by Virginia Duke
Byresh watched Katie scoot quartered hardboiled egg and cubes of ham to the side of her salad and squirt ranch dressing all over the top. She speared dripping olives, croutons, and cheese with her fork.
“I really think we should call Rob,” Katie said, looking at her smart phone while she chewed and pushed lettuce around. “The storm is gonna be bad.”
“If he thinks it’s serious enough, he’ll call. And I hope he doesn’t.” Byresh watched Katie nearly unhinge her jaw to shove the next bite in her mouth. “If we go home early, he won’t pay us for those hours.”
He stared at the egg and ham as acid churned in his empty stomach.
“If we stay, we could get stuck here.”
A gust of wind pressed the store’s wall of glass windows inward. Byresh walked to the door. It was only three in the afternoon, but the dense, gray clouds blocked so much sun that the streetlights had already turned on. It did look like snow, and he hoped it would blizzard. Being stuck here overnight would be a blessing.
“So?” Katie stood.
“So should I call Rob?”
When he turned from the window, Katie had her phone to her ear.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
She didn’t respond.
“Hey, Rob? It’s Katie. So I saw the weather report, and it’s pretty bad. I was wondering if we could close up the store before it was too late to get home?” Katie chewed on her lip and bounced on her tiptoes as she listened. Byresh could hear a metallic voice but couldn’t make out the words. “Okay. Okay, sure. I’ll let you know. Thanks. Bye.”
“He said he’s okay with us closing early but it’s up to us,” she said. “We can’t leave just one person here for safety reasons, so we both stay or we both close.”
“I can’t believe you just did that.”
“I want to leave.”
“I’m the person who calls Rob,” Byresh said. “I’m the person in charge.” He worried that Rob would see Katie’s call as insubordination. If he couldn’t manage the new part-time employee, how could he manage everyone else? Maybe even worse, Rob probably now thought he wanted to leave too.
“Well you weren’t going to, so I did.” Katie put the lid back on her plastic salad container. There was a lot of lettuce left, the eggs and ham still there, and Byresh assumed she was saving the rest for later. Or about to offer it to him? He shifted toward her.
She threw it away.
Byresh flushed, surprised at the strength of his impulse to snatch the container out of the garbage. To resist, he pulled out his Econ book. He needed to finish reading about forty pages before the next class, and the assigned chapter was dense. And irrelevant. When was he going to need to know about Public Choice Theory? He was trying to learn how to run a business, not a government.
Fifteen minutes later, after rereading the same paragraph three times, he put the book down. He needed a break. Katie was still playing on her phone.
“How do you never have anything to study?” he asked.
“All my classes are super easy this semester.”
“Those were the days.”
He walked over to the magazine wall. He was tempted to bring back a Playboy, just to annoy Katie, but all the X-rated magazines were wrapped in plastic and the joke wasn’t worth four dollars. He grabbed a copy of Newsweek and two bags of salted peanuts before returning to the counter. At two for a dollar, it was the most filling thing for the cheapest price in the store.
“Do you really like Obama?” Katie asked, setting her phone down.
“It’s just, he’s on that magazine, and you’ve worn that shirt the last couple times we’ve worked together,” Katie said. “I remember because I meant to ask you if you got to vote for him the last time we worked together, but I forgot.”
Byresh tugged the t-shirt down to cover his flabby stomach. All the cheap food he’d been eating recently was starting to stretch Obama’s cracked red and blue face.
“It’s comfortable,” he said.
A faint musk floated up from his armpits and he took a quick step away from her, hoping she couldn’t smell it too. He grasped for a distraction.
“Are you saying you never wear the same thing twice?”
Byresh shrugged. “Seems like a weird thing to notice.”
“But it isn’t, right? My sister went to India for a mission trip, and she said that Indians wear the same clothes all the time. Like, they wear the same set of clothes around the house all week and then have a different outfit for going out.”
“I wouldn’t know. I’m Nepali.”
“Oh, sorry.” She grimaced and then stared back down at her phone. Her nails were different again, this time blue and covered with glitter.
Katie’s first day on the job, she’d asked Byresh to spell his name for her so she could remember it. Spell his name? Maybe you could go with an “i” instead of a “y”, but that was about it. It wasn’t that hard. But she’d said, and he remembered clearly, “Indian names are hard for me to remember.”
The second time they worked together, she’d asked what his name was again.
“Sorry, I’m just so terrible with names,” she said with a smile.
“That’s fine,” he said. “And your name was . . . Sarah? Lindsey? Annie? Sorry. White girl names all sound the same to me.”
“Okay,” Katie said. “How about we work for another hour and a half, and then close at five. It says that the storm isn’t really going to hit hard until six.”
When Byresh didn’t respond, Katie continued. “This weather app has a great radar that shows you exactly what time the storm will pass over you and—“
“I know what a radar is.”
“Well the weather is supposed to be bad, so I vote we leave at five.”
“You don’t get a vote. I’ve been working here way longer than you have, so I have seniority and seniority decides.”
“You just want to go to that party,” Byresh said.
“You told me about it last week because you were trying to decide if you should go. The one at the guy’s house with the hot tub.”
Katie’s small smile betrayed her. “Oh yeah.”
Katie had spent almost the entire shift they shared the week before debating about this party. She liked the guy because he was funny, and she was pretty sure he liked her, because otherwise why would he have invited her, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted to date him, and going over to his house for a party would send that signal, right? And was it worth all the effort of trying to get her shift covered? For the first half hour or so, Byresh had listened and even entertained her. He remembered what his freshman year was like, when things were mostly normal and aside from paying rent and the fees his scholarship didn’t cover, his biggest worries had been making friends and getting good grades.
But then she kept talking about it.
“Just make a decision already,” he finally said after another couple hours.
“Easy for you to say. You probably never had this problem.”
“Right. I was too busy focusing on important things, like my grades.”
“No, I meant that you probably never had to deal with this, because… Oh, never mind.” She brushed her hand in front of her face like she was waving away a pesky fly.
“What’re you saying?”
He was so annoyed, he started giving completely off-base suggestions.
“Show up at his house in zombie face paint. If he still likes you, he’s a keeper.”
“Show up to his house a couple hours before the party starts with a lie detector.”
“Make out with three other guys at the party and watch his reaction. That’s how you can really tell if he likes you.”
Eventually she stopped talking about it.
And now she wanted to leave work early—and force him to leave too—because of a party she wasn’t even sure she wanted to go to.
“We aren’t closing down early because of some stupid party,” Byresh said.
“That’s not why I want to leave. I probably wouldn’t even go, because of the storm.”
“Um, sure. You’re going to go home, dress up, and then use your fancy four-wheel-drive car to blast through the snow and get yourself to the party.”
She glared at him. “My car is not fancy.”
The bell above the door smacked against the glass as it opened. Byresh turned to see an old man stumble in, vacant-eyed and dirty.
“Welcome to Go-Mart!” Katie called.
The man limped down an aisle toward the back without glancing her way.
“Shit,” Byresh said. “He’s headed toward the bathroom.”
“So? Homeless people need to go to the bathroom too. They deserve a toilet like everyone else.”
Byresh gave an exaggerated shrug. “It’s your night to clean the bathrooms.”
Katie glanced toward the closing bathroom door. She continued to watch the door as time passed, her restlessness increasing as the man stayed in the bathroom longer and longer.
After almost ten minutes, Byresh started to worry too. He stood up. “I’ll go check on him.”
He rapped on the bathroom door and then leaned his head in. He couldn’t hear anything.
He knocked again, louder, and then pressed his ear against the cold metal, feeling his knuckles smart. Still no response.
“Hey, man, you gotta come out of there. You’ve been in there a while.”
He pounded on the door with his flat palm. “Are you okay?”
He spun back toward the counter. But Katie was already halfway down the aisle, striding toward him with a large bunch of keys.
“Thanks,” he said.
He flipped through the jangle, shoving a couple keys in the lock before finding the right one. He paused an instant before opening the door. Was he just passed out? Or what if the old guy had killed himself and there was blood all over the place and his limp body was sprawled across the floor? Byresh moved to shield Katie’s view.
The man was slumped on the floor against the wall, his head lolling forward as if on a hinge. Katie screamed quietly behind him, almost a squeak. Byresh rushed forward and squatted beside the body. How did he check for a pulse? Did he give CPR? He shuddered as he thought about putting his lips through the matted beard onto the man’s mouth. His nose prickled with the smell of stale sweat and urine.
Katie squatted beside him and let out a gust of air.
Her words cut through his panic, and now he could see the gentle rise and fall of the man’s chest.
“Shit. I almost had a heart attack.”
“What do we do?” she asked.
“I have no idea. But he can’t stay here.”
Byresh hesitated for a moment. He thought of the cutting air outside the convenience store. Would it hurt to let him get in a decent snooze before booting him back out into the cold? If Rob came by, they could pretend they hadn’t seen the man go in and so they didn’t know how long he’d been there.
Wouldn’t work. It was their responsibility to know exactly who came in and out of the store, and they’d lose their jobs for sure with an excuse like that. Even if they told the truth and said they’d felt sorry for the poor bastard, Rob was far from generous at heart. Anything to damage the reputation of the store—especially a homeless man passed out on the bathroom floor—was unacceptable.
“If Rob finds him, we’ll both get fired,” Byresh said.
“Your fucking job,” Katie said under her breath. She stood and straightened her clothes. “Since all you care about is your job, you wake him.” She turned and left the bathroom, using a paper towel to touch the door handle.
She doesn’t get it, he thought. Homelessness wasn’t some rare disease only other people caught.
In July, Byresh had approached Rob while he was in the office doing payroll and asked him for a promotion.
“I’ve been working here for almost a year now,” Byresh said. “I know how the place works and I’d make a good manager.”
Rob listened with a frown and then shook his head. “I hear you, son. But I don’t need another manager right now. Margie and Clyde are doing a fine job.”
Byresh nodded. “Yes, sir. But I’m hoping that you’ll consider me if either of them leave.”
“You know something I don’t?”
“No. I just meant that—“
“I’ll keep you in mind.”
Clyde moved out of state in September and Rob hired a new guy who Byresh suspected had lied on his resume. He’d clearly never worked at a gas station in his life.
Margie left in November and Rob still hadn’t replaced her. The week after Margie left, Byresh called Rob to check when he’d be in the store next.
“I’d like to discuss the manager role, sir.”
“Sure. We’ll do that the next time I’m in the store.”
Byresh saw Rob in person once since the call, and his stop at the store had been rushed and full of directions. At the end, as Rob carried a heavy box out the door, he told Byresh he’d talk to him the next time he stopped by the store.
At the end of November, the brake line in Byresh’s car blew. To replace it would mean coming up short on rent for the third month in a row. But he needed a running car or he’d lose his job. He drove thirty minutes each way to work, and there was no bus route nearby.
So he paid to replace the brake line and mailed a $200 check to his landlord, all he could spare, along with a note promising that he was about to get a promotion, he wouldn’t miss another payment again, and he would pay back for all the missed months. He included a breakdown of what he owed. His landlord responded by taping a letter to his door saying that he would have to pay all missed rent plus January’s rent by the first of the year or he would have no choice but to evict him.
Byresh had expected to be evicted immediately. He’d never felt indebted to someone like this before, and the embarrassment and uncertainty sat hollow in his core. Holding the note in his hand, he almost drove to the bank right then to take out the rest of his savings. It would have covered rent.
But he couldn’t. Tuition for spring semester was due the fifth of January and he still had more to save for that too. The woman at the Bursar’s Office had made it clear, when he’d been late to pay for this fall’s classes, that if he missed another payment, they’d drop him. She’d talked loudly, not caring if other people in the office, including a couple students, heard about his financial situation.
“We’ve already made more deadline extensions and exceptions for you than almost any other student I’ve known in the nineteen years I’ve been working here,” she said, pursing her thin lips ridged with deep wrinkles. “You should be grateful we give people like you breaks like this at all.” If he hadn’t been able to graduate in the four years his scholarship covered, it wasn’t the Bursar’s responsibility to cut him slack.
So Byresh held on to his tuition and tried hard to save money throughout December, picking up every extra shift he could, especially once classes ended and other students went home.
“You’re on holiday now, yes?” his aamaa had asked him.
“Save all your money for school, babu. No need to fly home to see us.”
He didn’t tell her that he couldn’t have flown home even if he wanted to.
He worked as many double shifts as he could. He collected overtime pay for both Christmas Eve and Christmas. But none of it was enough.
On New Year’s Eve, Byresh lugged his mattress to the curb, packed his trunk with clothes and books, took everything else to Goodwill, and set the apartment key on the kitchen counter. He then drove to work to cover someone’s closing shift. As he drove down the Interstate, he watched small fireworks pop and flash against the neighborhood skyline.
Byresh stood and nudged the homeless man in the side with his foot. He didn’t move. Byresh nudged harder, adding a little bite to the contact. The old man’s eyelids flickered open and he raised his head just slightly to stare up past a heavy forehead.
“Hey man,” Byresh said, “I’m sorry, but you can’t sleep here.” He put his hands on his hips and stood taller, trying to appear more powerful. He opened the bathroom door and held it propped with one foot. The man didn’t move.
“You can go to the bathroom if you need to, but you gotta leave.”
Katie appeared then in the doorway, a Styrofoam cup of coffee held forward in one hand, the other tucked across her stomach. “Hey. Sorry. But here’s a cup of coffee, if you want it.”
The man glanced back and forth between Byresh and Katie, sighed, and then slowly clambered to his feet. He moved heavily. As he shuffled out of the bathroom, he met Byresh’s eyes for a moment, then grunted, took the cup from Katie, and trudged to the door. Byresh followed, ready. But the man touched nothing and stopped only long enough to transfer the coffee cup from one hand to the other before leaning on the door to push it open and roll out into the cold.
As Byresh watched the man limp away, Katie pushed past him and opened the door, blasting him with cold air.
“Hey! Do you have anywhere to go?” Katie called after him.
The man didn’t stop or turn around, continuing across the asphalt. Katie waited a bit longer and then shut the door. She shivered. They stood there for a moment.
“I’m going to go check on the bathroom,” she said, staring at the floor.
Byresh stayed at the door, watching the corner where the man had turned and disappeared. His parents would be ashamed if they could see him now, turning someone away like that.
Katie came back less than a minute later.
“There wasn’t anything to clean up,” she said. “I wonder if he even had to go to the bathroom.” She stood beside him and looked out. “It’s just, like, where’s he going to go? He’s probably at least four miles from the homeless shelter, and it’s going to blizzard. It’s already really cold outside.”
“You know where the homeless shelter is?” Byresh asked. It surprised him. He didn’t even know where it was.
Katie didn’t change her expression. “You really like to rile me up, don’t you?”
“No, I mean… never mind.”
“What all do we need to do before we close?”
“You need to clean the bathrooms. And the floors need to be mopped and the pop machines cleaned.”
“Cool. I’m going to go clean the bathrooms.”
“Go ahead. But you’re gonna have to do it again, because we’re still not closing early,” Byresh called after her. She ignored him.
Byresh strolled the aisles and straightened the candy and bags on the shelves. He pulled a couple cases of tall boys from the back and re-stocked the fridge. He wiped down the counters in front of the coffee and pop machines. Without customers in the store, it was loudly quiet, the white noise of machines whirring and buzzing in the background. The constant hum made Byresh drowsy, and he wished he could flip on that sound when he actually needed to fall sleep. He wished he could bring the warmth of the store with him too. Since moving into the hatchback, he had been having a hard time falling asleep, and then once asleep, staying that way, especially now that it was painfully cold most nights.
At least he had a car. Though he wondered, again, if he’d made the right choice.
Byresh stood at the counter, aimlessly flipping through another magazine. His phone rang.
Byresh shifted the phone to his other ear and glanced across the store toward the bathrooms.
“Hi Aamaa,” he said.
“Have you eaten?”
“No, I haven’t eaten yet. Have you?”
The food-oriented greeting, a common refrain of his childhood, pierced Byresh in the gut with loneliness. And hunger.
“Buwaa spoke to his manager at the store today. They might have a job for you when you are done.”
“Really? Doing what?”
“I don’t know, but it is a good job. Don’t you finish school soon?”
“This is my last semester.”
“Well hurry, babu. A good job doesn’t wait forever.”
“I’m working hard,” Byresh said. He scratched at the peeling paint along the edge of the counter. “What are you doing right now?”
Byresh looked at the clock above the hallway to the storage room. If it was almost four here, it would be almost five there. His mother’s daily routine hadn’t changed since he was old enough to walk home from school on his own. This time of evening, she would have started peeling or dicing a pile of vegetables for the evening meal, the pressure cooker full of rice already on the stove.
“How are you eating?” she asked.
“Because you were very thin when you were home last time.”
His stomach behaved like a true Nepali stomach, always eager to put on weight from a good meal. But this weight wasn’t healthy. It didn’t come from dhal bhat. He wondered if his mother would notice when he got home.
“Good. Do you need anything?” She sniffed deeply. He pictured his mother’s flushed face leaning over a pot of stewing spices, her sense of smell almost as good as her sense of taste when seasoning her dhal.
“Can I send you some rice?” she asked.
Byresh chuckled. “Aaama, I can buy rice at the store here.”
“Yes, but thuli bauju gave me this rice when she visited. It’s better.”
“I’ll send you some.”
“No, it’s fine, really. My, um, my address doesn’t work anymore anyway.”
He wondered what would happen if he told her. Would she send him money or demand he come home? He wanted both so badly. But they weren’t possible. His family didn’t have money to send, and she wouldn’t want him to come home. Not when he was so close to achieving their dream. Telling her he lived in his car would only give her an impossible choice and months of useless worry.
He needed to get off the phone before he blurted out more.
“I need to get off the phone now,” he said. “I’m at work and there’s a customer here.”
“Of course. La, la.”
Byresh flipped his phone closed and stared at it.
“Who were you talking to?” Katie asked as she returned to the counter, rubbing hand sanitizer into the crevices between her fingers.
“My mom.” Byresh palmed his phone and slipped it into his pocket.
“How come you don’t have a smart phone?”
“I have more important things to spend my money on.”
Byresh wondered if she heard him. She was leaning forward onto the counter and resting her body weight heavily on her arms, staring out the window.
“I can’t stop thinking about that homeless guy.”
He didn’t answer.
“You ever wonder what it’d be like to be homeless?” she asked after a moment. Caught off guard, he didn’t respond. His tongue was salty and heavy.
“Like, how close we all are from being like that poor man, out in the cold without anywhere to go.”
Byresh watched Katie, her gaze softly fixed on some middle distance. He prickled in irritation. He didn’t believe for a second that she’d ever thought about being homeless before. Why would she?
Then she looked at him, waiting.
He shrugged, choosing his words carefully. “Sure I’ve thought about it. It’s hard not to, with so many of them hanging around downtown. I don’t see them much in this part of town though.”
“That’s ‘cause there’s not much for them here,” Katie said. “Rich people have no empathy. They don’t give money.”
Byresh raised his eyebrows.
“I mean, they do,” she said. “Obviously. But I’ll betcha anything that you go sit on the corner of East and Duncan, and you’re going to get more money there, from hardworking people who barely have enough of their own, than you’d ever get out here on Riverdell. Bet you anything.”
Byresh hadn’t needed to beg yet, though on bad days he’d scoped out corners just in case. He’d already decided that same thing.
“Like, rich people think they’re so generous,” Katie said, “giving to these big foundations and shit. But they get huge tax write-offs for that. Try getting them to give money to a homeless guy and they’ll be all like, ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves.’ If they can’t get a receipt, they’re not interested.”
Byresh chuckled. “The other day, I was walking on Sixth, and ahead of me, this old guy and his wife stopped and asked this panhandler for directions. The guy didn’t know the place so he couldn’t help them, but then he asked them for a dollar. And you know what that old guy said? ‘How about you tell me where to find the restaurant, and I’ll tell you where to get a job.’”
“I’ve never wanted to punch someone so much in my life.”
“What’d you do?”
“I told the panhandler that I was sorry he had to deal with that kind of bullshit and that it wasn’t right,” Byresh said. He didn’t say that the man had asked him for a dollar too, and he’d lied and said he had no cash either. He’d felt such overwhelming shame afterward that he’d withdrawn twenty dollars from the ATM the next day and gone back downtown to find the man. He went back on two separate occasions, but he never found him.
“And what’d he say?” Katie asked. She leaned forward. He wondered what she would do if he said he was living out of his car. Maybe she’d be willing to stay at the store with him overnight.
“Nothing. He just shrugged and kept asking people for money.”
“See, that’s so sad,” Katie said. “You’d think he’d thank you or something.”
“Why would he thank me? I didn’t do anything.”
“You showed him kindness. And instead he just ignores you and keeps asking people for money. Maybe that’s why he’s homeless.”
“Maybe he can’t interact with people well, so he’s alienated everyone around him.”
Byresh leaned back. “That’s a little simplistic, don’t you think?” he said.
“Not really,” she said. “Mental illness is a huge problem among homeless people, you know. So is substance abuse.”
“Not all homeless people are crazy or on drugs.”
“Why else would they be homeless?”
He was stunned, immediately thankful he hadn’t told her anything. “That might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Katie stiffened. “Why would you say that?”
“Because you can’t say ignorant shit like that,” Byresh said.
He tried so hard to a responsible worker, a good student, a decent person. But all the sacrifices he’d made hadn’t been enough, and now he had to stand across from this privileged White girl picking at her manicured nails and listen to her talk like she knew anything about life.
“I’m not ignorant,” Katie said, drawing herself up.
Byresh shook his head. “I’m not going to have this conversation with you.”
“Because I’m right?”
The anger flooded out of him, leaving him shaking and exhausted. “You’re so sheltered, you couldn’t even begin to understand. Go live a few years without Mommy and Daddy footing the bill, and then we’ll talk.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” Katie said.
“And you don’t know anything about me. Or anything else.”
Katie shoved her phone in her pocket. “You know what, I’m out of here.”
“Where are you going?”
“Home. I don’t have to put up with this.” She stormed down the candy aisle toward the office.
“But the snow,” Byresh called after her.
“Yeah. I refuse to get stuck with you here overnight,” Katie said over her shoulder.
Byresh stared down the aisle after her. His ears rang and he sucked air into his lungs, felt the breath expand his ribcage, and then pushed the air out in a gust through his pursed lips. He didn’t move when she stalked back toward the door with her coat.
“Hey,” he said. Katie stopped at the door, her hands on the push bar, keys banging against the metal. Her eyes were bright. When he didn’t finish his sentence, she left.
The only noise in the store was the drone of machines. Byresh stood immobile for a moment. Small flakes had begun to flurry, creating a thin layer of white dust on the pavement. If he left now, he might make it somewhere before the brunt of the storm hit. Or he’d be found three days later, after he didn’t show up for his next shift, frozen against his steering wheel, the faint smell of stale sweat and urine on his clothing. He turned and looked back at the stockroom door.
About the Author:
Virginia Duke is a writer and educator. Born and raised in Montana, she graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in Film and Video Studies, then taught math in rural Alabama as a Teach for America corps member and English in Nepal through a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant fellowship. She currently lives in Austin, Texas and writes grants while working on her second novel.