Uncovering a slice of life

I never make any New Year’s resolutions, mostly because I never adhere to them. Or they’re ridiculously unattainable. But one thing I’m trying to do more of is write. Being a writer by trade, that might seem pretty silly. But there’s a not-so-fine line between writing for work and writing for enjoyment.

I’ve been aiming to set aside time to work on the craft, but it hasn’t been easy. Look no further than two posts down when I promised to do the same thing.

But I rediscovered my passion for writing this fall during my final class of my master’s degree studies at Northeastern University, Literary Journalism in the Digital Age. One of the assignments was to develop a character sketch, a piece steeped in descriptive text that essentially takes the reader on a sensory excursion. Ultimately, you want the reader to see, hear, feel, smell – maybe even taste – what you are writing about. It makes for a remarkably immersive experience if it’s done right.

I decided the subject of my first character sketch would be Tom, the guy who owns the store down the street from my house. I’ve always found him interesting in an odd sort of way, and this exercise gave me a chance to explore that a bit.

The shrill toll of the doorbell does little to roust him. After a deliberate glance – a single eyelid recoiling just enough to allow for a quick scan of the store’s entrance – he briefly returns to his slumber, knowing the person entering poses no threat. Five minutes, half an hour – he’s unsure how long he’s been asleep, precariously propped up in a rusting, off-kilter swivel chair.

The dregs of his reheated dinner sit in an old casserole dish, the same old casserole dish that has held countless thousands of reheated dinners. In the airspace above a pair of houseflies dart back and forth, trying to determine the best unfettered approach to their late-night feast.

He’s closing in on his 17th consecutive hour in this small, unkempt convenience store and the script hardly changes. Open the door at 6 a.m. and welcome a constant flow of customers grabbing a newspaper, a pack of cigarettes or a gallon of milk. Wrap the chain around the wrought-iron gate at 11 p.m., get four or five hours of sleep and repeat the cycle.

The store has been his life for the better part of 40 years. It’s open 365 days a year, and he spends at least a few hours there on every single one of them. Monday through Saturday, a woman tends to the day-to-day operation during the day, allowing him to stock shelves, sweep the parking lot or order inventory. Sundays are as close to a day off as he gets, if not stepping inside until 3 p.m. qualifies as a day off.

Right-wing rantings emanate from the speakers of his desktop computer, forging an audial alliance with the weathered Trump for President sign hanging in the grimy window.

“You know what’s wrong with this country?” he’ll ask of no one in particular, his voice trailing off as if he’s still trying to figure it out himself. As soon as you hear the question, you’re plotting your escape to before he begins his answer.

You don’t come into this store looking for a bargain. Two-dollar can of cat food? Five-dollar gallon of milk? Nine-dollar pack of batteries? He’s got ’em. But if you can’t bear the thought of driving another mile and a half, crossing the river and waiting in line at the supermarket, you swallow the markup.

He’s got you by the balls and he knows it.

Occasionally, some ill-intentioned miscreant will wander in and case the place, trying to figure how best to make off with the day’s proceeds. The store’s been robbed three or four times in the past few years, but a steady stream of police cars idling in the parking lot seems to have stemmed the tide. And if the cops aren’t around, the metal bat behind the counter will be called on as the first line of defense.

But on this night, the ringing bell portends no sign of danger. The customer, a regular of 15 years, says hello and plops a handful of candy bars and an outrageously priced roll of paper towels on the counter.

“I get you a bag,” he says, without making much of an effort to get you a bag.

“No, I’m good, thanks.”

The currency exchange complete, the customer wishes him well as he heads off into the night.

“Good luck,” the store owner says, following him out the door to secure the gate.

Moments later, the Keno monitor goes dark and the click of the lock soon follows. The doorbell is silenced, if only for a few hours.


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