Evan shook off the remnants of a passing shower and stepped inside CVS. He offered a head nod towards Doris at the counter who responded with a wave and made his way to the break room. Forty-five seconds before he would be marked, “late,” he moved quickly over to the computer on the wall. Tapping in his code to punch in, Evan looked over at the old fashioned schedule hanging to his right. He involuntarily pumped his fist.
Pete was closing.
It was always good when Pete was closing. When you saw “Pete” on your schedule under the “Night Manager” column, you knew things were happening at the CVS. Closing, in the Pete sense, was more metaphysical than literal. Sure, the business would “close” at 9 pm, but the building itself was a different story. The door might be locked, the lights might be off, but the building remained alive for at least an hour longer, sometimes two depending on the turnout. During that time, the people controlled the means of production.
Of course, if Evan were honest with himself, which he typically wasn’t, he would admit that the best part of Pete closing wasn’t any of the above. It was the potential of seeing Willow afterward. She of the pale skin, black hair, and endless amount of tattoos. They spoke once over the need for a clove cigarette, which he started smoking two weeks before due to an overheard conversation. Maybe they’d talk again tonight.
The eight-hour shift felt like eighty, mitigated slightly by the presence of Pete. When the last customer carried their bag of toilet paper and mouthwash out the front door, Evan felt the familiar rush of adrenaline. At once, the employees of CVS moved in precision, like the gears inside an old fashioned Swiss watch. The front door was locked and secured. Lights were turned off. Electric lanterns (in this case safety trumped aesthetic) turned on and fifteen minutes later, the back door opened for one and all. Hipsters, beatniks, poets, performance artists, weird kids, outcasts, and everyone in between filed in. No pushing, no commotion and especially no talking. No need to draw any unwanted attention to the twenty or so individuals going where they shouldn’t.
Pete attended to “the stage.” Located in front of the freezers in the back of the store next to the pharmacy, the stage comprised of eight milk crates with several crushed cardboard boxes feathered on top. Four lanterns were placed in each corner, providing a ghostly illumination against the frosted freezer doors. Pete almost made a fatal mistake at the beginning of this endeavor, many moons ago. Without thinking, he placed the stage near the front of the store, and a couple of unsavory characters tried to take advantage and get behind the pharmacy counter.
They weren’t invited back.
Once everyone was settled, sitting in front and standing in the aisles, Pete made his usual speech.
“Welcome everyone to Jazz Snaps. Before we begin just a couple of house rules. The first, no stealing. If we catch you stealing, you’re out. Second, don’t ruin this for everyone. If this is your first time here, please don’t go home tonight telling everyone about the experience. That’s how the police and Corporate will get involved. We don’t want that. Third, we obviously have to watch our noise, so if you like something, you snap your fingers.” Pete fired off a series of jazz snaps with his right and left hands.
“And last one, all are welcome to jump up here and perform. There isn’t any order, come up when you feel the mood strike. But, if it’s your first night you have to perform. All right, I’m done. Who’s next?”
That night several usuals and two unusuals performed. Evan stood off to the side, a favored area bestowed upon the working staff in attendance. Twice, Evan attempted to go up and twice someone beat him to it. The guy he called, “Thomas Jefferson” finished his reading of this week’s Minutes of Proceedings for the Parliament of Victoria. He had performed in French, of course, and sat back down in front to a series of jazz snaps. Evan thought it was a cheap gimmick and the way everyone ate it up infuriated him. He thought about reading the back of a Frosted Flakes box in Portuguese but didn’t have the time or energy for Rosetta Stone. Silence hung in the air, and Evan came back to reality. There wasn’t anyone angling to come forward.
He was next.
It was time.
Evan stepped out in front of the assembled. He stood up, cleared his throat, and stared straight ahead at the back wall, a trick Pete had taught him months ago.
“The fall of man is man.
Heavy are those who know.
Snakes are in the meadow.
Run children Run.”
He closed his eyes and listened for their reaction.
He opened his eyes at the exact same time Willow coughed, her black hair alive like Medusa’s snakes. Evan smiled; she averted her gaze. His stomach plummeted into his Pumas.
What had he done?
Why did he choose that piece?
He had funny ones. Poems about love. Even a performance piece where he would read a letter to the editor in Betty White’s voice.
And he settled on a commentary regarding John F. Kennedy’s battles with the industrial-military complex?
Evan felt his cheeks flush as he walked through the crowd. Past their blank faces and quiet fingers and Willow. He kept walking through the break room and out the back door until he was outside. He inhaled his first clove cigarette before his foot had hit the pavement, cursing the impassive stars above. He was on his third when the attendees filed out. Once you walked outside, there were no acknowledgments. No goodbyes. Just straight ahead stares until next time.
“It’s okay man. It wasn’t that bad.” Pete placed his hand on his shoulder. “I think Willow liked it too.” Evan wanted to scream, “liar!” at him. Instead, he said,
“What can I do Pete?” Pete knew. He always knew.
“Let me have one of those cigarillos?” Evan handed him a clove and flicked his Bic. Pete took a deep drag and slowly let it slide out his nostrils. The two sort-of men leaned against the brick wall.
“Sometimes if you want to win the race, you have to start from behind.” Evan kept his focus on the night sky, looking for Orion’s belt.
“You mean show I’m not interested.”
“No. I mean she’s dating Whisper.” Pete’s eyes were falling stars hitting the pavement. It hurt. The truth always hurt. They stood there in silence, finishing their cigarettes. He took one last pull, gave Pete a fist bump, flicked his cigarette against the dumpster, and went back inside to help clean up. Doing a quick sweep of the aisles, Evan thought about next time.
Next time would be better.
Because it didn’t matter. The piece didn’t matter. Willow didn’t matter. Thomas Jefferson didn’t matter. None of that mattered.
All that mattered was Pete, and how he was closing and how he would be closing again soon.
Tonight was a good night.