The end of my shift comes, finally, and after I’ve swept up the floor and mopped up all the damn grease and Susanne has counted the register, we can finally leave. I see her out to her car, not because it’s dangerous or anything but because we’re chatting, bitching about our boss, bitching about the customers, bitching about our jobs, bitching about our lives in general and wondering how in the hell capable people like ourselves ever ended up working at some fast food joint. She goes, and I’ve still got the last bag of trash over my shoulder. I go around back and drop it in the bin.
It’s late, almost 2 am, and it’s cold. Really cold. The sky is clear and the moon shines down like a white pearl in the black sky. The lights in the parking lot block out the stars, but the frost on the some of the car windshields makes up for it. The grocery store next door stays open all night and I guess the employees have to park on the end of the lot, near our lot. Such a stupid policy for a night shift.
I shove my hands in my pockets. It’s fucking cold. I tuck in my shoulders because I’m not wearing a jacket. I try to bury my chin into my neck. My ears feel like they’re detached, lost in space, surrounded by nothing but freezing air and endless night.
I see a guy but I don’t really think anything of it. The homeless roam around a bit. Sometimes I give them the leftovers even though we’re not supposed to. It’s just a liability thing and I really don’t care if I get fired from my shit job anyway. Getting fired from a fucking franchise chain to feed a starving man should put me in the running for a Nobel Prize I think. He’s says something and I just say hey. I don’t know what he said, so I assume he’s just saying hello. Most of them are friendly even if they’re a little weird. I can see how people think they’re dangerous just because they’re a little spacy, but most of them are cool. It’s only the crackheads that freak me out.
But he says hey again, louder. He’s walking toward me, not passing by. He’s trying to get my attention. I see my car and I’ve got my keys in my hands, shoved way down in my pockets, and my ears are fucking freezing cold, but I stop anyway. I don’t know why, I just stop.
“Hey,” I said.
He’s dirty. They all are. He’s got on this jacket that looks like it could be a flotation device. I think it used to be orange or red at some point in time. His hands are shoved deep in the pockets too. We’re both cold. On his head there’s this weird hat made out of newspaper and he looks like some guy playing pirate or something.
“Gimme yo wallet,” he says.
I stop. I heard him. I know what he said, but I can’t believe it. Not in the sense that he wants to rob me, I can believe that. I’m sure they rob all kinds of people. But more that he wants to rob me. Me of all people. I’m wearing my fucking uniform. My car, the only one left in the lot, is a piece of shit.
“What?” I say.
He steps closer, and I see that one of the hands in his pocket is jutting out, pointing at me. “Gimme yo fuckin’ wallet, man. Come on.”
I look at him now, really look at him. Most of these guys don’t have faces because you never really look, you only glance. A quick glance in the eyes to see if they’re sane or cracked out. I see his thick beard, matted and streaked with grey. I see his nose that was broken sometime and never really fixed. I see him.
“I know you,” I say.
“Yo you don’t know shit,” he says, and he steps closer. He forces his hand in his pocket further out toward me.
“I give you food.”
He squints a little, like he’s finally seeing me. Maybe they don’t see us either, only glance. Maybe we both make the other uncomfortable. And it seems like the hand in his pocket goes down, comes down, but only for a moment. He finds his resolve again. He’s cold. The cold has made him committed. “You know what’s in my pocket?” he asks.
“Could be a knife or a gun maybe. Could be nothing.” And it could be. It could be nothing. Being homeless ain’t a crime. Downtrodden isn’t a sin. Poor people don’t all grow black hearts.
He stops advancing and now we’re a few feet away. I can see his breath in the air and I can see mine. We’re both breathing quickly. Fight or flight is kicking in, getting ready. Soon it will come down to that. Instincts. Survival.
He stares me in the eyes. I look right back at him. There’s a hatred there, but the kind you can tell that’s not directed at you. Like when you hate a football team for blowing a game, not because they lost and any of that shit matters, but because their loss reflects how little you have to show for yourself and how even the best players in the world can still fail, and so you can too. So you just fucking scream at the TV and call them all losers but really you’re just calling yourself a loser because if they lost that goddamn game then there was no way in hell you could win at anything.
So I see this, I see this hatred, and I know it’s not directed at me. I’m just the TV. I’m just the reflection.
“Look, man,” I say, “I’ve got twenty-seven dollars. You know I work here. You know I don’t make shit. You gonna rob me over that shit?”
He’s staring at me, but staring through me now. He’s thinking about it, about something. I hope to God he’s thinking about the law, how robbery with a deadly weapon (if he has one) is an automatic felony and you can do some serious time for that shit. I wonder if he’s ever been to prison. I can only assume he has.
A pair of headlights pull into the parking lot and shine on us. The man startles and backs up. He shields his eyes from the lights and for a moment, I find it fitting. The car stops, doesn’t park, and just keeps the headlights on us. I back up a few steps and the guy, he just shakes his head, still angry, still hating at me, and turns and jogs off.
It’s Susanne. She’s forgotten her phone inside. I let her in and wait outside the door. She asks about the guy and I just tell her he was asking for some food or something. She leaves and I get in my car. I think about calling the cops, but for some reason I don’t. I don’t know why. To this day I don’t know why. He let me go so I guess I’m letting him go. I don’t know.
But I never saw him again.