An Important Distinction

by Sten Spinella (2016)

This piece won third place in the Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction.

When mom named me “Elan” she said it was to set me apart from the other boys. I’m certainly apart from the other boys, in that the other boys went to college, or the other boys found God, or the other boys were hired at IBM, or the other boys get their hair cut. I work the cash register at a CVS Pharmacy.

I stock the drink cases in the morning and try not to look outside. Looking outside makes me sad, because I’ll be in here for twelve hours, and outside will be outside the whole time, even if an early morning in Providence, Rhode Island is nice for its melancholy, its cold, its sun-yellow-brightness. When I’m not working I’m reading because Ray Bradbury said education is free if you go to the library, or something like that, but in order to attend the library, one has to survive, so here I am, surviving.

It is the usual mix of depressing fluorescent lighting, smart tile floors, and organized rows for hurried consumers, on this morning. I put my feet on the counter and lean back on my stool against the wall. Then I begin reading a short story by John Updike when my manager, Chris, arrives.

He is as bald as an apparent lie, as confident as a well-placed bowling ball, as middling as a beer belly, as powerful as a peasant.

“Do we pay you to read here, Elan?” He’s apparently self-conscious about them, but he bares his 50-year-old teeth in a smile at his comment, those teeth as yellow as American cheese. Putting his fists on his love handles and standing with his legs shoulder-length apart, he waited for my response and drew himself up to his full, 5’6” frame.

“Good morning to you too, Chris.”

“Why do you even read, anyway?” he asked me. “You don’t need that here. I myself gave up stuff like that a long time ago.”

“You know, I could think of a few other things you gave up a long time ago—working out, sex, ambition, direction, the list goes on.” He turned as if to leave, but not before smirking and addressing me further.

“Bold words for a 23-year-old indentured cashier, wouldn’t you say?” With that it was time to start the shift.

I’m not a bad looking dude, so I’m usually treated better than my dowdy coworkers. I’m a white dude, so I’m usually treated better than my non-white, non-male coworkers. I’m 6’2” tall with a sparse beard and hardly any fat (or muscle, for that matter). My superiors like having me on in the morning because that’s when the working class white men come looking for candy, drinks, beef jerky. I’m covering for Andrea tonight because she has to do something with her kids, or something. Here I am, spending my day on a double shift, which, I think, is not what the old philosophers meant by achieving human potential.

It’s 6:30 a.m. when the first consumer of the day walks in. He’s white, around 5’9”, with thick arms, greasy brown hair, and a dense beard. The sound of Timberland work boots and the chime of the open door announce his appearance, and he shuffles in paint-stained jeans towards the chips and drinks aisle. His plain grey shirt already has the beginnings of pit stains, and it’ll be doused in sweat by the end of the day.

There’d be fifty more consumers similar to him before the day was over, but, being the first, he held a distinct significance in my mind. I stopped sweeping the bathroom to greet him at the register, laying the broom against the wall behind my stool. He slid two

bags of Fritos and a Monster energy drink across the counter, accompanied by a five-dollar bill.

“That’ll be $5.50, sir,” I said as I deposited the five dollars in the cash register.

“Christ, man, really? It was $4.95 last week,” he said, his narrowed eyes and gruff voice the only parts of him betraying emotion.

“I know, sir. Obama, am I right?”

“Hey now, he’s working hard for this country,” he said, before breaking into a bout of violent laughter.

“You have it all wrong—you’re working hard for our country, sir.”

“I appreciate you saying that, kid. So am I supposed to leave you a tip now because you complimented me?”

“People don’t usually tip at CVS, but I mean, if you feel so inclined.” He found a dollar in his back pocket and put it on the counter.

“Keep the change.” I’m not sure if he smiled, but his beard lifted a little.

Dan—yes, that name will work—Dan comes home after painting the local college for ten hours. His wife is waiting for him on an old red couch, the kind that swallows you when you sit in it, with two Heinekens.

“How was your day, honey?” she asks.

“An inspiration to us all. Yours?”

“Good, I got home from the restaurant at four. Brett is at a friend’s house.” Dan’s hand stops stroking… Marla? Yes, Marla… Marla’s leg. He raises the beer to his lips and drinks half of it in two gulps.

 “Why? It’s a school night! We paint and wait tables all day for this kid and… I bet his homework isn’t even done yet. Does he value his education at all? The son of a bitch… ’scuse my French babe, but Goddamn! Does he want to eat Fritos for the rest of his life? Does he want to work at fucking CVS? Sorry again. But damn it all.” Marla cuts into Dan’s diatribe and grabs his hand.

“Baby… he’s the top kid in his class. Have you seen his report card? Brett is going to be fine… he knows what having an education means… don’t worry about him, come here.” Marla holds Dan to her like a child and runs her fingers through his beard.

“You know, if you shave this thing, there may be something in it for you tonight,” and with that it is time to start. Dan lunges at Marla like a man to the grass from a falling ladder, he is out of control, and while he grabs at her body she pushes his face away from hers, saying, “Fine, just so long as that furry face doesn’t try and kiss me,” which of course meant hard kisses from what looked like, on the outside, a hard man, and laughing kisses back from a tired woman. They thrash on the couch under a wool blanket until they land on the carpet, and they stay there, sweating on that carpet, because the task at hand is too urgent for them to go to the kitchen, or their little bedroom down the hall, or the bathroom shower in-between their room and Brett’s room, nowhere to be except right the fuck there.

Brett would go on to become a lawyer after attending Harvard Law School. He made enough money to set his parents up in a cushy retirement community in Florida, where they stayed, content and well-taken-care-of by various younger versions of themselves. The End.

“What are you doing?” Chris asked me.

“Writing.”

“Why not do your job? We just got in a big order of condoms, go restock.” I quickly removed my feet from the counter, jumping to a salute position, in the process almost knocking my stool over.

“Sir yes sir! Any advice on how to fuck myself as well, sir?”

“Often.”

“Thank you for your wisdom, sir! Can I perhaps utilize one of those packs of condoms, sir?”

“What the hell do you need that for?”

“To fuck myself, of course, sir.”

“As long as you pay for them.” Chris walked away to his office (really a desk in the back of the home supplies section), presumably to swig from his bottomless bottle of Jameson.

After the condoms were straightened out, I had to take care of a line of consumers at the register. A smaller man in my position might harbor resentment for these patrons, but not I. If anything, it’s more like pity. They are contributing to a carousel in which I am a part—and we are both either profiting or being taken advantage of, depending on whom you talk to. Chris and I are living (in my case barely) from CVS money. But the people who own CVS… LAWD are they living. Whereas the consumers need these goods, we make them available for an arranged price, and they keep the carousel moving! Or they come in here like they own the place, but really the place owns them, and they’re just along for the ride, but I lost sight of the metaphor, and in case you couldn’t tell—I came into work high as hell this morning.

I moved through each consumer interaction with skill and precision, though no one seemed to notice. The last person in line, a woman in her fifties, looked like she had once been a great beauty. Of course, my vision may have been biased at that point, since, without exception, the people that come in before 2 p.m. are, as the politicians say, “physically unappealing.” But women over 45 years of age are my wheelhouse. They, without exception, love me. So I took my chances.

“How are you today, ma’am?”

“Good. You?”

“I’m just fine. I sure hope all those cleaning supplies aren’t for anything too pressing.” She made eye contact with me.

“They are, actually. My dog just puked all over the house.”

“I’m terribly sorry to hear that. Please let me know if I can help clean up, you smell so good from over here and I wouldn’t want that to go to waste,” I said as I handed over her change.

She did not answer, rather, her face embodied disgust, and the only acknowledgement I received was a scoff, unparalleled in its intensity.

Chris came over, looking like dog shit, his breath smelling like a bar, and he parted his rotting teeth to speak.

“Oh, you smell simply lovely, ma’am! How bout I come on over and clean up your dog’s puke? Sound good to you?” He stopped, laughed so hard that he couldn’t make any noise, bent his hands to his knees, then lifted one finger up in a signal to wait. “You kill me, kid. You really do kill me.”

It’s okay, nothing I could really do about that one, I deserved it, served him a meatball, and he hit a single. I mean, he could have done better than repeating almost verbatim what had happened, but I digress.

Marie was once a world-class opera singer. Now she stays at home and cleans up her dog’s vomit. Marie was once a source of envy for women, a target of attention for men. Now women laugh at Marie behind her back, women who notice her husband’s winks, and the only men who flirt with her are waiters and CVS cashiers. Marie wondered how it all went wrong… how she went from having tantric sex on the back of her first husband’s cruise ship to having to pretend Mark was someone else in order for her to gain any sort of enjoyment out of the experience.

Oh come on, you were weird, she wasn’t all that bad.

Marie and her daughter had built a relationship on love of each other and animosity towards Mark. Tonight they sat on the first floor of their five-story mansion, quietly eating lobster bisque and reading.

“Mother, where do you think father is?”

“I don’t know, sweetie. You know your father.”

“Yes, but I wanted him to read my college essay before I send it out.”

“He will. How is Eric?” Angela’s eyes became attentive at the name (No, no, “Angelina”).

“Oh, he’s wonderful mother, he really is. He bought me flowers today and called me ‘babe.’”

“That’s nice, sweetheart. Make sure you two don’t get carried away.”

“What do you mean, mother?”

“I’m just saying you have a lot of time before you need to make any decisions or anything like that.”

“Mother, all due respect, but if you’re talking about sex, that ship has sailed.”

“What?”

“You didn’t know?”

“Know what?”

“About Eric and I.” There was silence for a few moments. “I’m not a virgin anymore.”

“My word! My word! Angelina Elizabeth Corsette!”

“Oh, mother, please don’t tell father!”

“Tell… tell your father? Why, he’d scream at you and kill Eric. I will do no such thing.”

“You’re the best.” Angelina got up from the table, put her plate away, came back in to the room, hugged her mother, kissed her cheek, and disappeared to her room on the third floor.

Marie couldn’t read anymore. Her daughter was not hers anymore. She was the world’s now. Her husband was anything but. She had to make a decision. To go on as is, or to live. She chose to live.

After leaving the table, she went to the sink and cleaned the dishes. Then she went to her room, rolled a joint from her daughter’s weed that she had found, and smoked it while she watched opera performances on YouTube. The End.

Nick, a kid I knew growing up who is now a senior at Providence College, came in to grab a couple Red Bulls, a vanilla Coke, and a box of condoms.

This was always awkward. It’s not that we didn’t like each other, it’s just that, and I can’t speak for him, but at least for me, the glass counter between us and the obligatory “Do you have a CVS card?” question worked as insurmountable gulfs of separation, as seen in our stilted words with each other.

“What’s good, man?” I asked when he came up.

“Bro! It’s good to see you, how was your summer?” he responded. I looked him up and down… pink polo shirt, check, powder blue khaki pants, check, long blonde curls, check, a genuinely fake smile, check… what was different?

“It was good, just been working and chilling. Yourself?”

“Great, I interned at a consulting firm and besides that just hit the beach.”

“You got big plans tonight?”

“Kind of, some buddies of mine are throwing down at their apartment on Eaton Street.”

“Sounds like a good time,” I said as I bagged his purchases.

“Yeah man, you should come through once you get off. The address is 32 Eaton.”

“Thanks for the invite, dude. Have a good night.”

“You too. See you around.”

That was it! He was nicer now… Back in the day he would never have invited me out somewhere… what is it, college? Does it make you more inclusive? Providence College doesn’t have frats, maybe his friends are just all-around good guys. But who am I kidding? That isn’t my crowd. My proud crowd is made up of townies – drug addicts, drug dealers, no-names and lowlifes, anyone who makes me laugh and has a humble spirit.

Consumers are sporadic between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. when we close, so I take a little time to read and write and think. Chris is probably passed out in his “office” by now, anyway.

Nick and a neighborhood boy, William, were playing basketball one-on-one outside William’s house. William was a little taller and skinnier than Nick. He was black with short dark hair and a brilliant white smile. The two boys were pushing past each other to try and get to the rim, but, despite being eight-years-old, they had the maturity to know the contact was incidental, part of the game. With the score tied at 10-10 and the summer sunshine turning tired, William squared up. He had been taking Nick hard to the rack all game, so when he jab stepped to his right, Nick practically fell out of his shoes trying to stop the drive. This left William wide open for an elbow jumper, which he made easily.

“Ay! That’s right! That’s my win!” William yelled, jumping up and down, his sweat spraying. Nick had his head in his hands, but after William’s celebration, he removed his hands covering his face, and smiled.

“Rematch,” he said.

“You’re on,” William answered.

Before the game could begin, a black SUV pulled up.

“Nicholas. Get in, now,” a voice yelled from behind a slightly cracked tinted window.

“But dad, we were—”

“No. Get in.”

Nick knew not to question his father more than once. He offered William an apologetic glance, picked up his basketball, and hopped in the car.

Nick’s father, Robert, was fat and always wore double-breasted suits. He was over 6’3” and walked with a dignified limp. He was the supervisor of over 100 CVS pharmacies in the New England area.

“What are you doing?” Robert asked.

“I was playing basketball with Will,” Nick said.

“But what are you doing? I told you I preferred you hanging out with (insert ostensibly white name here).”

“Yeah, you said that, but you never said why.” Robert sighed, gathered himself, pulled over to the side of the road, and focused his attention directly on Nick.

“Listen, son, I think you’re old enough for this now. I don’t want you playing with that black boy.”

“William?”

“Sure, William. I don’t want you playing with him, or seeing him. It isn’t good for you. It isn’t good for your family—the one you have now or the one you’ll have one day. Just trust me on this for now, and later you’ll know why I said it.”

“Okay, dad.” Nick stared out the window. Robert’s gaze lingered on Nick for several seconds, before he refocused on the road.

“You’re a good boy, Nick,” Robert said, placing his hand on the back of his son’s neck.

One decade later, Robert had been dead of a heart attack for two years. Nick sat in his freshman year white racism class. He was a declared political science major.

“Race is nothing but a social construct, and whiteness is a concept founded on the definition of non-whites as other,” Nick wrote on his quiz. He was happy studying race… he considered it a defining issue in modern society. His dad’s admonishment did not work. Well, it did at first. At first, Nick was arrogant, and entitled to his arrogance based on his father’s status and Nick’s own devilish good looks (I mean, the kid looked great. Still does.). Later, with that liberal education of his (the truth often errs on the side of liberalism—not the classic definition, the modern one) and the education of having a father who only shouts advice and is happy only with “initiative”, Nick wizened up.

Anyway, class ended and the weekend began. Nick walked back to his apartment with his headphones in, through the narrow streets of Providence he had been raised near. He knew almost everyone he saw, Providence College only having 3,800 undergrads. There was something about Nick… boys and girls alike would see him as he walked by and develop an opinion based on his striped button down shirt and colorful pants. He was the embodiment of classism and racism. But he was not that at all. He just dressed like a total tool.

After picking the headphones out of his ears, Nick opened the door to find his roommate, William, playing video games in sweatpants and a tank top.

“Damn, you slept two more hours than me and you STILL an ugly motherfucker!” Nick said, grinning.

“You tryna play some one-on-one? Game is already over but I’ll give you a 4-0 head start to make you feel like you have a chance,” William said back. The End.

I strode up and down the aisles—my domain—to make sure nothing had been misplaced. A song I liked came on by an alternative rock band. In the context of the store, any song that is played by Chris’s corporate playlist is ruined for me. Music with supposedly inspiring messages take on an insidious connotation when played in the store. “I’ve got a good one lifting me up when I’m, down, well it’s been perfect timing, new horizon, you are looking to, I’m feeling good as, newwwwwwwww,” and now I can’t ever hear that song again without feeling worse.

I keep a duster on the counter just in case Chris comes around and asks why I’m not doing the closing work. He rounds the corner, I pick up the duster. Thankfully, he doesn’t, so I simply count down the minutes until the shift ends.

Who’s gonna be the asshole walking in at 10:58 p.m.? Everyone that walks by is a possible spawn of Satan, but no one dares enter.

Until her.

Black hair, dark purple lipstick, a blank stare into me, a dark blue dress, a purposeful gait. But she is not beautiful. I do not want to run my hand across her bare back. I do not want to dance with her and hold her chest against mine. I do not want to even speak with her because she is what is standing between me and the outside.

“Hi,” she says, approaching the counter.

“Hi.”

“Sorry for coming in so late, I just really needed this,” she said, pointing to a bag of peanut M&Ms on the counter.

“You needed it, did you?” I said.

“Are you calling me fat?” I stopped moving.

“Of course not! You are the opposite of fat. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone as not-fat as you. You—”

“I’m just joking, man. It’s all good.” She smiled. She smiled?

“Oh. Gotcha. Well your change is one-fifty.”

“Thanks. Listen, I feel bad. Let me buy that pack of cigarettes too, and I’ll let you have one, since it looks like it’s 11 p.m. and it’s time for you to go.”

“If you insist.”

I packed up my book and my journal, took off my red CVS smock, and followed her outside.

“I haven’t been out here since before six in the morning,” I said.

“You should really get out more,” she said. I noticed her smooth, pale-white thighs.

“This is true.”

“Why do you even work here?” she asked.

“Gotta make a living somehow, right?”

“I mean, sure, but can’t you make more money at a restaurant or whatever?” she asked, tapping out the ash of her cigarette.

“Yeah. But I feel comfortable here, and I get a lot of hours, and I can read and write while I work.”

“Ah, a store clerk with ambition, eh?”

“Something like that.”

“My friend is dragging me along to a party tonight, would you like to come?” The lamplight across the street blurred and I stared at the fire in my cigarette.

“Of course I do. But why would you ask me?”

“You’re kind of cute and I have no one to go with.”

“Should I put the smock back on? I look even better in that.”

“Absolutely.” We were quiet for a minute.

“Why would you have no one to go with?” I asked. “You’re incredibly attractive, as you probably know.”

“Thank you. But people don’t like me. Or they don’t think they do. They see one thing and think that explains me. They don’t know I’m a greedy selfish business major like everyone else.”

“You think they’d like you more if they knew you were greedy and selfish?”

“Yes.” I laughed at this answer.

“What’s your name?”

“Alexandra.”

“Nice to meet you Alexandra, I’m Elan.”

“That certainly sets you apart, doesn’t it?”

We walked to the party, which was close by, burning down two more cigarettes on the way. She told me that since she was a little girl she’s always wanted to marry a CVS cashier. I told her I had always been super into emo chicks.

We get to the party and I take shots of whiskey with Nick. He tells me my girl is cute and I tell him that means a lot coming from him. Alexandra and I dance in Nick’s living room. She tries to teach me how to salsa. I tell her she’s not bad for a white girl. She tells me I’m not a bad dancer for an ungainly and gangly white guy. We leave after an hour and a half, when we’d decided we were drunk, and we head for my place.

“CVS guy has a space all for himself. His mommy and daddy didn’t pay for it like the parents of my peers. How impressive.” I stared at the futon on the floor, the TV on a table, all the amenities needed for one person in a one-room apartment. The wood floor was dusty and without carpet. Empty bottles and cans adorned the off-white counter.

“My mother and father are dead,” I said.

“What?” she asked.

“I said ‘I’m sure a business major like yourself can respect self-sufficiency.’”

We kissed against the front door, eventually making our way to the futon. Her dress disappeared when I pulled it over her head and she unbuckled my pants and we were naked and poor with each other in the night, and again in the morning, when she left in a grey sweatshirt of mine.

“I’ll see you soon,” she said.

“For business or pleasure?” I asked.

“Both.” The End.

When I got home I didn’t bother to shower. I went to the fridge with nothing but a carton of milk and seven Heinekens in it. I took a Heineken. I opened my laptop and watched Netflix as I rolled a joint on my futon. Once I had finished smoking the joint and drinking the beer, I switched over to porn and watched a particularly excited young couple on a couch. I produced a condom and masturbated into it.

Write what you know, right? I think I said something earlier about human potential.

The End.

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