Let the One-Stop Shoplifter try and rob us, I’ll chop him into little pieces. I’ll make him watch us gobble him from the toes on up. A dirtbag with a gun has no idea what true anger is.
I’ve got the soda and beer coolers stocked and fronted like they’re supposed to be, the spring-loaded sliders behind the counter are packed full of smokes, the Twinkies and tampons and jerkys and quarts of oil are sorted the way they’re supposed to be on their racks, the hotdog grill-in-a-box is powered down. I dust-mopped the floor and dumped the garbage. I stuffed the strawholder with straws and the napkin dispenser with napkins. It’s after ten, we close at eleven, we haven’t seen a customer for fifteen minutes. I’ve been here thirteen hours, repeated the howarya-havagudday spiel a thousand times. Around evening rush, I killed a few people.
No, not killed. Slaughtered. Massacred. The trash bin out back is full of arms and entrails.
And not people. Dirtbags.
I don’t know what National Dickdrip Procrastinator’s Convention just ended, what inspiring performance of Let’s Annoy the CECANG-Store Clerks just let out, but suddenly, at quarter after, customers.
On this humid night our glass double doors are open like a hooker’s legs, and these losers and real winners and slimebags and dirtbags ooze in like a shot wad, with a “lemmegitta” this and an “Ineeda” that. They track filth onto my clean floor, they violate my virgin trashbag, they batter my jerkys hunting for hickory smoked–you’re supposed to look before you touch–they grind lotto scratchoff dust into my counterfront carpet, they suck up my CECANG.
Caffeine, Empty Calories, Alcohol, Nicotine, Gambling. CECANG. The stuff you’re not supposed to want. That’s all we sell, and it’s all these dirtbags are craving.
Customers wake the borborygmi in my guts.
Lemmegitta severed head.
My ice creams and sixpacks and chips and dips that need a good home are lined up in sweaty, greasy hands, doomed to a dirtbag’s gutshoot. I oughta be harpooning whales for a living. Instead, I duck behind Register Two.
My wingman tonight is Red–aka Superclerk, Clerk Kent, the old dude who knows your name and makes you feel like you’re part of some exclusive convenience-club. Always patient, always service with a smile and a how’s-the-wife and a don’t-worry-about-the-pennies. Jesus with a SKU-scanner, probably slowrides home every night after work, grooving on Coltrane, cruise control set to 55 in a 55, parks his Prius at his solar-paneled adobe mudhut, skips on inside and beats his wife bloody.
“I can help someone,” I say, and this half-everything (sleeping, bald, wit) dirtbag near the rear of the line locates his inner Attila and charges my way with his Breyers Vanilla and gallon of 2% and pinetree air freshener. Must be lactose intolerant.
He lets the goods kerplop on the glass countertop-slash-scratchoff display case. You’re not supposed to do that.
I grunt a “Howarya,” which everyone knows is not a real question.
“Be better if my girlfriend wasn’t pregnant, my man.”
This is not how we do it, dirtbag. I’m not your buddy. I’m not your shrink or your diary. I don’t want to know where you fell from or where you’re falling to. You rape my inventory, you abandon the fronted Twinkies because one of them’s injured, you pour half my Mountain Dew down the drain because you bought more than you could handle. You’re the foster parent who bad-touches the orphans. You’re the reason I’m full of monsters.
How it’s supposed to go is you get your stuff, pay cash, and scram. This is me at the counter: “Howarya.”
This is you: “Good.”
That’s it. No details, no negatives, don’t ask me about me.
Then I ring you up, ask if you want a bag–don’t you ask, don’t you fucking bring it up before I do–tell you to have a nice day, and you scram.
“Nine-forty-three,” I say, and I ask the bag question.
The droop-eyed inbreeder chuckles sleep-breath at me. “No girlfriend, huh? Thatta boy, fight the urge. Nothing but one-nighters til you’re at least thirty.”
Stop it, dirtbag. Stop it, or else.
“Kyle ain’t much of a talker, Skip,” Red tells the inbreeder. “Nice kid, though,” he adds, passing a smile around, in front of the two lines forming to witness the Good Clerk with his leper.
I oughta be wrestling alligators.
I oughta be demolishing houses.
Red pats me on the shoulder. My mouth hurts from being yanked up at the corners. My guts hurt.
My guts are exploding.
I leap over the counter and lay Skip flat across the just-swept vinyl squares. Borborygmi sweep from my guts, through my arms. They command me like hand puppeteers. My eyes swell with blood, seeing red. My skin chars. I grab two bendy straws from the soda fountain and jam them deep into Skip’s eyes, and when he shrieks I pop the other ends in his mouth. I clamp his nose shut and his mouth pursed and force him to suck up his own inbred brains.
Skip counts out exact change. “Have a nice night, Kyle,” he says. “Remember what I said about girlfriends, my man.”
Skip leaves. The next dirtbag steps up. Borborygmi burp up the anger I managed to hold back, this time.
I oughta be braining cows with a sledgehammer.
“Howarya,” I growl.
At 10:30 the store’s empty, like it’s supposed to be. I’m repairing the mess some deathwishing dirtbag made of my candy racks–Snickers in the Three Musketeers, Fast Breaks with the Heaths, a stranded, sweating Gatorade crushing the infant M&Ms. That’s when Red says, “Hey, Kyle, I been thinking about your nontalkativeness. Maybe I can help.”
Red’s good people. It’s tough to want to grab his lips and pull them in separate directions until all the skin’s flayed off his face.
Not true of the One-Stop Shoplifter, that unidentified dirtbag who’s been robbing every type of store once–beverage, furniture, one-dollar, Salvation Army, hardcore XXX. Try robbing our CECANG store, dirtbag.
I wonder how many sweaty Gatorades I could fit in him.
“See,” Red says, “it ain’t really conversation going on across this counter. More like a play. Like, remember Skip? The guy knocked up his girlfriend?”
Of course. That sticky spot in front of the soda fountain? Skip’s eye juice.
“Well, Skip’s just looking for a laugh and a listen. You chuckle once or twice, he’ll do all the talking.”
I’m not kidding about my borborygmi.
What happened was I got in a fight with a bar bouncer over getting in a fight with some college snob for spilling beer on my old letterman jacket. The snobby wad did it on purpose, but I smack his head against the bartop one time, just to wake him up, and the bouncer’s chucking me out.
“Customers don’t mean any harm, see,” Red says. “They want the same thing we want. They want to get outta here as pain-free as possible and go home.”
I was like, Why don’t you throw the snob out.
The bouncer was shoving me, spitting at me, in front of everybody treating me like trash.
And he was like, Scram, kid, hothead kid.
Being a dirtbag and a dick about it. And I oughta be a UFC champion, a lumberjack, an oral surgeon, not a CECANG clerk.
So I slugged him.
“Heck, you’re an audience, really. Your job is to bag their stuff and love their jokes–the customer ain’t just always right, he’s always on. Work up the courage to flat-out applaud, and you got yourself a friend for life.”
The bouncer had nothing. He was shielding his face with his hands, whining, Alright alright, stop, look just cut it out knock it off kid kid kid.
I punched around his hands, through them, wherever I could see face I punched. I smashed his nose in. I blackened his eyes for him. I knuckled open his brow and his cheeks like I was skinning a rabbit. He couldn’t stop me. His buddies couldn’t stop me.
I woke up the next day with grated fists, arms scratched from when the guy was begging me to stop hitting him. I couldn’t stop. It wasn’t me hitting him.
“I mean, I don’t expect ya to be best friends with every customer comes in here,” Red says. “But it can’t hurt to know how to treat people right, wherever life takes you. And I’m no professor on the matter, but I do have a thing or two to teach, you know.”
They were in the bouncer, see. He was the angriest they’d found so far. But I broke him open, and when I did the borborygmi flocked to my anger like dirtbags to a Marlboro buydown. They slithered in through my scrapes, through my teeth, an army of sharpened shadows, chittering. They tasted like bile. They dropped down to my balls and then settled in my guts. They gobbled up my anger. I watched my fists utterly ruin momma’s big tough bouncer boy. I watched him claw at my arms and beg, Stop, please, it’s over, just go away, just stop.
But I couldn’t stop. I had to feed them.
Now I always have to feed them.
“I need a pack of whatever Mary smokes.”
This riddle’s for me from a vacant-faced fatass. This is not at all how it’s supposed to go, right here. We close in less than ten, but a fairy duet of twentysomethings is holding their highschool reunion in the beer aisle, and a greatest-gen assprick is whining at Red about the price of ketchup. Now this seacow is swimming up to a shark and saying, Devour me.
I chuckle, for Red. I can’t bring myself to applaud.
“Mary?” the seacow repeats. I oughta be a punching bag for heavyweight fighters. “A red pack, maybe? How do I know–I don’t smoke those cancer sticks.”
I pounce over the counter and ride the seacow to the floor. Borborygmi shoot through me like a mainline injection, throttle my heart, file my teeth into fangs. The anger is pure rush. I oughta kill everyone who breaks the rules. I rule this store, I speak through my fists, I am plainly understood. I gnaw into her manatee gut and suck up the fat, free demon liposuction, the fat and then the intestines, I slurp colon spaghetti, then lungs, liver. It’s her fault. I tried to stop them.
“I hear ya, man,” Red tells the ketchup-complainer. “Price of convenience, unfortunately, y’know?” Then he leans over and asks the cow, “Salutations Mary?”
I have no idea what that means, but the seacow expands a defenseless smile across her fat face.
“That’s her,” she says.
Red tears off a pack of USA Gold Box 100s from the slider shelves along the back wall, hands it to me.
I oughta be a chew toy, training attack dogs.
I cash-tender the seacow and watch her crush the poor pack of smokes into her purse. I toss her a “havagudday,” so spent that I almost mean it.
Now that dirtbag’s gone, and so’s the old, whiny dirtbag. Now the highschool reunion has cleared out, and it’s nearly closing time.
My insides settle.
Now a gun is pointing at my face.
“All the money,” the One-Stop Shoplifter says. It’s muffled because his mouth is behind a blue bandana. His eyes are behind dark sunglasses. His torso’s covered with a zipped-up leather jacket, his head with a blank red baseball cap. He’s completely hidden.
His meaning is completely clear.
He sets an unfolded paper bag on the counter. The gun’s staring me down.
You’re not supposed to do that.
“Every piece of green paper you got in that register,” he growls, “put it in here.”
He’s a bully. You’re not supposed to take or abuse what’s not yours. He’s raping the register.
He doesn’t seem angry. He can’t be angrier than I am.
Why isn’t my skin charred? Why aren’t my nails sharp? Why aren’t I tearing and slicing and ripping him open?
My finger hits the NO SALE button. My hands empty the till. The One-Stop Shoplifter stuffs innocent 99¢ bags of chips and peanuts in his black jacket.
It’s not supposed to go like this. I oughta be Salutating Mary. I oughta be a bouncer.
I leap backward–
No, I’m pushed.
A hand swats at the gun; the gun flies away like a spooked bird.
Red clutches the One-Stop Shoplifter by the collar of his zipped-up jacket and drags him across the counter and down to the floor. The One-Stop Shoplifter lands on his back.
Red slugs him in the face.
Red’s growling. He’s pinning the guy down with one hand and throwing punch after punch with the other. He’s growling like a beast.
He punches away the glasses. Punches away the bandana. Punches away the cap.
My borborygmi kick.
Red punches, and my borborygmi kick and scramble and skitter up my throat.
Red punches, and I fall to my knees beside the One-Stop Shoplifter, hugging my guts, and Red punches, and it’s all fear within the Shoplifter’s swollen eyes, and Red punches.
The One-Stop Shoplifter claws at Red’s arms, begs him to stop.
I gag and heave. The borborygmi march out of my mouth. An army of devil-red eyes, razor claws, candy-wrapper skin, soda-bottle silhouettes. Cigarette smoke coils between their fangs. They smell like half-eaten hotdogs and burnt coffee. Their growls are gutteral howaryas.
They scramble over each other, ravenous. They clamber up the One-Stop Shoplifter and up the arm holding him down, and they enter Red through his clenched teeth, through his busted knuckles, through the buffet of rage in his eyes.
Red punches. They won’t let him stop.
The One-Stop Shoplifter’s eyes are swollen purple. His teeth are spilled across the tile floor. I watch him beg, gumming the words, and I only feel sick.
It’s not supposed to happen this way.
You’re not supposed to do this.
Working in retail makes you insane. Put Gandhi in a Mobil On the Run for a month, I guarantee he punches somebody out. Give Jesus a job stocking shelves at Wal-Mart, and he will eventually turn someone’s blood into wine. Make a Carebear sell beer for a living, and he will (yes, I’m going to say it, you can’t stop me) cease Caring. I never thought I was an evil man. I’d made mistakes, I’d been grumpy, I’d misrepresented myself and made poor impressions and alienated loved ones, but that’s not evil. That’s human. It wasn’t until I started working retail that I realized I had it in me to fantasize about busting a guy’s nose crooked for having the gall to track mud across the floor; I had it in me to imagine kicking a woman right in the pregnancy for taking a soda out of the cooler, thinking twice, and putting said soda back IN THE WRONG DAMN SPOT. Ohboy. I’d better stop. Already I feel the old evil starting to course through my veins. I guess some demons are just impossible to exorcise. Which, I suppose, is why writing is a life-long endeavor.