A Man on a Mission
The Uni-Mart at the corner of Ellsworth Ave. and Summerlea St. was always busy after midnight on weekends, so I wasn’t surprised when there were five people ahead of me in the check-out. From where I stood, I could see my car, and, inside it, the woman who — unbeknownst to either of us — would one day be my wife. She sat in the passenger seat, fooling with the radio while she waited with the engine running, keeping warm. The Friday night Uni-Mart stop had, over the course of that fall and winter, become a kind of ritual for us.
The queue moved up. I was fifth in line, then fourth, then third. Customers wandered into line behind me, keeping the queue length steady at six or seven people. The lean, bespectacled guy at the register always worked the Friday night late shift. He had the countenance of a bookkeeper, his hair slicked back from a hairline that had just begun to recede, and he moved with the unhurried pace of someone who had settled into his job for the long haul. I’d visited the Uni-Mart on enough consecutive Friday nights, buying the same one item, with the same girl in the passenger seat of my car, that he recognized me as well.
As I moved closer to the counter, I was able to see out across Summerlea and up the street. Old Victorian houses, cut up into apartments inside, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with small, mid-century apartment buildings dressed up on the outside to look like old Victorian houses. It was the same in all directions: apartments full of undergrads and grad students and young working people. There were bars and restaurants up Ellsworth, but the Uni-Mart was the only convenience store for blocks.
In the corner of my eye, a shape appeared, moving fast. It resolved into a man, sprinting down Summerlea toward Ellsworth with a loose-limbed, disorganized gait that was all feet and knees and hands and elbows. Before I had a chance to wonder if police lights would appear behind him, he veered into the parking lot, dashed to the store, and jerked the door open. The string of bells jangled on the door handle. He stepped inside, breathing hard.
“Jesus mother of Joseph…” he whispered as he surveyed the queue, his eyes wide with panic.
The kid couldn’t have been older than twenty. A line of two-day stubble grew on his lip and another patch on the point of his chin, but the rest of his face was smooth. His hair stuck up in random directions as if someone had mushed it around with their hands on purpose. He wore no coat, despite the snow that dusted the the corners of the parking lot and street outside. The buttons of his shirt had missed their proper holes, and one loose shirttail hung lower than the other in front of his jeans. On his right foot he wore a high-top Nike basketball shoe, on the left, a Timberland work boot. Neither shoe was tied.
He surveyed the store quickly, then addressed the room at large in a voice that was half question, half demand, “Condoms?!”
The clerk and other customers all stood staring.
“There,” I pointed, “Second aisle, up there on the left.”
The boy darted up the aisle, muttering to himself. The clerk finished checking out the woman in front of me, bagging a half gallon of milk, an extra large bag of Doritos, and a Bic lighter.
The kid returned, bypassing the queue.
“Can I go ahead of you?” he said to me, “I’ll be quick.”
“Thanks bro.” He set the pack of condoms on the counter and took out his wallet.
The clerk picked up the condoms and scanned them. “Four nineteen,” he said.
The kid’s wallet was empty. “Whaaaaat?” he wailed, “Oh shit. Oh fuck. Oh shit. Oh fuck.” He turned his pockets out onto the counter and produced two crumpled one-dollar bills and a small pile of change, mostly pennies.
“Dude,” he said to the clerk, “Can you just let me slide? Please? I’m good for it. I promise.”
The clerk shook his head, still holding the condoms.
The kid turned and looked out the door, his face sliding into despair.
I waved to get the clerk’s attention. “I’ll cover him,” I said.
The clerk nodded and set the box back on the counter.
The boy turned to me with a the kind of look you reserve for meeting your savior in the afterlife. “Thank you,” he said, shaking my hand with both of his, “Seriously, dude. Thank you!”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, smiling. “Don’t you have some place you need to be?”
He held up his finger and pointed at me as if I’d made an excellent suggestion, then snatched the condoms off the counter and hit the door at a full run. By the time the bells stopped jangling he’d disappeared back up Summerlea in a blur of knees and elbows.
I stepped up to the counter and set down my lone item: a box of condoms, identical to one the kid had just left with. I handed the clerk a ten-spot. While he rung me up, I smoothed out the two crumpled dollar bills and put them in my wallet, then swept up the pile of change and dropped it all in the take-a-penny-leave-a-penny bowl.
The clerk handed me back my condoms, change, and receipt and said, “You have a nice night,” like he did every time I saw him.
“Damn straight,” I said.
Copyright © 2019, JP Fosterson. All rights reserved.