Just Warming Up
The thirty-seven west bound is running right on schedule as it speeds towards downtown.
I barely made it to the stop in time. I’m winded, clutching my side, and panting my way to the nearest open seat. I should probably quit smoking again if running two blocks has my chest burning this way.
The moment I step off the bus at the corner I’m sweating. There is enough time to smoke before I start my shift, but the relentless heat has me galloping across the blazing lot after only two drags, seeking the controlled air of the convenience store. Swinging the glass door open, the chilled air rushes down, cooling me in passage.
Before I get anywhere near the counter, my nose is assaulted with the stench of cheap cologne. “Ugh, what died in here?”
“Ahmed’s on a tear today.” Sharif, the source of the smell, is behind the counter overusing a generic body spray. Ahmed’s nephew is bright-eyed, pimple-faced and half my age. This is his first job and I bet he makes more money than me.
“I got to see a man about a dog.” He’s already removing his mustard colored vest.
“I think I’d rather smell that.”
He pinches the front of his shirt, pulling it up to sniff. “No, man, I’m getting a dog. I’m supposed to be in Glendale by one.” He ambles towards the hallway behind the register.
“Hold up, let me clock in first.”
At least one of us has to be on the clock or Ahmed will start crowing. I push him aside, sneak through the passageway, and relax a little when I see that the door to the manager’s office is shut. Avoiding Ahmed all afternoon is impossible but I’d like to go unnoticed for as long as I can. I know exactly why he’s in a crap-mood and am sure it means he wants to talk to me.
Inside my locker is the mandatory smock that makes me look like the convenience store clerk from 1973. Everyone else has the new gold vests but I’m stuck with the oversized, vomit yellow number. It’s thick and heavy, made of polyester, reeks of old mustard and gasoline. The zipper’s broken—stuck in the up position, of course, so no matter what the temperature is I feel like a boiling chicken. Slinking the mini-dress over my head, I make plans to visit the walk-in freezer.
When my time card slides into the clock, his thick Pakistani accent tears through the quiet. “Not so fast Gerry Springer.”
“Hey Ahmed,” I can’t stand when he uses my full name.
“You are not scheduled to start until exactly noon.”
Ahmed steps out of his small office, straightening a stack of soda crates as he saunters past. My focus is fixed on the marked sweat rings covering most of the shirt below his arms. He casts a glance at his nephew, Sharif, who’s standing nearby. “You can go, Sharif. I need to speak with Gerry Springer.”
Sharif is gone like a fart behind a fan.
“Come on, Ahmed. It’s two minutes ’til—”
“Do not ‘come on’ me, Gerry.” He wags his finger at me. “You are working eight hours today, not one minute more or less. If you start early, you must leave early, and your shift is not over until eight-thirty. I will not pay one minute for overtime. Wait until exactly noon.”
“Do you have something for me?” He crosses his arms, touching the sweaty fabric of his shirt with tense fingers.
“Eternal friendship,” I set my hand across my chest.
Ahmed tightens his eyes. “Where is my money?”
“I don’t have it.” Sarcasm never goes over well with him. I don’t know why I try.
“I knew you would not pay me back.” He shakes his head.
I want to ask, ‘Then, why loan me the money, Ahmed?’ because it’s one of the first things my dad ever taught me: never loan money, only give it. Always. If you get it back, great. If not, you didn’t expect it, so it’s no loss. I guess I sort of assumed this was par for the course with small loans amongst ‘friends’.
“This is the third and last time.” A giant vein—the angry vein as I call it—pulses, splitting Ahmed’s forehead into Eastern and Western territories.
“Ahmed, I had the money yesterday,” I lie, “but had to . . . use it to help my dad. See, the doctor put him on this new medication—which, it turns out he was allergic to—and I had to take him to the emergency room. We were there all night. His insurance has a hundred dollar co-pay, plus I had to shell out another hundred for the new medicine and antibiotics.”
His eyes are slits as he inquires. “Is he okay now?”
“Yes, he is. Thank you for asking.” I slip my timecard into the clock. It stamps the minute onto the paper in black ink. I turn to show Ahmed before putting it away.
“Then, you can give me the rest on payday.”
Relentless. “Oh . . . I wanted to talk to you about that.”
“You will pay me back, Gerry Springer. I am not a bank.”
My blood boils. Everyone calls me G—which is probably why he refuses to.
“I’ll scrape together what I can, but I have to make rent.” Maybe I can borrow some cash from Abi.
“I am not paying you to stand around.” Ahmed turns and steps back into his office, slamming the door on our conversation.
Thirty five hours a week at ten bucks an hour. Math has never been my strongest subject but it seems that if Ahmed wants to get paid back so quickly he could give me a raise or at least a few more hours. Every dime I make is spent twice before I get it and Ahmed knew that before he loaned me the three hundred. If I’d known he expected me to give it back in a week I never would have asked him.
Ahmed didn’t used to be such a pain in the ass but inflation and the crumbling economy’s been tough on business. He’s been especially difficult since his second store closed. This one absorbed the inventory which means it’s overstocked and, according to him, underselling. Sharif told me a few days ago his wife wants a divorce, too.
Well, we’ve all got our problems.
The first few hours fly by. A steady flow of customers puts Ahmed in a decent mood and helps keep me busy. But as the flow is choked into a trickle, the minutes start dragging. I’m not even half way through my shift and almost to the end of my checklist. Soon I’ll have to make up chores. To help pass the time, I turn on the small radio behind the counter.
Outside the heat is peaking. Warmth seeps through the rag as I wash the plate glass store front. Across the way, the banks’ electronic sign flashes between reassuring phrases—‘What matters to you matters to us’ and ‘your money matters,’—then flashes lame pictures of houses with smiling families posing in front yards next to sold signs. About every thirty seconds it flashes the time and temperature. Right now the barometer is nearing Seventh Circle of Hell. Steam rises from the blacktop in blurry wisps.
Working on a sticky finger print, I can’t help but notice how the fast-food food drive-thru across the street is packed.
“No one wants to get out of their cars for anything, anymore.” Ahmed has appeared beside me. He’s staring mournfully out the window. “Did you know I used to own a video store? People don’t want to leave their houses to rent movies, either.”
Without missing a beat, he takes the rag and spray bottle from me, ordering instead that I sweep again and turn off the radio. After another fifteen minutes, he decides to finish himself, telling me to face the store. I already have but if I say so, he’ll send me home.
I walk through the aisles dusting things here and there, straightening bags of chips and cans of dip that don’t need straightening. When Ahmed heads back to his office, I head to the walk-in freezer to cool off behind the racks of energy drinks. From there, it’s easy to see when customers approach the door.
The frigid air reeks of metal and forgotten milk. I lift and flutter the huge smock to work the cold beneath it. The frosty comfort and silence help me focus.
Just two more paychecks. Only a few more weeks of Cup O’ Noodles and gas station chicken. Then, I’ll have enough saved to get my car fixed. She’s been gathering dust beneath the carport in front of my apartment for the last four months. It’s been too long since I drove her. I miss being able to get behind the wheel and just go. Then, no more shame train. No more standing next to smelly strangers bumping into me at every turn. No more screaming babies. I’ll go from point A to B in under an hour. I am so close. My savings, stuffed inside a crumpled pillowcase and hidden between my mattresses, is nearly enough for the transmission. I can call the new mechanic, have the parts delivered, and get back into the land of freedom and mobility. I can start looking for a better job and start living a normal life. Maybe then, Abi will ease up with the when-are-you-going-to-grow-up lectures.
The electronic chirp sounds just as I light up. I take a quick drag, then stomp out the butt and rush back to the store front where several people have come in. One in particular catches my attention the second I step behind the register.
She slips her sunglasses up over her wavy bronze hair. Her eyes land on me, sweet wickedness gleaming from them. Wearing a bright green bikini top that matches those eyes and tiny denim shorts complimenting legs for days—she’s gorgeous.
She glances at my name tag. “G?”
“Y-yes,” It’s sweltering in here.
“Can you help me?”
“Um, I help. You.” Wait . . . take two. “How can I help you?”
She palms the counter, jiggling her impressive apparel. “My gas cap is stuck. I want you . . . to unscrew it.”
Her blatant innuendo has my mind stuck in question mode: who is she, why is she? But more than that, I don’t care. I’m too busy staring.
Yeah, yeah, I know I have Abi, but this woman is beautiful. I mean, all women are beautiful on general principal that they embody the gender with which my biology dictates I seek to mate. Attraction is the basest instinct. It’s in my DNA. And even though L.A. is filled with thousands of lovely girls, it is still rare to come across one whose appearance forces you stop and gape. Even if this woman were wearing a sack, I’d know that I was staring at perfection.
She wipes away the glisten from her neck, letting her fingertips slither down her collarbone. She leans onto the high counter, leaving me unable to form a coherent response.
“Please?” Her pink lips press into a pout.
It takes a second to remember the question. “Oh. I would love to help open your tank,” I smile, “but I can’t leave the register.” There are very strict rules about leaving the front when customers are present.
I cannot help my wandering eyes. All I see are gloriously stuffed, green triangles bouncing as she shifts her weight, reminding me of the first time I saw Baywatch. My eyes bulge from their sockets—among other things.
I press the buzzer below the counter twice before remembering it’s broken. Why can’t Ahmed appear out of nowhere when I need him?
“If you wait a few minutes I can help you, then.” I am transfixed by her ample charms.
“Aw, but I’m already late. Please?”
“If I could get away with it, I would. In a heartbeat.”
“I won’t tell,” she smirks.
“You have no idea how sorry I am, but really, I can’t leave the register unattended.”
“I don’t want you to get into trouble.” She reaches out and brushes my chest, flicking my tame tag with a French manicured nail. “What’s the G stand for?”
“Gerald.” I look down, commanding the region beyond my southern border to calm. “I was named after my father.”
She leans into my line of sight. “Hey, do you carry super glue?”
“Yeah, over in aisle five,” I point to the far corner of the store.
“Could you show me?”
“I’d rather watch you try to find it.”
She pouts again, “But I left my glasses at home.”
“What about those?” I point to the pair on her head.
“Oh, these aren’t prescription. I don’t need glasses for driving, silly, only reading.” She smiles expectantly.
I move towards the end of the counter and jump in front of her, leading towards the far aisle. Looking to the sky, I pray she stays behind me—hyper-aware of the perfectly natural physical reaction induced by her scant attire. The sheer fear of discovery should make my inconvenient friend withdraw but, of course, virile creature that I am, a disappearing act is too much to hope for.
Once we reach the aisle, I’m careful to keep my eyes on the floor as I point out the two types of glue we carry. Gorgeous asks me to read the labels to her and so I accommodate to the best of my ability; going over the differences between the products and summing them up for her.
“This one sets in thirty seconds, the other in fifteen, but they’re both extra super hold.”
She thinks for a long moment, humming to herself and shifting her weight from one tanned leg to the other. I swear she’s trying to taunt me and its working. I’m totally gassed up. Distraction is my only defense if I don’t want to turn and walk past her at full mast. I force myself to concentrate on the one thing I don’t like about her—her pedicure. It’s ridiculously lavish.
Being a person of limited means has prompted a certain amount of sensitivity to the exorbitance of others. Her ten, shiny, little nails are painted with superfluous detail: various fluorescent colors overlaid with zebra stripes and tiny jewels set into the ends of each nail. Topped off with three—count’em three—toe rings on each foot. Toe rings? Come on.
The name ‘Armando’ is tattooed on her supple ankle, painting the picture of a poor, neglected heiress, ignored by daddy—a coke addicted Hollywood producer with no time for family. How could he have time for anything but work with such an expensive habit and a daughter who must have a five hundred dollar pedicure just to go to the convenience store in her thirteen hundred dollar flip-flops? I imagine her dipping her diamond encrusted foot into the seaside pool of Daddy’s beach house bungalow, complaining the sun is casting bad lighting.
I roll my eyes, disgusted and grateful that Abi isn’t like that.
Setting my mind to more important matters, like straightening the hanging packages, I wait for the girl to make up her neglected mind.
Suddenly a very warm hand is on my arm. When I turn to ask what she needs, I’m stopped by two soft lips pressing urgently against mine. And, damn it feels . . . wrong.
As her hands climb to embrace my face, I back away, shaking my head. “I have a girlfriend.”
The girl’s eyes darken as one side of her mouth lifts in a smirk. There’s no trace of apology as she mutters, “Sorry.”
“There is something seriously wrong with you.” I snap, meaning that there must be something wrong with me, but it’s not like she’ll ever notice. Nope. She and her jiggles are already out the door, crawling into her car.
As quick as she arrived, the woman is speeding away in a small red convertible with black smoke fuming from the tailpipe. Tragically erotic.
“What did she buy?”
The sudden sound of his voice makes me jump. “Geez, Ahmed!” I gasp, “How do you keep doing that?”
“She didn’t buy anything, Houdini.” Rather than going into detail about the whole weird scenario, I give the first excuse to pop into my head. “She forgot her wallet.”
He shakes his head. “Gerry, what medication was your father allergic to?”
My eyes are stuck on the empty lot as I ask, “Huh?”
“What medication was your father prescribed that he was allergic to?”
Is Catholicism genetic? It should be the way guilt comes charging in by the truckload with that question. It’s not enough to make me admit to anything, but it’s there.
“Oh, I don’t know, I can’t remember the name.”
“You should. Your father’s health is too important. I’ll watch the register. You, mop.” He hands me the dry mop and points towards the utility room.
I head into the back and start filling the rolling bucket with sanitizing solution, then set up the wet floor signs and start in the back corner, opposite the door. My insides shrivel with more guilt when I pass the super glue, wondering, Should I tell Abi?
Working my way from the back to the front of each aisle, I’m saving the high traffic area in front of the register and aisle one for last. Starting at the back of the second row I am completely focused as the sweat drips down my forehead. Until one drop runs into my eye, stinging it with salt.
“Ahmed, can I take this off?” I pull at the stuffy smock. “I’m baking.”
He shakes his head. “No.”
“Well, then can I turn up the air conditioner?”
“The air conditioner is up.”
“I mean down.”
He sighs, pausing from his count of cash in the register. “I’m not afraid to break a sweat in work.”
Staring pointedly at the marked rings of perspiration on his button down shirt, I have to say, “Duly noted.”
Ahmed sighs. “Fine, but it goes back on when you are done.”
I toss the smock onto the top shelf in the cereal aisle and get back to mopping.
At the back of aisle one, the matted ropes of the mop swipe across a blackened piece of candy. I wash over it several times before setting the mop aside to go for the scraper. As I reach, there’s a flash from somewhere in my peripheral vision. But when I look, nothing. Going back towards the bucket, I spot the flicker again and follow it deeper into the aisle. It’s shiny, metallic, and a few feet away. An odd, L shaped scrap of metal. I’ve seen it before, but can’t place it. When I turn to ask Ahmed, there’s more of the same scattered all over the floor.
Like a kick to the gut, the thoughts connect. It’s part of the locking mechanism on the cigarette cases. I look up to verify what I already know.
“We’ve been robbed.”
Ahmed’s in and out of the aisle before I say the words, running for the phone. I am stuck, stupefied as to how every single tall Plexiglas casing has been nearly emptied. A few rows of packs remain, but every carton is gone.
This is bad. This is very, very bad.
I never would’ve believed a person with such high levels of melanin could turn three shades of purple had I not seen it firsthand. Ahmed’s complexion changes with each passing second.
He knows I don’t like cops, but still forces me to sit in his cramped office while he talks to them. In the past hour, they’ve made me repeat my story about ten times, asking the same questions over and over in different ways. To three different officers. Finally, one decides to review the surveillance footage that’s been cued up since they got here.
One dubious policeman turns the computer monitor our direction and a hush comes over the room. The single screen shows nine squares, each offering a view from a camera. I had no idea there were so many. I knew about the one over the register and the front door, but not the others. My stomach knots up when one mentions watching my whole shift. Anger rolls from Ahmed as he tells them he knows the merchandise was in place at a specific time and requests they forward the footage.
Squiggly lines appear and disappear. Ahmed’s wagging finger points out the stocked shelves and the room goes quiet again.
One of the cops standing behind me whistles as Bikini Top enters, then points out two others entering just behind her. The men head straight to the first aisle. Then, I run into view. One shot shows the crooks nabbing the cartons of cigarettes, taking their time while I’m completely enamored with her juggling act and worse, swept away to the opposite side of the store and distracted with a kiss while the robbers make their getaway.
Once it’s over, they rewind to the entry and ask me to walk them through what happened. As I begin, Ahmed brings up the register camera, so it’s the only footage playing. The cops want to know what words were exchanged, since there’s no audio on the recordings, and what I saw. As I recount the ways the woman begged me to leave my post, all sense of impartiality disappears.
There’s whispering between the uniforms as the scene plays out. I mean, there’s no arguing where my attention was so booby-trap remarks start right away, but then the woman kisses me and the energy in the room changes. I suddenly feel like a suspect.
I see myself like the clueless idiot I am, standing there behind the counter, glancing in the general direction of the shoplifters as they fill black trash bags with cases of cigarettes, only to be distracted over and over with the baited woman. Spitefully used and lulled into a false sense of security by her evil twins.
As the video switches to a closer shot of us in the aisle, I know if I don’t defend myself, no one will. So, I explain the complexity of the situation, how I had no way of knowing what was happening or that it was being done for a malicious purpose. “I’ve never seen her before in my life.” The explanation is solely for Ahmed. If he can see the truth in this mess, I might be able to keep my job.
The cops pretend to sympathize, then rewind the video once more. The room stays quiet as the replay begins again. Until I come out from behind the counter.
“Hold on. Rewind that a second.” The voice is deep and full of authority.
I watch the squiggle lines appear on the screen then stop. The tape begins to replay. Looking around at the faces in front and behind me, it seems it’s only going to get worse.
I hardly ever remember my dreams, but when I was in High School I used to have this one recurring nightmare. It was probably a puberty thing, but basically what would happen was there was this girl . . . I didn’t know her but she was beautiful. She’d walk up to me in the hall at school and start a conversation. She would flirt, play with her hair, laugh at whatever nonsense I said, and ignore every guy that approached asking her what she was doing with a loser like me. Then, just as I was gaining confidence she would turn to me and say, “That’s a good question. What am I doing with a loser like you?” Then my clothes would disappear.
This moment feels exactly like that, only worse because I can’t wake up.
Gasp! The policewoman standing next to me—the only one who’s not lost her sense of duty—coughs, disguising a laugh when another peace officer remarks about my choice of smock. The others break into unreserved laughter when Ahmed asks if I planned to go camping since I’m obviously carrying a tent. He slaps his knee. The cops slap me on the back and make more jokes at my expense while shaking with amusement.
“Why did you wear skinny jeans today?” I can’t see who makes the stupid remark as my face is now buried in my hands.
Ahmed’s kidding now, but I know he’s pissed. He sees how I neglected the storefront and when I reached down for the glue, Bikini Lady waved to the thieves. They slipped out the door when she tried to kiss me and then she followed behind a second later. I was clueless the entire time, stupidly irritated that the woman thought she could simply kiss me, like I’d just let her. As if she was so irresistible, that I couldn’t say no, even if I had a girlfriend.
Well, she was totally resistible—I did refuse her, because I do have a girlfriend. Abi . . . Thinking about her fills me with dread.
Yet the jokes keep coming and my dignity dissolves.
One more second of this criticism is too many.
“Not so fast,” Ahmed’s hand catches my shoulder. “Wait for me in the break room.”
I agree to do as he says. Allowing the officers to continue their exploitation outside my presence seems better than having to witness it.
While I wait for whatever I’ve got coming, the first and fifth aisles are taped off and dusted for prints, along with the counter at the register. The surveillance videos are taken as evidence. After the storefront lock clicks a final time, it’s still another hour before Ahmed comes back. When he does, I just want him to go away.
“Thousands of dollars in merchandise—gone! I’m still losing money because of you, on top of what you already owe me!” He slams his fist on the desk. The open laptop leaps and falls over.
“I’m really, really sorry, Ahmed. I had no idea—”
“I know you are,” he agrees acidly, “I wish I would have known how sorry you were before I hired your sorry ass. Get out of my store! You are fired!”
“How am I supposed to pay you back if I don’t have a job?”
He gives a quick guffaw. “Oh, do not worry about that. I’m taking the balance of the loan from your final paycheck.”
“You can’t do that. How am I supposed to pay rent?”
“They don’t charge rent in jail.” He eyes me and I wonder if he really thinks I was involved with those people. “I watched all your shifts from this past week. By my count, you took much more than a loan.”
“Ahmed, you don’t think I would . . . that I would steal from you. Do you?”
“I don’t know what to think. All I know is that you cannot work here anymore.”
I feel like getting in his face and screaming. Or punching him in his snooty little mouth. But he looks like he wants to say something more so I wait. When it doesn’t happen, I can only offer my most sincere farewell:
“Have fun in divorce court, asshole.”
The putrid smock I’ve spent thirty-five hours a week, for the past four months, hating hits the wall behind his chair. I won’t miss it.
On my way out the door, that sinking feeling settles in my chest, but I’ve lost enough jobs to know it’s nothing more than a bruised ego. It will heal when I find another job.