I am trapped here until 6 a.m. It is now 2 a.m. I just locked up the coolers so the drunks don’t try to buy any more beer. There is always someone who comes in and insists that our clocks are fast. I keep the phone number for official time nearby. If someone argues the speed of our clock, I dial the number and put it on speaker phone: “At the tone, the time will be 2:10 a.m. Beeeep.” Sometimes a guy will come in just to talk. They buy a pack of cigarettes and then start in—“How’s your night going?” It’s the beginning of a conversation that quickly becomes the equivalent of a see-saw—I find myself stuck in the air, while they anchor their ass to the ground and ramble nonstop. When other customers come in, the rambler steps aside while I ring them up, but never stops talking. The rambler talks about everything: baseball, the rules to a new video game, a pet snake, or an old girlfriend.
One guy did this all last week and changed his name on me each night. Once he introduced himself as Steve and the next night he was Nick. I saw his ID once and it said Daniel something. His last name sounded like a Greek philosopher. He must have seen me as a pushover, because when I dropped hints for him to leave, he’d just laugh and say something about how hard my job is. One night he stuck around for three hours, stepping outside to smoke once or twice and refilling his forty-four-ounce cup of root beer.
The other night I pretended to get a phone call and I held my cell phone up to my face and started talking into it. I thought he’d leave but he just watched me for about ten minutes before wandering over to where the dirty magazines are and listening in.
“I told you to talk to Mom about that…I understand that it’s important to you…well, Uncle Johnny said she had to lose thirty pounds…How’s your dog doing?...uh huh…uh huh…It’s going well. I sleep in the afternoon and I have one night class each week…”
Steve Nick Daniel listened to me improvise this one-sided conversation until I started to get lightheaded and sweaty. Finally I said, “Let me call you back. I have to get some work done.”
Steve Nick Daniel laughed when I put my phone away. “Was that your brother?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I lied.
“What kind of dog does he have?”
“Cocker spaniel,” I said. It was the first breed that came to my mind.
“Big?” he asked.
I couldn’t remember what a cocker spaniel looked like, so I said medium.
“Huh,” he said ponderously. He looked out the window as if he were searching for a cocker spaniel in the dark distance.
“I had a dog once,” he said. And then he leaned in to whisper. “Papa made me shoot him.”
I tried to change the subject quickly. “What sort of work do you do? I mean, for a job.”
He jerked his head back from me and winced, as if I had burped in his face or something. “Oh, I see,” he said.
I waited. He just stared at the ground now. We both stood there, paused in the moment, waiting for the next words. I had a radio on in the back room and somebody was singing a country song about the American flag.
“I used to drive around,” he finally said. “In a taxi.” He pointed out the window to a white hatchback parked crookedly by the pay phones. It didn’t look like a taxi.
“You don’t do it anymore?” I asked him. I opened a pack of Zingers, the lemon-flavored kind.
“I got tired of all the social stuff, all the talking,” he said. “You pick someone up, you don’t know who they are, what kind of a person they are. And they got you in the car as long as you have to drive. It’s like being trapped, or you’re a hostage.”
“Sure, sure. It must have been pretty strange,” I said.
“You can’t predict each night, each ride,” he said. He walked over to the ice cream freezer and slid open its door. “This feels good,” he said, and picked up a Weight Watchers ice cream bar.
“How much is it?” he asked when he came back to the register.
I tried to zap the bar code but it wasn’t working.
“I guess I should tell you,” he said slowly. “I’m on parole.”
“Oh,” I said, handing the ice cream to him. “Don’t worry. It’s on me.”
“It’s on you, huh?”
“Yeah. Hey—I gotta do some homework actually.” I had just thought of this one, a sturdy new lie. There was even a spiral-bound notebook behind the register that I pointed at.
He looked at me and then the notebook and then me again. “Can I have this too?” he suddenly asked, holding up a two-ounce container of something called MegaLift. It was one of those ginseng things you drink in one swallow and it wakes up your brain for another twenty hours. It cost five dollars.
“Sorry, man,” I said. “They count those things.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” he said. The door made its bing-bong sound as he walked out, and I picked up the notebook to feign some studying. There was a small mirror that the manager kept by the register that he sometimes cleverly used to catch people stealing behind his back. I never used it, but this time I picked it up to see if he was actually leaving or just going on a smoke break. I watched him get in his car and sit there. He ate his ice-cream bar as I ate my Zingers. When we were both done with our junk food, neither of us moved. I stood frozen by the window and he just sat in his car with all his windows rolled up.
I put the mirror down for a second and then the store phone rang, startling me almost enough to drop the notebook.
“Plaid Pantry on Fremont,” I said.
“Call the cops,” the voice said. I turned around and looked at the man in the car. I couldn’t tell if it was him on the phone, if it was Steve Nick Daniel. He was slumped over against the steering wheel.
“What’s wrong?” I said. “Steve?” I said. “Nick?” I said. “Daniel?”
“Lock your doors and call the police.”
I hung up the phone and called the police. I couldn’t lock the doors. I didn’t know how. I felt myself shaking with nerves. It was 3:30 in the morning. I heard the faint jingle of a mattress commercial coming from the back room and then the oncoming whorl of a siren. I felt like maybe I hadn’t listened to him closely enough. Maybe he was miserable and just needed to feel like he had a friend to visit. I walked out of the store and carefully walked up to his car. He rolled his window down and looked at me with tired eyes. I gave him the five-dollar ginseng drink and my phone number.
Two cop cars pulled up into the lot. Their lights flew across my face, and Steve or Nick or Daniel drank his drink.
[This story first appeared in print in The Ne’er-Do-Well #3: Working-Class Stories]
Kevin Sampsell is an editor (Portland Noir and other books), publisher (Future Tense Books), bookstore employee (Powell’s Books) and author (the short story collection Creamy Bullets, the memoir A Common Pornography, and the novel This Is Between Us). His stories and essays have appeared in publications and websites such as Salon, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Best Sex Writing 2012, and Best American Essays 2013. Kevin lives in Portland, Oregon, with his son, Zach, his wife, B. Frayn Masters (host and producer of the awesome storytelling show Back Fence PDX), and Internet celebrity cat Boo Boo. Visit him at kevinsampsell.com.