Drinking Water (A Short Story)

The follow story comes from the book “Reejecttion”. The book is absolutely free. You can download it free:

 

On Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/reader/78743-reejecttion?return_to=%2Fbook%2Fshow%2F22874286-reejecttion

 

Or on Smashwords:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/660776

 

The only thing he really liked about the man was his name—Lake Finnegan. For some reason, James associated the name with something out of a classic novel or a movie or something. The first time he heard the name mentioned by one of the baggers at the Stop n’ Shop he thought the person was talking about someone else. One of the other baggers had said to him, “Hey, don’t let guys like Lake Finnegan get to you.” James’s first thought was that Lake was one of the mean war vets he was constantly meeting. Then one day another of his fellow baggers, Sampson, said to him as he was wiping down the cash registers, “Man that wrinkled racist motherfucker told me to go get him some dog food. He was yelling at me from his beat up old car like it was last century. Fuck that Finnegan dude.”

 

Later he would see Lake drive up in his old rusted Cadillac and know exactly who Sampson was talking about. The old man, his many wrinkles, wearing oversized clothes, and sunglasses, looked like hate incarnate. He found Lake one day just lounging around near the front of the store openly gawking at one of the female customers. If it had been any other store, Lake would have been banned. But good ol’ Stop n’ Shop needed Lake and his smoking habit.

         

Since James started at the Stop n’ Shop as a bagger, as far as he could count, two female clerks and a female bagger had quit. It was hard to know exactly why someone quit, but James thought that Lake’s creepiness must have figured into their decisions somehow. With his leathery skin and slouching gate, he would hang out in front of the supermarket and chain smoke Marlboros. Sampson claimed that Lake knew exactly when the female employees went out on their breaks, knew exactly where they would likely smoke their cigarettes, and then used his eyes to harass them.

 

The one he really cared about was Kelly Marcus. James, in his twenty-year-old been to college looking to save up to go back to college funk, thought of Kelly as his oasis. She was seventeen when she started working at the cigarette and lottery counter. What was she even doing there in the first place? He remembered the first time he had seen her at his high school—he was a senior, she was a freshman. She was sweet, bubbly, an honors student. What could she possibly get from working the counter at the Stop n’ Shop?

 

For the most part, James’s approximate year at the Stop n’ Shop had been shit. He worked forty hours a week cleaning up spills, bagging groceries, taking orders. At night, with all of his friends already gone to other places, he would go out to the movies by himself. He would watch film after film. Often he would buy one ticket and sneak into two or three movies. When he had done this with his friends in high school the experience had been exciting. But now, by himself, there was something pathetic about it. James was aware enough to know that this was a manner of escape.

         

When he saw Kelly working the cigarette and lottery counter, his first thought was that she wouldn’t last a day. She came in her first day wearing the same white-collared polo shirt and dark slacks as the rest of the employees. And she seemed to have done nothing at all with her dirty blond hair except put it into a ponytail with a few bangs hanging off the side. And yet, she was striking. She also seemed impossibly young and optimistic, almost like she was still a freshman in high school. In James’ mind it seemed as if the violence of the real world was all but imminent. It would come upon her all at once. It would happen to her the same way it had happened to him in college. They—whoever they were—would find the cracks, squeeze through them, and turn that same look into something miserable and forlorn.

 

She might have been safe. That is, if she hadn’t been working at the lotto and cigarette stand. As his manager often said, there would be no store without the lotto and cigarette stand. And it was no accident that a pretty blond girl had been chosen to man the station.

Her first day, though, she was bubbly and cheerful as ever. What shocked James was that Kelly knew his name. Her first day she called to him, “James, remember me? We went to Casselberry High together.”

 

It didn’t occur to James until afterwards that he had been a little bit well known in high school in his own way. Though implausible at the time, he realized afterwards that Kelly could, in the strange universe of high school, have even had a crush on him. When he was around Kelly, the awfulness of the last year and some odd months of his life seemed to fall away. In the minutes he had between his various tasks he would chat with her about how things were going in high school.

 

The more he talked, the more he wondered what she was doing there. She never complained about her job. She never followed the other girls outside to smoke. She just stood behind her counter—cute as hell—with quiet dignity and did her job. Little things drove him crazy. The few times he got close enough to smell her, he thought he smelled the scent of oak trees. Not perfume, but oak trees. She smelled like she spent all her time outside in fresh air.

 

He couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow everything was off. James was sure he was supposed to be there because he was a fuck up. But she should’ve been off at cheerleading or something.

 

And for a while things continued like this. Kelly showed up to work three days out of the week, sometimes four. And she stood there with her quiet dignity and did her work, and he did his. They occasionally talked. And it seemed perfectly reasonable to think nothing would change.

 

Then one day Lake showed up in his car, screeched to a halt right in front of James as he was bringing in shopping carts and yelled, “I need some drinking water, boy!”

 

Though Lake was white and James was white, Lake sounded like a bigot as he said it.

 

At first James didn’t know what to do. Had he heard the old man correctly? Lake sat in his Cadillac with the engine on. It seemed as if he wanted it hand delivered.

 

“Are you deaf? I want some drinking water.”                                       

 

James stood there for a full twenty seconds just looking at Lake, not quite sure how to respond.

 

The way James remembers it, a voice came from right behind him. It wasn’t necessarily Sampson’s voice, just a voice. He didn’t hear exactly what the voice said, but it must have been something like, “Leave that man alone.”

 

James just stood there until Sampson came into view. Before he knew it, Lake was out of his car, standing toe to toe with Sampson. The car was left in the middle of the parking lot and Lake was yelling obscenities and racial slurs at the top of his voice even as Sampson towered almost a full foot taller than him.

 

Sampson stood there for a good five minutes taking each slur in stride, saying “It’s time for you to leave, old man” in intervals.

 

James, once he had finally come to his senses, tried to get Lake back into his car.

 

“Bitter old man is what you are,” said Sampson. “Go home, bitter old man.”

Lake got as far as the driver’s side seat. James thought he was going to get into his car and leave. Sampson must have had the same idea because both of their backs were turned. But just as Sampson had turned around a wrench flew in his direction. The wrench probably missed by a few yards. The old man must have had it just lying around in his car. What happened next was what almost everyone else knows. Sampson approached Lake so fast the man didn’t even have a chance to run. As Sampson approached, James remembered the look of fear in Lake’s eyes. And then Sampson slapped Lake so hard that he fell to the ground.

*

Kelly listened in astonishment. James asked her if she had ever met Lake.

 

“I think I know him. Horny old man. Always pervs on the female staff. We’ve been acquainted.”

 

James still couldn’t get the image of Sampson slapping Lake across the face out of his head. Afterwards the police had shown up. Someone in the Stop n’ Shop had called the police. The police took everyone’s statement. Lake sat on the sidewalk, mumbling, crying a little bit, and then occasionally yelling something in Sampson’s direction. He held his mouth and mumbled things about a tooth that had gone loose. James mentioned the wrench about three times. Sampson wouldn’t be arrested, but he was fired later that week. After that James hadn’t heard much. Things went back to normal. He stopped seeing Lake. He assumed that Lake had been banned from the store and that the old man was too embarrassed to show his face.

 

Soon it would be summer. Kelly worked a lot more during the summer. And they found themselves talking more and more. James began to catch up with some of his friends who were back in town from college. After work he would sometimes go out with his friends to drink or smoke weed. Somewhere down the line, it must have been close to the end of the summer when she was about to start her senior year, Kelly broke down in tears at work. When James asked her what was the matter, she told him: her mother and father had gotten a divorce not too long ago. Now her father was remarrying.

 

James put his arm around her. His year and several odd months of working at the Stop n’ Shop had brought him closer to Kelly. Somehow, they seemed more alike now. He remembered things about himself that he had forgotten his first year of college. It almost seemed possible that he could ask her out. He would find a group of friends to hang out with. Things would be, well, normal again.

 

Not long after that, Kelly quit her job. It happened suddenly one day right around the time Lake started coming around again. He asked Todd, one of the managers, why Lake had been allowed back in the store. Todd lamely replied that he wasn’t even aware of a ban on Lake, and that if they banned one lousy bigot from the store they would have to ban them all. James had the feeling that the store was on its way downhill anyway. They started cutting back on hours, the clientele was getting shadier, and girls like Kelly, no matter how bad their situation, would eventually stop working there.

A week after Kelly had left, he found himself hanging around the store, hoping she would show up to collect her last check. He couldn’t shake the feeling that it was Lake that had forced her out. On one of the days not too long before she quit, he had seen him hanging around the lotto and cigarette stand, gawking at her.

 

James felt like he had to leave anyway. He didn’t know exactly how he would do it, but he would find his way back to where he was supposed to be. He would find his way back to the time when he wasn’t such a loser—if that time still existed.

 

A month after Kelly had quit, James was pushing carts in when he noticed Lake just sitting there in his car. This time, Lake whistled in James’s general direction. “Hey, boy. Boy. Over here. I remember you. If I give you some money, you go get me some cigarettes?”

 

James ignored him and went into the store to continue his work.

 

The day passed by sluggishly as it usually did. How many years could James go on like this? How many months? Eventually, Lake would stop coming or he would pass away. The Stop n’ Shop would probably go out of business at some point in the next few months. The future was hard to see. He had a feeling deep in his stomach that there wouldn’t be any more girls like Kelly in his future, but that it was entirely possible that his next job would be at another dump like the Stop n’ Shop.

 

Later, he saw Lake leaning on the wall outside the Stop n’ Shop. James was out back collecting carts when he saw him there. He hadn’t bothered going inside. He was just hanging outside the store. “Hey, you got my cigarettes. Boy, I’m talking to you.”

 

It’s hard to believe that Sampson had been shitcanned for smacking this sack of shit. They should have given him an award, James thought.  

James didn’t know exactly how he decided to do it. But he found himself walking into the Stop n’ Shop. He picked up some drinking water from one of the shelves and brought it outside.

 

Lake looked at him bewildered. “Boy, I didn’t ask for no goddamn drinking water. I asked for some cigarettes.”

 

James opened the water and began tossing it in the direction of the old man’s crotch. Soon, with the crotch area of his pants soaked with water, Lake was hopping up and down, yelling obscenity. His face turned red as he shouted. He looked like he might go back to his car and find something to throw at him or something to try to beat him with.

 

James looked the old man in the eyes. “You try anything, and I will smack the shit out of you.”

 

Something about the way he said it made Lake pause. With his trousers doused in water, James felt just the slightest bit of pity for the old man. Could he really blame Lake for wanting to see the girls for just a little bit everyday? Could he blame him for wanting to remember a time when he was young and women found him attractive?

 

Today James would quit his job and go see a movie. Things would sort themselves out later or they wouldn’t. He had a strange feeling in his stomach, something that most people would not have described as good, but for James there was no word for that feeling, and instead of stopping to find a name for it he felt it better to hurry before he missed the seven o’ clock showing. After that, he would just have to figure out what came next.

 

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