Roger watches the solitary figure with trepidation. Could this be the hold-up he has been dreading all along? Ever since he took on this job he has been alternately frightened, outraged, amused, and enlightened by what he sees out there. The graveyard shift, with its constant parade of characters, is like a window into America.
It is 2 a.m., Saturday morning; the menace hovers at the entrance—a predator waiting for the coast to be clear before he leaps for the kill. Roger, all alone in the mart, rests an elbow over the counter while caressing the panic button with his other hand. The Mission District, a part of the gray City-by-the-Bay, is reportedly much safer than certain other neighborhoods. The most lethal areas are in Oakland, across the bay, where drug pushers ply their illegal trade at gas-station pay phones, and occasionally, gun battles rage across the streets in the wee hours of the morning. But no one is immune from deadly violence in this land of the free and the easily obtained handgun. Neither is the filth of the night limited by any boundaries of reason or geography.
The man in green pushes the door open.
Roger’s fingers stay poised over the panic button. “How yah’ doing?” he says to the man in an oft-practiced cheery cowboy accent and a fake smile he has been told is necessary to get the customers to come back often. He hopes that the accent and the nametag with the pseudonym he has adopted in favor of his real name, Raza, will camouflage his Bengali heritage and make him less vulnerable to violence from thugs who need no reason but a mere excuse to commit murder.
Before the stranger can reply, headlights penetrate the glass windows of the mart and a familiar-looking van brakes to a stop in front. Roger breathes a sigh of relief at the sight of the newspaper delivery vehicle. His fingers relax and he withdraws his hand from the panic button. The stranger peels off his mask and his gloves. “Howdy!” he declares, and Roger is equally relieved to find an old man with a moon-like face and a Santa Claus paunch beaming at him.
Max, the newspaperman, enters the store and drops his weighty package to the floor. Reaching for the clipboard resting against the wall, he jots a few entries, picks up the unsold inventory from the previous day, then looks up at Roger. “Take care,” he says with undisguised concern. “Someone shot the clerk at your competition down the street.” With his usual quick strides, Max exits the store, leaving Roger staring open-mouthed after him.
“What do you think they’ll do to the criminal once they catch him?” Santa Claus says, picking up a copy of the just-arrived San Francisco Chronicle. “Find him a taxpayer-funded public defender who’ll then blame an abused childhood?”
“You’re probably right, sir,” Roger says, still digesting Max’s shocking revelation.
“Damn right, I am! They’ll put him away for ten years then let him out in two ’cause it’s too damn expensive to keep him in the slammer. It’s the criminals who roam free and the good folks who barricade themselves in.” Shuffling around the counter, he produces a fistful of silver change to pay for the newspaper. “No bloody criminal’s gonna keep this old geezer inside. I’ve been to ’Nam, damn it.”
Roger rings up the register. As he proffers the man his change, he catches a glimpse of the newspaper headline. Unknown thugs ambushed and shot dead a young compatriot from the Indian subcontinent delivering pizza last night. A strident beep interrupts Roger’s grim thoughts. Someone is attempting to fill up gas without paying. Grabbing the microphone beside the register, he announces, “Please pay before pumping gas.”
A lone figure standing at pump 9 throws up his hands in mock despair. He strides toward the store in feigned anger. Opening the door, he barks, “I’ve no idea what a full tank costs. Why can’t I fill up first then pay?”
“Store policy,” Roger pleads. “Prior payment is required for night services. Why don’t you deposit a twenty, sir?”
“Bloody Pakis,” the man yells, turning back. “Why don’t you go back to your country?”
Just as the irate customer pulls out in his truck, the mart is filled with a raucous noise of beeps. Roger grunts in despair. Donning his jacket and hat, he locks the till and steps out into the bitter cold. The nozzles at pumps 9, 10, and 11 are lying on the ground. Cursing the truck driver under his breath, he returns them to their slots, and turns around at the sound of a honk. The truck driver shows him a finger and speeds away like a ghost into the fog.
The old man has been watching from inside the store. “Damn frauds,” he says with a smile and a wink. “They come in all shapes and sizes.”
“They sure do,” Roger says.
“Well, I’d better run along before my missus wakes up and finds me gone. She’s a fine gal but not very brave. Last time I did this sort’a thing, she reported me missing.”
“You’ve a good night,” Roger says reluctantly. If only he could have someone like that old man keeping him company, this job would be much more fun. For a new immigrant, employment choices are limited. His college degree in the arts is not worth the paper it’s printed on to American employers. A high-school teacher in his homeland, he must endure the culture shock imposed by this foreign land where even the English language is different. Centre is spelled c-e-n-t-e-r. Only two types of job beckon—taxi driving and gas station clerking; both jobs command the top spots in the national homicide statistics.
The door opens and Tony strides in. He is a homeless soul with a heart of gold, or so he claims. Barely five feet tall, Tony appears cleaner than usual this morning. He does not smell like a brewery. “I’ve been in detox,” he announces proudly, heading for the coffee corner. “I feel clean as a whistle.”
Roger has not seen Tony for weeks. He used to come around almost every day. Usually just before 2 a.m. or right after 6 a.m. Tony’s body is a clock attuned to the hours of prohibition. His alarm warns him of the approaching deadline for beer and wine sales, and alerts him quickly when prohibition ends. “Where’ve you been all night?” Roger asks in jest, expecting the usual reply.
“Chasing the kids off the streets and back into their homes,” Tony says without batting an eyelid.
“Don’t their parents do that?” It is a question he has asked often.
“You kiddin’? Why’d the kids roam the streets if the parents were home?” Tony ambles around the counter and pays for the coffee. “My parents were never home. Look where it got me.”
With Tony gone, Roger grabs his English textbook from under the counter. He may get just thirty minutes of free time to brush up on his American grammar and spelling. Saturday and Sunday mornings are usually busy but he still finds time to read up on his community college class work.
A vehicle screeches into the station lot. Roger looks up. It is an old Volkswagen van, its exterior painted a bright orange. Groaning, he puts away his textbook and watches through the window at the group of hippie youth tumbling out, their gait unsteady. Five zombies, laughing hysterically, enter the store and head straight for the coolers that hold the wine and the beer. Finding them locked, they curse their way out, leaving muddy footprints all over the tiled floor. One of them pauses at the exit door. Eyeing Roger like a sad puppy denied a bone, he says, “Please! Just one six-pack.”
“Sorry,” Roger says.
“Hey, you from India?” he yells, then dances unsteadily. Clapping his hands, he sings, “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna, Hare Vishnu, Hare Hare.” He approaches Roger. Leaning over the counter, he studies Roger’s nametag. “Your real name is Raj,” he declares, his red eyeballs ready to pop out of his head from apparent overuse of psychedelic drugs. “Isn’t it? Did the Brahmin tell you, ‘Go west, son, go west’? That you’d make lot’a money?”
“No,” Roger says, shaking his head emphatically.
“I’ve been to India,” the hippie says, his hands on his hips. “To the ashram at Rishikesh. My name is Kris. In god’s name, spare me one can of Bud …”
There is honking outside. The rest of the group is impatient. Roger shakes his head again. Kris mutters an obscenity. He shoves his hand into the back of his pants. Backpedaling to the exit, he scratches his posterior. “I’m gonna call up the president of Pakistan,” he cries. “Tell him to nuke you bastards.”
Roger surveys the dirty floor. The van speeds away, its muffler firing uncomplimentary epithets and belching black fumes that momentarily discolor the light fog outside his window. He fetches the bucket-and-mop and sets about restoring the store floor to its original state.
It is 4 a.m., time to restock the coolers. The rush for gas will begin at 5. One more hour, and he will have survived the statistics.
G.K. Nair, born in Fiji, has previously been published in An Affair of the Mind: A Literary Quarterly. He lives in Palo Alto, Calif., with his wife and two children.