by Ryan Walraven
Harold pressed his nose to the cold glass of the convenience store window and stared longingly at the street lights outside. Flurries were drifting down from somewhere high in the troposphere and they seemed to give a majesty to the evening that he was neither accustomed to nor inclined to associate himself with. The entire city was abuzz with life; bustling crowds of holiday shoppers had descended to roam the pine-scented shops and watch the Christmas lights go up. But unlike them, Harold was tethered to the counter of the Save-And-Go. Snow or no snow, someone had to guard the smoothie machine and sell donuts to the consumerist hordes.
“Hey Harold!” a cheery voice called from over his shoulder. “Stand there any longer and your tongue will freeze to the window.”
Harold put on a smile and peeled himself away from the view to face the fluorescent reality of the store. “My face is still intact, thanks,” he said. “I was just watching for the milk delivery truck.”
Josh, his boss, gave him a skeptical look and tapped his watch. “Not tonight,” he smiled, “the milk delivery comes on Saturdays.”
“Oh, right,” Harold gave a shrug, “I forgot. All of these days seem to blur together.”
Josh gave a curt laugh. “Keep talking like that and it’s going to be a long month,” he said, wagging his finger. “Business is going to pick up over the holidays, but most of your coworkers are out of town.”
Harold tapped his fingers on the plastic wood of the counter and restrained the urge to groan. He knew where this was going. “Well, I’ll be here on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays as usual.”
Of course,” Josh said, snapping his fingers and squeezing his eyes shut. He was dancing around the subject, Harold could tell, and strategizing as he listened to the Sinatra pouring out of the speakers overhead.
Harold averted his eyes, compulsively clicking the receipt-signing pen open and closed.
“You know,” Josh said, winding up and putting his hand on Harold’s shoulder, “If you could use some extra hours for the holidays, the store would love to have you.”
No. No. Harold closed his eyes and bit his tongue, but he couldn’t think of a reply and somehow the words came rolling out: “Sure, I guess.”
Harold turned his head and sighed. This would probably mean working on Christmas eve. Somewhere inside of him, part of his soul collapsed like an arthritic grandma on a hot city street.
“Thataboy!” Josh said, thumping him on the shoulder and shaking Harold like a limp mop. “You’re awesome, Har!”
“You know,” Harold said, rubbing his shoulder. “You have unusually strong arms for such a skinny guy.”
Josh laughed and thumped him on the shoulder again. “You should come to the gym with me sometime!”
This was a request Harold had more practice at refusing. “No thanks man,” he said, patting his flat stomach. “I’m skinny enough as it is.”
“Suit yourself,” Josh said. He winked at Harold and turned to leave.
Harold gave a sigh of relief, but Josh turned back at the last second. “Hey Har, while it’s slow would you mind restocking the shelves?”
“Noooo problem,” he said. Of course he didn’t mind doing all the work. He grabbed a cart and rolled it to the back room, grabbing haphazard bags of potato chips and candy bars, along with a whole array of bottled sodas and tea. Josh hadn’t mentioned the drinks yet, but he would. That was guaranteed.
He rolled back to the floor and found a lone customer roaming the aisles: a skinny teenaged girl with flyaway hair and a serpentine green scarf. She ignored Harold, despite the rattling of his cart, and danced around a shelf of pixie sticks and bubble gum. She was kind of cute in an Ellen Page sort of way, Harold concluded.
He rolled the cart down an adjacent aisle, certain that he’d make it to the soda cases without even attracting a glance from the girl, yet some inexplicable whim struck her and she skipped directly into his path like a gazelle into a freight truck on the African Savanna.
The rolling cart of liquid sugar cane and processed potato barely grazed her knee, but it was enough to send it careening into a candy display. The resulting collision knocked half a dozen bottles to the floor and engulfed an entire shelf of gummy bears.
“Whoa, sorry,” she gasped, gaping at the mess.
“It’s nothing,” Harold replied, rolling his eyes and surveying the devastation. The gummy casualties numbered in the hundreds, maybe more, and ruined plastic packages lay all around them.
“Are you sure you don’t need some help or something?” the girl said, tugging on the draw string of her hoodie.
“Sure, I guess,” Harold mumbled and knelt down to pick the intact sodas away from the mess, his heart beating.
“Is that a yes or a no?”
He sighed; it was pretty much impossible not to imagine the girl making the situation worse. “Never mind. Don’t worry about it.”
“Oook.” She shrugged and wandered off.
Harold quickly got to work, but behind him someone cleared their throat.
He turned and glanced over his shoulder, expecting Josh to demand an explanation, but it was just a customer standing at the register: a guy in the leather jacket leaning on the counter and waiting to be checked out. Exercising his benign judgment, Harold saved a lone squadron of gummy bears from the disaster and perched them atop one of the shelves. Then, dusting his hands off, he jogged over to the counter and rung up the guy’s items. It was important to keep one’s priorities straight on the job, and small acts of individuality were the only thing that helped him keep his sanity.
“Hrrnhrmnnnn.” The customer cleared his throat again.
Harold looked up into a pair of bloodshot eyes and noticed several details about the man’s appearance: his hair was long and tangled, his leather jacket was worn and cracked, and his face was covered in a shaggy mustache that curled around into a pair of enormous sideburns. As he looked at Harold, one eye seemed vaguely out of focus.
“Can I help you?” Harold ask, tentatively.
The man raised a finger to reply and licked his hairy upper lip, but couldn’t seem to get the words out. He thumped his hand on the counter instead, his body quivering.
Harold backed away from the counter, rolling his eyes. He had experience dealing with these types – the man had probably been having drugged-out convenience store adventures for going on thirty years. Rather than argue with such a veteran, Harold decided to summon Josh right away. He turned to leave, but the man finally spoke.
“Cigarettes,” the man mumbled, his chin now resting against his chest.
“We don’t carry –” Harold started.
“Cigarettes!” the man shouted. The Sinatra pumping quietly out of the speakers seemed distant and faraway, the store a silent wasteland.
“We don’t sell any,” Harold said, backing up another step and bumping into the wall.
The man’s eyes widened and his gaze drifted shakily to the windows and the snow falling outside. “How… how come you ain’t got no cigarettes?”
“We hate tobacco farmers,” Harold gibed, exasperated as he turned to leave the store and summon Josh. The man lunged over the counter and his hand caught Harold’s shoulder.
“Smokes,” the man reiterated, his breath reeking of smoke and whiskey.
“We don’t have any goddamned cigarettes,” Harold said, losing his temper and smacking the man’s arm away.
The man’s eyes widened and his lip trembled as he surveyed his own arm like some sort of alien artifact. Harold spun and tried again to leave, but the man pushed him from behind and sent Harold tumbling over his own backpack. He fell to the floor behind the counter, his elbow hitting the wall and erupting with pain.
Behind him, the man grunted and moved off into the store mumbling. Harold gave a quick sigh of relief – he was still alive – and tried to haul himself to his feet, but when he put weight on his right arm, the elbow gave way and collapsed. Taking a deep breath and leaning back against the wall, he tried to think reasonably. The best thing to do now would be to call the police. There was a phone nearby on the counter, but Harold concluded that the one in the back office was probably a better choice. He started to get to his feet and froze.
“Hey man, hands off,” the girl with the green scarf said.
“Bitch,” the man growled.
Harold’s mind raced. He dove for the phone cord and dragged it off the counter to where he was hiding. He held his arm out to catch it, but his heart was beating and his arms were shaking. The phone smacked his arm and clattered to the floor, its receiver shattering into five pieces.
“Get off me man!” the girl shouted again.
Harold cringed; he didn’t want to get shivved but it was too much to just sit there and listen. Grabbing a broom with his left hand, he unsteadily hauled himself to the counter.
The red-eyed man was standing in the middle of the central aisle, his back to Harold as he faced the girl.
She had her arms crossed and her eyebrows raised.
Overhead, the music stopped. The playlist must have come to an end. Harold gripped the broom in hand like a medieval broad sword and steadied himself. If he lunged just right…
“None uh these people round here,” the man started, stumbling forward and clutching the girl’s arm. “None uh them…”
Harold’s pulse was racing. His mouth had run dry and his right arm felt as if it might break off at the elbow, but he had to do something. He started off from behind the counter and raised the broom to swing, but before he could, the girl went crazy.
“Get the fuck off of me!” she screamed, pushing the guy back into a shelf of potato chips. The man’s bloodshot eyes looked as startled as Harold felt. She stomped up a step closer and pointed at the man’s face and then out the door. “Seriously. Get the hell out of here old man!”
The man’s lip trembled and he pushed himself to his feet, crushing potato chips and corn curls under his palms. Harold’s mouth dropped open as he awaited the flash of a fist, or a knife, but the man got to his feet and stumbled past, straight out the door.
“Some people,” the girl said, shaking her head. “Are you alright?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess” Harold said, shaking his head and limping back to the counter. “Fine.”
“You shouldn’t let guys like that push you around,” she said, carrying a pack of gummy worms to the counter as if nothing had happened. “He’s just a drugged-out creep.”
Harold laughed curtly and rang her up. “Hey,” he said, as she walked out the door.
“Huh?” she turned, her hair wafting in the draft out of the heating ducts.
“Nevermind,” Harold said, shaking his head and rubbing his elbow.
“See you later.” She waved and left.
As if on cue, Josh returned to the store, but Harold had made up his mind.
“Did I miss anything?” Josh joked, cracking a smile.
“The music went off,” Harold shook his head and walked to the counter, leaning the broom against the Tic-Tac display. “And I quit,” he said quietly.
“Excuse me, Har?”
“I said I quit.”
“I thought so,” Josh replied, eyeballing Harold. “Are you messing with me?”
“No.” Harold grabbed his bag and jacket from under the counter and turned to go, but stopped. “No,” he said again, “not this time.”
The automatic doors parted with a hiss and he passed out into the night, subconsciously searching for signs of a green scarf, but the whirling snowflakes were thick, covering everything, and he couldn’t see far beyond glow of the store front.
© Ryan Walraven 2015