded up, lay back on the bed, clicked the appropriate menu buttons. I was already getting hard from the anticipation.

 

Seconds later, a lithe blonde gyrated on the screen. She rode her partner in a reverse cowgirl. I zoned in on her navel and toned abdominal line. Her labia gripped his cucumber-like shaft as she bounced up and down. The lotion went “splat-splat-splat” in my palm, increasing in tempo. It seemed like the camera stayed with that shot, just for me.

 

Well, I’ll be getting this first one out of the way quickly…


 

Chapter 15

 

 

 

Mid-morning. We were on the hotel shuttle to the studio. This one was a van. My fellow contestants and I were belted into its bench seats.

 

Conversation was sparse, somewhat tense. Case of the jitters all around, probably. We were soon to appear on the Almighty Picture Box. A million heads would be turning in our direction, if only to stare at us for a few moments.

 

I had an orgasm hangover. I had cranked out four the night before, and fallen asleep going for five. Porn’ll do that if you haven’t seen it in a while. Next day, your brain feels something like your groin does after a good long fuck. Hollowed out like a cavern. You aren’t good for much. Maybe some shopping or a couple of hours at a café.

 

I sighed, glanced out the window. Didn’t seem like the best state of mind for competing on a quiz show. I figured I’d better start getting my shit together.

 

Okay…TV shows, name some actors in a TV show…Barney Miller…who’s that old guy?…That old…Fish…Yeah, but, what’s his…ABE!...Abe…what?

 

I stared out the window. Signs next to the road, rushing by. Billboards farther away, cruising by. There were ads for movies everywhere, and stars shilling on most of the others, too. I forced myself to connect names to all the faces, associate films and shows to the names.

 

ABE VIGODA!!

 

Okay, this is good. This is working. The rest of them are probably not practicing like this. I’m the only one. I’ll be ready.

 

Right. You took, what, about five minutes to come up with Abe Vigoda? Good luck, Brainiac.

 

We got waved through the guard gate, suddenly found ourselves riding through grounds of Global Studios. The van’s interior went dead silent. The scene was already written thousands of times in celluloid. The rows of nondescript buildings with huge garage doors. The surrealism of painted backdrops and out-of-place props leaning here and there. We were watching it on a screen.

 

“Hey, look,” someone whispered.

 

The forearm of the woman next to me drew across my visual field and pointed toward a car outside the window. We were stopping at one of the buildings. A sign identified it as “Global Lot 12.”

 

“Doesn’t that parking spot say ‘Budd Morton?’” the woman whispered to me.

 

“Oh! Yeah!” I whispered back. “Hah! Check out that car.”

 

Morton was the host of Quiz Show. He was known for his penchant for collecting unique vehicles. That day, he had apparently come to work in some lemon yellow Italian job.

 

“My name’s Sarah,” she whispered

 

“Jim,” I said shaking her hand. “Why are we whispering?”

 

She was a plump strawberry blonde with creamy skin. She had green, intelligent eyes. Easy to gaze at. I wished she had been in my limo from the airport.

 

“I going to get a quick shot of it,” she said, holding up a tiny camera phone.

 

As the camera clicked, a fit middle-aged man tore open the van’s side door from the outside. After the quiet ride, it sounded like a drill sergeant banging on a trash can at 5 a.m.

 

“Alright, folks. Let’s get your game faces on. You’re not tourists here. This is serious business.”

 

I recognized the voice immediately. It was Craig Fillbeck, the OBC producer who had set up my contract and travel arrangements. I glanced at Sarah, wanting to roll my eyes at her in solidarity. But she already had her backside to me, crawling out of the van. Our “moment” was pushed out of her mind.

 

As I stepped out of the van I noticed Kevin looking at me. He lifted his head in a nod, smiled. Clara was still behind me in the van. I smiled at the realization that they had not sat together. I hoped Kevin still saw me as a possible ally.

 

“Okay, folks,” boomed Fillbeck, “Let’s gather around here just a minute.

 

Back in Florida, Fillbeck would have been in a band, or maybe on a construction site. He was wearing a relatively dingy grey-black T-shirt and jeans. Wiry mid-forties body. Rockin’ one of those Kenny G/REO Speedwagon ‘do’s.

 

“Okay, so we’re doing two tapings today. We’re gonna divide you up into two groups, pretty much randomly. The A group is gonna do the first taping, head back to the hotel. The B group is gonna do the second taping. Alright?”

 

People nodded automatically, as if they somehow had a say in this.

 

“There’s gonna be one green room for A group, one for B group. You’re gonna hang out in your green room for a while. We’ll be doing practice games, you’ll get your makeup for the show, and so on. You follow?”

 

Sir, yes sir,” boomed one guy above the chorus of mumbled “yeahs.” I glanced at the guy. He was now grinning at his own sarcasm and audacity. A wag. Another potential ally.

 

Posed on his spindly glam rock legs, Fillbeck started reading the groups off of a list. I was pretty near the beginning of the B list. I watched Whispering Sarah walk toward A group. I stared at her, hoping maybe she would look at me. But she seemed nervous, distracted. She would glance at her fellow contestants, then glance down.

 

My stomach jumped a bit as I heard Kevin’s name called for my group. He smiled at me and began walking toward me. Then Clara’s name was called.

 

Random my ass.

 

The odds were against our being grouped together again. One of the three of us should have ended up in Group A. Just as I had suspected, the limo ride had been the start of the game. I realized that maybe that was why Sarah was looking so nervous. Others too. Trouble on the ride from the airport? 

 

After the roll call, we began to file into the building. We tried to keep up with Fillbeck—a fast walker—while staring at all the oversized portraits of famous OBC shows and stars. No wonder Fillbeck had given us shit about taking a tourist’s attitude. The place was a fucking museum of television history. For a bunch of pop culture nuts like us, it was tough not to ogle.

 

Group A headed off in some other direction, and those of us in Group B reached our “green room.” It was basically a big rec room. Card tables, metal chairs. There were classic board games and decks of cards to pass the time. A decent spread of waiting food covered a couple of card tables near the wall. Cheeses, breads, grapes, crackers. Stuff to make it seem like something was happening besides the passage of time.

 

We stashed our handbags and other stuff we had carried with us. Then we sort of gravitated back toward Fillbeck. He had set himself up as dictator, so no one yet felt comfortable deciding what to do with themselves. He seemed to be backing off of his drill sergeant demeanor, though.

 

“Oooo-kay,” Fillbeck said. “Well, we, uh, have some time before taping, so…just make yourselves at home. Interact. Get to know each other.”

 

Silence. Nobody moved yet.

 

“C’mon guys. Make this fun. Every one of you got picked to be here because there was, y’know, something unique…interesting about you. This is a unique situation. Enjoy it while it lasts.”

 

Some light chatter began. We all smiled awkwardly, some laughed awkwardly. We knew it was all easy for him to tell us to relax. He was gonna get paid today no matter what he said or did. Only one among all these contestants would get any money.

 

I looked around as the crowd around Fillbeck broke up. Suddenly it seemed like a party where no one knew anyone else. Brains whirred as they sized up the others. I felt like I was looking too unconfident. I headed for the snack table.

 

Clara was already at the table. I noticed this too late to act like I was headed elsewhere. She looked up as I approached. Gave me that vaguely self-satisfied glance of that cheerleader, of the popular girl. Pretty and composed, but, on some ineffable level, as cold and menacing as a spider.

 

“Oh, those shoes are cool,” I said.

 

She was wearing an expensive-looking pair of leather ankle boots. They were perfect for her petite legs and feet.

 

“Thanks,” she chuckled.

 

I felt the chuckle in my stomach. In Soc Speak, of course, she had meant “Nice try, dork.”

 

We chatted for a few moments. We had to pretend that we didn’t both already know we were enemies. I glanced around the room, looking for Kevin. Talking to Clara increased the need for a more comfortable conversation.

 

Most of the others had paired up too. Everyone seemed to be looking at all the other pairs. Paranoia. We were all convinced that the other pairs were obviously colluding to win the game.

 

Kevin was paired up with a middle-aged guy with thin blond hair, buzz cut. I could tell Kevin was off on one of his stories. He was talking with his hands, and the other guy was smiling. Another woman walked up to the food table and said something to Clara. I saw my chance and headed for Kevin’s side.

 

I worked my way into the conversation easily. The other guy was a dentist, Sim Blevin. The conversation among the three of became this easy collective riff that kept shifting shapes but stayed aloft. We were like a jazz trio. Jokes, pop culture, some politics. For a few moments we actually seemed to forget where we were. That we were essentially competitors.

 

The board games eventually came out. Poker games started. People moved from group to group, feeling each other out.

 

A couple of hours into this waiting game, I was folding a losing hand of poker. I was bored with the game, and with the group of people at the table. I glanced around for Kevin or Sim. I spotted Kevin alone, doing these slow karate chops. I walked over.

 

“A little Tai-Chi?” I asked.

 

 “Yeah. Helps me focus.”

 

I watched him moving in slow motion for a second. Suddenly he broke his form and came closer to me.

 

“Listen…” he said, glancing around the room. “Clara…you know, the uh, wom--”

 

“Sure, from the limo,” I said.

 

“I think she’s…She said she and another woman, um, Lucy, were…y’know, that they were going to try to get the thing, the game, to be, like, women versus men.”

 

I nodded. I had seen this on the show before. During a round, players from the opposing teams went into the ring to answer questions. Whoever answered correctly first got the point for their team. Then the players had to tag other members of their group, ringside, to take a turn in the ring. It was supposed to be somewhat like tag-team “pro” wrestling. I had seen women and men only tag members of the same sex, so that the others had no chance to score points by answering questions.

 

Between rounds, things got even nastier. The groups had to lose one member of their tag-teams. Team members held up signs to say who should go. The rational, fair thing would be to get rid of the people who answered incorrectly or too slowly. The points for correct answers translated into the jackpot that the winner finally received, so you wanted a strong team. But this was where human bias and greed stepped in. Where you saw the alliances and the back-stabbing.

 

I looked Kevin in the eye, concerned. “Well, what do you think we ought to…I mean, should we--?”

 

With a loud metallic squeal, the door swung open. Fillbeck clapped his hands a couple of times for attention, back to his sports coach persona.

 

“Okay people! We’re moving to wardrobe now! Time to suit up for the game!”

 

My stomach knotted. This was it. I quickly turned to Kevin again.

 

“Let’s talk again later,” I said. “I’ll think about…I’ll try to figure something ou--”

 

“C’MON people! Let’s MOVE!” yelled Sgt. Fillbeck. “We gotta stay on schedule!”

 

 

§§§

 

I’m standing in the dark being felt up by a Hollywood producer. This is just…

 

It was moments before the show taping, and I was backstage. The female producer was attaching microphones to my body. However, the amount of groping going on suggested that she had another motive. Not a flattering one, unfortunately. Seemed more like she was checking for other electronic devices that could help me cheat or record the show. Also for weapons, maybe. Things could get a bit tense when the stakes peaked somewhere above $100K.

 

We started to file onto the sound stage. I noticed Clara walking next to me. Her eyes were wide and fixed straight ahead. I wondered if she was thinking of her pact with Lucy.

 

“Lions and tigers and bears,” I said to her.

 

She glanced nervously at me. She managed a smile, but did not complete my film reference in the expected way.

 

Legal Eagles…No, no…From the Hip. With Judd Nelson, and…who was the female lead? Demi? No, um…Anyway, John Hurt as the psycho killer, and--

 

“Good evening ladies and gentleman…”

 

The booming voice of the announcer interrupted my internal practice session. He went into his spiel for the show’s opening. We were surrounded by an audience in stadium seating. According to Sim, the dentist, the audience was basically a bunch of sightseeing tourists who had gotten free tickets from kiosks on the street. Sim had done some tourism of his own the night before, while I was in my room cranking out a few.

 

I took my place at the side of the ring. Some of the familiar background music for the show was playing in the background. All the contestants had to stay in place, standing still. The crew was finalizing light and camera adjustments.

 

On my side of the ring with me was my tag team. Kevin, Sim, Clara and Lucy I knew, or knew of. There were a couple of other people I had not really talked to or sized up. I felt my hands start to sweat. I realized I should have spent less time with Sim and Kevin, sized up more people. Too late now.

 

My team was to be known as Team Ruckus. We were all wearing outfits made to look like wrestling costumes. I was in a purple unitard with gold trim and a shiny gold cape. The tights were pretty tight. I sucked in my gut. I glanced down at my crotch to make sure it didn’t need fluffing up.

 

I could feel them looking at us on the monitors in the control room. Looking for flaws, I thought. Probably giggling and making snide comments. Make-up people rushed out every few minutes. They mopped sweat and touched up foundation.

 

Finally the music began to swell. The opening theme started playing. With a flourish of applause, the show’s host, Budd Morton, took his place near the center of the ring. He was wearing his trademark shiny referee outfit. The show was starting.

 

Budd looked around the ring at the contestants, smirking. He looked at me. Suddenly I caught myself looking at an image that I had seen hundreds of time on my T.V. But now it was brighter, alive. It was like I had moved inside of the television set.

 

The thought made me dizzy. I felt my blood pressure exploding as the theme music played. I began to wonder whether I was dreaming. Not in that idle way that you do when reading Descartes’ Meditations. I really wasn’t sure whether I was asleep at the moment.

 

I could tell it was a panic attack coming on. I felt a growing urge to yell for them to stop. I wanted to tear off the microphone and run back to my hotel room.

 

C’mon, c’mon. Chill the fuck out. This is just some lactic acid in your blood. You are NOT going to lose it. You were made for this show. C’mon…Think of some questions…What other movies has John Hurt been in?

 

I took deep breaths. Forced myself to smile. After a moment or two of this, my self-concept magically clicked back into place.

 

Just in time, too. The sudden glare of the spotlight hit me. We were doing intros for the show’s opening.

 

“Jim Crayson,” I heard my mouth saying. “Doctor’s Landing, FL. Gas station attendant with a Master’s in Logic.”

 

I listened to the intros. Everyone else seemed to have some cushy life. The dentist, the real estate lady, the college student, the doctor’s wife… My sense of competition flared again. I was here to win a load of cash. I was here to claw my way out of my shit job at Grab-n-Go. I was the one who deserved to win.

 

“Ok, teams!” bellowed Budd. “Let’s play Quiz Slam!”

 

Ding-ding!

 

The bell rang as the first round began.

 

Sim was up first. He leapt into the ring. He and a dumpy housewife faced each other across the buzzer. They were supposed to crouch in a wrestler’s stance. Both were relatively pear-shaped. They looked like the caricatures the producers wanted. I thought about my waistline again.

 

“The assassination of which European leader sparked World War One?” Budd boomed over the music.

 

Sim and his opponent both slapped at the buzzer. She hit it first.

 

“Napoleon!” she shouted. The audience erupted in laughter.

 

“Wrong!” said Budd, smirking. “Sim?”

 

“Archduke Ferdinand?”

 

“We’ll accept that!”

 

Sim and the housewife bounded back to their corners. My team members and I waved our hands at Sim, hoping he would tag us. I caught my breath as I saw and felt his hand slapping mine.

 

I seemed to go into autopilot. I saw myself bounding over the ropes, as if I had been in a ring before. I was into the game, into the character. I snarled across the buzzer at my opponent, who owned a car wash chain in Cleveland.

 

“What playwright wrote ‘The Cherry Orchard?”

 

I stared into the eyes of Car Wash Man. He looked blank. In the lower periphery of my vision I could see my hand darting toward the buzzer.

 

“Chekov!”

 

“Correct!”

 

I whirled around. I bounded toward the ropes. Kevin was in my sights the whole way. I slapped his hand and let out a whoop. I shot Clara a glance as I tumbled over the ropes.

 

So much for Girl Power!

 

Kevin got his question right. We were three for three. I cheered and jumped. I held my hand out for a tag, but I figured he would tag someone else. We were encouraged to give everyone a chance in the early rounds. Playing favorites could come later, as the stakes got higher.

 

Kevin picked Lucy, Clara’s accomplice.

 

“What ocean lies off the coast of California?”

 

I rolled my eyes. I wondered if they eased up on the questions for certain types of players. Lucy buzzed first, but she began stammering.

 

“Um…um…” Lucy stomped her foot. “Oooooh--”

 

“Times up!” yelled Budd, grinning. “Agnes?”

 

“Pah-CIFIC!” yelled the college student, her opponent. The California audience cheered.

 

A few questions later I was due a turn. Clara had missed her question. She rushed toward the ropes and seemed to randomly slap toward our outstretched hands. I aimed my hand toward hers, snagged the tag.

 

“What was the name of the ship in the novel Moby Dick?” thundered Budd.

 

I saw my hand striking the buzzer again. I looked at Budd. The name was not in my head yet.

 

I waited for it. Waited for the right neurons to fire. Budd smirked back at me.

 

“Um…”

 

Don’t stare at him!  Look around quickly from side to side. That’s supposed to help with retrieval.

 

“Time is running out…!”

 

“The Whaler?”

 

I heard a guffaw from the control room. A few snickers echoed from the audience. My opponent smirked at me across the buzzer. I gave her a gesture that said “Go ahead, you answer it, smartass.” She didn’t. Incorrect answers subtracted a point for your team.

 

“The correct answer, you geniuses,” said Budd, “is the Pequod!”

 

Ding-ding!

 

“And that ends the first round, combatants,” said Budd in his heavily-coached baritone. “The score is 5 points for Team Ruckus, 2 for Team Stormbringer!”

 

We cheered. The audience cheered. The other team looked sullen.

 

“Team Ruckus now has a team jackpot of $5000, and only $2000 for Team Stormbringer. But only one member of either team can take home that team jackpot. When we come back, both teams will vote to send home their wimpiest member!”

 

During the pause in play, we all had to write a name on a little placard. When our time came, we would hold it above our heads and say the name of the team member we wanted to send home. Completely up to us. Whether they had won much for the team or not.

 

I hoped Kevin had been straight with me. We had discussed strategy quickly during a trip to the bathroom. He had said we should vote to keep the team strong, not do the men versus women thing. I had agreed, but couldn’t quite read him. We had both been cock-out and pissing at the time.

 

I looked at the magnetic pen trembling slightly in my hand. My peripheral vision was in focus. I tried to get a sense of what the others were writing.

 

Soon the spotlights blared on again. The theme music started and Budd Morton stepped to the center of the ring.

 

“Welcome back to Quiz Slam! So far Team Ruckus has dominated our tag team ring tonight. They now have a jackpot of $5000. One of their team members could take home the gold, but the rest of them…HAVE GOT TO GOOOO!!!”

 

This was Budd’s catch phrase. It had caught on. People in offices across the nation had started saying it on the way to the restroom. The audience hooted and clapped.

 

“Let’s see which member of Team Ruckus the others think is holding them back. Team Ruckus, show us your choices.”

 

The cards came up. We could all see everyone’s cards. There was an awkward moment as people looked at the cards, sizing up the damage. There was a mishmash of names. Almost everyone had voted for someone different. Except for two people. Clara and Lucy stood next to each other. Each of their signs read “Jim.” I felt my face getting hot.

 

“Clara and Lucy, you voted for Jim.” said Budd. “But Lucy did not even know the name of that greaaat big body of water just west of us.”

 

The audience giggled.

 

“Do you two really think Jim is the wimpiest member of the team?”

 

“Well, I know he has a graduate degree and all that,” answered Clara. “But I figure that’s just the type of person who should have known the name of the ship in Moby Dick.”

 

There were a few chuckles from the audience. I glared at her.

 

“I mean, people read Moby Dick in, like, high school, right?” she continued.

 

“Alright, ladies,” Budd said. “All the other team members seemed to disagree with you, but hey…

 

He turned to me. “Jim: with two votes against you, Team Ruckus has decided. You’ve GOT TO GOOOOO!”

 

The theme music boomed in my ears as a walked off of the sound stage. I was seeing things as if they were in movie again. A producer indicated that I should follow her. She seemed to be whispering. We walked back toward the exit from the studio. Every face searched mine. They could smell blood. They all sought to relish what utter defeat looks like.

 

The producer took me back to the green room. I sat in one of the metal folding chairs. She sat down across from me. Rigid and muscular. She could hear instructions from the control booth through her headset. She kept an eye on me but tried not to look like she was.

 

I stared at a wall. My body slumped like a spent cock. For two days I had been up. The constant internal preparation. Playing at extroversion. The emotional countdown. Now it was over. Like that. In the silence, it began to sink in.

 

That was fucking IT?! TWO FUCKING QUESTIONS?! THAT WAS FUCKING IT?!!!

 

Now there was nothing. I was in the middle of nowhere, on the other side of the country. No jackpot. No publicity for my book. Nothing.

 

Except a green vest, with a nametag on it. Waiting for me in Florida. 


Chapter 16

 

 

 

 

You gotta be kidding me.

 

The show was over. Apparently, someone figured proper closure would be to load us back on the same van. All of us. To go back to the hotel. The winner and all the losers. The backstabbers and all the backstabees. All of group B, that is. I never saw group A again. Seems they did their taping and got the hell out.

 

It was like sitting in a waiting room at the dentist and seeing the guy to whom you gave the finger out on the freeway. A fucking long ride back to the hotel after a cutthroat competition. People digging for small talk that would inevitably come out sounding strained and hollow.

 

Not that I had to worry about all that. I was gone. I had already checked out in my head. A door had slammed shut. I had seen the situation too clearly. My life was a gaping fuck-hole all over again. There was nothing more for me here in L.A. In this van. Solar system. Wherever.

 

I sat in the back of the van. I looked at the backs of their heads. The anger started seeping back, underneath the exhaustion. These people were worthless to me. Worse than worthless—they had helped to defeat me. They were my escorts back to the store. Small talk? Not fucking likely.

 

“Guys, how fun was that?”

 

It was Clara.

 

A couple of voices acknowledged her, trying desperately to match her forced tone of excitement. She had not pulled any of this work-the-crowd shit in the green room. There she had worn her judgmental half-smile. The ever-present weapon of her social class. No one impressed her, her eyes said. Now suddenly we were her kindergarten class.

 

I looked out the window in disgust. I had watched the remainder of the taping on a monitor in the green room. Clara had survived three more rounds in the game. Her words about others, as she eliminated them from the team, had been the most caustic in the game. All said with a smile.

 

Thank God she didn’t fucking win.

 

“Congrat-tu-LAY-shuns, Kevin,” Clara said to our winner, mustering about as much sincerity as we had all come to expect from her.

 

I was boring a hole in the back of Kevin’s head with my eyes. He had been staring straight ahead. His head jerked around to face Clara, like she had startled him.

 

“Oh…heh-heh…thanks, Clara,” he responded.

 

Smelling blood, Clara continued facing him as his head jerked back into place.

 

“So…any idea what you’re gonna do with the money?”

 

“Heh-heh…I um…”

 

Kevin’s head and eyes darted quickly at the vanquished sitting near him. The ones I could see maintained pleasant veneers. But their eyes narrowed when Kevin looked away. He was not owning his victory well.

 

Well, let’s hear it, fucker. What are you gonna do with my 37K?

 

“Well, I, you know, I prolly won’t have to add any more debt to my student loan next year. Or, um, maybe I should pay off some of the...the principal.”

 

“Well, that’s not much fun,” Clara said slowly. She was deliberately contrasting his nervous clip. “Don’t you want to…I don’t know…take your girlfriend to Europe or something?”

 

“Heh-heh-heh….Shhhh!” he said, with a finger to his lips. “I can’t say I’m gonna enjoy the money in front of everybody.”

 

He continued chuckling nervously. He quickly glanced at the other faces around him, hoping someone else was laughing.

 

“Otherwise, I’ll be lucky if I don’t get, like, stabbed.”

 

At the word “stabbed” his eyes finally caught mine. He had actually glanced toward me when he said it. He would get no reassurance from me. I was in no mood to do anything but rid the planet of infestation of humans. I held his eyes with the gaze of a shark. At the same time I had to stifle a smile. I enjoyed the subtle victory afforded by the fact that he had looked at me when he “joked” about fearing for his life.

 

He fidgeted and giggled another moment or two, as Clara let his statement hang out there. She was not about to let up. She engaged him in small talk for a few more minutes. A couple of lesser jackals prodded with brief questions and threw in “good-natured” cheap shots here and there.

 

I stared at him for most of it. I held my stygian expression in case he looked at me again. He didn’t look at me directly, but I could see his eyes hold fixed, tracking me in the periphery when he glanced behind him.

 

The more nervous he seemed, the more I thought about that little tidbit of “information” he had let drop. The one about how Clara and Lucy were going to make the game a gender thing.

 

Maybe he had been the one who talked Clara into voting against me. Maybe he had told her that the three of them--

 

Fuck this. What’s the point? You LOST. It’s over. This whole thing was a waste of time.

 

I was too emotionally spent to micro-analyze anything. For once. Even ire seemed like too much effort. I turned and looked out the window. I settled into the seat. I let my body sway imperceptibly with the movements of the van.

 

Must be, like, 1:30 a.m. back home.

 

There was little traffic, since it was late on a weeknight. We pulled into the hotel after about fifteen minutes or so. Mercifully short ride, but Clara had managed to maintain her jabbering during most of it.

 

I felt a wave of relief when I heard the doorman open the van doors behind me. I would be able to grab my stuff and slip out without having to talk to anyone. I knew that nothing good could come of anything that was said. I grabbed my bags and headed for the revolving door.

 

“Jim…”

 

Unfortunately I had underestimated Clara again. She could not let me, her first kill, retreat without the tacit victory dance of addressing me. Her voice was a shower of dry ice across the back of my shoulders.

 

“Jee-um!”

 

No chance they could think I didn’t hear THAT.

 

I turned. Most of the contestants were out of the bus or stepping out of it. They all looked at me. Some of them were unloading their bags. They moved in slow motion, waiting to see what Clara would say. She held her camera in the air in her left hand.

 

“I got some photos…”

 

“R-r-right…?”

 

We had all posed in the Green Room before the show. A producer had taken photos using our cameras if we requested it. I had given them my camera. I had wanted to bring back some shots for the fam.

 

I was half turned toward Clara. I cocked my head to the side in an “I’m waiting…” stance.

 

“Well, I was taking up people’s email addresses. So that I could, um, send ‘em a scan of it…But…Oh, did…? You had your own camera, didn’t you?”

 

I turned and resumed walking.

 

“Yes,” I tossed over my shoulder.

 

If she said anything or made a face, I neither saw nor cared. I was through the revolving door in seconds. Back for some well-earned solitude. I hoped it was the last I would see or hear of any of them.

 

§§§

 

It was dark. My eyes were wide open. I was looking for anything that would get me a visual cue. Something to fill out the scene. Orient myself. There was nothing. Nothing but black.

 

Those drapes must be thick.

 

I was wide awake. It must have been, like, 3:30 back home. Several floors below, even L.A. was probably winding down for the night.

 

My mind was not winding down. I went over the whole game, the whole day. I could remember every moment of it. It had played back in what seemed like real time in my head at least twice since I went to bed. Like a really long song stuck in my head.

 

Some of the parts of the parts of the day that particularly bugged me would repeat themselves. Every word. Every emotion. Now overlaid with new cringe-worthy emotions and the anger of having suffered the outcome.

 

Many of the events would play back in slow motion, and with special emphasis. The ticking seconds as I tried to think of an answer, for example, would now seem like an hour. Or the playback would pause as I substituted vivid images and sounds of what I should have said and should have done. There were variations galore. The alternate worlds in which I won the prize money. Or—was it asking so much?—in which I was not the one humiliated by elimination in the first round.

 

I drank in the blackness in the room. I had temporarily gotten the instant replay part of my brain to SHUT UP by opening my eyes wide. My eyes had nothing to focus on. This seemed to keep away the images of the game, at least for the moment.

 

For a few seconds it looked as if I were hurtling through space. Or maybe that the dark was falling down on me like a waterfall of ink. My eyes kept trying to get a handle on what they were seeing. Strange patterns began to emerge.

 

I began to feel calmer. I decided I could use the utter darkness to meditate. What better way to focus my thoughts on my own consciousness? I would keep my eyes wide open and meditate on this abyss in front of me.

 

And so I lay there. Already my body began to relax. It was familiar with the drill. I stared for what must have been, maybe, thirty seconds.

 

Then there was her voice again. Clara’s

 

“Whaler?”

 

“I mean, people read Moby Dick in, like, high school, right?”

 

I sat up and threw off the covers. I had been lying in bed for well over an hour. Maybe close to two. Too long. I was catching the bed curse. That state where the feeling of the bed itself is keeping you awake. I needed to distract myself in some way. Do something to flush this game out of my head.

 

Light seemed to explode from the lamp when I switched it on. Instant eye-ache. I stood there for probably a minute trying to see.

 

On the desk I saw my notebook. I had not written since the previous night. When I saw it, part of me instantly melted at the thought of the therapy of it. So often writing had been my way out of some cognitive or emotional corner into which I had painted myself. I always seemed to forget about it in between these episodes. Something would finally lead me to the keyboard, and that ended the problem.

 

But as I started toward it, I hesitated. I knew what I would be writing about. There was no question. There was also no way I wanted to think about any of it anymore. I didn’t care if it might make it better. I was probably two hours into agonizing over already. I didn’t want to hear about it anymore.

 

It did not take long to choose my alternative. Perhaps even more than in home life, hotel rooms center on the television. They occupy relatively more of the tighter cubic footage, and they are positioned in front of the bed. I hadn’t brought a book. The choice was obvious.

 

I flipped around looking at the dismal late-night fare. Infomercials. Reruns of horrific, half-forgotten shows. The 1970s horror series “The Night Stalker,” for example. And cartoons.

 

Is there really sufficient demand somewhere for cartoons in the middle of the night?... Okay, but one that is NOT cannabis-related?

 

After a few clicks, I felt my chest nearly cave in. Budd Morton appeared on the screen. It was an episode of Quiz Slam. Sure it was in the middle of the night. But apparently they reran the evening’s show then. Not our episode--that wouldn’t be on for a couple of months. But it was Quiz Slam.

 

I looked up at the ceiling. Was it real? Was the ceiling like a mirror with someone looking in from the other side?

 

I felt that feeling that cropped up now and then. The sense that everything--my whole life--was some kind of absurd hoax. That whoever was behind it all would occasionally slip up and leave these clues. Clues that it was all a trick. That everything was set up ahead of time. Like I was a pawn in some incomprehensible game. A pawn suffering with the illusion that it had control over anything.

 

Maybe they weren’t slip-ups, I sometimes thought. Maybe this puppet master, or whatever, just liked throwing its signature into the mix occasionally. That would be part of the torture of it, wouldn’t it? For the pawn to suspect that it was a pawn. ‘Cause you couldn’t tell anyone you suspect this, right? They’d just think you needed lithium, or were just trying to be funny, or philosophical. Besides, what good would it do?  If you were right, you were just talking to other pawns, or automata, or whatever. Hopeless.

 

I lay there shaking my head in disbelief, thinking about the odds. I had happened to be awake. I had happened to decide to get up. To watch TV instead of writing or surfing the net. Then, further, I had happened to decide to channel surf, instead of, say dialing up more porn or an actual movie. All these little steps, these dominoes, fell into place to put Budd Morton on my screen. And back into my head.

 

I looked down from the ceiling and at the TV screen again. I knew at that moment that that was not Budd Morton smiling his dumb populist smile at me. That was the puppet master. Laughing at me.

 

I switched the channel. I actually left it on “Saved by the Bell” for a bit, not seeing it. I gazed blankly at the wooden actors. None of it seemed real for the moment. On a good night nothing much seems real in a strange place in the middle of the night at a quarter ‘til four.

 

After a few more channels I found some news. Parts of southern California were experiencing wildfires. That always managed to make the news. Scenes of helicopters dropping hopeless tons of water that immediately vaporized. The flames were kind of hypnotic.

 

After a few minutes of vacuous mainstream news, sleep began to seem possible. I left the TV on while I readjusted myself on the bed. I turned the sound down so that I couldn’t quite make out what was being said. After a few seconds I closed my eyes.

 

Sometime in that twilight of consciousness, just before sleep, there was something else. A twitch. Two, then three. I felt the wiggle deep in my rectum. Just the itch from too much caffeine maybe? But there was a peculiar aliveness about the movement.

 

This better not…this BETTER NOT be fucking what I THINK it fucking is.

 

I swung my legs off of the bed and trudged into the bathroom. I looked around for the lotion I had used the previous night. There was still a little left.

 

I dropped my shorts and sat on the toilet. I smeared the lotion quickly onto two adjacent fingers on my left hand. I reached under my balls and shoved those two fingers deep up my ass.

 

I pulled out the fingers. There they were. Two little white strings of puppet mastery. Each about two millimeters long. One lolled lazily on the fingernail of my index finger. The other was less happy about being ejected from his warm, putrid abode. He wriggled frantically at the bend of my second knuckle.

 

I had pinworms. An insidious form of intestinal parasite. Very contagious. Mainly transmitted by their microscopic eggs via surface-to-mouth contact. Children, with their questionable sanitary habits, are most susceptible to them.

 

They are not particularly dangerous, but they are extremely irritating. Besides the constant awareness they create that there is a fucking live worm in your butt, they cause that butt to itch. And they can be bloody hard to get rid of. One infected family member means the whole family has to take the medicine.

 

I panted. I was fully awake again. My anger was back in full force. I snatched toilet paper off the roll and wiped my greasy fingers on it. I wadded the paper and hurled it between my legs into the toilet.

 

“Dirty fucking shit eaters,” I said between my clenched teeth.

 

Then I reached up and plunged the fingers back into my rectum. The wipe had taken much of the lotion away, and the penetration was a bit more aggressive this time. Hurt.

 

Two knuckles deep in my own shitter, I swirled my fingers to try and capture more worms. I had to check if there were there more of the hideous freeloading creatures. A trip back to bed with them dancing around would simply keep me awake.

 

As I dug around I wondered how I had gotten infected. I had known them all too well as a nail-biting child. I was still a nail biter. And now I was around kids everyday. My own and the ones at the store.

 

Another worm appeared on my finger. I wiped it off. I added some more lotion this time before impaling myself again.

 

I wondered for a moment if the twins had infected me. Or maybe it was the dirty little fuckers buying candy at Pine Trail. Then I remembered one night seeing Jillie itch her pajama-ed ass. I was reading when I saw it. I recalled vaguely wishing she would go wash her hands at the time. But I hadn’t told her to.

 

Great. So now I have to not only PAY some quack like 75 bucks just to get a prescription, then I STILL have to shell out for medicine for everybody in the family.

 

I pulled my fingers out and examined them for the fourth time. No more worms. But here was a thin sheen of blood on my fingers from the small anal tear I had caused.

 

There were also a couple more of the small, clear gelatinous masses that I had been wiping off of my fingers. I suspected these might be what the worms ejected in and around the anus to spread the eggs. Perhaps it was what caused the itching. This, in turn, allowed the eggs to hitch a ride on the fingernails of filthy little urchins and nail biters like me.

 

I continued to angrily dig until I had cleaned out the rest of this egg jelly. I held the vague hope that if I broke the egg cycle I might avoid the embarrassing and costly trip through the healthcare wringer. We had no insurance.

 

Finally I flushed all the wads of parasite-infested TP down the toilet. I got in the shower. I paid particular attention to soaping up my ass. I also scraped the soap across all my fingernails. It took about five extra minutes to get all that soap out from under my nails.

 

After the shower I looked at my watch again. Close to 5 a.m. Florida time. I was now wet and exhausted. My rectum felt like I had reluctantly spent the evening underneath a couple of gay-porn actors. I shuffled back to bed, fell onto it.

 

I closed my eyes. The images of Quiz Slam did not seem to be coming back. That part of my brain was too tired. I felt like I was stapled to the mattress. Sleep started to come on at last.

 

Somewhere, though, in those moments before oblivion, I saw an image of my airplane. The one I was taking the next day. I imagined it flying across a map, like they did in old movies. Slowly. Across the country.

 

And glued to the map, at the top of Florida, was a little plastic replica of a Grab-n-Go store.


 

Chapter 17

 

 

 

My face in the glass. Greenish from the fluorescent bulbs buzzing above my head. No other sound.

 

Behind the face the parking lot was mostly dark. Not yet dawn.

 

My eyes looked wild. I felt it. I had opened the store not long before. Everything had started to crowd in on me. The colors. Having to talk to customers. I was staring at myself so that my mind had something to latch onto. To keep me from feeling like I was losing it.

 

Someone at the register cleared his throat.

 

“Mornin’ sir,” I heard myself say.

 

“Paper.”

 

I paused for the briefest instance. His answer brought me back to the present. The familiarity of anger. “Rudeness” always seemed to set me off.

 

I looked at the slack, expressionless face of the retiree in front of me. He was poking in his leather change pouch, digging through pennies. He glanced up with an “I’m waiting” look.

 

We’ll just dispense with the pleasantries then.

 

“50 cents,” I barked.

 

With that, of course, he gave me a stare. His index finger continued to stir the coinage.

 

“I thought it was 53. What about tax?”

 

I looked at him, let his question marinate. I figured there were only two people who tried to suggest a higher price than the one you had quoted them: imbeciles and assholes. I was pretty sure I knew which one he was.

 

“No tax on newspapers.”

 

“Marketland charges tax on papers.”

 

How I WISH you were there.

 

“I wouldn’t know, sir. But we--Grab-n-Go--here, there’s no tax on newspapers. Magazines, yes, newspapers, no.”

 

He looked down again, digging some more in the change purse.

 

“Well, that doesn’t make any sense.”

 

Mmm,” I yell-grunted, both as a response and to express disbelief that he was actually continuing this line of conversation.

 

He didn’t catch my drift. He still stood there sifting. He glanced at me as he carefully selected coins. I reached above my head and started pretending to count the cigarette packs in the hanging racks.

 

“I don’t see how one place in the same county would have to charge tax but another place wouldn’t.”

 

With that he decided, apparently, which two quarters in his collection he hated the most. He tossed them onto the counter. One circled for a moment before smacking the side of the cash register.

 

I managed to avoid glaring at him in the hope that he’d just leave. I imagined grabbing the back of his head and smashing it repeatedly against the counter. Pausing to look into his dazed, bloody face and scream “Why can’t you just hand the change to me? Why do have to masturbate your own ego by pretending that I am beneath your dignity?”

 

He left, finally. He walked out shaking his head. Obviously disgusted with the terrible service you get these days from simply trying to buy a newspaper.

 

I immediately abandoned the cigarette counting and leaned back against the counter. I looked at the clock on the register’s monitor. 6:22 a.m. I shook my head. About eight hours of work to go. No lunch break, nor any other break.

 

Grab-n-Go massaged the lax Florida employment laws about breaks. They claimed we had sufficient de facto breaks between customers. Never mind the stocking we were supposed to do. Probably cost them more to pay the fucking lawyers to figure out the loophole than they would have paid for the breaks.

 

As usual, the moment of solitude was welcome. This was my first day back on the job since Quiz Slam. I had officially graduated from Pine Trail. I was now an official assistant manager at the Riverside Doctor’s Landing store.

 

I had arrived at 5 a.m. at the dark building. There was no third shift at the Riverside store. I had let myself in and looked around. It was difficult to believe I was really awake, really back at this job. Apparently there had been some part of me during the whole Quiz Slam experience that really believed I would not have to come back to this job.

 

Quiz Slam still had me in a headlock. My appearance on the show had probably played back in my mind a thousand times. I was hung over. The only way I had been able to get any sleep since I came back was by getting nearly blackout drunk. Usually scotch. Didn’t want to risk waking up during the night to piss beer, having to start all over again.

 

The store had looked strange when I came in. It was backlit by just a couple of fluorescents from the storage room and the restroom area. The usual lurid colors of the signage and packaging were dulled. Plush toys hanging from the fixtures looked more like hospital specimens or bad taxidermy. It was dead silent in there, except for the buzz of the cooler compressors.

 

By now I had gotten pretty familiar with the process of counting down the safe from the previous night’s work. Tons of twenties in those numbered envelopes. If the take this morning had been any indication, the Riverside store was earning far less than Pine Trail. I had actually finished the deposit long before it was officially time to open.

 

I looked out the front window again. No one was coming. A few cars whooshed by on the road out front.

 

The store had not been very busy after I opened it, pre-dawn or not. Fine by me. I thought about the prospect of having more stand-around time at this store. It would mean more time to do what I had always enjoyed doing most at any McJob: staring off into the distance and daydreaming.

 

Somehow, though, this thought wasn’t exactly re-inflating my bubble. I was back in that green vest again. I looked at it. Stained across the belly from leaning over dusty boxes and spilling coffee. It smelled slightly sour. I never wanted to take it home to wash it.

 

A couple of headlights appeared outside in parking lot. I watched the car slowly come to a stop out front.

 

I rubbed my ass against the cabinets. My asshole still felt a little bit itchy. Probably from the damage of trying to dig out the pinworms. I had only felt one or two since the rectal search-and-destroy mission in Los Angeles. I had found a cheap herbal medicine for them at a health food store. So far it was holding.

 

Meep-meep-meep-meep…!!!

 

My stomach twisted at the sound of the door alarm, the obnoxious notification that customers were entering. The damned thing was loud and incessant. Nothing like the quiet “ding-dong” at Pine Trail. It sounded like a smoke detector, with only slightly less of a piercing quality. I had noticed a couple of customers freezing at the sound of it, thinking they had set off some kind of anti-theft device or metal detector.

 

The customer walking in seemed not to be phased by it. She held her head slightly downcast, but her eyes looked at me with a calm and searching expression. She was tall and middle-aged. Seemed to glide to the counter. Her ghostly stride was somehow menacing. The sun was on its way up, but it was still dark outside. Still the middle of the night, basically. The time when waking life is on a continuum with nightmares.

 

“Haven’t seen you here before,” she said.

 

She set her purse on the counter. I noticed her mannish hands. Tanned and thickly veined. This highlighted the fact that there was much about her that was masculine.

 

“No, this is my first day…here. I, uh, we train, get trained out at the store in…” I gestured west. It was too early for the memory to kick in yet.

 

“Pine Trail?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Mmm…”

 

Her eye contact was somewhat unnerving. One of those people who look at you like they are reading a fortune cookie strip glued to your eyebrows. But she held a faint smile that, along with her pattern of wrinkles, gave her the harmless look of a young chimp.

 

“I need a pack of Phelps Menthol Light 120’s,” she said in a lower voice. “D’ya like it?”

 

“Phelps, Phelps…” I said, scanning hanging racks above my head for the obscure brand.

 

“It’s usually right up here…”

 

She reached too near my forehead and pointed upward and to the left of where I had been looking. I stared at the hand pointing at the packs. It was like looking at Robert Mitchum’s hand wearing press-on nails.

 

“Oh, of course…thanks. Do I like it? The, ah, working here? Well, I, ah…I guess it pays the bills. You know.”

 

She nodded. She resumed her simian, soul-searching look. I looked down, began tapping the purchase into the register.

 

“I work down at the Acreage,” she said, tossing her head slightly in its direction, but maintaining the stare. “Name’s Helga. I stop in here most mornings.”

 

The Acreage was a new golfing resort about twelve miles south of Doctor’s Landing. Big-time conferences, big-time attitude. Prices that kept most of the public at more than arms reach. The commercial version of the gated community. You occasionally heard about the Names that choppered in for a weekend.

 

“Oh…well…how’s that working for you?”

 

“Stopping in here?” she asked with a hint of a smirk.

 

“Ha-ha, nicely done…” I said sincerely, raising an eyebrow. “No, I mean--”

 

“I manage the housekeeping staff. It’s a good company. Two sixty three, right?”

 

“Wh--? Oh, ye--” I glanced at the register. “Right, that’s right. $2.63. Nothing else, then?”

 

She shook her head. She gingerly counted out three ones. Some vague pragmatic part of me realized—somewhat apprehensively—that it might be good to network with her. But the thought of sending her the wrong signals was frightening.

 

“Yeah, I, uh…I’ve kept an eye on th-the, uh, job announcements down there…”

 

The stare was merciless, inscrutable. I made change.

 

“You know, looking for something that, um…f-for the right opening…”

 

I handed her the change. Incredibly, she let another beat pass.

 

“Well, I’ll could give you some advance notice if I hear about something coming up in…what? Retail, sales?”

 

“Oh, that’d be…or management. Would be what I would, um, hope for. Thanks. That would be nice of you.”

 

“Alright, then, ahhh…”

 

She broke the stare to lean toward my nametag.

 

“Oh, sorry…Jim. Nice to me you.”

 

“Jim. Nice to meet you.”

 

Meep-meep-meep-meep-meep…!!!

 

Another customer swept into the store, made a bee-line for the coffee. This seemed to disrupt Helga’s Stare.

 

Thank you!

 

“Ok, Jim. You have a good one.”

 

“Thanks. You too, Helga.”

 

I watched Helga as she glided back to her teal Mustang convertible. I’d probably see her several times a week. I had noticed at Pine Trail that these stores tend to have regulars. Missouri too. People on their way to work mostly. You saw them every day around the same time. They’d stop in every day for a pack instead of buying a carton. A single beer instead of a 20 pack. Stuck in a mindless routine. Grab-N-Go’s bread and butter.

 

I suspected that Helga would never deliver on a job lead. It was the same with all the regulars I had encountered. Our conversations would have a mind-numbing, Sisyphean sameness every day. Neither of us would continue to think of the other person outside of that fleeting moment at the cash register. So we would tacitly settle on a script to relieve the awkward silences. It wasn’t much, but it was better than the barely-subdued hostility many customers spewed.

 

“You’re out of decaf.”

 

I looked away from the window, at the dude now standing at the counter. He had set a styro of steaming coffee on the counter. He wasn’t looking at me. He was looking through the bills in his wallet.

 

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” I said, honestly. I hated to find coffee pots dry and baking on the coils when I went to buy a cup. “Could I fix some for you? It only takes a couple--”

 

“No,” he said, slapping a single onto the counter. “Can’t you see I already got some?”

 

“Well, that cup could have been for someone else.” I felt my cheeks tingle, reddening at the confrontation.

 

“Who?” he asked. He looked around the store, hamming it up like he was searching for someone.

 

“You could be taking it home to someone--oh, never mind. What’s the point? One-oh-nine!”

 

My face was fully red. My aggression had slipped out. He glared at me while digging in his pockets for change.

 

“How long have you been working at this store, bud?”

 

“Forever.”

 

“Yeah? Well I ain’t never seen ya,” he said.

 

He “pharoahed” his head when he said it. Something rednecks had picked up from Black culture. I had always thought it ironic.

 

I shrugged. I wasn’t sure how far I should take this on my first day at the store. My brain started weighing the possible damage to my employment history versus the joys of telling an asshole to fuck off.

 

He leaned in. He had a look of sadistic glee. I looked at his brownish-yellow baby-corn teeth.

 

“I’ll let Don know about how things went for me here this morning.”

 

My stomach twisted. Something must have shown on my face.

 

“Uh-huh. That’s right, I know Volker,” he said. “Ask him about ol’ Charlie next time you see him.”

 

Still the grin. Then he leaned in again. “You gotta watch that smart mouth in this town, buddy.”

 

He grabbed his coffee, started to walk toward the door. He kept his eyes locked on mine. Dancing in the end zone. I just scowled at him. Figured the damage was already done.

 

After the beeping of the door alarm subsided I kicked a box of styrofoam plates as hard as I could. The box was light, and took wing. My legs suddenly felt numb as I watched it arc through the air toward the hot dog grill. I hadn’t meant to kick it so far.

 

The light box bounced off of the metal grill, doing no damage to it. But a couple of dogs bounced on the floor. They rolled in hair and other detritus. Left a trail of grease.

 

“FUCK this fucking job! This…LIFE!”

 

I leaned back against the cabinets again. I looked out the wall of windows again. The sky was etched with the pastels of sunrise against a deep blue. But I would have none of it.

 

You just HAD to vent on the guy who knows Volker, didn’t you?

 

I mule-kicked the cabinet behind me with my right leg. I stopped myself from checking to see if it cracked, or if I had left a mark. What difference did it make now?

 

It sickened me to realize the power that customers held over me. I could put in my time for months, maybe a couple of years. Dragging my ass out of bed at 4:30 to start counting the money by 5:00. Putting in 10 hour shifts, stocking the shelves. All of it. Then some redneck fuck comes in here and decides he wants to make trouble. Baits me into it, then goes crying to the boss. Next thing I know, my job is toast.

 

“Who? I don’t see nobody here…”

 

I pictured myself knocking the cup out of his hand, coffee spraying everywhere.

 

I folded my arms, shook my head like there was something inside it. So now it was time to edit the replays. More l’esprit d’escalier. Quiz Slam was not enough. I knew that I was now in for a good hour or more of replaying this store scene. Seeing “Charlie” wag his ugly head at me. And that grin.

 

The store was quiet, empty again. But it looked horrific at that moment. The signs and chintzy merchandise, hanging everywhere, stacked on nearly every surface. Nearly all of it shat out of abysmal Chinese sweatshops and shipped here to dangle in front of my eyes for ten hours a day.

 

The contents of my mind were just as bad as my surroundings, I realized. There was the image of the inbred trailer trash who had found a way to fuck with my thoughts. Then the fact that I gave a shit about what he thought at all. And having to endure my own private screening of the episode for who-knew how long.

 

I thought about how far I had sunk. From the perfect hours of solitude in university libraries. Writing. Living a quiet and relatively content life, preparing for an academic career.

 

And now this place. These people. Stained. I had done it all to myself. Ruined myself, perhaps.

 

I spat at my own leg. It missed and spattered on the cushion mats on the floor. I was sick of myself. If it wasn’t the constant replaying of the Quiz Slam humiliation, it was this. I wanted to crawl out of my own mind.

 

Above me in the racks were hundreds of cigarettes. Nearly all the brands you could ask for. The big names, the ones you’ve heard of, of course. Then there were all these other exotic names. Hold-overs from decades ago that had not quite killed-off their loyal customers. Many of them were cheap, generic crap.

 

Fuck it. Fuck my lungs. Fuck me.

 

I grabbed a pack from the rack. The brand my ex-girlfriend Kelsie had smoked.

 

I looked out front for cars coming up. Nothing. Most of the people with crazy early hours had already stopped in. Most everyone else was just getting up. It was the perfect time to light up out front. Just like Billie always did out at Pine Trail.

 

I pulled out a cigarette. Smelled it. The odor was kind of artificial, but I caught that pungent sweetness of tobacco. The flame on the lighter crackled as I lit it. I sucked in the smoke, feeling the familiar burn in the throat and lungs. People don’t cough like they do in the movies on the first pull. It’s a smooth burn unless you suck in too much.

 

Sun was starting to come up. I watched the blue cloud snake out of my nose and mingle with the cool dawn air. This was where I belonged. I had proved it. This was the job I deserved. I had found my place in the world. My own little black hole in reality.

 

I smiled, leaned back against the storefront. Then I felt the nausea coming on. Maybe I was dragging too deeply.


 

Chapter 18

 

 

 

Shift changes suck.

 

Customer comes into a C-store. Wants to buy a pack of gum or a pack of smokes. Maybe grab a beverage for the drive home. Leaves the car running, ‘cause how long could it possibly take?

 

Then he sees the dude behind the counter. Standing there with a cash drawer, waiting to put it into the register. Watching the other worker frantically counting the money while a line full of customers waits. It’s like being in the grocery store line behind the old lady looking for her coupons and checkbook.

 

So the customer stands there glaring at the clerks. Gets pissed off. Maybe starts giving them shit about the wait.

 

At the Riverside store, I was the only guy behind the counter. Having to do the whole shift change myself. That’s the way some fucktard thought it made sense to do the shift changes there. Solo.

 

At least at Ben’s store in Pine Trail—the training store—there was always someone to cover a second register during the shift change. Sure, the clerks still had to run totals from all the little machines, too. The check approval machine, the machine for diesel gas purchases, the electronic lottery rig, etc. But that was nothing compared to fielding customers and doing all that other shit at the same time.

 

It was 1:50 p.m. Still my first day at the Riverside store. Seemed like it had gone on forever.

 

Marta worked second shift. She was due to arrive at 2. I wasn’t looking forward to meeting her.

 

I kept waiting for customers to leave. Hoping for a perfect five minutes to get it all done without interruption. If I missed running a single total, it would throw off all the totals—in which case I might as well not have done a shift change at all. At least that’s probably what Volker would say to me when I got the stern phone call.

 

The thing that took the longest was writing down the I.D. numbers for all the scratch-off lottery tickets. I’d already tried to do it five times. Each time I got about halfway through the scratch lottery tickets before three customers would come in.

 

I was getting antsy. I was going to look like an idiot in front of Marta. She was now my co-assistant manager. That meant she was one of my tacit competitors for whatever managerial positions might open up. Plus, she had been at this store for a while. I figured the last thing I wanted to do was give her even more hand in the situation.

 

A customer—Hank, he said—was talking to me at the counter. A regular, he said. Introducing himself to me. Nice enough guy, but I couldn’t stop glancing out the window. He had talked for 30 seconds, 45…A minute ticked by with no other customers. Time I could have spent doing the shift change.  It was like I was holding my breath while crossing a bridge. But I nodded at him, smiled.

 

“Yeah, me an’ an ol’ boy I go out fishing with, we are looking to start a bait shop. We figure down there at the river bend, y’know, down where the big bridge to Kingsboro is? We figure that’d be a…that’d be the best spot for it.”

 

“Uh-huh?”

 

“’Cause, y’know, all you see down there, on the weekends…People’s always fishing off that bridge. Hunnerds of ‘em.”

 

“Yeah, I’ve…I have seen ‘em. Hey listen--”

 

“Yeah, you cain’t miss ‘em. They all over that bridge. Shit, I got to slow down to 25 ever time I go over the dang thing. Cain’t never tell if one o’ them young’uns is gonna jump out in the road.”

 

“Uh…ri--Listen, Hank. You know Marta, right?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“Yeah, well, she’s gonna be here in the next couple of minutes. Expecting me to have this register open for her. You know, gotta do this stupid shift-over thing…?”

 

“Oh, oh, yeah. I reckon it is about that ti--”

 

“So, yeah, so I hate to run you off. It was very ni--Thanks for coming in, introducing yourself.”

 

“Nice to meetcha Jim.”

 

We shook hands. His palm felt something like what I’d imagine a man-sized lizard’s would. My academic’s hand probably felt like a child’s to him.

 

Hank walked out. At least he had not bought a scratch ticket. I grabbed the clipboard to finish writing the numbers. I got them all down in another minute or so. Half the battle.

 

Then I heard the thump of a car door.

 

“HRRRNNNGH!” I growl-moaned.

 

I stood from my crouch and looked out the window. It had just been Hank getting into his truck. He waved at me through his windshield. Must have finished a smoke first, made a call, or something. Still no other cars.

 

I threw the clipboard on the back desk, leapt for the freestanding machines. I started furiously dialing in the little codes. Soon I had a cacophony of printers going all at once. The A.M radio was still blasting classical music. All these sounds together sounded like a John Cage piece.

 

No time to listen to it. I started keying in the shift change codes on the main cash register. It would take a while for the shift report to print. I cursed myself, realizing I probably should have started the register first.

 

Sure enough, as I was keying in the launch codes, I saw it in the corner of my eye. A worker’s pickup up careening into the parking lot. Pickups always seemed to careen into the parking lot. It made the passengers bounce and sway in the cabin, as they stared straight ahead at the store.

 

I looked back down. Typed in some more codes. If I could get the changeover going, I should be able to have the register open by the time they thumped their selections onto the counter. Probably beer. It would take them a few moments to retrieve from the cooler at the back of the store.

 

The main printer began rocking on its mesh platform. Dot-matrix piece of crap. Matched the outmoded software the stores used for accounting.

 

A second later the “IN” door swung open. The customer alert device shrieked its shriek. I scowled toward the door.

 

Two filthy workmen were bounding into the store. One of them broke off his banter with the other guy. He squared his shoulders and glared back at me.

 

“Whoa, now, don’t be giving me that hard look!”

 

I snapped out of my solipsism. Snapped back into the animal world of testosterone and boundaries. It occurred to me to sidestep the issue. I gestured toward the top of the “IN” door.

 

“That door alarm has got to go,” I said. “It’s rough on a hangover.”

 

“Oh. Aw’ight. I gotcha bubba. I thought you was tryin’ to start some shit.”

 

His buddy laughed, headed back toward the beer cooler. Mr. Sensitive sauntered toward the counter where I was.

 

Great…

 

“Little too much beer last night, huh?”

 

“Yeah. Long day.”

 

How far will I have to take this lie?

 

“I hear ya, bubba. You gotta learn to roll with it, man. Know what I mean?”

 

I forced a smile. My ego was only surviving this because my mind was stuck on finishing the shift change.

 

Clink!

 

I glanced down toward the timer safe. It was now unlocked. When Marta got here I could remove the drop envelopes out of it, take them to the back. Start counting the money.

 

Mr. Sensitive craned his neck. He looked over my shoulder at the smokeless tobacco.

 

“Ya’ll got any Bearcat?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“What’s the date on it?”

 

I turned my back to him, reached up toward the cans of snuff. I gritted my teeth and widened my eyes. It felt like lightning was shooting out of my temples. I knew what was coming.

 

“Let’s see…This was made, ahhhh…the 24th of last month.”

 

Wait for it…

 

“Whut? Ya’ll ain’t got nothin’ fresher than that?”

 

You put a turd in your mouth, and you want to make sure it's fresh?! IDIOT! DOLT! I HOPE YOUR TONGUE ROTS WITH CANCER!

 

“No sir,” I said. “We get it in every week. We have to sell what our distributor sends us.”

 

I felt heat creeping up my neck to my face.

 

His buddy had now arrived at the counter. He set two twelve packs of cheap-shit Dicker’s Lite on the counter. He grinned at me moronically.

 

“Well, how come ZiPantry up the road there don’t have trouble gettin' fresher Bearcat than that?”

 

“I’m honestly not sure. It’s a conundrum.”

 

“A who?”

 

The door alarm began shrieking again. It was Marta. Mr. Sensitive glanced toward her, then back at me.

 

“You do the ordering here, or what?” he asked me.

 

“No, this is my first day actually,” I said. “At this store anyway.”

 

“Well, bubba, you need to get up to speed,” he said.

 

I squinted at him and my lip curled up in a “Are you an idiot?” expression.

 

Marta was behind the counter, at this point. She was placing her belongings here and there. She had come in wearing her vest, instead of donning it at the store like most clerks did.

 

“Like I said. I didn’t do the order.”

 

Marta had listened to the exchange so far. Her eyes peered from behind small wire frames. Her expression was severe. All the sun damage didn’t make her look any more pleasant. Her gigantic mullet was a frayed, partially bleached mess.

 

“What’s the problem, sweetie?” Marta asked Mr. Sensitive.

 

Nice. Forget trying to establish backup for your co-worker.

 

He reiterated the “problem,” calling the person who ordered the tobacco an idiot. Turns out that was Marta. Her face tightened.

 

“That’s the freshest they sent me. I can’t make it myself--”

 

“Well, but how come up at ZiPantry--?”

 

“Sir, that’s what they sent me.” Louder this time. More of a bark “Now, if you can get it fresher at ZiPantry, I don’t know what to tell you.”

 

The men looked shocked. I looked pleased.

 

“Well, I reckon I’ll just buy it there then. Shit. You got some attitude, lady.”

 

They walked out, leaving the beer on the counter.

 

I shook my head in disbelief. “Thanks. I can’t imag--”

 

“You got register two open?”

 

“Um…no. Those guys ca--”

 

“Register two is the second shift register. You’re sposta have it open by the time I come in.”

 

It hit me that she was trying to act like she was my manager, rather than co-assistant manager. I stood taller, put a hand on my hip.

 

“Uhh…I know that. At the Pine Trail store, there was always another person cl--on the clock, during the, you know, the shift over. It’s harder to do with one person.”

 

“Well, this ain’t Pine Trail. And it ain’t rocket science.”

 

I stared at her for a beat too long, for effect. She held her chin jutted forward. Almost a caricature of aggression. Her mullet, with its “party in the back” running halfway to her rear, seemed to be an extrusion of her misshapen personality.

 

The heat had returned to my face and neck. I continued to stare at her. I calculated whether it made any sense to try putting her in her place.

 

Suddenly my legs made the decision for me. They had been standing all day. It felt good to sit down on the floor in front of the timed safe. I started raking the drop envelopes out of it. Time to count the first shift take and do the bank deposit.

 

I knew Marta probably felt like she had proven herself to me. That bothered me. But a wiser part of me thought about the universe outside the building. And of getting the fuck home. Do you go to the zoo and get bent out of shape during a stare-down with a bobcat?

 

I walked back to Don Volker’s office with the money. That’s where we did the paperwork, the counting. I sat in his chair for a moment. Happy to be away from the customers, from Marta.

 

There was a monitor on, color. It was a quad-display of the video feed from the security cameras. I looked at screen that showed Marta at the register from the side.

 

I watched her finish counting her cash drawer, checking to make sure I hadn’t shorted her. She slammed the register shut. Then she stood with her right fist on her hip, looking out the front windows. She had switched the radio to a country music station. She started tapping a foot. Nothing about her seemed feminine except for her stature and skinny build. She was like an angry little man whose dick had dried up and fallen off years ago.

 

I stared at this creature in amazement. This was what I would be stuck with nearly every workday. So much for a pleasant--or even tolerable--working relationship. Of all the people in the Grab-N-Go corporation. The dumb bad luck of it pissed me off.

 

The phone rang. I jumped. Back in the moment.

 

I glanced at the monitor. Marta was headed toward the phone. I snatched it off the cradle.

 

“Grab-N-Go, Riverside.”

 

I smiled at the monitor. Marta had frozen in mid-reach, waiting for the second ring.

 

“Hi hon,” said Katie.

 

It was good to hear her voice. She asked about how the first day had gone. She was wondering what time I was supposed to get home. The twins were clamoring to get out of the house for the afternoon. Maybe grab a game of putt-putt. Was eating out a possibility? I told her I’d probably need a nap first.

 

I knew the nap would be tough to come by. The kids had been antsy for entertainment even before I had traipsed off to California. We had not gone out for dinner since I had returned. So, if Katie gave them the affirmative, it would renew their excitement. Loud TV and petty kiddie arguments would ensue as I attempted to rest.

 

“Could you guys maybe…go for a walk? When I get home? Like down the river or something?”

 

“I’ve already done that today.”

 

“Well…whatever, but I’m bushed, okay? I need to sleep for a little bit. Otherwise I’ll be a zombie when we are out. Remember? Like on your birthday…?”

 

Her birthday had passed since I was doing the 5 a.m. clock-ins for Grab-n-Go. We had all gone out to T.J. McFrosty’s in Kingsboro to celebrate. I had spent most of the evening in a near daze, staring at the knick-knacks on the walls of the theme restaurant.

 

She agreed, but sounded put-upon.

 

“Thanks. If I wait ‘til later to nap, you know, it’ll be harder to sle--to get to sleep tonight.”

 

“Right… Oh yeah! Listen: the new weekly paper came out today. I looked in the job section, and I-I think there might be…it sounded like something you might like.”

 

I suddenly felt more awake.

 

“What is it?”

 

“It has something to do with education. A State of Florida thing. But it doesn’t sound like a teaching job.”

 

“Well…what--?”

 

“I don’t have the paper right, here…I’ll have to--”

 

“No, it’s okay. I’ll ju--Wait til I get home.”

 

I liked the “not a teaching job” part. I decided I might as well use the anticipation to keep up my inner drive, get me home.

 

I hung up with Katie. Started counting down the money, balancing totals. I was only $1.34 over for the shift. I thought briefly about keeping a buck out of the deposit. But I decided maybe the overage would balance out shortages later on. If anyone was paying attention, anyway.

 

A last glance at the security monitors. Marta was changing a couple of the small cans of garbage. No customers. Looked like a good time to head out. I stuck the bank drop bag in my armpit. Headed out of the office.

 

I passed Marta. She gave me a suspicious look.

 

“You ought to stick that deposit bag under your vest,” she said. “I wouldn’t trust any of these customers as far as I could spit at ‘em.”

 

Oh, working with you is just going to be grand.

 

“I think I’ll be alright. Thanks so much, though.”

 

She seemed unfazed by the heavy sarcasm.

 

“And next time you need to get these trashcans done before I get in. I don’t wanna be doing ‘em twice on my shift--”

 

I let the door shut behind me before she had finished. Incredible. If she was not going to afford me civility on our first meeting, I decided, no point in trying to hold up my end.

 

I headed to the car. I stared toward the river, in the distance. I pushed Marta out of my mind and thought about that job lead.


 

Chapter 19

 

 

 

Instead of going to the bank to drop off the daily deposit, I stuck it under the seat in my car. It was just a little brick of money in a plastic bag, barely noticeable. I wanted to go on home, get that nap. We were going out later, Katie, the twins and I. I had a key for the deposit drop at the bank. I could do it then.

 

It felt good to get out of the store. Dank little cinder block building. From the store window I could look at the sun shining all day, but getting out in the breeze was different. I could breathe. It didn’t smell like mop water and cardboard. Okay, it smelled like river water instead, but that was somehow better.

 

I rolled down my window for the short drive to the houseboat. My hand reached out and cupped the air like a kid. Heads in passing cars nodded. Probably thought I was waving. But I was not thinking of them. Not thinking much at all, really. The radio was off. I listened to the rhythmic patterns of white noise my arm was making in the wind.

 

After a couple of moments, I noticed that I was still wearing my green vest. I alternated arms for steering, wriggled my way of it. As it passed over my head, I noticed that it still smelled like cigarette smoke. My throat tightened. It struck me that Katie might figure out that I had smoked. I lifted the collar of my shirt and sniffed. It seemed okay.

 

Pulling into my parking spot at the houseboat, I made a mental bet: Katie had not taken the kids outside. I stuck the deposit in my belt, and got out of the car.

 

Before I made it to the door I could hear the TV blasting inside. I opened the door. Tim was splayed on the floor, two feet from the screen. He was slurping noodles out of a giant bowl of ramen. He turned to look at me. A huge, yellow-white mass of pasta hung from his mouth. He looked like Cthulu.

 

“MmSehhmm!” Tim emitted. His eyes smiled.

 

I attempted a smile. The color of the noodles reminded me of pinworms. I wondered if Tim had been the one who had given me my little dose of parasites. Maybe both twins.

 

Katie came out of the bedroom in a towel at that moment. She looked at the dripping mess Tim now attempt to stuff in his mouth.

 

“Timothy! You are eating like a pig!” she shouted. “You should be eating that at the table anyway.”

 

Tim always seemed to me to have three basic moves: playing video games, watching TV, and rooting in the kitchen for food. These were habits that he seemed to have been allowed to cultivate while staying at his Dad’s place, back in Missouri. The visits seemed to be non-stop binges of screen time punctuated only by visits to the fridge.

 

I had tried at first to break him of the pattern. It was a cold war. Getting him to do anything besides the Big Three was a sales job. We would bar him from the games as punishment. But then he’d always manage to get into more trouble.

 

After I figured out that he was probably conditioning us by causing trouble away from the Big Three, part of me gave up. I got tired of being the bad guy. I got tired of making his father seem like the hero. Tim’s weekends at his father’s must have seemed to him like trips to Disneyworld.

 

Tim had not taken Katie’s “subtle hint” about eating at the table. She yelled at him again. She switched off the TV for good measure. With that, Tim stomped to the table with his bowl. He did not resume eating. Instead, he donned his trademark pout. Head down to his chest, arms crossed.

 

Katie padded up to me in her towel. She smiled a heavy-lidded smile, put her arms around me. I could feel her body under the towel.

 

She kissed my neck. Then I heard her start sniffing. I felt myself tense up.

 

“You smell like smoke,” she said.

 

“Oh…I was talking to one of the co-workers, b-before I left,” I said. “Marta, her name is. She was standing right outside the front door. Y’know, so customers would have to walk right through the smoke.”

 

“Hmmm…”

 

I wasn’t sure whether she believed me. It mattered. Smoking to me was always something to keep hidden. Didn’t know why. I’d never felt the same about drinking. It must have been the way parents and other adults had always acted about it. There was a certain stigma. “Smoker” was something of a pejorative term. This was long before they started using cartoon characters in cigarette ads.

 

‘Course, that only kept me from smoking out in the open. I had still done it. Off and on, anyway, through the years. Same with sex, I guess. Maybe that was the pairing the tobacco companies had installed in the lizard part of my brain.

 

Also, Katie hated it. Early on in our pairing she had said that she could never imagine herself with a smoker. But I didn’t plan on becoming a smoker now, anyway. I just wanted smoke whenever I felt like it.

 

I had a good reason to change the subject, keep her mind off of the smell. I whispered in her ear about taking the kids for a walk. That way I could take a nap, I reminded her, “since we were goin’ out, and all.”

 

“Well…okay…” she whispered, looking frustrated. “But I just took a shower…”

 

“Well, send them out…something…” I whispered—more of a rasp, really. “Just make sure they aren’t in here making noise. Remind them about later.”

 

I shut the door to the bedroom. I started closing the blinds, shutting out as much light as I could. Back in another daytime tomb. It reminded me of seeing my Uncle Joe’s bedroom when I was a kid. He worked as a Deputy on graveyard sometimes. His room was an ominous pit into which the cousins and I would sometimes peer. Anger bellowed out when we got too loud.

 

The kids cheered in the other room at Katie’s announcement. Telling them about our planned outing had worked. This would buy me at least forty minutes of compliance, experience told me. I didn’t want to nap for more than an hour anyway.

 

I stripped to my underwear and stretched out on the bed. The sheets were cool. Lying down felt almost alien. Sometimes when you jog hard for a long time you don’t realize how intense the run has been until you stop. I felt my heart finally begin to slow. My constant background headache began to subside.

 

The house boat got quiet—as quiet as it ever became. When the building itself was nearly emptied of sounds, fainter sounds usually filtered in. It was basically a floating mobile home, after all. But these external sounds weren’t so bad. The lapping of the river water underneath. Cars whooshing by on the main road. The occasional motorboat.

 

But then a voice…

 

“I mean, people read Moby Dick in, like, high school, right?”

 

Clara was back. She was like the Cheshire Cat. Only in her case, the voice appeared first, and the face faded in afterward.

 

Then the familiar sequences began. I went through the game, round after round. I remembered every nuance of all my thoughts. Every facial expression. I did not quite remember all the questions. The reactions, and the emotions, though…

 

Lying on the bed had seemed to trigger it. I don’t know how little sleep I had gotten since the game. Every night it was this. This fucking Zapruder film playing in my skull.

 

I got up, walked to the window. I looked through the blinds at the river out back. The sun was reflecting of all the ripples and waves. I remembered I had read that apes would sometimes travel for miles to be able to sit and stare at these flickering lights. Supposed have a hypnotic, calming effect.

 

This reminded me that I should do a little meditating. I sat with my back against the bed, legs cross in the usual position. I breathed in deeply. Thought about nothing but the breath. Tried to let the other thoughts fade away.

 

I probably managed to do fifteen minutes or so. It felt good, but the relaxation was hard won. There is jogging meditation and then there are uphill sprints. The tensions nip at your heels the whole way up. The constant reminders not to let the other thoughts come in and take over.

 

I opened my eyes slowly. Sat blinking for a couple of minutes. So much for sleep, I figured. Maybe the meditation would hold me.

 

I got up and went to the closet, put on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. I felt somewhat more ready to come out of my isolation tank again. I walked out of the bedroom.

 

Katie was sitting on the couch reading. It was a warm day and she was still in her towel. She looked up at me and smiled. I snuggled up next to her and breathed-in her soapy-clean smell. We kissed and I ran my palm over a nipple bulge in the terrycloth.

 

I felt an erection begin to strain against my zipper. But I knew the kids would be back any minute. Katie knew it too. I could tell be the way she broke the kiss and gave me one of those “That was nice, let’s do it again sometime” giggles.

 

“You been reading most of the day?”

 

“Yeah, pretty much. I did some laundry before lunch.”

 

I looked around the room. She liked to rearrange the furniture. She was probably bored. I wondered how many times a day she thought about moving into a real house. Probably as many times as she felt frustrated with my job outlook.

 

Oh…” she said suddenly. She got up and headed for the kitchen. “I wanted to show you that job announcement in the paper.”

 

I felt a little charge of excitement. In the process of trying to settle down and lose consciousness, I had forgotten about the job lead.

 

Katie flapped the classifieds page into my lap. It was the Doctor’s Landing Clarion. Katie had circled the ad in the education section.

 

“I know you, uh, want to get out of education,” she said, “but take a look at this. It is not a teaching job.”

 

The job was a three month contract job in Kingsboro. They were looking for college graduates who had some experience as teachers.

 

The state had implemented standards testing for its community college students. There were several of these in the Kingsboro area. There had been a scandal a few years back when it was discovered that some of the graduates could not read or write. Employers had started anonymously going to the local press and talking about graduates who couldn’t fill out applications. Within a couple of years the COM-CAT standards test was born.

 

The tests included a written portion—essays. They needed people to score these essays. Florida had farmed out the contract out to Pellton. It was a national outfit that did standardized testing, workplace testing, all that. Pellton was hiring the scorers and organizing the scoring sessions. 16 bucks an hour, they were paying.

 

“Ohhh…This is good,” I said to Katie, grinning.

 

She smiled and bounced a little with excitement.

 

“This is perfect,” I said, looking at the ad again. “I mean…the work is perfect. High level conceptual work, essays…And no students to deal with…”

 

I paused, sat back in the chair. I stared at the ad.

 

She nodded. “But…?”

 

“It’s a short-term contract, though, you know…so, so…but it’s good money. I just don’t--”

 

“But you wouldn’t have to quit the job you have, right? Doesn’t it say they have an evening shift?”

 

“No, no, you’re right. They have a 6-10 shift. Whew! That would get me home late.”

 

“So, if it didn’t pan out…If it didn’t turn into anything else…”

 

“Right. The fallback job would still be in place. Grab-n-Go to the rescue again.”

 

Katie went into the bedroom to get dressed. I sat there for a few minutes, thinking over the job ad. It seemed like a good lead. A good way to network, too. Something good for the resume.

 

But I was getting sick of The Promise of a career, of real money. That’s the bullshit that keeps people paying tuition. That’s the shell game that keeps assistant managers doing a manager’s job for five or six years on an hourly wage.

 

Katie came out of the bedroom in a pair of denim cutoffs. She pulled a tank top over her head. She adjusted it at her waist, looking down at her stomach. Then she looked at me.

 

“You should at least put in an application,” she said. She was headed for the front door. “You can stew over it during that whole process. I’m gonna go round up the kids.”

 

She knows me too well.

 

“You’re right, you know. I should…” I called toward the door. “And thank you for finding this! I love you!”

 

She winked at me. The door shut.

 

§§§

 

I sat back from the computer screen and sighed. It was late, 11:33. Too late. I was due at the store in the morning for first shift. That meant if I somehow lost consciousness right then I could get five hours of sleep.

 

Normally I would have already been in bed about 10, 10:30. Six-odd hours was a better stretch than five. Before this job I never would have thought there was much of a difference.

 

We had done the family thing all evening, and I had wanted to apply for the job scoring essays. So that meant less sleep. It wasn’t that I was worried about being able to do the store job—I could probably stand behind that counter for a day on no sleep. It was the pain of it. It builds up after days and weeks of living like this.

 

I looked at the cover letter on the screen. I proofread the opening paragraph for a third time. Then I looked at the second paragraph:

 

My passion is for analyzing information and explaining it in clear and accurate written formats. Earning my M.A. degree allowed me to hone these abilities, and gave me the professional-level language and research skills that I can bring to your COM-CAT scoring project.

 

It was horrifying to keep reading it. There was nothing worse than cobbling together such puffery hour after hour to market myself. I stewed over every word. After a while the words became nearly meaningless. They sounded ridiculous.

 

Yet, it seemed to be the kind of thing they expected. The absence of any step in the expected process provided a reason not to hire. So did a typo. Given the volumes of applicants, they needed reasons to weed people out. That’s what it was all about.

 

I sat back from the keyboard. I couldn’t read the letter again. Fuck the typos and grammar. If I had missed something after two passes it was probably too obscure for some HR dimwit anyway.

 

I printed out the cover letter and the envelope. I signed the cover letter, going for boldness in the signature, but avoiding extravagance. I tested my signature twice on the back of a catalog. Made sure the pen worked.

 

After I prepped the envelope for mailing, I sat back in the chair. I looked over the computer screen at my reflection in the wall mirror. The screen of the computer gave the room a slight deep glow. I looked old, tired. Felt it.

 

There were a couple of centimeters of scotch in the juice glass next to the computer. I downed them. Katie’s parents had sent me a low-end single malt for my birthday a couple of weeks back. This was the last of it. Good stuff. Good enough for me, anyway.

 

I felt the thick peaty taste fading on my tongue. Fastest I had ever gone through a bottle. It used to take me about a month to finish one. I had been pounding it lately.

 

My head always felt hollow from lack of sleep, caffeine, and long hours at the store. No need—nor hope—anymore of being sharp enough for...anything really. What did I ever do anymore? The Quiz Slam thing had just been a brief, illusory fluke.

 

I decided I’d probably grab another fifth after work the next day. Bring home some more beer, too. For variety. And to help kill the thoughts of Quiz Slam, of course.

 

The kids had enjoyed the evening out. We sampled the kind of tourist-centered pap that Florida towns serve up for families. Miniature golf. Ice cream. A game room that eats quarters by the handful. Waterfront walks.

 

It was an odd place to live. Stuff like that—the kind of stuff kids dig—was only for vacations when I was young. That probably kept it exciting. I figured in a month or two such outings wouldn’t mean as much to the twins. They’d be bored again.

 

Katie had enjoyed the outing too. She’d loosened up. She needed to get out of the houseboat. She could go out anytime she wanted to, of course. She was an adult, mother of two. But she didn’t. Most days she just stayed in, doing stuff around the house or reading. And if I did not come up with an idea for going somewhere—most nights I was too tired to—she’d stay in all night too.

 

I looked toward the bed. She was on her side facing the lamp. Nose in a book, as usual. My kind of woman. Not that I ever read much anymore.

 

Katie saw me looking at her. She shut her book. She rustled in the covers and sat up. She smiled at me.

 

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” she asked.

 

“Checking my email one last time. I’m about to, um, power down. Shut it down.”

 

I clicked on the keys louder than necessary, for her benefit. I had several email addresses. I compulsively checked my “business” box. That was the box that delivered the good stuff. Registration fees for the short story site, job leads. Money.

 

Katie watched me for a moment. Then she got out of the bed and walked toward me.

 

I looked up at her. Beautiful, taut brown skin. Nothing like what I had seen on myself in the mirror. I smiled at her. She started to climb into my lap. I moved the chair back so she would have room.

 

She was wearing a long T-shirt, tight teal panties. I watched them land on my right thigh. I glanced up at the screen, and away from the inviting outline of her vulva below the fabric. I knew I had better close out the computer before I got too distracted.

 

But then I noticed that Katie was staring at my face. Searching. I closed the lid of the notebook. I looked at her. She only held my gaze for a moment. Then she ducked her head and wrapped both her arms around my neck.

 

It felt desperate. It felt like she was partially hugging me, partially restraining me. Her lips were at my ear.

 

“I…” she whispered.

 

I winced, and sort of squeaked. Her breath had tickled my ear.

 

She leaned close again. Got it out this time.

 

“I’m pregnant.”


 

 

Chapter 20

 

 

 

It was 5:10 a.m. I was sitting on the toilet in the ladies’ room. No pants. I was smoking my first cigarette of the day.

 

I would never have taken a dump in the Men’s room. We had no janitorial service at the store. I was the janitor. And I didn’t do shit.

 

When I closed the store at night, the most I’d do was spray the seat in there with this noxious all-purpose cleaner they ordered in bulk. On the day shift I would only clean in there if someone made a mess. Anything out of the ordinary. But otherwise, I figured people knew about gas station bathrooms, and wouldn’t complain.

 

After that first smoke a couple of weeks back, I had kept the pack. Too stingy to throw it away, I guess. The things were expensive. Especially in Florida with the extra taxes. Some people drove up to Georgia every couple of weekends and buy several cartons. No tax up there. Gas was cheaper, too.

 

After smoking one or two a day for a while, I was hooked. I’d usually only smoke in the early in the morning. It seemed to help wake me up. Somewhere I'd read that they have caffeine in them. Also, I'd hoped that during the day the smell would wear off. By the end of my shift Katie wouldn’t be able to tell.

 

I stared at the walls, and the blue smoke snaked toward the exhaust fan. Everything looked strange. Nearly the whole bathroom was solid white. I looked at my left hand, holding the cigarette. It vibrated slightly as the nicotine kicked into the system. It looked alien to me, sitting their quivering on its own.

 

Was I dreaming? The situation seemed absurd. How could I be in some store at this time of morning, pants down, sitting in the Ladies’ room, smoking a cigarette? Why was it I had started smoking again?

 

I’m gonna quit smoking before the baby is born.

 

It warmed my stomach to think about the pregnancy. Katie had been terrified to tell me she was pregnant. She had had the twins when she was in high school. Pregnancy was a touchy subject.

 

But when she told me I was genuinely happy. It was a complete surprise. But I felt instantly happy at the thought of having my own child with Katie. In that moment I knew that what I thought I felt for her was real. There was no secretly sinking feeling of being stuck, or a sense that I had made some terrible, irreversible mistake.

 

I looked at the cigarette in my hand. I took one last drag, a deep pull. Then I lifted up my cock and balls and flicked the stub between my legs, into the bowl. It hissed like a fart.

 

It was about time for the timer on the safe to have clicked. I pulled up my pants. Time to actually start working.

 

It may not have been perfect timing for a baby. I was still looking for a real job. Well, one I could stand, anyway. Living rent-free but not managing to save any money. I was still working on an hourly wage. About eight bucks an hour. But none of this seemed permanent. There were ways out.

 

I had been accepted for the job scoring the COM-CAT in Kingsboro. That started next week. That would be good extra money. And no telling what it might lead to. At the very least it seemed like a perfect opportunity for networking.

 

And there was my book of short stories. Maybe my persistence with the Quiz Slam thing had impressed Clytemnestra Press, even though the show had been a disaster. I had not heard from them, but they hadn’t rejected the book. To me that meant there was hope. Things were looking up.

 

Counting the take from the previous day had become routine. I sat back in the office, with most of the store lights off. Counted strap after strap of cash. Half dreaming, having had no coffee yet.

 

The only thing that awoke me from my near slumber was annoyance. Someone on second shift was dropping all these clumps of ones. They were not bothering to remove wrinkles and folds, nor “facing” the bills. This was not something I really had time to do in the morning. I knew it was just done out of laziness. I always had plenty of time on my evening shifts for it.

 

I considered writing a note to tape to the safe. This would be my first sort of administrative act. I was, after all, Assistant Manager. Well, co-A.M., but still

 

Maybe later, I thought. It was time to open up, turn on the lights. Stand behind the counter while the early birds shuffled in.

 

There were always five or six customers during the first half hour after I opened the doors at six. Usually the same faces every day. Buying coffee, sometimes a pack of smokes.

 

A couple of old farts always walked over from some condos nearby. They bought the local paper. We made two cents off of each paper. Seriously. I could count the pennies the store made as the papers dribbled out the door in the mornings. They were supposed to attract customers for sales of more lucrative items, but I don’t think it worked. I was a glorified newspaper box.

 

Like most days between 6:30 and maybe 7:20 it got pretty slow. People who had to be at work at saner hours were not out yet. I was lucky to have this lull. It was the only way I was ever able to key in all the accounting crap on the store computer.

 

I set my coffee on the desk. The register counter was to my left. The computer took up most of the desk. However, the computer was arranged so that I could peer out at the store between these two spinner racks. It was like a two foot window from where I sat. I couldn’t see the door when the door alarm went off unless I sat tall and craned my neck.

 

Somewhere around 6:50, I heard the door alarm. I was sitting there pecking in the gas prices for the day. Making sure to include the precious “nines.” Usual stuff. I figured the customer was a coffee buyer. No need to look up.

 

Suddenly, between the spinner racks, in my little window on the world, a figure hovered. I looked away from the computer monitor. I froze.

 

A tall man was standing in front of the desk. Tied around his face below the eyes, he had a silk scarf with a floral print on it. Something an older woman would wear over her hair. Looked like a parody of an Old West bandit.

 

“Give me all your money,” he growled.

 

He was wearing a short-sleeved button-up shirt. One of the buttons was undone. He had his right hand stuck in the shirt. There was a shape protruding forward underneath the shirt.

 

I wasn’t sure what to think. He looked ridiculous. Customers joked around with me often enough. Halloween items had started appearing in drugstores. The spirit of pranks was in the air. I intuited that I would look like a fool if I overreacted to this obvious joke, this silly mask.

 

“Are you serious?” I asked.

 

“I’m dead serious,” he said. The shape under his shirt further protruded.

 

Jesus Fuck Piss. This is how it happens. This is how it ends.

 

I raised my hands quickly. Probably too quickly. Should have eased them up. I slowly rose from the stool at the desk.

 

“Okay, okay. No problem, man. Y-you’ll get no problem from me.”

 

Fuck this place. The money’s not worth my life.

 

I crab-walked to the register. My eyes were locked on his. He had the deep black irises and yellowish “whites” of a dark black man. He moved parallel with me on the other side of the counter.

 

“I’m...Okay. I’m going to open the register now.”

 

“C’mon man! Let’s make it quick!

 

His voice was louder, now. More assertive. I was fitting the proper victim role. Not posing a threat, despite my size.

 

I tapped at the no sale button. The drawer didn’t move. I started woodpeckering it.

 

“No problem, man. You can have wha--…a-all the money in here.”

 

The register drawer opened, mercifully. I started peeling out the bills, tossing them on the counter.

 

“ALL of it man! C’mon! Faster!!

 

He was raking up the bills on the counter with one hand, his left. The right stayed hidden under his shirt. He was stuffing the bills into his pants pocket. Wasn’t going so well. He was probably half yelling at himself to speed up.

 

I tossed down the last chunk of ones and held my hands up again. It looked like he was only getting about 40 bucks, tops. He stuffed the last of the bills in his pants, then looked at me. The shape under his shirt stuck out some more.

 

“MORE! …Where’s the rest of it, man?”

 

“That’s-that’s all. I swear! It’s early…”

 

Shit shit shit shit shit…

 

There was plenty more money where that came from. I had the second shift register ready to go, so that was fifty bucks. Then there was the tube from the timer safe that provided change for hundred dollar bills. Plus, I had another forty or so in cash in my pants.

 

Somehow, though, neither of us thought of these facts. He and I were both out-of-our-minds nervous. We were reluctant participants in a “Robbery.” In a “Robbery,” the money comes out of the register.

 

Suddenly, the masked man ran for the “Push” door. He slammed it open. He bolted past my display window. Gone. The door alarm meep-meep-meeped hopelessly.

 

I saw why he had run. He had glanced behind him, toward the parking lot. Walking out front, from the other side of building, was the customer. I recognized the face.

 

Oh, you are shitting me?

 

It was…what was his name? …Charlie. The guy who had busted my chops on my first day at the Riverside store. He had bitched about the coffee.  Didn’t like my attitude. Told me he knew Don Visser. Said he would “let Don know” about how I talked back to him.

 

Charlie’s mouth was slack. I could see that he was watching the robber run away. Charlie swung open the “Push” door.

 

“Did you just get robbed?!” yelled Charlie.

 

“Holy fucking shit!” I yelled. I felt no inclination to subdue my feelings. It felt good that someone else was actually in the store. Someone not threatening to attack me. Even if it was Charlie.

 

“Did you push the panic button?” he yelled.

 

“The what?!”

 

“The panic bu--What, nobody ever…?”

 

Exasperated, he reached across the counter. He started feeling around on the side surface of the counter, the part facing me.

 

“There shou--…Do you see a button on this side? A switch of some kind?”

 

I spotted it. It was a small black button, smaller than a door bell. I had never noticed it among all the wires and other perceptual litter.

 

“Yes!”

 

I pushed it. The registers powered down. Some background motor noise from under the counter whined into silence.

 

“That shuts down your systems. Prevents the safe from being opened. It has a direct line to 911. Nobody ever told you about the panic button?

 

“No! Great! That’s just great! How did you--?”

 

“You should call the cops. Just in case the connection wasn’t working.”

 

My head was spinning. He could have told me to do anything. I grabbed the phone. Dialed 911.

 

“911. Whut’s yer a-merncy?”

 

“I just got robbed. I’m at the sto--um, um, Grab-N-Go, the one on…”

 

“Okay, the one on Fetzer? We already got the auto-signal.” Her voiced softened. “Is everybody okay?”

 

“Ye--uh, yes. Ma’am.”

 

“Can you give me a description of the assailant?”

 

“Tall black guy. About six feet. Skinny.”

 

“What was he wearing?”

 

“A-a mask! I mean, he had a silk scarf over his face. Like a…a short-sleeved shirt! Buttons down the front…uh--”

 

“What color was the shirt?”

 

“It, uh…It was light…It had a print pattern. Mostly a print pattern. Not sure what, um, c-color the pattern was…Maybe beige background?”

 

I could see the guy in my mind. But it was like trying to look at someone in a dream. Your eyes don’t cooperate. Or you are only able to see their face.

 

“Any other description?”

 

“Um…dark pants!...And, um…skinny, he had skinny arms. And, an’ his skin was ashy. You know what I mean? Like dry, not clean?”

 

“Okay, hon. Thank you. An officer is on the way.”

 

I hung up the phone.

 

Charlie still held his mouth open. He was looking nervously out the doors. He tried to see the corner of the building, where the guy had run.

 

“Did he have a gun!?”

 

“I think so…He had something under his shir--…”

 

Dude! Lock these doors! He might come back.”

 

I ran around the counters and sped toward the doors. I started locking them. I tried not to touch them, in case there were finger prints.

 

I was standing next to Charlie. He looked shocked, but excited. He was breathing shallowly, like he had been running.

 

Charlie looked to be in his late thirties. He had the hideous musky look of a 70’s porn guy. Dirty blond pin-curls in need of a haircut. Mustache. His features were thick. Close-set, like a Pekingese dog.

 

“Man, I can’t believe this! I was just…I been up most of the night. Had a fight with my old man. Was over at the folks' house. I was just comin’ in here for some more beer.”

 

I then realized he was probably half-drunk. It was still dark outside. He had probably been drinking all night.

 

I looked out front again. The parking lot was still empty. Where were those cops?

 

“Oh my God! I can’t believe I just got robbed in this fucking place. This FUCKIN’ STORE!

 

“Man, don't get all, you know...just--Hey! Here come the cops.”

 

There were two cruisers pulling into the parking lot. Lights on. No sirens. One stopped out by the road. The other charged up to the building at high speed. I winced right before its tired whacked to a stop at the sidewalk.

 

A big black cop got out of the car, maybe six-three. He strode toward the door. He kept his eyeballs locked on me. He tried to open the door. He broke his drill sergeant mask with a brief frustrated look, put his arms akimbo.

 

“SORRY!” I yelled through the glass. I started unlocking the door. He yanked it open with the keys still in it.

 

“Which way’d he go?” asked the cop.

 

We both pointed. He let the door shut. He yelled something to another cop getting out of the cruiser by the road. Then they started running toward the side of the building.

 

The driver of the other cruiser got out, too. He started stringing up the yellow tape across the entrance to the parking lot. “Police Line: Do Not Cross.” A couple of cars eased by on the road. One started to turn in, but the cop waved it off.

 

“They’ll never get him,” Charlie scoffed. “He was prolly parked on that dirt road out back. Long gone by now.”

 

Another pair of headlights flashed through the window. A sedan pulled up next to the cop car. The headlights went off.  I could see Don Volker’s fat head behind the wheel.

 

“Oh, there’s Don,” Charlie said. He fidgeted.

 

Don walked in. He had kept his eyes on me since he parked. At first he was probably looking for some sign of guilt, I figured. Many of these “robberies” could be set up by employees. Have a friend come in, disguised. Give the cops a red herring description. Split the money later.

 

“You okay?” he asked me.

 

“I’m…you know…Yeah, I’m okay. How did you know?”

 

He was looking at me searchingly. But his eyes began to soften.

 

“The panic button is wired to call me same time it calls the cops.”

 

Don turned to Charlie.

 

“What are you doing here this time of morning?”

 

Charlie continued to look uneasy. It was obvious that Don didn’t think much of him. The vibe between them was manager/employee, not friendly.

 

“I-I was just coming in to get mo--some beer…”

 

Charlie launched into the whole sequence of events. He played up his importance in the whole thing. Emphasized how he told me about the panic button and such. Don looked back and forth between us. He had me fill in the details that Charlie didn’t know about.

 

“Okay, well, they only got away with about 40 bucks. That’s good, good job,” Don said to me. Then he turned to Charlie. “And thank you for sticking around as a witness…”

 

Don tilted his face down. He looked over his glasses at Charlie’s face.

 

“…even if you are half drunk.”

 

Charlie laughed nervously. He began fidgeting again.

 

“Alright, I need to go dig out the official paperwork for robberies," Volker said. “You’re going to need to fill out a report.”

 

He headed for the office. Charlie looked after him. He sneered.

 

“He is such an asshole,” he hissed. “I can’t believe I put up with him here for--what?--like, seventeen months?”

 

I stared at him, said nothing. I thought about how he gave me shit on my first day. Acted like he was all buddy-buddy with Don. But somehow I didn’t feel too angry at him. It had been such a relief to see another human being after the trauma. Maybe I had been like a newly-hatched duckling, imprinting on the wrong mother.

 

The big black cop came back in. He called Charlie outside. They were going to interview us separately, make sure the stories matched. I watched Charlie through the window, waving his hands around. The cop took notes on a clipboard. Charlie looked proud. I could tell he felt like a "somebody."

 

I was next. The cop came up to me with his clipboard. I went through the whole thing again. Everybody asked the same questions. Things I was unsure about initially began to seem like real memories.

 

Meanwhile a lady cop drove up, came into the store. She had a fingerprinting kit. She had me point out the places the guy might have touched. I played the scene back in my head, watching his hands. Soon the counter was covered with a white powder. The door he exited, too.

 

Don walked out of his office with paperwork. He looked at dust the cops were leaving all over. He made a face. Then he handed me a form. At the top it read: “INCIDENT REPORT: STORE ROBBERY.”

 

“I need you to fill this whole thing out. This will be used as evidence in court if he...if they catch the guy. So, you know, try to be thorough. And accurate.”

 

I rummaged through the desk for a pen that looked fairly new. Don looked at the front door covered with fingerprint powder. Charlie was standing a few feet from it.

 

“Is that door locked?” Don asked no one in particular.

 

Charlie walked up to it and started pushing it.

 

“No-no-no-no-no…!” the female cop yelled. She walked toward Charlie.

 

“JEE-zuz, Charlie!” Don said. “You’re gonna ruin the fingerprints!”

 

Charlie turned red. His eyes were wide.

 

“I ju--I-I…”

 

The female cop glared at him. Then she walked over and peered at the door frame where the powder was.

 

“The palm print is still here,” she said. She looked at Charlie again. “Sir, can you step away from the door please?”

 

Charlie moved to one of the grocery aisles. He glanced at Don, then looked down at his feet.

 

I sat at the desk and started filling out the paper work. The writing helped me continue to calm down. I had already felt safer with all the people around, the cops. I tried not to think about whether I would have to stay for the rest of the shift.

 

There was a section in the paperwork where I was supposed to write a description of the events. I felt like really digging into it. I wrote it like a detective story. Maybe it was more like a screenplay. I included direct quotes and went for punchy descriptions of the action.

 

Charlie sauntered over to the desk while I was writing. He leaned in.

 

“What did he think I was going to do?” he said under his beer breath. “Somebody says ‘Is that door locked,’ you check it, right? What an asshole.

 

I gave him a wry what-can-you-do look, shrugged. Then I dove back into my screenplay to escape.

 

Once I finished I gave it to Don. He looked it over while the cops were finishing up. I noticed his facial muscles relax once he started reading it. I started straightening up behind the counter. For some reason I felt a little embarrassed.

 

In a couple of minutes Don flapped the page at me, smiling.

 

“Hey, Jim. I appreciate all the detail. Good job.”

 

I smiled back, said thanks. I felt a flash of pride.

 

Oh, cut the shit. So your writing impresses a guy who prolly reads half a mass market paperback per year while on vacation.

 

The cops had started packing up to leave. The big one came up to me at the counter.

 

“Okay, we got records of these prints,” he said, gesturing at the powdery mess on the counter. “You can clean this here stuff off.”

 

Can I? Gee, thanks so much.

 

He ignored my expression and continued.

 

“We think this the same perp robbed the 24-hour Fletcher’s. One out on Berger Parkway? Hit ‘em this morning ‘bout 4:30.”

 

I felt the back of my neck tingling. Two hours in between the robberies. This was not a big town. Had he been waiting outside when I opened up this morning? How long had he watched me through the glass? I was in a fishbowl here.

 

“Good news is, is that we got video here, an’ one from Fletcher’s,” he said, patting the store video tape. It was in an evidence bag. “This could help bring ‘im in. Definitely’ll help, thing goes to trial.”

 

I nodded. He stared at me for a beat. Then he slapped the counter with his big palm.

 

“Ah-ight, den,” he said, more loudly. “Ya’ll can open 'er up. Stay safe, now.”

 

I looked at Don. He was shaking hands with Charlie.

 

The female cop replaced the big dude at the counter. She handed me a brochure.

 

“Here’s some information about being the victim of a crime. State requires we give these out.”

 

I glanced at it. It was plain, printed in dark blue ink. On the front there was the Florida seal and the name of the local police department. Below that it said: You have been the victim of a crime in Florida. Now what?

 

“There’s a number in there. Call it if you have any questions.”

 

She headed out the door. I frisbee’d the brochure into one of the cubbyholes under the counter. The one were all the user guides and other dust bunny bait lay.

 

Everyone was leaving me. I started to feel it. Don went back into the office to handle loose ends. After that he was probably heading out to do his rounds of the stores. I found myself hoping that he could just work from the office for the rest of my shift.

 

I looked outside. The morning sun was brightening. Most of the regulars had given up and gone elsewhere for their newspapers, smokes and coffee.

 

I thought about going out front for a cigarette. I needed one. But the sun was out. Katie could already be up. She might drive by. I needed to call her and tell her what had happened, anyway. That would make it more likely that she’d come in, smell the smoke on me.

 

During the rest of the shift I probably described the robbery ten or fifteen times. I didn’t care much. I was never more happy to see the customers come in, chat. After Don left, I went into extra detail to keep them in the store longer. Like I was running a fucking barbershop.

 

Most of the people that came in that day didn’t even know about the robbery. The town wasn’t nearly that small. To them it was still just a convenience store. Everything looked the same.

 

Me, I was sitting on a spring for the rest of the day. Every car that pulled in the parking lot was the masked man coming back to finish the job. Every face that suddenly appeared at the window or at the counter, just for an instant, was the one behind the silk bandana. My heart was syncopated all day.

 

I just knew he was coming back. He had heard about the timed safe full of money. Realized he forgot about all the lottery tickets, smokes and beer. He had heard that I told the cops he looked “ashy.”

 

I felt like a worm on a hook, sitting behind that counter. What did Grab-N-Go care if he killed me? The store would live on. They’d wash the blood out of my green vest, repair the bullet hole. Then some other rube with a spiraling career history could wear it.

 

For the rest of the day, when I wasn’t worried that I was about to be shot, I was pissed.


 

Chapter 21

 

 

 

On the dashboard the blue digits said 4:58. Pitch black outside. My guts burned with acid.

Nothing in me but a mug of coffee and a metric fuck-ton of sleep debt. First morning shift after the robbery.

 

I didn’t just pull into the parking lot the way I had in the past. I drove around the back of the building first. My headlights streamed yellow on the litter-covered the back lot. I peered at the bushes, behind the HVAC unit. Looking for figures that might be waiting for me.

 

I drove slowly around to the front. Kept my eyes on the side of the building for someone changing positions, any sign of movement. I drove diagonally across the parking lot, lighting the shrubbery on the sides, and the front of the dumpster corral.

 

The back of the dumpster was out of view in its little fenced-in area. I could not see it from either side of the building. Somebody could easily be waiting back there. Perfect hiding place for an ambusher. All my checking behind the building had been pointless.

 

I sat there with the lights trained on the dumpster for a moment. I realized there was really nothing I could do about it. No way to be sure. If I got out of the car they could come after me. And I couldn’t just leave--not and keep my job. This was it, one way or another.

 

I pulled the car into my spot. I cursed myself for having gotten into this dilemma. Taking a job for which I really should be carrying a gun. I imagined my ghost rising from my dead, gunshot body in the parking lot, screaming “I knew it! You idiot! How could you take such a stupid chance for a convenience store?!”

 

Keeping my eye on the dumpster, I headed for the door. I had the keys out and ready. I wished they would stop jingling. As if whoever was back there hadn’t already heard me get out the car and slam the door.

 

The wind was blowing. Every leaf that rustled sounded like somebody coming out from behind that dumpster. It had never felt better to get into the store. I made sure both doors were locked tight. Then I got the hell away from that those front windows. I couldn’t bear to look back and see someone looking in at me.

 

I ran behind the counter and set the keys to open the timer safe. I moved in a crouch behind the counter, raced across the spaces that were visible from the front windows. I weaved through the grocery aisles. Headed for the women’s bathroom.

 

Inside the tiny bathroom I was out of view. Felt safer. I dropped trou and sat on the toilet. I pressed the heels of my palms against my eyes. Tension against tension.

 

This is a joke. What IS this?

 

For a couple of minutes I just sat there, breathing. I chuckled at the fact that I had thought getting up and coming to work was bad before. I thought about what I was being paid to risk my life for this place. Ridiculous. I was a fool. The robbery had made that clear.

 

Checked the watch. Already off schedule from all the pointless searchlight shenanigans. Screw it.

 

I tapped the morning smoke out of the pack. I needed to make this one last. There was no way I would have time for another smoke later. I dragged deep. Felt the nicotine hit that sweet spot in the upper lungs. The click.

 

Half drunk from the deep drags, I stumbled to the counter area. I crouched behind it again. Worked my way to the timer safe. My brain screamed when I saw the pile of cash inside. I knew if someone were peeking through the window, they would kill for all that cash.

 

It felt safer again once I was in Volker’s office. I locked the office door, just for a little extra buffer. I sat at the desk with the pile of cash.

 

The video monitors were on. One of them had a view of the front doors. Part of me tried not to look at it. I knew I’d shit if I saw someone peering in those doors. But then again I could call the cops before the perps managed to get in. Maybe.

 

While I went through the accounting routines, I thought about Katie. She had been shocked about the robbery. She couldn’t believe it had happened to me. But that was about as far as it went. I thought aloud about not coming back here. Just walking away from the job. She didn’t have so much to say at that point. “Yeah…?” was about it. Her wheels were turning.

 

Her reaction was understandable, thinking about it later. It would just mean more uncertainty, what with no replacement job. More worries about where the groceries were coming from. Hard not to think about such things.

 

However, I felt the gap at that moment. She could not grasp the clarity with which I had come to see how dangerous this job was. How the company used us as cannon fodder. The clerks protected someone else’s pile of cash for almost nothing. I couldn’t fault her, because I didn’t really get it until the robbery. But still…

 

As I stuffed the bank deposit into the bag, my peripheral vision jerked my eyes over to the video of the front doors. Headlights. The time code said it was 5:48. Still too early for a customer to sit out front, wait for us to open. People hardly ever pulled up when all the store lights were still off.

 

I felt my heart start jumping. This was it. He was back. I knew they hadn’t caught him yet. He probably recognized my car. He knew I was in here alone.

 

I glanced at the office door. Still locked, of course. Then I looked around frantically for anything I could use as a weapon. The extra windshield squeegees? Yeah, right. Unscrew the handle from that old mop? I pictured it shattering across his shoulders, almost worthless.

 

On the monitor the driver’s door had swung open. I couldn’t see anyone yet. Now he knew how long the cops took to get here. He had gotten away once, and knew he could do it again.

 

Someone had tipped him off about the previous day’s take that we had out of the safe before opening the store. Maybe laughed at him for only getting 42 bucks. He was going to blast his way in here and take this bank deposit. Then he was going to kill me for not giving it to him the first time.

 

I grabbed a squeegee. I snapped it through the air a couple of times to test its heft. I pushed against the handle to see how much force it could take.

 

The video showed the outline of a figure, out of the car now. I could not make it out. They opened the book driver’s side door. They appeared to be doing something in the back seat.

 

I dropped the squeegee, and flopped back down into my seat. I had realized what this was. The driver made his way around the car doors. He tottered into the beam of the headlights. A twenty pound bundle of newspapers swung from each hand. With a thump that I could hear back in the office, he dropped them in front of the glass doors.

 

Another cigarette. I tapped it out of the pack. Fuck it. I didn’t care if it stank up the office. Don could fellate himself. This whole company could. The deposit was nearly done, and I still had a few minutes before I opened the doors. I felt too frazzled to care anymore.

 

I kicked back at the desk. I blasted a blue cloud at the monitors on exhale. I thought about what I was going to do about all this. No use in pretending anymore. Even if I made manager, there was no way I was staying in this company. No way was it worth the risk. So why even try? Why continue to try to impress anyone, worry about all their little rules?

 

Um, references, dumbass?

 

I scowled, took another deep drag. I tried to rationalize my way around this rebuttal. Who would be impressed by my working below management-level at a C-store anyway? But I couldn’t deny that removing it from the resume would leave too big a hole in my work history. And they always wanted to call the most recent employers.

 

My chair thumped back to the floor. I spat on the desk, dipped the hot end of the cigarette into it. After it hissed out I scooped up the mess with a paper towel. The monitors said it was 5:57.

 

Time to do the thing.

 

After I unlocked the office door, I peered around the corner at the front doors. No one was there, of course. But now I had to go unlock them. I would suddenly be vulnerable again. Anyone can walk in those doors. That’s what it means for a store to be open.

 

The store was still dark. I started walking toward the glass front doors. I kept my eyes locked on them, straight ahead, hoping he wouldn’t suddenly appear in the door frame. I dreaded unlocking those doors.

 

Halfway there it hit me. I should just turn on the store lights but leave the doors locked. I would watch for customers, and unlock one of the doors when they arrived. That way nobody got in unless I wanted them to. I would have to leave it unlocked while customers were inside, but I figured robbers didn’t want to come in when there were people in here, anyway. It all made sense.

 

With the lights up, things seemed more normal. Slightly less ominous. But only slightly. After all, the guy had robbed me in the full glare of the fluorescents. I kept my eyes locked on the parking lot.

 

At first I took my usual place behind the desk. It was the time when I normally sat at the computer and keyed in the dailies. I looked between those spinner racks. Remembered how the masked face had appeared between them. My heart kicked up again.

 

I glanced at the computer. It would have to wait. I didn’t give a shit if it would be harder to do the accounting later, when there were more customers. Having to juggle later compared with lying in a pool of blood? A no brainer. I was going to stand and watch that door.

 

A second later a head came into view in the front windows. I sucked in a gasp through my teeth. I died in that split second before my brain recognized it as a regular. A paper buyer. I started toward the door to unlock it for him.

 

Oh goodie. Here comes our fucking two cent profit.

 

Guy stood there pushing on the door as I walked up. Trying to get in. I held up a “one moment” finger.

 

“Sorry, sir. Forgot to unlock this. You are the first customer.”

 

“Hmmph.”

 

The stacks of newspapers were still bundled out front. I cut the string and handed one to him. He set in on the counter. I had a long walk back around the desk and down the long counter to get opposite him at the register. I realized this routine was ridiculous. Customers would get impatient with all my running back and forth. My solution was looking pretty annoying. But it still seemed better than a gunshot wound.

 

I handed the man change. No comment from him. He turned