Vera opens up at six. I've explained over and over again that, if she could get to the store by 5:30 or 5:45 at the latest, she could have the coffee ready, the papers set up and the pastries displayed nicely. She lives a few miles away at Atwood Acres, an over fifty-five mobile home park. She married Wendell Ricks three years ago and a month after the wedding he had a stroke. She says she needs to wait for the day nurse before she can leave.
She's a good worker, great with the morning tradesmen and commuter regulars. She's got the gift of gab and can tell a dirty story with the best of them. As much as she bitches about working for me, I know that being at the store seven days a week is the most normal part of her life. "If I'd of known I'd be changing a grown man's diapers just shy of sixty, I'd of laid down in the high speed lane long ago."
Before the marriage Wendell wasn't as truthful as he should have been about his personal finances. Now she's close to broke, tired to death, and, if you believe her jokes about it, hasn't been laid in three years. She's got little to look forward to so I try not to get on her too much about the opening on time. But fifteen minutes earlier would really help out.
Ed Foss relieves her at two in the afternoon. He's an American and proud of it. His prize possession is an apple red, Ford pickup—250 series, extended cab, fully equipped. Attached to the side of the bed is a huge U. S. flag. Bumper stickers and decals further proclaim what a great land this is. He retired from the marines. He has a crew cut, beer belly and belongs to all of the veterans groups in town. He rarely smiles and has no interpersonal skills except when one of his military or hunting buddies comes in for smokeless tobacco and beer. Then they trade tirades about what's happening to the good old US of A that's sending it down the tubes.
There are four convenience stores in town. Mine is the only one not run by Indians or Pakistanis. Ed calls us the Alamo. We don't have gas pumps, and it's his view that, if I were to put them in, we'd have a fighting chance against those "Pakie bastards". I've gone over the numbers, seen the permit process and there's no way it would ever pay for itself.
Except for Thursdays, Ed leaves at 7:00, usually for the American Legion bar. The town has a band concert on Thursday evenings and teenagers come in to buy drinks and chips. We used to have a shoplifting issue until Ed tossed one baggy pants suspect into the Frito Lay display. I thought I'd be sued but nothing ever came of it except, with Ed staying late on concert night, we've had no disappearing inventory.
His main complaint in life is foreigners taking over America (foreignization, he calls it). It began way back with the Jews in the 1940s and continued with Japanese and Hispanics into the present day. Obviously Indian convenience store ownership is high on his list. Korean dry cleaners, Cambodian nail salons, Vietnamese floor sanders are minor cases in point as well. When he gets going, the vein in his forehead bulges. I have no idea how many people he's turned away based on their nationality.
I usually come in at ten and work the rest of the day. For a while I worked the night hours by myself after Ed left. Five months ago I hired Magda. I'm teaching her English and the business. She's from Serbia with a pretty face, dark hair, doe-like eyes, and real tiny. She lives with her older sister who married an American soldier when he was over there and who recently moved into town to work for Comcast. She has two boys close to high school age. Her kids speak English. We met when they brought her in one day to show her how to shop. One thing led to another and I hired her. She's smart but goes to pieces when she makes a mistake. Ed barely tolerates my having brought her on board because she's a foreigner and not grateful ("none of those bastards are") for the American blood spilled on her Balkan behalf. If he ever found out that Magda and I have been using the soft mats and a blow up air mattress behind the counter as our personal love nest, I'm sure he'd two by four the door with us inside and napalm the place.
I am married. It's been sixteen years for Kay and me. I warned her when I bought the franchise that it would take my every waking moment to make it a success. I'm working like a dog seven days a week from ten to ten, even later now that I'm involved with Magda. I make a decent living, clearing sixty grand each year though it's starting to level off. The trick is to predict just when the downturn will come and then sell out to the Pakistanis.
I think Kay knows what's going on. A few times she's alluded to Vera and me having at it (incorrectly of course). When I first bought the place, I envisioned it being a family affair, the American dream I guess, she and I and our kids building up something we could pass on to the next generation. After six months she got tired of it, went to community college and got a dietician job at the Fairlawn nursing home. I suspect she's having her bit on the side as well.
Magda tells me she doesn't get along with her sister. It would be great if she could move out, but rents are so expensive. It's not what you think. She's not milking me. At times I really wonder how I could help her and the kids out more than I do. When it's slow in the late evening and I'm checking orders behind the counter and she's out on the floor stocking shelves, I look up and think what my life would be like if Kay had stayed with me at the store. If there's a pallet of two liter soda bottles to be moved around, Magda's right there to push with all her tiny might to help me bring them in from the back. I'm not so sure an American woman would do that or any other grunge work that means getting dirty and wrecking the manicure.
The other night we repositioned some displays and cleaned the milk cooler. We were sweating like pigs by the time the store closed. I got two bottles of Sam Adams, shut off the lights, and we sat there on the newspaper bundles, resting in the blinking neon semi-darkness. After a minute to two and bathed in the soft glow of the Duraflame log advertising sign, she took a sip, swung her arm in an arc at our evening's handiwork and said, "Pretty, store very pretty this night."
I wanted to tell her that she was pretty too and then take her behind the counter and have at it, but I didn't. It was a good moment. I just lazily hung my arm over her shoulder, clicked her bottle in a mock toast as she nestled her head against my shoulder. Tomorrow I'd call the freezer guy about the leak and the glass company about the ever expanding hairline crack in the front window. I might even tell Kay about Magda. Christ I might even have the guts to tell Ed! But right now was—well—it was now.