steve gergley – CVS run
I had run out of toilet paper and toothpaste and Tylenol and tortilla chips, so I took a quick ride over to CVS just before close. Near the front counter, a high school kid vacuumed the carpet with the swaying, rhythmic grace of a ballroom dancer. His face glowed the color of cherry sherbet. Shimmery sweat glazed his prodigious forehead. Dark amoebas of perspiration clung to the armpits of his polo shirt. As I shuffled down the snack aisle, he stepped aside and welcomed me into the store with a strange, elaborate bow.
I plunked my items onto the front counter a few minutes later. Circling behind the register, the kid studied my selections with a zeal and admiration that for many years now had been completely absent from my mundane, workaday existence of installing cabinets in suburban kitchens.
“Ah yes,” the kid said, nodding and grinning up at me. “A king’s bounty, eh?”
I glanced down at my boring items to make sure I hadn’t grabbed anything weird by mistake. I hadn’t. The things on the counter seemed to be an extension, a deepening, of my terminal blandness that had been expanding at the same rate as both my waistline and the quickly approaching obsolescence of my retirement and death. As if to prove this point, the rectangular box of toothpaste I had grabbed, read, Great Regular Flavor.
Not understanding what the kid was talking about, I shook my head and yawned.
“I guess,” I said, reaching into my back pocket and sliding out my wallet.
“No guessing required sir, it’s all laid bare before us in full technicolor,” the kid said, scanning the items and tapping his fingers against his touch screen in a controlled frenzy. The pads of his fingers made a rapid, muffled, thumping noise. “But, if I may be so bold to say . . . there seems to be a little something missing from your selections today. If you understand my meaning.”
The kid pressed one last button on his touch screen and fixed his gaze on me. I stayed quiet. The kid raised his eyebrows and looked at me with an expression I don’t possess the words to describe. All I know is that it had been decades since another human being had looked at me with that particular expression.
I offered the kid my debit card. He pointed at the card reader erupting from the counter on my left. I slipped my card into the reader and typed in my pin. I stared down at the card reader and listened as the kid placed my items into a crinkling plastic bag. The reader told me to remove my card. The kid placed my bag on the counter between us. As the register printed out my receipt, I looked up at the kid again. He was still gazing at me with that particular look on his face.
“What you’re missing is spice,” he said, drawing out the final syllable of the sentence in a way that felt illicit.
The register kept printing my receipt. The paper was curling in on itself by now, forming a new roll. Seeing this, I remembered the horrible picture of that guy who had wasted his life trying to set the world record for the longest fingernails on earth.
I looked up at the kid again.
“I said spice,” the kid said, as my receipt continued printing. “Ever since your youngest daughter went off to college, that’s what you’ve been missing in your life.”
I craned my head to the side and studied the kid’s face.
“Do you know Abby?”
The kid burst into loud, hysterical laughter, pounded the counter three times with a closed fist, and stopped laughing just as abruptly as he had started. My receipt was now long enough to touch the floor and still growing.
“No, no, it’s nothing like that,” the kid said, grinning at me.
“What’s it like then?” I said, feeling a dry tightness in my throat.
“Do you really want to know?” The kid said, dropping his voice to a whisper.
The kid’s grin expanded. He made a show of looking around the store to make sure we were alone. Then he leaned over the counter and gestured for me to do the same.
At this distance, the kid’s breath smelled of alcohol, Cool Ranch Doritos, and wintergreen breath mints.
“I’m a mind-reading, interdimensional demon from Europa,” the kid said. “That’s a moon of the planet Jupiter. Which, as the legends portend, is where the boys go to get more stupider.”
I leaned back and picked up my items. I glanced down at the nametag pinned to the kid’s polo shirt. The tag was upside down, but I could still read the letters. Cody. My receipt finally stopped printing. I tore it off at an angle and mashed it into a crackling ball. Then I shoved the giant mass of paper into my bag.
“Are you going to be okay?”
“I’m sorry sir, I’m really drunk right now,” the kid said, licking his red lips.
“I can see that,” I said, nodding. “But you did a good job with the breath mints. I didn’t smell the booze until I was right next to you.”
“Thanks, yeah, I’ve had like fifty-seven thousand Altoids today. I’ve been switching off between those and the flash every few minutes. I’ve got a flash back here that I’ve been drinking from all night that I stole from my dad. Him and my mom are on vacation in Europe for an indeterminate amount of time. They’re really angry at me because I’m the only person in my family who didn’t get into college. I’m scared of what they’re going to do when they get back. I think it’s some kind of vodka.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, but do you mean flask?”
“Flash, sir, yes, flash, that’s what I said,” the kid said, nodding and pointing at something under the counter. “It’s a flash, it’s right here.”
I nodded and watched him for a while.
“Okay,” I said, looking around and searching the store again. After finding neither coworkers nor customers, I turned back to the kid. “Where’s your manager? Are you the only employee still here?”
“Yes sir, it’s just us. John went home early,” the kid said, pointing in the direction of the parking lot. “He said he had all kinds of important, boss-like errands to take care of.”
I blew out a sigh and shook my head.
“Jesus. Okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” I said, walking around behind the counter. I held my hand out and made a come-hither gesture with my fingers. “First you’re going to give me the flask.”
The kid bent down, retrieved the glinting silver flask from under the counter, and handed it to me. I dropped it in my bag.
“Alright. Now we’re going to—do you have the keys for this store? Did your boss leave you his keys?”
“Of course, of course,” the kid said, reaching into his right pocket and very gently placing a set of car keys onto the counter. He stared down at these for a long time and then held up his index finger and dug into his left pocket and produced a second set of keys. “There they are. John gave me the keys, and then he disappeared into the darkness.”
“Okay, good,” I said, snatching the kid’s car keys off the counter and slipping them into my pocket. From here I picked up the store keys and pointed at the vacuum standing in the middle of the sales floor. “While you unplug the vacuum and put it away, I’m going to take the cash drawers up to the manager’s office and lock the door. Once that’s done, we’ll close the store and I’ll drive you home. Your car’s going to stay here tonight. No one’s going to bother it. Sound good?”
“Yes sir, very good.”
The kid nodded, but he didn’t move. Instead, he tapped his right foot on the carpet. He crunched his face into that particular expression and stared at me for a while. I listened to his breathing. I cracked a knuckle. It felt like we would stand there forever.
STEVE GERGLEY is the author of the short story collection, A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair (LEFTOVER Books '22), and the forthcoming novel, Skyscraper (West Vine Press '23). His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Barren Magazine, New World Writing, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. He tweets @GergleySteve. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/