This is how Peggy felt about it: she knew how mean people could be. And, she knew that mean people, knew how to see the weakest part of you, like a fortune teller who could see your dreams or your fears or maybe the one secret that you have held all your life: mean people were like that. Except that their cruelty towards you was all based on seeing that hidden truth, somehow finding a way to get at it, and then having you believe that this unbelievable thing, this thing that you have wished for or dreaded is coming true. Either way it is horrible. If they find out what you secretly want --which for most people is just to be loved, or to feel special-- or, if they find out what you fear, things like spiders or being alone at night. Either way –whichever of your secrets a cruel person finds—they use it to cut through your flesh and then into your heart. It burns a mark on you. And, so Peggy felt that if she opened up her heart that maybe it would all be there: the imprints left by all the mean people who have hurt her.
Peggy sat behind the cash register and ripped open a carton of cigarettes, she pulled the long retractable metal sleeve from the rack above her head and slowly filled the tray, pack by pack. She was careful to get them all in straight otherwise, one end might get pinched with the rack closed and nobody wanted to buy a pack with a squished or bent cigarette in it. She ripped another carton and a girl walked into the store. The bell rang its loud electronic peal and at eleven o’clock at night it kind of ran over her nerves as if it were just a bare, exposed wire vulnerable to cold or heat or electricity. And, her eyes were tired and dry and the light was fluorescent and white bright. Everything in the Circle K 24 Hours looked dingy and remarkably like the tapes you see on the TV news of a surveillance camera after a robbery.
“Can I fill it up on number 4?”
“Regular?” Peggy said brusquely.
The girl nodded and threw a pack of gum on to the counter. Peggy looked at her. She didn’t resent girls like her. Not now that she was older. At 42 she didn’t compare herself so much to others. The girl was young, in her twenties, and being young wasn’t what made her pretty. It was a lightness to her. It was a niceness to her. A niceness that comes from not being hurt so much. Peggy came to see—and why she found this out so late she curses herself every day—but at some point recently, Peggy realized that anybody—anybody—can be pretty and desirable and happy. But, at some point, it is too late. Peggy rung up the gas and gum and she tried to get the girl to look her in the eye while she did. Peggy had decided that she would smile at the girl if the girl smiled at her. It would be just a nice gesture. But, it would be a way to take some of the girl and give some of herself back. A part of Peggy was nervous and she thought she could just smile any way. She should smile–it was actually part of her job responsibilities. But, the girl kept eyeing the scratch lottery cards and at one point while the credit card was processing the girl bent down real close to the glass and tried to make out the directions on one of the scratch cards.
“What’s that one there do?” the girl sounded and acted like one of those teenagers on the MTV shows that Peggy’s sons watch. Real World or Real Life or something like that. And, this was exactly the type of girl that Mike and Teddy would watch on the big screen TV rolling her eyes while putting on new earrings, gossiping about one of the other roommates or leaning back on a lawn chair by a pool painted toenails and an anklet. Maybe a tattoo somewhere.
“What?” Peggy asked. She deliberately made her voice deep because being as heavy set as she was she didn’t want to have a high-pitched, squeaky voice. For obvious reasons.
“”Is that a scrabble board game?” the girl said in a high pitched feminine voice, almost a southern drawl to it. It was just the slow, lingering way that young people spoke these days.
Peggy wanted to rip one of the cards and show it to the girl, but she could not rip one of the tickets unless it was paid for. State Lottery Rules and they are serious and tough about tampering with tickets. Peggy could get fired.
“Which one, the one there?” Peggy asked.
“Well it looks like a scrabble board, how do you play it?” And, Peggy imagined for a second her sons, Mike and Teddy with a girlfriend like that. Young, pretty. Happy. Someone who was going to go to college and maybe become a lawyer or own a business. Or, maybe even become what Peggy had wanted to become: a nurse. Not that Peggy didn’t like the girls that her boys went out with. She was glad they had someone who loved them and that they –although were not popular- were not lonely, but this kind of girl promised an entirely different future. Instead of them marrying someone like herself: someone who had dreams but no idea how to go about making them happen.
Peggy had the feeling that she should just rip the ticket and give it to the girl. It was a five-dollar scratcher, which was a more expensive one, but Peggy could pay for it herself. She looked at the girl for a long time and the girl just kept staring at the card. “Do you make words and win money? Like a crossword puzzle or something?”
“Yeah, I think that is how it is done.” Peggy said and her voice was softening. “Here, I’ll just give you one free of charge.”
The girl’s blue eyes flashed up at Peggy suspiciously. Peggy noticed a gold stud erring in the girl’s eyebrow. It made one of the eyebrows raise up a little higher than the other. It made the girl seem inquisitive. “Is that supposed to—are you supposed to do that/?” the girl said flatly.
“It’s ok,” Peggy lied, “sometimes we do it just to –as a promotion to get customers to come back…”
“Really?” the girl asked incredulously. “OK” she almost mumbled as if she were a teenager and her mother had offered to buy the new “in” thing that everyone had. It was an almost sullen “I don’t care—whatever” response that barely disguised the joy at the unexpected fortune. She kind of leaned on the counter and squinted her eyes. Her blonde hair fell against her shoulder and Peggy looked at the girl’s expression. She could see a piece of mint gum held in her teeth. The girl stopped chewing and stared at Peggy for a moment. “All right, that would be just great.” The girl said and smiled a big happy smile.
Peggy smiled back and carefully tore a ticket from the roll. She felt a little sick about doing it. But, it wasn’t a crime. It was just doing something nice for somebody and why shouldn’t she. People buy drinks for people in bars. People take other people out to lunch.
But then a bolt of shame shot through Peggy, because she didn’t know this girl. She didn’t have a right to do something like that. People buy things for people when then know each other; they are nice when they are friends. Otherwise it is weird. Peggy could feel her face starting to turn red and she felt that she was a kind of sicko or that the girl would think that. And, Peggy handed the lottery ticket to the girl and didn’t look back at her. Instead she turned to the cash register and said “twenty-nine, fifty please.” The girl had an ATM card and at the same moment, that familiar electronic beep went off and Peggy looked up to see a young man who got in line behind the girl.
“Credit or Debit?” Peggy asked and her heart was beating ruthlessly. It was beating hard and Peggy wished she could just take a couple of deep breaths and calm herself down. She felt so exposed and sick about the lottery ticket that she couldn’t stand it. She felt ashamed of the thoughts, which she could now clearly feel were wishes: she wished that a girl like that would go out with her sons. She wished that she had been that girl. It is like they say about coveting somebody or something. She coveted the girl.
She handed the girl the credit card receipt. Actually, just slid it across the counter and looked up at the man.
“I pumped twenty into pump 6.” He said. “And a pack of Marlboros” Peggy put all of her attention into the man. She slid the rack of Marlboro’s down from the overhead display and pulled a package out. “Twenty-four sixty” Peggy said almost not looking in the direction and she could see in her periphery that the girl was gone. And for a fleeting moment she thought she saw the man pull a gun out from his pocket. It was the way his hand moved slowly from his back pocket and just all of it in her periphery that made her shudder. And the little black wallet. Peggy gulped some air and her heart raced as her mind caught up with what was really happening. She was jumpy. Now everything was all wrong and screwed up. The man put a twenty and a five on the counter and walked out.
Marlboro man Peggy thought. No. He’s just a boy.
She wished she hadn’t given that ticket to the girl. Not only was it weird, but also she needed the five dollars. Peggy was mad at herself. She looked out of the large pane of glass, out into the parking lot. The lights form the street lamps were yellow and it was dark out. The ground glistened with new rain and cars passed on the road, one or two and then a lull. Nothing was happening. She looked up at the clock over the coke case: 11:45, only fifteen minutes until Steve got there. Peggy thought about the girl more. She imagined her scratching off the covering to the lottery ticket squares. Each little letter and Peggy wondered if the girl had uncovered two words; if she had won anything. In the whole year that Peggy had worked at Circle K there had never been more than a $50 winner, and that had only happened a couple of times. She took five dollars out of her fanny pack and neatly rolled the remaining $18 dollars back up and clipped it with a silver money clip. When she looked at the money she felt as if the girl had stolen the ticket from her, taken her five dollars. Tricked her some how. And what if the girl had won? It would be at Peggy’s expense. It should have been Peggy’s winnings. She zipped the fanny pack and then punched the cash register keys and rung up the price for a lottery ticket. She was supposed to have scanned it but she had forgotten in all the commotion. So instead she just entered the over ride number for the lottery ticket card. Sometimes they get ripped and you can’t scan them. She put the money in the register. It’s done. All over with. Now she’d jut have to wait for the feeling to pass—it wouldn’t take long to forget about it.
Peggy looked up and saw the same young man as before, again standing at the counter. He hadn’t left the store. How long had it been, Peggy wondered? Wasn’t he just in here?
This time, the man—a boy really-- did have a gun. It was a small silver handgun. Not something you see often, if ever. And the barrel of the gun looked thin and short, too thin to be dangerous so at first Peggy didn’t’ get it; but things became peculiar, time started to seem weird. It was because everything became bright and her senses were noticeably altered: colors were sharp and a deadly silence took over the store. Not even the big refrigerators hummed. In its place was a kind of mental noise in Peggy’s brain, a kind of whistling.
“Can I help you?” Peggy said and her voice was high pitched. It was almost a cry.
He raised his eyebrows and Peggy could feel something stir inside of her. At first it was a numbness, but that lasted only a fleeting second, then it was a kind of physical rabid fear. The kind you see children express when they are stuck: a foot twisted in a chair rung, or like the kid she had seen one time choking on a Charleston chew—right there in the store, the way his eyes grew large and he started frantically waving his hands and gasping. That was how Peggy felt. And, then her mind thought about the alarm button right near the cash register. “When he tells you to open the register, gently flip the switch with one finger.” That is what Steve had told her. Showed her using his pinky finger while hitting the big green button that opened the drawer. She had even practiced it; it was just a kind of reaching that would be impossible to catch on to. Except when someone is about to kill you, if they do catch on, they will kill you. That tiny little toy gun would shoot a real bullet in her heart or head and she would probably fall to the floor, and it wouldn’t take long for life to leave her body. So, touching the button that alerted the police was a deadly venture. She weighed the odds, would he just take the money and leave or would something worse happen?
He raised the gun a little higher, and Peggy’s eyes flashed on the reflection in the large pane of glass. It was an eerie bright fluorescent reflection and Peggy felt mocked by the boldness of the guy and at the same time, she had always expected it. She worked in a convenience store at night—although her manager said it is just as likely to happen any time of day as another--
She looked at his face: he was young, maybe twenty. He had a square face, a very square jaw and he had a goatee, dark brown mostly stubble. His eyes were brown; and even though his stature was similar to one of her teenage sons --Peggy saw something else. The boy looked empty. He didn’t look drugged up or angry. He looked entirely empty. And, Peggy thought better of pressing the alarm. She figured in that moment, in the impenetrable emptiness of his eyes, that it would be best to give him the money. Just give it to him. And, let him leave. Steve would be there in a few minutes and if the guy got his money and got out of there, Steve could help her. He could call the police. So, that was the instantaneous plan that she decided to go with.
“You are going to open the cash register then you are going to lay down on the floor.” He said slowly.
“My shift is over in ten minutes, someone will be—“
“And you are going to shut the fuck up.” He said quietly as if there was someone in a nearby room that could hear him. Peggy had the feeling that the boy’s demeanor and words were a carbon copy of someone else. Maybe an abusive father, someone like Jack who used a low, hushed threat to get what he wanted. Open the damned suitcase, Piggy. The way he said it was also a steely calm. It was the voice of someone who really, really and truly didn’t care. And, Peggy decided maybe she should press the button.
‘No.” he said, and then corrected his instruction. “You are going to tell me which button to open the register then you are going to lay down on the floor.”
“I have two kids,” Peggy said,” they are older, but they need me. I don’t want you to kill me.”
“I said shut up.”
Peggy could feel herself start to cry. Blubbering. Jack used to say. “I just— Please sir, let me tell you something--”
He raised the gun higher and walked towards her. Would he just shoot her right there? Would he hit her with the gun? Why couldn’t she just shut up? It was because her body had taken over. She would not shut up because she was about to die. Her body would do anything it could to preserve her life: try to run, or fight, or plead, or beg. It would do anything it could. And, no matter how hard her mind might try to control things, it couldn’t. Her body and everything inside of it was screaming to live and to be free again. To be free like she had been a moment before. But, by now an indelible burn had scorched and branded her. Those same chemicals inside her that were trying to save her were storing all of this inside of her and killing the person that she had been.
Peggy couldn’t shut up.
“I’ll give you the money,” Peggy said.
He walked around the counter. He stood next to her. She was trembling and he put the gun into her rib and he pushed it hard. It hurt. He looked at her and stared at her for a moment. “Show me how to open it, then lay down on the floor.” For a split second he looked like a little boy about to cry. Like Mike or Teddy might have looked before they considered themselves too big to cry or plead. Before they had become men. Before they had stood up to Jack that last time. When they came in and found Peggy in her room, Jack at the kitchen table playing crossword, to make himself feel smart.
Her hand was shaking so hard that she accidentally pushed the green button that opened the drawer and the sound of it popping open --plastic with a kind of scraping against metal then, little bell sound that sounds when the register drawer pops open—it made them both startle. “What are you fucking stupid?” he said to her. “Lay the fuck down. Now!” It was hushed, but Peggy could tell the boy was scared, walked out too far on a ledge.
“I can’t Peggy” and she was crying hard and she couldn’t help it “I can’t lay down there until you promise not to kill me.”
He lifted the gun and held it up towards her face. “Don’t fuck with me.”
She nodded and she crouched down on the floor and it was a cramped space with the boxes of soda cups and empty milk crates that they used to sort papers and pieces of cardboard that they used as scrap paper or for little signs around the store. She felt large and conspicuous and she lay down on the floor. She had the urge to cover her head and so even though her face felt uncomfortable with her forehead against the grimy Formica she put her hands over the back of her head, just in case.
“Don’t say a fucking word,” he said. She could hear him taking the money out of the register and each of the five spaces for bills went smack as he removed the money. She was breathing heavily and she was crying silently. She knew in her heart that he was going to turn around and shoot her. Shoot her in the head and it wouldn’t matter to him at all. And, she thought about meanness and this was something else. This wasn’t even human this was a kind of pointless evil. It didn’t make any sense. She wanted to say something, somehow find out what was happening. She heard some shuffling and then the cigarette rack opened with a loud smack of metal. She heard him removing cigarette packs and she heard a plastic bag crinkle. She could tell from the sound that he was removing the packs and throwing them into the bag. She breathed heavily and she hated this time of waiting for him to decide if she even mattered to his plan. Did he care that she had seen him? His scruffy face, brown eyes, his goatee. Then she thought, he won’t kill me. He would go to jail for a long time. He probably wouldn’t get caught for robbery but to kill somebody. That was something else.
She felt it before she heard it, the door pealed with the familiar electronic whine. She heard it peal again. There was a moment of silence then she heard him jump or run around the counter. The door pealed again and then she heard a kind of yelp. Peggy’s heart was beating and she was staring at the specks in the Formica, little brown and green dots that pits in the surface of the floor. What was happening? She felt a horror rush through her. Another person was involved. Was it Steve sauntering in for his overnight shift? Then she heard a voice. It was the girl’s voice. The girl who she had given the lottery ticket to.
“Lemme go,” she said and her voice was trembling. It was a little girl voice. Peggy wanted to get up from the floor. She wanted to stand up and stop this whole business. She wanted that anger that she had with her boys with they had gone too far. “Oh no you don’t. Not in my house.” But her body was limp, lifeless. She felt as if she were hiding under a bed. She was paralyzed.
“Get over here with me” Peggy heard him say and she heard loud thumps when his feet and the girl being part pushed part dragged back to the counter with him. Peggy could see if she slowly imperceptibly turned her head and strained her eyes. She could see the girl’s little white sneakers and bare leg. There was a tattoo on her ankle. A small peach colored rose. The stem was green and hidden by the canvass shoe. And the boy had on running sneakers. They looked old, beat up. And, he had on jeans. Regular denim. Peggy was afraid but she turned her head so she could see what was happening. He had his arm around her neck, holding her below his shoulder. He was squeezing tight and the gun was right there in his hand. But he wasn’t using the gun; he was just holding the girl and the gun kind of dangled there in front of the girl’s face. The girl could easily reach up and fight him for the gun. Peggy’s heart was beating fast. She wanted to do something. Could two people overtake this boy? It seemed plausible. But, would the girl fight back? Peggy needed something to fight with. She had the sense that the boy was just about finished and that he would drag the girl out with him. Peggy had a feeling that she knew what would happen to the girl, but she was so terrified she couldn’t really move. She didn’t want to die. It was a selfish feeling. It was a its not my fault feeling that gave her permission to hide her head like a child, afraid of the dark. But, she could wait it out, ride it out like she had with Jack.
She clenched her teeth and waited another second.
The girl started to cry. “Please let me go.” And, Peggy had that maternal feeling towards the girl. She realized that if she quickly scooted towards the boy she could grab his legs and pull him down to the ground. It might make him so off balance that he would fall over and drop the gun. But the three of them would be tangled up in a mess on the floor. What would happen? Would the boy run out of the store and just leave them there?
Peggy felt herself grow even more terrified and she felt like she was going to faint. She was going to just pass out on the floor.
“Ok,” the man said, now just talking to the girl, “you are going to keep your fucking mouth shut, do you understand?” The boy was more forceful with the girl. He sounded older than he had with Peggy. Peggy could now see that he had the gun in the girl’s ribs and had let go of her neck. The girl was crying and shaking. He held out the bag of cigarettes. “Carry this.” But the girl couldn’t move she was so afraid. He took the gun and hit her hard on the arm with it “wake up” and the girl took the bag, and when she did she was shaking so hard the bag made the sound of plastic rubbing against plastic.
In a moment, she heard the boy say, “Turn over old lady”
Peggy could feel herself obeying him and now she was laying on her back. She got a good look at the boy who seemed just the same age as the girl, they almost seemed like they could be together, except the look on the girl’s face told a different story. Her long blond hair looked flat as if she could have cried so much to have wet her hair into flat, greasy streaks. Her make up was running down her face, and her skin was ghostly white. She was shaking so hard it was making Peggy feel like she might throw up, like when you see a rodent partially run over when you are walking down the street. Part of it still intact, but the rest of it so smashed up that there would be no way for it to make it. The boy bent over Peggy and pointed the gun in her face. Peggy felt all the life and blood leave her and a sudden silence made her self, her soul evaporate. And in its place was a white numbness that was a kind of protection. It was God sitting beside her like she had heard happens when things are too much. As bad as things had been, things had never been too much before. It’s over Peggy thought and she realized that Mike and teddy would be ok. She realized that she was not much of anything on this earth. She could feel how things would close back up and how for all intents and purposes she hadn’t really existed. But, then she felt her legs doing something. It wasn’t embarrassing at all to lift her heavy thighs and draw them towards her body. It was such an unexpected and strange sight that no one moved. Peggy drew her legs towards her body and then in a violent thrust kicked the boy with both her legs. She kicked him in his knees and the force of her kick threw him hard against the counter, but he didn’t fall and he didn’t drop the gun. He was just shoved backwards. The cash register made a loud jangling noise then there was a silence. Peggy quickly rose and thrust her body close to the boy. She pushed him hard against the counter and he was so wedged in that he couldn’t move. He couldn’t raise the gun, and her heavy body was too much for him. Her face was close to his and now she could see the little boy in his eyes. The girl, who was standing next to them, screamed and ran out of the store. Peggy could see the headlights light up the store and flash on the boy’s face as the girl pulled out of the parking lot.
“You are going to drop the gun and you are going to get out of here,” Peggy said and she used the same voice she used when she was mad at her own boys. She pursed her lips and stared into his eyes. He licked his lips and clenched his teeth. Neither one of them moved. And, Peggy imagined the cars outside passing; if someone looked in what would they see? The two of them behind the counter, a frozen moment. A weird scene. The type of thing that a kid says to his parents “mom there’s a fight in the store.” The tired parents answering “uh huh” but not hearing. Or a young girl driving home, seeing inside but afraid. Not wanting to witness anything, turning her radio up and just continuing down the road.
Peggy heard the gun drop. The little metal thing sounded like a toy gun.
“Let me go, mamn”
“I want you to stop doing this,” Peggy said sternly.
The young man nodded.
“I’m going to let you go but first I want to tell me you’ll never do this again.”
The young man’s eyes started to turn wet. He nodded and swallowed hard.
Peggy backed away and the young man started out slow, walking from behind the counter, then ran out of the store. Peggy could see his jean jacket and pants fade quickly as he rushed into the darkness.
Peggy stood in the white fluorescent light. She looked down at the gun on the floor. The tiny little thing. She picked it up and stood up. She held it in her hand, palm open. It was smaller than her whole hand. The gun seemed like a toy, like it couldn’t possibly have killed her. She looked down at the cash register and then slowly pressed the little button, near the cash register, to call the police. She could see herself in the monitor that was above the counter. The surveillance camera had seen the whole thing, captured it. She sat down on the stool by the checkout and waited. She placed the handgun on her lap and sat there staring at the large glass windows of the store. She didn’t feel any particular way. She knew that sometime later she would feel something, but until the police got there she just let her senses return to her. And, they did slowly: the colors faded back into the washed out colors of nighttime in the convenience store, and the sound of the refrigerators started up. The high-pitched whistling that had been in her brain died down. For an instant, there was not a thing left in the world.