by Manek R. Mistry
She knows her staff steals from the register. Not a lot—surprising, because stoners can’t always manage subtlety—but enough to be noticeable, even though she doesn’t actually balance the till.
She’s inclined to let it slide, if it doesn’t get worse. They’re all just kids, and she pays them shit, and besides, what’s she going to do—make them spy on each other? Set up video cameras? Hire a detective? She hasn’t talked to Mark about it, but she knows what he’d say: fire them all. Wouldn’t do any good though; she’d just have to start watching the new ones.
She lights a cigarette and leans back in her chair, blowing smoke into the pizza-tinted air. Her office—a cramped, windowless firetrap at the back of the restaurant—is messier than usual, filled with Christmas presents waiting to be wrapped. She could make one of the girls do it, maybe. Kelly’s neat and organized; she looks like she’d make nice crisp packages. Have to pay her extra, though, because she wouldn’t get any tips, stuck back here instead of out front.
She regrets buying the big flat-screen for Mark, now that he’s acting like a jerk. She knows he’s having an affair—with the skinny bitch who does the books at Cartwright’s—but she doesn’t care, so why does he have to take his guilt out on her by being such an asshole?
Ok, maybe she cares a little bit, but it’s not like she hasn’t cheated on him, too, before the kids were born, so she can’t confront him— that would open a whole can of worms. Maybe she can return the TV; the receipt’s got to be around here somewheres.
She rests her cigarette on the ashtray— a mess of clay and glaze Petey made in third grade— and shifts papers around on her desk. Most of them are invoices she hasn’t paid yet— some green, some pink, some white, all different sizes. Why can’t they make them all the same? She comes across a letter from her lawyer— have to deal with that, sometime— and the notice from the health department. After a minute, she gives up looking. Let him have the damn TV; he won’t be a jackass forever. The affair will fizzle—like they do—and he’ll get all sweet and affectionate for a while. That’ll be annoying, too, but then things will go back to normal, and he might as well have a nice TV then.
She retrieves her cigarette, picks up the newspaper, and turns to the puzzle page. This Sunday morning ritual proves she’s middle-aged: the younger Norma would have ridiculed any of her friends who wasted time on the crossword, or the jumble, but she’s come to like it, and it doesn’t hurt anyone. This morning, she can’t find a pen, though. How can there not be a single pen in here? She shifts the papers around again, hunts through the desk drawers, and checks her purse: nothing.
Annoyed, she gets up and walks through the kitchen. It’s all stainless steel, but not one bit of it is shiny like it was when she and Mark bought the place all those years ago. What the hell had they been thinking? Still, dumb as they were, it had worked out, and the pressure’s less, now that the kids are grown and the house paid off. Maybe she can hire someone to come in here and scrub everything so it shines again, just to make it look nice and clean, like it was back then, before the residue of a thousand pizzas had accumulated.
She pushes out through the swinging door and threads her way between close-packed tables—the waitresses have always complained that there are too many—to the corner where the register sits. The cup where they keep the pens is empty. Damn it!
Just then, someone knocks on the front door. Through the tinted glass, she sees big snow boots, a burly parka, and a scraggly snow-covered beard sticking out from inside the puffy hood. It’s Ugly Beans, a guy who sometimes stops by for large quantities of pot that he deals to the college kids down in Amherst.
She gets her keys out, unlocks the door, and opens it, letting in a swirl of snow. “Hey,” she says. “Need something?”
He nods, and she lets him in and locks the door behind him.
“Don’t have much on hand,” she says. “You gotta call ahead.”
He stamps snow off his boots and pulls his hood off, revealing a bleeding lip and a pair of black eyes so fresh they look painted on.
“Holy crap, Beaner!” She examines him. “You want some ice for your face? What happened?”
“Yeah, I know.” He touches his lip with his fingers. “Pretty bad, huh?” His voice is thick; his words difficult to understand. He holds one arm flat across his body, but she can’t tell through the thick coat if it’s his arm or his gut, or both.
She leads him into the kitchen and turns on the tap. “Maybe some cold water first.” She finds a rag under the sink and holds it out. “Wash some of that blood off.”
“Is it still bleeding?” He touches his lip again, then takes the cloth.
“You got blood in your beard, too. What happened?” She grabs a bowl, walks to the ice machine, and fills it. “Here.”
He thanks her, takes a handful, and holds it to his eyes. “Fuck, that hurts.”
He smells rotten, like he’s slept in a tub of rancid meat for a week, and his fingernails are black with grime. “Who was it?” she asks.
“Tiny and them guys.”
“You owe him?”
“He thinks I do.”
She nods. “I guess that’s what matters. Wanna sit down?” She guides him out of the kitchen to her office and clears papers off a chair. “I’ve got a story about Tiny. It’s a Christmas story, sort of.”
Ugly Beans tilts his head back, a cube of ice held to each eye with red fingers, the bowl in his lap. He’s undone his coat, but he still pins his left elbow to his ribs, like he’s wearing an invisible sling. “The one about the Santa at the mall?”
“Better.” She sits down at her desk across from him. “Your arm ok?”
“Yeah.” Dark threads of blood dribble from his beard down his neck and disappear into his grubby clothes. “What’s the story?”
“Back when his kids were little he had a Christmas party at his house—he had this big old house he got when his mom died.” She remembers Tiny’s mom—short skirts, long legs, big boobs. Rumor was she slept with all the dads in town. “This guy Jimmy—you know Jimmy?—he got wasted and stepped on some presents under the tree. So Tiny’s all pissed off, and he pulls a knife and pokes Jimmy in the gut. The cops come, and Jimmy goes to the hospital and gets stitched up and he’s fine. Then—”
“Tiny go to jail?”
“Yeah,” she says. “Just a year in county. It was his first felony assault, I think.”
“First time he got caught, you mean.”
“Probably. But listen to this: the cops can’t find the knife, so they seal off the house and come back with a warrant, and they go through the whole place, the garage, the yard, everything. No knife.”
He shifts in his chair, head still tilted back.
She can see a vein thumping in his neck, like there’s something inside trying to get out, and she wonders what he’s on. Not just a little weed; something harder, she thinks. “Turns out he put it in the tree like an ornament, just resting on a branch next to Santa and Rudolph.”
Ugly Beans snorts. “What an asshole.”
“Yeah,” she agrees. “Smart, though. He went to college.”
“I went to college.” He drops the ice cubes back in the bowl. The area around his eyes has grown darker and puffier. “UCLA.”
He nods. “Engineering. Anyway. How much you got for me?”
“Ten ounces, maybe. If that.” She opens a drawer, finds her scale, and sets it on the mess of papers. Then, bending over in her chair, she reaches into the low cupboard behind her and takes out the locked metal box that holds her stash. When she turns back to face him, he’s looming over her with what looks at first like a machete. The blade is long and rusty with one bright sharp edge gleaming silver in the dim light. His coat is unzipped, and his b.o.— rancid meat—is stronger and more oppressive than before.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“What the hell?” She stares at him, more annoyed than afraid, her box of pot resting on her lap. It’s not a machete, she realizes; it’s a lawnmower blade, with duct tape wrapped around one end to make a handle. “Seriously? This is what you want to do?”
“I’m sorry,” he says again. The tip of the lawnmower blade dips toward the floor, and he jerks it back up again.
“You’re a dick,” she says.
“I know. I’m really, really sorry.” His hands are shaking, and he grips his makeshift weapon so tightly that his red fingers turn yellow-white.
“I could prob’ly get that away from you.” She’s got a baseball bat, but it’s behind the stack of unwrapped presents. There’s also a revolver in the bottom drawer, missing its firing pin; now she wishes she’d got around to fixing it.
He waves the lawnmower blade at her face. “Don’t try. I don’t wanna hurt you.”
She puts the box on the desk. “Get out of here.”
“Open it,” he says.
“You open it, asshole.” She throws her keys at him. He has to bend over to pick them up, but she doesn’t bother making a move. She’s pissed, but she feels sorry for him too, she realizes as she watches him fumble to unlock the box. Stinky, smelly, beat-up loser.
“Where’s the cash?” he asks.
“In my hairy cunt.” She bites the word out, so the ‘T’ stays in the air between them.
“Come on, Norma.” He holds the weapon up, but he’s still focused on the box. Finally he gets it open. “I need that cash.”
She glares at him and folds her arms.
He scoops ziplock bags of weed out of the box and shoves them into the pockets of his parka. The blade flops sideways and hits her on the cheek, and she jerks back, lifting her fingers to the spot, eyes stinging with the sudden pain. “Ow!”
“Sorry!” He jams the last baggie in his pocket. “God, Norma, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to…”
“Asshole,” she mutters. Her cheek is numb and wet with blood, and her right eye is tearing up. “Fuck!”
“I swear I didn’t mean to… Just give me the cash, and I’ll get out of here.”
She finds her purse, pulls out a roll of bills wrapped in rubber bands, and throws it at him.
He catches it, crams it in his jeans pocket, and backs toward the hall. Lowering the fake machete, he hesitates in the doorway. “You still got that monster bong here? Wanna smoke a bowl with me before I go?”
“No, I don’t want to smoke a fucking bowl with you,” she hisses. “What the fuck’s wrong with you? Are you retarded?”
He zips the lawnmower blade under his coat and pins it to his side with his elbow “I’ll pay you back,” he says. “No hard feelings.”
“Fuck you,” she growls. “Get out of here.”
He looks as though he’s about to say something, but then he turns without speaking and walks away. She closes her eyes, and feels sweat prickling her skin. Ten ounces, plus—how much cash?—at least four hundred. He shoulda taken the flat-screen TV; it’s worth more. Harder to carry, though.
She hears a noise, opens her eyes, and sees him standing in the doorway again. “What?”
“I can’t get out,” he says sheepishly.
“Jesus Christ!” She grabs her keys off the desk, pushes past him, and marches through the kitchen into the dining room. “Give me the cash back and I’ll open the door.”
“Norma, I can’t.” He unzips his coat, reaching inside for the lawnmower blade.
“Aw, fuck, don’t bother.” She unlocks the door, holds it open for him, and smacks the back of his head as he walks through into bright snowy daylight.
When he turns, his whole face is an apology, overlaid with blood and bruises. “Norma…”
“Yeah, yeah,” she says. “Whatever.”
They stand there for a few seconds, looking at each other as snow covers his balding head. “Merry Christmas,” he says finally.
“Get the fuck out of here.” She wishes she had something to throw at him.
He looks at her for another few seconds, then lifts his hood, turns, and trudges away through the snow, his oversized boots leaving fat footprints in the dirty white drifts.
She closes the door, locks it, and watches him cross the street, then walks down the smelly dark hallway to the bathroom. She flips the light switch, turns on the faucet, and examines her cheek. He nicked the skin, and there’s a red spot already darkening into a bruise. “Shit.” She rests her hands on the sink, shaking. Without any warning, she starts to cry; tears stream down her face, and soon she’s sobbing, wishing she could go home and expect to find Mark there. She’d curl up with him on the couch, and tell him about Ugly Beans and his ghetto sword, and he’d hold her and give her a kiss, or storm out to find the bastard and beat the crap out of him for her.
But she can’t do that, because he’s probably off with the skinny bookkeeper, so instead she washes and dries her face and returns to the office. She pulls the flat-screen out of its box, carefully separating it from the Styrofoam packing, then finds her bat behind the stack of other presents, and takes a deep breath. The shock of each blow travels up past her elbows as she hammers it again and again, clobbering the screen until every millimeter of glass is cracked. Then, sweating and panting, she repacks the TV, safeguarding it with the Styrofoam, and closes the box. I’ll get Kelly to wrap it, she thinks, and I’ll put it under the tree. Mark will love it. I can’t wait to see his face.