Coop continued, undaunted by her eye-rolling. “So I run in super-fast for a coffee and this one ponytailed hip-dad was totally holding up the line—”
“Wait,” Lucy interrupted. “’Held up’ like stickup or ‘held up’ like slow?”
“I think it’s pretty obvious,” Coop sighed as he stepped behind the counter. In a mournful voice: “He got everything, even my lighter. I’m penniless.”
“That’s awful,” she responded with fake sympathy. The register bleeped as she tried opening the cash drawer. She wiggled the manager’s key and tried again. Bleep. “Did you get shot in the face? Cuz you look horrible,” she observed, not looking up.
“Anyway,” Coop exhaled. “The dude was all complaining about his cappuccino foam or some such shit. I was like dude, get a fucking normal cup of coffee.”
“That’s an interesting story you’ve just told me,” Lucy said. She slapped the side of the cash drawer. “The Fuck?” she demanded of the machine. It did not reply.
“I don’t think you actually enjoyed my story. I think you’re drenched in sarcastic residue right now. It’s like Sarcasm Incarnate has shot a hot load of his spunk all over your hot young college co-ed face.”
“Mmmm,” she agreed, still pretty much ignoring him. “Why do we keep the bathroom key in the goddamned cash drawer anyway?”
“Because you kept losing it.”
“Better to not know where something is when you need it and stand half a chance of finding it than to know exactly where something is when you need it and have absolutely no chance of getting at it.”
“Just get me the butter knife in the back room. It’s in the pencil cup.”
“You know, if you bought something, the register would open.”
“I don’t shop here.”
“I’m going to pee on your shoe.”
“Now that’s just plain distasteful.”
“My question is,” Lucy announced, returning from the bathroom with a fashion magazine. “They put beautiful women on magazine covers to attract horny men and image-conscious women as readers, right?”
“Yes,” Coop concurred. “Yes, they do.” His ass sat on the officially designated employee stool, his torso lay draped across the counter. “I’m failing to see what exactly your question is.”
“Well, what the fuck is up with that?” Lucy demanded, throwing the thick glossy magazine onto the top of the recycling bin pile. It was stacked precariously high in the blue plastic box near the trash can. Coop had never taken out the store’s recycling, nor could he ever recall having seen a co-worker empty it. Coop suspected the dense tower of paper pre-dated his employment, and possibly, recycling itself.
“Yes,” he agreed again. “I dunno.”
“I mean, how about beautiful men on magazine covers for horny women and image-conscious men?” she proposed. “Hah, buddy?” she goaded, punching Coop in the upper arm.” Hah?
How bout that, fella?”
Cooper was too tired to feign injury. “Well…” he thought. “What about those weight-lifting magazines—”
“Who reads those? Nobody reads those things. Those magazines suck donkballs!” she declared. A regular perusing the clearance section let out a snort. He always wore a Marlboro hat. Their nickname for him was Marlboro Hat Guy. “Right?!?” she calls to him. “Thank you!” Lucy retrieved the fashion magazine from the recycling pile and began flipping through it again. “I need more of a hot-guy-infotainment-cool-shoes sort of magazine. Aren’t I a target audience? Don’t I have rights?” she demanded. Without explanation, she licked her thumb, delicately tore a page from the middle of the magazine, folded it into quarters, and slipped it into her jeans pocket. “This magazine is garbage,” she muttered, tossing it back onto the pile.
“Then maybe you shouldn’t recycle it,” Coop suggested from the protective arm-cave he had spelunked his head into.
Coop’s real name was not Coop, nor was it Cooper. It was Kuperwold. Peter Kuperwold. He aspired to a promising career in either writing, film, acting or painting and early in life decided he needed to Americanize. He needed a catchy brand name. He was in love with the ethnic anonymity of some names. Short, one syllable surnames especially, preferably a preexisting noun or verb. Nick Cave. Tom Waits. Jack Black. Jim Beam. The Rock. Andy Dick. Well, not Andy Dick. Fortunately for Peter, his one half-season of being on the high school baseball team had yielded him the nickname “Coop.” Like “Let’s see some hustle, Coop!” and “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Coop?” and “Coop, I’d like to speak with you after practice.” He soon began signing his name as “Peter Cooper”, and soon just “Cooper” or “Coop”. Peter Kuperwold had Ellis Islanded himself.
Coop was closing with Doug. Doug was the sort of fella who would announce how much he loved the Mountain Dew he was drinking or the Camel he was smoking or the Old Navy shirt he was wearing. It was never about mere cola or cigarettes or faux-vintage T-shirts with Doug. No, it was brand loyalty in its purest form. Coop suspected that research analysts and survey conductors and polling people would give free infinite handjobs for a crack at a test subject like Doug. He was the perfect demographic of a perfect consumer. He was the Dougographic. Coop hated Doug. Coop hated Doug because Doug was an idiot.
“Wassup, Cooper?” hailed Doug as he swaggered into the store. “Closing with Cooper!” He wore a very clean baseball cap. All of Doug’s baseball caps were very clean.
“Hey, Doug,” Cooper nodded, tearing the flesh from his wrists with his teeth, watching with mild disinterest as his imaginary lifeblood soaked into his rolled-up shirt sleeves. “How’s it going.” Not a question.
“What are we listening to?” Doug inquired, not bothering to actually listen to the music on the store stereo. He was only aware that he did not immediately recognize it, and would therefore be unable to bob his head up and down to the beat. He began prodding the pile of scratched-to-hell CDs on top of the speaker. Doug loved to fuck with the stereo, and by extension, Coop’s sanity.
“It’s a band called Nately’s Whore,” Coop mumbled, mentally preparing himself.
“Nately? Wasn’t he one of the guys from The Who? The dude that suffocated on his own puke? UUGGHHHH!!!” Doug snorted with glee, grossing himself out. He took a long pull from his green bottle. “God I fucking love Mountain Dew,” he reflected.
“You should rotate the bottle around a little more so the logo faces out,” Coop suggested.
“The singer’s name was Daltry, not Nately,” Coop smiled.
“I must be thinking of Mama Cass! NAHHAHHAH!” Doug howled. Coop was pretty sure he didn’t actually know who Mama Cass was. Or Roger Daltry, or John Bonham, or Bon Scott, or whoever the hell he was thinking of. They were just names tenuously connected to pieces of pop culture trivia, urban legend, and old SNL skits, bumping into each other inside Doug’s weird-shaped head. Doug knew Kanye West lyrics. Doug knew Michael Bay movies. Doug knew imported sports cars.
“Subaru BRZ!!!” he shouted, grinning and pointing out the window at the blue fiberglass blob cruising past the store. “Ho-shit, you see that?” He jumped from behind the counter and rolled his face against the front window in an attempt to watch it take the turn at the main intersection. “Sick, bro! Thing’s sick!”
Doug had a weird habit of sometimes putting his gold chain in his mouth. Oral fixation. It dangled from his lips now. “Dude, those things haul balls.”
A black wave of dawning horror washed over Coop as he noted that Doug still had his coat on. He spun around to look at the clock and saw that not only was the tortuous evening of working with Doug not anywhere near over yet, but Doug had shown up fifteen minutes early. The tortuous evening of working with Doug had yet to commence.
“What are you doing here?” demanded Cooper, tapping the plastic face of the clock. “What the fuck are you doing here?” he half-stammered, a sure sign he was about to absolutely fucking lose his shit. He reminded himself he hadn’t cried in over seven years.
“Ah, just swung in to drop off my bag,” shrugged Doug, oblivious to Cooper’s histrionics. He threw his backpack through the back room doorway. “Gotta run up to FasMart and grab some Camels. Want anything?” He left without waiting for an answer.
Coop couldn’t construct the proper curse word combination to properly express his feelings. A peculiar choking gurgle escaped from his windpipe. “Roger Daltry’s not dead,” Coop croaked as he twisted his own head off and stomped it into jelly.
“Wait, how awesome was it?” Coop asked for confirmation, eyebrows raised.
“Aw, dude, no fucking contest. It was totally awesome!” Doug declared. “Fucking insane. Truly. The train cars have no floors and they shoot you up, like, 500 feet in the air and drop you like
a sack of wet mice and at the last second: WHAM!” He slapped his fist into his open palm. “They slam you into a triple-threat loop! Then these guys come running out on this one slow straightaway part. They’re made up like dead zombies all gory and shit.”
“Dead zombies, you say?” It was almost time to get ready to start getting ready to prepare to close the store. They had vacuumed an hour earlier and there were no customers. Coop was just trying to keep himself awake and entertained enough to painlessly ride out the rest of the shift.
“And I’m not shitting you Cooper, they start swinging axes and machetes at your fucking head as you ride by! And you’re all strapped in and can’t duck or anything! It rocked so hard!”
“You paid for this.” Cooper non-asked.
“It’s like a roller coaster crossed with a haunted house crossed with… I dunno, bungee jumping. I swear I’ve never been so frightened in my whole fuckin’ life!” Doug praised as he chewed on the pen cap. “Like, three people on the ride pissed themselves!”
“So you enjoy this weird, artificial, fear-inducing sort of entertainment?” Coop inquired.
“Artificial, my ass!” Doug defended. “Dude, they almost killed all of us! It was amaaaazing! I’m going back next weekend!”
“You know, Doug…” Coop began, transitioning to his lecturing-a-five-year-old voice. “In other parts of the world—places you don’t read about in porn mags or hear on Rock109 or see on 4chan—in those parts of the world, people are being kidnapped and beaten.”
“Who’s buying fuckin’ magazines, Coop?”
“Kidnapped and beaten. Sometimes for their beliefs, sometimes for their race, sometimes just because they’re fucking poor. They’re tortured. They’re shot. They’re disfigured.”
Doug rolled his eyes and took another extreme chug from his Mountain Dew. He bought the bottles at such a constant rate that Coop had never actually witnessed Doug open or empty one. It appeared that the young man possessed a single, self-replenishing, eternally half-full bottle of green pee. Coop continued in his best Nurse Ratched tone of voice: “You paid money for a thrilling, titillating and ultimately safe re-creation of horrors and fears many many people face every day of their lives. A simulated taste of dangers you’ll probably never have to actually worry about.” Doug leaned back against the wall and rubbed his temples. “You are an American, Doug. You are a tourist of cruel and barbaric acts. The most frightening and exciting experience of your life took place on a ride at an amusement park in a rented field. You bought a ticket for it, Doug. You following me?” Doug knew better than to respond. “You know Pham? The Cambodian kid that works at FasMart? He told me once that when he was like five, he watched while two of his brothers got dragged out of his house in the middle of the night and shot in their fucking faces.”
“Fuck you, Cooper,” Doug interrupted with uncharacteristic impatience. “That’s too fucking bad about Pham, seriously. But you try to make me feel guilty or stupid for like, everything I do. All I did was go to an amusement park with Carrie, okay? It wasn’t a political statement or a symptom of some social injustice or something. It was just a roller coaster ride. An awesome one. Electric Genocide III was amazingly fun. I’m going to ride it every goddamned weekend for the rest of the summer. So fuck off.”
Coop was dumbstruck. He almost trembled in disbelief. Blood shot out of his eyes like an angry lizard. His own voice seemed so very far away.
“What’s the ride called?” he whispered.
The rest of the shift was like this.
Every shift they worked together was like this.
“Nothing,” Coop responded, running a finger across the packets of gum insulating the front of the convenience store counter. FasMart satellite radio tooted out of the hidden ceiling speakers. “Another morning, another day of item-selling, another delicious breakfast. What’s this?” he asked, poking a glass jar with a post-it note taped to it. The post-it note said “TIPS.”
“Tip jar,” Pham confirmed. “Manager said we could put one out.”
“Is this in lieu of paying you a living wage?”
“I hate cash register tip jars,” Coop said as he strode across the convenience store. “I’ve never been served by a retail worker to such a high degree of satisfaction that I’ve ever felt compelled to give ‘em extra money. I mean, let’s face it: that’s what it is. Extra money. Who has extra money? We’re capitalists in a capitalist system. There’s no such a thing as extra money. Now, incidentally Pham, this is no offense to you. I’m in retail too; I’ve always been in retail. I just don’t get the tip thing, Pham. I just don’t.”
Pham shrugged again.
Cooper cracked open the refrigerator case and grabbed a Coke. “It’s an employer’s trick, that’s what I think. They’re trying to divert their low-paid work force’s dissatisfaction away from the company and onto the customer. It’s not my fault FasMart pays a crap wage, Pham. It’s FasMart’s, right?” He slid the bottle onto the counter. “I mean am I right?”
Pham shrugged again. “Want anything else?”
Ding! Lucy strode in, digging through her purse.
“Hey,” Coop hailed. The register bleeped.
Lucy looked up. “Hey.” She headed for the lip balm display on the endcap..
“I’ve been a customer here for like, over a year,” Coop reminded Pham. “Old-school regulars don’t need to tip, right?” He dug in his pocket for money. “What, do I throw my mom a buck-oh-five for dinner now?”
“What’re you guys talking about?” asked Lucy as she tossed an apricot-flavored stick of wax onto the counter. Coop tapped the tip jar with his fingernail.
“Oooh, a tip jar! Why don’t we have one at our store?” she scowled at Cooper. To Pham: “I like the ones that say ‘for counter intelligence’.”
“Why? Why?” Coop cried. “Because we push buttons? Because we put things in bags? We’re not craftsmen. We’re not skilled artisans. We don’t lift or carry or cook or prepare anything! We don’t even get off the damned stool most of the time! We’re register manipulators, and that’s all!” Coop declared. “You!” he pointed at Lucy. “Me!” he pointed at himself. “Pham!” he pointed at Pham.
“Well, a few extra bucks wouldn’t hurt.”
“Then ask Hal for a raise! Not Marlboro Hat Guy! Not Pardon-Me Lady! Not the customers, Loose!”
“Do not call me ‘Loose’.”
“Customers are supposed to support businesses and the businesses are supposed to support their workers! That’s how it’s supposed to work!”
“For someone who complains about customers non-stop, you sure are defending their right to consume without care or concern,” she pointed out. Lucy leaned over the counter to Pham. “Tell him that if people want to tip us, they should be able to.” She patted the tip jar. “A simple receptacle to catch their kindness,” she cooed. “Tell him he’s an idiot,” she added.
Pham looked at Coop. He opened his mouth, paused, and closed it again. “You’re an idiot.”
Cooper let out a slow exhale. He arched an eyebrow and leaned in over the counter, eye to eye with the young Cambodian. “Waitaminute,” Coop scowled. “You don’t know my name, do you?”
“No,” Pham admitted without shame.
“Oh,” Coop spun around to address the empty convenience store. Lucy stifled a laugh. “OH!” he barked again. He spread his arms wide, probably reenacting a scene from some
Al Pacino movie. “I come in here every goddamned day for a year and Pham doesn’t even know my name and I have to tip everybody for doing anything! This is unfuckingbelievable!”
Lucy cracked up. “You lose big, buddy. See ya.” She waves at Pham and walks out the door.
Coop hated losing half his audience, but persevered. “Like a knife in my heart, Pham!” he cried to the aisles of high fructose corn syrup. “A knife in my heart!”
“My name’s Kim.”
Cooper stopped short and turned to the boy behind the counter.
“What, no it’s not,” Coop denied, perplexed. “It is?”
“Fuck me,” Coop said, his head cocked at an angle. He stuck a finger absently in his ear and stepped towards the door. “Then who the hell is Pham?” he wondered aloud.
I wrote this in the early aughts, and rewrote it in 2013.