Johnny America


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.

“What in?”

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?”

He nod­ded.

“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?”

Micha smiled.

“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.”

Mic­ah nodded.

“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.

Filed under Fiction on July 18th, 2014

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