Behind the Counter

All photos by Bridget Callahan

 

 

By Graham Irvin

 

At the Sprint store, a man gasped at the woman behind the counter, something like “This isn’t my phone”, around the same time that same woman handed over, to me, what was supposed to be my new phone.

She asked my number.

I told her my number.

The man began looking through my photos and, seeing scenes of nudity, myself and a woman I once dated, became flush, maybe embarrassed, maybe aroused.

When I drove back to my parent’s house, where I was staying for Thanksgiving weekend, I tried to calm my anger at the woman behind the counter’s mistake. It could have easily been avoided had she put a post-it note with a last name across the screen, or laid the new phone over the contract that had to be updated once the new phone was purchased.

I wondered, too, if the man was more upset at seeing the photos, or possibly excited. He was a larger, older man. Probably late 60s, early 70s. He had a flat top, military type hair-cut, and handle bar mustache that were both very white. He was also white, Caucasian. He wore wire-framed glasses that were slightly tinted. Like a Wilford Brimley who never went on to act, and probably didn’t see the point of Hollywood types like Wilford Brimley.

He looked like he would have been offended, which made me less upset at the woman behind the counter when I thought of it. Maybe he felt scandalized by the images in my phone, having seen a young woman’s bare breasts, a young man’s erect penis. “What’s wrong with kids these days?’ Maybe he was just as upset at the woman behind the counter for exposing him to such filth, porn even. “Smut.” Those images were stuck in his head, and it’s her fault, and when he got home and his wife asked, given that she was alive, given that he was still married, given that he was married to a woman, he would say first off right out “You’ll never believe the kind of disgusting things I saw today. never in my life.” He would be haunted in his showers. Before he went to sleep. When he drove out in the mornings for coffee at the local gas station self-pump he had been going to for 12 years since he retired.

Maybe he wouldn’t tell anyone at all. Maybe he would search his clunky computer at home for similar images of what he thought he saw. He would try to understand his own interests. He would get his wife, partner, whatever, to do some of the same things. He would look for sex workers. He would become the deviant.

The man saw those photos because, while uploading old data onto the new phone, old photos were read as taken at the moment of the upload. Photos from months back, years even, were understood by the phone to be brand new, spanning miles and states. Taken in Raleigh, Hickory, Wilmington, Tennessee, California. Moved to the bottom of the photo queue when the app was opened.

I tried to keep that from happening. I knew the old phone would be in new hands at some point.

The night before, I made videos of myself masturbating to send to a woman I met on a dating app. I imagined her calling me “Daddy” and making sad pouting faces, squeezing her breasts together as if they were pillows. The subtle difference in emotions like sadness and tiredness and arousal all clicked in line close together.

I felt very human and empathetic for noticing them all. I felt un-robotic and moved comfortably in my actions.

I wondered why the woman didn’t invite me over to her house that, according to the dating app, was only 4 miles away. After I finished, she said something along the lines of “Wow” and “That was nice” and stopped responding to my texts.

   *************

 

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I smelled like cigarettes mostly, and probably partly BO, from not showering and sleeping at a friend’s house, where ashtrays sat on each red leather ottoman, and we stayed up, all of us, a group of five men from the same small town. Only a few of which actually went to school together at some point, most of them new to me, except of course M and J. We stayed up until about 3am, watching videos of Sucker Punches and Dad Saves on Youtube, smoking and drinking cheap whiskey.

Before that we, M and I, stopped by the then empty house, on the way to a Thanksgiving party with M’s family. M snorted a line of a whitish-brown powder from the top of his clothing dresser. I asked if it was something I would want, meaning cocaine. M said no, probably not, unless I wanted heroin. He laid down on his bed for a moment while I drank from a bottle of sour red wine that tasted like it had been sitting open on the dresser for a few days.

I passed the bottle, and pulled a cigarette from my jacket pocket. I broke the menthol bubble in the filter. I put the cigarette behind my ear.

I told M about seeing my family earlier that day, for Thanksgiving lunch. My cousin’s Southern accent and general bad taste in most things. The cousin asked if I had been to a music festival that featured bands that were popular over 10 years ago who combined metal with alternative rock. I imagined most of the band members with long hair and trimmed goatees, maybe bleached or dyed hair to hide their age. The music festival’s name hinted, either directly or indirectly, to civil war or confederate language. I told him I hadn’t gone.

The cousin told me he once drank six energy sodas in a day, “The tall, big ones,” he said. “I can chug them dang ‘ol things in a minute flat, they don’t even affect me. If I need it to work it does, but if I want to sleep, I just go right on to sleep.”  He later said something like “You can eat an entire loaf of bread if you put it in water and pack it down into a ball, just swallow it like a pill,” then acted coy, as if he wasn’t sure he should say he’d tried it before.

M laughed at my impression, said he worked with guys who went to the same music festival, acted the same way.

We emptied the wine bottle and walked outside to the car.

After the small get together with M’s parents, cousins, aunt, the friends who would eventually stay with us, we all planned to drive back to the empty house. Bring the whiskey. Bring the Jarritos. Fix plates if they wanted to eat. Pick up more mixer on the way, Coke or Pepsi or something.

M called his partner, told her to head over to his house whenever, he’d meet her there. He hung up, then yelled “Fuck.” Hit the steering wheel. “Did I leave that heroin out? Fuck’ ‘tell her it’s yours man, say it’s coke or something. She can’t know I do that shit.”

I agreed.

I said I wanted to try it though, later, get a line for covering him. “Don’t mess me up though, I’ve never done that shit.”

The house was still empty when we arrived.

M said we should finish the heroin, get rid of the evidence. He emptied a small plastic bag onto the wooden dresser. Used a credit card to straighten two lines, one larger than the other. The powder was finer than cocaine, like flour or corn starch almost. It didn’t clump.

I snorted the shorter of the two lines, then spread the skin around my nose, above my sinuses, to pull everything up into my head.

I sneezed.

“I forgot it’s basically pollen.”

I made a drink, and sat on the couch. At some point, the others showed up with Pepsi two liters, and small  eight ounce energy sodas. I asked to get some of the soda in my whiskey and Jarritos. I didn’t tell them I had snorted the heroin, only because they wouldn’t be impressed, would maybe want to do it themselves, or would force M to contact someone to get it for them.

M’s roommate had a bag of Xanax footballs and a bag of Klonopin. He sold me a Klonopin for a dollar even though it wasn’t enough money. “Yea, I’ll give it to you because you’re cool. And I don’t even like these, I stopped taking them.” I tried to thank him, but didn’t feel I had the accurate words to express my friendship. He kept saying we were cool.

I didn’t feel cool.

At some point J showed up. He sat next to me on the couch and didn’t drink. He chewed tobacco, and spit into a water bottle.

The others left, or fell asleep.

I took the pill from my pocket and chewed it up. It tasted like drying paint. I laid down and imagined how stupid it would be to overdose. My heart felt like wet cardboard holding up an old family portrait.

 *************

 

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M, J, and I drove out to the outlet mall around 4am for Black Friday shopping, after stopping at Walmart to check the price of Xboxes and Play Stations and whatever else electronics were there, Then two separate QT gas stations for the free air pump to fix the low front passenger side tire that definitely wouldn’t have carried us all the way to the waiting deals.

M pissed by the car in the parking lot, 100 yards from the mall entrance, Then J pissed in the bushes directly next to the mall entrance, while I sat on the wooden bench under aluminum sculptures that looked like palms trees, but were pastel purples and oranges.

Inside we stopped at Nike and Adidas factory stores, shoes for cheap because they were one or two seasons old. M pointed at a short man in a turtleneck sweater. He walked next to the man down the aisle, still pointing. “Why is he wearing that?” M said to J and I. Us laughing.

“This shit sucks.”

“These shoes are stupid.” “Who would actually buy this dumb stuff?” We talked shit, but mostly just me, feeling bored and tired, like I had to be at the mall to keep awake, stay alive.

We walked out of the store. J walked passed strangers, stepped close to their faces, said excitedly “This place is just like New York” as a mocking bit. Something about crowds, something about his own love for the city. “Oh my god, it’s just like the big apple.”

“This is just like Central Park. Give me some of your water,” I said, watching M and J eat Cinnabon rolls across from the Forever 21. “Why are we sitting down?” Eventually, I asked the person behind the counter for a styrofoam cup myself, felt like I gamed the system, like I’d gotten away with something he didn’t even know I was stealing.

I didn’t eat a cinnamon roll, I didn’t eat a stromboli at the Sbarro kiosk in the food court. I mocked M for his clothing choice, the places he thought would have the deals. I yelled loudly at a family as I slammed the empty water cup in a nearby trash can. They jumped and stared at me as I walked away. I felt powerful and invincible for not having any drugs on my person, like metabolizing something was the perfect way to keep it hidden from authority.

I felt tired in a bored way. It felt like I understood communism while staring at the torn boxes on the floor of every outlet. The numbers in the discount signs seemed foreign and stupid, like they were wrong for asking me to understand their purpose,

Driving back to M’s, I threw up from the back window. He slowed to let a cop ahead of us get out of sight. I felt like some kind of villain, yelling my stomach into the wind at a hero in a cape. Spit ran across my cheek and licked into my ear. I wiped a handful off and held it to the air, felt the waves with my palm. I found a thick paper towel under the seat and rubbed it across myself.

Once back, I used what surface area of the towel was left to clean the side of the car. I couldn’t see color, there was a fluorescent street light above me that changed the neighborhood to gray. M and J walked inside. When I finished what I could, I balled the towel into my fist and leaned my head against the closed door of the car. I opened my eyes, and stared at my feet for a moment. I no longer felt sick, or anything. I didn’t need anything. I was surprised I didn’t itch, I wondered if I would be safe to sleep, if I should drink more whiskey, or get a cigarette to lay down with.

Inside I slept face up on the couch with a thin blanket over me. I didn’t take off my jacket or my winter hat. I imagined throwing up again and choking on it as I closed my eyes.

*************

 

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Driving out of Charlotte into Kannapolis, a piece of metal pipe burst my back passenger tire. I parked on the side of the highway and called auto insurance to help with the change.

I was separated from a boot barn by the highway’s barbed wire fence. I wanted to climb the fence and browse the aisles of western wear to pass the time. to feel normal and capitalistic. I didn’t think yet that everything was broken. My car just needed new shoes.

I stayed out of the mechanic’s way when he put the doughnut on. I drove home by a separate route, slowly in the left lane. I stopped in a repair shop and had the tire replaced, oil changed, brake fluid added. The man behind the counter gave me a bill. “Your oil was low. You need to keep an eye on that.” He spoke in a fatherly tone, as if he was disappointed in the way I was treating my pet, my car.

That night at a bar, I talked to a man with a confederate flag bandana. “I could tell you some stories,” he said, while chewing the filter of his cigarette. He forgot to light it. He catalogued broken bones received from years of riding a motorcycle, scars from working construction.

“I was homeless for four months,”’ he said. “Lived in a tent camp behind the seafood restaurant.”

He said only thieves and rapists lived there.

He woke up beside a raccoon stealing his bread. Trash sandwiches. He stalked a man with a heavy pipe but didn’t kill him because he had morals. A good heart. A Christian man.

“I was staying with this couple, these dope heads, and they called me into their room. They said “Butch, come in here.” So I went in, and she’s suckin his dick, so I say “I wanna get me some too” so I start fuckin her. I did that two or three times with them, while living there. I ain’t proud of it. But a man’s got needs.”

I asked if Jesus ever had sex. did he have an orgasm on the cross. “Don’t say that to me,” said Butch. He spoke loud about God. He said humans are flawed, God was perfect, and so was Jesus. I laughed at my own misguidance. I apologized for the question.

I shook Butch’s hand and walked away. He would be at the bar all night and didn’t need a ride. I was leaving too early.

I could sleep anywhere I wanted. I was thirsty. I drank three beers. M stopped by and asked for a dollar, disappeared into the bathroom. “You don’t want to know,” his face said.

 

Graham Irvin is a writer from North Carolina. He is currently a MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

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