Horace was one hell of an employee. This was on display from the moment I met him. He was not in charge, but he had been in charge before. In other places and at many different times. In fact he had been a production manager long enough to retire from that life years ago. He didn't have to work at the Git Gone Fast! at all. This was his get-me-out-of-the-house job for his walking-around money. Moved down here for the weather and to watch his granddaughter play volleyball. I know all of this because he told me while we were restocking cups and lids.
He also told me the overnight guy, Freddie, probably dealt with about sixty customers for his entire shift and he certainly had time to attend to these duties. But Freddie didn't, of course. No one standing over him to make him do anything extra. I further learned that Freddie and others of his generation took no pride in their work. They believed their employers lucky to have them show up at all. If the till balanced and the gas tanks weren't ablaze like Kuwait circa 1991, this constituted more than enough effort for one day. Such attitudes should not be tolerated, of course, but George Hertz owned the Git Gone Fast! Not Horace.
Hertz knew these and other problems festered away because Horace kept him well informed, but nothing ever changed. His concern never rose to equal Horace's and this was the root cause of Rome in flames.
"What you don't correct you endorse. Learned that years ago."
And there I stood without my notepad.
"But never mind. No one asks me anything around here."
We wiped up spilled sugar and loaded in new straws. I was standing there listening and keeping him company but he wasn't really talking to me. Horace was more reminding himself of his new place in this world. He probably went down this same list of facts several times each shift whether alone or not alone.
"This is Georgie's problem, not mine. He'll either address it or he won't. No skin off my nose, right? I'm paid the same either way. I can clock out at noon and get on with life. Eat a nice lunch with Sarah. She's my wife. Forget the whole mess. I mean what do I care?"
Horace's lack of vested interest both gave relief to his frustration and fueled it.
"Personally, I'd have fired his ass a long time ago."
He snapped his fingers to punctate how quickly this Freddie would be fired if Horace were running things.
"Gone! But hey. What do I know? At least Freddie does show up for work. Can't even count on that much these days. Take today. I'm supposed to be relieved at noon by this kid Zeus. Whoo, boy! Wait til you meet this kid! Don't get me started. Hey. Name your kid Zeus, don't be surprised when he thinks he rules the whole damn world. Am I right?"
I assured Horace he was right.
"Yeah, you know what I'm talking about. You're older. You're intelligent seems like. Got a job besides this one I bet. Bet you never had anything handed to you in this life!"
Who corrects such assumptions? I was certainly in no position to do so.
"See, I'm from manufacturing, originally. Erie. Yeah. It's different up there, that's all. Believe you me: you don't show up for work, you don't have a job. Simple. Fair. Down here ... Seems like Georgie's gotta beg these kids to take his money! I can't stand it! Gets all over me. But makes no difference to him, I guess. I mean, obviously. Guy don't live around the block you know. Way out in Hannibal or some damn place. So long as he ain't draggin' his ass all the way over here to run a register he's happy. Oh, well. God bless him, I guess."
We rolled a cart into the stockroom and opened several cases of individually wrapped synthetic pastries. Some moved very well, apparently. We had a big job ahead of us.
"Hand me two boxes of them Honey Sucrose Rolls, will ya? Thanks. You know, I ran a store like this for a number of years. Oh, yeah ..."
Horace remembered what an efficient convenient store should look like and he scoffed anew at the current state of the Git Gone Fast!
"I see things here, ya know? Lots of things needs fixed. Procedural things. You get it. And they wouldn't be hard at all! Make a big difference in no time. Few tweaks here and there that's all. But Georgie don't want to hear from me. And I don't blame him, to tell you the truth! He's got his own ideas and I respect that. I mean guy hires me to do a job, I do a job. And I'm thankful for it! What's it to me if the drop's down thirty points over the last six months?"
Horace looked at me to assess whether this staggering figure hit its mark. I made doubly sure it had.
"That's right! Thirty points! Believe that? Sure. Oh, yeah. Georgie knows, too. Why else would he tell a guy like you, no offense, come in here blind and on a Saturday and nothing but a W2 and a name tag and leave it to me and Susan to train you up from nothing? Not even bother to tell us you was coming in? You tell me. Why would he do that?"
I made no guess. He continued.
"I'll tell you why Georgie's fine with us training you on a Saturday morning when we should be up to our gills in customers and he ain't even here: because we don't do no business no more, not like we used to do. That's why. And you ain't the first. Ha! Far from it! Does it all the time. Once this store had all three registers backed up to the beer all day long! And now?"
He punctuated this point with a raspberry.
"Zip! Nothing! Two people could handle it. Even two of these jerkoffs. Oops! Sorry about that. Sometimes I work myself up a little. Forget I'm a Yankee living in the South. I'm used to different. Don't mind me. Ahem. Even two of these worthless bastards could handle Saturdays nowadays. And you'd think he'd miss the money in his pocket! Georgie, I mean. Doesn't seem to bother him."
Horace shrugged and reminded himself again, and he reminded me again, that he did not care how George Hertz chose to run his store.
"But what do I care, right? What are you doing there? No. These are Ranch Corn Nuts. See you gotta read close. You're putting them on the BBQ Corn Nuts peg covering up the real BBQ Corn Nuts already sitting there. See? This is what I'm talking about! Little things. Little things matter. Now some guy comes in wanting BBQ Corn Nuts and he thinks we don't have any. Walks out all pissed off. Buys 'em across the street. Never comes back maybe. Can't have that."
Susan called me up to the counter for register training. I would have preferred to complete my Corn Nuts coursework before moving on but that would have to wait. If anyone were in charge in George's absence, it was Susan. Horace knew this, and I think he was fine with it. From what I could tell. He had a measure of respect for her at the very least. Horace didn't hand that out easily, so I immediately respected Susan too. After a quick primer I banged my way through a few simple transactions. She took over a few times but I had the basics sorted out well enough. Registers had changed since 1989. More buttons and more pictures. Fewer words.
"Yeah, that's it. Not bad."
Validation still works. I felt a silly spike in confidence.
"You catch on pretty fast. So, you have another job, right? Married, family? Not trying to live on this, are you?"
"No, you're right. I have a very full time job, actually. I'm thinking about making a switch and I need to make some extra to --"
"Don't feel bad." I didn't feel bad.
"Everyone has a story. You have to total that out before you turn on the pumps. Thought I told you that already. You'll get it. Oh, this kid coming up? With the twelve pack? Card him. Understand, you don't card some kid and you sell him beer by mistake and get caught: very bad. Bad for you. No one else. You're the one going to jail. You're paying the fine. Not George and certainly not me. Card him. He won't like it. Do it anyway. Get in the habit. He's all yours, New Guy."
This was a test and Sudan was amused by it. That was fine. I didn't blame her. All workplaces have rites of passage like this. Well. Maybe not necessarily quite like this.
"This and a Powerball please."
"I'll need to see some I.D."
"Left it at the house. Don't hassle me, homes."
I just stood there waiting him out. Offered nothing more. It's a handy skill I use all the time in my regular job. But it does piss off some people every so often.
"Dude! Really? I come in here all the time! I'm like twenty-four, Gramps!"
He cut his eyes towards Susan. That was the end of it.
"Screw all y'all, then! Adios, mo fos!"
He left our PBR sitting on the counter and stormed off through the north entrance. Knocked over a stand of low end knockoff ball caps for good measure.
"You'll get used to that. They say much worse, actually."
Susan scoffed remembering worse examples she chose not to share. I'm guessing most of those never bothered her either. Tough lady.
"Water off a duck. Nice job, though. Never say more than you have to. They'll get the idea. You had that right away, which was good. Most newbies try to reason with them. Bad move. They just want beer and they can't have it. Nothing to talk about, so don't. Put that back in the walk in."
12:30. No Zeus. No call from Zeus. 1:00. Same. At 1:15 Horace put in a call to George Hertz at home in Hannibal or some damn place. He got exactly the response he expected.
"Ha! Georgie talks to me like I'm causing the problem! Believe that? Well you're there! he says. Can't you stay and help out? Yeah I can. That's not the damn point. What if I had plans? He's more aggravated that I want to leave, and over an hour late mind you, than he is at the kid not showin' up! I knew he'd say that! That's how it is around here. You're expected to stay here 'til someone relieves you. Work a double if you have to. Meanwhile he won't fire this punk. Gets away with it every time. Once Zeus stayed away three days. Never called. Came in after like nothing happened. And he was right: nothing happened. Couldn't believe it. Kids like him do that all over this hillbilly town!"
"Is he going to call him at least?"
"Oh, he says he is. Like the kid will answer his phone. Whatever. I'll stay a little longer. I'm off tomorrow, you're training the new guy right now, no offense. What's your name again?"
"Lee. Lee Buchanan."
"Lee. Right. Sorry. You told me already. Can't do you like that, Susan. I'm staying. It's okay."
"No it isn't. I'll call him myself."
Susan didn't have Zeus's number handy so she went back to the office to look it up. We covered the counter but the store was empty so the post was largely ceremonial. I adjusted impulse items that were already in order and Horace just stood there staring out the window. Fuming. He had on a Browns windbreaker so I tried to talk football. Nothing. I gave up. She came back to the front after a few minutes.
"Got him. He was asleep. Said he'd just got off the phone with George. Be here in twenty minutes. He says."
George called on the main line to tell Horace Zeus was on his way. This was a victory of sorts, for Hertz at least. Horace wasn't feeling it.
"Good. What? You want I should thank you? No. You thank me. I'm the one stayed late. Shoulda left an hour and a half ago and I'm still waiting. I know. How 'bout not putting up with this, George? Huh? You're the boss! Yeah. Never mind. Said too much already. See you Monday morning."
He hung up the phone. Horace and Susan looked at each other. I counted several varieties of Winston 100s in their racks and pretended to know how many should be there.
Fifteen minutes later in he came. Tall. Skinny. Maybe nineteen or twenty. He walked up onto the platform behind the counter and headed to the left register. His usual station. Never said a word to anyone. Probably never would have his entire shift if he could've arranged that. I'm not altogether sure how aware he was that any of us were also on the platform. Then he stated making purchases for himself. I gathered there must be some ordinance against clerks selling themselves lottery tickets because Zeus grabbed about a half dozen Golden Bonanza! scratch offs and handed them to Susan. She rang him up ahead of the customers already waiting in line. Horace was about to throw a blood clot but she knew what she was doing. Axfter the line cleared Zeus had to answer to Susan. x"So? Where were you?"
"Hm? Oh. Overslept. We was at French Toast Utopia until 3:30. Ha! Oh, well. I told George I'd be here in twenty minutes, and I got here in fifteen, so ..."
"You were supposed to be here at noon! Horace was supposed to go eat lunch with his wife!" Not exactly true, but maybe not exactly false either. "He didn't get to do that because he was covering for you."
Zeus looked at Horace. A three second pause. Then he winked at Horace and clicked his tongue. That was it. He turned back around to his register and began fiddling with a locked display of freshwater pearl necklaces on his left. I measured the distance between Horace and Zeus. Knew I might have to tackle the old man for his own good. Thankfully it didn't come to that. Horace went back to the office and clocked out. Through the north entrance two minutes later.
"Susan, thanks. See you Monday morning. Lee, it was a pleasure. You'll do good. Do what she tells you."
"What? No good-bye for me?"
He chuckled to himself. Zeus was even worse than Horace had said he was. He tore free another Golden Bonanza! from the roll and handed it to me. I stood there hoping Horace was outside cutting his tires.
Before I could finish ringing up his lottery ticket Zeus wandered out from behind the counter and started dancing to the music playing over the house sound. Busted moves all the way down the chips aisle. All by himself. Told me he'd pay when the song was over. I looked at Susan and she just shook her head. She had run out of words months before I got there.
My family was never too hot on this idea to begin with. I was planning on making a career change in a year or two and I wanted to get a head start on saving some extra money. This job wasn't going to provide a whole lot of that, but it would help. I thought it was a perfect idea. The Git Gone Fast! sat on the corner of Stoneglen Avenue and O Street, which is just about the busiest intersection as we have in Shippley. There was even a twenty-four hour diner across the street. Tons of traffic at all hours and very well lighted. I thought all of this added up to a relatively safe location as far as convenience stores go. Sure. Places like the Git Gone Fast! have a bad rap for being crime magnets. But that's an urban legend, right? Bedsides. If petty thugs wanted to knock over a place for a quick cash grab they'd choose somewhere much less conspicuous. Tons of little gas stations on farm roads standing all alone like glistening beacons of vulnerability. There's your low hanging fruit for a jackpot! Get shot dead in those places maybe. But not here. They'd have to be stupid to hit a place drawing this much nonstop attention. Cameras everywhere too.
They came in through the west entrance. Three of them. Moved fast. They must've sat in the lot and waited for their window. No customers inside at the time. The drop was down thirty points after all. Zeus saw them first and fled out through the north entrance on a dead run. It was only a few steps from his register. Susan hit the button under the counter. That was the last thing I remember seeing. I stirred briefly in the ambulance, but I don't remember much of that ride. Bits and pieces. When I came around in the hospital an orderly told me I had taken the butt of a shotgun to the left side of the face. My tongue searched the vacant lot once occupied by teeth ten and eleven and twelve and corroborated his story. Two more hits to the skull put me out and on the ground. Susan got roughed up a little, but she survived. Kept her cool, I'm told. I bet she did.
Sheriff Bill Adams arrived in minutes. He had some vague familiarity with one of the robbers and he managed to talk down all three of them. They surrendered peacefully. But he was too late to save Horace.
He sat in his Chrysler stewing about his coworker for several minutes, trying to calm himself down before heading home. I'm guessing a younger Horace would've punched Zeus in the throat. Maybe he was reproaching himself for getting so soft. Maybe it was lots of things. Whatever the reason, Horace was still in the parking lot when the van arrived. He knew what he saw when he saw it. Met him one time and I would bet my paycheck on that. I guess he forgot he was retired. And that he was unarmed. And that this was George Hertz's problem. And not his. I guess they don't think like that in Erie. Something tells me Horace would have been Horace in Bhutan. Even there, you probably don't try to sneak up on an armed thug and grab him from behind.
At the trial a very skilled lawyer by the name of Mr. Thaddeus Marshal argued that Horace contributed to his own death by leaving the defendants no way out. They never intended to hurt anyone. Horace didn't have to force their hand the way he did, trying to play the hero and all. Now their lives are equally destroyed. They are victims too. This impassioned speech took at least eight years off their combined sentences. Just listening to his eloquent reptilian hiss made you shiver and also want a good wash.
My career at the Git Gone Fast! lasted exactly one day. And that was also the single most profitable day of my life, oddly enough. Turns out the Git Gone Fast! is a subsidiary of a major petroleum concern and they compensated me handsomely for my pain and suffering. Of course, in admitting as much I hereby shatter the fourth wall completely and out this story to the reader as an obvious work of unrealistic fiction. Notwithstanding, the day our undisclosed settlement was reached I resigned forever as principal of Limestone Elementary. Then I emptied my retirement. With those two combined sums I made an offer on that twenty-four hour diner across the street. Sank a bit extra into a refurb too. Eventually I reopened under the moniker the Nothing Significant Diner in deference to my former boss's general summation of my contribution to society up to that point. Don't worry: it's still every bit the dive it ever was. And it's perfect. Been living paycheck to paycheck and happily slinging hash ever since.
But it took me nearly a year to walk across O Street and back into that convent store.
When I finally screwed up the nerve to go back I was amazed by how unremarkable everything was. It was the same place exactly, save for a new walk-in rug minus bloodstains. No plaque for Horace. I didn't know it until I didn't find it there, but I guess I was expecting to see at least something like that. Horace put himself back into harm's way to help us and his life ended right there. Right where I was standing! Come on, George! Nothing? Nothing. Horace would say it figures.
I had Tom at the trophy shop engrave a little plank with just the name Horace on it. No context at all. It hangs in the diner above the order window pretty much for my eyes only. Reminds me to pay attention to all the little things because they make a difference. Silly, I know. I stand by it. But as for the Git Gone Fast!, Horace might have never worked a day there. Murder or no murder, nothing had changed at all. Even the Corn Nuts were mixed up on all the wrong pegs.
Zeus was still at his register.
"Hey. How's it going?"
"Cool. You, bro?"
"I'm good. Reopened the diner across the street a while back. I was actually here the day Horace got shot. Remember?"
"Who? Oh, him. Yeah. Guy from Pennsylvania, right? Yeah that sucked. I tried to fight off two of them by myself but the other dude hit me over the head with a bat. I missed like three days of work over it. Damn! I liked that old dude too. Covered for him a few times when he came in late or whatnot. Shit, bro. That was heavy. Can I get you a Golden Bonanza!?"