I Was Scared

Entry by: rclayr

30th December 2014
Emergency appendectomy. That's what Sanchez said when he called and asked me to stand in for him. Amelia. Four years old, in pain, frightened and without her mother, who was God knows where in Mexico, visiting some relative or other than Sanchez couldn't even remember the name of. She went every year, same time, same place. Somewhere down around Chihuahua, he said. She went by bus. No phone, no contact. Not for ten days. Mexico: Cartels, gangs, bandits, corrupt cops, mindless violence. Bad roads, no reliable medical service, bad water, probably bad food. It was madness.

No, I thought, madness was me standing here behind this counter, cluttered with racks of impulse-buys, fronting a shelf full of liquor bottles, staring down the narrow aisles of wines, whiskeys, vodkas, gins, cordials, beer, mixers. And I was, alone and scared.

The liquor store was Sanchez's effort to find financial independence. After years of working in hard labor, driving trucks, he had saved enough to buy this place, Lupe's Liquors, although he had no more idea who Lupe was than did the guy he bought it from. A small store in an aging strip center in a deteriorating part of town. On the edge of the barrio, across the street from the projects. A color line. Brown to the south, black to the north, and no whites in sight.

But I'm white, maybe the only person in twenty blocks with blue eyes, standing and literally shaking under flickering florescents, behind an old cash register. There was, maybe, well over two thousand bucks there. Payday purchases. Mostly cheap wine and malt liquor, some low-end whiskey with sweet soda mixers and an occasional lime or lemon to give it some taste. At the moment, though, taste was the last thing on my mind. What I really wanted was a drink.

I'm an alcoholic. A drunk. Recovering. Been sober for five-hundred, sixty-two days, eight-and-a-half hours. That's the way alkies think. One day at a time, one hour at a time, no goals, no rewards, just one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. Being a drunk has some merits, though. It makes you value your feelings when you're stone, cold sober. And that's what I am. Stone, cold, sober. And scared out of my fucking mind.

I'd known Sanchez since high school. Same age, same class, same bench on the baseball team where we sat watching other guys play and made snickering comments about them. That's the way friends bond. Not out of mutual interests. Out of mutual adversity. We'd stayed close, even though I went to college and he went to work. But he was smart. He never became a drunk. Instead, he got married, had kids--four, in fact--and even though Antonia was a flighty, she made a good wife and mother. Except when she insisted on going to Mexico to visit her mother, her aunts and cousins, leaving Sanchez, who'd never been closer to Mexico than the taco stand on the edge of the strip center, to watch the kids and take care of business. His business. So it went.

I'd never worked retail. Never liked the idea of it. Standing around waiting on people put me off. I never believed the customer was always right. I believed the customer was always wrong, actually. I told him that I was happy being a junior high science teacher. It fit me. Given my self-imposed affliction, it worked for me, too. Kept me sober. Junior high science teachers aren't supposed to go to bars, aren't supposed to get DUIs, aren't supposed to do anything that will attract negative attention. So I don't, didn't. And I had only been in Lupe's Liquors twice before--once the day Sanchez bought the place, and once when Antonia and he celebrated their first month of actually clearing a profit.

Liquor stores on the edge of the barrio and projects are a sure-fire investment. People without prospects drink. That I knew. When you give up on life, when you look at a calendar and realize that the rest of the week, month, year isn't going to be any better than today or yesterday or last week, month or year, you tend to look for something to kill the pain. Drugs, booze, crime. If you don't have the guts for crime, you go for drugs. If you can't afford drugs, which always want more of themselves, you go for booze. Booze can kill you just as easily as the other two; but it's slower, takes longer, and you reach a point where you level out. A gallon of cheap wine is as good as a gallon of single-malt scotch. It's the buzz you want. Hit it and sustain it, and you're fine. With drugs, you keep needing more to hit it, and it soon becomes impossible to sustain without overdoing it, pushing yourself into eternal blackness, which a lot of people want, truth to tell. With crime, well, that's different. That carries an illusion. It's no better. In fact, it's worse--riskier, deadlier, and quicker when it ends. And it always ends. All three lead to an always end of one sort or another.

But here I was, even so. Sober, clean, and sweating blood.

It was ten minutes to closing. A time set by state law, not Sanchez. He was a workaholic. He'd stay open 24/7 if he could. But the law said no booze sales after nine, and it was eight-fifty when the three of them walked in. All black. That wasn't unusual, and it wasn't unusual that they had their hoodies up, their faces more or less hidden from me and from the security cameras Sanchez had installed, even though it set him back quite a bit. They came in just as a small group of companeros went out, twelve-packs in hand. Somebody had set up a big screen TV outside, and a large group was standing around watching some soccer game. I'd seen that from the back window, when I heard cheering and yelling. They'd been coming in and restocking their beer and wine stashes all night. But the place was deserted when the three homeboys came in, hoods up, even though it was sweltering outside.

They prowled the aisles, as if browsing. Who browses in a liquor store? Customers knew what they wanted. They came in, went to the section of choice, maybe did a quick price check between this label or that one, and then bought what they wanted or needed or could afford. No customer all night had been inside more than a couple of minutes. But these guys had been there for nearly ten. It was closing time. I needed to say something. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to be invisible.

Sanchez called me at home around five. Amelia had collapsed with severe pain. She was screaming and crying, he said, and the sitter--a neighborhood kid who was watching them while Antonia was away--had already called 9-1-1. He needed me to watch the store.

"Why not just close down?" I asked.

"On a Friday night?" he yelled the question back at me. "Are you crazy? I'll make my whole week tonight. I can't. I need you, bro."

My mind was racing then, trying to find an excuse. I didn't want to do this, not just because I'd never done it, but because of where it was, who I was. It was one thing to drop by Sanchez's place on the opposite side of the barrio, a kind of upper-scale apartment perched on the outskirts of ancient complexes full of impoverished people, many of whom worked hard for what little they had. It was another thing to be standing behind the counter, over a cash drawer full of money, surrounded by enough booze to disorient a stone monument. I had not felt right about this from the start.

But when he called an hour after I showed up and took over, after he gave me quick instructions about operating the cash register, taking the money to the bank and making the deposit, after he showed me how to turn off the lights and lock up, and after he showed me the short-barreled, pistol-gripped Remington 12-gauge pump on the shelf right under the counter, when he made that call to tell me his four-year-old daughter was going into emergency surgery, that he couldn't leave her, not even for a moment, I knew that it was all up to me. That's what friends are for, after all. And that's what I was. A friend.

The trio were still roaming the aisles, fingering a few bottles here and there. One of them, a larger one, the one who kept his back to me the whole time, kept his hands in the hoodie's muff pockets, as if he was holding something there. I figured he was. He kept glancing at me from the edge of his hood, checking me out checking him out. I figured this was it. It was only a matter of time.

"Hey, guys," I said, picking a term that I hoped was racially neutral and at the same time sounded familiarly friendly, "Law says I got to close at 9. You got two minutes."

It was as if my words froze them, freeze-dried them in place for a second or two. They didn't look at me, didn't look at each other. I was reminded suddenly of that moment when a fielder snags a ball off the ground, just before he throws to first for the out, he takes a beat, less than a second, sometimes, centers himself, finds his balance, then throws smoothly and accurately. A good fielder does that. A bad one panics, flings when he's still off balance and throws wild. But these guys weren't bad. They were good. For a full two seconds, at least, they didn't move at all. And my heart began a pounding throb I could feel in my ears.

"What?" one of them said. "You talking to us?"

"Yeah, I have to close," I said. "It's the law. Hey," I added, shrugging and opening my hands. "I just work here."

Why did I say that? I don't work there. I'm filling in for the owner. But I didn't want to say that. They might have known that, anyway.

They all turned now toward me, started walking to the counter. The large one was in the middle. The other two each had a bottle in hand. Cheap whiskey. I might have known. One snagged a bottle of Dr Pepper on the way. Whiskey and Dr Pepper, I thought. That's just disgusting. The large one kept his hands in the muff pocket, moving now, as if adjusting them around whatever he had in there.

"You trying to throw us out?" one of them asked. His tone was flat. There wasn't any hostility in it, but still, it chilled me, ran through me even as I felt my body temperature rising suddenly. I had always wondered why you couldn't feel high blood pressure, but now I was sure I could. It was as if I could feel my own heart beat pounding inside my skull. My eyes darted to the outside, where there was nothing buy empty blackness beyond the neon sign's faint illumination of the near side of the parkinglot. "We might not be ready," the same one said. "What about that?"

My mouth was alum dry, and my tongue felt twice its normal size. throat was closed and I couldn't swallow. My eyes were on the large man's hands inside the muff pocket. He started to pull them out, and I watched as if in slow motion. I thought
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