Something I wrote after work today. Thanks to Lao Russell. Who I’m sure is long dead. Most of this is true.
She’s standing at the till at the front of the liquor store, a suitcase trailing behind her. Her clothes are out of date and have that kind of musty smell that clings to anything bought in a thrift store. Her hands are shaking a little bit, not from the cold, but from being sober for longer than eight hours. Her suitcase is faded and beat looking, and looks like it wouldn’t survive air travel.
She asks me if I can call her a cab. I pick up the direct line we have hanging on the wall and ask for a pickup at the South End Liquor Mart for one. Then I hang up. She stares at me with eyes that look tired, tired and desperate. She must see something in my face that gives her the impression she needs to tell me what she’s doing, what she’s thinking about.
“I’m quitting drinking. I’m done with it. I’m leaving my fuck of a husband behind and leaving the town, finally,” she says with practiced determination, “that cab is taking me to the bus depot.”
I didn’t ask her for her story. I never ask anyone why they’re here, why they’re buying cheap sherry at 9:00 in the morning, why they’re counting out pennies to pay for single cans of Budweiser for the fifth time that day, why they’re bringing in empty bottles I recognize from my own trash, and why they’re shaking so bad. They just all end up telling me, probably for their own reasons, to justify that “one last drink.” I know for a fact it’s not for my benefit. It’s a self-serving confession every single time.
I respond to her, saying that change can be good sometimes. She assures me another five or six times that she’s done with the booze. Then she buys a pack of Pall Malls and we stand in silence till her cab arrives. She thanks me, tosses a dime into the tip jar and heads outside. I wave goodbye, but it’s all half-hearted, because this is the seventh time she’s done this. She’s done it every week I’ve worked here.
Two hours later she’s back.
“What’s the cheapest mickey of whiskey I can get? There wasn’t any bus today.”
Not all of them are sad, or bitter, or determined to convince me they’re taking their last sips.One, Annette, from somewhere in Northern Alberta, is a chipper as can be. She’s friendly,tells me I’m cute, and that I remind her of her son. Her voice is like gravel and burnt matchsticks, and when she laughs it sounds like someone throwing one’s silverware set into a wood-chipper. She doesn’t smoke anymore, but she assures me she used to smoke around a thousand Export A’s a day. I don’t doubt her.
A few nights before Christmas, a rare snowfall hit town. She came into the store, out on a walk to buy a six-pack of beer for her husband, and sang what might could have been the most haggard version of “Let it Snow” that has ever been given voice to. Then she smiled and asks me if I liked her singing.
I tell her that her version was destined to be a classic.
I like Annette.
He’s just finished paying for a pack of peanuts and whole flat of Lucky Lager. I’m fishing his change out of the till when he asks me how much a single can of beer costs. I tell him, and he places one can of AGD onto the counter.
“One for the ditch,” he says, before paying and heading out to his truck.
“How much does a pack of smokes cost?” asks the taller of the two.
“What kind of cigarettes?”
“Cheapest you got,” says the other one.
The smell like a combination or cigarette smoke, piss, lighter fluid, and the way empty beer cans get when they’ve been left in your garage for a month. They’ve just bought a large bottle of Colt. 45. They’re dressed in plaid jackets and have long, stringy, unwashed black hair. One of them, the shorter of the two, has stumbled and tripped around the store for the last twenty minutes, looking for something under ten dollars. He’s high on crack. I know because he told me.
“Can you spot us $8.50?”
“Why the fuck not?”
“Because I can’t.”
The two of them look at each other, and then empty their pockets onto the counter. Soggy change clatters down, and a few dimes and nickels go spiraling off onto the floor. They make no move to pick them up.
“Is that enough?”
I start counting, even though I know it’s not enough. Not enough by a long shot. While I’m counting, the one who’s high tells me they’ve just gotten into town and are going to make a go of it here. It takes him awhile to say it, like he has to drag the words up and force them through a wall of inebriation. I’m still counting pennies; I’ve made it up to three bucks when he makes me lose my train of thought.
“Do you know a place we could camp downtown?”
“Because we now have booze and smokes, all we need now is a place to stay.”
“Sorry, can’t help you.”
I finish counting; he and his buddy have seven dollars in change. I tell them, they look at each other.
“You gotta let us have them man.”
“Can’t do it.”
“What the fuck is your problem? Don’t you want to help us out?”
We banter. I just want them to leave. So do the people in line behind them: A housewife buying a bottle of chilled white, and a workingman with a six-pack of light beer. I eventually just let them go, and pay the register off myself. They don’t say thank you, and stumble out of the store with a discount pack of Accord Red. The smell lingers.
Ten minutes later the phone rings. It’s the pub down the road. Apparently, two scraggly looking dudes came in, ordered, ate, and then fucked off before the bill could show up. I told the bartender on the phone that I’d seen the two of them; he thanks me and hangs up.
Later that night I’m lying in bed when it hits me where I recognized the pair of them from: They were grifting for change downtown a week ago while I was taking a walk. They asked me if I had any spare change, and when I told them I didn’t, they called me a, “fucking maggot” as I walked away. In the end, they got at least a dollar fifty. It was just a long con instead of a short one.
The manager nicknamed him Kirk the Jerk. I don’t know why. He’s not much of a jerk at all. When he wins at Keno he tips me and the other clerks five dollars each. He remembers my name, and I’d put him in the top ten of the nicest customers we have coming into the store.
One day, I ask him why his nickname is, “The Jerk.”
He pulls a pair of taped together glasses off of his face and starts to polish them on the hem of his blue rain slicker.
“It was one of the only things that rhyme with Kirk. That’s pretty much it. See you tomorrow.”
The dope-fiends always wear sunglasses. They always ask too many questions, talk too fast, and end up leaving decent tips because they can’t stay in one place long enough for you to complete the transaction and count out their change. My manager tells me to keep an eye on anyone wearing sunglasses on cloudy days.
He always has a different textbook tucked under his arm every single time he comes in. The last one was, A Short History of The World. This week, it’s something heavy on Social Psychology. His name is Scotty, and he’s from Scotland, thick as fuck accent and all.
He’d never talked to me until recently. One of the girls I work with told me not to take it personally, that Scotty only talks to women. It’s been his go-to way of meeting girls since he was in his twenties. I think to myself that he might be on to something with that, and take no offense. It was a shift where it was only me, no women, that he finally opened up and asked me a question or two about myself.
After he found out I had been a journalist, he never called me anything but a, “fellow intellectual.” I didn’t think he was any kind of alcoholic for the longest time, as all he did was buy Kit-Kat bars and chat about the Roman Empire. Then someone from the pub up the road told me that they usually kicked him out around noon because he was too drunk to keep serving. He hides it well, my fellow Scottish intellectual.
“Do you sell beer?” he yells before spitting onto the floor of the store.
I get the shakes after downing cup after cup of black coffee. I need to get off work and eat some food. Then I’ll pour myself a drink, then another. By the time someone comes over, the stereo will be too loud, I’ll be in a warm and cozy Irish whiskey cocoon, and I’ll be the first person to suggest we go out and find a bar that serves cheap highballs by the pitcher-full.
But before that, I have one last customer, a non-regular. He’s young like me, but looks like he’s come upon some hard times none-the-less. I ask him if he needs help finding anything. He stops browsing and comes up the counter,
“I’m trying not to spend my rent money on booze.”
We talk. He doesn’t want to drink anymore, doesn’t want to be homeless anymore, and doesn’t want to be fucked up all the time.
“I read this book, I think it might have changed my life.” He says, and fishes into his backpack for a white hardcover book called Love by Lao Russell.
“You want it?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say.
He heads out of the store without buying anything and while leaving holds the door open for a man who’s shaking so hard he can barely stand; his fingernails are overgrown, his fingertips are charred black, and he needs you to go grab the cheapest thing in the store, count whatever sticky change he has, and put whatever he’s bought into a paper bag before he leaves.
He’s one of the regulars.