In aftermath of all night debauchery, Gray oversleeps. He awakens within the promise of aspirin, coffee and five-o’clock. But already he needs a drink. The taste of closing-time tinges his musty tongue. He thinks its Monday because what little Gray remembers of yesterday feels like Sunday.
At ten minutes to nine, pinned in a turn-lane twenty cars back, Gray curses hesitant drivers and forever-lights. His cellphone hides on the passenger seat, stuck in the crack. He yanks it from among charred bits of week-old fries, and attempts to call his office to warn he’ll be late. The phone’s dead. He’s neglected the charge.
Until three months ago, Gray called home a gated community in Westport. He’s remodeled the second floor of his office into an apartment, but keeps waking up in some ‘one-night cheap hotel,’ in a tattered room on a dark street in the roughest part of the city. Although he misses his ex, the anger drives him. Maybe it’s hate. But you can’t enjoy hate unless you share it. There’s craving. But one is never enough. They’re like meals, these women, fine expensive feasts. He pays. He savors. They come like a promise, and leave like a lie.
At Gray’s office, ten gridlocked blocks away, a client waits. Gray pictures the client slumped in a straight-back chair, leering up-under Gray’s receptionist’s skirt.
Midtown, downtown, uptown too, the entire city thronged in the perplexity of rush hour. A hiss and a sigh from a crosstown bus.
Gray rolls down his window. He needs a drink, his breakfast Rooster. The stink of engine exhaust spews and rises, the oppressive heat of a Texas summer already boiling the asphalt. He rolls up his window, reaches to the AC, and blasts cold air. Amid the unrhythmic jazz of morning commutes, Gray’s addiction for spiked Mocha engulfs him. It’s been this way since the divorce. Hands gripped to the steering wheel in white-knuckled frustration, next drinks are all he cares about.
Daily, Gray’s compulsions— sex and alcohol—overwhelm him as he wallows in the allure of avoidance. Call it dependency.
‘Morning-afters’ crash hard, his entire next day squandered in the black anxiety of panphobia, that jittery unease which frets about everything, and nothing at all. By noon, Gray’s misery has morphed into arousal, urges so extreme, so multiple, he cannot summon the strength to resist.
He’ll see her, nameless, but with that certain look. Not just any woman, though any woman will do. She’ll be on a jury panel, or stroll through the courthouse, or sit at his conference table, her dangerous secrets so confidential its like they’re already having an affair.
Using hand signals and flashers to signal emergency, Gray wrenches his Mercedes through three bottlenecked lanes of complicated traffic and into the parking lot of Quick Shop.
How long could it take?
The parking lot smells of popcorn mixed with fumes of spent fuel. Gray hustles inside toward the cappuccino machine.
Diving right into to it, he loads two cups with the habitual condiments of his mocha concoction: the coffee, Splenda, extract of vanilla. A bottle of Baileys Irish Cream and another of Zyr vodka—the latter, shipped directly from Moscow—await in the trunk.
His client. The traffic. The jitters. Now a line.
Today, of all days, here is Gabby, the chatty cashier, a kindly woman who apparently thinks chitchat is key to customer service. Who tips cashiers? Formerly attractive, she’s cinched the mass of her drooping bust-line into some undersized pink top—a polo shirt logo-ed in the name of the store. It’s a wonder she can breathe.
Gabby wears half-glasses on the tip of her nose in parody of intellectuals, and vivifies her blather with facial melodrama. The minty gum she snips with front teeth. Enough bracelets to fill a Walmart display.
Gabby usually works the wee hours when the clock doesn’t matter. Someone must have called in. She jabbers more than she cashiers, and when she talks her arms stop moving, items of purchase stranded on the counter or stuck mid-air in her hand. Listening to Gabby’s repartee you’d think she was a tour guide, or one of those life coaches. Her fingers have yellowed with tobacco and time, and she speaks with the rasp of carcinoma—like maybe she should cough.
Everything else about Quick Shop is designed for speed, for convenience. As in airports, the bathrooms don’t even have doors. Hot dogs split and dripping in the rotisserie hours before lunch. Days-old sandwiches bagged at just half-overpriced. Baskets of yesterday’s chicken.
Ignoring the gabble and commotion, and to calm the tremors of his impatience, Gray envisions Michelle, a smoky little habit with top-shelf legs he met last month at the Driscoll Lounge. Around midnight, during the ice-clinking phase of his fourth or sixth drink, and while the pianist rendered Nora Jones, he’d fallen in love with Michelle--last name Thomas, or Parker.
He’d prefer his ex, but his ex wouldn’t.
Resisting another nip of the mocha, saving it for the juice in the car, Gray closes his eyes to an imagined scene with Michelle.
Writhing in the glow from a lemony candle that burns on a room-service saucer atop a Gideon’s Bible, Michelle looks better than she looks. We all do in low light. The soapy vanilla scent of her skin; the weight of her hips as she rides.
Gabby yells, “next.” Gray’s bumped from behind, his reverie squandered by retail.
He’s stranded, now fourth in line, dawdling on the verge of his day, stuck—by consequence of Gabby’s yap—in lolly-gag. His left hand quivers. His coffee slops. He must get to the car. The line inches closer.
The girl in front of Gray isn’t carrying anything, and he’s hopeful her turn with the gatekeeper will be quick despite the inevitable yak.
Gray shoots an up-and-down gaze on the girl. Ogles her, his ex would say. Until recently, women made him aware of his wedding ring. The girl’s dress carves the arc of her backside like a crescent on a slice of the moon. Hard sculpted.
Intrigued with this nubile hottie, Gray moves closer. She turns and looks at him square. Her eyes cross like she’s done too much weed. The frayed dress. The missing front tooth. And she smells like some bag lady’s daughter.
Gabby says, “Next.”
The girl steps to the counter and begins counting out coins, dimes and nickels, pennies even, one at a time. First, she counts them in her hand. She counts them again as she clinks them, singly, onto the counter, ciphering, she would probably call it, under her breath. Her lips move within the complexity of the addition. Then Gabby begins the personal interview portion of this tedious transaction.
“So, how are you this fine morning, young lady? We’ve not had the privilege of meeting. You new here?”
This is going to take until noon.
From outside, the squeal of slammed-on brakes. Gabby grimaces and tucks her shoulders, but the crash doesn’t happen. She restarts her blabber with two packs of cigarettes in one hand, the other hovering inches above the counter and two dimes and a nickel. Frozen.
“I like to talk with customers. I’m naturally cheerful, I guess. Why the long face?”
With her hands still stationary, Gabby gasps, scrunches her nose and nods toward the girl, “Is that a spider?”
The girl nods. She’s sporting a tattoo on the side of her neck, which, to Gray, looks like a bruise with legs. He imagines another tattoo on her back, on her ass, maybe. He leans toward her. The sour odor of unwashed sleep. So yeah, she’s poor, but that’s not a fault you can lay off on someone unless you know their circumstances.
The girl turns and squints up at Gray, then wheels back to the cashier, apparently bewildered by the math in her hand.
Gray worries that his client, a neurosurgeon, might walk. Delay could cost him. You can’t keep a doctor waiting. Everyone knows that.
The smallest bill Gray has is a hundred. He considers forking it over and walking. A hundred bucks for two cups of mocha. Just another fucking expense.
Gray’s secretary, Alice, will think he’s blacked out again. He’ll call her from the pay phone on his way out. Alice has overheard talk of intervention. That’s bullshit. It’s not that bad.
Worked-on for an afternoon by someone who knows makeovers, this girl could be a looker. She’d turn heads with a shampoo, a shorter skirt and distance--let’s see—a sixty footer? Picturing her all cleaned up reminds Gray of that actress in the movie 21 Grams. What is her name?
The girl finishes counting out eight dollars and thirty-four cents in change, coin-by-coin. Thankfully, she has a few quarters. But she’s a dollar short for Marlboros. Gray takes a breath and exhales through bit lips. Gabby shoots him a look, like maybe she thinks he’ll become rude. Gray tells Gabby he’ll cover the girl’s shortage.
Fine, he thinks, now pick up your smokes and get out of the way.
But the girl isn’t done. She’s preoccupied with lottery tickets. Why do they waste money on lottery? She gazes through the display like a child in a pet store. Perhaps she’s mute. Some people are just too poor to get after. Even Gabby has gone quiet. Gray notices her noticing the girl’s greasy hair.
The man behind Gray, a bag of breakfast burritos wedged under his chin and a bottle of water jammed in his armpit, pokes his cellphone. Gray considers asking to borrow the phone to call his office, but the man’s jabbing with such vigor Gray reconsiders.
Thunder booms, the front door cracks open, and everyone turns toward the rain. Gray doesn’t recall a single cloud. That’s how long this is taking.
A forty-something standing three-back and wearing a sleeveless black top reminiscent of Gray’s ex’s Brunello Cucinelli, says, “Fuck.”
An angular fellow enters the store from the rain, his hair plastered to his head. Everyone in line turns toward the front. The man flashes the girl a sinister sneer. They’re together—his grimy clothes, his scruff. An odd couple in motley these two, donned in the raiment of peasants. He’s older. Not old enough to be her father, but old enough to be with someone older.
Just inside the door, the wet man stops in the puddle of his drippings. He looks antique, an artifact from another era. Hobos they called them, and he stands without moving as if frozen in time, sagging from the weight of old rain.
A stream begins to flow from the wet-man toward the line. The girl, still transfixed by the lottery display, wheels and looks at the wet man. She balls her fists and looks down at her sneakers.
Lightning flashes just beyond the store’s glass front. The building trembles with thunder. Maybe they don’t have a car.
The trick is not to look at them. That’s why the homeless loiter at busy intersections carrying signs—so we’ll have to look at them. We pay taxes and go to church, so as not to look at them.
Gray’s grandfather said: “from suffering we learn two things: that we need others, and they need us.” Gray doesn’t buy that, either. Maybe, it’s why he drinks.
The girl gives a shy glance toward those waiting in line, grabs her packs of Marlboro’s off the counter and slinks toward the wet man. Gabby watches her, seeming concerned.
Gray’s up. In his mind he’s already back in the Mercedes, mixing. He slides the hundred to Gabby, but this normally voluble cashier remains fixated on the wet man and the girl. They stand side by side between a magazine rack and head-high stacked cartons of Mountain Dew. The wet man scans the line, a line that snakes into isle four.
The wet man’s stream has wormed to Gray. Sharing the same source, the same current.
Cars, headlamps aglow, splash into the parking lot. Wind-blown ice pellets tap the plate glass as if someone wants attention. Maybe God’s a mother.
The girl lifts the two packs of Marlboro’s she’s purchased and holds them before the wet man, as if for inspection. He reaches into the breast pocket of his denim jacket. The girl flinches. He retrieves a soggy book of matches, tosses it at her face. The girl gropes her pockets. Maybe he’s cut out her tongue.
He says to her, “How am I gonna light ‘em?” He raises his arm for a backhand, but doesn’t throw it.
“Tickets,” says the wet man in a voice that seems part of the storm, stentorian, menacing. “Where are my god damn tickets?” The girl shrinks in on herself, cowed, pitiful. Someone to cuddle.
Everyone in the line leans forward as though ready to charge. And for that one moment only, they are all in this together.
And all Gray had wanted was his drink. He considers heading for the car and drinking it straight.
Gabby, having made Gray’s change, is busy counting bills from the register. She’s wrapping stacks of currency with rubber bands while eyeing the wet man. She secures the bundles of cash in a floor-safe Gray’s never noticed before; and there’s something else, Gabby limps, drags a leg.
Gray pictures the expectant doctor at his office, alternately seated in the waiting room and pacing it.
From the display of cigarette lighters on the counter behind a basket of bananas, Gray sorts through a handful of colorful lighters. He asks Gabby for six cartons of Marlboro’s. She limps toward him. He pull out more bills.
Gray extends his arm for the Rolex. One minute after nine.
Streetlights blink against the blue-black sky, and the store goes dark. It’s all quiet but for the rain, a stillness like in church before the preaching.
The power snaps back on and everything’s buzzing again. Gabby breaks open rolls of coins. Liver spots on her hands. Bitten nails. She pops the coin-rolls against the corner of the register. Quarters, dimes, nickels cascade into place. The clink and clatter of hard little money.
Thinking about the girl, Gray turns to the guy behind him with an ‘excuse me’ expression to buy another minute.
The entire line shifts to the other foot.
The wet man has wrenched up the girl by her arm, and she flounders tiptoe to maintain contact with the floor. Appearing to scold her, he whacks her face with the flat of his hand.
Gray starts to protest, but Gabby raises her palm, grabs her cellphone and stabs it three times.
A pang knots Gray’s gut. The girl looks scared, of course, but brave, determined. She’d probably say she’s just scared.
Gray’s grandfather always told him—it’s not brave if you’re not scared.
Gray purchases two hundred bucks worth of lottery tickets, grabs the six cartons of cigarettes and various Bics. He gets a rubber band and a plastic bag from Gabby and wraps the Bics in a hundred dollar bill. Then, leaving his coffee on the counter, he heads upstream bearing gifts, cigarettes, lighters, lottery tickets and cash, bribes to woo the girl away from this wet asshole. If the cops show, they’ll likely lock them both up. Maybe Gray can distract the wet man and get the girl to a shelter. Gray knows people.
But when he turns toward the door, the wet man and the girl have vanished.
Gray darts outside into a concert of street noise and downpour. Smell of wet dog. The cacophony of all things mechanical, of vehicles, commerce and industry—an entire mapfull of free enterprise. Humanity massed like raindrops, all rushing, all similar, and yet as disparate as snowflakes, as fingerprints, as you to me.
Gray paces the sidewalk under the awning, looking left and right and in between cars.
He asks a slender woman scurrying in from the pumps if she’s seen the crusty couple. Clutching her signature Michael Kors handbag to her chest as if it were an infant, she blows right past him.
Lightning crackles. Rain dances in sheets. Treetops marinating in rain, leap and lurch, bending one way and then the other.
Gray looks down at his Gucci’s, at his hands, at the gifts in the bag. What good are they?
He’s gone too long without drink. He’s coming apart.
Gray doesn’t smoke. And all the tickets are losers.