WELCOME TO $AVE-$OME-CA$H (A WORK OF FICTION IN PROGRESS). Written 2003, published at Facebook, November 24, 2010 as Welcome to Waldo’s World, rewritten 2011.
During my employment at $ave-$ome-Ca$h, I learned that old vendee vamps are the ones to be wary of because they tend to complain the longest and loudest and refuse to go away even when a manager intercedes.
There were five vampires, four of them older than sixty heading toward my register, cussing and complaining loudly about something. Two of the vamps were women; they had no teeth that I could see. I reckoned them rustics, especially when I saw that they wore colorful NASCAR sweatshirts beneath their winter coats. Then I saw the girl. The fifth vamp was Jessica Southwood, a girl in my grade at New Cambridge High, nicknamed Jessi the Mouse. She was a rare talker, considered shy by many of us. And she was as plain as vanilla ice cream: straight blonde hair, brown eyes, no makeup, an unembellished white sweatshirt under a black winter coat, faded blue jeans, and black boots. Nothing about her stood out, except how quiet she was.
She followed behind the others, her eyes aimed at the blue and white tiled floor in front of her boots. As soon as I said, “Thank you for shopping at Save-Some-Cash,” her face blanched when she looked up and saw me. Then it blossomed to crimson.
“Theezh batt’reezh,” the man in the lead said from a gaunt, whiskered face, “do they come in double double-A’zh?” He dangled a package of rechargeable triple-A batteries in front of my eyes.
“No, sir,” I said. “We stopped selling quadruple-A batteries three months ago.”
“Quad what?” He sputtered again. “No! I need double double-A batt’reezh.” He screwed up his blue nose snaked with red varicose veins. “I bought ’em here b’fore.”
I took a step back. The smell of his breath reminded me of my Uncle Carl’s catfish stink bait, which I helped concoct one summer three years ago. We mixed stale cheese and bloody raw liver in an old blender, poured it into a 10-gallon paint bucket, sealed it and put the bucket outside for five days. The sun turned the contents into a ripe smelling soup. When Uncle Carl lifted the lid, I accidentally inhaled the aroma and barfed all over my Nikes.
“Grandpa,” Jessi whined, “you’re embarrassing me! Can’t you ever behave and act like a respectable grownup?”
The four adults turned. Jessi the Mouse had become Jessi the Mouth.
The whiskered male vamp sputtered and tobacco juice splattered the girl’s face. “Ya wash yer tone, mishy.”
Jessi growled, stamped a foot and said, “I’ll wait in the truck.” She charged past the four and hurried through the exit. We watched her go, then her grandfather returned his attention on me when the hydraulic doors swished shut. His bloodshot brown eyes narrowed.
I cleared my throat. “We stopped selling quadruple-A batteries three months ago,” I said.
“Well thash ign’rant.” He looked at the others. They bobbled their heads in unison and agreed.
“Ign’rant,” the other man said.
“I wanna shpeak to a man’jer,” Jessi’s grandfather said.
I picked up my phone, changed my mind, and called Ping Wu Hu, our store sales advocate.
“Customer service is your job,” Ping said. “Main office says we’re not supposed to get involved.”
Jessi’s grandfather grabbed my phone. “Git yer Oriental hiney out here an’ git me shum double double-A batt’reezh.”
“An’ shum Geneshee,” one of the woman said. “They ain’t got no Geneshee beer.”
“We don’t sell alcohol,” I told her. “State law.”
She glared at me while someone next to her muttered, “Shtupid shtate.”
Ping came from his office at the back end of the store, hurried to my register and said with a frown directed at the four vamps, “We want all our customers to have a pleasant shopping experience. My apologies.” He scowled at me for a moment.
“Of coursh,” Jessi’s grandfather said. “Wouldn’t wan’ one o’ yer cush’merzh not buy shumpin.” The others laughed. One of the women belched and the laughter increased. Jessi’s grandfather said, “Thish kid shezh ya ain’t got no double double-A batt’reezh.”
Ping’s face blanched, either from the rotten breath or because he had no idea what Jessi’s grandfather was referring to. He turned toward me and opened his mouth to speak when my watch alarm sounded. It was seven o’clock; my shift was over. I locked my register, handed him the keys and hurried to the time clock. The company frowns on overtime.
When I headed back to the front, Ping and Jessi’s grandfather were having a serious conversation. Although I couldn’t hear what Ping was saying above the hollering going on from the others, I could clearly make out the cuss words exploding from the old man. For a moment, I felt sorry for Ping. In his odd way, he really cared about the store. Just the other day he was upset because our quarter profits were 19% below previous estimates. But after some serious figure crunching, he discovered that he could increase our profits by eliminating our health care benefits.
I raised a battle fist and silently cheered Ping on before I stepped into the flood of parking lot lights. My mom was parked quietly below the one in front of Row 4 where Mrs. Bloomfield hunched at the driver’s window, chewing on mom’s ear like always. Mrs. Bloomfield usually came at seven o’clock on Fridays so she could get deli specials at half-price before the deli department closed shop at eight. I saw Jessi Southwood two rows over, standing in the back of a red Ford pickup truck. She had a cell phone pressed against her right ear when I approached. I wanted to say hi, I suppose, to let her know things were cool.
The bitter November night air had turned her cheeks and nose a cute rosy red. Seeing her made me smile. Jessi the Mouse, however, was scowling. She started to yell. “Hey, I don’t care what you think! It’s a pretty easy thing to figure out!”
I started to lean in the direction of my mom’s car, but Jessi caught my gaze and raised a forefinger. She wanted me to wait. I did.
“I’m gonna remember this,” she yelled into her phone. “Yeah … yeah … fine! Bye!” She shoved the phone into her coat pocket and grumbled something under her breath. She looked at me less than a yard away and seemed vaguely embarrassed. “Sorry you had to hear that. My boy—” She swept a lock of hair from her eyes. “My ex-boyfriend. He’s cancelling on me for Friday night.”
“You have a boyfriend?” The words were out before I realized that I had said them. I mean, this was Jessi the Mouse talking to me like we were best friends and telling me she had a boyfriend … ex-boyfriend.
“He was supposed to be my karaoke partner.” Jessi looked at me with intense, caramel-colored eyes. “Big contest over at The Roundhouse’s Dance ‘N’ Skate.”
“That’s over in Ridgewood,” I said.
She lifted a thin eyebrow. “Uh-huh.” She smiled at that and it transformed her face into round cheeks and tiny dimples. “You should go with me,” she said.
I stared blankly. I barely knew anything about the girl, yet I felt suddenly close to her. I wished it was daytime so I could see her better. She stepped up to the tailgate and stared down at me. A parking light above her put a blue glow around her trim body. I thought I saw angel wings protrude from her shoulders. She said, “You can sing really well.”
“Sing? Me?” My voice cracked.
“Yeah. You sang a solo in music class last year.”
“I did?” My brain became unstuck. I had sung the lyrics to Sweet Home Alabama to get a passing grade. “Oh, yeah. Right.”
She shifted slightly. My gaze never left her midriff where I could make out a bellybutton ring where her sweatshirt lifted. “Tonight I celebrate my love for you,” she said.
I stumbled back a step. “What’d you just say?”
“It’s a song,” she said. “Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack. I need someone to duet with me next Friday night.”
Me? Sing duet?
“Um,” I said several times while I tried to think of a pleasant way to turn her offer down. “I’m sure you’ll find someone else,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I work that night.”
“I see,” she said. “You’d better go. I think your mommy’s calling.”
I turned around and saw my mother waving at me. Mrs. Bloomfield had gone inside the store. Then I turned back. “What time?” I said to Jessi. “If it’s okay with my parents, I’ll sing at your karaoke. Just tell me what time.”
“You will?” She sat down suddenly and looked at me, eye to eye. Light reflected in her eyes where they were wet. “Seriously?”
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
She grinned and rattled off some numbers before I realized she was giving me her phone number. “Call me,” she said. “We’ll set up some practice sessions.”
I nodded and turned, then turned back long enough for our gazes to connect. Time seemed to stop then. I don’t remember going, but when my brain unstuck again, I was sitting next to my mom inside her Saturn and halfway home.