It happened each night, an hour before closing, regardless of whether there was only one employee or all three present, and always lasted exactly the length of one song, no longer. I didn’t know how the customers reacted, although I could remember how I had, which was why I made sure to stay in the office.
From about 9:03 to ten, there were always a few more customers and a lot of idle chatter, usually concerning plans for the night or the lack thereof. Again, I tried to make it a point not to listen, but sometimes this was impossible, which was why I now knew that Leah always wanted to go out to the clubs (better chances of meeting older boys they hadn’t known all their lives), while Esther preferred to go hear music (apparently she had some sort of singer-songwriter bent). Maggie, from what I could tell, didn’t do much other than hang out with the boys from the bike shop, most likely pining after Jake, although she swore up and down she was over him, so over him.
This night was no different, as became clear when I heard Leah say, ‘So, it’s Ladies in Free at Tallyho tonight.’
‘What was it,’ Esther said, ‘that we swore the last time we went there?’
‘We didn’t –’
‘No, no, no to Tallyho,’ Maggie recited over her.
Someone snickered. Then Leah said, ‘I don’t understand what is it you guys hate so much about that place.’
‘Everything?’ Esther said.
‘It’s better than going to open mike night at Ossify and watching some guy recite his shopping list over a drum-beat.’
‘I don’t know,’ Maggie said. ‘Is it really?’
More snickering. ‘Look,’ Esther said, ‘I’m not saying we have to go to Ossify. I just don’t feel like getting grinded on by some drunk tourist again tonight.’
‘There’s always the jump park,’ Maggie said. Loud groans. ‘What? It’s free, there are boys there…’
‘The boys we’ve known all our freaking lives,’ Leah said.
‘… and it’s fun,’ Maggie finished. ‘Plus, I heard Eli might be riding this weekend.’
I’d been adding up a long list of numbers, and at just this moment lost track of the last one I’d punched in. I hit clear, and started over.
‘That rumor,’ Leah said, ‘goes around every week.’
‘Maybe, but this time I heard it from Adam.’
‘Who heard it from Eli?’ No answer from Maggie. ‘Exactly my point. It’s like a Bigfoot sighting by now. It’s urban legend.’
No one spoke for what seemed like a long time. Finally Esther said, ‘It has been over a year. You’d think that he’d eventually…’
‘Abe was his best friend,’ Leah said. ‘You know how tight they were.’
‘I know, but still. He has to get back to it sometime.’
‘What she means,’ Maggie said, ‘is that it was his life, back then. And now he’s here, managing the shop. It’s like everything just stopped.’
Another silence. Leah said, ‘Well, for him it probably did. You know?’
There was a tap on the door behind me, making me jump: at some point, Esther had slipped away from them and come back with the cash from the register. ‘We’re about out of here,’ she said as she came in. I moved aside, like I did every night, as she ducked under the desk to the safe. ‘You almost done?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. She swung the door shut, pulling out the safe key. ‘I’ll, um, be out in a sec.’
When she left, I turned back to my calculator, starting to add again. Halfway down the row of numbers, though, I stopped and sat as still as I could, listening hard to see if the conversation would double back to where it had been before. When it didn’t, I bent back over my numbers, punching them in slowly this time, one by one by one, so as not to make the same mistake again.
By midnight, I’d already walked the boardwalk and driven a full loop of Colby proper, and still had a few hours before I even wanted to think about going home. Clearly, I needed coffee. So I headed to the Gas/Gro.
I had just parked and was digging in my ashtray for change when I heard an engine zooming up behind me. When I looked up, a beat-up green truck was pulling in a few spaces down. Even before I saw the bikes piled in the back I recognized the short, stocky guy behind the wheel, and Adam, Maggie’s friend, beside him. They cut the engine and hopped out, going inside. After a moment, I followed them.
The Gas/Gro was small but clean, with neat aisles and not too bright lighting. I went straight to the full-strength GroRoast, as was my habit, pulling out the biggest cup and filling it up. Adam and his friend were at the other end of the store, by the coolers, where they grabbed drinks before proceeding to the candy aisle.
‘Goobers,’ Adam was saying as I added a bit of cream to my cup. ‘Twizzlers. And… let me see. Maybe Junior Mints?’
‘You know,’ his friend said, ‘you don’t have to name each item out loud.’
‘It’s my process, okay? I make better decisions when I vocalize as I do it.’
‘Well, it’s annoying. At least do it quietly.’
I put a lid on my cup, making sure it was secure, then started for the register, where a heavyset woman was buying some lottery tickets. A moment later, they stepped up behind me. I could see them in the mirrored reflection of the cigarette ad over our heads.
‘One fourteen,’ the clerk said, ringing me up.
I slid my exact change over, then reached for my cup. As I turned, Adam said, ‘Hey, I thought you looked familiar! You, um… work at Clementine’s, right?’
I knew that um. It was obvious my one night of bad judgment had branded me as The Girl Who Hooked up with Jake, although Adam was nice enough to not say this, at least to my face. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I do.’
‘Adam,’ he said, pointing to himself. ‘And this is Wallace.’
‘Auden,’ I told him.
‘Look at that,’ Adam said, nudging him. ‘She bought a single cup of coffee. Such restraint!’
‘No kidding,’ Wallace said as they dumped their collective items onto the counter. ‘Who can come to the Gas/Gro and only buy one thing?’
‘Well,’ Adam said as the clerk began ringing things up, ‘she’s not from here.’
‘This is true.’ Wallace glanced at me. ‘No offense, of course. It’s just that we’re –’