Nicolas Poynter— “Fishbowl Wars”
Marisa pushed her way out of the cooler, her face flush with color, and then paused there at the back of the store with her hands on her hips. Her focus narrowed to the silhouettes across the street, backlit by dusk and posturing in their own way. The Del Mar Arms looked back at her. The sun was leaving and as it fled, so did the lines of the doors and the windows and the residents, and over there became one big poverty-stricken shadow. The interior store lighting became more dominant with each passing moment and Marisa remembered how it had felt to work graveyard – the feeling of being on-stage and vulnerable.
“You are stocked up on beer,” Marisa told him, without looking at him, still not using his name. “Remember…Lock it up right at midnight. If you are not firm with these people, they will run you over.”
“Got it.” Gabe sounded silly to her.
Marisa turned to look at him, perplexed at his bouncy, light-hearted mannerisms. Did he not know what was waiting for him? What had possessed Fat Walter to give Gabe his first graveyard shift alone anyway? Maybe Fat Walter was tired of not being able to hire his own people and wanted to get rid of this one as quickly as possible. Fat Walter used to be able to hire his guys, but they stole too much, even lifting cash from the register. Maybe the district manager looked at this kid and didn’t see a thief, thought it was a good trade. Just the same, if this one quit the first night, the district manager would learn not to send clowns into the barrio.
“How late are you staying, Marisa?” Gabe had both of his hands on the counter and a wiping towel over his shoulder like a bartender waiting for a drink order, except with an idiot’s grin on his face.
“Don’t turn your back on these people. Did Walter tell you?”
Marisa exhaled a long breath to make sure he knew she was annoyed. “Find me a pack of cigarettes in a yellow package.” Gabe immediately turned, as instructed, to the cartons stacked behind the counter and began perusing them for the color yellow, for almost a full minute. When he turned back around, Marisa was there, right on the other side of the counter, within slapping distance, an incredulous look on her face.
“If you do that tonight, when you turn back around, all this,” she said, pointing to the various displays of cigarettes and candy and batteries, “will be gone. You don’t turn your back on these people.”
“What if they ask for something that is behind me?”
“There is nothing they want behind you…They smoke these, generics, the cheap ones, and everything else they buy tonight will be beer or junk-food. If Walter comes in tomorrow and finds half the store missing, he is going to take his belt off and whip you.”
Gabe’s forehead wrinkled at this imagery and, upon seeing it, Marisa felt as if she had accomplished something. She took off her store smock, revealing a glimmering medallion dangling at the precipice of her bold, brown cleavage. Gabe seemed to lose his concentration, making little progress with the wiping, as she sat at the end of the counter to do her shift paperwork and drink coffee. She did not look at him.
She was sure they were about the same age, maybe she was even a bit younger. It was odd though, she thought, how similar they appeared on the surface, while, in reality, they were entirely different. But she knew her position of superiority was only valid in the barrio. In his world, things would surely flip. Maybe she would be the odd one in his world, at a fraternity party or some stupid shit like that. Maybe they would laugh at her clothes and language even while trying to get a peek at her goodies. They would pretend with her and then roll their eyes at their friends when her back was turned. She looked at Gabe again, from the corner of her eye. They could be brother and sister. How could that mean so little? She could not reason it through, except to think that everybody had a place in the world and this was hers. But maybe she was wrong about Gabe. Maybe he would not feel comfortable at some rich kid’s party, making fun of poor girls. Maybe he had no place in the world at all and that was why he was here, trying to find one. She looked up at him. Bad choice, she wanted to tell him. Keep looking. If he had really picked this place, he was even more stupid than she thought.
“Walter will be in by six. Stay alert. Believe nobody. Lock the beer up at midnight… And maybe not smile so much.”
Gabe appeared nervous when Marisa headed for the door, prepared to leave him alone in the store for the first time.
“Who do I call if there is a problem?”
She paused there, the door half-way opened, feeling the eyes upon her from the Del Mar Arms, knowing they were waiting with anticipation, licking their chops. “If you have a problem, you lock the door and call the police.”
Gabe watched the pretty Mexican girl with the bouncing tits walk to her beat-up car and drive away. Several emotions washed over his face, like he was some elaborate cocktail with high-proof rum poured on top and had been lit on fire. They did not have girls like Marisa where Gabe was from.
The old Mexican had one hand on the six-pack. The other one kept throwing the food stamps at Gabe, prompting him to slide them back politely each time. “Sir, you can’t buy beer with these.”
The old man threw the food stamps again, this time very aggressively. His face was twisted with frustration.
“Please sir… No puede comprar -.”
“I speak fucking English, you fuck!”
Gabe’s eyes began to water a bit. “I’m sorry.” Gabe took the beer off the counter and again pushed the food stamps back to the old man, who then stood glaring silently as if trying to make Gabe’s head explode with his thoughts.
“Just sell him the damn beer, Homes.” The guy was approaching the counter behind the old man. “He is just an old man. Look at him. Poor guy has nothing and just wants to get wasted so he can stand his life for another day.”
The old man gave Gabe one nod, indicating he agreed with the younger man’s assessment.
“I can’t. They told me not to.”
The younger man started laughing. “Well, you be sure to do everything they tell you to do.” The young guy had beer, too. Gabe sold it to him and then watched him walk across the street, holding the case up with both hands, shouting to his friends at the Del Mar Arms. He was telling them in Spanish what an idiot Gabe was. When Gabe returned his focus to the old man, he saw that he had gone back to the cooler to get another six-pack. He threw his food stamps at Gabe again.
Gabe was wiping the counters while eyeing two young Mexican boys that stood awkwardly by the hot dog tumbler. They looked back at him expressionless, with listless eyes. They were so skinny that their belts had to be synched to comic levels, more than a foot of excess hanging down past their zippers. “Tienen que salir,” he told them. The boys didn’t respond, but started wandering the store as if they were looking for something.
“Give me the beer, you fuck,” said the old man.
“Look. I told you no. You leave or I will call the police.”
A middle-aged Mexican in work clothes had entered the store in time to hear Gabe, and he was shaking his head. “Police don’t come here, store clerk. They are not going to come be your bouncer. You need to handle your own shit, Vato.”
“Well, he has to leave.”
The middle-aged guy asked the old guy something in Spanish and then turned to Gabe. “He says you won’t sell him beer.”
“He has food stamps. I can’t sell him beer with food stamps. I could get in trouble.”
“Store clerk. You are already in trouble.” He turned to the old man, more Spanish, and they exchanged cash and food stamps. The old man then pushed a five dollar bill across the counter, smiling to show Gabe that he had won. The middle-aged Mexican walked down the aisles quickly, grabbing things, quickly filling up his arms. Gabe saw the two kids leave right behind the old man, their heads down and their hands deep in their pockets. When he looked, he saw all the hot dogs were gone, and he sighed deeply.
“How long you been working here, store clerk?” The man put his groceries, what was probably his dinner, on the counter.
“Hell, I know that. You are not from here, huh?”
“Kansas?” The guy reacted as if Gabe had said Mars. “Why you come here?”
“Well, let me tell you something. These people here live shit lives. They have nothing. You might want to cut them some slack.”
Gabe didn’t say anything.
“Are you Mexican?”
“You speak Spanish?”
“That’s good. These people here have a strong sense of brotherhood. If someone pulls a gun on you, start praying in Spanish. Maybe they won’t pull the trigger.”
The residents of the Del Mar Arms, upon hearing about the new clerk, the coconut, lined up along the railings, drinking cheap beer, smoking cheap cigarettes. They watched Gabe move within the store as if they were watching gritty, downtown theatre. “Look what he’s doing now… Fool is mopping.” They would all laugh when Gabe did anything. “Look what fool is doing now.” It was good entertainment. If the show lulled, they would send someone across to act up, make Gabe do something new and hysterical, and the laughter would fire up again. It was getting closer to midnight, the time when Gabe would run a steel bar through the handles of the beer coolers, effectively ending their party. But their fun seemed to be gaining momentum anyway.
The beer rush began even earlier than Fat Walter had said it would. The line at the register grew until it stretched back to the cooler. Gabe looked nervous and this seemed to incite the line further. They called him names and mocked him, howling to one another. If he looked at them, they told him to look somewhere else. They were sharks in bloody water. At midnight, he stopped ringing up customers and started back to the cooler to secure the beer. More insults were hurled at him, with even more venom, and Gabe looked to be visibly shaken, even walking funny, as if their insults were blows to the side of the head, as if losing pieces of himself. “Damn Opie! Do that after. This ain’t Mayberry, Opie. Get your ass back here.”
The customers at the back of the line were turning into a mob, getting close enough to Gabe to bump him back and forth like a pinball, pretending they were accidentally assaulting him as if they had practiced the routine together many times. Gabe stopped trying to move towards the steel bar and tried to go the other direction, but he couldn’t do that either. One guy bumped him hard and he rebounded into a cooler door, the handle digging into his side. His face was plastered with fear.
“Hey!” Marisa screamed at them from behind the counter. “Midnight! Cooler is closed. If you got beer, I’ll ring you up. If not, go home.” The line stopped shouting for a moment. The mob stopped rioting for a moment. There was enough time for Gabe to get the steel bar through all the handles of the beer coolers and click the padlock, sealing up the beer until morning. After that, there was little to talk about anymore. Marisa and Gabe cleared the store, fingers flashing on their respective registers. Several customers came in, saw the steel bar and stomped their feet. But the conversation was over. Nothing was going to get that bar off of the cooler until morning.
“What are you doing back?”
“I was driving past and I saw you had a bit of a mess.” Marisa lied, pouring herself a cup of coffee, and sat behind the counter again. She had no idea what she was doing back. Gabe’s mood seemed to lift though, and he began straightening the displays again with quick hands.
Marisa could not hear the residents of the Del Mar Arms or even see them in the darkness, but she knew they were over there and she continually shot stern looks in their direction, as was her habit when working graveyard. It was important to let them know they did not intimidate her. “So, do you hate it yet?”
“Ah, yep. I do.”
“Why did you come here anyway? This place is a dump.”
“This is the store they sent me to.”
“No, dummy. Corpus Christi. Why did you come to Corpus Christi? Why not some other place?”
Gabe was wiping counters again. “I don’t know. It didn’t sound like a dump. The ocean. Padre Island. It sounded nice… different. I guess I wanted to be around Mexicans too. I was the only Mexican where I grew up and I got a little sick of it.”
Marisa thought that was funny. “Well, you are up to your eyeballs in Mexicans now. You were having a damn Mexican fiesta just a bit ago, making all sorts of new friends.”
Gabe did not answer. Marisa thought she might have hurt his feelings. Suddenly she did not want to make him feel bad. What the hell was happening to her? “So, you going to stay or quit?”
“What do you think I should do?” Gabe looked at Marisa boyishly, obviously trying not to look at her tits. It seemed like a loaded question to her.
“Stay,” she said, getting ready to leave again. “Maybe when we both have a day off, I’ll show you around a bit. Show you the better places in this town. This is the ghetto. Not all Mexicans live in the ghetto. I can introduce you to some cool Chicanos. Maybe we can even go to the beach.”
Gabe stopped cleaning. “Please.” After saying this word, Gabe looked as if he had done something stupid again and Marisa felt bad for his continued awkwardness. But what could she do? He was probably going to get a lot worse before he got better.
Marisa drove the short distance back to her own apartment. It wasn’t the Del Mar Arms, but the up-to-no-good were still hanging around, drunk and potentially dangerous. They made lewd comments to her as she walked passed them and she shot them a middle finger without slowing down or looking at them. She was strong, but she knew it would just take one time for those guys to cross the line, one time for her tough-girl act not to work, and they would destroy her forever. Her survival was a ruse and she knew it. It was the same for all young, pretty girls in the barrio. She had learned to act a certain way, to bluff, and it had worked. But it only took one asshole to call your bluff and you were destroyed forever.
Gabe’s activities inside the store slowed as the night inched along. He looked sleepy. When he yawned, the residents of the Del Mar Arms could not help but yawn too. They knew the show was coming to an end. Just when the curtain was about to come down, a skinny teenager entered the store. He wore nice clothes, had a recent haircut and eyes glassed over as if he were really somewhere else. He didn’t say a word to Gabe, maybe didn’t even see him. He walked to the back of the store and into the cooler without a bit of hesitation and then reappeared with a case of beer in his hand. The weight of it tilted his body to one side and he had that same aggressive stride that they all had. Gabe seemed dumbfounded, groping for the phone, when the kid walked out of the store at a calm, steady pace, as if he had paid for his beer, which he had not. Gabe watched him walk towards the street with a helpless expression on his face. And then Gabe ran outside the store, something he had been told not to do by the district manager. But Fat Walter had told him otherwise. Fat Walter had told him that a man that let someone steal and walk away was a bitch, and that, if he allowed that, the store might as well close. Nobody would ever pay for beer again. Marisa had been there listening and had looked at him after Fat Walter had said it, smiling as if she had agreed.
“Hey!” Gabe caught him in the middle of the street.
“Oh shit.” The remaining crowd on the second floor of the Del Mar Arms hollered, their murmuring like a drum roll. “Look what fool is doing. That coconut has gone loco.”
Gabe grabbed the back of the case and jerked it from the kid, who then spun and fell like a drunk. The Del Mar Arms erupted in laughter and, for a moment, Gabe appeared to have crossed a threshold and become accepted by the barrio. He stood as a tough guy in the middle of the toughest part of town. And then the kid quickly jumped up and stabbed him twice in the stomach, so fast that it looked like one single punch. He dropped the beer and twelve-ounce cans spilled out of their cardboard container, some rolling away, some bursting and fizzing. Gabe dropped to his knees. There was a fog in that kid’s eyes that separated him from the street that they were on, what was really happening. He stomped on a beer can and then kicked two more down the street and then turned his attention back to the store clerk. They could have passed for brothers. The kid circled Gabe in a frenzy, plunging the knife into special, vital parts of his body, inducing moans from the crowd, and from Gabe. Gabe fell on his side. He seemed to want to ask the kid something, maybe ask him to please stop stabbing him. Maybe he wanted to tell him that something horrible was going to happen if he kept stabbing him. But he did not seem to be able to speak and the kid just kept going, as if he were enjoying himself. Gabe’s eyes fluttered, fixed upon an aluminum can with a hole in it, spraying cheap beer on his face. He dreamed he was at the ocean.
(Cover photo by Fletcher6, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.)