Smile, and the whole world’ll kick you in the ass…

Here’s a confession: I couldn’t flirt my way out of a paper bag. Seriously. If someone tossed me into a paper bag, then said, “Flirt your way out of it,” you’d never hear from me again. I lack that certain subtle quality that’s apparently required. In high school, while other girls batted their eyes and murmured whatever it is they were murmuring with seeming effortlessness to their boy–or boys–of choice, I could only manage a forthright, “So…are you gonna ask me out, or what?”*

Concede my surprise, therefore, when I found the following note waiting for me when I got to work Tuesday night, penned by my boss:


Actually, surprise is not the word I should have chosen to describe my emotions at that moment. Amazed. Astonished. Flabbergasted. Those just about do it. It took me several minutes to pick my jaw off the floor. I still have the bruise. And I spent the next eight-and-a-half hours a nervous, unflirty wreck. I buttoned my uniform all the way up to the top, geek-style, even though I can’t stand to have anything tight around my neck. I eyed each of my male customers with irritation and suspicion. They eyed me right back with what was probably amazement, astonishment, and flabbergastedness. And when my boss finally walked through the door at seven o’clock, I held up the note–clutched tightly in my fist–and growled:

“Just what the fuck is this all about?”

See what I mean about that certain subtle quality I lack?

“You’ve been flirting with the customers, and you need to stop it.”

“Flirt? What do you mean, ‘flirt’? I don’t even know how to flirt!” Then I unleashed my Paper Bag Gag. It had come to me at about three-thirty, and I’d been practicing it ever since. I’m proud to say it went over rather well, getting a hearty chuckle from my boss, the first shift girl, and the bread delivery guy. When he was done chuckling, my boss explained himself.

Apparently I smile too much, and it’s giving one of my customers–a scuzzy truck driver with no teeth whose wife recently left him–the wrong impression. Apparently he’s not used to friendly cashiers. Apparently I’m supposed to scowl at him and act like he’s got a lot of nerve coming to the store in the middle of the night to buy diesel fuel and coffee when I’ve got an important Star magazine to read, like the other overnight girl does. Apparently that would make him feel more comfortable.

Hey, I’m all for it. I’ve been practicing my scowl all week. I’ll keep practicing it this weekend. And I’ll unleash it on the asshole when he comes in early Monday morning for his diesel fuel and coffee. Because giving the customers what they want is my number one priority.

* Oddly enough, that line worked on the man who is now my husband. Go figure.

A Tale of Two Winners

Ah…the lottery. Here in Maine we sure do love it: Megabucks, Powerball, Paycheck, Pick 3/Pick 4…and, of course, scratch tickets. To say that the majority of lottery tickets are purchased by people who can ill afford them–and would be better off stuffing the money they spend on them in a sock (or in an interest accruing savings account)–is like saying the sky is blue. A big fat “duh.” So I’ll spare that lecture. Instead I’ll give you a personal glimpse into what I consider a big fat problem.

Winner #1:
Twenty-eight year old single mother of three. She works as a waitress in a restaurant one town over. Every night she uses $20 of her tip money to buy a scratch ticket. Yes, you read that right: one 20 dollar ticket. A few weeks ago she was fortunate enough to win $100. I was pretty excited for her, even though I know she spends more than that every week on the damned things. At least this week she’d make some of her money back. And what did she do with her winnings? Yep, you guessed it: she spent it all–that’s right…100 bucks!–on scratch tickets. Five 20 dollar tickets. And, of course, she won nothing. She blew $120 in one night for a big fat nothing. Then she bought milk and bread for her kids’ breakfast. With her food stamp card.

Winner #2:
Picture Steve Perry circa “Oh Sherry” with no top teeth, covered with tattoos and wearing biker clothes; that’s Winner #2. Every day he buys a twelve pack of Miller High Life, three packs of Mavericks, and a five dollar scrach ticket. Last Saturday he won $1000, which is pretty cool. There was a problem, though. I can’t cash a ticket that high. He had to go into Augusta to claim the money.

“Oh…the state has to get involved?”

“Well, yeah.”

“That won’t work. I owe child support and they’d take it all for that.”

I didn’t say what I was thinking, which was: Good for them, you cheap, selfish bastard. I just nodded.

“But,” he continued, “you could always go down there and turn it in for me.”

“No I couldn’t.”

“Sure you could. I’ll give you a hundred bucks.”


“Plus gas money.”


“Two hundred?”


“Fine.” Then he walked out the door. In a huff.

I worked yesterday morning (in addition to my overnight shifts, I now work Saturday mornings as well) and Winner #2 came in. He hauled four twelve packs of Michelob Light over to the counter and asked for five cartons of Marlboro. Then he brought out his wallet, which was filled with a huge wad of twenty dollar bills.

“Someone cashed your ticket in for you?” I asked.


“How much did you have to give them.”

He scowled before he admitted: “Half.”

And there he was, spending it on cigarettes and beer while his ex-wife struggled to get child support from the asshole. Oh, and he bought a five dollar scratch ticket. It wasn’t a winner.

* And now, as a bonus–and because I don’t want you to think that all Mainers are ignorant hicks–allow me to present:

Winner #3
A family of three. Hubby and wife are in their late twenties, the kid is about four. Both parents have decent paying jobs but still struggle to make ends meet. A few weekends ago, the family was out together and popped into the store to buy a bottle of Bug Juice for the kid. He looked up with eager eyes at the scratch tickets in front of him. He was particularly enthralled with Mustang Money, a five dollar ticket.

“Mommy, can you buy the car ticket?”

“No. I don’t waste money on scratch tickets.”

“Please? Please, please, please??”

This went on for a few moments before she finally capitulated. She even let him do the scratching. We all smiled when he won five dollars.

“Another one!” he said.

“No. You should save this money.”

“Please? Please, please, please??”

“Tell you what,” Dad said. “You save two dollars and spend the rest on that ticket right there.”

He pointed to Tic Tac Toe, a three dollar ticket. The kid could see the logic in this, so he agreed. He scratched his brand new ticket…and won $300. Naturally, he wanted another ticket. Fortunately his parents knew when to say when. They gave the kid fifty bucks to spend on toys at Walmart, and set up a savings account for him with the rest. Hurrah for small miracles.


If you’re interested in reading about Mainers of the fictional variety, head over to Readers and Writers Blog for Chapter 15 of Waiting for Spring. Also new there today is Chapter 27: Sutro Heights of Gerard Jones’ Ginny Good. This chapter made me cry. Poor Melanie…


Last week I caught a guy I know screwing around on his wife. I didn’t actually catch him. I mean, it’s not like I walked in on anything…thank God. I just happened to be working while he walked into the store at 11:20pm, hand-in-hand, with a woman who isn’t his wife.

He looked at the condom display, picked out his package of choice and tossed it onto the counter. Then he saw me. Standing in front of the cash register. With his package of rubbers in my hand.

“Uh…oh. Hi Kel. Uh, this is…I’m…we’re–shit.”

Yep. Shit. Deep shit. That’s exactly what he figured he was in.

The Other Woman–whom I didn’t recognize–looked at him, then at me, then walked out of the store without a word. The guy didn’t speak. Neither did I. I didn’t know what to say. Finally I scanned the rubbers into the register and managed, “That’ll be four-seventy-nine.”

“You won’t tell [Wife], will you?”

“What do you think, I’m gonna track her down and give her a ‘guess what, your husband’s screwing around on you’?”

The truth is, I don’t know the couple super well. We exchange “hellos” at the market and pleasant chit-chat at school functions, but that’s about it. And at least he was practicing safe cheating sex.

“No, I guess not. But…you don’t understand.”

Then he gave me the reasons–pardon me, I mean the lame excuses–as to why he was screwing around on his wife: Been married for 18 years and that’s a long time…under a lot of stress because of bills-kids-etc, blah blah blah. He ended it with: “Besides, she’s working second shift now. She doesn’t get out of work until midnight, and she doesn’t get home most nights until 1am. Then she’s tired and…well, we don’t get to see each other too often. That’s rough.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know it is.”

And I do know, of course. Because while I was awake and selling this guy Twisted Pleasure Trojans, my husband was home alone in our bed. That’s how it is three nights a week. On the fourth night I’m usually completely exhausted from spending three nights in a row awake, followed by three days of trying to catch brief naps in between parenting my kids. It sucks big time, and we frequently ask ourselves, “Why are we doing this?” only to answer, “Oh yeah…so we can eat and pay for oil next winter.” So yeah, Cheater Man, I know all about it.

I didn’t say that, though. I just took his money and gave him his change.

“So, you won’t tell her?”


He looked at me a little more closely. “What if she asks you?”

I rolled my eyes. “Do you actually think she’s going to track me down and ask me if her husband is screwing around on her?” Like I said, I don’t really know these people that well.

“What if she does, though.”

“I’m not gonna lie.”

He was silent for a few moments, just looking at me. And I waited for him to ask me another question. I waited for quite awhile. But he didn’t ask it. He just walked out of the store with his rubbers.

So I didn’t tell him that his wife’s shift doesn’t really end at midnight. It ends at eleven. And I didn’t tell him that she had walked into the store a few weeks earlier, hand-in-hand, with a man who isn’t her husband. I didn’t tell him that The Other Man had also bought a package of rubbers. And I didn’t tell him that I’d had the almost identical conversation with his wife.


Chapter 13 is up at Readers and Writers Blog today. Also posted: Chapter 25: Kentfield of Gerard Jones’ Ginny Good and Chapter 4 of J. Cafesin’s Disconnected; both of which are seriously excellent reads. Also, be sure to check out Sid Leavitt’s thoughts about animal cruelty, along with an excerpt from his book “Adrift in America”. I myself made a few thoughtless, callous remarks on the blog in question which I now regret…especially since we’re in the process of clearing a spot for a new chicken coop that’ll be filled–humanely–with a flock of laying hens next spring. I’ll no doubt blog–lovingly–about their many idiotic exploits beginning next summer.

Dance like nobody’s watching

First things first…I had a great time in Portland over the weekend. As promised, I ate myself sick and danced like an idiot to some truly awesome music. In fact, I danced so ecstatically that my family pretended not to know me, and people who didn’t know me were proud of it. However, reality beckoned, and I had to go to work Sunday night after only a very brief inside-the-car nap on the ride home.

After I clocked in, I drank three cups of Shock Coffee and a can of Triple Mocha in less than an hour by way of girding my loins for the shift. It didn’t exactly go as planned. Too much caffeine plus not enough sleep equals…well, have you ever been drifting off to sleep after a very, very long day, only to be awakened suddenly when your cat pounces on your head? That sort of dizzy, heart-in-your-throat, “what-the-fuck-was-that?” shock that leaves you still exhausted, but completely wide awake at the same time? That’s how I felt from 11pm Sunday night until about 5am Monday morning. Six straight hours. Then came the crash. It was a bad’n. By the time my boss wandered in at 6:45am, I was ready for a two week nap. Instead I was told I had to stay for a brief summary of the ‘important’ store meeting I had missed over the weekend, presided over by a couple of Higher Ups from corporate. Allow me to summarize the summary for you:
There’s a big, bad recession goin’ on. People in our area are having a hard time financially. (Actually, they have been since the local textile mill and shoe shop closed down during the 90’s, but it’s worse now than ever.) Historically, poor people living through hard times sink into a depression. This frequently causes them to spend money they don’t have on things they don’t really need…like liquor and cigarettes and lottery tickets. “This,” said my boss, with a gleam in his eye, “is good news.”
“Did you say, ‘good news’?”

Yep, he did. Good News because convenience stores specialize in liquor, cigarettes, and lottery tickets. Increased misery equals increased profits. And, as a Loyal Employee, I’m supposed to maximize the misery/profit flow by suggestive selling scratch tickets and upselling liquor and cigarette orders (half-gallons instead of fifths, three-pack specials instead of packs). AND I’m supposed to play a CD (made specially for us by some shithead at corporate) that’s filled with sad, sappy, depressing music, to capitalize even further on this recession depression.

I nodded, anxious to get home and get to bed, and told him I’d be happy to go along with this “Kick ‘Em When They’re Down” Plan…even though, of course, I had no intention of doing so. I like my customers. I’ve known most of them for years. They’re my neighbors and friends. Most of them work their asses off for not enough pay, unfortunately spend too much of it at our store as it is, and the fuckwads in corporate want me to charm even more of it away from them? I don’t think so. It’s hard enough getting enough sleep when you work third shift; I don’t need a guilty conscience interfering with the process.

This is what I did instead.

Monday evening I burned a CD of my own, filled with upbeat, happy tunes, and brought it into work. I wore my brightest lipstick and smiled my biggest smile to each and every customer who came through the door. I asked fondly about children, subtly reminded customers about mortgage payments and fuel bills, and expounded on the futility of gambling away hard earned cash on a 1-in-500 chance of winning a few bucks from a handful of lottery tickets. At six-thirty I wiped off my lipstick, replaced my happy CD with the sappy CD, and added up my sales. $150 less than the night before. Then I left the store with a spring in my step, drove home with a smile and slept like a baby Tuesday morning.

I only dance for myself.

Midnight Chronicles

Random notes from three nights on the graveyard shift…

Shift 1

Saturday May 3
11:34 PM: A guy just bought two cans of Bud Light with Clamato juice. That’s right…Clamato. I think I just threw up in my mouth.

Sunday May 4
2:20 AM: A couple just left the store. I recognized both of them from when I used to help the school nurse with the flouride program at the elementary school. Now he’s 16, she’s 14. They bought two Mountain Dews, a bag of M&Ms, and a package of Trojans. (God, I know it’s a lot to ask, but is there any way you could stop time, right now, and let my kids stay 13 and 11 for the rest of their lives?)

3:46 AM-4:15 AM I was propositioned by three men in less than half an hour. Note to self: don’t wear lipstick to work anymore.

Shift 2

Sunday May 4
11:05 PM: Why are out-of-staters so fascinated with red hot dogs?

Monday May 5
1:15 AM-5:15 AM: One customer in four hours. She bought a pack of Marlboro Menthol Ultra Lights. What exactly is an ‘ultra light’ cigarette? And why the menthol? Does it soothe the throat? Open up nasal passages?

Shift 3

Monday May 5
11:39 PM: The 16-year-old boy from the other night just left the store. He wanted to buy a scratch ticket, but I had to turn him down. He’s old enough to fuck, but not old enough to play the lottery. At least he was smart enough to use protection. Do his parents know–or care–that he’s out this late on a school night?

Tuesday May 6
12:57 AM: A group of five 18-year-old boys just bought a twelve pack of Coke. I’m fairly certain they’ve got something back at home to mix it with, but I didn’t ask. I’ve known all of them since they were in fourth grade. One of them was wearing a brand-spaking-new army uniform. I gave him a hug before he left the store. (Please, God, keep him safe. He’s got a really good heart.)

2:00 AM: I can hear a coyote out back behind the dumpster. I think I’ll take the trash out later. Much later.

5:45 AM: The sun spilled its honey over the frozen horizon…

Small town misery

I’m inspired to post this excerpt from chapter 4 of Waiting for Spring after working an afternoon shift at the store yesterday. (I was covering for a girl who was suffering from Morning Afteritis.) This pretty much sums up about 75% of the customers I waited on:

I stood behind a young woman and her son. He was maybe five or six years old. Both of them were dirty. Smelly. Old, ripped clothes. Her groceries: a candy bar, a gallon of milk and a half gallon bottle of Allen’s Coffee Brandy. I clenched my teeth, because I knew. Even though it’s wrong to judge. Even though I’d been judged–unfairly–too many times to count and knew better than to do it to someone else. I judged her anyway.

And I was right.

I’d never had a problem with the concept of State Aid. Food stamps or MaineCare or even welfare. Because sometimes people fall on hard times. Sometimes people work hard and still can’t afford health insurance. Sometimes they roll out of bed one morning and find that their job has been shipped South or East. And that’s when they need a helping hand. A little something to see them through the rough spots. I’d been there myself.

Then there were people like this woman.

She paid cash for the twenty dollar bottle of liquor. Used her food stamp card for the candy bar and the milk. The milk that wasn’t for her son. He wouldn’t drink it with his supper tonight or dip any cookies in it for dessert or pour in onto his breakfast cereal in the morning.

He looked up and gave me a huge smile, and I smiled right back. He had greasy blonde hair and big blue eyes. Probably the kids picked on him at school because his clothes were dirty. Because he smelled. Because his front two teeth were black and rotten. But underneath the dirt he was a beautiful child.

I wondered how much longer it would be before he realized exactly what kind of family he’d been born into. Before he understood that the twenty dollars his mother was using for liquor should have been used instead for soap and shampoo and laundry detergent. Would he grow up resentful? Bitter? Would he rise above it, determined to make a better life for himself? Or would he grow up thinking that it was normal to live that way?

The woman turned back, too, and glared at me. She knew what I was thinking and I didn’t care. I wanted to say something to her. Wanted to tell her to go get some fucking help. Tell her that twenty bucks would buy a bar of soap and a bottle of shampoo and a box of cheap laundry detergent. Or maybe tell her about all the childless couples out there who would gladly take that little boy off her hands and give him a good life. A life that was filled with baths and toothbrushes. With leafy green veggies and cold milk. The kind of milk that was poured over breakfast cereal and not mixed with coffee brandy.

I didn’t, of course, because right now–right now–the boy was at least somewhat content. Living with a mommy who probably loved him at least a little. And he loved her. That much was obvious. Bad days were coming for him. I knew that, too. But right now, to him, today was The Day Mommy Bought Me a Candy Bar. I couldn’t turn it into The Day Mommy Yelled at the Mean Lady in the Grocery Store. So I gave the woman an almost friendly nod, waved goodbye to the boy, and watched them walk away. The little boy was holding his mommy’s hand. Because right now he still loved her.

Small town, Sunday night

My dryer died last night, and I had to go to the laundrymat to dry my clothes. There are few places stranger than a laundrymat. There I was, folding my socks and underwear at a public table, under fluorescent lighting, in front of a plate glass window facing a crowded parking lot, no less; right next to a guy who was folding his socks and underwear. I’ve known this guy since we were kids, and we’re on generally friendly terms, but neither of us uttered a word the entire time. We were too busy trying not to look at each other’s underwear.