by David Obuchowski
“Uh oh,” one of your coworkers says. He gives you a quick nod and a smile. “You’re in trouble now,” he laughs, but not in a cruel way. He’s one of your favorite people to share a shift with. You aren’t friends with him outside the store, which is something you’ll come to regret. In a few months, you’ll lose touch when he goes off to college. Five years after that, he’ll be one of thousands killed on September 11th, 2001. And then you’ll always make a point to find his name on those 9/11 memorial flags they have displayed in airports.
You walk out of the pit—the area with the cash registers enclosed by half-height counters—past the candy, past the kids section, past horror, past the comedies. You come to a door at the back, which interrupts the shelves that sport the new releases. You touch the metal door handle and it shocks you, which you knew it would. But, somehow, it surprises you anyway.
So does this meeting. You knew very well it would happen at some point. But now that it is, you’re all nerves. It’s a stupid job, but you like it. And, anyway, you’d rather be working than be at home.
You’d rather be anywhere than home.
You pull the door closed behind you, shutting out the far too bright fluorescent lights and low din of some PG-rated kids adventure film playing on the many televisions mounted to the acoustic-tiled ceiling. The light is dim in the hallway. The floor is unsealed concrete. It’s cold. You pass the stockroom on the right where the candy, soda, and popcorn is stored. You pass the stockroom on the left where VHS cases, damaged VHS cassettes, and new releases that await their release dates are kept. His office door is open, but only slightly, so you knock.
“Come in,” he says. He sounds pissed.
You push the door open and step into his tiny office, which is cluttered with stacks of calendars, magazines, and binders. There’s a broken printer on the floor next to the black garbage can, overflowing with crumpled up papers and empty plastic bottles of Coca-Cola. The office smells of him, which is to say it smells of sweat and whiskey.
“Shut the door,” he tells you, and you do.
“What’s up?” you ask, though you know damn-well what’s up. You’re one of the best, most hardworking employees they’ve got. This can only be about one thing.
“What do you think is up?” he asks, and he crosses his arms.
“No idea,” you answer innocently.
“You lied to me.”
“What about?” You’re not sure why you’re keeping up the act.
“You’re 16. Not 17. I told you I didn’t have an opening here, but you begged me for a job. I gave you a chance and you lied to me.”
There it is. You’d be relieved that the truth is finally out, but you’re too worried about losing the job, the money, the 32 hours per week you spend here instead of fending off fists at home. “I’m sorry,” you mutter.
“Corporate policy says minimum age is 17,” he slurs. “I could get into big trouble.”
“I know,” you say.
“I could fire you,” he says.
“I know,” you say.
“The company could reclaim compensation,” he says.
“I know,” you say, though you have no idea if that’s true or not. In fact, you doubt it is.
He stands up. “So what should I do? Fire you?”
“No,” you answer quickly.
“So what then?” He takes a step toward you. Unsteady. He’s been drinking. Not unusual.
“I don’t know,” you say. “I’ll be 17 in a few weeks and then it’s a moot point.”
“Still,” he stumbles closer, “you,” he points at you, “lied to me!”
“I’m sorry,” you say again, because what else is there to say?
He grabs at you, pulls you in by your blue button-down shirt, which is half of the required uniform. He presses his chinless, sweaty face into yours. He has a grape-sized growth along his nearly non-existent jawline, and you can feel it, along with the coarse hair of his close-cropped beard, rub against your own face, which you have only just started to shave. His hot breath smells like the Jim Beam in the pantry at home. You’ve skimmed so much from that in the last few months, you’ve had to add iced tea to the bottle to make up for it.
He opens his mouth, closes his eyes, and this makes the third time today you’ve been surprised by something you knew was probably going to happen. Even your friends have known. They come into the store and see how he acts around you. Some nights after work, you meet up with them in the woods, drink Molsons, and they laugh about it. In a cruel way. Not out of care or concern. Rather, like it’s a comedy you rent on VHS for three nights.
“Don’t,” you say. You push him off. But you don’t shove him because you know that you could hurt him easily. “Don’t.”
He steps back, gives you a half-smile. “Whoa,” he chuckles like he just woke up from a strange dream.
“Don’t. Okay? Don’t,” you repeat.
He looks down at his ugly Reeboks. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m 36 and I live with my mother and I can’t tell her—” He can’t finish because, now, he’s sobbing too hard.
And then you say something you’ll remember for the rest of your life, just like you’ll remember the kid waiting for you back in the pit: “It’s okay.”
You’ll regret it just like you’ll regret how you never became friends with that kid. But, hoping to keep your job in this garishly lit place that you lied to find work in, you say it again. You crouch down next to the sobbing man crumpled on the floor like so much discarded paper.
“Really,” you say, “it’s okay.”
* * *
David Obuchowski is a prolific writer of fiction and long-form essays, whose work has appeared in The Baltimore Review, Salon, Fangoria, West Trade Review, and many others. David and artist Sarah Pedry will have their first children’s book published in 2023 by Minedition (Astra Publishing House). His in-depth documentary podcast, TEMPEST, is a critical and popular success and serves as the inspiration for an upcoming television series. David and his family live in Colorado.