January 4, 2012


The red smock sticks to my skin, chafing my chest.  My misery is amplified by the noonday sun, glaring through the window. I grab the edges of the polyester garment and fan it out, back and forth, trying to get some air circulating in there. It’s not helping.

“Ugh, this sucks.”

“Hey, at least you’ve got room in there,” Donna says, pregnant belly straining against the fabric of her smock. “Look at my freaking legs.”

I look down at what used to be her ankles, now swollen like sausages. There’s no demarcation between ankle and calf any more. I know I shouldn’t laugh, but I can’t help myself. “Jesus, Donna. That’s gross.”

“Yeah, yeah, stuff it, skinny. I’m going back in the cooler to stock milk. At least it’s cold in there.”  She sighs and wags a warning finger in my direction. “Birth control. Use it.”  She turns and waddles toward the solace of the cooler.

I look at the clock; it’s almost noon. I dread the noon hour, when the summer school kids from Golden high school cross the street in packs,  pillaging the nacho machine and the cigarette cases.  I leave my place behind the counter and plop a dozen hot dogs onto the rotisserie, checking the ketchup and mustard dispensers to make sure they’re full. Just touching the hot dogs makes me gag and I hold my breath as I open the rotisserie, willing myself not to inhale.

I wash my hands and vow to become a vegetarian.

The door jingles open, and the first few hooligans straggle in.  The boys arrive first, shaggy-haired and long-limbed, but I don’t mind them. They at least are sullen and silent, unlike the girls, who snap orders and roll their kohl-crusted eyes and smirk as I ring up their purchases.  The girls are bitches. I look out the window and see them coming, a block behind the boys. Great.

The boys plop down typical teenage fare: powdered donuts, bags of Doritos, Slim Jims, giant containers of Gatorade.  The one in the red flannel smokes Marlboros, so I reach above the counter and place a pack near the register.  The orange-hair chews; I grab a disc of Skoal and place it next to the cigarettes. Several others head for the Slushie machine. The only boy I know by name, Neal, has a Miller Genuine Draft tall boy in his hand.  Today, like every day beforehand, I give him the dead shark eye and say, “Forget it, Neal.”

Neal grins lopsidedly. “Awww, come on. It’s boring as fuck in there. Give a guy a break, why don’tcha?”

I point to the cooler. “Back.”

He sighs good-naturedly and with an exaggerated stomp, returns the beer to the cooler, replacing it with a container of Sunny D. “You’re no fun, you know.”

“I know.”

The door jingles and the girls walk in, breasts threatening to pop out of their tank tops, butts hanging perilously close to the seams of shorts.

The boys pretend to ignore them, but they sneak looks in their direction, unable to help themselves. The girl stalk past, all red talons and attitude.

Donna emerges from the cooler and stands in a corner, arms akimbo, eyes watchful. The girls are known for sticky fingers, especially in the lip gloss aisle. She looks pointedly at the boys and gives a quick jerk of her head towards the door; they shuffle out, grumbling under their breath.

The girls won’t look at Donna but they hurry with their purchases: Snapple, Sugar Daddy’s, Starburst chews. I’ve never seen them buy anything but sugar and cigarettes. I automatically take four packs of Marlboro Lights down from the case and put them on the counter.

They pay quickly but can’t resist a parting shot. “God, this place sucks,”  nose-ring girl says, stuffing her smokes in her purse. “It would totally suck working here.”  They snicker and leave, bell ringing behind them.

“Yeah it does suuuuck working here, but it doesn’t suck as hard as summer school, dumbass,” I say under my breath.

A few stragglers come in afterwards, mostly sweaty kids in the marching band. For some reason, they practice in the middle of the day, when it’s too hot for dogs or crazy people.  They keep us in business just in Gatorade. They’re nice kids, the marching band ones, but for some reason, there’s no in-between: they’re either emaciated or plump as plums. It makes me wonder. What about marching band encourages extremes?

When the band kids leave, Donna heaves a sigh. “I need lunch. God, I’m so fat but so hungry. Being pregnant in the summer is nasty.” She takes off her damp smock and throws it in the back room. “You want anything?”

“Nah, I’m good.”  How can anyone have an appetite with this hot dog smell?

Donna leaves and I prepare for the regulars. I refill my Diet Coke from the fountain area. It’s flat. Fuck. I’ll never be able to replace the Co2 container without Donna. I crunch on a CornNut–my lunch of choice–and hear a jingle. It’s Scooby.

Why they call him Scooby, I have no idea. He works construction and is so tan that he looks bizarre, with his white-blond hair and pale eyes.

Scooby grabs a large Pepsi from the cooler and puts so many jalapeno peppers on his nachos that my eyes water just ringing them up.

“Heh, heh,” Scooby laughs. “This’ll give me the squirts. Worth it, though.”

“Thanks for sharing that, Scoob.”

“Heh. Just trying to add a little levity. It’s dead in here, man.”

“Dead is good Scoob. Dead is good.”

“Later, Serious.” He puts on his Ray-Bans and scoops up his toxic snack.

“Later, Scoob.”

A car pulls up to the full-service pump. We haven’t done full service for six months, but Donna keeps forgetting to remove the full-service sign. The driver sits in his car for a minute, then honks–three rapid blasts of the horn.

I open the door and make a slicing gesture across my throat. “We. Don’t. Do. That. Anymore,” I yell.

Instead of getting out of the car to pump his own gas, the man flips me the bird and screeches out of the parking lot.

Tres Beer Man comes in a bit later. Tres Beer man comes in between 1:30 and 2 every day and buys exactly three cans of Budweiser. He’s got to be pushing eighty years old. I’m intrigued by Tres Beer Man. Why does he never splurge and buy a 6-pack, saving himself the trip tomorrow? He never does, though. Every day, three beers.

I bid him goodbye and try to wrestle the Co2 canister out of the back, but it’s just too heavy. Shit. How heavy is this thing? Donna waddles in, hand on her belly.

“Forget that. Make James do it when he comes in at 3. No waaayy I’m lifting anything right now. Why did I get Taco John’s for lunch? Bad mistake. Bad.”  She pauses, looks around. “Dead zone time?”

“Yeah. Go put your feet up. You look terrible.”

It’s slow but steady my last hour, mostly husky-throated regulars taking advantage of the 99-cent special we’re running on generic cigarettes.

At one point, though, a white van zooms into the parking lot and a short man, overalls stained with paint, dashes into the store. “You got any Ex-Lax?”

His eyes are wild.

“Umm, let me check?” I say. “Ex-Lax?”

“Yeah, Ex-Lax, Ex-Lax,” he says, as if I’m deaf.

Nobody’s ever come in here for Ex-Lax, not on my watch, anyways. How the heck do I know if we have it?

“I need diuretics, too,” he pants, pawing through the Rolaids and Tums. “You got any diuretics?”

Donna smells a rat. She slowly emerges from the back room and plucks a few boxes from the shelves. She hands it to overall man.

“Great. Can I get another packet of diuretics?”

Donna hands him another and he races for the cooler, grabbing three containers of Gatorade. He throws a 20 on the counter and runs to the van, not waiting for change.

I look at Donna, bewildered. “What the heck?”

She rolls her eyes. “Drug test. Idiot.”

“Seriously? Whaaa?”

She smiles wearily. “Ah, young thing. So much you don’t know.”

And she’s right. I still don’t get it. But it’s five minutes until three and she gestures toward the back, taking my place at the counter. It’s time for life to begin.

I grab the yellow card, stick it in the time-clock, and punch.

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