Author’s Note: “The germ for this story came to me one night when I drove past a woman working all alone in a largely glass booth. After thinking about how awful the job must be, it occurred to me that a literal and symbolic separation from the world might be exactly what some people desire.”
ANISE WATCHES THE WORLD through bulletproof glass. For nearly four years, five nights a week, she has been the lone sentry in an illuminated booth with acres of empty cars lined up behind her. Anise loves her booth. There is no time of the day, no place in her world, in which she feels more protected or more at peace. She knows every inch of the interior, finds comfort in each small dent in the metal countertop and each tiny scratch in the glass that she imagines only she notices. She doesn’t mind that there is barely enough room for one person. Not having to work with other people is the best part of the job.
An SUV pulls up to the booth. Unseasonably warm air greets Anise as she slides her window open. The driver keeps his eyes on the electronic device in his hand while shoving his ticket and credit card in her direction. A stream of cold air escapes his air-conditioned vehicle.
“Forty-eight dollars.” The price for a car to sit in long-term airport parking for four days. The man grabs his receipt, raises the window to reseal himself inside the car and is gone.
It’s a slow evening, and Anise turns her stool toward Tyler Avenue and extends her legs under the counter. Panels of glass across the upper half of the booth provide views in three directions. To her left, rows of cars sit in amber circles of light under evenly spaced lamps; to her right, just beyond a column of cypress trees, cars quietly make their way up the on-ramp and onto the freeway. Directly in front of her, thirty feet of asphalt separates her booth from the street, and beyond that, a row of small businesses. From left to right, there’s the taqueria, a Quik-Stop, the 24-hour Laundromat, and Bernie’s Liquor. The neon signs that line the windows are so familiar that she notices when a light is out, like the pink and blue Coors Light sign at Bernie’s that tonight says “Coo ight.”
A young couple leaves the Laundromat laughing so hard the woman has to set her armful of folded clothes onto the hood of their car before she can catch her breath. The man, barefoot on this warm autumn night, pulls one of her bras from a plastic laundry basket and acts as if he is trying it on. They burst into another round of laughter. It’s like watching television with the sound off.
It is a perfect evening, safe and silent, when Anise feels a blast of hot air. Before she can react, a man has entered her booth. “Don’t move. I mean it.” He shuts the door behind him. His arm, damp with perspiration, brushes against hers as he ducks under the counter.
It takes Anise a moment to comprehend what has just happened. Desperate efforts to refute her senses—this is not what it seems—are quickly vanquished by the undeniable presence of a man crouching under the counter directly in front of her. She has a vague awareness that she is supposed to do something, but her ability to focus is battered by waves of panic. A dizzying minute passes before a lesson from her training somehow surfaces.
“I have less than a hundred dollars in cash.” Just saying the words helps. “The rest I can’t get to.”
The man lifts his head just enough to peek over the counter. He fixes his eyes on the stores across the street. “I’ll be gone soon enough.” The voice is raspy. “I don’t want to spend any more time with you than you do with me.”
She rises from her stool, waiting for the right moment to bolt. She glances at the door and notices that it is not quite shut. How many times has she complained about that latch? Her manager promised to get it fixed weeks ago. And now look what has happened. She takes a deep breath. But just as she is about to make a break for the door, the man turns her way and grabs her leg.
“Sit down.” His fingers dig into her thigh through the thin cloth of her uniform pants. “You’re not going anywhere.”
He releases the leg and motions for her to get back in her seat. She settles onto the stool as far back as the booth will allow but still only inches from the intruder.
He turns his attention back to the row of stores, and several quiet minutes follow. Slowly her breathing returns to normal; her mind stops spinning. The arrangement allows each of them to see the other person’s face reflected in the glass. Although he appears to be her age—early twenties—Anise can’t help but think of him as a boy. The harsh fluorescent bulbs that light the booth exaggerate the redness of his acne. His tee shirt is stained around the collar and too small for him, and the way his dirty hair falls in uneven lengths across his damp neck tells her that he cuts it himself.
A police car pulls up to Bernie’s Liquor and parks across three spaces directly in front of the store. Two officers rush inside.
“You robbed the liquor store?” The words are out of her mouth before she realizes it. She braces for his reaction, raises her arms into a defensive pose.
“I tried to rob the liquor store.” He says this in a whisper and with a hint of regret, as if he were talking to himself. Nothing like the menacing response she was expecting.
The police officers return to the parking lot and stare out at the night. The clerk, a thin man in a light blue vest, stands next to them waving his arms and pointing in several directions.
“He had a bat.” He seems to be inviting her into a conversation. “A baseball bat. Under the counter.”
“And what did you have?” She says the words cautiously. Who knows what might provoke him?
“Nothing.” “No gun?”
“I wanted him to think I had a gun.”
It takes a few seconds to fully process his answer. No gun. Obviously, no weapon of any kind. He’s not a dangerous criminal. He’s just a stupid boy whose half-baked idea to rob a liquor store has blown up in his face. This changes everything. He’s the one hiding from the police, the one with everything to lose. She will not surrender her booth to this intruder. One of them has to go, and it won’t be her.
“You need to leave.” She is encouraged by the strength she hears in her voice. “This is my booth, and it’s made for one person.”
“I’ll be out of here soon.”
A weak response, his words laced with uncertainty.
A car pulls up to the window. The boy crouches beneath the counter and rotates his body until he is facing her. They make eye contact for the first time.
“Be smart,” he says. “I could hurt you.”
She does not believe him.
Anise slides the window open. Car exhaust and the din of the evening spill into the booth. She thinks about making some sort of gesture—raising her eyebrows or lifting a finger. Something to indicate that things are amiss. But the woman behind the wheel doesn’t look at her. Anise clears her throat to draw attention, but the driver only pushes her ticket toward Anise in a dismissive manner.
She makes change from a fifty-dollar bill, puts the money away, and hands the woman her receipt. Silence returns as she slides the window closed.
The boy turns his attention back to the scene unfolding in front of the liquor store. His presence fills the booth. He smells like damp leather and rotting leaves, and she can hear each raspy breath. A pulse of anger rises inside her. He has no right to do this to her.
“Time for you to go,” she says. “Where’s your car?”
“I don’t have a car.”
“You thought you could just walk away from a robbery? What kind of plan was that?”
“If I could afford a car, I wouldn’t be here.”
“What about a partner? You got a partner, or did you think this up all by yourself?”
He doesn’t answer.
“Don’t tell me,” she says. “You have no partner because you have no friends.”
“Now there’s a snappy comeback. Imagine a witty guy like you without friends.”
“You said that already. Why don’t you just leave?”
The police search the area around the liquor store with flashlights large enough to serve as weapons. One officer disappears into the alley behind the store. The other peers into a dumpster on the side of the building.
“The cops will be here pretty soon,” she says. “This booth is an obvious place to hide.”
“Just a few more minutes, and I’m out of here.”
“On your way to jail.”
“I’m not going to jail.”
The police officers get back into their car and ease their way out of the parking lot. A searchlight on the side of the vehicle moves from target to target—a pickup parked on the street, cartons stacked on the side of the laundromat.
“Definitely not jail,” he says.
“You been in jail before?”
He pauses several seconds before replying. “Not exactly.”
A plane takes off on a nearby runway. Anise can feel the powerful engines—a deep vibration rumbling through the booth. But from where she sits, she cannot see the plane.
Her legs, tucked under the seat of her stool all this time, begin to cramp. She rotates her chair until she is facing the freeway and allows her legs to dangle freely. The onset of darkness has turned the cars into pairs of headlights that sparkle and disappear as they make their way up the on-ramp. She used to pass the time creating stories about who might be in the cars and where they might be headed. Always stories about escape. A teenage girl escaping the taunts and the teasing, the cruel comments and vulgar insults they knew she could hear. Escaping to a place where unattractive girls simply blend into the background, unseen and unreachable. A place where you can start over. Where no one sends hateful emails or pretends to find you attractive just to set you up for humiliation. A place with no one to disappoint. A place without evaluation. Without failure.
She spins her chair back toward Tyler Avenue and finds the boy has adjusted his position on the floor and is gazing up at her. She has the sense that he has been watching her for a long time.
“What are you looking at?” she says.
He stares another long moment before responding.
“I think you and me are a lot alike,” he says.
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“You probably think no one gets you, but you’re wrong.”
“I think no one cares what you think.”
“You just let them win.”
“What do you know about anything?”
“I know I wouldn’t want this job.”
“Or any job, apparently.”
The boy steals another lengthy gaze before turning his attention back to the scene across the street. A man in a tattered olive jacket, bent at the waist and possibly homeless, drags his right foot as he approaches the liquor store. The clerk, who has remained in the doorway, blocks the man’s entrance. Their conversation is animated. The clerk glances around while he speaks, as if the thief might be within sight.
“Tell me this isn’t a shitty job,” the boy says.
“Maybe for some people.”
“It’s dangerous, too, isn’t it? You sitting out here by yourself?”
“No,” Anise says. “Actually, it’s safe. When the door latch works, it’s very safe.”
“You ever get scared?”
“Not when I’m in here.”
The clerk steps inside the liquor store, leaving his visitor standing in the doorway. He returns a minute later with a brown paper bag. No money changes hands. The raggedly dressed man wraps his fist around the top of the bag and leaves. The clerk goes back inside. Except for the “Coo ight” sign, it’s almost as if everything outside the booth is back the way it’s supposed to be.
“When did it first hit you that they had been lying?” the boy asks.
“That who was lying?”
“I was ten,” he says. “My mom told her boyfriend that I wanted to be a rock star. He looks at me for a minute, not saying anything. It’s like he’s trying to imagine me on stage or driving a fancy car or something. Then he says, for that to happen, I would need either talent or good looks. And that he’s heard me sing. So he says, from what he could tell, I was oh-for-two. Oh-for-two. He says it a couple of times, then busts out laughing. And all my mom does is slap at him playfully. Like he said something he shouldn’t have. Not that he was wrong, but that he shouldn’t have said it in front of me like that.”
“Is this where I cry?” she asks. “You didn’t get all the love you needed as a child, and now look at you. A life of crime.”
“I’m just saying. I learned something.”
“So, what’s the moral of the story? That the world owes you?”
“Just the opposite. I learned that the world doesn’t owe me shit. So don’t expect anything.”
“Poor baby,” she says. “Maybe people get what they deserve. You ever think of that?”
“Is this what you deserve? Hiding in this booth?”
“I’m not hiding. I’m working.”
“If you say so.”
She considers the boy’s reflection in the glass. His face is flat, his eyes a little too far apart. It’s the kind of face that is easy to ignore or, if you notice it at all, to dislike.
“How long?” he asks.
“How long what?”
“How long are you going to stay here? In this job. In this booth. I mean, after a while, what have you got?”
“Don’t talk to me anymore,” she says. “There’s nothing about me you need to know, and there is nothing about you I want to know.”
“Look what they’ve done to you,” he says. “Look at what you’re letting them do.”
“The cops are gone,” she says. “This would be a good time for you to leave.”
“Sure, I’ll leave.” The boy rotates toward her and adjusts his body into a position as close to sitting as the space will allow. “On one condition. I’ll leave right now, right this minute. If you’ll do one thing for me.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” She sighs loudly to indicate what a fool she takes him to be. “God, I should have known.”
“Nothing like that,” he says. “What the hell is the matter with you?”
“All right then, what? What is the one thing you want me to do that will finally get you out of my booth?”
“Tell me that you’ll leave, too.”
“Are you insane?” she says. “You want me to leave with you? And then what? Help you with your next attempt at armed—or I should say, pretend-to-be-armed-robbery?”
“I don’t want you to leave with me. That’s not what I’m asking.”
“What then? What are you asking?”
“I just want to hear you say it,” he says. “I want to hear you say that someday, in the near future, you’re going to walk away from this job. Instead of hiding from the world, you’re going to get out there and face it. You’re going to tell them, ‘Here I am, and if you don’t like it, tough shit.’”
“You are absolutely out of your mind,” she says. “Not to mention that you are hardly in a position to negotiate anything. So please. Just go and leave me in peace.”
“Say it. Say it, and I’m gone. Tell me you’re going to walk out of here someday and not look back.”
“And what would that do for you? Why should anything I say make any difference to you?”
“It’ll make me feel better, all right?” he says. “Let’s just say I like to help people, OK?”
“Let me get this straight,” she says. “You’re the one hiding from the cops, and I’m the one who needs help?”
“It’s the first step. You won’t be saying it to me. You’ll be saying it to yourself.”
She forces a laugh. “The first step toward what?”
“The first step toward living a real life.”
“A real life?” she asks. “You mean a life like yours? No, thanks.”
“I get that my life’s not so great,” he says. “In fact, lately, it pretty much sucks. But it’s my life, you know? And I do what I want.”
“What does that mean? Are you actually stupid enough to try another robbery? The next guy is likely to have a gun under the counter.”
“Is that what you want? To die?”
“On the contrary. I want to live. And so should you.”
She can feel another plane taking off. She notices for the first time that her booth seems to rattle ever so slightly with the vibration.
“I’m going to say this one last time,” she says. “You need to leave.”
“Look, I know how it is,” he says.
“Just stop talking. Can you do that? Stop talking and go?”
“You think you’ve got it all worked out, but you don’t.”
“I said stop.”
“You don’t have to stay here.”
“Would you please shut up?”
“Honestly,” he says. “It hurts me to see you like this.”
Now he has gone too far.
“And just who the hell do you think you are?” She is so furious she wants to slap his face. “I’ll tell you who. You’re the guy in high school who sat by himself at lunch, who couldn’t get a date for the prom. The prom? Hell, any date. No dates and no friends. Who would even want to be seen with the likes of you? You’re a stigma. Social poison. Worse than worthless. How am I doing?”
His eyes widen, but instead of the anger she anticipates, she finds a quiet resignation.
“You left some things out,” he says.
He lifts his left hand above his head and slowly turns his arm until his inner wrist is facing her. She sees two scars traversing the width of the wrist, severe red lines intensified by the harsh light and his pale skin, jagged as if inflicted in desperation and leaving little doubt about the intent.
“Looks like you were serious,” she says.
“Senior year of high school.” He lowers his arm. “I was their favorite target. I’d avoid the corridors, walk around the outside of the buildings. Hide between classes. Hide after school. Ditch school. But they find you.”
Now it’s her turn to stare. The buffoon who couldn’t even pull off a liquor store robbery is gone. In his place she sees a frail, down-and-out figure. Someone who has spent his entire life coming up short. The least favorite child, although no one would ever say so. Pummeled by social isolation and years of unrelenting banality.
“It was pills, wasn’t it?” he says. “For you, I bet it was pills. It usually is with girls. Not as effective, but not nearly as messy. I guess they found you in time.”
She responds with a slow nod.
“The problem is,” he says, “once you start running away, it’s hard to stop. You can shut them out, build your walls, hide when you see them coming. But you’re just giving them what they want. I’m through with that. And you could be, too.”
“Do what you have to do,” she says. “But leave me out of it.”
“Come on,” he says. “Just say the words. You’ll be surprised at how they make you feel.”
“Sorry. I can’t.”
“You owe it to yourself.”
“I said no.”
The boy holds out an open palm. When she fails to respond, he gradually extends his arm, the hand moving ever so slowly in her direction. The sides of the booth seem to compress, and she has the sensation of being squeezed into a smaller and smaller space. Soon she is aware of nothing but the hand gliding toward her until it comes to rest on top of her own. She does not pull away. She stares at the rough knuckles, the stubby fingers, the cracked and dirty fingernails. On any other night, she would find this hand disgusting and repulsive. But at this moment, she is aware only of the way warmth transfers from his hand to hers.
“You can do it,” he whispers. “You really can.”
And for the first time, she allows herself to think that perhaps he is right. For the first time in a long time, she can feel the tug of possibilities, the stirrings of a long-abandoned hope that, in time, something good might emerge from all the shards and shrapnel. And she thinks, maybe. Just maybe.
The police car pulls up to the entrance of the parking lot.
“Damn,” she says.
The boy jerks his hand away and ducks below the window line.
The car’s searchlight runs across the base of the chain-link fence. Then the booth fills with an explosion of bright light. Anise squints curiously in the direction of the police. That would be her natural reaction, wouldn’t it? But she can’t help holding her breath.
The car moves on.
“They’re gone,” she says.
“Now it really is time to go.”
The boy pushes himself off the floor. For the first time since he entered the booth, he is standing, which somehow makes him more real. A sense of urgency rises inside her.
“You’re just going to walk right out onto Tyler Avenue?” she says. “Where the cops are?”
“Better to be out there than in here if they come back.” He slides around her on his way to the door.
“What about the guy in the liquor store?” she says. “Don’t you think he’s looking out the window every ten seconds? He’d be on the phone before you made it five feet. Or maybe he’d just come after you with his baseball bat.”
“So, what then?”
“Across the lot.” She points toward a flickering red light in the distance. “The employee’s entrance. It exits to Howard Street.”
He grabs the door handle and pauses. “One last chance. Will you say it? Before I go?”
She feels another plane take off. This one is more intense than the others. More powerful. For the first time, a little frightening.
“I can’t,” she says.
“Sure you can. Just say it. Not for me. For yourself.”
“I’m not ready.”
“Of course you are.”
“You can do it. Believe me, you can.”
“Please. Say it. Say it now. We’re running out of time.”
“I can’t.” But she can feel her resistance starting to wane, distant traces of courage beginning to rise. And she wants him to ask one more time. Just once more, to see what will happen.
And then he is gone.
Anise stares at the closed door for a long minute before turning back to the familiar images on Tyler Avenue. The scene in front of her flutters like stuttering frames of film in a movie projector; the neon lights blur like melted crayons. After some amount of time passes, she is aware of nothing but her own reflection in the glass.
Years later, when she thinks about this night, she will remember the boy as taller and older than he was. She will replace his odd features with a face that resembles a young George Clooney, a face she thinks she sees from time to time and one she may never stop looking for. Over the years, she will have reworked and replayed the conversation so many times that even she will recognize that most of the words are her own. But every once in a while, without warning, the feeling returns to her with absolute clarity. Like standing on a ridge and knowing that if she took a step forward, there was a good chance that, although she might not soar, she just might not fall.
Jerry Burger’s short stories have appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Harpur Palate, Briar Cliff Review, Delmarva Review, and in Best American Mystery Stories 2020. His novel, The Shadows of 1915 (Golden Antelope Press, 2019), explores the generational effects of the Armenian Genocide.
This short story is published in the current Delmarva Review, a nonprofit literary journal that selects the most compelling new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from thousands of submissions annually. It is designed by its founders to encourage outstanding new writing for readers. The journal is available worldwide from Amazon.com and other booksellers. Support comes from tax-deductible contributions and a grant from Talbot Arts with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: www.DelmarvaReview.org
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