On Sunday, Mina went into Smiley’s for a box of Tic-Tacs. At 6 pm, the right hour to be miserable if you got nothing done with the day. The sun was definitely not visible any longer, and there went the day, just like every other day for the past month.
She’d hoped getting out of the house would make her less miserable, but she just felt worse. Seeing the gloom of blue shadow settle over the March evening was not any less depressing than seeing the inside of her room.
Wow, she thought. A walk all the way down the block. Soooo impressive. Really pushing the comfort zone, are we?
She got the Tic Tacs and a bottle of iced tea. She took a bag of her favorite chips off the counter and then returned them. She didn’t deserve them. No, maybe they’d make her feel better. No, it was a waste.
She got the Tic Tacs and the iced tea and left.
On Monday, it rained. Leo swung in through the door, dripping in rain.
“Hey, Asher,” he said. Asher waved from behind the counter.
“No umbrella?” he asked.
“Nah,” Leo said. “Thought I could make it to work without one.”
Asher laughed. “The usual?”
Leo nodded. Asher rang up the cigarettes and Leo threw in a ginger ale.
“You know, we have umbrellas,” Asher said. “Or, we had. Somewhere in the back.” He gestured vaguely to the back of the store.
“No, I can probably make it to work without one.”
On Tuesday, Sarah, Melissa, and Ayanna came in to Smiley’s after school. It was the first time Sarah had gone to a store without her parents. She liked the way the bell rang when the door opened. The cigarettes and lottery tickets behind the counter worried her.
“Guys, is this place safe?” she asked.
“Oh my God, get over it, Sarah,” Melissa said. “We’re just getting candy.”
“Why wouldn’t it be safe?” Ayanna asked.
“Because there’s…” Sarah lowered her voice. “Cigarettes here. Those are addictive drugs.”
“Sarah, you are so innocent,” Ayanna said. “People buy cigarettes, get over it. We’re just getting candy.”
The three of them picked out a giant pile of candy, chips, and soda. They divided the stash and carried it, precariously, in their arms to the counter.
“You girls are gonna eat all this? Hopefully not in one sitting,” said Jerome, as he rang up the items one by one.
“Yeah, what about it?” Melissa said, glaring him down. Which was impressive, considering she was much shorter than him.
“Nothing, nothing,” Jerome said, lifting his hands in defense.
Sarah still wasn’t 100% sure about going to stores without her parents, but it had been an educational experience to be sure.
On Wednesday, Asher called in sick, so Jerome had the run of the store to himself.
It wasn’t very busy. These days, less people came to the corner store and more went to the grocery store down the street. Also, the weather was horrific. Jerome wished he were also at home, curled up with some soup or whatever.
Mina came in, holding an umbrella that was turned inside out. She shook it once, unleashing a fury of raindrops, and winced. Then she pushed the handle back and forth, trying to fix it, then shook it again, stomped her foot, and let out a groan of annoyance.
“You doing OK there, Mina?” Jerome asked.
She looked up.
“How do you know my name?” she asked.
Jerome flushed. “Ah, yeah, sorry, forgot that’s kind of creepy. I’m really good with names. You told me your name once, I never forget it.”
“Well, my umbrella is trying to ruin my life,” Mina said.
“Let me check it out,” Jerome said, and came around the counter. “The trick is, you gotta push it just right… Like…” He grabbed the umbrella and flicked it. It popped into place and went back to normal.
“Wow!” Mina said. “Damn, that’s good.”
“It probably won’t last, though,” Jerome said. “With this wind.”
“Honestly, I just have to get an umbrella that doesn’t suck,” Mina said. “You know how it is, though, you keep telling yourself you’ll get a good umbrella and then you keep going for cheap ones instead.”
“And then you finally splurge for the good one, and you lose it the first time you go out with it,” Jerome said.
Mina laughed. “Yeah. Exactly. Not that I go out much.”
“What are you talking about? I see you in here all the time.”
Mina shrugged. “This doesn’t really count.”
Jerome placed his hand to his chest in fake dismay. “You’re saying our store doesn’t count?”
“No, no,” Mina said. “I mean, like, it’s right down the block from my house. It’s pretty much the only place I go, besides the supermarket. I work from home, so.”
“This is still a place,” Jerome said. “When you’re trying to talk down on yourself, it’s easy to say that you’re not going to any places. But this is a place.”
Mina gave a small smile.
“Thanks,” she said, and bought a box of Tic-Tacs, an iced tea, and a bag of chips.
On Thursday, Marie came in with her caretaker. She could barely see anymore, and her back always ached, but she kept her posture perfectly straight.
“Let’s get you a bottle of water,” her caretaker, Kaylee, said.
“I hate that,” Marie said. “Paying for a bottle of water. There’s perfectly good water for free in the tap at home.”
“Yes, but we’re not home yet, and you need water.”
Marie rolled her eyes. “Get me some peanuts, too.”
“OK, salted or unsalted? Ooh, or honey roasted?”
“Salted is fine,” Marie said.
From the corner of her eye she spotted something grey and fluffy.
“Is that a cat?” she asked Kaylee.
“Is what a cat? Oh, no, that’s just a stuffed animal.”
Marie didn’t know they sold stuffed animals here.
“There used to be a cat here,” she said. “Skinny, his name was, because he was always skinny, even though everyone spoiled him and gave him food all the time. I wonder what happened to him.”
“Are you sure you’re thinking about this place?” Kaylee said. “Smiley’s Corner Store?”
“Yes, Smiley’s,” Marie said. “I didn’t forget. I know there was a cat here. Smiley took care of it. I’m older than you, Kaylee, I remember this neighborhood back before the grocery store came in, and the Wal-Mart, and that damned coffee place. I told you what I think of their coffee, right?”
“Yes, you did,” Kaylee said quickly.
“Well, I remember this place, and I remember there used to be a cat. Don’t tell me what I know or don’t know.”
“I wouldn’t, Marie,” Kaylee said.
Marie sighed. She turned to the young man behind the counter. Asher, his name was.
“Do you remember Skinny? The cat?”
“I never met him myself,” Asher said. “Smiley told me about him, though. He loved the cat. It died a few months before I moved here.”
Marie nodded. “Yes, that’s right. We all were heartbroken. What’s Smiley up to these days, Asher, do you know?”
“He’s in Florida,” Asher said. “Probably having a great time on a beach right now while we suffer from this weather.”
Asher rang up the water and the peanuts, and Marie and Kaylee headed out.
On Friday, Leo’s boyfriend came in with him. Asher referred to him as Leo’s girlfriend at first, which made the guy shudder.
“No, it’s- he’s my boyfriend,” Leo said quickly.
“Oh!” Asher said. “I didn’t know, I’m sorry.”
The guy didn’t say anything, just frowned, and Asher said, “Really, I’m sorry. This is a mistake I make sometimes. What’s your name, Leo’s boyfriend?”
“Fox,” he said, quiet.
“That’s a cool name,” Asher said. “So, Leo, the usual?”
“No, I’m trying to quit,” he said, glancing sideways at Fox. “Uh, let’s get some drinks. What do you want?”
“How about the only good soda on Earth,” Fox said in a fake-dramatic voice.
“Stop!” Leo said. “I said that once! One time!”
They ended up getting two ginger ales, laughing to each other, and left the store hand in hand.
On Saturday, Asher was out again, because Saturday was his day off. Jerome smiled when he saw Mina come in.
“This is going to sound dumb,” she said, by way of greeting.
“There we go with the talking yourself down again,” Jerome said. “I bet whatever it is, it’s going to sound smart.”
She smiled. “OK, whatever. My therapist basically told me to do this, and well, the idea is that I’m supposed to make friends or whatever, and so I was wondering if you wanted to meet up for coffee tomorrow? That’s your day off, right?”
Jerome’s face grew into a grin.
“Sounds more like a date than a friend thing, but all right,” he said.
Her face became warm.
“If- uh- if you’re OK with that?” she said tentatively.
“Yeah, I’m OK with that. Tomorrow? At the coffee shop that Miss Marie hates?”
“You’ve met her too, huh?”
“She’s always in here complaining about how the neighborhood isn’t how it used to be.”
“She lives next door to me,” Mina said. “I’ve heard her rant about the coffee a thousand times.”
“Well, the coffee does kind of suck, but they have alright pastries. Meet you there at 12?”
“Sounds good,” Mina said.
Outside, the sun peeked out from the clouds for the first time that week.