BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
A grating alarm signals it is wakey time. Ugh. Mornings stab my mind like a shovel in gravel. Noisy, achy, I stumble to the bathroom for my first break. The sun is trying to find its way into my house from a window and stick me in the eye. “Where's my water?” I realize I'm talking to the refrigerator. A jenga puzzle of recyclables decorates the counter. My water bottle is hiding among its bitter enemies, coke and tea. Traitor.
Agua makes the dropsy little pills go down, a reminder of pickled organs and annoying shit like insurance and doctors. I forget my house shoes. I realize this because a crumb of something on my foot is making me limp.
The shower water pressure is weak like my willpower and cash flow. My towel smells good enough that I'm thankful to be married and not using the same one for six months because I hate the laundry mat. Finding the mirror I touch up my countenance. Almost time to put on the happy face.
“Love you too.” It's rehearsed but by now believable.
The vehicle I whisk myself to work in is old enough to be a little embarrassing, yet dependable so any complaining about it will draw the ire of a really poverty stricken chap. Driving to the shop, I pass people who are too old to drive and yet others pass me as if to say my status symbol is better than your status symbol. Nah. They just like nice stuff I think; it's the same lie I tell myself when I overpay for fermented grapes.
I wish to complain about traffic lights, but that would mean I live in an area that has them. This is the rust belt, has been, run down, eyesore town that globalization hacked off the tap root and left to wither and die. Poor people around here only have stray dogs and one eyed dumpster diving opossums to look down on and feel better about themselves.
My shop is just past the rickety train trestle that is so low you can't even jump off it and die. Probably just break a leg and get stuck with a big hospital bill. If you've had enough you jump off with a rope around your neck and dangle like a crucifix on a gold chain. At least that is the story. She left him, lost his job, homeless, broke, drove into the trestle piling, didn't die, had just enough rope in the trunk to get the job done. Stories around here become living things. I've heard most of them. Today one might just crop up in idle conversation.
The door is locked. At least I didn't forget that last night. Opening the door and sweeping off the stoop, I'm ready for coffee. I finally grew up and stopped putting sugar in it. Now the bite of roasted beans feels right. I just realized I thought I grew up. I'm getting gray hair. That's closer to the truth.
“Hello.” It's too early for much more than that. Be positive.
“Hey there young man. I just come to gander at whatcha got. Don't get up on my account.” I know his type, early riser, prostate wakes him up at 4am. Just retired and ten years from needing a cane, he has put on forty pounds since he quit smoking. What hair is left should be put to a pair of scissors and his teeth see more hard candy than toothbrushes. Getting money out of him is going be impossible. He has a big bill tucked in the nether recesses of his wallet just in case he can beat you out of something you don't want to sell.
I watch him wander around the store messing up stuff. He is from the generation that still makes a woman pick up after him. Some grandchild already told him it's the 21st century. I'm not going to bother reminding him. I realize what he needs is a new wardrobe. His pants are a size too small. His belly is hanging out of his shirt, but I guess that goes with the butt crack sticking out of his pants. Waving as he walks out, I thank him for stopping in.
An hour goes by with the radio churning out oldies in the background. I dust and vacuum a bit. It's going to be a slow day in paradise. A newer gas sipper pulls up. The windshield has a crack and the bumper is held up with a roll of duck tape. I look away before they get out. It needs to be a surprise.
“What's up boss man.”
Lordy it's the youth. “Not much. Living the good life.” Remember to stroke the ego. I put on a smile. If she ain't looking for a sugar daddy she's a utility bill away from a payday loan. The tattoo gives it away. Lost her love, not stuck with a baby yet, but mom is still paying the cell phone bill. If I'm lucky she'll spend her lunch money on something.
After sitting down at the counter, I would like to tell her some sweet lies, but the young ones are better off ignored. They spend more money when you pretend they aren't there. She finds something to buy. Ringing her up I say thanks. I say thank you so much it's a reflex.
Two cups of coffee in, one rolls up in a pickup truck. Hopping out he has some stuff in a bag. It's not even lunch and I've reeled in a trader.
“That depends on your attitude.”
“I'm wantin' to do a lil swappin'”
“Not spit I hope.”
“Oh nothing. What are you wanting to throw on my pile?” I open the bag. I've got five of these in a box in my back room. “I can give you ten off of what ever you want.” Trying to remember the TV show about the fake retail store, it was so bad the name didn't even stick in my brain.
“Fair enough.” He digs around for an hour, like a hunting dog trying to find a bird in a briar patch. In the back of my mind I hope he picks out something common. It irks me to no end when I have to trade one of my gems for something I have a ton of. The barterers I like are just trying to get rid of stuff. Ones that think everything they have is gold always want too much. Some even zing you when the deal is almost done, just to squeeze out another drop. Probably the same people that don't throw away butter tubs and use them for salad bowls.
“How bout I take this and we call it even.” He lays it on the counter.
I'm now wondering about his math skills. If I say ten and you pick out something that has a $14.99 tag on it, either you can't read or your ciphering skills are not up to par. Some people just have to get something for nothing.
“Sure.” My veneer cracks a bit but I repress the urge to say 'Hell No'. I feel bad for his wife and wonder how many times he tells her he forgot his wallet when they go out. The kind of fella that squeaks a free dinner out of his wife must have had bad parents. We call them cheapskates around here. He likes to say he's careful with his money. Pad your mattress with it all you want, your kids will spend it when you die. I think I'll save that line for a paying customer.
My lunch comes out of a microwave. As I'm eating another frozen Banquet meal I hope somewhere in New York City some rich asshole chokes on his fresh shrimp pad thai. A different restaurant everyday, I can barely take the family through the drive-up once a week. I'm not going to complain though. For generations around here people ate out of a bucket 800ft underground just to put food on the table at home. Miners are a tough breed. You won't hear them gripe about their thai food being too spicy. You say thai and they think you're talking about the thing they put around their neck that one time when grandpa died.
Afternoon is rolling around and at this point I'm not sure if I'm going to break even for the day. I stop in mid-thought when I see a gleaming white Lexus SUV pull into the lot. Either somebody is lost or they are pulling over check the messages on their iphone 13 pro max. I'm wrong, the shiny clean tires roll to a stop in front of my door. I look out the window, sometimes the price depends on what you are driving.
To say a woman is getting out of the vehicle is an understatement. White pant suit, heels, brazilian blowout with highlights and the sleestak sunglasses is just the first impression. I take a breath and try to wipe the yokel look off my face. I glance out again and she has a 5000 dollar pair of sweater puppies perched on a push up bra. Keep the eye balls up. I am Sean Connery I say to myself. I'm not sure if I should open the door or just lean on the counter. I go for the casual approach.
“You're just the man I've been looking for.” She plops a Gucci handbag on my counter and I'm positive that no woman that looks like this has ever uttered those words to me. Her outfit is worth more than my inventory.
“How can I help you?” I try to sniff without being obvious. I'm not certain what this kind of money smells like.
“I want one.” I'm thinking, me too but I can't afford it. “My son's friend came over and had one and he said he got it here yesterday.”
“Oh, yes. I remember him. Those things are popular right now.” I'm a translucent yes bot for ego affirmation.
“Well my son won't stop nagging me. In fact give me two. I'll put one up in case he loses it.” She whips out an American Express platinum card and pushes it into my machine with a hand littered with diamonds and topped with a gel coat ruby manicure.
“Thanks. Come again.” OOF that sounded bad.
“You just made my day.” That's another thing I've never heard coming out of a face whose makeup cost more than my car. I stare as she leaves. I need a cigarette.
Cha-ching! Note to self order more of those next week. I think about my lines. Hello. How are you? Thanks. Thank you. Why thank you! How's it hangin'? Too locker room. How's it goin? Too generic. Whats up? Reminds me I'm glad WHAZZZ UUUPP! Died. Can I help? What am I a shrink? Well kinda. Sometimes retail therapy leads to actual therapy and you learn more about total strangers than you know about your own family members.
The afternoon is waning and school is about to get out. She will be here any minute. Haggard, hurried, she's the one I would have married and divorced if I had settled down too soon. From the same town, went to the same school, probably fourth cousins with all the philandering that went on before we had the internet to distract us to death.
I watch the clock. It takes fifteen minutes to get here from town. The ambulance streaks by. Either some fast food junkie just coded in the pharmacy aisle or grandma fell down and couldn't get up. Either way someone is getting a bill they can't pay. Just after the first responders I see a gray van that looks like a regular. I can't tell if it's swerving or the people inside are partying.
It pulls into the parking space reserved for card carrying members and a curly brunette firecracker pops out with a little blonde monkey stuck to her leg. She is so distractible some guy gave her a smooching lip tattoo on her neck and she didn't notice. She stops and locks into me. “Please tell me you still have it.”
“My wife would argue I don't, but don't worry, I put them back for you when you called the other day.” I pull her bag from under the counter. The cell phone is glued to her ear as she debates with a teenager the merits of starting dinner before mom gets home.
“I want one!” The little one is hanging off her bag. A dog barks from the mini van. Her eyes dart around as her brain juggles ten things at once. I wonder why at her age she had a third one and got a dog.
“Honey please stop tugging on my purse. Thank you.” Picking up the fifty pound toddler and grabbing her sack, I can see a thought bubble over her head with the words valium or prozac floating around. The dog barks maniacally when she exits the store. Ah, what it must feel like to be needed.
The day is almost done. I'll soon be able to let my guard down. I count the drawer, turn out the lights, and get behind a tractor going 10mph on the way home. The drive home is cathartic. I will pull the shoes off my aching feet and sink into my easy chair. The radio, Mike Reno and Loverboy remind me we're all working for the weekend.
I enter my dwelling, familiar smells greet my nose. Comfortable embraces chisel at the disguise. Slowly the veil dissolves in a stiff mixed drink of bourbon and cola on the rocks. A home cooked meal is on the dining room table. We hold hands and bow our heads in thanks. A communion of family transcends the day. We clean up together; we wash together. The soap softens the makeup, towels wipe away the façade.
What is left exposed is raw, unpainted, unvarnished truth. The bird dances with the serpent. The phoenix has long since burned, died and been reborn again, yet we revel in its dance of death. We dust each other with the ashes, smudging it on our cheeks like savages. The stories we tell let the lies live on, lies we need to trust in the truth.
The progeny accept that we revisit the process that created them. They somehow know we need it to tame the tornadoes in our souls. When the costumes are on the floor and we interact in our nakedness, some primal need is fulfilled. We can't discuss it while brushing our teeth before bed; thankfully we don't have to. At a certain age we all accept what happens between us.
“Love you too.” We all say it to each other and give out pajama hugs, knowing love and feeling love. The only thing left is allowing the universe into the subconscious and letting go of reality.
Our love creates a dome that keeps the howling banshees at bay. The night grinds away birthing the nightmares of tomorrow. We sense the possibilities through the lens of yesterday.
When I wake up, the mask is laying there next to my TV remote. I might have to put it on before the news in the morning. I could wait until I get to work. I hate packing it around. It gives protection yet takes something away. It really doesn't need much, maybe an extra dimple to play up the cute factor, a few wrinkles around the eyes give the impression of joy, crows feet for some wisdom. Maybe it's alright just the way it is. Either way, I'm taking it with me.