It was as hot as it was going to get late in the afternoon even though there was some wind and the sky looked white, almost grey. The flies were lively and sirens tore through the heavy air somewhere far from the gas station downtown, where Mark and Lauren were standing outside.
“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” she kept telling him. “Don’t worry.”
Mark furrowed his eyebrows and scratched the skin under the thin new hairs on his face. Everyone he saw driving by bit his or her nails. They did not smile or sing along to the radio.
Lauren held one of her arms close to her chest out of habit, which made Mark feel nostalgic. She’d been doing that ever since he knew her, but for all she knew she never did this. She pushed her sunglasses up her nose which made his right leg shake a little bit and he hoped she wouldn’t notice.
“Is your leg shaking?” she said.
“Why didn’t you call someone else?” he said. “I don’t want to do this.”
“No one else answered my calls,” she said.
“Sure,” he said.
“You’ve bought cigarettes before. It should be easy. It’s all about confidence. My confidence gets me a lot of things. Don’t you want to feel like you can get what you want?”
He didn’t say anything.
“My confidence gets me a lot of things,” she said again. Mark waited for her to list her benefits like money and power and respect and sex but she didn’t say anything else. “Is your leg shaking?” she said, finally.
“No,” he said.
“It looks like it is. Try hard to stop doing that,” she said. She kept thinking about how he’d bought cigarettes before, how the cashier couldn’t tell how young he was because of his facial hair, how it can’t be any different. He just had to attract respect when he walked.
“It’s not easy,” he said and the fact that she doesn’t understand this brought his eyebrows down.
Lauren kept cracking her knuckles, each one individually over and over again as Mark pushed against the door but it did not budge so he pulled it open and walked inside.
Mark shuffled his feet in the middle aisle of the store while sucking his teeth. The sirens rang outside as he scratched his beard. It smelled cold in there. He picked up and replaced several different items, feeling the smooth plastic of the packaged snack foods, noticing how much was inside each bag. Finally his attention landed on a bag of pork rinds.
He glanced out the glass doors to see Lauren looking in, cracking her knuckles. There was no way he was leaving. He heard footsteps from costumers that he couldn’t find and someone quietly speaking German around the corner.
Mark looked around for the general manager. He was a balding man that wanted to be able to look at you in the eyes and the floor shook when he walked by, but Mark didn’t see him around anywhere.
Instead, he watched a man standing in front of the cashier slam his palm against the counter. “Talk to me,” he said.
“You’re unavailable,” the cashier said. She backed away from the register.
“Is there something you’re not telling me, or are you telling me nothing?” he said.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “There really wasn’t anything ever promised. Considering that you owe me you’re in control. What I gave you is gone. Considering that you have nothing, I can’t take anything from you. And I am not one to fight.”
A chorus of ambulances outside and the howl of a train passing through.
“If you’re so smart, why don’t you know that?” said the cashier.
Mark walked up to the counter and stood next to the man. He looked out at Lauren one last time.
“Get out of here,” the man said. “The store’s closed!”
“You can’t do that,” the cashier said. “You can’t turn away our customers.” Tires squealed in the parking lot outside. Mark paused. “I just need some…a pack of Marlboro’s,” he said.
As Mark fished through his wallet for the right amount of money, he listened to his heart beating. He listened to everyone’s hearts as they beat faster. He swallowed and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his bare forearm and pulled a ten dollar bill out of his wallet. He wasn’t shaking, but he wiped the sweat from his forehead again. He handed the cashier the money and she paused, staring at him for what he believed was far too long. She was a petite girl. She had a very coy look in her eyes despite the bruise under the left. She handed him his change and he took it, immediately scratching his beard.
“Thanks.” His nonchalance cracked a little and so did his voice.
He walked out the door like everyone else because it was easier to move through the motions than not to. He saw Lauren waiting outside, a semblance of a smirk on her face, and beyond her was a guy and a girl standing on a sidewalk holding each other tightly.