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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Green Tea

Category: Issue 6, Short Story Winners

Driving at the speed of a traffic jam, my wife and I were traveling to Aunt Maureen’s house in Vermont. It should have been a five hour drive if not for the gridlock. Drivers were turning off their cars for fear of overheating, but I didn’t. I refused to believe it was necessary. Some were poking their heads in search of a cause of the wait, but to no avail.

“How far along are we?” My wife asked. “Please get me there; I just want to lie down.”

“Yes, dear,” I replied. Variations of this had been taking place every mile of the trip. My knuckles were turning white on the steering wheel so I began to drum my fingers on it to get blood flowing. My wife began clicking her tongue - her way of telling me that she needed quiet, or space, or her dinner to be done five minutes ahead of schedule.

Dear God, I thought, please help me get through this weekend. I’ll do whatever you want – anything.

Things seemed to pick up. Then again, I’m an optimist. On cue, the radio began fading in and out, dancing across frequencies.

“Would you please change the station?” My wife asked.

“Sure.” I turned the radio off. “We need some gas.”

Well, not really…I just need a break.

We traveled in silence until the next exit. I saw a sign for a gas station I’d never heard of: Joes Gas and Gulp. Perfect. Only a tenth of a mile away.

“Perfect.” My wife sighed. “Sounds like a dump.”

We pulled in. It was the dirtiest place I’d ever seen. I wondered if it were still in business, but then noticed a few cars parked haphazardly in the lot.

All of the gas pumps were open so I curved beside the most accessible and entered the humid air. I opened the cap then turned to the pump. It asked me if I wanted to ‘pay at the pump’ and I selected yes, grabbed the nozzle, and placed it in the tank. Then the back window rolled down.

“I’m thirsty,” I heard my wife say; “I want some diet cola, or green tea.”

I sighed and asked, “Well which one?”

“I don’t know, which do you think?”

I realized the no-win situation. The unanswerable question. I’d make the wrong choice either way, unless I could convince her to sit tight for the remainder of the drive.

“Hm?” she prompted.

I kept my composure.

“Not sure, babe. Can it wait? We’re only an hour or so away.”

The window rolled up as the meter stopped. I set the nozzle into its home and went to open my door. It was locked. I bent over and saw my wife sitting with her arms crossed, looking the other way.

“Um, honey? You locked the door…honey?”

Nothing. I knocked my knuckles against the window.

“Jessica?”

Not even a flinch.

“Open the door, Jessica.” I counted to ten in my head and then again: “Open the door!”

I realized how loud I was and looked around, embarrassed. A few people were staring. I hate it when people stare.

“Alright!” I hissed through the window. “I’m getting your damn green tea!”

My wife pressed an obscene gesture against the window as I walked toward the station’s entrance. (“I guess I’m buying both…”)

Approaching the sidewalk alongside the front of the building, I noticed a man in jeans and a black jacket. He’d been watching the confrontation and his face suggested that he had either enjoyed it or was scared to death. It’s funny how the two emotions can blur and even, on roller coasters, ruin a nice pair of slacks. The man turned and became quite interested in a large stack of Coca-Cola refrigerator packs next to him. He shifted his feet. I focused on the door ahead.

Suddenly, what sounded like a gunshot rang in my ears. My eyes darted around, searching for the shooter. Everyone around me continued with their business. I heard my wife’s cackling from across the lot but I began moving forward.

“It was a car backfiring, dear,” said an elderly woman, “nothing to be afraid of.”

“Afraid? I wasn’t—”

She smiled.

I continued onto the curb alongside Joes Gas and Gulp and pushed the entrance door open. The little bell rang alerting the clerk that he had another customer to charge two dollars for a candy bar.

I welcomed the waft of cold air that met me at the threshold. It was the single pleasing thing about the place. The man behind the counter wore clothes only acceptable for his line of work: a wife beater and short-shorts. With his woolly appearance I could only imagine how difficult it must be for customers to focus on their purchase, afraid of getting sucked into the darkness of his pits or the space between shirt and skin. Still, the guy looked tough. It was the way he carried himself, but that may have been attributed to his co-worker: the double-barrel shotgun.

There was a stand beside the check-out with rows of postcards and baseball cards. There were two young boys, not more than ten years old, gasping “Whoa!” while one pushed a metallic pack into his friend’s welcoming face. On the next stand stood dusty picture frames with bright yellow stamps advertising them for four dollars a piece. I thought that they could be of use to me - the wife likes to receive gifts of course - but I couldn’t stand another picture of my mother-in-law or Aunt Maureen, so I dismissed the notion.

There were other people in the store, most of whom I had overlooked. An elderly man assisted by a maple cane scouring the aisles, a teenage girl grazing the magazine titles, a man much younger than the first with a little daughter by his side, traveling into the sugary heaven of aisle number three.

I headed for the refrigerators along the side wall when I heard the entrance bell reverberate throughout the store. I turned instinctively and glanced at the visitor. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought if it were anyone else. Anyone but the guy with the tweaked expression that made it seem as if he’d just stepped in lawn sausage. I just need to get the green tea and get out, I told myself, before the wife galumphs in for something else. There was just this feeling I had…

A few more steps with my eyes still planted on Tweak and I reached the drinks. I felt the fridge door, searching for the handle. It was hopeless, however - Tweak had skipped the browsing and was going straight to check-out. I was enthralled.

He pressed his abdomen against the counter, rearranged his jacket, and breathed, “Don’t make this difficult.” I had a suspicion that Woolly wouldn’t comply.

“Oh no you don’t, you son of a-!” Bang. The clerk collapsed behind the counter and out of view. Blood splattered onto the tip jar. The cooled air was sucked out of the place and sweat immediately began dripping down my face.

All of the store’s occupants reacted at once: the man shielded his daughter and hit the floor, the older man was unmoving behind the salted peanuts, the boys gaped with baseball cards floating to the ground, and the girl looked out of air. They all seemed frightened - but less so than Tweak. He seemed shocked, as if the gun had tricked him into pulling the trigger. As if it promised not to hurt the man too badly.

He dropped the gun onto the counter with his arm still extended and stood there like a statue. The shoppers slid out of the door, trying not to disturb the dormant bell. I crept along the longest route in case the man came back to earth.

When I entered the fresh air my wife embraced me before asking, “Where’s my green tea?”

Posted by labramson1 on 05/23 at 05:12 PM | Permalink
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