She opened the door to the gas station half expecting the counter to be unmanned. Phillip, the greasy-haired attendant who worked the night shift, had a habit of stepping out the back to smoke a hand-rolled cigarette, leaving the counter empty. He’d stand within earshot of the bells that hung from the front door and snuff the butt out if he heard their din. Sometimes, he’d walk back in to find a line two or three bodies deep, but method of lookout usually worked. Tonight, however, Phillip wasn’t out back. As Cynthia walked down the hill from her apartment, Phillip was in the bathroom, wiping up after a splattering of his third round of diarrhea of the shift. A balls-deep submergence into his new favorite RPG on PC meant he’d skipped breakfast and lunch. Just so he wouldn’t transform into a raging ogre for the overnight shift, Phillip scarfed two of cellophane-wrapped microwave burritos as soon as he got to work. Like a hot knife stuck in a block of butter, the hasty bean and cheese dinner went right through him. Every choice has a price.
The chime of the bells that sounded when Cynthia opened the front door was swallowed the chirp from the bathroom door hinge as Phillip exited the lavatory.
“What’s good, hootchie ma? You’re a bit early, no?” Phillip flipped the balled-up paper towel he had used to dry his hands and turn the knob of the door into the wastebasket behind the counter and squatted on the worn leather stool.
She wasn’t supposed to be there for another nine hours, but it wasn’t unlike his stick-thin coworker to stop down for a six-pack and to chat Phillip up when she was off the books. Why is it that some people stick around their places of employment even when they’re not getting paid to be there? Maybe they feel comfort in being at a place where they spend so much time. Maybe they want to rub in their coworkers’ faces that they can come and go as they please while the ones who are on the clock are chained to that crumby little stool behind the corner, waiting for leathery-faced women to pop in for 40 dollars worth of scratch tickets and three packs of Newport 100s. Maybe they have nowhere else to go.
“Yeah, well I was in the neighborhood, ya know?” She walked over to the cooler and pulled a bottle of imported beer from the most readily available six-pack. Sliding the lighter from the little half-pocket on the right side of her jeans, she stared down to the bottle cap and flipped the end around to the bottom of the thick plastic. Wedging it between her thumb and index finger, that muscle zone where Trevor always reached over to massage when she told him her head was pounding, she pried against the cap and sent it sailing to the far corner of the shop. It clinked on the linoleum floor somewhere near the hotdog rollers. She pulled the bottle up to her mouth and blew the vapors that swirled below the rim of the neck opening and the top of the foamy liquid. When it dispersed, she angled the mouth of the bottle with her own and pulled hard from the circular green glass.
“Humph,” Phillip murmured as he walked to his spot behind the counter, “last I knew, you lived in the area.” He didn’t really give a shit that she was here, but at the same time he really didn’t want her there at all. Not with the current nuclear state of his insides. The tender nerve endings tucked between his hind cheeks throbbed to the point he could hardly stand perching on the side of the stool. Yet something didn’t sit well with him, beyond the burn of the burritos’ furious exodus. He noticed a tremor in her hands. “You get into anything good tonight?” he asked, pretending to count cigarette boxes in the racks above the counter.
“Oh just the per diem argument with Trevor. He doesn’t get it that I don’t want anything more from him.” She pulled again on the beer bottle and when she lifted it to eye-level noticed it was more than halfway gone.
Phillip had seen, too. “That why you’re guzzling that baby with such force? Or is it you didn’t get to suck anything else tonight and you were dying to get something down your throat?”
The chimes sounded as an elderly black man with white, curly hair wrapping around the sides and back of his head walked into the store and over to the urns of coffee.
“You little fucker!” she yipped, showing her coworker her stumpy middle finger while slugging another gulp. “I’m parched, you greasy buffoon. Hey, when is the last time you washed your hair? You take that trucker hat off and it stays in the same place, I’ll bet. Come to think of it, I never seen you with that hat off, Phil. You might want to give that,” she moved her pointer finger at the unkempt strands pouring out from under his hat, “and that,” moving the direction lower to his beat-up flannel, “a good hard hose-down when you get home this morning. See if you can wait to rub one out until you so that. I know, it’s asking a lot, but like public health and all.” She walked up to the counter and tossed the bottle into the wastebasket next to his feet.
“Dude, what the fuck? You can’t toss that shit here. Beaver Stank comes in or sends one of her kids in and whose ass is it? Mine, goddamn it!” He stood up from the stool, the fourth round of liquid discharge grumbling through his intestine. The panic of the imminent bowel movement, paired with the sweat that was bleeding out from behind his kneecaps, made him all the more agitated by his oversensitive coworker. Sheesh, one joke about sucking dicks and she blows up. “You’re paying for it, too, Cynthia. The beer. You come down here all the fucking time and grab a cold one and then walk out like it’s all good because you’re some misunderstood punk chick and I’m the loser who’s going to pay for it or hide the one five-pack somewhere in the middle of the cooler. Not no more, you got it? You’re paying for the whole sixer and taking this bottle out of the trash,” he snarled, pointing to the wastebasket.
The old man walked up to the counter with his cup of coffee and a five-dollar bill. Phillip tendered change, glaring beyond the man’s shoulder as Cynthia reached in for another beer, this one different from her first. By the time the bells chimed on the man’s exit, she had the cap off and several swallows had disappeared down her gullet.
“You don’t get to tell me what the fuck to do, Phillip. You also know not to call me the fuck by my name. I hate that shit, man.”
“Look,” he began, but it was no use. He walked out from behind the counter and down past the first aisle of groceries, then made a deadbolt to the bathroom. “I’ve got to piss like a mother, alright,” he said as he slammed the door shut. No matter how pissed he was at her, Phillip didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of a girl, especially not someone he kind of sort of worked with and who would most definitely smear his diarrhea story all over the neighborhood. There was only one redeeming quality for the fact that what was happening in the bathroom sounded like pee. If she could hear, Cynthia would think he really did bolt to the door to take a monster leak. So long as she didn’t get too close to the door. It smelled more evil than the stankiest asparagus pee.
When he was through, Phillip turned the doorknob with the damp paper towel and swung the door open to find the store empty. Sweet relief. Even if she had made a scene with the beers and potentially cost him two six-packs of beer, it was better that she was gone. He could pay for the them and drink what she’d left when he got home, if his digestive system had cooled down by then. Still, he’d never seen her so touchy. Why the shaking hands? There was something erratic about her. All hyped up. Fast, almost nervous. He’d never spent a hell of a lot of time with the girl, but erratic was something he never had known Cynthia to be. Whatever version of her who was just in the gas station was not one he had ever seen before.
As he walked up to the counter, he looked down into the wastebasket and found the second bottle lying on its side and covering the first. He shook his head and swore at her under his breath. He pulled the stool up closer to the counter and slid a folded crossword puzzle over to him, deciding he’d break up the shift by throwing out the empties when he took his next smoke break, which wouldn’t be for a while considering the tumultuous state of his bowels. He didn’t need anything stimulating the nerves down there, especially not nicotine. Coffee would have to wait, too. He had pounded an energy drink on the way from his place, which might not have been helpful in binding his bowels, but was at least keeping him awake.
He had only figured out three clues before the bells sounded their chime and Gussy, one of the magazine delivery guys, walked in. “Philly, my brother. What’s crackin’?” Gussy thrust a fist out for a bump and Phillip returned the gesture. He pulled a dolly of three heavy duty totes around to the near-empty magazine rack. “Ima place these right here, aight? You stock ‘em like usual and I’ll be back in a few and throw you some bones. All good?”
Phillip snorted. They’d worked this deal out months ago. Gussy pulled his back sometime the tail end of last year and because the job required him to bend down so much to pull the old magazines that didn’t sell off the racks and replace them with new issues, he’d needed the young buck behind the counter to help out. Phillip made a quick 15 dollars. All was good.
“Hey, let me grab a box a grape phillies from my boy Philly,” Gussy said grinning. “Back pain’s been flaring up, you know? It ain’t easy being a hard working black man in this country. I need something’ll dull the pain I been feelin’, ‘specially from the white man, you know it?”
“On the same page as you, my man,” Phillip said. “You know I’m just mad tan, right?” Phillip said as he reached up on the wall behind the counter and pulled down a pack of blunts. “Blackest part of me is my lungs, Gussy,” he said smiling as he put the package on the counter. “Five sixty three.”
“Hell, I know, I know. But you one of the good ones, boy.” Gussy pulled a ten-dollar bill out from his pants pocket and laid it on the counter next to the cigars just before snatching them up and tearing at a corner of the cellophane wrapping with his teeth.
Phillip punched the price into the register and pulled the bill to place it in the drawer once it opened. He pushed the button marked “amt. tend.” and the draw spat out at him. When he reached for Gussy’s change, all he felt was the hard, ridged plastic of the drawer’s bottom. His stomach dropped. His instinct had him immediately manipulate the lotto machine’s cash drawer. It flung open. Nothing. A scrunched, red-faced Mrs. Nottingham, better known her employees as Beaver Stank, the store’s owner, shot into focus in Phillip’s mind. Combined, there was probably little over 700 dollars missing. He looked up at Gussy, who had fished one of the blunts out and was waiting on the change so set down in his truck to roll up and roll out to his next delivery before returning for the empty totes.
Phillip looked straight into Gussy’s eyes and whispered the realization across the counter, as if saying it actualized the act: “That fucking bitch robbed me blind.”