It’s 5:30 PM on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and everyone wants something from Quick Shop. Cars and pick-ups pack the pumps, nose to tail, drivers manning hoses, hunkered into buffalo plaid or shivering in business leopard, watching their breaths escape from warm prisons, while the tanks fill. Bundles of desiccated corn stalks, cinched at the waist, flank the doors as customers push in, shouting orders and laments: “Ten on One!”; “Number Three won’t take my card.” Labrador with a full bladder, homework undone, pot not yet boiled, routine beckons with the urgency of a cowbell. Everyone has someplace to go; everyone has an ache. I’m dreaming of hot enchiladas and chilled wine.
The queues snake up to the Lottery machine, which sits on a glass-topped counter covering rolls of scratch tickets. Mega Millions. Powerball. Lucky for Life. Buns in sticky cellophane, vials of CBD oil, and a pile of smiley face air fresheners crowd the space. Cashiers stand on a platform above the supplicants, punching numbers, counting change. There is no “Give a Penny, Take a Penny” dish. The fluorescent light above pricks us with greenish tinge as interlopers eye the lines, looking for places to cut. I move up tight to the coated back in front of me, social distancing be damned, my five-foot frame, though stocky, a liability in situations like this, my warning scowl covered by a mask dotted with shamrocks.
A gallon of low fat and a pint of rainbow sherbet chill my hands. The wedge boots I bought to look cool and stylish exact their revenge on my vanity. I shift, careful not to let the weighty plastic slip from my grasp and crash, exploding milky innards that would stain my pride, along with the beige suede of my feet. I’m praying that I’ve chosen the right queue, that no one ahead of me wants a money order, or decides to pay with nickels.
For a moment, I think I’ve chosen well and my sherbet sweats with hope. My cashier, a lanky guy with strawberry skin and stringy hair the color of lager, takes everything in with the certainty of a metronome: credit cards, damp dollars, licenses. “Sorry; we have to i.d. anyone under 40.” Tired faces brighten at being mistaken for impatient youth, when twenty-one twinkled in a faraway galaxy and a counterfeit license felt like a rocket past the bouncer into a universe of dancing and adulthood. “Wait ’til I tell my husband.” The cashier pushes back cigarettes, slides over change. His head swivels at regular intervals to the tableau beyond the window. He’s wishing for rival motorcycle gangs or a grand blaze at the car dealership across the street, anything to bust up the beat of the monotony that pays his rent.
Finally, it happens. The cashier fixes his gaze to the right and shouts, “Stop her! Stop her!” like a mugging victim in a crime show, his urgency snapping people from their screens. I can’t see out the window because the throng next to me blocks my view. A man wearing a baseball hat and canvas overalls dashes out the glass door, sending the welcome bells into frenzied jangling.
My cashier stops ringing and our line halts dead. A woman in a green puffer jacket squeezes her cat food. In the theater of my mind, I’m cheering the vigilante, envisioning the culprit tackled and searched for pilfered chips and beer, slapping and kicking as she spits righteous declarations against the froth of sirens. There’s blood on the pavement. It’s not justice I crave: the owner of the store, who overcharges on everything and underpays employees and is probably a millionaire, deserves to lose a few dollars.
Within moments the cashier spots what he’s been waiting for. Whatever it is has finished. The sight relaxes his shoulders, and he pushes an exhale from his chest so deep that the narrow flag on his tee shirt ripples. He restarts the metronome, pulling cellophaned cigarette packs from above, bright nips of liquor from behind, customer by customer.
The vigilante returns.
“You got her,” the cashier says, and they nod at one another in gruff, satiated acknowledgement. There have been no uniforms, no gunshot. I manufacture the missing dialogue: Don’t you want to set an example for your kids? We’ll let you go this time; it’s a holiday.
But the cashier cheats me out of my fantasy as he stands straighter on his platform, raising his voice above the masked coughs and jangling of bells against the door:
“Last week, a woman left her purse on the roof of her car and started to drive away. Her stuff went flying all over.” He flails his lanky arms.
“Everything she had was exposed: tampons, tissues, pill bottles, a tiny toy rabbit sitting in a rowboat. Like she was naked.” He has all of our attention.
“Cars ran over things. She got out and stood there, covering her face with her hands. I couldn’t go help because they told us if we ever left our registers we’d get fired. Today,” he says, pointing towards the window, “that lady was about to do the exact same thing. I couldn’t let it happen again.”
He put the sherbet and milk in a plastic bag, his hair falling in shiny strings, the ink on his arm a muddied scrawl. I push a five in his direction, around the puddle left by my milk, watching Lincoln’s mournful visage slide across the counter. The night he was killed, Booth timed his attack to coincide with the audience’s laughter so people would not hear the gun. No one could be sure what was real, what was theater. But when the men carried his body outside, they had to push away the people crowding in as the great man gasped for life.
I push the door, ringing the bells in my wake, calling me to place my purse on the roof of the car and stand, naked. I can hear the shot.
Lisa Lebduska directs the College Writing program at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where she teaches expository writing. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in such publications as The Forge, Lunch Ticket, The Tishman Review, The Gateway Review, Narrative, and Writing on the Edge, among others. She lives in Salem, Connecticut, too far from Devil’s Hopyard, where she and her husband enjoy hiking with other people’s pets.