To begin with, everything went wrong. He made a lot of mistakes, which was to be expected on the first day, but it got to him, and he just felt lousy. They'd only hired him because he told them he'd had cashier experience, which was true, which was why he felt so stupid. Mr. Kronin had said, "well, things are different around here", or something like that, but they both agreed he'd probably get the hang of it quick enough. Different was an understatement. They didn't just do things differently, but stupidly, irrationally, he didn't know why the hell they did things the way they did except it was the way they'd always done them, the way all the branches in the chain did them, the way old Mr. K-Po himself had probably done them when he was still alive, if he ever had been. For instance, when you had a master charge or a visa, you had to call the manager over so he could initial it. Well, what the hell could he do that Frederick could not? The manager would just look at the form for a moment, staring at it as if he would receive some metaphysical justification, and then he'd say "okay" and put his initial in the corner. Frederick was used to a machine. You punch the information in and get a number back. It's much more businesslike that way. And they had this incredibly complicated way of doing voids, he didn't understand it, not to mention the other things that could easily go wrong and seemed to all the time when Frederick was concerned. Those first few days were horrible, and he was depressed.
He didn't know anyone in Wetford, or even why he'd gone there, except that he had nowhere else to go, it didn't matter much, and after all, every place is pretty much the same if you're alone and don't know anyone at all. It wasn't any different from Lawrence or Hampton or Charlotte or Wheeling or Scranton or Erie or any other place he'd been. He was staying, so it seemed to him, in the same rundown hotel, with the same fat slob attendant, and the same cockroaches on the walls, and he wasn't going anywhere and knew it. The more I move around, he thought, the more my life stands still, but he knew exactly what he wanted, and, even more, he knew that it could happen for him, anytime and anywhere, like it happened all the time for everybody else he saw. So he was in no hurry. The thing took time, and he needed patience most of all. He was pretty good at waiting - my major talent, he often told himself. But he hated when he made mistakes and looked like such a god damned idiot so he went home those first few nights ashamed and angry and wanting only to hide away where no one would see that expression on his face, because the supervisor yelled at him, not once but four or five times every day, and the mistakes he made were stupid and he knew they were.
The machine was unfamiliar. Okay, I'll grant you that. Each cash register is different and you just have to get used to it, but that is no excuse for ringing Kotex on the candy tab, or a spatula on pharmaceuticals. He had to get it down, and soon, or else he'd be without a job again and he was tired of not eating. There were only twenty two departments in the store, from cigarettes and liquor, to books and magazines, drugs and candy, kitchenware and paper things, food and watches, and so on. There were nine cashier stations, and his was in the back, between the beauty supplies and drugs. Behind him were the boxes of condoms and tubes of contraceptive jelly, as well as dirty magazines and vaseline, but he'd get all kinds of customers who sought the station where there wasn't any line, and all day long he was busy at it, hardly a moment to rest, let alone a chance to talk to anyone. It wouldn't have been so bad if only he hadn't kept making so many dumb mistakes, but that was just a matter of time, and after a few more days he'd have it down and there'd be no more problems.
Even so, he felt like kicking something, but he owned nothing he could kick. The hotel room was empty, but for his backpack with its few old clothes, a bed, a table, and a chair. There was one dim light bulb on the ceiling, and the peeling, cracking walls matched the loose and creaking floorboards. I should be used to this by now, he thought, but he never would be used to it, he only hoped someday to make enough to rent a small apartment, but that meant staying somewhere more than a couple months, which was usually his limit. He'd been like this a long time now, rootless, weary, not knowing or caring where he'd be next year, next week, almost eleven years by now, and how many little cities, and how many lousy jobs. It was the price he paid for being himself, for despising all big cities and all hints of any career and all ideas of having a good life because he thought it wasn't right, that there was something very wrong in settling down too long, in believing you were safe, in putting faith in anything, in expecting things to stay the same forever. There was something wrong with it, and he didn't want to risk it all at once like that, better to have nothing you can lose than lose everything at once. He felt he was a journeyman without a craft, unless cashiering was a trade, who'd rung up sales both up and down the coast, across the heartland and the northern states as well. The wandering cashier, he laughed, but one that makes all kinds of dumb mistakes. But, he thought, how many errors have I made, and how many sales have I rung up to perfection? Too many, Frederick told himself. I'm surprised that I still care. He sat down at the table, and drummed his fingers on it. Well, it's looked bad before, he thought. Bad beginnings bring good endings, so they say.
There was a neon light outside the window, alternating blue and green, advertising jewelry though the store was closed, attracting thieves, perhaps. Otherwise, there was no view at all, but he was used to this. No matter where he went, things always seemed to be the same. There was no one he could call, no one to write a letter to. He was going to have to spend the night the way he'd spent a million other nights, alone, and doing nothing. At least he had a pack of cards to keep him company. He picked them up, and shuffled. He'd invented a lot of his own card games over the years - all of them were solitaires.
He dealt the cards, four rows of four, eliminated the highest and the lowest cards, filled in their slots with two more from the deck, and kept on going in that way to see if he could finish off the deck with only sixes, sevens, eights or nines left on the table. He did. This was a game that was difficult to lose, and always ended up approximately the same. There were exceptions sometimes, a five, or maybe a ten. He picked up his battered black cowboy hat and put it on, tilted over his eyes. He kept his eyes open, and saw only the inside of the hat. It wasn't quiet in the room. Someone was yelling in the street below - there was always a lot of yelling, wherever he wound up. This time it might be different, he told himself, but he did not believe it.
He played again. He shuffled the cards unthinkingly. I'll play the middle one more time, see if I can get a seven and an eight. Yes, he did this time, seven of clubs and eight of hearts. He felt wildly pleased and grinned a little stupidly. This calls for a celebration, Frederick thought, and he reached for his bottle of cognac. Just a little, Frederick told himself, just a cigarette's worth. He poured it out, and sipped to the accompaniment of a camel filter cigarette. Suddenly he felt like turning out the light, and so he did, and sat there in the darkened room, with just the blue and then green neon sign, blinking in the window.
He'd go to work again in the morning, and try not to make so many dumb mistakes. Maybe he'd even get a chance to talk to some of the other people who worked there. You never know, some of them might be interesting, maybe he'd find another friend or two, although he doubted it. He wasn't a very friendly type. It's only been three days, he thought, I'll get it down tomorrow, or by next week, certainly, and after that it would be easy, as long as he did whatever they told him to and did not complain. He'd been through so many little worlds by then he couldn't take them seriously at all. Each one was pretty much the same, filled with foolish, petty managers, silly-breezy clerks, obnoxious stupid customers, a sense of unreality about it all, as if it was just too absurd, that no one could envision such a place, that certainly no god would ever have created it, and yet you found them everywhere. I'll try to stick it out, he thought, but he thought this every time. So far, nine months was the longest he had stayed at any store. Belatedly he realized that anywhere from six to ten constituted middle ground, so there was no aberration after all, except the jack, but jacks are often like that anyway. The mediocre simply covered a wider range than he had thought at first.
Most places that he worked were like this, eliminating over time the best ones and the worst, the highest and the lowest, so that only the mediocre ones remained. Usually, but not always, you could tell who were the mediocre ones right off. They'd been there the longest. And the owner or the manager was usually a five, slightly lower than the average in mentality and attitude. He figured that he himself was about an eight or a nine. He used to think he was a jack, and long before, a king or even an ace, but he was older now, and steadily declining to the correct appreciation of his value. He'd failed too many times, at too many things, not to realize that it must be at least partially his fault, not just the others he had blamed. And he figured he still had a little way to fall, for he thought he'd end up as a seven in the end. He had a special fondness for that number, out of all. So far he didn't know anyone at K-Po's, but if experience was anything, he thought he'd come across some fours, some sixes, and some eights - even numbered people were so very common, much more so than the odd, and, if he got lucky, perhaps there'd be a nine, or at least another seven. That's what he was really looking for. No use guessing now, we'll see what time will bring, he thought, as he gulped down the last drop of the cognac, and put out the cigarette. What time will bring, he told himself, yeah, sure, what time will take away.
He knew nothing of his co-workers for the first few days. There was John, the bearded liquor man, who always seemed to be looking off the other way, no matter when you noticed him. Sherry in cosmetics smelled like it. Harvey, the pharmacist, was a grim- faced sullen middle-aged black man whose every waking moment was an unwelcome chore, or so it seemed. Dan, at the front desk, smiled too much and seemed too nice a guy, the kind you make friends with first then find out later on that no one else can stand the guy and you learn why yourself. There was Candy actually at the candy counter, red-haired, rouge cheeked, fake eye lidded lizard of a thing, whom Frederick didn't like right off the bat because she cackled when he fucked up doing a void. Mr. Kronin was a tough old guy, crew-cutted, baggy pants, and stars and stripes pinned on his jacked pocket, a veteran of some war he's still too god damned proud of. There were others, whose names he didn't know yet, who worked overlapping shifts, and he'd gotten the clear impression that the staff was divvied up in little cliques of one. There seemed to be no contact between employees, but maybe that was just the rules, perhaps they met in secret after work to bitch about the job, get stoned and drink some beers. Frederick didn't really want to fit in anywhere, but he was split about the issue. He needed other people just as much as he disliked them just because he needed them.
On thursday everything went well. He made only a couple of small mistakes, and dealt calmly with the endless lines. For awhile he was the only cashier open in the store, so everybody had to go through him, and only once did he request a price check, and only once he needed change. By six o'clock he was very tired, but also very pleased. He expected now someone would say hello, he lingered in the storeroom, but no one noticed him, or even said goodbye. Candy was describing some hideous TV show to Maybelline, the toothpaste headache girl, as Morris priced the kleenex listlessly. Frederick didn't say goodbye but left the store, feeling even more alone. He took himself to dinner at a greasy pizza place across the street, staring too long at the waitress who wiggled badly as she walked away. He had two slices and a beer and then a cigarette, and afterwards he walked along the streets though it was drizzling and cold. He passed some taverns where the television drowned out all the drinkers' sorrows, and the click of pool balls pattered in the background. It occurred to him that he might stop in somewhere for a drink, but he decided not to. He didn't like to do that, usually. It never worked for him. He always sat alone and no one bothered him, and the times he'd started to talk to someone he'd always felt some taste of regret linger on, the women when he'd gone to bed with them, and found himself tongue-tied, who is this person anyway, and he'd have nothing at all to say to her, and she'd say nothing too, and the men whose troubles endlessly repeated themselves from town to town and face to face.
Conversations bored him quickly, but silence even faster. He walked along the streets not paying attention to anything he passed. He didn't want to see a film or listen to loud music. He didn't want to talk or hear or do anything at all. He went back to the hotel, poured out a cigarette of brandy, smoked and sipped in the darkness with the neon flashing on and off from green to blue and back again. Something's got to change, he thought, but he knew it never would. Even in his dreams he was always leaving, always looking out for somewhere else to go. In restaurants and theatres, he noticed first the exit signs. He sat in the very back of buses, so that no one else could see him from behind. He had his back to every wall, and refused to stand in line, he wouldn't wait his turn like just another sheep.
He spent another night alone, the fourth since he'd been on the job, and thought about the day ahead, a friday, and he had to find something to do before the weekend came. Nothing's going to happen, he told himself, and he reached out for the cards and picked them up. No Retail Solitaire, he told himself. I'm in the mood for something else. Perhaps a friendly game of Hitchhiker will do. He chuckled quietly. It was a rather morbid game. You could wind up dead, or wait for hours in the cold. Each card drawn counted as an hour, a picture card could be a ride, a one-eyed king or jack could be then end of you, unless you were a seven, or a nine.
He played in the dim light, barely making out the cards. His traveler was a four of spades, especially vulnerable to the reds. An hour passed (the ten of hearts), and then another hour on the road (the six of hearts). Two hearts so far, that means he was leaving someone else behind; the three of diamonds meant he wasn't losing very much. A king of clubs stopped by and picked him up and took him down the road a bit, but not too far; the five of spades meant that the driver had to let him off just thirty miles along. The four had no idea where he was going to. He stood there by the road, as the hours ticked away. An ace of clubs, that meant night fell. The two of spades, few cars were passing by. The nine of diamonds, he had his hopes up for a minute there, he thought the car slowed down, but it was only an illusion. He was beginning to get annoyed. The eight of spades; he was tired and beginning to get a little feverish as well. The four of hearts, and now he was regretting his all-too rash departure, thoughts of going back were creeping into his mind, but then the jack of hearts pulled up and stopped. The four of spades was hesitant. There was something about the car he didn't like, but fatigue had dulled his brain, and he climbed in. Too bad. The jack of hearts was in the mood for love.
Frederick smiled - there goes another one. He put the cards away, and shook his head. I'll have to make a friend tomorrow, Frederick thought, even if it means going to some bar and talking to a stranger. I'll say I'm new in town, what's there to do around here anyway? He saw the scene unfold, just as it had a hundred times before. Ain't much, the stranger'd say, why don't you come on over, watch the game, have some beers, meet the wife and kids. Generous natives, always willing to waste your time out of the goodness of their hearts. Okay, he'd say, why not, and what the hell, all right, only to regret it every minute of the lousy day, feeling trapped, unable to feel obliged, barely managing to say hey thanks a lot. No, he thought, I won't do that again. But he knew he would, many many times before the game was up.
He'd been tired of it long before it had begun, as a child observing grown-ups, and knowing he wanted to have no part of their grotesque, aberrant rituals. His parents had not been very social either, mostly keeping to themselves, and quietly at that. There were many long, slow evenings in the Hardware house, huddled by the fireplace, in upstate Minnesota, his father slowly scanning a journal while his mother knitted sweaters and his little sister brooded in the corner. Frederick had always resisted the urge to talk, even at the age when children are first exploring the capabilities of language, and it was because of the way words broke the silence of his family's home like falling through the surface of a frozen lake, shattering the stillness, plunging into the icy waters of complete misunderstanding. He had been a lousy student, hated school, had no friends among his classmates, didn't like to play, preferred to sit and look not watching, not really noticing the things before his eyes. Even then the time seemed unendurable, and the nights were preferable to the days. He felt that he had never changed, though his body grew and his appearance gradually altered, yet the same stubborn Frederick had remained the same within, he who would not be affected or infected by the general prevailing mood. There was no time he could recall when the pressure hadn't been there, the urge to go away. He couldn't say who'd taught him that life wasn't meant for extremes of any kind, not high not low, but for clinging to the middle, and for staying on an even keel. It could have been his father, but he had no memory of anything his father had ever said to him, except, perhaps, put on your hat, or come inside, you'll catch your death of cold out there.
In the dark, he collected all his ghosts, they paraded once again before his blinking eyes. Louisa, love which never was. Anthony Grey, the friend he'd thrown away. David Wayne Bailey, intrepid companion, blew his brains out in a stranger's house, or so they said. A list of names - Alice, Jerry, Milt, Eustace, Carrie, Dennis, Jackson, Sue, names with almost faces to go with them, and he tired of their memory, he didn't want to know them anymore, the names of roads and towns, the images of hotel rooms, apartments, bars and trucks, cash registers and stores, a useless list of facts, chronology of long lost days, a litany of words and sounds which had no power for him anymore. It was as if he'd bought these memories, and now was stuck with faulty merchandise, things he had no use for anymore. They didn't work. There must be somewhere he could sell them, a memory pawn shop, hidden somewhere in the seedy part of town, around the corner, up he street, a warehouse full of what nobody cares for anymore, the past. And he often thought of meeting someone once again, someone from long ago, not recognizing them, and they not recognizing him, and it would seem so natural, as if they'd never really known each other anyway. It would be like purging some false memories. It probably happened all the time
It was terrible. From the lady screaming for a refund to the twenty dollar shortage, everything went wrong. Frederick found it hard to keep his cool, and he almost lost it once, which would have been unbearable. I mustn’t let it get to me, he thought, but Kronin lecturing, the snotty customers, John who looked away so many times he wanted to yell don't look at me, you asshole, don't you look at me, you prick! And the plastic people with their hair done up, their imitation furs, these manikins affecting human nature, buying coated lozenges and aspirin-free cold capsules, look at you, you're all a mess, you've all got something wrong with you, and so it seemed, that one with the hemorrhoids, this one with the headache, that one with the snotty runny nose, and this one in the middle of her period, band aids, cortaids, the horny fuckers loading up on contraceptive shit, whipping out their dollar bills, exacting change, the mastercharge to be approved (and what a joke that was, approved!), they're all so fucking desperately in need, they need a comb (hell, you need a bath!), they need a watchband or a serving spoon, they want their film developed NOW!, and gimme my prescription drugs before I pass away, I need my valium, my darvon, my thalidomide, need a chocolate bar, some raisinettes, they need a shave, a rest, or even a vacation, and they all come here, they all line up, they wait impatiently, they've got their things, their money in their pocket, who is next? It's me me me!!!
Fuck, and then the drawer was off, the tape was wrong, the damn machine broke down, and nobody would talk to him, they turned away, they looked the other way, and he began to hate them all, these small town jerks, their little lives, and what the hell do they know anyway? where the hell have they been? Who the hell are they? He didn't need them, didn't want to know their names. Get away from me, all day he thought of moving on, why not, what does it matter anyway? Not a bit, that's what! I've had enough of this, these needy customers, these stupid managers, these too-good-for- the-likes-of-you co-workers, and this pitsy town, where nothing's happening at all, that no one's ever heard of, that's barely on the map, that's just like all the other dying cities that have lost their industry and have no future prospects. It went wrong from the very start, as soon as he walked in the door, and Kronin standing there, that you-fucked-up expression on his face, and Frederick knew right off that it was going to be a lousy day, the worst. No one said good morning. Candy seemed to snarl at him although it could have been another thing entirely. Sherry turned her back on him as soon as he approached. He knew, he noticed everything, because he'd planned to make an effort to be extra friendly to them all that day, but not five minutes after he arrived that resolution died away, and all that he could think about was making it till six o'clock, just getting through the day, but even this was harder than he had anticipated.
Friday seemed to be the worst day of the week; all the people stocked up on supplies, as if they couldn't wait till saturday; they just got paid and had to spend it all right there and then, lots of alcohol and cigarettes, lots of TV Guides, lots of snacks and candy bars, as if everyone was going to go home and spend the weekend pigging out and watching football on the tube. It really was disgusting, Frederick thought, the poor pathetic slobs, as if no one had veer told them that they could do something with their lives, but the most ambitious of them bought a can of oil or car wax for their sunday entertainment. Some of them read books, but this was hardly to their credit, since they read only the most ridiculous trash about the rich, the beautiful, the depraved, corrupt barbaric ruling class and those who aspired to be like them. These women and their romances, these men and their adventures, these comic book children, and these strutting children of all ages who imagined they were movie stars, or were bound to be someday. And someone now and then bought one of those bestsellers about the ordinary folks who fucked around and schemed and planned and died quite suddenly in airplanes, or had their dicks bit off in cars, who talked in cute pretentious prose, and absolutely trapped and captured on the nail the deadly boring spirit of their age.
Too many voids because she changed her mind, she didn't want it after all, and that stupid indecision could end up costing me my job, it's not my fault, I'll tell them, they don't care, and I am stuck with it, but I don't need this shit, I can go away, I can't accept her check and so she yells at me, it's not my rules, there's nothing I can do, the next one smirks, go fuck yourself, I think, he's got the twenty-one, so what? you think I can't make change? You need the penny? I ain't got bottle caps in here, you know. Calm down, he tells himself, you can't go on this way, you'll barely make it up to lunch if you don't take it easier. So he draws a breath, he stills his mind, he goes on automatic and he's okay for awhile, just one thing at a time, no angry clerk, no angry customers, no voids and no mistakes. Okay, he tells himself, it's going to be okay. He stops seeing what they buy, it's only prices after all, a fourteen ninety nine, one twenty nine, a dollar fifty nine, two dollars ninety nine, a ninety nine plus tax, and everything's a nine, a ninety nine plus tax, and so on, sale after sale. He's in a world that's one square foot, just him, a counter, a machine, a line of interchangeable customers and items, as if they all came out of nowhere and returned there just as fast. He doesn't see their faces, just their hands, and he's able to distract himself away, so far away that someone else is in his place, doing his job, and doing it better than he could if he was fully there. He let his mind float freely on the frivolous paths it loved exploring most, he smiled a bit, and there was someone smiling back. Moments later he realized that it was John, from all the way across the store. Suddenly he felt much happier, and everything was changed. The customers were friendly, and he was friendly too. Their needs were interesting, he began to notice all their faces once again. Outside the rain was falling and it was good to be indoors. The muzak wasn't quite so bad, the line's not all that long. Sherry smiled. Candy laughed. Dan as usual, and Kronin was nowhere in sight. So much for the blues, he thought, and he was positively cheerful all at once, and K-Po's was okay, Wetford was all right, he heard a chorus in his head, a song, the singer singing, nothing else is happening, this is where you are. Okay, he told himself, okay.
-How's it going? someone asked him, and he looked up, expecting it to be another customer, but it was John the liquor man, standing there beside the counter.
-Okay, he said, not too bad.
-Yeah, John smiled. He paused, and added, don't worry about Kronin. He's got nothing else to do but make life difficult for everyone.
-They're all the same, Frederick replied, everywhere you go, the managers and the owners, all pretty much the same.
- I guess so, John said. I wouldn't really know. I've been here seven years.
-Really? Frederick was surprised. Seven years? That's a hell of a long time.
-Isn't it? John chuckled. Much too long.
- I've never been able to do that, Frederick said.
-Well, it isn't so much doing it as not doing something else, John said. I guess I'm just too lazy. Well, I'll see you later.
And before Frederick could reply, John had walked away but Frederick was feeling even better now, someone had actually talked to him, and it wasn't going to be so bad. He wanted to hear more. He was always interested in people who stuck to one job for awhile, what was it about them they could do it, and if he found out maybe he could do it too, because the only thing he really wanted, above all else, was one place he could stay and settle into. They said they wanted to be single once again, but he told them, no, you don't. They wanted to be traveling and he told them, traveling is dull, you'd hate it soon enough. They wanted to go to other cities, other states, see the country, and he told them you're much better off just going to the movies and seeing things that way, because you can still hang on to your dreams and fairy tales, because there isn't any magic out there waiting to transform your life, there isn't any destiny, lying in wait for you, there aren't any great deeds to be done, no spellbound princesses, no evil sorcerers, there are only other human beings like you and me, each one a fragile shell, and everything we do, and everything we own, seems solid on the outside, and is crumbling away within.
He guessed that he already knew pretty much what John would say if they had another talk, sitting in a bar somewhere, beginning with a laugh, progressing through some jokes, some stories about some girls, a traveling tale or two, and finally the morbid speculations, this is all there is, until they both get tired of one another, and then wearily say goodbye. He thought it through, but calmly, as if all memories were really of the future, not the past, and the reason everything repeats itself is that you never get it right, and you keep hoping next time will be better, but it never is.
Frederick looked around the store and everything he saw was faith; bottled faith, plastic faith, boxes and cartons of faith, shrink-wrapped faith, twist-tied faith, wrappered faith, canned faith, and bargain packs of faith, the stuff of fairy tales. Everything that you could buy promised to be good for you, improving, enjoyable and pleasing. Everything that you could buy could help you, guaranteed. Everything had names you could rely on, names you could be loyal to. There was so much 'good', and it all cost so much money. Even the most unpleasant things were naturally good for you. You couldn't really go into a store like this and buy something that was bad. And all those shoppers come here to be helped. Can I help you? Buy this, it can really help you. It's good, delicious, aspirin-free, one calorie, no caffeine, not fattening, it makes you feel good, helps you lose weight (naturally), improves your face, gets rid of ugly grey, unsightly hair, gets rid of that headache, puts a big smile on your face, makes you feel younger, sexier, more alive, things are forever getting better, so it seems, there's always hope. And this is what the faith is all about. Progress, and improvement, endlessly.
They bought their hairspray, fingernail polish, Q-tips, tape and glue, rubber bands and paper clips, key rings, and potato chips, and the morning passed. He hadn't even looked at the clock since ten thirteen, and was surprised when John came by again and asked him what he planned to do for lunch. Frederick hadn't planned, he supposed he'd go and eat, but he hadn't found a good place in the neighborhood as yet. John knew one, and invited him along. Kronin said okay, get going, and the two of them walked out the store at one twenty four exactly.
-I'll bet you think this city is a pretty shitty little place, John said, as they headed down the block.
-Oh, I don't know, said Frederick, I haven't seen much of it yet. I just came in last sunday.
-There's nothing to see, John said.
-Everybody says that, he laughed, everywhere I go.
-I guess you keep on going to all the wrong places then.
-Well, Frederick said, I don't know. Maybe there's no such thing as the right place for someone like me.
-For anybody, John replied. There's no such place for anyone.
They came to a little restaurant and went inside. They took a booth near the back, and looked over the menu for a minute. After they ordered, John lit a cigarette. He looked at Frederick quietly for a minute, and Frederick said,
-You must think it's okay here. I mean, seven years is a pretty long time to stay in any one place.
-Seven? John laughed. I've only worked at K-Po's seven years. I've lived in Wetford all my life. Twenty four years and twenty two weeks. I've never even been to any other place.
-Nowhere. Not even for a day. I'll bet you think that's strange.
-Oh, I don't know.
-Everybody kids me about it. By now it's something like a law. I don't feel I can go anywhere else, like it's not allowed, you know?
-But you've been outside the town...
-Oh,yeah, a few times, to the suburbs, this farm out here one time, when I was small. I didn't like it out there. Not enough concrete.
-And your folks? They from Wetford too?
-Who knows? I never met them. I grew up in the orphanage on Bleaker Street, and when they let me out, I was almost eighteen then, I got this job, and the place where I still live.
-And you're happy here? Frederick asked, but just then the food arrived, and they set about it. Frederick waited for an answer, curious. But he felt it would be rude to ask again. He only hoped that John would not forget, or change the subject on him. But John felt like talking about it. He was proud of it.
-Yes, he said, I am. I like things just the way they are.
He didn't ask any questions about Frederick, but went on to talk about the store, and the other people working there. Sherry was an airhead, Candy was a lush. Dan was just obnoxious - John really hated him. Richard was okay, you could talk with him, and he also had good weed, and cheap. Kronin was an asshole, but Henry, his assistant, was pretty easy to get around on, and Frederick listened to the gossip without any interest at all, he'd heard every word before, and each description could have been about a hundred others he had known, but still he had an okay feeling about this John, mostly because the guy was talking to him, not really from anything about the man himself. He listened, and he ate his lunch, and he felt a very pronounced feeling that he'd been right there before, not once, but many times, in the exact same place, in the same company, hearing the same words and nothing was any different, just slightly rearranged. He was musing on this when John asked him what he thought about the store so far.
-Oh, I don't know, said Frederick, suddenly weary of the conversation. There's so many small worlds on this planet, he continued, it seems that I just go from one right to the next, but no matter where I go, it's just another little world.
-Don't you ever get tired of it, John asked.
-I was tired of it before I started out, he said. I never get more tired of it than I already was back then.
-I don't understand, John said.
-Don't you ever want to go away? Not ever?
-No, John said, I never do.
-Well, then you won't be able to understand at all.
-But I want to, John replied. I've seen so many people come and go since I've been at the store, and even at the orphanage before, no one else ever wanted to stick around, and I could never figure it out. What's the point in going somewhere else if you're just going to have to start all over once again and it's just going to be the same?
-Maybe you're right, maybe there is no point, Frederick replied. John smiled, and said that it was time to get on back to work. Kronin would be pissed if they were late, and you don't want to make him mad, John said, whatever else you do. don't make him mad, because he loves to blow his fuse. He'd go crazy if he couldn't explode at least one time a day. They paid their bill and left, and didn't talk at all along the way back to the store. Frederick was wondering if it would be possible to be friends with John, whether it would work or not. John was smiling as they went back in, and said, I'll see you later, as Frederick went to take up his position. The speaker announced that station six was open, and the customers flocked over, like pigeons, settling on a rock.
It must have been the burger and the fries, because he wasn't feeling very good. His stomach felt heavy and his mind was dull, and most of all he felt like taking a nice long nap, which was typical after coming back from lunch. The customers were a nuisance. Sherry and Dan were off to lunch, and there were only three stations open, and it was, of course, the busiest time of the day. It seemed the store was only fully staffed when there weren't many customers. Frederick kept his observations to himself, and did the best he could. It was no worse than it had been before, and would be again. Disappointment, he thought, is my only friend, and he rang up a price wrong without noticing. The customer noticed, though, and made a little fuss. Frederick apologized, and rang the sale again. Okay, no problem, just another void. One more won't hurt anyone.
He snapped out of his reflections and started paying attention to the work. He saw a procession of orange labels, each with little black numbers stamped on them. No matter what the item, it had the same kind of price tag adhesively attached, and Frederick knew too well the entire process of how the sticker got there, from the boxes coming off the truck, and carrying them inside, to the unpacking and the stacking of them in receiving, counting them and checking quantities against the list, loading up the price gun, adjusting the numerals and clicking out the labels on the packages, putting all the items on the shelves, and now, at the end of the line, rereading all the labels, and punching those same numbers into another machine, taking people's money, giving people change, putting the items into bags and seeing them leave the store, and no matter how you look at it, it will always be the same, in whatever store you work in, Freddy old boy. And in this the future was a trap, an endless hall of mirrors, and even when the corner turns and you get your hopes back up, the new hall turns out to be the same as all the others were. And yet, you could never see more than a few feet in front of you at any given time, so there was always the possibility of illusion, self- deception, wishful thinking, where hope snuck in to trick you one more time.
He lit another cigarette, forgetting the restrictions, and rang up sale after sale. There was a mastercharge, and he called up for approval. Kronin came, and Frederick handed him the slip. Kronin stared at it (as if that was going to tell him something), then put his initials on the form. Frederick tore off the receipt and gave it to the customer, said thank you for the trillionth time, and proceeded to the next sale, not seeing Kronin, who hadn't left, but was still standing there. He rang it up, and took another drag. The line died down in time for one last puff, and then he stamped the butt out on the floor, bent down to pick it up and toss it in the trash when, coming up, he noticed Kronin standing like a statue there.
-What did I tell you yesterday? Kronin shouted. What did I tell you Wednesday, Tuesday, Monday? What was the very first thing I ever told you in my life???
-Uh, Frederick said, I don't know. What?
-No smoking! Kronin yelled, no smoking at the register! no smoking in the back! no smoking in the goddamn store at all!! Are you deaf? No, I don't think you're deaf. I think you're just too smart! You really think you're smart, too smart for us dumb locals here, am I right? Aren't you too smart? Too smart for our stupid rules, too smart for the stupid boss, too smart for anybody, right? Well, I'll tell you, you listen, mister, around there there ain't anyone too smart, you got that? We got rules and everybody follows them, no matter who the hell they are, no matter how smart they think they are!
-I'm sorry, Mr. Kronin, Frederick said, I just forgot. I won't do it again, I promise.
-That's what you said yesterday! And wednesday! And the day before! But this time, you are right, this time you'll keep your promise, because you're fired, Mr. Hardware, as of right now, as of this very moment. I want you out of here right now.
-I want my pay, he said.
-Here, I'll give you your lousy pay! Kronin shouted, and he leaned over and opened Frederick's drawer, pulled out seven twenty dollar bills, and held them out to him. Frederick took them, counted them, and nodded, didn't say a word. He went back to get his jacket, and he didn't look at anyone, just got his stuff and left. He wasn't even angry. He was more relieved. Once outside, he put his jacket on, and walked away. It was still early afternoon, and so he walked around a bit, deciding to see the town before he left for good. It wasn't very interesting. Streets and buildings, cars, a couple bridges spanning a murky stream, some trees on the side of the road losing their yellowed, drying leaves in the chilly autumn breeze. He turned and headed towards the center of the town, to see a church, a city hall, more shops, more cars, and people rushing back and forth, the usual city sights accompanied by the usual city sounds. The sky was grey, but the rain had stopped. After walking for an hour or two, he decided to go back to his hotel room. There, he lay down on the bed, and took a nap. It was dark when he woke up, and the neon sign was on, alternating blue and green and back again. He got up and went over to the table, poured out a cigarette of cognac, and leaned back with his drink, his smoke, and began the ritual thoughts.
Everything had turned out as expected, as it was to be expected. He hadn't known the cards to be wrong yet, and no matter how he played them, they always came out the way they wanted to. There was no way to deny it. You shuffled, and you shuffled, but when you dealt, the hand was not your own, and you were at the mercy of the powers you have conjured up. He knew what Kronin was from the very first, hardly a new type, perhaps the most familiar of them all, and although he couldn't have foreseen the details, still the thing had worked out in the only way it would, and here he was again, with some money in his pocket, and no job. He knew he would leave Wetford, but he didn't know where he'd go. Finishing the cigarette, he picked up the cards, and shuffled them. He hesitated for a moment, and almost put them down again. It isn't funny anymore, he thought, and it isn't any fun, not like it used to be. The game was old, and he was tired of it. He shuffled several times, considering alternatives, but there weren't any, really, at least nothing that was better. He turned the cards over, and sorted through them, picking out the two of clubs and diamonds, and setting them aside. Then he shuffled a few more times, cut the deck and turned the top card over. The nine of clubs. Again.
He gathered up his few belongings, put them in his bag, adjusted his hat, and lit another cigarette. He left the darkened room, slipped quietly down the fire escape, jumped to the pavement, and walked away. Now, he thought, to get out of this town. I think I'll walk it out. And it felt good to be back out on the road again. He took one last tour along the street where K-Po's was, and as he passed by all the little stores he saw the cashiers in them busily ringing sales, taking people's money, giving change. One right after another, in every little store. And he laughed out loud. It is a cashier's world, he thought. Everybody's giving us their money all the time.