(Courtesy of the South 85 Journal; 2020 Julia Peterkin Flash Fiction Award Finalist)

Beggars can’t be choosers. It’s not like they are throwing jobs at ex-cons. Excuse me. A justice impaired individual. I didn’t give a shit what they called me. I just knew I needed a job to keep my probation officer off my back. Anything that showed I was contributing to society and honored the terms of my release.

I couldn’t go back to the old ways. I promised my son I’d be a changed man when I got out. Through swollen eyes full of doubt, I could see he was tired of the empty refrain. During my time away I had become the creepy old guy. Too old to be selling coke in the clubs. I was a hulking dinosaur hawking glassine bags filled with powder with my tiny T- Rex arms. Even I was embarrassed to be myself.

Now I’m legit. I clean ashtrays and clip cigars like I’m giving circumcisions to flaccid, wheezing middle aged men in a suburban cigar lounge. Masters of the universe who can’t get an erection without a pill. I’m allowed to handle the cash register, but still haven’t been given the keys to lock up. The level of trust only goes so far. The owner comes back on the nights I work to do “inventory.” As if I’m gonna run away with the $80 the place might make on a Tuesday.

He reminds me in not so gentle ways that he’s doing me the favor. If things work out, I could become an assistant manager. He just needs me here long enough to get a tax break for hiring a felon.

 It’s a start. A fresh start. In a place that smells like the inside of the Holland Tunnel.  Cheap bastard never paid for proper ventilation. I’m bathed in a putrid, heavy gray yellow haze. The clients don’t seem to mind. I feel like I’m choking every minute I’m here. Choking on my own goddamn freedom.

The rules are simple:

Keep the place neat.

Keep the guests happy.

Don’t fuck with the typewriter.

Three rules. Not even don’t steal. He knows I’ve been neutered. One more strike and I’m gone for good.

He bought the typewriter at auction. Supposedly it belonged to Hemingway. The owner spent more money on that fucking typewriter than on the ventilation system. He used it as part of a display with Fuente’s Hemingway line of cigars. “Papa” didn’t like cigars. It was part of the Hemingway myth. I wasn’t going to tell the owner.  He tried to grow a beard and look like Hemingway. A torturous puberty left craggy mountain ranges in his jawline. Patchy tuffets grew like a cotton field that had been arbitrarily ripped out.

He was afraid I would steal the typewriter. Sell it on the black market. Like I was Thomas Fucking Crown. I sold bags of coke to trust fund kids and the same lords of the lounge whose ashes I swept up with a forced smile through hacking breaths.

Tuesday’s were slow. Cuckolds whose wives wouldn’t let them smoke at home came in when there was nowhere else to go. No games on television; the few that came in barely spoke to each other. They brought their own cigars, despite the owner’s exhortations to buy from the store.

The lounge closed at nine. I’d clean up and then the owner arrived shortly thereafter. For inventory. Lights out at ten. Just like prison. Guards made their rounds, made sure nothing was out of place, then lights out. I was out, but never really left. Nothing changed.

The last guest, Edgar, was a Czech who escaped the Prague Spring of ‘68 and told anybody who would listen. Nobody did. I checked on him to make sure he didn’t doze off and light himself on fire with his own cigar. Normally he’s good for two cigars, but with nobody to talk to, he’s leaving early. I learned quickly to appear busy when he talked. The dollar tip wasn’t worth the effort.

I embrace the silence. In prison men yell. Sharp, staccato outbursts apropos of nothing. Silence means I can hear myself talk, even if I don’t like what I have to say. I’m safe in the silence. I don’t like the dark. Can’t see what’s coming until it’s there.

I didn’t hear the door open initially. The owner was early. The extra hour of minimum wage meant nothing; I was happy to go home early. The click of the barrel slide was unmistakable. Heavy. I could taste the metal of the gun through the acrid air.  I let him get too close. Every rule from prison, forgotten. Out three months and already I’m soft.

“The fucking register.” High pitched and borderline manic. I turned to see a skeleton with dead eyes. Snot ran down skin so taut I thought it would crack if he said anything else. A fucking junkie.

I could take him if I wanted. He could also take me out. Put me out of my misery. For $36 in the register. His hands trembled as he pawed at the crumpled bills. Maybe he’d shoot me on principle. I don’t blame him. He was incredulous. Blinking.

“Take the typewriter.”

He looked at me uncomprehending. He grabbed a fistful of cigars; there was nothing else of value in the store.

“Take the fucking typewriter!”

“Gimme your phone!”

I had a flip phone. According to probation, I hadn’t earned a smart phone yet. I tossed it to him.

“What the fuck is this?”

He held it like he picked up a used condom. I began laughing uncontrollably. Maybe he would shoot me if he thought I was crazy. Eat a bullet and call it a night. He staggered backwards to the front door, spitting on the floor in disgust.

I knocked the typewriter onto the floor. Shattered. Ivory keys danced among piles of ashes.

Fuck it. I’ll find another job.

I lit up a cigar and waited for the owner to arrive.

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