A Major in Convenience
In his thirty-third summer, Arch Holloway worked as a cashier in a dimly lit party store in a small northern college town. The air-cooling unit went on the fritz in the middle of July, and every beef-head from each surrounding frat house had the same thing to say.
“Holy shit, man – don’t you have any AC in this place?”
Arch would resist the urge to say, “I like it this hot. I’ve lost fifteen pounds today alone.” Instead he shrugged and said, “It’s busted.”
The tanned, mutton-armed C student in flip flops and a sleeveless Southpole shirt would invariably say, “Dude, you need to get on the horn with your boss about that.”
“He knows,” Arch would say.
“I wouldn’t stand for that,” Mister Fraternity would add. “You and your buddy there – ” and here the kid would point at Micah Brillig, who, perched on an adjacent stool, would not look up from his book – “ought to do business from inside the beer cooler. That’d send your jack-off boss the message.”
“Yeah,” Arch would say after faking a laugh, and brown-bag the guy’s foot-tall energy drink and malt-liquor combo in a can. He didn’t bother with the logistics of relocating the cash register across the store, or mention that the jack-off boss was Micah’s uncle, or say that he’d heard the same suggestion eighteen times since noon.
“Well take it easy bro. Don’t work too hard,” the guy would say.
And Arch would nod goodbye, and would not work too hard. But he wouldn’t take it easy.
“God damn it,” he said to Micah, after the last one left. “If one more ass-hat asks me about the air conditioning – ”
“Make a sign,” Micah said. He scratched a path through his sweaty dark hair with the edge of his bookmark.
“Make a sign that says, ‘Do not complain to me about the heat or the price of Camel Lights. I’m a mere cashier that makes minimum wage and I do not control the weather.’”
Arch snorted and mopped his brow with the hem of his t-shirt.
The dude-bros sometimes got in Arch’s face when he denied them sale without ID, especially if they were half in the bag already, but they weren’t as bad as what Arch called the “Know-it-alls” – men over forty who treated Arch like a spotty tenth-grader bagging groceries at Kroger. They habitually said, “Just do this, just do that,” whenever something went wrong behind the counter. They were the chiefs, no matter where they went.
“Just hit “NO SALE,” growled a salt-and pepper mustache in a Polo shirt embroidered with a furnace company logo, hairy knuckles rapping on the Formica.
Arch didn’t say there wasn’t a “NO SALE” button, and that just because maybe this man had worked a cash register one time in his early twenties at his Daddy’s bait-and-tackle for a month didn’t mean that he knew how every cash register in Michigan worked.
The mustache-man said, apropos of nothing, “You gotta work your way up, you know. You start down here at the clerk level and you work your way up to management, pretty soon you’re running the company. You answer phones and get coffee for the boss, and you kiss ass and do a good job and pretty soon you’re an executive. You plan on working your way up?”
“No,” Arch said as he tried in vain to clear the purchase and start over.
“Why not? You gotta a degree, I bet.”
Arch nodded. The register beeped at him uselessly.
Arch shook his head. “I majored in Art.” He dropped down on his haunches behind the counter, searching.
“Well, that’s your problem,” the mustache said.
Arch popped back up. “Sorry, I’m out of register tape. I need to run to the back room. Be back in a second.” He slid from behind the counter and jogged to a storage closet at the back of the store.
The mustache turned to Micah. “What about you?”
Micah looked up from his book. “I don’t work here.”
“That’s not what I asked. You got a degree?”
Micah, who had dropped out of community college twelve years ago, said, “Yessir, got a Master’s in Microbiology.”
“What the hell are you doing working here?”
“I don’t work here.”
“Well, what’re you wasting your time in this town for? You need to move to the city or something. How old are you? You married, got any kids?”
Micah, who was a hair past his thirty-fifth birthday and cared only for a blind cat, said “Forty-six next Tuesday. I have a handful of kids.”
“Good for you.”
One of them just joined the army.”
“Well that’s spectacular,” the man said.
“I don’t know,” said Micah. “It’s only a matter of time before they kick him out.” He looked around the store, then cupped a palm at the side of his mouth. “You know, for being a homosexual.” He went back to his book.
The man said nothing. He stared at Micah.
Arch jogged back to his station behind the counter and reloaded the receipt paper. The register popped open and he slammed it closed. “Eight fifty-eight,” he said, out of breath. “Sorry for the inconvenience.”
“Well,” said the mustache, still glaring at the top of Micah’s head. “Maybe that’s what they oughtta call this place – an ‘Inconvenience Store.’” He passed his bills to Arch and told him to keep the change. “You’re gonna need it.” As the man left, Arch swore under his breath.
Micah sniffed. “Make a sign. ‘Do not ask the cashier asshole questions.’”
Arch checked the clock, and craned his neck towards the parking lot. It was empty. “Will you sit here a minute? I have to lock up the Laundromat.”
Micah looked panicked. “For how long?”
“Not long, unless something’s messed up in there.”
“What do I do if someone comes in?”
“Same thing you’ve been doing for hours – nothing. Just tell them I’ll be back in a minute.”
Micah set Proust face down on the counter and put his hands between his thighs. “Hurry up,” he said.
In the Laundromat, someone had clogged one of the sinks with garbage, and two inches of brown liquid floated on top of it. Arch suppressed a retch and went to the supply room for latex gloves. While he poked at the clog, a woman sauntered into the store in terrycloth short-shorts and a tank top sagging under the weight of her hefty breasts. She went directly to the counter and placed her palm flat on top of it. “Parliament menthol 100s,” she said. “Hard pack. Do you have grape Kool-Aid? God damn, it’s hot in here.”
“Oh,” said Micah, shifting on his stool. “I don’t know.” He got up and walked around the displays slowly until he located a few plastic barrels of powdered drink mix. “Looks like only lemonade and Tang,” he said.
“That won’t cut it. My kids gotta have grape. They won’t drink nothin’ else.”
Micah shrugged. “Boy, what an inconvenience. You know they really oughtta call this place an ‘Inconvenience Store.’” He circled back to his place behind the counter.
“Damn it,” she huffed. “Now I’m gonna have to go to Kroger’s. Otherwise they’ll bitch me out when I get back.”
“That’s awful,” Micah said, shaking his head. “They’d better carry it; I can’t imagine those poor kids suffering with only lemonade or Tang. You know what I’d do for my kids? I’d scour every supermarket in town – I’d go to the ends of the earth to find grape Kool-Aid. And not that crappy Wyler’s either. No sir, it’s either the Kool-Aid man bustin’ through the wall, saying, ‘Oh, yeah,’ or it’s just no good.” He picked up his book.
She laughed nervously and patted her fleshy her hand on the counter. “Right. Well I’ll still take the smokes. What do I owe you?”
Micah turned around on his stool and surveyed the back-lit racks. “Six-forty-two,” he said.
“Jesus Christ! It’s like they go up every week!”
He suggested she quit smoking.
“Huh,” she said. “I bet you’re one of those people who were happy when the smoking ban went into effect. You know you can’t smoke in a single restaurant in the entire state? Just another way the government controls us. Pretty soon they’re gonna say we can’t buy American cars or fly American flags anymore. This whole country is gonna be socialized and you’re not gonna have a say in nothing anymore. They want to take our guns too. I’ll tell you what, they’re not getting mine. I keep a loaded handgun in my underwear drawer under my silkies. No way in hell they’re getting their hands on that.”
“Tell me about it,” Micah said. “I’ve got a loaded twelve-gauge behind the counter right now, and I’m not afraid to use it on the first yahoo who looks at me cross-eyed.”
The woman took an involuntary step back and raised her scant eyebrows. Micah sat still, blinking at her. He picked up his book.
In the laundry room Arch had cleared the clog, and now struggled to un-jam a quarter-slot into which someone had tried to shove a gummy nickel.
The woman at the counter rifled through her purse and brought up a checkbook. Micah watched her write PARLAMINTS in the memo line. She said, “It’s so freaking hot in here. How can you stand it?”
“I’m sorry,” Micah said. “I don’t work here.”
“Arch is in the Laundromat. He’ll be right back.”
“Jesus,” she said, “alright.” She slid a local newspaper in front of her. She read the headline and pushed it back. “Why in the hell would you want to sit in here if you don’t have to? It’s like a million degrees.”
“I like the heat,” Micah said.
“Look at me, I’m sweating like a pig and I’m just standing here. My hair’s all frizzy. All my crevices are wet.”
He frowned. “My crevices are fine.”
You’re crazy,” she said. “Can I ask you something?”
“You know the owners of this place?”
Micah said, “Never met them.”
“Okay. Here’s a question. How come he can afford a mail-order bride, but he can’t scrape together enough cash to get you guys some AC in this place?”
“Am I right?” the woman asked. “He needs to stop tapping foreign poontang and get his priorities straight, you know what I mean? There’s plenty of good women right here who need a husband. Look at me, for instance. Why’s he gotta go looking in some god forsaken third world country?”
Micah’s smile widened and he laughed loudly. His aunt Loraine was a tiny Malaysian woman who handled much of the business for and tutored high-school children on the side.
“He probably only married a foreign woman so he didn’t have to listen to her talk,” he said.
“Right? Right?” She beamed. They nodded at each other. Micah offered his hand up in a high-five and she accepted.
She leaned back to look out the doorway. Arch was headed back to the store, brow rumpled. “He looks crabby,” she said. “Must be the heat.”
After Arch rang her up, she packed her cigarettes against her palm and raised her voice as if giving a toast. “You boys have a fantastic night,” she said, and left the store. Micah dug in his ear.
Arch turned to Micah. “Look at this garbage juice,” he said, pulling out the bottom of his t-shirt. It was splattered across with brown crud. “I hate this job. I hate people. I’d rather spray out fifty shitty monkey cages a day than deal with one more ignorant son of a bitch who doesn’t know who to work a washing machine.”
Micah nodded and picked up his book. “Do me a favor,” he said. “Don’t leave me in here by myself again.”
“I can’t promise anything,” Arch said, and settled onto his stool.
“Make a sign,” Micah said. “‘Back in a minute. Don’t talk to the man behind the counter.’”
“It’s not a big deal,” said Arch. “I told you, all you have to do is sit there.”
“And don’t say anything weird.”
“Oh,” Micah said. “You don’t have to worry about me.” He put down his book, slid the local paper in front of him, read the headline, and pushed it back.