Dispatches

We Smoke Our Smokes

Susie Taylor

You’d think May’s daughter was frickin’ Einstein the way May goes on

I start my day with nicotine. I have coffee too, but it’s less important than that glorious first smoke that sets my head straight and gets everything moving. That first smoke baptizes my brain and clears out all the shit from yesterday.

Once I’m out the door I reward myself with another cigarette as I drag my ass down to work. When I get there I unlock the door, count the float, and then I get on with it; I sell people what they need. I likes it to be busy but not too busy. Not like the days when we get the delivery for beer and chips the same time: store’s so small I gots to stack the boxes in the aisle, and then I gots to make sure no youngster (or middle-aged skeet) helps himself to a box of Doritos while I’m checking his nan’s tickets.

First thing in the morning I only get two kinds of customers: the ones driving into town and the b’ys headed down to the boats. They all come in for cigarettes. The ones commuting usually have a smoke standing under the awning with me before they drive off. They won’t smoke in their cars. It’s like they think it don’t count if they smoke ’em outside. Those that work around here buy their Canadian Classics then slam their car doors shut and peel out, lighting up the same time.

Next, I get some school kids coming for breakfast: Joe Louis and a Pepsi, bag of chips, sometimes a bar. We got bananas and apples on the counter but they never take those. ’Round the same time, my drinkers show up. We just sell beer and I can’t sell none till eight-thirty so they waits around twitching till I can ring ’em through. Few of them get the shakes so bad they can’t wait till they get home to have a drink. They down their first beer of the morning sitting in front of a steering wheel or ’round back of the store. I pretend I seen nothing and pick up the bottles later. Some will have been at it hard all night; won’t stop till they pass out. And once in a while one of them will stop coming altogether and we get a funeral notice to hang in the window.

I don’t get a real break, but I don’t mind. I pop out now and then for a quick puff. Mid-morning you only get a few customers. People run in for toilet paper, milk, a couple break-opens and cigarettes. There’s always someone coming in for some smokes and a chat. I talk about the weather and who’s pregnant, or dead, or up to the hospital for chemo.

At noon Brenda or May comes in. We get another run from the school at lunch time; kids in for a bar and a can of pop. And jerky. They all got a thing for jerky these days, and the weirder the flavour the more they seem to like it. Brenda thinks it’s just a fad but May, she’s got some weird ideas. She thinks they put chemicals in the meat that make it addictive. Calls it Meat Crack.

The afternoon slump is hard. That’s when the boredom sets in and May starts really grating on my nerves. She talks too damn much about her daughter up at the university. I know Louise and she ain’t no smarter than anyone else ’round here. You’d think she was frickin’ Einstein the way May goes on.

Me and Jimmy, we got no kids. Just never happened. Of course, when we were younger we used protection, sometimes anyways, but later when I was done school we stopped with the condoms. A couple times my period was late and I had a little shimmer of excitement but then I’d start bleeding. We never talk about it. May asked me once why we got no kids. I said to her, “Mind your own fucking beeswax,” and that shut her up.

I guess it must be my tubes or whatever. And now I’m forty. Old enough to be someone’s nan. And Jimmy, he’s stayed with me even though I couldn’t give him no children.

It’s on slow afternoons that you get customers who hang ’round too long. Sometimes it’s just a harmless old one, in to buy some milk or a paper they don’t need. Makes me sad how many people end up alone. I’ll chat for a bit and then start moving stuff around when they gots to go. They always get the message.

The dirty men, they’re different. They come in a few times and then one day they hug you. He’s just old and lonely, you think. But then he’ll be back the next day, and the next, and then his grubby fingers start reaching to touch your bum or a little bit of your boob and you think, No, he can’t be. But he is. May says I’m overreacting and it’s all political correctness gone mad. “He just wants a little hug. He ain’t doing no harm,” she’ll say, like it’s part of my job to get touched up by some old pervert every now and then. These days when I see one of them coming I get in behind the counter. I’ve even pretended to be talkin’ on the phone. Brenda crosses her arms over her chest when one of the creepy ones shows up and grunts in response to any chit-chat. They always fuck right off when they sees Brenda.

At three, school’s out: bars, chips, cans, jerky—the occasional smart-ass asking for cigarettes or trying to bring a case up to the counter.

Most evenings I’m off at four. Every couple of weeks one of the part-timers calls in sick or quits. If it’s me and Brenda working, she’ll stay ’til close at eleven. and I’ll hang on until six so she gets her supper. But if it’s May I always end up working the night shift, even though I been in that damn place since 6:00 a.m. She’s always got some excuse: her mom needs her insulin shot, her husband’s home from offshore, her back’s hurting. I got excuses too, but somehow I always gots to be the one that stays. I smoke a lot when I work nights. It helps calm my nerves.

I don’t get put on night shifts regular no more, not since I got held up. It don’t happen very often here, everyone knows each other. But in St. John’s they get robbed all the time. Some hard case goes in with a knife, a syringe, a chainsaw, and wants the clerk to hand over money. Once in a while the cashier gets all foolish and refuses to hand nothing over. Sometimes one of the employees will chase after the criminal after they been robbed. Think they’re some kind of minimum-wage superhero. You see them on the news later, standing outside the store acting all proud for wrestling down some alcoholic seventy-year-old who stole a pack of smokes and the butt end of a bologna.

After our store got robbed, Brenda said she’da hung on to the money. But she weren’t the one standing behind the counter looking at those crazy drugged-up eyes. That boy looked at me and I knew he woulda slit my throat if I didn’t hand over everything in the till.

The police were good. Told me I done the right thing. The boss kept asking if I were sure I didn’t recognize the perp. He used that word a lot that week like he thought he were on a detective show. “You know everyone ’round here. Are you sure the perp didn’t look familiar?”

I ain’t foolish enough to make trouble over $275 and the beer the little fuck dropped. He wasn’t thinking straight when he grabbed those bottles. It’s hard to make a fast getaway with a full case on your handlebars. I never told no one about the pink bicycle and its blue-glitter banana seat the kid was riding.

At the end of my shift I buy Jimmy’s beer. He’ll pick me up my coolers from the store at the other end of town; they got the liquor licence. I look forward to that first drink. I put an extra shot of rum in my first Breezer. We like a draw too. If the weather’s grand we’ll sit outside, but most of the time we watch the TV. Used to go the bars on the weekends but after the smoking ban came in, they both closed down.

In the evening we drink our drinks and smoke our smokes and then we go to sleep.

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Susie Taylor

Susie Taylor is a queer writer. Her novel, Even Weirder Than Before, was published in 2019 by Breakwater Books. Her work has appeared in Geist, Prism International, The Fiddlehead, Room Magazine and elsewhere. She was the winner of the 2015 NLCU Fresh Fish Award and the 2018 Lawrence Jackson Writers’ Award. She lives in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland and Labrador.

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