Sunday, August 03, 2008

Letters Into Words

THROUGHOUT RECORDED HISTORY, and what other kind is there, even the Great Ones are periodically afflicted with what has come to be known as writer's block: the sudden inability, when called upon, to improve upon a blank page. One way some writers work try to work past it is through the sheer act of typing a piece of literature that they really admire. This allows a writer to get inside the scaffolding of a story, to kind of see how the sentences were constructed word by word and letter by letter. Frankly, I never understood how that could possibly help writers get over their slump. And it won't do much for that bad case of carpal tunnel syndrome either.

What seems to help me is typing up some of my own old stuff. Besides being a constructive form of procrastination, it's kind of like a songwriter warming up by playing a few of his old songs on the piano. In fact, typing and playing the piano have many similarities. They both employ forms of muscle memory, as well as provide a good way to keep all 10 fingers out of trouble, and how often can we say that during the course of a day.

So in that spirit I'm going to post some of my decent old stories up here on the Internets, while saving my "better ones" for the trades, if you get my drift. Soon I'll have run out of old material and will be forced to create new stuff to put in circulation. It's the famous circle of life you might have read about.

Anyway, this is a tale about my liquor store days. The story has no real ending; it just kind of stops. And no title either, if you're looking for one.

We were putting the miniatures away on Monday afternoon when he came in the first time. Hulking and sulking, he looked like trouble right from the beginning.

Tim was at the back of the store, leaving me alone to confront this scowling madman. The guy smelled of smoke and small places. His beard was to put it kindly unkempt, his eyes raving and popping and somehow vacant in unison. When he put his big dirty hands on the counter and leaned forward, I noticed the BORN TO RAISE HELL tattoo on his left forearm, and my eyes instinctively snuck down to where we kept the small souvenir Mets baseball bat for protection.

"Hey pal, let me get some water for my dog," he said, and he wasn't asking. I didn't see a dog, but through our front window I saw a small woman and a big dog, looking equally forlorn. So I said sure and called out to ask Tim if we had any kind of bowl. He said no but then I remembered seeing one in the back, so I went to look, leaving old Scowlface alone at the front of the store. "Tim, go watch the counter and lemme get rid of this guy," I said.

Tim and the guy were eying each other suspiciously, even maliciously, when I returned balancing a full bowl of water a minute later. I couldn't figure out why Tim was so upset with this guy. I mean, yeah, he's a pain in the ass, but it was obvious the guy was homeless, along with his wife or whoever outside.

The big guy waved the woman into the store, and she and the dog entered. The dog went straight for the water and lapped it up in like 8 seconds, and then they were gone, the three of them, and it was a whole day before we saw them again.

Tuesday was my day to open the liquor store at 10:00, but on this day I was about a half-hour late, and outside waiting was the usual collection of 3 or 4 bums and alkies in haggard array. I knew exactly what each of them would buy -- Ray: a pint of Gallo Port, Tinker: pint of Night Train, Crazy Jack: half-pint of Lemon Gin -- because in the 2 years I'd worked there it never varied. What was once pity and then sorrow had turned into utter contempt for their weakness and immutability.

The old store was crammed snugly between a dry cleaners and a pizzeria, in a neighborhood where Uptown seemed to mingle with Upper East Side, where very rich and very poor alike met here on common ground, all needing a good stiff drink to make it through another New York day.

So it was no surprise to find some patients already in the waiting room, a captive audience watching me as I unlocked and opened the gate, itself possibly as old as the ancient store, whose wood at times could be heard creaking like an ancient ship straining to right itself. I made the bums wait outside while I turned on the lights and got the money for the register from the back, where it was hidden inside one of the cardboard liquor boxes. Then I put away last night's receipts, as they watched me impatiently from the other side of the glass, never taking their eyes off me as if it would make me go faster. I was just about to open the door and let them in one at a time, but I had forgotten a roll of quarters in the back. On the way I turned on the clock radio, and it was less than 30 seconds when I was heading back toward the front door to let in my clients.

I was averting my eyes from their eyes, focusing on the lock I had to turn, and never saw him there now first in line, filling the door frame with six and a half feet and 300 plus pounds of unblinking meanness, staring down at me with the most blatant, unmistakable look of scorn and contempt ever mustered. I could only imagine what he would have looked like if I hadn't given his dog that bowl of water last night.

"Go ahead, take care of them first," he said, leaning back against the champagne rack and folding his arms. "I have to talk to you."
The bums filed in sullenly, paid for their bottles with pocketfuls of scrapped-together change, and then left to tear them open and think about getting the next one. As soon as we were alone he pushed himself off the wall, rattling the expensive champagne bottles and shaking the other shelves.
"Listen, I need a favor. I got a check coming tomorrow, from the Veterans Administration, but i need a few dollars till then. You think you can help me out?"
"Sorry, man. I'm broke myself until pay--"
"When's payday?" he shot back before I could get the last word out.
"Payday is next week," I said, even though it was tomorrow. I was hoping he'd move on by next week.
"What day?"
"Monday. But you'll have your check by then anyway."
His face relaxed at that point into a smile, but his eyes still looked angry, as if he knew I was lying but appreciated that I could think on my feet like him. "You sure you can't do anything for me, pal?"
"Naw, sorry."
"Five bucks."
"Can't do it."
"Look, I'm out on the street with my wife..."
"I'm sorry about that."
"Can't you borrow it from the register? Your boss won't notice."
"No, he'd know and I don't have it to replace."
"Five bucks."
"Sorry," I said, thinking maybe I should give in, but knowing I'd never see him or my money again and that there was no check coming. Yes, he was homeless and probably a Vietnam vet and that sucked, but my pity meter was on off lately -- having been suckered and beat and conned over with two years' worth of sob stories. There were homeless people and then there were bums and drunks and street crazies, and differentiating between them was something I had little alacrity for. Giving a quarter to the latter group was like supporting a habit. And as we were the only store in the neighborhood that sold the cheap rotgut they preferred, we got our share of their business.

Looking at the giant before me, with his stained red bandanna, dungaree jacket and motorcycle boots, I had little reason to doubt most of his story. And yet I couldn't be certain and so wouldn't bring myself to help him out, just wanted to get rid of him.
"How about a bottle then, on credit, till tomorrow?"
"Okay, that I can do," I said. "What do you drink?"
"We don't sell beer here. It's a liquor store."
"You don't sell beer!" he thundered, and now he was grinning widely.
"No. In New York state you can't sell beer in a liquor store. Where are you from?"
"From? I ain't from nowhere but I used to live in Carolina."
"What part? North or South."
"Oh. W ell, what do you want then?"
"Give me some Jim Beam then."
"Okay, and tomorrow you're gonna take care of it?"
"Yeah, tomorrow, sure. 'Preciate it, pal."
"Sure." I reached down to a bottom shelf and got a half-pint and slipped it into a small paper bag. "If I'm not here, just tell whoever's behind the counter your name and take care of it. What's your name?"
"Okay, Jim, it'll be on the register." I hit NO SALE on the cash register key, tore off a receipt and wrote: Jim, 1/2 pint Beam, $2.70. Then I taped it to the side of the old register. Jim made a point of shaking my hand and thanking me, then twisted off the cap of the bottle and was about to take a swig when I caught him.
"Yo, you can't drink in the store, dude."
"Okay, Okay. I'll see you then. And thanks," he said.
"Right," I said, sort of liking him but nevertheless very glad that he was about to leave. It was almost 11:00 and I had to call in orders and change prices on all the wines, so I told him I had to get back to work. I knew I'd never see him again, but I could explain away the bottle. My boss would be pissed, just on principle, like any small business man, and he might take it out of my pay. There were already about 20 such slips of credit already taped to the register, waving like little white flags of surrender every time the door opened and the wind blew in. What was one more?

Tim worked nights and was due in at 4:00. We would work together for an hour, pricing and then putting away new stock. Then I'd take an hour off for dinner before returning to work until closing time at 11.

I was going to Hunter College and Tim was gonna be a cop, and this job was easy enough to get some reading done in between customers, provided it was slow. But many a time did I have occasion to slam a book down on the counter when, upon reaching a particularly interesting passage, some sad-faced wino would push through the door. At those moments I hated people for their feebleness and found it hard to be pleasant. Invariably I'd glare at them if they requested something extra or just wanted the bottle cold. Then I'd stomp back to the refrigerated case or to the stockroom, making little effort to hide my scorn.

Tim would kid me about my temper, and my boss would get on me for it, and I would later reproach myself for getting so worked up. Coming home on the subway I would sometimes regret treating someone so rudely, and vaguely pledge to try to be nicer to people, who after all just wanted to be waited on courteously when they made a purchase, not too much to ask looking at it objectively. I could grasp that, but I was powerless to change and would revert back to my sullen ways the very next day. I had to be the most insolent store clerk in all of New York.

I had only a semester to graduate, and the nearer it drew, the ruder I seemed to get. My boss noticed it, and that day when he came in at 3:00, he warned me for what he said would be the last time to treat his customers with respect.
"I don't want to have to tell you again. If I get one more report from them, from anyone, you're gone the next day. That's it, no ifs, ands or buts. Understand?"
I told him I did, and of course he was right. He was always upfront with me, but he was seriously underpaying me, so I was forced to supplement my income via a process known as "hitting the reggie." I wanted to stop, at least I think I would have if I had gotten even one raise. But every time I asked he went right into his "business is bad" line.

I liked my boss but didn't respect him, a small man in his fifties who looked great for his age and was always dressed up when he came by the store to check on things. We disagreed on almost everything, from politics to sports to how to run the store efficiently, but he had that stubborn streak that clings to someone who has always run things his way, as if changing something would somehow repudiate all that came before.

Instead of just telling us what was on his mind, the owner of the store preferred to communicate by leaving written notes taped to the refrigerator door. If the delivery bike was left outside overnight, it warranted a note, as did forgetting to turn off the green neon LIQUOR STORE sign. But it was also occasion for a written missive if, for instance, a pen was missing. All the pens in the store were on strings tied to the desk or to the counter. These notes became an inside joke at the store, particularly when Don wrote something particularly clueless, and some were outright classics, such as the one he wrote after a perplexing rash of missing pens: "What are you two, cannon ball people?!" -- suggesting that perhaps Tim and I were cannibals who had consumed them.

A few nights later, as expected, there was a note asking "Who is this Jim?" stuck to the fridge. And even though I was probably in the store when my boss wrote it, he expected me to read it first before we discussed it. But instead out of spite I just ignored it this time, mainly because I hadn't yet readied a good excuse. Of course Jim had never returned to pay for the bottle of Beam, and so I'd end up paying for it myself. Store policy.

Out of character, my boss left without bringing it up. He might even forget all about it if I took the slip off the register tonight and threw it away. My policy.

But it wasn't even 5 minutes later that the guy comes in again. Tim was at the reggie and I was taking a crap when I hear some yelling, so I wipe my butt, wash up quickly and hurry out, a magazine still stuck under my arm, to find Jim and Tim going at it, in each other's face over the counter.
"You gonna pay for this fuckin' bottle or what?" Tim was screaming.
"That's none of your business, punk!"
"It is my business. I work here!"
"Hey, cool it now!" I say. "Chill out!"
Both of them back off a little at this. but now my heart is beating a mile a minute. The last thing i want is a fight in the store. Sure, it would be two on one, but Jim was a volcano capable of major damage should he erupt, and in a small, cramped store full of bottles, damage was inevitable.
"Tim, go to the back," I said.
"Make sure he pays his--"
"Go to the back!" I yelled, my voice loud but not too authoritative. I saw Tim was hurt that I had raised my voice at him and wasn't taking his side. He gave me and then Jim a dirty look and went to the back, where he leaned against the desk and lit up a cigarette, waiting to see how I would handle this.
"You better tell that punk to watch himself," said Jim. "He doesn't know who he's talking to."
"I know who I'm talking to," shouted Tim. "Another fucking bum!"
"What did you say, punk? You little--"
"Hey," I said. "Tim, cool it, and you, c'mon, what can I do for you? Did you get your check?"
"No, didn't get it yet."
"Well, I can't help you then. I can't give you any more credit."
"His check!" Tim scoffed. "What did he tell you, he's getting a check? And you fell for it! Don't you know you can't get welfare unless you have an address they can mail it to?"
"It's not welfare, you little shit," Jim bellowed.
"It's not welfare, Tim" I said. "It's a VA check."
"That's right, it's a VA check. While you were here jerking off in your diapers I was over in fucking Nam protecting ungrateful little shits like you."
"You weren't doing it for me," Tim shot back.
"I was protecting you!"
"Man, I never asked you to go. You weren't protecting me." I couldn't believe Tim was provoking this guy. If you called up central casting and asked them to send over one deranged, ready to freak Vietnam vet, Jim was that guy. Now he was slowly walking toward Tim.

Tim was giving up about a foot to Jim, but if he was at all intimidated it didn't show. His father was a cop, brother too, and toughness just ran in his Irish blood. It was gonna get ugly, and yet I stood where I was behind the register. I glanced at the window to see if any customers were coming in and saw Jim's wife peering back at me. The dog was on its hind legs, paws pressed against the glass, wearing the same beaten look as the frail, dull-haired woman to held its leash. Behind them the river of traffic poured down Second Avenue.



jimithegreek said...

i like this one, a sense of real life.

Wardens World said...

Thanks, 'Preciate it.