by Carol Reid
Don’t mistake me for nice. I quit my nice job a while ago, after seven hard night-shifts in a row. People wonder how any kind of human being could be cruel to the disabled. I don't wonder, and I don't want that on my resume so I quit that place. Now I work early shift at the Lucky Penny, which is another way of saying I work night and day. The owner, Mr. Lau, is thinking of making me day manager, because I never lost it with the crack heads and junkies who used to leave their shit and needles in the alley. Someone saw me give them coffee and individual pizzas and told Mr. Lau I was a good person.
Lorraine, my shift partner, had the idea first of dosing the pizza, but I was the one who actually did it. That makes me manager material? Maybe.
But I love Lorraine. When we work together, four a.m. to noon, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, it's like the Lucky Penny is the greatest place in the world to be. Two-pump self serve gas bar, shrink wrapped burritos and a dairy case fifteen feet long. Me and Lorraine behind the counter. At the counter, I am God.
Yesterday Lorraine was late clocking in, which was not a problem because I had punched both our cards when I got in at three-forty-seven a.m. The snow had started coming down at two, again not a problem because my apartment is ten minutes from the store on foot. Slush was clumping up on the sidewalk and in the road. Lorraine had a ten K ride to work in her Micra and I knew she'd be taking it easy.
She finally pulled in at four seventeen, and got out of the car with her head down and a black cloud on her shoulders. When she looked up I grinned at her through the window and nodded at the schlump at pump number one who was trying to get his receipt and gas card out of the slot. She perked up, gave me that lop-sided smile and I pressed the release button on the till.
"How long?" she asked and shook the slush off her hood.
"Twenty-seven seconds," I said.
She gave a little whoop of admiration and whispered, "Bet it seemed like thirty."
My heart melted. Lorraine always knows how to make me feel good. And so what if I'd only made the schlump wait eleven seconds? I bet it did feel like thirty out there in the sleety wind.
"Sorry so late, " she said and smoothed down her bangs with the palm of her hand.
"Slow going on the road, eh?"
"Not that," she sighed. "Eugene wanted a hot breakfast this morning. Burned myself on the fry pan."
"Tell him to make his own breakfast." I said.
"No, you tell him, Richard," she laughed, "that man is a bear when he's hungry." She nodded toward the parking lot. "Dempster Bread truck coming in."
"Think the diesel pump is working today?"
Lorraine thought it over. "Yeah," she decided, "today is Dempster's lucky day."
By dawn the snow had turned to freezing rain and there was a puddle of gritty water leaking out of the mat just inside the front door. Lorraine brought out the old string mop and tin bucket and made a try at drying off the slippery floor. I'd thrown out rock salt everywhere but in the handicapped-parking spot closest to the store. I'd talked it over with Lorraine. The Handi-Van never made a stop there 'til afternoon. Anyone able-bodied who parked there to dash in for a burrito and a slurpee just might be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"This mop could do with a transplant," Lorraine said after a minute of dragging the old thing over the floor which only make the puddle wider and shallower. I tossed her a handful of wipes that she swirled over the floor with the heel of her boot.
"So Eugene should be hearing about his transfer today," Lorraine said.
I felt a kind of burning in my throat. "I thought Eugene was out of the running. Way down the list, I thought."
"Yeah, well, it's Sparwood, eh? Nobody wants to go to Sparwood." She rolled the tin bucket into the back room and tipped it out into the stainless steel sink. She came back out and said, "Except Eugene. He wants to go to Sparwood."
"You know anyone up there, Lorraine?"
She shook her head and wiped her red hands on her jeans.
A van pulled up and a bunch of kids poured out the side doors. Two skinny gals in jeans and puffy jackets hopped out of the front and lit up right there under the no smoking sign. The kids ran each other to the ground in the grey slush while the two women yapped at each other and breathed out thick streams of steam and smoke.
"Safety first, " Lorraine said and I cut power to pump number one. The taller gal, closer to the store, stuck her mitt up in the air and hollered, but with all those kids screaming I got distracted and kept on filling up the cooler with burritos from the Dempster stock.
Soon she was at the door, swinging it open so hard it almost smacked up against the outside wall.
"What's up with the pump? We got to get going."
"Cash only right now, sorry. The system's down all over town."
The mother of many swore like a logger. She yelled out the door, "Chandra! Do you got cash?"
Chandra looked at her friend like she was speaking Hindu. "Cash? I got a twenty for the kids' McDonalds. That's it."
Chandra's friend pulled off her mitts and fluffed her hair.
"Well, get five bucks gas and use the rest for lunch," she shouted.
"Richard, "Lorraine said," now the cash drawer won't open."
"Sorry, ma'am, "I said to the customer." It's been one of those days."
I gave her a pathetic smile. She stomped outside and took the bill from Chandra, who looked like she might start slapping one of the kids.
"If it helps at all, gas up with the twenty and I'll give you all half a dozen individual pizzas. To make up for the trouble."
"Aah, whatever," the customer said and handed over Chandra's twenty dollars.
Lorraine brought over a stack of pizzas from the warming oven.
"Sorry, ma'am, "Lorraine said." Have a nice day."
She passed over the boxes and held the door open. The skinny gal tottered out to the van. Lorraine waved at the kids and at Chandra and they all waved back. She has a way with people.
"Think they'll have a nice day?" I said.
She slapped my shoulder. "There's nothing wrong with those pizzas!"
I raised an eyebrow and she laughed. "Nah, Richard, what do you think I am?"
The next couple hours we got the shelves dusted and filled, and the puddle on the floor dried up enough to sweep clean. Mr. Lau dropped by to pick up the bank deposit and caught me giving a final polish to the dairy case. I could almost see the thought forming above his bulging forehead, "late-shift manager material".
If Lorraine was leaving, what did it matter? I'd end up supervising either Grandma Velda, who had her own candy store when I was a boy, or Mr. Lau's sixteen year old daughter, who looked at me funny with her deep dark eyes and licked her lips like she was dying of thirst.
Mr. Lau stopped half way out the door and turned back to me.
"No more rodent?" he said.
"I'm on top of it," I assured him. I keep enough D-Con on hand to dose every rat in town.
At the stroke of noon a taxi pulled up, and a guy pushed himself up and out of the back seat with a pair of metal crutches.
"Here's Eugene," Lorraine said. "You should come and meet him."
The man made his way slowly over the remnants of slush.
"Did he break an ankle or something?" I said but I could tell it was something time couldn't fix.
The guy saw Lorraine through the glass and flashed her a smile. She beamed back at him then shook her head at me.
"Old polio flare-up. Crazy, eh?"
She opened the door for him and wrapped her arms around his waist.
"Come say hi to Richard," I heard her say.
He propped an elbow in the cuff of his crutch and reached out to shake my hand. I gave him the grip and stepped back, wishing they would just get their shit-happy faces home and pack up for Sparwood. He was talking at me but all I could hear was a ringing in my ears like a phone at three a.m. Lorraine stuck to him tight as a tick. Wherever he went, she would follow, no doubt whatsoever.
Soon I could understand English again.
"I tell you Richard," Eugene was saying, "Sparwood is the land of opportunity. Up there you could get a store of your own, no lie. Look at me, do I look like manager material? In Sparwood, I'm manager material."
I told him congratulations and best of luck. I crossed my arms and smiled.
"Lorraine will send you our address, right, babe?"
"You betcha, "Lorraine said.
“We’re going for some lunch now, Richard, but you're welcome to come by for a beer later on."
"Yeah, hope you will," Lorraine agreed.
I bought a jug of motor oil and filled up a jerry can and lugged them on the walk home.
When I got there I unlocked the shed behind my building and wheeled out my old Yammy into the parking lot. I dug out my helmet and wiped down the bike where it wasn't rusted too bad. I filled her up and locked her to a post while I went and had a long shower. When I finally pulled up to Lorraine's double wide it was five in the afternoon and dark. There was a skin of ice on the potholes in the driveway and a slick of ice on the ramp and the steps to the trailer. I stomped the slush off my boots on the bottom riser. Lorraine opened the door and smiled at me.
There was a cake with a bunch of candles on top on the table and a homey, greasy smell in the air. Eugene's crutches leaned against the wall and he was set up in a captain's chair. Half a dozen empty Labatt's cans were lined up very straight across the table. Lorraine gathered me in her arms and hugged me hard and Eugene shook my hand again as if we'd been apart for half a century.
"Let's have some cake, my man, now you can't say no, it's our anniversary." He picked up the big knife and sliced the cake into eight big pieces. Clapton was singing and playing in the background, that kind of white man's blues that reaches for your heart but falls a little short. The cake was sweet and dry and soon my first beer was gone and I was popping another. Seemed like Lorraine had used her last burst of energy to greet me at the door. She sprawled back in her chair and left her cake untouched in front of her, and both of them asked me to pop them another beer. Eugene let out a deep sigh and went for his crutches but missed. I dragged them over and helped him get to his feet. He went down the hallway to the restroom and closed the door behind him.
Lorraine folded her hands in her lap and looked around at her home. "You wouldn't be alone in Sparwood, Richard," she said to the ceiling. "You'd have us there."
She pushed her slab of cake over into Eugene's place and closed her eyes.
There was an empty quiet place between us, where I could make anything happen. I didn't know if the music was over. All I could hear was the water on the roof and on the ground tightening into ice and us in the center, coagulating like all the forgotten stuff in an old Sears freezer. Was I manager material? Maybe.
I took the box of d-Con out of my pocket, placed it on the table and hit the road.
The Yammy died halfway home so I left her in the ditch and thumbed the rest of the way.
Chandra picked me up just a little way along the road. I still had some feeling in my hands and my feet so I couldn't have walked too far. I could still smell the pizza in the van but I didn't have any appetite. I got out at the stoplight near my building and thanked her for the ride. I told her the pumps at the store were probably working now.
This morning I clocked in again at three forty seven, I looked at Lorraine's time card but left it where it was. She wouldn't be coming in today.
Don't mistake me for nice. A nice guy would be on his way to Sparwood. But I'm here, inside the Lucky Penny, where behind the counter I am God.
Bio: Carol Reid loves short stories. She loves reading them, writing them and promoting them. She is an assistant fiction editor for Sotto Voce, www.sottovocemagazine.com and is a regular contributor to The Short Review, www.theshortreview.com . Her stories have appeared in small press publcations and online.