I finally got a job. I didn’t know enough about jobs to judge whether it was a good job or a bad job. Because I got paid to do it, I figured it was a good job. Hell, I had to go to school most days and do things I didn’t want to, so this was a step up. I would get paid. Money, then as it is now, equaled freedom. Freedom equaled escape. Not soon enough, though; not before hearing my father turn it into another speech about Life.
“Kid, it’s about time. Reading books, listening to your music, that’s fine as a hobby, but you need to get off your ass, excuse my French, and start getting an idea how the world works. Retail. Nothing wrong with that. People with less advantages than you have made a nice life for themselves in that kind of business. This is an excellent opportunity to keep your eyes open and learn something.” These speeches always ended with a painful slap on the back, and my father shaking his head, assuming that I hadn’t heard a word. This time I had actually listened. I thought I might learn something, too.
I was a cashier at the QuickieMart on North Main Street. It was one of four businesses in a little brick plaza, with its own parking lot and dumpster. QuickieMart was on the end, then LaPage’s Liquor, a Hallmark card and gift shop, and the Sweet Dreams travel agency. There was one gas station next to us, and one across the street. If my town was Nowhere, this wasn’t even the middle of it. Still, it was a whole new thing for me. I was a part of the business world. I had joined a new social circle.
Beverly was the morning cashier. She was tiny and dark-haired and perky to the point of being wired. She wore false eyelashes and a lot of makeup. I liked her. She was a little younger than my mom. She was so filled with that Italian Mother instinct that she tended to over-emote a bit. If you said something like, “My aunt had to put her dog to sleep,” her eyebrows would arch and her face would be awash with genuine sorrow, and she’d say something like, “Oh, honey! Oh, that is just so tragic! You poor thing, did you know the dog well? Aw, don’t worry, sweetie—it’s probably all for the best. Poor thing. Did it suffer much? Aww. How’s your poor aunt, I bet she’s just broken up. Yuh? That is just so sad. And then she’d smile at you as if to signal that she had absorbed all of your suffering, and everything was OK.
Peter and Marie were the couple who owned the QuickieMart franchise, and ran the place. Actually, Beverly pretty much ran the place, but it took me a few months to figure that out. Peter seemed to think he was some kind of hippie hustler, and Marie seemed to think she was Cher. Peter was a tall lean guy, with sandy blond hair, cut in a shag. He was pretty good looking until he opened his mouth—he had awful teeth. He always wore loud rayon shirts with big collars, unbuttoned enough to show his chest hair. He wore those boots that zipped up the side and faded designer jeans. His favorite part of his wardrobe was a gigantic brass belt buckle, a reproduction of what a Confederate soldier might have worn. At least twice a week he would stop in mid-stride and tip it towards me and say CSA, you know what that means? I never had time to answer Confederate States of America. Cunt Suckin Asshole, thats me! Then he would laugh his snaggle-toothed harharhar laugh and go on his way, genuinely pleased with his wit and somehow thinking it had just occurred to him. Of course, the enormous amount of weed he smoked in the stockroom probably had something to do with it.
Marie was tall, and had long straight black hair down to her waist. She had wide hips, and never wore a bra. I probably would have found her very sexy if she didn’t make me so nervous. She could say, “Did you check the dates on the dairy?” in a way that made me blush. Peter seemed to think he was God’s Gift, but Marie looked like she could swallow him whole, and spit out bones. I never figured them out. They fought constantly, and flirted with everyone except each other. I suppose Marie liked weed and having a man around when she needed one, and Peter liked to be the kind of guy who had a woman like Marie. They shared a house out by the highway with another couple.
* * *
I worked the night shift, 7 p.m. to midnight. I got the job through my brother Frank, which pained me, but I didn’t have the principles or drive to turn it down and keep looking. My main duties were stocking and dusting the shelves, filling the dairy case, making coffee, and running the cash register. I learned my job quickly, and almost as quickly grew bored with it. The more bored I got, the worse my performance became. I ate packages of ham. I swiped skin mags and hid them in the bathroom. I tested every brand of cigarette we stocked. My friends began to hang around, and they got all sorts of VIP discounts. I began to develop the habits of a petty thief—the nonchalance of knowing you are being watched, the ease of moving money from drawer to counter to floor to pocket. The little shell games that seventeen-year-olds always think they thought of. The truth is, if Peter were any kind of bookkeeper or manager, I would have been discovered and fired within a week. It just so happened that Peter seemed to give less of a shit than I did. I began to appreciate him, and even chuckle when he showed me his belt buckle.
I began to drink endless cups of coffee. I read every magazine we had. I dreamed not of Dina Mazzelli (the pretty dark girl who worked after school), not exactly, but someone like her. I would sit in the empty store, waiting for midnight, watching the guys hanging out at the gas pumps across the street. The store was always filled with humming fluorescent light, and smelled of spray cleaner and cigarettes. Outside the night pressed up against the glass like sheets of black plastic. Every now and then someone would come in for cigarettes, or cat food, or to use the pay phone. Long stretches went by where I would tell time by how many butts were in the ashtray.
It was a good job. Normally I was lonely—at the store I got paid to be lonely.
* * *
The door opened. I looked up and saw Harry pushing through it.
“Shit!” he said, doing a little shiver-dance. “It’s cold as a bitch!”
I looked up from the magazine I was reading and said, “You’re right about that.” It really wasn’t cold, but this was Harry’s greeting—it’s cold as a bitch, hot as a bitch, wet as a bitch...what could he say, it’s mild as a bitch? It was mild, for a Tuesday night near the end of March. It had been a pretty quiet night. In the last half-hour I’d sold two cans of Enfamil baby formula to a man in a suit, a crumpled help wanted page under his arm; a newspaper, four cans of tuna, a carton of Kents and a bottle of Sprite. I had drank one can of Nutrament and a cup of coffee, eaten a Chunky, and smoked half a pack of Kools. I was working my way through the Menthols that week.
Harry reached up over the counter and helped himself to a pack of Marlboros.
“What’s doin’, kid, huh?” He pulled a smoke out with his teeth and lit it, then fished around in the pockets of his blue mechanic’s pants and threw three ones on the counter.
“Just the usual, Harry. Bored shitless.” I gave him his change. He pushed it back to me and counted out the right amount of the little five-cent chocolate mints and dumped them into his shirt pocket. Harry had grease in every line on his hands, and in every pore of his face. His knuckles and fingernails looked like they had been drawn onto his hands in shiny brown pencil.
“You’re lucky, kid. You don’t think I wouldn’t fuckin’ love to hang out and read magazines and drink fuckin’ coffee all night? I just spent the last three fuckin’ hours on a creeper trying to straighten out this cunt of a bent linkage rod on this cranky-assed bitch’s shitbox Renault, for crissakes!”
He pronounced Renault like it was spelled.
“You ever even seen a fuckin’ Ren-ault? I didn’t think so! So if you never seen one, think how hard it is to get them cock-suckin’ frog parts! Then, Genius Nicky broke the motherfuckin’ compressor and my lift is fuckin’ crapped out, I got work coming out of my asshole...”
This usually went on for ten minutes or so. I didn’t really listen to what Harry was saying, and didn’t know enough about cars to understand it all anyway. I just loved the way he cursed when he was annoyed. It was the glue that held his sentences together—without the curses he would stutter and gulp, and not make much sense, but with them, listening to him describe a brake job was like listening to someone play classical violin while riding a motorcycle. Elegant, yet exciting.
“Can you believe that son of a bitch? Brian? I take care of everyone in his sorry fuckin’ family, and he thinks I’m gonna keep doing him favors, for nothin’. It ain’t right. It ain’t right, kid. Someone needs to explain how capitalism works to this motherfucker. What’re you smokin’ now, Kools? That’s a chick smoke.”
“Nah. Salem’s a chick smoke. Kools are pretty strong.”
“Anything menthol is a chick smoke. What’re you, testing every brand in the store?”
“Next week is cigars.”
“Sweet Jesus. Keep a bucket near you. I’ll see ya tomorrow night.”
“Take it easy.”
The door closed behind him and the night swallowed him. Only when he had crossed North Main Street and walked into the pool of light at the PowerTest station did I see him again. I threw the pack of Kools in the trash and opened a pack of Marlboros.
* * *
Not Dina, but a girl like Dina. Maybe a little more wild, like those girls in the skin mags who seemed so uninhibited and playful. But still pretty, and nice. And interested in me. And rich, and what the hell, with magic powers. I didn’t really like the Marlboros. I lit another. It was 10:50. I put out the cigarette and walked up and down the aisles with my hands in my pockets.
* * *
I heard the door open, so I snapped out of it and hurried behind the register. It was Marie. She looked high. She was either coming from or going to some kind of party I guessed—unless she dressed that way all the time. She had on a pair of clingy satin-y pants of a sort of blue-green color, and a long matching robe over it, almost like movie star pajamas. Under that was a little white t-shirt.
Just like Harry had done, she reached up and grabbed two packs of Winston Lights, except when she did I found myself staring at her navel. I looked away guiltily, but not before seeing a fine silver chain around her waist. She took the pen off of the register and tore off a strip of receipt tape. Leaning her forearms on the counter she wrote 1 Winston 1 soda and initialed it. I stared at the shadowy place between her breasts, a view that was unobstructed to me.
“Would you be a doll—”
She looked up at me, and I snapped my head up to meet her gaze. She paused, and a little smile crept onto her lips as she began to enjoy my discomfort.
“...and grab me one of those...big 7Ups? A cold one?”
As I hustled back to the cooler case I thought I heard her chuckle. I definitely heard the drawer open, and Im pretty sure I heard some bills being whisked out from under the spring-loaded lever that held them in their slots. I returned with her soda.
“Do you want a bag?”
“No, this is fine.” She dropped the Winstons in her pockets and tossed her hair.
The door closed behind her, leaving just her scent.
It was 11:13.
I opened a pack of Newports and lit one.
It was 11:14.
* * *
The white Monte Carlo pulled up to the front of the store and kept its lights on. When the passenger door opened the dome light went on, illuminating a pretty young woman named Donna behind the wheel, and Peter climbing out. Donna used to work at the QuickieMart, before I got there. She had short curly blond hair, a pin-up bod, and these new kind of braces on her teeth that were clear instead of silver. Peter pushed through the door and yelled “Clifford!” like a drill sergeant, and then laughed. He stopped, tipped up his belt buckle, and thumbed himself in the breastbone, and he laughed and I laughed. He disappeared into the tiny office in the rear of the store.
I could see Donna. She had angled the rearview towards her, and was pushing a lipstick around her mouth with expert and exaggerated slowness. I felt embarrassed to be staring and I couldn’t stop. She made a kiss at the mirror, and flicked her eyes at me. I pretended to be straightening the counter displays. Peter came out.
“So what’s happenin’, anything?”
“Marie come in?”
I glanced at Donna, who was straightening the mirror—I don’t know why I looked—and said, “Yup—half hour ago.”
Peter looked at Donna and then looked at me.
“Hey, you, ah…” He held an imaginary joint up to his lips and made a soft sucking sound. I shrugged. With a conspiratorial smile he pulled a tightly rolled joint out of the back of his Marlboros. “You’re doing good, so far. Have yourself a little party, OK?” Then he put on the stern manager face that always looked ridiculous. “But not in the store, and not till after you clock out, right?”
“All right. Be cool.”
Donna’s tires squealed as she pulled out onto North Main. The joint was expertly rolled from a pinkish paper, as tight and round as a swizzle stick. I dropped it in my shirt pocket.
* * *
The key was stuck in the front door. I could hear the staccato beeps from the alarm that meant that my forty-five seconds were almost up and the system was about to arm itself. I sawed the key back and forth, and jiggled it nervously, cursing under my breath and acting like a man who had to take an enormous piss. If I couldn’t get the door to lock in time, the whole alarm company bullshit could play out, and depending on which bored geek was working dispatch I would either get a chance to reset it or have to hang around like a dork until the cops came.
Headlights swept from one end of the store to exactly where I was standing and spooked me so much that the key came out of the lock without my knowing. A car had pulled up a foot behind me with its high beams on and I felt like I was having a near-death experience. Anyone who knew anything would know that all the money, except tomorrow morning’s cash drawer, had been dropped down the safe where I couldn’t get at it, but that didn’t stop me from deciding that I was about to get jumped.
The headlights went out, and I went from being blasted with light to standing in almost total darkness, staring at the orange tip of a cigarette that floated over the steering wheel of the car.
“ Kid…” It sounded like an exhaled plea. I went to the driver’s side window and squatted so I would be level with the driver.
“Yes?” It was Marie. She had scared me shitless, but I tried not to show it.
“ I can’t find Peter. Do you know where he is?” There was something odd and underwatery about the way she said it, as if she were a bad actress, forced to rehearse while tired. She mashed her cigarette into the dashboard ashtray.
“No. No, I don’t.” It’s unlikely that the joint brushed my nipple through my shirt, but it felt like it did.
“I can’t find him.” She clamped her hands to her face and, arching her back, rubbed her eyes with her fingertips. “Ooof. I’m exhausted, kid.”
“Can I help?” It was out of my mouth before I knew what I was saying. For once she didn’t look like she was on the prowl; she seemed worn out. She looked surprised at first, but then smiled.
“No. But it’s sweet to ask. Can you believe this shit? You think a woman should have to go looking for her man, kid?”
I shook my head, and probably looked comically solemn, as she laughed and cupped my cheek, brushing her thumb across my temple. A surprising hard-on began to uncoil in my jeans.
“You’d never make your woman do that, right?”
“Never.” I meant it.
“Good for you—you’ll be one of the three good men on the planet.” Then she leaned out and kissed me on the mouth, nipping my lower lip with her teeth. “Go home and get some sleep, young man.” She winked at me. I was astonished. “I’m gonna go find that fuck and his weed…” She gunned her car and reversed in a tight arc, and then shot out onto North Main, her lights coming on as she sped through the yellow light.
* * *
My father was sitting on the couch drinking a beer out of a glass and reading Shogun. His eyes went from the book to me to the clock back to the book.
“Your mother was worried.”
“You don’t care.”
“Sure, but, it’s not that late, and...here I am.”
He sipped his beer (he had exactly one beer every night and was proud of his control) and turned a page.
“Here you are,” he said without looking at me. “So how was work?”
“OK?” It was clearly a simpleton’s answer to a complex question. There was undoubtedly fascinating things—fluctuating milk prices, new cleaning products, profit and loss margins— that were blowing right past me. He inspected me for a long moment and then said, “Are you learning anything at this job?”
“Oh, yeah. A lot.”