I turn the keys. The motor dies. Its last rumbles fade away. The rapid pulse of a bar next door starts to turn my heart. I wonder whether were running off the same beat. If maybe I should change course, but walk through the doors just the same.
I cross the threshold. Just as quickly I want to turn right around. One guy behind the counter, and the guy at the head of the line is negotiating a money order. I don’t have to hear the words to know what’s happening. The wallet in his hand is sprouting. Green leaves from dry and weathered leather. He’s a real green thumb. I see him pull out a wad, keep half for himself and wish I tendered that garden.
The line is three deep. I’ve passed through the doors so I’m trapped. Mark me down as number four.
Green Thumbs garden belies his appearance. The worn down wallet disappears into pressed slacks where the lines run wild. Crumpled blazer, and as he turns to walk out, I see hints of a black tie on the front of a wrinkled shirt. It’s a little too tight, he’s choking himself in shabby elegance. As I pass the line headed towards the back, I take a quick glance at number two as he moves to become the new number one.
He looks like the kind of guy that sucks lemons in between meals. He’s in gym shorts. The elastics worn down, and in tightening them he has split his body in two. They are a solid black, never having been exposed to the sun, but they hold the waters of a thousand washes in between the fibers. It is a mini constellation on his lower half. Balls of white fiber clinging to the outside. His shorts let the whole world know he never learned to wash colors together.
I pass through the museum of modern art and head towards the back. I had the quickest of glances at number three, but the case of Natural Light in his hands told me more than enough. Any one that would wait in line with a case of that doesn’t deserve more than a thought or two.
I slide through to the back. I’m not even sure that I walk. Having lived this a thousand times, I am not sure that I even choose to arrive. Maybe I just manifest here.
Bright silver aluminum, brown bottled glass, green plastic, and every color of cardboard are opposite me. They hide in their freezers behind glass sheets, and rubber seals. You can always tell what kind of area you’re in by the condensation on the glass.
In the cheapest back alley gas stations the Natural Light section is invisible, it lies hidden behind all the condensation. In the areas just outside the middle of town, Budweiser and all the lower middle class, spur of the moment beers, are hidden by the fog of indecision. If you want to buy one, or even consider it, you have to open the door just to see the price. In the nice sections of town, the craft beer and imports run bare, close to invisible. In each, it all depends on what part of the night you arrive.
Heavy duty alcoholics arrive early to clear glass, and end the night looking through clouds, picking up whatever they can afford.
Right now looking through the haze, I want to show up with beer for me. Maybe a bit extra, but I don’t want to spend too much. I’m heading out to party, but I don’t know if I should show up with two different sixes or a twelve.
I’m not even sure of what I should take. I’m leaning towards XX, but I checked my bank account before heading out, and it’s telling me tonight is Budweiser. That’s the standard, a baseline for what’s acceptable, and what’s not.
My friends keep it simple, frozen oceans of red and white cans fill the ice chests. Bottles of tequila and shot glasses cover the tables. Homemade Mescal and Gentleman Jack keep it high, but drown in the standard, everything else, is the exception.
I’m thinking and thinking, and leaning high, but I remember the power bill is due next week. I’m tasting one, but buying the other. I think about heading home, but these are my friends. Green shines brighter than brown, and I’m feeling emerald green today, but I reach out and grab that red and white box. I grab the eighteen and head towards the register. Enough for me, and extra for you.
While I had been in the back pondering the rest of my night, hedging my bets and checking my bank account for a second time. The line up front has changed.
I’m the new number two. Before me, is a most interesting number one. She hadn’t been there before. In fact, she walks through the door and to the register in that space of time I spent walking out the back aisle to front line.
She is a certain kind of determined. She gave it away when she walked in through the doors. Scanned the whole store, sent her eyes darting wild across the landscape. I’m sure she noticed every bag of chips, candy and all the knick knacks gas stations try to pass off as collectibles. She’s at home here. I know because she looked at what I held, and realized I wasn’t worth a thought or two.
I am the elevator music of her life. A forgettable jingle that piqued the curiosity for only the slightest of moments, but forgotten just as quickly.
A fast glance around the store, and nothing more.
The cashier possibly having lived this moment before steps back toward the cigarettes and his eyes are asking which box. All his instincts have led him to this point, he can now predict what his customers want.
I look at him, fresh faced, a slight hint of a mustache about to kick in, and I know what he thinks of me. I know what he thinks of everyone who walks through the doors. I’m sure his mother has warned him of us, we are the tail end of the night. The last through the door, each of us looking for something we will never find.
I take in the situation, she walked straight to the register, and she has parked by the door. Regardless she beelined to the register. Hands empty, I expect her to ask for a pack of cigs.
In this moment, I am listless, I imagine a deep gravelly voice asking for a box of reds.
Imagine my surprise when instead she reaches into her purse. Black pleather with strips running down the sides along its opening. It’s a mix of native American and high fashion, a nameless dimestore knock off. I don’t see her unzip it, but from my position, I see her pull it from her side. I hear the thick heavy metallic sound of it opening, I hear the black pleather strips pushed aside to reveal its interior. She doesn’t rummage around. As quick as it was to open, it closes.
It seems the cashier, has realized his mistake. He glides back to the register.
She announces it to the world, or at least the world that surrounds her. An 18 pack of Budweiser and a slightly mustachioed cashier are her only audience. Her arm gesticulates wildly through the air, and produces the glossy painted surface of a lottery ticket and all its promises of quick riches.
Her voice comes through thick and clear, smoothed as though by muscle memory.
“I just wanna cash out.
I imagine her cleaning up at the penny slots in Vegas.
There is a pause as the fresh faced cashier grabs the lottery ticket from her hand. It’s not a normal sized ticket, oh no, this one is the size of an envelope. It had to have cost her at least $20, maybe $50. I wonder how much she won, and think that maybe I should buy a ticket just in case. He slides it under the orange light and a mechanical jingle rises up from the device.
Winner, winner, steak for dinner.
My hands are freezing from the box I hold. Soggy and falling apart. It wants to be here even less than me. I wonder which will fall to pieces first.
Time stands still. My hands feel like another moment will cause frost bite. I switch from one to the other and back again. The red letters slide off against my skin as I shift it around.
The cashier opens his mouth and reveals himself the monotone.
“It’s a hundred-dollar payout”
and before he finishes saying the word “payout”, she cuts him off. It may be his register, but she is the kind of person who makes sure each and every step reverberates off the ground. The kind of person you hear coming before they are ever seen. I wonder to myself how long each of those steps echo’s its presence.
We are in her territory. Mid-forties, worn out black pleather native American stylized purse with its faux leather strips hanging down, paired with a black cowboy shirt. I can see the pleats ending in two triangles on her shoulders, and I’m sure if I could see her from the front, I’d see those crushed pearl buttons. She talks thick and strong, full of confidence, this is just another night to her. We’re just gamblers in a den.
“Give me six of the same” she says.
To me, those are just words, I’m zoned out, ready to pay and leave.
But then I hear him.
“This only covers five.”
“I asked for six.” Comes the immediate response
Suddenly, I am intrigued. I find myself personally invested in this. I need to know, absolutely need to know, which one of them never learned how to count.
He pauses for a moment, dumbfounded. The mood in the store changes. It’s quite obvious he is running lines in his head, how to rephrase himself in a way she can understand. At least that’s what I think. Maybe he’s just trying to figure out the numbers. A little moment of self-doubt in the face of confidence has made his world stop. It flashes by quickly, yet, lingers in the air, just long enough to make us all uncomfortable. He opens his mouth to say something, quickly closes it, and then starts up again.
“The ticket is worth twenty, and you won a hundred, that’s five tickets.”
“Excuse me, you heard exactly what I said. I didn’t ask for two, or five, I asked for six.”
It’s at this moment, I want to chime in. She has reached her floor, and now it’s time to depart. It’s time to step in and remind her she asked to cash out. That, is an absolute. Give me my money I need to go. In two sentences, she has broken the bonds of her own words. It is then as I prepare to speak up, I realize the implications of her words. She spent twenty, and in terms of money, she is up eighty, but now, she’s about to buy six tickets. So, she will be giving up another twenty. Fuck, I wonder, why am I seeing her money like its mine. She’s pissing away forty dollars on paper. On a chance, that maybe one of these will be a gold mine. I was checking my bank account earlier to make sure I could buy some beer, and here she is throwing it away quicker than me. I find myself running the pros and cons, of literally winning, and then not keeping even one dollar of it. In fact, spending more for what could be nothing. I remember the old saying. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. I never really understood what it meant until now.
While my mind was trying to comprehend the reality of what is taking place before me, the show continues.
She doesn’t wait for him to respond, and the sounds of her ripping a twenty out of her purse are what brings me back.
Vegas slaps the bill on the counter. Monotone picks it up and it gets quiet while he pulls out six tickets from under the counter. He’s passive aggressive about it. Never learned how to keep his cool. He makes sure to rip each ticket, so that the sounds of the perforated edges coming apart is loud and clear. He holds the stack in his hand and only scans the top card, pulling it in and out each time. He thinks he’s clever. Gets his jollies at the little things. I worked with a guy like him once, the kind of guy that seems normal on the surface. Almost too normal. They don’t speak up in anger, but they give away that rage in the little things they do. I see him look up at her and I’ve seen those eyes before. I worked with those eyes in a fast food restaurant once, and one day a particularly rude customer asked for extra lettuce on all his burgers. A simple request, but delivered like a complete asshole. Those eyes, before me did something I would never forget. There was a cooler that held cut lettuce, its filled with water and ice. He looked at me and smiled, he didn’t say anything, but assumed I was on the level. He unzipped his pants, and swizzled his dick in that lettuce cooler. He was taking his revenge out not just against that man, but the whole world, it was a savage indifference to everyone but himself.
When monotone finishes scanning those tickets, he doesn’t look to her, he looks at me, tries to make eye contact, it’s like he’s trying to say did you see what I did. But I look at the space just behind his eyes. I don’t think he noticed I wasn’t returning his gaze.
Vegas slaps him back into reality.
“You only scanned one ticket, what if I win off another, what am I gonna do then since it’s not registered?”
“They are all registered, they have the same barcode.” He tries to respond in monotone, but the little highs and lows break the façade.
“N, O, you need to scan each. One by One. Where’s your manager at?”
“I’m the night manager, the only one on shift right now, you’d have to return in the morning”
“Jesus, just scan them all so I can leave already.”
He does his thing, scans them all, and Vegas leaves, I never see her face, only dark brown curls, and the smell of singed hair still smoking from a curling iron. She jingle jangles to the door, keys already scratching that first ticket.
I unburden myself on the counter, and reach for my wallet. I know this prick is about to ask for my ID, gonna try and salvage his pride with me. I am prepared and hold it out to him. He looks at it in disgust, and still finds a way to get his jollies. He leaves my ID hanging pointlessly in the air. I want to ask for some Marlboros but think better of it. I pay and move towards the door. My wallet feels the same, but I can feel my depleted bank account. As I cross out the door, it makes sure to text me a notification in case I wasn’t aware.
Outside, I can see her in her car, an old battered Taurus. The light of the rearview mirror is on, and under that soft yellow light I see her hands scratching away.