The Night Shift

The world doesn’t end once the sun goes down. The last tail light fades to a red pin prick before guttering out, but I’m still here, a creature of the night. Now don’t go yelling vampire or demon spawn or some such crazy nonsense. There’s no such thing. I’m just Ted.

The night clerk.

Once the street lights come on, I clock in and man the bullet-proof cage that hasn’t seen anything stronger than a .22 caliber spit wad in the twenty-some years I’ve worked here. Tina says I can have all the coffee I want while I work. She thinks it’ll help me stay awake through the night, and I’ve been known to go through more than two pots on my shift. Truthfully, I just like the bitter, no cream or sugar taste. I have no problem staying up till sun rise.

I think the common misconception is that nothing happens in the middle of the night when you’re outside city limits. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. I see all sorts.

Just the other night this lady comes in wearing a black shirt with two columns of thick buttons. The cuffs were rolled several times just so her hands wouldn’t get lost in the sleeves.

‘That’s an interesting shirt.’

‘I’m a chef,’ she told me as she reached for a pack of cigarettes on the display case.

‘Let me grab you a fresh pack from here,’ I said. Those packs on display haven’t been rotated out in years. If someone should steal one, I’d hate for them to enjoy it, too.

‘Thanks,’ she said.

As she put the pack back on the shelf, the cuff pulled back just far enough for me to see a light scar across her wrist. She must have seen me looking because she said, ‘Cooking accident. An oven doesn’t care how long you’ve been using it. It’ll bite you just the same.’

Her mouth might have smiled while she said it, but her eyes looked tired from repeating it.

‘Ain’t that the truth. That’ll be three seventy-two.’ I took her money and a couple pennies from the spare change tray and gave her thirty cents back.

Now on a different night, or maybe a different time that same night, I might have chatted a bit more. It’s not often I get to talk to an actual chef. Outside though, another car pulled in the lot, and most people won’t talk to a stranger if they know another stranger will overhear them.

‘Do you mind if I stand outside and smoke?’

‘Sure, sure,’ I said. ‘Just don’t get near the gas pumps. Nothing might happen, but we could get an earful if the wrong person sees you.’

‘Got it.’

The chef lady pounded the pack of cigarettes against the palm of her hand as she walked out the doors, sounding the electric chime as she crossed the threshold.

No one had gotten out of the car yet, but I could see two people talking in the front seat. I’m pretty sure the car was green. It was hard to tell being that it was covered in mud, most of it fresh. Usually I’d wait behind the counter for someone to come in, but instead I waddled out from the bullet-proof cage and headed for the beer coolers. My knee was acting up that week, so it took me a bit to get up to speed. Sometimes I tell people it’s an old football injury acting up, but really I’m just getting old. I also used to tell people to avoid getting old until I thought about the alternative.

So I waddled to the beer coolers and locked them. I still had an hour before last call, but it could save me some grief later. At least so I thought. I poured myself another cup of coffee and headed back to my little cage of glass. It’s more like plastic, but they tell me it’s bullet-proof.

The passenger door opens up and a kid gets out. Maybe he’s not so much a kid, but at my age, if your hair ain’t gray or falling out, you’re still a kid to me. He’s got his hood pulled up, hands in his pockets, and never looks up as he comes in the store. I couldn’t keep from smiling as he headed for the beer. He pulled on the cooler door and nearly lost his balance when the door didn’t open like he expected.

Now I could’ve just asked the kid for his ID. That usually sends them running through the door. But I was enjoying watching him fumble around, staring at a seventy-five cent bag of Doritos as if there was something meaningful to find in its list ingredients.

That’s when the door chime went off again. The chef lady was back.

‘I think I’ll bring home a nightcap, too,’ she said.

As soon as that chime sounded, I knew this would go sour. Well, less amusing anyway.