The following is the short story that is to be published soon. (Hooray.)
By Joseph M. Petrick
I think the door is broken. I’m standing behind the register at the Kum and Go Gas Station and I’m counting the number of times the little bell rings as someone enters or exits the store. Normally it’s just the once. A kind of a doorbell type sound. Still the familiar “bing-bong” chime but more electronic, like an impression of a doorbell made by a digital watch. Also you don’t have to press anything to hear it. You just walk in or out. Like I said, usually the bell only rings once but when working an eight hour shift, once is plenty and today every time someone steps through the door it goes
“bing-bong bing-bong bing-bong.”
“It’s been like this since three.” I say to Patrick, my manager. “Some old guy in a wheelchair was having trouble getting through the door; the bell just kept going off, again and again and ever since it’s been like this. Do you think you could fix it?” I ask.
“Dunno. I’ll call a guy and have him check it out on Monday.” He says, with as much authority as he can muster on the subject of mechanical know-how. As though offhandedly referring to some nameless man will assuage my annoyance. A small part of me considers inquiring further as to just who this “guy” would be and whether he went to some kind of university to acquire his vast knowledge of electronic doorbell repair or if it was just a course he took at The Learning Annex. But then, that would require voluntarily communicating with Patrick, which is something I’ve learned to avoid as much as possible, due mostly to my lack of interest in either NASCAR or chewing tobacco products, for which Patrick seems to have an uncanny ability to segue any conversation into if given even a few brief sentences with which to navigate.
I’ve been here eight months now. The same eight months since I dropped out of school. At the time it felt like a good idea, smart even. Get a job and make money. Money for an eventual apartment, eventual car payments, eventual cable TV with eventual dirty channels. Start to live my life, whatever that means. Be like... a citizen with a job, not just a kid with a diploma, all wide-eyed and full of optimism. Because we can’t ALL be doctors, we can’t ALL be lawyers and firemen, we were taught to dream of noble goals. What they didn’t tell us was that not everyone gets their wish. Some may just drop out and get a shitty job at a gas station.
When you work at a gas station people tend to lose any qualities of individuality from one another. They simply join their rank in a kind of short lineup of regulars. Frat boys begging to be sold beer past 2 AM after all the bars have closed. There could be fifty of them one night or there could be one. It wouldn’t matter. They might all sport a variety of different colognes but the fact that they all stink of wearing too much of it binds them together. Broke college kids who spent all their allowance on weed and then pay for three and a half dollars of gas in pennies inevitably sort their change out on the counter, carefully picking out the stems that linger in their pockets and rejoicing at the discovery of a silver coin will become faceless in a surprisingly short amount of time. While these people may think they live their own, separate, interesting, maybe even important lives, to me they’re just another in a long line of poor imitations of themselves. Like a Halloween party where everyone accidentally wore the same masks, their vague semblance of identity will never supersede the overall stereotype that is their lives.
That’s what’s great about this job, because you do the judging. You ring up their Mountain Dew and their Marlboro Reds and say “have a nice day” and all from the safety of your little box behind the register, away from the quiet, needling possibility that you too could fit into one of these groups.
It’s almost seven. Right about now is when the used car guys get off work. In the morning they buy coffee and Maxim and Visine, recounting their stories of the previous night’s x-rated mischief. At noon they buy Red Bull and microwave burritos and bullshit with the bicycle cops. Soon they’ll be here for scratch-off tickets, taking their sweet time to delicately decide which particular cards they will waste their money on today and act as though there is a science to their idiocy. As though luck and mathematics had worked out some kind of harmonic deal just for them.
“Gimmie uh... hmm... uh... gimmie... two ‘Gobs and Gobs’ and a ‘Pot O’ Gold’ and three ‘Money Trees.’” If there is a certain indignity to leaving a convenience store, with the knowledge that you’ve blown fifty dollars on a scratch-off game called ‘Biggie Bucks,’ then these guys are impervious to it. As well as, to the irony of blowing half a paycheck on a game called ‘Easy Money’ and walking away with only a ten-dollar winner.
These guys make it a point to know your name and they love to use it. “JIMMY-JIMMY-JIMMY!” they yell excitedly upon entrance. “Whacha got for me today? A winner? I want me a winner, Jimmy!” And you can’t help but feel sorry for them, because truly, this is their only form of intimacy. Because their view of romance includes little nuggets of advice like the fact that some strippers, if you give them even just a LITTLE bit of coke, will totally do anything for you. Anything.
Worst of all though, is the fact that while you’re paid to be here all day long, they come in of their own free will. They choose to know our duty schedule and memorize the price of a refill for a 64-ounce ‘cup’ of coffee. So you humor them and laugh at their stupid jokes about blondes and Polish people and Michael Jackson. You smile when they enter and wave goodbye when they leave but secretly you worry that a pathetic existence is some how contagious.
“Bing-bong bing-bong bing-bong.” A homeless man enters with a bag of dirty cans he’s pulled from every gutter and dumpster in town. He smiles a toothless yellow grin and for a moment I wonder if he’s secretly a genius. Dressed in rags, he would spout poetic ramblings and recite Nietzsche or Tolstoy and wax intellectually about the materialistic nature of our society and other profundities concerning our addiction to “stuff.” Maybe he’d look at me and immediately notice that I was special. That I was somehow above this place and these people. We’d become friends, our relationship growing to that of a mentor and his pupil and culminating with a dramatic heart attack, leaving him dying in my arms and reminding me breathlessly that through it all, life moves far too fast and should be cherished- to never forget to live every moment like it’s my last.
The man belches and adjusts his “Beaver University” baseball cap and I decide that perhaps I need to watch fewer Hallmark Original Movies.
I count out his cans, each rattling with damp cigarette butts like the marbles in so many spray paint canisters and ring up four dollars. He brings over two 40 ounce bottles of ‘Miller High Life’ and I do my best not to find the situation more than a little humorous. Why the cheapest beer is called ‘High Life’ I will never fully understand. ‘Colt 45’ makes sense. The ‘Silver Bullet’ would also be an appropriate moniker for a tool used most commonly to dull the pain of one’s miserable life. But, isn’t ‘High Life’ a smack in the face to anyone destitute enough to purchase it? Before I can make up my mind it’s, “bing-bong bing-bong bing-bong” and my penniless mentor is gone.
There are worse jobs to have in the world. There must be. Any job where you are forced to wear a stupid hat or chirp mindless slogans when you sell a McWhatever would qualify. Such phrases might include “Have a burger-licious day!” and “thanks again and remember that here at the Taco Hut, it’s always a fiesta!”
Other jobs on the list are as follows: tele-marketer, complaint supervisor for a computer company and ‘the guy who cleans up isle five’. These are jobs where the best day one can hope for is only slightly less shitty than the worst. “I was only called an asshole twelve times today!” or, “At least this time it was only pee.” might be a jubilant huzzah for some, but for me, only further proof that even the promise of a steady pay check can have its limits.
If I had stayed in school I would have graduated today. This is the sort of thinking that gets you into trouble when you have a job at a gas station. Looking back day-to-day, recounting the mistakes you’ve made, it’s enough to make you wonder why they don’t take your belt and shoelaces away when they hire you.
“Is this really my life?” In the quiet moments between the self-righteous judgments of our patrons, I’ve found that question staring me in the face more often than I had expected when I dropped off the application. People compromise, that’s what they do. Some guys work their whole lives as mailmen and insurance salesman and janitors. Did they dream of it in their youth? Of course not. But somewhere along the line their dream of being an astronaut or a professional wrestler went south and this is their second place. A consolation in the form of a weekly pay stub and all the alcohol it takes to make them forget the hours that it represents.
Yet, there are happy people. Who am I to say that just because a guy is a janitor he’s miserable? What gives me the right to say that’s not exactly where he wants to be? Maybe he has a wife and kids that he loves and that he enjoys bringing a paycheck home to. Maybe he has a hobby, something that he enjoys doing. Or maybe he still dreams of something better, something he’s been saving for all his life. He could be the first man to invent an affordable jet pack or a cleaner burning fuel. Something that could really help the world, improve it even. Who says that a man’s life, his worth, his entire being is dictated by his job?
I have this argument with myself every so often. Sometimes, the idealist wins and I decide that this is only temporary. It is a transition between the past and the future that I’m bound to be meant for; the prologue to the biography of my life and to all the adventures and wisdom that is contained within its pages. Other times, these far more frequent, the cynic in me wins and I resign myself to a destiny where all the numbers end in nine and every magazine has 108 more ways to arouse your partner.
The bell rings its familiar harassment and I find myself greeted by familiar faces and a dress code suitable for photos with Grandma.
“Hey Jim.” Says Will, an old friend of a friend with a smile so sickeningly sweet you expect it to come with a badge that reads: WELCOME TO WALMART.
“Hi.” I say and toss a smile to his girlfriend whose name I never bothered learning but with friends referred to as: ‘Toothy’.
“You working tonight?” he asks. “I’m sorry, that was dumb, obviously you’re working.”
“Yup.” I say. “Did you just get back from graduation?”
“Yeah. My mom had a dinner thing we went to after. Now we’re just... hanging out.” He says. “You got any plans once you get off?”
“Umm, not really, no.”
“Well hey, we’re going to a party over at Weaver’s place, you should come!”
I think this over for a moment, which is all it takes for me to decide that “Mitch Weaver’s celebratory beer bust” is perhaps the very last place that I would like to be tonight. I can’t be sure of this however, because there are so many horrible places that I’ve never been: a Vietnamese P.O.W. camp for example. Still, for all I can imagine, it’s hard not to assume that I would still rather hear the shrill command of “Didi Mow!” than “CHUG! CHUG! CHUG!”
“Yeah, maybe.” I say.
“Cool man. I’ll see you there.”
Then before I know it, “Bing-bong bing-bong bing-bong.” and both Walmart and Toothy are gone.
I never should have dropped out. Seeing their faces, their bright, hopeful faces and it’s clear to me now. I wonder if there’s still time to get my shit together. Maybe get my G.E.D. Maybe figure out something that I actually like doing and would enjoy devoting myself to.
But then... no. One could devote an entire lifetime to something only to watch it fail and I just don’t know if I could handle that kind of rejection- be it destiny, fate or otherwise.
In the end, maybe it’s better to just move with life like an unmanned boat in the ocean. Why fight the current? Why not just allow it to take you through the seasons, enjoying the simple pleasures as they drift past: music, movies, good friends, girlfriends.
I should be a Buddhist. I bet I’d be a good one. I could be like ‘Super Buddhist’ and when I arrive at the temple, the wise, old, leader of the Monks would look at me and just know that I would barely even need any training because I already knew so much instinctively. Even the karate skills would probably just come naturally. Then maybe I’d just wander the earth, sleeping under bridges, solving the occasional crime and seducing women with my wise, yet simple credos about beauty and truth.
When I’d leave them, they’d beg me not to go, sobbing:
“But Master! I’ve so much left to learn!” But I’d just turn to them dramatically and say something like:
“The only lessons that remain- are the ones you must teach yourself.” Then a gust of wind and I’d blow away like dust.
Yeah, I’d like that. But there really aren’t any Buddhist monasteries around Iowa City.
At least, none that I know of.
I wonder who I could have been if I hadn’t been born as me. Who’s eyes would I have been looking through, seeing through. Maybe if I’d just made different choices.
I once saw a movie in which Bill Murray had to repeat the same day, over and over again. At first he didn’t understand what was going on but gradually he began to accept the reality of his situation and enjoy the meaninglessness of it. He took chances and risks without a second thought because he knew that he wouldn’t face any consequences and cultivated a number of different personalities because regardless of whether he was a wonderful, giving, gentle man or a greedy, mean spirited jerk- each day he would wake up to Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You Babe,” knowing that none of it mattered. In many ways I related to his struggle because for me, as the days go on, they begin to look so similar to the each other that it’s getting harder and harder to tell them apart. Am I stuck in a similar conundrum? Is my life becoming some kind of sick, skipping record?
I think this and I begin to wonder how much cash might sit in the register at this exact moment. I imagine myself, taking the money, leaving the store and just running away. Who would I be then? Whose eyes would I see through then? Would I wake up tomorrow morning to the tune of “I Got You Babe” or would something... change?
I can almost feel the money in my hands. The sweaty, wrinkled dollars, gripped tightly in my fist, their starchy texture wilting within my clenched fingers. I can almost see their faces, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and under the drawer, Benjamin Franklin, all smiling and cheering me on in charming British accents.
“This is the right thing to do!” says George Washington “And I cannot tell a lie!”
Then, out of nowhere it hits me. Some how, without really even knowing how I got here, I stand in front of the open register. I hold a small wad of bills. Suddenly my breath is short. I’m sweating. I feel every single nerve in my body, standing on end. My eyelids, heavy, like the giant curtains of a Broadway show, begging to sweep closed to uproarious applause. My heart feels like it’s beating at a million miles an hour and yet everything feels like it’s moving in slow motion. I curl my toes into fists within my shoes and I let the curtains fall. I see the words: RUN. LEAVE. GET OUT. ESCAPE. I see them in the darkness and I hear my mind agree.
I take in a breath. I wait.
And then... and then... and then ....
I exhale. I shake off the haze and I open my eyes. I wait for my heart to slow to an unmedicated pace. I quietly put the money back. It fits snugly into the drawer, like making a tiny bed with many blankets. I close the drawer and listen for the satisfying echo of its lock. I run my fingers through my hair and I put my hands on the counter. I look at them, study them. They are mine. My hands. They belong to me. This is my life. My life. This.
I blink once. Then again.
“Bing-bong bing-bong bing-bong.”
“Bing-bong bing-bong bing-bong.”
I look up. A child, probably no older than six is opening the door and marveling at the resulting sound. He closes it... and then opens it again.
“Bing-bong bing-bong bing-bong.”
He smiles, enchanted.
“Bing-bong bing-bong bing-bong.”
“Bing-bong bing-bong bing-bong.”
“Bing-bong bing-bong bing-bong.”