Prose: Caroline Kim


You Light Up My Life

Saturday nights are slow moving dreams. To the tune of Majic 94.5, slow oldies. It hits me as soon as I walk into Sid’s Pharmacy for the three to midnight shift, Karen Carpenter singing Why do birds Suddenly appear? Everytime You are near. Just like me They long to be Close to you.What a shit song. If I wasn’t sixteen, if I hadn’t skinned the side of Dan’s Firebird, you can bet your ass I wouldn’t be working here for minimum wage, letting Sid breathe his old man smell on me. Sour, trapped air coming out between his capped teeth, the newest part of him. He  wears his cream colored toupee dusted with powder. My throat catches fire when he’s around.

Sid doesn’t work Saturday nights. He stays in his white brick house in Weston with his Maltese, Mickey. Manicured lawns. Around here, even old people steal. Not much, Tylenol, analgesics, Vick’s Vapo-Rub. I let em walk out even if they’re not smart enough to take it out of the box. Sid always comes running when the alarm goes off. Frank, you horse’s ass, he says in his papery voice, you’re letting good money walk out of here.

Not mine, I tell him and walk away.

I did once chase a guy outside the store without thinking, and got as far down as Kmart before I remembered, Jesus, I make $3.65 an hour. I went back inside and told them he jumped into a waiting car. Yeah, right, a heist of a couple of nudie magazines. Sid patted my ass and said I was a good boy. It felt like he’d left a white mark on my jeans. If you touch me again, old man, I told him slowly, I’ll burn your hand. You won’t recognize your own smell.

Watch yer mouth, kid, he said, smoothing down his doll’s hair with spit.

When I walk in, Renee’s at the front counter, stuffing her mouth with Twix. You’re late, she says, going back to her magazine. I head for the back room without saying anything. Cheryl’s keeping an eye on the back counter and filling prescriptions. She’s waiting for Sid to die or grow so old he’s paralyzed and has to sell the store. I think she should hold out for senility, maybe then he’ll sell it cheap. Otherwise, they’ll have to pry the deed from his hairless hands.

Under her white coat, she’s set to go out. She’s wearing a tight black see-through kind of shirt so I can just glimpse the warm flesh beneath it, and a pair of slim pants. Her face is a little puffy but pretty, even though she’s my mother’s age, 36. I remember that I’ve got to steal a carton of Parliaments.

Cheryl’s dated the same sad sack for ten years, and he refuses to marry her. Jesus, even though the guy’s forty, he’s still waiting for the call that will change his life. He’s keeping himself free just in case he has to move or leave the country suddenly. I’d be surprised if he’s ever flown in a plane. I know I haven’t. Cheryl says she can’t leave him now when she’s already put so much time into it. She’s stuck, she says, ten years forward, ten years back.

I believe in cutting your losses, but who knows? Ten years ago, I was six. When I get back to the front, I see that Renee’s left the big jobs for me. There are several boxes of cigarette cartons to be put away into the long shelves behind me and stacks of magazines to cut and count. Renee leaves me in a chocolate haze.

Sid’s generous in one regard. He lets us eat all the candy we want on our shift and we can take home magazines to read and return. I start in on a bag of gummi bears. That’s how I count down the hours: gummi bears, Twizzlers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, more gummi bears, Snickers, a Whatamacallit, then it’s time to go home. I start slicing open the cartons. Most popular by a long shot is Marlboro Reds. Two rows. Then Marlboro lights, Camel unfiltered, Camel Lights, then Newport Lights menthol, which are like bursts of cold light exploding in your head. I stay away from menthol. It took me awhile to get used to all the different kinds and their particular locations, 100’s, slims, longs.

Sometimes the older guys come in and they don’t ask for their smokes the way the young ones do, really specific, Benson & Hedges, Ultra Light 100’s, box, please. The old timers slap their money on the counter and say cancer sticks, and laugh like it’s the funniest thing in the world. It scares me. Once, when I was training this new guy at the register, a black guy walked in and asked for Lucky Strikes. Up here, you don’t see a whole lot of dark people and the new guy got flustered. Lucky Blacks? he asked. Then he got so nervous he slammed the register closed with his hand in it, and didn’t make a make a noise, though I can tell you, my hand was throbbing too. Just from the memory of that sound. For a moment, I thought he was going to get slugged, but the guy just kind of chuckled real low, like it was coming up from a deep well. That’s funny, he said, I’ll remember that.

I can’t find the scissors to cut the plastic wrapping off the magazines, so I walk down the school supplies aisle to James Taylor singing Sweet Baby James. There is a young cowboy who lives on the range. His horse and his cattle are his only companions. He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyon waiting for summer, his pastures to change.I like the idea of being a cowboy, waiting for summer.

James Taylor always makes my mother misty for some other life she thinks she had. If my father hadn’t tricked her, I’d be a James too. Jimmy? Jim? While she was still drugged down, my father signed all the paperwork himself and named me after him, Frank Benedetti, Jr. Now he’s fat and lives in Florida selling stereo equipment. As far as I’m concerned, I have the name of a ghost.

Now we live with Dan, who’s built like a steel pole, skinny but strong. The muscles in his arms twitch when he’s thinking hard. We walk wide circles around each other, I think we both know what will happen if we’re together too long. I grab the most expensive pair of scissors we have and get back to work. I start with the easy stuff, the women’s magazines, Cosmo, Glamour, Mademoiselle. Then the teen stuff, the hot rods, guns n’ammo, and save the dirty magazines for last. We always carry Playboy and Penthouse, but occasionally the distributor sends us other things that we can keep or send back. Magazines with names like Tits & Ass, Cum or Blow. Serious stuff, although I like the girls better because they seem more real. The Ambers and Tiffanys of Playboy look freeze-dried. Hairless birds. Still, I have to admit they are beautiful. Sometimes I feel so full, I have to spend a few extra minutes in the bathroom. This time I think about Cheryl and what’s under her lab coat, all that gleaming skin beneath black mesh.

By nine o’clock, I start getting ready for the condom rush. I go to the back counter where we keep them, where Sid likes to get a good look at the guys who still have sex. It’s fucking sad. I don’t ever want to grow old. I grab the condoms when Cheryl’s not looking because I sell it to my friends at the friendly Frank discount. I’m everybody’s bud. I get things in return too, an open door at every party, free beer and hash.

When I’m walking back to the front, the bell over the door rings its two-note song and a youngish guy with a pencil-thin ponytail comes in with an older looking woman. I open a Snickers and feel the pure intense pleasure of sugar. The woman follows the younger guy around, staying a couple of feet behind him as though she’s attached to him by some invisible wire. He doesn’t look like he’s looking for anything in particular, he’s just wandering the aisles with his mother behind him. Ma, he says, you need these Dr. Scholl pads? How about this ipecac? What the hell is ipecac?

I hear his mother murmur something and he puts it back real quick. I go back to my Rolling Stone. I’ve forgotten about them so I’m surprised when I look up and see them staring at me. Hey buddy, he says, good reading?

Guess so, I mumble. I straighten up.

He puts his things on the counter. A box of Ramses and K-Y Jelly. For a moment, I’m shocked that he’d buy this kind of stuff in front of his mother. The guy sees me staring at the counter and says, I’m gonna have me a party. An explosive night, if you know what I mean.

Over the drama of You Light Up My Life playing overhead, his mother finally looks at me through blue light and water and says, I just love this song. Don’t you?

I’m done for. I’ve been cursed for life. We just stand there listening to Debbie Boone sing out the window, her heart-strings snapping like twigs.

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