The shop doorbell rang, and a thin man with a wiry, unkempt beard dragged the outside heat and dust with him to the counter. I was organizing the cash in the till, rotating and smoothing the bills into neat stacks. His gaze traveled the length of my body, and then he dug into his lower lip with thumb and forefinger and fished out a small lightbulb shiny with saliva.
“I need one like this,” he said. He set the bulb on the wooden counter. It left a mark like a ripe blackberry.
“I don’t think we have any wet ones,” I said.
The man laid his hands on the counter, veins thick and ropy down to his thin wrists. His fingernails were dirty crescent moons. I wanted to flick the bulb off the counter straight at his lower lip. Instead, I banged the register drawer closed with my hip.
I leaned forward and scanned the plastic signs hanging on either side of the main walkway. “Try looking on aisle two,” I said. “You know, where the sign says lightbulbs.”
The man plucked up the bulb and slid it back into his mouth, running his tongue along his teeth to seat it just right. He turned and ambled down the walkway, stopping just before the first aisle to look back at me. “Go on,” I said, nodding toward the back of the store. “I’ve got things to do up here.”
“You got a mouth on you, girl,” the man said.
“Don’t call me girl.”
As he turned back toward the aisle, Vee stepped out and hit him square in the face with the small wooden bat. It made a hard, wet sound. He staggered back into a metal rack of beef jerky, his jaw hanging loose at the bottom of his face.
“Jesus Christ,” I said.
Vee snorted and pushed a clutch of dark hair off her forehead.
“Your hands are choked up too high, baby,” I said.
She moved her small hands down the bat and stepped into her next swing. The man folded to the linoleum and a corona of blood grew around him. The shop bell dinged, and we both turned toward the sound. An orange tabby stood on its hind legs, front paws pushing against the door. The bell rang again, and the cat squeezed through the thin gap and hopped onto the counter. I opened the till and started emptying the organized bills into my purse.
“Check the bathroom to see if there’s a mop bucket,” I said. “Please.” The cat licked one paw and dragged it over his ear and down his face.
“There’s almost nothing I wouldn’t do for you,” Vee said.
“I aim to find out what that almost nothing is,” I said. Vee smiled and sashayed her hips as she disappeared down the aisle. After she’d gone, I let myself smile back. There are so few people with manners in this world. When you find one, you do whatever it takes to hold on.
Jad Josey lives on the central coast of California with his wife and three children (and one massive cat). He loved quinoa before it was trendy. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Palooka, (b)OINK, Atticus Review, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. Find him lurking on Twitter at @jadjosey or online at www.jadjosey.com.