Chapter Twelve: Reseda
It took me about two hours to put the stock away and clean up the warehouse. Ngoc thanked me, but I knew the closing crew was going to catch hell.
As I stepped back into the main part of the store, I glanced at the registers. Pearl was still there with that baggy dress of hers.
I then looked down at myself. If Pearl thought I looked crusty earlier, I sure felt it that moment. But where would I find a shower in Reseda? Was there a YMCA I could go to? There’s supposed to be a pool at a park down Reseda Boulevard, but it sounds far away...
“She seems like a nice young woman.”
I looked up and saw Mrs. Cimino standing next to me. She was looking at the registers, so I guessed she was talking about Pearl. But “nice” wasn’t the word I’d use to describe her.
Mrs. Cimino turned to me and smiled. “So what do you think of the book?”
“It’s good.” I nodded hard to convince her. “It’s good so far.”
“Have you gotten to the second part? That’s the part you need to read.”
"Jesus said, ‘For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.’ (Matthew 6:14-15) Why must we forgive others before we can receive God’s forgiveness? Because all of us are broken. All of us are flawed. All of us have sinned against God, each other, and ourselves. Until we see the grace in the brokenness in ourselves and others, we cannot receive God’s grace."
As I sat in the back of the Carl’s Jr., I took another bite of my Famous Star and puzzled over what Steven had written. It’s easy for him to tell people to see the grace in others. Why couldn’t he see the grace in me?
Perhaps I didn’t have any grace. I didn’t have Christ. I didn’t have any religion, really. Dad’s Jewish, and Mom’s Lutheran. Dad once told me that when he and Mom got married, they decided to raise Muriel and me with both religions. We’d have Christmas and Hanukkah. Easter and Passover. We’d have a bar and bat mitzvah and confirmations. But instead of two religions, we wound up with none.
When Steven entered the picture, we became full-on Christians, of course. We joined one of those megachurches near our home. I liked it at first. I liked the singing and worship. I liked how the pastor told us how much Jesus loved us, that he died on the cross for us, and that he would forgive us for our sins.
I made friends there. That’s where I met Jaime, who was the son of the pastor who did the Spanish-language services.
And when Steven spoke, it was almost like God himself was speaking. I thought Steven was the coolest, most perfect Christian I had ever seen. Well, outside of the whole “You shall not commit adultery” thing.
The more I knew Steven and other Christians, the less I liked church.
After service, we would go out on the patio to have snacks and hang out. It was called fellowship, but there was nothing fellowship-like about it. Mom would gather with her friends and gossip. Steven and his friends, which included the pastors of the church, they were even worse. There was a pastor at another church whose son committed suicide. Instead of caring about him and his family and praying for them like a Christian should, they’d talk shit about what a big phony and a lousy father this pastor was.
I guess that’s what Jesus meant by hypocrites and Pharisees. And after listening to Steven and his friends diss that poor pastor who was grieving for his son, I was so done with church.
But in a way, I still missed church. It was the only thing outside of getting high that silenced the hateful voices in my head.
I made a point of getting to the gas station early the next morning. I shouldn’t care about what baggy-dress Pearl thought about my hair. But if she noticed how nasty it looked, I’m the other customers did too. And if they started complaining, Ngoc would fire me.
“You’re here early.” Reza lowered his Persian-language newspaper.
“I got a lot of washing up to do.”
“They have showers at the Rescue Mission. It’s at Canby and Parthenia.” He pronounced it “Par-tee-nee-ya.”
“I’ll check them out.”
I didn’t know how far away Parthenia was, but if it were more than a few minutes walk from the Explorer and work, forget about taking a shower there.
And when I stepped into the gas station bathroom, I realized I could forget about washing my hair there too. The sink wasn’t big enough to put my head under it. Even if I could, I didn’t have any shampoo. I had to do something about my hair. It had gotten so dirty, it looked brown instead of the usual blond. So, I cupped my palm under the running water and splashed it over my head. I then realized what a big mess I was making.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.
Shit! I had to wash my face and hands as fast as I could. But I had to clean up the water on the sink, floor, and wall.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.
Shit! No time! I grabbed a bunch of paper towels and unlocked the bathroom door.
At the other side was a guy in a business suit and a scrunched-up face. He must have had too many cappuccinos before going on his commute.
I stood up straight. “Watch out for the sink. It sprays.”
The guy dashed around me and slammed the bathroom door.
I looked at Reza and mouthed “I’m sorry.”
He waved his hand to say “It’s OK” and went back to his newspaper.
Back in the Explorer, I opened the side storage compartment and pulled out the wad of bills and change. I had already cashed in my first paycheck at Buck & Awesome. I had to spend some money for food and toothpaste. I flattened out the bills and counted them. I was surprised to find I had over $200.
I had more than enough to get gas. If I could get the Explorer to start, I could drive again. I could go to that Rescue Mission and shower. I could even drive back to Orange County and move in with Dad. If he would take me.
A part of me missed Orange County. I missed its wide streets and ocean breezes. The clean shopping centers. Wahoo’s. I missed chilling at the beach and Dana Point Harbor. Mostly, I missed having a soft bed and a hot shower. I missed feeling safe. I missed having a home. Living with Mom and Steven didn’t feel like home, at least I had a roof over my head.
Reseda was chill, but the thing I hated about it was being homeless and alone.
But seeing Magdalena on the way to work lifted my mood. So did the bag of pan dulces and “Have a good day.” It was a mood crushed by looking at that lifted pickup truck and hearing their shitkicker music. My mood definitely nosedived when I got to Buck & Awesome. Pearl was by the registers. However, she wore a better fitting maroon short sleeve button down blouse and a short blue shirt.
I stopped by her. “You’re not wearing a loose outfit.”
“And you tried to wash your hair.”
I looked at her green apron. “But your apron’s too loose. I can fix it for you.”
She said nothing but pushed back her brownish blond hair. I assumed that it meant yes. I stepped behind her, untied her apron strings, and pulled them snug.
When I did, she let out a soft moan.
“That’s not too tight, is it?” I said.
Her voice sounded like -- No. We were at work. It couldn’t be that. I finished tying the apron strings as quickly as I could.
Then Ngoc stepped out of the office. “Dylan, I need you to clean the bathrooms. The stupid closing crew forgot again!”
I stepped around Pearl. “Got to go.”
I glanced back at her when I went to the office for my apron. Did she smile at me?
Reza got his payback and then some. The bathrooms were disgusting. In the men’s bathroom, someone must have had massive diarrhea. There were shit sprays all inside the bowl, underneath the seat, and some on the floor. He must have drunk the coffee from the break room. And no one emptied the trash can from the time I did it at four the day before. It was overflowing. And someone threw a diaper in it. It was filled with baby shit, and it stunk up the whole room.
The woman’s bathroom was even more disgusting. Someone must have changed her tampon and didn’t flush. The inside of the bowl looked like someone slashed her wrists in it.
I wanted to slash my wrists after I broke up with Zoey. That was the closest I came to offing myself. We were at home. Steven was in his office rehearsing one of his speeches. Mom was on her computer posting more pictures of eagles, sunrises, or some shit like that on her Facebook page. Muriel was in her bedroom studying. And I was in the kitchen staring at the knives. I took out one of the steak knives and put it on my wrist. The edge settled into my skin. Just a quick slice would end my suffering. But it would hurt like a motherfucker. And blood would be gushing before my eyes, and I hated the sight of blood! I washed the knife and put it back in the block.
As I walked past Steven office, I heard him through the door.
“As it says in Psalm 34, ‘The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.’”
It took me an hour to clean and disinfect both bathrooms. If I didn’t need a shower before, I definitely needed it when I was done. All I could think about after getting out of the bathroom was finding a shower. Maybe Magdalena can let me use -- No, she’s done more than enough for me. Or maybe I could gas up the Explorer and go to that Rescue Mission. Or go to Dad’s.
Then I heard a commotion up at the registers. I sighed. Did Pearl ask somebody one of her obnoxious questions?
But when I stepped closer to the registers, the shouting came from Fatima’s register. Most of it came from this big bellowing guy with a cheap mesh snapback with “Need Beer” printed on front. I had seen him before in that lifted pickup truck.
“I’m not givin’ my credit card to no fuckin’ terrorist!”
“Sir, the card reader is broken.” Fatima stayed surprising calm for someone who had just been called a terrorist. “As I said, I can swipe your card at the register...”
“And as I said, I’m not givin’ my credit card to a fuckin’ sand ni...”
That’s when Kishana stepped up. “Sir, if that’s the way you’re going to act...” She too sounded surprisingly calm for someone who was about to hear the worst possible word that could be said about her.
But Ngoc was far from calm. He rushed in, veins popping. “Get out of the store! Right now!”
I knew that being surrounded by that much melanin was going to make Need Beer lose his shit. I had to rush in. I ran down the aisle full speed.
But Need Beer already opened his yellow-toothed redneck mouth. “What the fuck is this place!? Ain’t no real fuckin’ Americans workin’ here!?”
“We’re all real Americans!” I puffed out my chest. “You either pay her or get out!”
I was proud of myself for not saying “get the fuck out.” But then Need Beer stepped up to me. He was at least six inches taller and a foot wider than me. His foot-long beard probably weighed ten pounds by itself, and that included the chewing tobacco juice stained in it. But I took up boxing in the military academy. If he were to throw down, I would step up. I wasn’t going to let him fuck with my coworkers, especially not Fatima.
He sniffed at me. “You smell like shit!”
I couldn’t stop myself. “Sure you’re not smelling your own breath?”
Need Beer cocked back his fist, but I was ready to swing back if he went first. There was shouting around me. It felt like Kishana was holding my arm.
We all fell silent and turned around. Pearl stood next to Fatima at the register. She held up a black credit card.
“Is this your credit card?”
“Yeah,” Need Beer mumbled.
Pearl lifted up the plastic bag. “Do you still want this merchandise?”
Pearl swiped the card at the register. We all watched as it rang up the order. The register drawer popped open, and Pearl shut it hard. She tore off the receipt. She handed it, the credit card, and the bag of merchandise to Need Beer with the snarkiest, most hateful sneer I had ever seen.
“Thank you for shopping at Buck & Awesome. Have a pleasant day.”
Need Beer snatched the items from Pearl. He gave her a hateful glare. She gave him back a nastier smirk.
We all watched as Need Beer leave the store. And we all exhaled loudly when the door closed behind him.
Then, I found Kishana and Ngoc staring at me. Kishana spoke.
“Dylan, we all appreciate you...”
From the parking lot, the squeal of mud tires and “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Pearl shook her head. “That song doesn’t mean what he thinks it does.”
When Lynyrd Skynyrd finally faded out down Sherman Way, Kishana continued.
“But we simply cannot allow you to fight in the store. As an employee, you would make us liable...”
Ngoc patted her on the shoulder. “It’s all right. If anyone’s butt needs to be kicked, I’ll do it.”
I couldn’t imagine Ngoc taking down Need Beer, but I suspected he could do it.
He took a look around the store. A young Hispanic woman with her children in tow pushed her cart towards the registers. I hate to think what Need Beer would have said to them.
Ngoc nodded and left the register area. Kishana followed him. The woman placed her items on Fatima’s belt. Fatima struggled to smile.
“Welcome to Buck & Awesome,” Fatima’s voice quivered. “How’s your day so far?”
I looked at Fatima’s hands. They were trembling. She fumbled a can of generic baby formula. Pearl straightened the can and put her hand on top of Fatima’s.
“I’ll take your register,” she whispered to Fatima. She then looked at me.
I nodded. “I’ll take Fatima to the break room.”
I took Fatima’s hand and put my hand on her shoulder. I know Muslim women aren’t supposed to be touched by a man other than their husband, but there was no way she’d make it to the break room without help. Her whole body trembled as she put one unsteady foot in front of the other.
As we went past the register area, Kishana stepped over to us.
“It’s all right,” she said softly to me. “I’ll take her from here.”
I waited for Kishana to take hold of Fatima before I let go. I watched them head down the aisle. Fatima started to sob. My heart broke for her, but it then started to heat. If Kishana hadn’t had stopped me, I would’ve fucked up Need Beer for what he did to Fatima. If he ever did that to her again, I would.
I glanced at the registers. The young Hispanic woman dropped some change in the clear plastic box and left with her kids. Pearl started ringing up the next customer, but she looked up for a moment and glanced at me. What was she thinking? It didn’t matter. I had work to do.