At two-thirty A.M., the store finally quieted down. The line of last minute, frantic beer purchasers had gone home, secure that they had stocked up until morning. There was always one that that would come in at two twenty five, missing the deadline. Tonight he pressed his palms into the counter, trying to stare into my eyes with all he had, but he was having trouble focusing. I pointed to the beer coolers, cable locks through the door handles. “Even if I wanted to sell you beer, I can’t. See? The handles are locked shut.” I was surprised how well the excuse worked over and over again. Not once did it occur to any of the Two-Twenty-five crowd that I could walk into the back door of the cooler and get them whatever they wanted. He mumbled, “Can’t fight the laws of physics,” and shuffled out.
With the store empty, I stepped outside and lit a Parliament. Middle of the night but the heat and moisture still rose from the asphalt, collecting around my ankles. I liked working at night, being a day sleeper kept things simple at my sister’s.
When we arrived almost unnanounced, six weeks before, Maureen was glad to see me and her boyfriend tolerated us, waiting with a thin, gracious patience for us to move on so they could get back to building their first love nest together. A patience that had grown thinner after we smoked the bag of California green pot we had found in the freezer. We behaved, Tearle especially, always helping out with the dishes or doing a chore around the house. I never saw Tearle, he left for his job in the dish pit of a French restaurant downtown when I was waking up, we would pass eachother in the hall, shrugging with a “What exactly are we doing here?” We knew we only had to stick to it a few more weeks, having agreed to head west before the weather turned. We were ready.
A Lincoln bounced into the parking lot, Ohio Players echoing off the walls. Tonight the driver was dressed in yachting attire, a crisp navy blue blazer with matching cravat over a white silk shirt. White trousers and Top-Siders. A straw skimmer, cocked forward and to the left perched on top of perfect, juicy Jheri curls. He nodded to me as he walked around to the passenger side, a friendly dismissive back handed wave, “Finish your smoke my friend, finish your smoke.”
He opened the door with a flourish and guided three women out of the car with delicate fingertips, whispering softly to each with “There you go’s” and “Shall we’s?” They were beautiful, hard girls with the shiny, precise steps their dresses required, finally done for the night, ready for some snacks. Each of their minds elsewhere as they walked past, each pulling together a “let’s party” face for the two seconds it took to go by me, maybe out of courtesy, most likely out of reflex.
Once inside, the Captain stood with his arms folded as the girls ran up to him with chips and candy bars asking, “Is this ok Daddy?” He approved all their choices except for one. As the girls fixed themselves hotdogs, The Captain walked over and grabbed the smallest one, a blond, moon faced girl by the wrist growling “No chili for you.” She immediately stared at the floor, knowing we were all watching. He whispered something in her ear. I hollered across the store “It’s ok, the chili is free.” He turned and stared, the girls gasped. Things got quiet. He closed his eyes with a patient sigh. “This has nothing to do with chili, my friend.” He said with a soft, resigned smile. I let it go. He left me a twenty dollar tip on the counter, patting it with his palm and pointing to me as he left.
Time for two Parliaments outside before another customer, an older, dreadlocked black woman. She started saying “Outta my way, Outta my way” as soon as she entered the parking lot, keeping it up until she was past me and well into the store. I followed her in and got behind the counter as she made herself a cup of coffee. She examined the sugar packets and miniature creamers closely, picking them up, putting them down, picking another one up, muttering, “The devil is in that one, for sure, absolutely” before continuing the search. She finally made her way to the register with her coffee and I noticed for the first time she had large white circles of what looked like cake frosting or paint on her cheeks. She stopped and turned in front of me three feet away and stared. I stared back. This went on for a while, longer than it should. We both knew but neither would give up. When she stretched her hand out in front of her with the coffee cup I said, “Don’t do it, don’t do it.” She smiled and dropped the cup on floor. Coffee splashed against her bare legs and must have burned her a little because she smiled and let out a “Oooh” before walking quickly into my face and yelling “Dan Rather-ass, corn eatin’ Mother Fucker!” She walked to the exit slowly, stopping to run her hand across the laser that made the door beep a few times and was gone.
I decided to have another Parliament. The floor could wait, I had to mop the whole store before the early morning shift workers started coming in for doughnuts anyway.
Four-thirty, for an hour the asphalt would be cool and nobody would come. Even the Captain would be snoring by now. The girl that couldn’t have chili, sleeping on the edge of the bed.
Matt McLaren lives in Hollywood, California. He has previously written for stage, film and television.