All of a sudden Jake thought, “Enough!” Between the constant crash of balls into pins, the blinking, blinking, blinking of the goddamn lights they’d strung up everywhere, and the hoarse shouts of half-drunk players, the top of his head was about to come off. He’d thought this job would be better than bussing tables, but he couldn’t take this constant clatter. He needed a place he could hear himself think, maybe have a conversation now and then. As soon he collected his next paycheck, he was gone. He didn’t know where, but gone.
A pimply kid in sagging pants came up to the counter and handed him a fifty-dollar bill to pay for his games and shoes.
“Got anything smaller?”
“No, man, this is all I got. It was a Christmas present.”
A Christmas present. What kind of world is it, Jake asked himself, where high school kids get fifty bucks for Christmas and I, a grown man, can’t get a decent job? He gave the kid his change and watched him shuffle off to join his buddies in Lane 6.
Maybe he should leave town altogether. His sister wouldn’t like it, but she had her own family now. He could move to Florida, live by the beach. Wouldn’t that be great?
“Excuse me!” Jake blinked, came back from his daydream, looked right… left… down. The woman in front of his counter couldn’t have been more than four and a half feet tall. Her head and shoulders barely cleared the countertop.
“I need a lane for an hour,” she said briskly. “And shoes sizes 9 1/2, 10, 10 1/2 and two 11s.”
He couldn’t help himself, he leaned over the counter to see her better. It was like looking at a big doll. Everything was there, just…small. She had on a little red sweatshirt, tight jeans, and child-size combat boots, and her long dark hair swung halfway down her back.
“If you ask me where my mother is,” she said, “I’m taking my business elsewhere.”
He straightened up in a hurry. “Sorry. Just wondering who’s gonna wear those size 11 shoes.”
She didn’t smile. Instead, she nodded toward four people standing just inside the door and said, “The shoes are for them.” One of the four gave him a wave.
Jake knew the mentally challenged when he saw them. He looked back at her.
“My co-worker’s parking the van,” she said. “He’ll be here in a minute. He’s bowling with them. This is a holiday outing. Any more questions?”
“That’ll be $42.50,” he said, turning to the register. She had an attitude, for sure. Still, it must be hard to be so small and stared at all the time. Plus working with people like that. He knew how it felt to be different. His dyslexia had plagued him all his life.
He put them in Lane 8 where he could keep an eye on them. She didn’t bowl, he noticed, though she could’ve used a child’s ball, maybe an 8-pounder. Her role seemed to be supervising things and high-fiving anybody who hit a pin. Which didn’t happen a lot, but when it did everybody whooped and hollered. If he’d seen folks have more fun he couldn’t remember it.
He got busy with other customers and didn’t see the trouble start. When he looked next, he saw the fifty-buck kid stumbling all over Lane 6 pretending to be too stupid to find his ball, while his buddies pointed and guffawed and threw sidelong glances at Lane 8.
He was over the counter in an instant. By the time he got down to 6 the woman was already in the kid’s face, quivering like a tiny dynamo.
“You like to make fun of people who are different? Maybe you’d like to make fun of people who are short, like me? Or people with zits all over their face, like you? Or…”
Jake was there. “Or people who’re about to throw you out of this alley, like me?”
The kid looked first shocked, then sullen. “I didn’t mean nothin’.”
“Well, we don’t tolerate that kind of crap here.” Jake’s anger surprised him. He gave all the kids a look that made them drop their eyes.
There was a pause. Then the woman made a disgusted sound and turned away. The fifty-buck kid went and sat down. Jake let out his breath. It was over.
Walking back to his counter, he realized he felt better than he had in weeks. Nothing like fighting for the right and all that shit. You didn’t get to do that every day.
The fifty-buck kid hung back after his buddies left. He approached the counter gingerly, like he was afraid Jake might take a swing at him, and laid down a twenty. “Here, man, put this toward their tab. Tell ’em Merry Christmas.” And he was gone.
He gave her the money when she came to turn in her shoes, wondering what she’d say. “And he wished you a Merry Christmas.”
“Sometimes folks turn out to be better than they think they are,” she said thoughtfully.
“You mean better than you think they are?”
“No. Better than they think they are.” She smiled then, a nice smile. “Thanks for helping us out today.”
“Well, I don’t like people making fun of other people.”
“Lots of people would say that. But not everybody would do something about it.”
She turned to go, hesitated. “You know,” she said, “we’re always looking for good people. If you’re ever interested in a job, call me. Here’s my card. Merry Christmas.”
He watched her walk away, long hair swinging, before spelling out the letters on the card. They said, “Ciela Martin, Program Coordinator, Adult Day Services.” Program Coordinator. Who thought he was “good people”.
Maybe he’d stay in town for a while, see what the new year would bring.
J L Wynne lives in a small town in Washington State with her dear husband and an entitled cat.
Every Day Fiction wishes you all the joy of the season;
Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it!