You pull up to the Twin Oaks strip mall at 9:33 AM. Late again. Ken's Hobby Shop, your place of work, was supposed to open 3 minutes ago.
The usual crew of geriatric train enthusiasts hold court on the sidewalk out front, eager to get inside and continue their important discourse amidst the air-conditioned dioramas.
From the driver's seat, you see the old-timers pause their meeting. One of them raises his hand to point at you, muttering "she's here" through saliva caked lips.
Founded 35 years ago at the height of the model train craze, and long past its prime, Ken's was the only place in town, aside from Ryan's Steakhouse, that catered almost exclusively to those in their golden years.
You take a deep breath, mentally preparing yourself for the walk of shame, before stepping out into the parking lot and approaching the front door of the hobby shop.
"Hey guys, sorry I'm late again," you say, lying.
"Ken will be hearing about this, we've got places to be you know?"
You resist the urge to ask where else an 80 year old train enthusiast might be at 9:30AM in this hick town so that you can send him there.
"Like I said, I apologize. I'll be with you guys in a bit, just give me a few minutes to open up."
"Don't mind that old coot," said another, "he's just cranky because his flakes were too frosted this morning."
"They were, dammit! They're not like they used to be!"
You swing open the glass door.
The door chimes as you enter the shop.
You head for the back, the very back, to turn the lights on and get some cash for the register.
Flicking the light switch, the bright yellow walls and torn linoleum floor of the back room are bathed in a flourescent glow. Piles of discarded model train scenery adorn every flat surface, and in the far corner sits a small safe.
You approach the safe, and crouch down to dial in the code:
R20 - L18 - R1 - L9 - R13
Inside the safe are several small stacks of cash: ones, fives, and twenties (no larger,) from which you grab a handful of each, jotting down your withdrawal on a log taped to the inside of the thick steel door.
You were one of the few people with the privilege of being allowed to open the shop and deal with the money. Your wages did not reflect this, but Ken was a family friend, and your mom insisted you stick it out until college starts.
Cash in hand, you return to the front of the store and place the money in the till.
The only thing left to do was pull the cord on the decrepit neon "open" sign, signalling the train-obssessed retirees to haul their decaying bodies through the gateway.
Taking up your position behind the register, you lean back on a wooden bar stool and cross your arms.
The Pa Patrol, as you like to call them, know better than to ask you about trains—you don't know anything about trains,but you're pretty damn good at remembering prices and punching them into the register. Indeed, Ken's Hobby Shop has not yet advanced to the age of the barcode.
The clock on the wall reads 9:36 AM as a lone customer approaches the register.
"How are you doing this morning young lady? This weather sure is something huh?"
"Great, thank you. Did you find everything you were looking for?"
"My little nephew...small boy," he extends his hand, palm down, about 6 inches above the countertop, "is playing a pig in the school play. Can you believe it?"
"That's great, sir." you muster from the very depths of your psyche.
"No it's not! That boy should be playing the lead role. He's got main character energy," he nods his head assertively, testing the limits of the glue holding his toupee.
"Well everybody has to start somewhere. Maybe Brad Pitt's first role was as a pig in the school play," you say, forcing a smile.
"A pig," he spat. "My boy...small boy..."
"How can I help you today sir?"
He tosses a package of ball bearings on the counter.
You manually key in the price of the item, which you know by heart, $1.99.
$2.07 with tax.
"$2.07 is your total. Cash or credit?"
"$2.07?! Your prices are out of a control. Is Ken here? I need to have a word with Ken. This really is getting ridiculous. Where's Ken?"
The ball bearings have been the same price for as long as you've worked here. Ken is probably selling them at a loss.
"He's not in yet but I would be happy to share your feedback with him when he gets in today."
"Yeah, right," shaking his head, he drops 3 singles on the counter.
You key $3.00 into the till, and rapidly count 93 cents in change: 3 quarters, 1 dime, a nickle, and 3 pennies.
"Thank you for shopping at Ken's." you say, depositing the change in the customer's outstretched hand.
Visibly angry, he snatches the bearings from the counter and storms out, leaving a trail of flames in his wake.
God willing, you'll be dead before the next customer shows up.
"Hello my dear, some weather we're having huh?"
God must be busy with something else.
"Yes sir, it sure is some weather."
"I'm building a train in my friend's basement. He's a retired firefighter, god bless our first responders. I wanted to make him something really great, maybe a scale model of the town where he grew up, or Amity from Jaws, but then I got to thinking "Who's going to pay for this," ya know?"
"So I asked my friend Rodrigo, he's gay, it doesn't matter, I'm just saying, but I asked him..."
"You can borrow my trains anytime you want, I said, you just have to put them back where you found them. But then what did he do?"
You nod your head when it seems appropriate, but your patience wears thin.
The talkative man reaches into his fanny pack and withdraws a sandwich wrapped in brown wax paper. Opening half of the neat little packet, he takes a bite.
"Um, excuse me sir, do you have something to purchase?"
"Hey now, can't a man have a bite to eat? I'm feeling lightheaded."
"Probably from oxygen deprivation," you think to yourself.
"Nothing like a bacon, peanut butter, and sardine sandwich to bring the world back into focus."
You shiver involuntarily. Either a ghost just passed through you or something about sardines with peanut butter triggered a synapse in the panic region of your brain.
"These Chicken of the Sea smoked sardines....I know they're not really smoked but they're pretty good. No organs, heads, or tails like a lot of people are afraid of. Firm flesh. Mild smoke flavor. It reminds me of back in my younger days..."
"When I opened the can to make this sandwich this morning I said oooh chile, those are some big fish. Sometimes they're big, sometimes they're small, you never know what you're going to get with brands like this...
Are you even listening to me?"
Your eyes dilate as you're violently yanked back into this timeline.
"Yes sir, your gay friend Frederico is a firefighter and...the sardines are large..."
"No! Rodrigo is a firefighter, Frederico is in jail...you kids these days can't focus for a minute without your Adderall and your Xanax can you?
Anyway, as I was saying the sardines are firm, with a mild smokiness and a dryish texture that pairs well with the creaminess of the peanut butter. And the bacon..."
He pops the last bite of the sandwich into his mouth.
"Wownds out the fwavor wif a nife falty cwunch."
"Well I don't have time to talk right now dear, the $8.95 senior lunch buffet starts at Ryan's Steakhouse in 15 minutes!"
Your relief at his departure is overshadowed by your annoyance at having been bamboozled into hearing an old mean speak at length about a sardine sandwich without buying anything.
Another customer steps forward.
"Good morning my dear. Fine weather we're having."
Here we go...
"What's the deal with the price of ball bearings?"
The clock on the wall reads 9:45 AM; a long day lies ahead.
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