“You sold and then bought more to sell more. An endless, infuriating cycle.” A short story where a new beginning forebodes the shackles of a life of consumer monotony. A tale that serves as a reminder that location is everything…
by: T.E. Cowell
My flight touched down around three in the afternoon. I navigated the airport, made it outside. I stood near the curb in the welcome heat. Cars were bumper-to-bumper, drivers honked and shook their heads. A completely different scene than the one I’d left in Seattle.
After several minutes my aunt’s aging Lexus veered towards the curb.
“Throw your stuff in back,” she said through the open window.
I put my backpack and skateboard on the backseat and hopped in the front. My aunt rolled the window up. Cool air streamed through the vents. With her blinker on she waited for an opportunity to get back in the traffic, waited a little longer, sighed and hit the gas. A car behind us honked.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said.
Cynthia was my mom’s older sister. They looked similar but had completely different personalities. Cynthia co-owned the shop next door to my uncle Rob’s, selling and renting bicycles and roller-skates. She had a house in the hills above Santa Monica and was married to a homeless man, so the story went.
We inched along toward the exit, neither of us saying a thing. Cynthia had the radio on, oldies rock blared out of the speakers at a volume just shy of distracting.
The exit seemed an impossible distance but eventually we were there. My aunt stepped on the gas and an ease came over her shoulders now that LAX was in the rearview.
“So how was the flight?” she asked without turning her head.
“Good,” I said. The attractive woman in the seat next to mine who’d tried to keep a conversation going came to mind. Even though the talk had been strained she ended up giving me her number. “Call me anytime,” she’d said.
Cynthia drove past recognizable landmarks from the recent summers I’d visited — an In-N-Out, Loyola Marymount University on the hill overlooking the smog of downtown. She seemed intent on getting me to Venice and getting on with her life. I wondered if she wondered why I was being so quiet as I looked out the window, pretending to be more interested in the urban landscape than I was.
After turning off Lincoln onto Washington, familiar territory not far from the beach, Cynthia said, “So did you have to say goodbye to any sweethearts back home?”
I glanced at her and looked back out the window.
“A few,” I said.
She laughed. “A good-looking guy like you probably has to fight them off!”
Cynthia parked in the alleyway behind her shop and unlocked a squeaky steel gate. The RV Dale had lived in the past two summers still took up its spot on a square of sun-warmed concrete. Dale was a stooped, soft-spoken older guy who seemed to spend the bulk of his time at the bar next door when he wasn’t busy repairing cruiser bikes. I didn’t know his story but I had the feeling it wasn’t a cheerful one. There was sadness in his eyes. He seemed to have lost something he’d never get back.
I followed Cynthia to the front of the shop. Greg, my uncle who co-owned the business with her, looked at me from behind the counter.
“He’s back,” he said.
“Yup,” I said.
He smiled, a smile that was there and the next second it wasn’t. That was Greg. He looked like he belonged in a motorcycle gang with his impressive girth and long gray-black hair. A full face and dark beady eyes completed the picture. I was both proud and a little embarrassed to be related to such a guy. I was amazed we were related because we looked nothing alike.
I thanked Cynthia for the ride, waved and walked next door to Rob’s surf shop. Stepping over the green-tiled floor, I turned my head and my uncle looked up at me from behind the counter.
“There he is. Welcome back.”
“Thanks,” I said.
He stuck out his hand. His grip was strong. He looked at me without blinking. Rob was a bald, slight man in his fifties who surfed every morning and had the unbending work ethic of a general.
“How was the flight?”
“Are you hungry?”
“In that case you can help get these hats priced and put up. Stick your backpack and board behind the counter.”
I did as I was told with a sinking feeling in my gut. I’d wanted to rid my backpack from my shoulders and hop on my skateboard instead of going straight to work.
“These hats are going for twenty-four,” my uncle said.
The hats covered the counter. Next to them was the price gun. Countless price tags were scattered about the counter like puzzle pieces.
I stared at the tags, grabbed a pen, counted the hats and started scribbling the price on the tags. I stuck the hole of the tags through the needle on the price gun, then the needle through the tags on the inside of the hats. I pulled the trigger on the gun and out came the price tag affixed to the hat by way of a thin plastic string. A genius invention for something with such a trivial, singular purpose.
Maybe if I get done quickly I’ll have some time to myself, I thought as Rob sat behind the counter flipping through a catalog. I knew what he was doing, looking to buy new merchandise. That was what retail entailed. You sold and then bought more to sell more. An endless, infuriating cycle. I wondered if I’d made a bad decision coming back to this. Then I stopped wondering because, after all, I was a few months from turning twenty, and at that age you simply don’t know what you’re getting into.
When I was down to the last of the hats my uncle put the catalog away.
“Remember how to use the register?”
“I think so.”
He looked at me, unconvinced. “I want to watch you work the next sale.”
I put the remaining hats on the shelves, glanced outside.
“Bet it feels strange to be back.”
I shrugged. “Not really. Thanks for letting me come back.”
A few minutes went by. Then Johnny Rotten walked in. He looked at us.
“Hey Johnny,” my uncle said.
Johnny made his way toward the back of the shop. He stopped in front of the plaid button-downs, grabbed one off the rack and walked to the full-length mirror to hold the shirt over the one he was wearing. He was wearing a plaid button-down and plaid shorts to match. His legs were as white as the moon. Black socks halfway up his calves accentuated the whiteness. He was a regular at the shop. I saw him the past two summers every couple of weeks.
I only knew who he was because of a skateboard video that he’d starred in as the host, introducing each skater before their parts began. He looked the same now as in the video, shaved bleached blond hair with a black streak on one side. If I hadn’t known he’d been the lead singer of a now-defunct punk band I would’ve thought he was just another Venice eccentric.
Johnny walked up to the counter with two plaid button-downs.
“Want to try them on?” my uncle asked.
He made a face. “Nah. I know my size.”
I found the price tags and punched away at the register. I mumbled the total and Johnny handed me a credit card. I swiped it, asked if it was debit or credit, then if he wanted a receipt.
“Nah,” he said. “What’s the use?”
I put the merchant copy in the register, closed it and bagged the shirts.
“Cheers,” Johnny said.
When he was out the door my uncle said, “Well, I think you remember how it works. Now let’s see if you remember how to close up at the end of the day.”
He showed me the buttons to press on the register and credit card machine, then told me to call him if I had any questions. After that he left. I didn’t have any questions. I closed the shop at six, grabbed my skateboard and cruised down to the park in the failing light. It felt good to be out, no matter the hour. The temperature was agreeable and waves crashed against the shore. It felt good to be out, no matter the hour. It felt good to be back in Venice.